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Tuesday 30 January 2018

Andrew Garve

The  Golden Age
Andrew Garve (1908-2001)
by John Higgins

In Andrew Garve’s 1976 novel Home to Roost, Walter Haines, the narrator and central character introduces himself as follows:

What I really wanted to do was to write books—preferably crime books. I had managed to produce a couple of full-length stories in my spare time, while I was at the Gazette, and both had been published, with modest success. So I knew that I could write—and in my late twenties I decided to take a chance, throw up the job, and apply myself full time to the writing of detective and adventure fiction, in what I hoped would be the stimulating atmosphere of London.

It was a hard slog to start with. I lived and worked in a squalid bed-sitter in Camden Town, and it was a problem sometimes to keep body and soul in proximity. I typed like a maniac from morning till night, and as far into the night as my landlady would allow. In order to survive, even at the most meagre level, I had to turn out four or five books a year under different names. They were of fair quality as action stories, but they were certainly not great literature. My strength, so far as I had any, lay in constructing tortuous and ingenious plots, with unusual backgrounds and a meticulous attention to detail. A loose end to me was like a botched-up bit of joinery to a cabinet-maker. My weakness was in portraying people. At that time I rarely gave any thought to the workings of my own mind, let alone to the minds of others. I was much more interested in the mechanics of a plot, the fitting together of the pieces, than in the mental processes of the people involved in it. As a result, my characters tended to be from stock and rarely came to life as individuals. They were there merely to fill the roles that the story required. It was a grave defect in a writer.

This is in fact a rather honest self-portrait of Garve himself. He was a competent writer, able to describe a process, pace a story, and give real tension to accounts of escapes, open sea voyages, cave exploration or mountaineering. When you read The Ashes of Loda, his 1965 thriller about a British journalist escaping from Moscow across Ukraine in January, you will surely want to put on an extra sweater, if not an overcoat, scarf and gloves, so convincing is the description of a Russian winter. He was clever, too, at establishing a sense of place. But mostly he was a magnificent plotsmith, with a particular skill at devising unbreakable alibis and then showing how they get broken. His chief weakness was dialogue, which was often rather too careful, sometimes coming out like drawing room comedy or an episode of Paul Temple on radio. As a result, characters often seemed stereotyped and flat, especially the minor characters needed for the plot, such as policemen, doctors or lawyers. He is always readable, but what you remember from his books is the events, not the people. In his half dozen best books his ingenuity is dazzling.

Garve’s real name was Paul Winterton. He was born in 1908, the son of a left-wing journalist and MP, Ernest Winterton. In 1928, after graduating from the London School of Economics, he spent nine months in Russia and was initially attracted to Soviet communism, though gradually losing his rose-tinted spectacles. He worked for the Economist and later for the News Chronicle and became their Moscow correspondent from 1942 to 1945. He had already written two novels using the pen name Roger Bax. One reason for using a pen name may have been to hide his authorship from his employers; his 1940 novel Red Escapade had a strong anti-Soviet story line which could have led to his deportation or worse if his Russians hosts had made the connection. The wickedness of the communists is a recurring thread in his post-war books, but I doubt whether he ever gave up his leanings towards socialism or voted Tory.

In 1950 he switched publishers from Hutchinson to Collins and adopted the pen name by which he became best known, Andrew Garve. By then he had written six novels using the name Roger Bax, including one very good one, Blueprint for Murder (1948). He used a third pen name, Paul Somers, later in his career for three books in which he tried to establish a set of series characters, Hugh Curtis and Mollie Bourne, rival crime reporters for London newspapers. These books were not a great success and were for a long time quite hard to find, but are now available again under the Bello imprint, as are almost all of Garve’s books.

In 1953 he helped set up the Crime Writers’ Association and was its first joint secretary (with Elizabeth Ferrars). He went on to write forty novels, some of them conventional crime stories, some thrillers with exotic settings, before deciding to give up writing in 1978 (although he lived on another 23 years). His journalistic background meant he could write fluently and copiously, sometimes producing three books in a year, though he tended to write fairly short books, most of them running to about 50,000 words, short measure by modern publishing standards. 

Garve’s ingenuity sets a problem for any reviewer, how to convey his ingenuity without giving plot spoilers. One such challenge is set by his 1960 novel The Far Sands. Here we have a decent hero who marries one of a pair of identical twins (and no, this is not going to be about mistaken identity). A few months later his new sister-in-law is found drowned while her husband, a diabetic and a non-swimmer, has died from having his insulin supply (which he always carried with him) removed while he was stranded on an inaccessible island, the insulin being found in the wife’s handbag. The coroner’s verdict is that the wife’s death was misadventure but that the husband was murdered by his wife’s deliberate theft of the insulin. There are strong hints that the wife had a lover, and has killed her husband for his considerable wealth. The evidence seems strong, but naturally the twin sister refuses to accept it. She knows her sister well enough, she asserts, to know that she did not have a lover and could not have committed murder. This places the hero in a dilemma, wondering whether he, too, has married a devious and deadly gold-digger, or whether to take her far-fetched conjectures seriously and go looking for a blackmailer and assassin who seems to exist only in his wife’s imagination.

Naturally, what we have here is a frame-up, but unusually it is one where the victim of the framing is already dead. Garve used the title Frame-Up for one of his books, but there were seven others, including this one, for which the title would have been equally apt. Bear in mind, too, that all these books were written before the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, which often adds considerable urgency to finding the truth. Although it soon becomes clear that the sister’s conjectures are going to turn out to be fact, the way in which they are confirmed, and the villain exposed is astonishingly tense and vivid, resulting from the hero’s insight that the best way to expose and defeat a blackmailer is to blackmail him.

Not all Garve’s heroes were decent chaps. In several books there is no hero, only a villain or villains, and the tension lies in the question Are they going to get away with it? In some cases, the crime is murder and we know the villain’s plans are sure to misfire if only to satisfy conventional morality. One such book is Murderer’s Fen (1966), which brilliantly plays with the time factor so that the reader is persuaded that a murder has been committed when, in fact, it has not yet happened and there might still be time to prevent it. Another is The Broken Jigsaw (1961), in which two killers who have sunk the body of their victim in a new reservoir have to deal several years later with a drought which looks likely to uncover the corpse.

Two other books have central characters who are amiable confidence tricksters devising schemes which they hope will bring them wealth. One of these books, The Megstone Plot (1957), was turned into an excellent film starring James Mason and Vera Miles, A Touch of Larceny (1959). Here a naval officer in a tedious shore job contrives to go missing, leaving a series of traces suggesting that he has stolen a top-secret file and defected to the Russians. He plans to return in a week or two, demonstrate that he has gone on a sailing holiday, been shipwrecked, and is completely innocent, the missing file having dropped behind a filing cabinet. This will mean that he can sue the newspapers that have meanwhile branded him a traitor. Naturally the plan goes badly awry, though the film version, unlike the book, manages to squeeze out a happy ending.

The other book featuring a confidence trickster, in fact a pair of confidence tricksters, is one of Garve’s most ingenious though least plausible, The Long Short Cut (1968). Anthony Bliss and his glamorous newly-met collaborator Corinne Lake use a chance event to develop a money-making scheme. They happen to be at a nightclub on the night when the owner is wounded in a drive-by shooting. Called to give evidence which will convict a notorious gangster, Bliss pretends to be frightened of the gangster’s associates, and agrees to testify only on condition he is given police protection and help in emigrating after the trial. Actually, he has worked out a plan to use the police protection as a means of helping a crooked financier to jump bail and get out of the country, and expects to get well paid for it. The bulk of the book consists of the detail of the plot, which includes an account of how to obtain a genuine British passport in a fictitious name, anticipating by three years the similar and more famous account given by Frederick Forsyth in Day of the Jackal (1971). The whole thing has the kind of intricate design and dovetailing that puts one in mind of a Chippendale cabinet or a FabergĂ© egg, beautiful even if improbable. It also has one of the sharpest last-page shocks in all crime literature.

I have suggested that Garve’s weakness was in establishing strong credible characters, but in one book,
The Sea Monks (1963), he gets this aspect triumphantly right. It is quite unlike any other book of his and is, to my mind, his very best, fit to be ranked with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), with which it has some similarities. We start with four teenagers, led by a thug called ‘King’ Macey, who set out to rob a Plymouth cinema of its takings. The manager intervenes and is shot dead; the police arrive, and the gang are pursued to the harbour but manage to hide in an old boat which they cast off. Adrift in fog, they are wrecked beside the ‘Swirlstone’ lighthouse (a barely disguised Eddystone) and rescued by the three keepers, the ‘sea monks’ of the title. But Macey must stop the keepers reporting their presence by radio, so he brings out his gun and starts an ordeal that will last until he can find a way of getting back to land undetected. He dominates and terrorises the other six people so that it seems impossible that anything can thwart him or prevent wholesale slaughter. The final part, in which he is defeated not by people so much as by nature itself and his ignorance of it, is utterly gripping and convincing.

One other book whose plot I will risk spoiling is Home to Roost (1976), the one I have already quoted and second last one he wrote. It is a book that remains puzzling even after you have finished reading. The first quarter describes a marriage being undermined by the intrusion of a TV actor who is a smooth seducer with no conscience. Haines, the wronged husband, eventually decides to commit murder, and devises what seems to be a perfect alibi. When the murder is committed, Haines is far away in Spain and could not possibly have come back in time. Later, however, the police accuse another man of the crime, another whose marriage has been ruined by the dead man.  Haines decides it is his duty to confess to save the other man from almost certain conviction. But convincing the police that he did commit a murder is anything but easy. He has to re-enact the whole event under close police supervision. The process is rather like a Paul Daniels magic show in which the trick is being explained. Or is it? Meanwhile the other suspect seems not to want to be exonerated, and in the end the reader is left in some doubt as to who actually killed the actor. This is perhaps the most characteristic and certainly the most baffling of Garve’s plots. It is certainly quite different from anything written by any other crime writer, something which can be said of half a dozen of Garve’s best books. Nevertheless, it is highly readable. Whatever his shortcomings, Garve was always the kind of writer who is both kind to the reader and hugely stimulating to the intelligence.

John Higgins has lived and worked in Thailand, Norway, the USA, Tanzania, Turkey, Egypt and Yugoslavia, teaching English between 1963 and 1986, and later lectured at Bristol and Stirling Universities.  With his wife Muriel, he became involved in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) and put together a number of innovative pieces of software, including the first versions of a program later released as STORYBOARD, ECLIPSE, RHUBARB and DEVELOPING TRAY. In 1986 John left the British Council and taught in the School of Education of Bristol University. He and his wife are now retired and live in Shaftesbury in Dorset. He has researched the life of the writer Victor Canning, and maintains a website covering his works. He has also edited Andrew Garve’s writings on Russia and written about them for the Literary Encyclopedia.

for a complete list of Garve’s works.


Monday 29 January 2018

A J Cross

Dorothy Marshall-Gent talks with A J Cross

A J Cross is a forensic psychologist and court-appointed expert witness.
She obtained her Master’s Degree and PhD at the University of Birmingham, the latter relating to children as witnesses within the criminal court system.
 Anne's professional experience has included consultancy work for the Probation Service in her home city.
Anne currently lives in Birmingham with her jazz-musician husband

She has written four books featuring Dr Kate Hanson
Gone in Seconds (2012)
Art of Deception (2013)

Dot: Hi Anne, I’ve just finished your latest book, Something Evil Comes, and whilst it’s not unusual to find a body in a crypt - it was in this case!  Could you tell us how you came up with such an intriguing storyline?
Anne: I'm fascinated by the concept of badness in an unexpected context. There have been many news reports of individuals who are regarded by definition as good when in reality they are not and that context is often religious. That started me off on the theme for 'Something'.

Dot: I was struck by how the novel manages to include fascinating aspects of the practice and procedures of a forensic psychologist, whilst maintaining pace and interest.  How do you achieve this important balance in your writing?
Anne: it can be difficult because the temptation is to give chapter and verse of what you know which can kill a novel's pace. The trick is to create a distillation of a theory so that it's fully informative, relevant but also economical. The danger always is that if you love your area of expertise you are likely to Go On And On. It's a tendency I have to fight against.

Dot: Matthew Flynn, the victim, in Something Evil Comes, is a fully rounded character, given voice and influence through Kate’s work on the case.  The centrality of Matthew’s character is reminiscent of a scene in your first novel, Gone in Seconds, where Hanson illustrates to her students that victims are often forgotten, whilst the perpetrators of crime invariably gain notoriety and are remembered.  How important is it for you, as an author, that victims are given this prominence, and does this resonate with you in your work as a forensic psychologist?
Anne: This is a great question. It goes to the heart of what I try to show in my fiction and it links with my protagonist. Kate Hanson's drive to achieve justice. In my work as a forensic psychologist there have been one or two cases over the years where it felt as though the victim was not only robbed of life but also forgotten. It can leave you feeling helpless, so I suspect that Hanson is my way of redressing that because she's always for the victim and as the author I can help her achieve justice for that person, although it isn't always neatly or entirely achieved. As a crime writer, I'm constantly putting characters in jeopardy or killing them off which, let's face it, is essential to the genre, but I never want that aspect to become central - it's the victim and the search for justice which drive what I write.

Dot: Anne, I believe that you originally began to study educational psychology, but that you switched to work as a forensic psychologist.  Could you tell us a little bit more about what prompted that change of direction?
Anne: I was at university doing a Master’s degree course in educational psychology. One of the course tutors was a forensic psychologist and he gave a lecture on the demands placed by the criminal justice system on children who were required to go to court as witnesses if they had suffered some kind of abuse. I couldn't believe that what he was saying was actually happening to children in our courts at that time and it led directly to my PhD research. This was some years ago and thankfully it's changed for the better, although I doubt that it is entirely child centred even now.

Dot: So, there you are, a successful forensic psychologist, at what point did you decide you wanted to write about crime fiction, and how did you embark on your authorial journey?
Anne: I've been a voracious reader of crime fiction for as long as I can remember. I'm fascinated by the capacity for people to behave in such widely and wildly(!) deviant ways yet it wasn't until around 2006 that I realised that being a forensic psychologist was a good starting point for me as a fledging author. I know: a little slow on the uptake but once I got the idea I just thought 'I can do this.' Of course, I didn't have a clue what I was doing but somewhere along the line I got it right, got an agent and a publisher. You just need to have a go if you really want to do something.

Dot:      The relationship between Kate Hanson, Joe Corrigan and Bernard Watts are central to Something Evil Comes and the other novels in the series.  When you conceived the first book, did you envisage the individuals who make up the Unsolved Crimes Unit developing in the ways they have done?  Do they ever act in ways that surprise you, their creator?
Anne: Bernard Watts crashed onto the page as an amalgam of Birmingham males I have known and a good foil for Kate Hanson whom he regards at the outset as an ivory-tower academic and, worse, a southerner! Over time he's become more accepting of her expertise but they're both strong characters, so they inevitably clash.  Lieutenant Joe Corrigan was intended as a source of gentle humour because Hanson tends to be all work but over time he's grown as a character in ways I didn't foresee.

Dot: Staying with the characters for a moment, you include Joe Corrigan, an American police lieutenant, in the Unsolved Crimes Unit.  I’m interested how you came to make this authorial choice? (I adore him, by the way!)
Anne: Glad you feel that way about him. For me, he's the 'quiet American ' who adores Hanson, although to date she's having none of it! I need to be honest here and say that apart from the low-level comic relief he sometimes brings to scenes he was also a distinctive voice, clearly distinguishable from those of Hanson and Watts. I should have known that he wouldn't settle for that, No way, Jose!
My books are now published in the USA which I'm truly thrilled about as I love the place!

Dot: How do you begin your writing, what sparks ideas for your plots? 
Anne: It's often something really small, even inconsequential, like a comment on the news and my head just goes with it, develops it into a whole plot. For example, winter darkness and cold are fertile ground for someone scary to be prowling around with murder in his heart - but what about swapping the context to a heatwave?  I know. Sounds like nothing but it's got my interest.

Dot: Had you written any fiction before you began the Kate Hanson series?
Anne: Not a single thing. Worse, it never occurred to me to try - until I thought I could do it.

Dot: And following on from the last question, now that you have had such success with your work how do you sustain the series?
Anne: I think my enjoyment of the characters and the situations I drop them into make it work. I really know them now so I'm aware how far I can push them yet maintain their believability. None of them is perfect. They have their foibles. I care about what happens to them. I think it all helps.

Dot: I’m a great fan of audiobooks and I know that at least two of your novels, Gone in Seconds and Art of Deception, are available as unabridged recordings. Would you tell us how this came about this, were you involved in the process in any way, and are you happy with the productions?
Anne: Actually, it just happened without my being involved but it made me realise how much I knew about the chapter of Kate Hanson. I listened to the audio and my immediate response was, 'That's not Hanson 's voice.' Which it wasn't, of course. That only exists inside my head! 

Dot: You have just completed your fourth forensic mystery involving Kate Hanson.  Are you planning to write more? (I hope the answer is yes!) And finally, have you any other sleuths that are waiting to be released in print?
Anne: I can't imagine myself leaving these characters just yet. I'm too curious to know what happens to them. I'm currently coming to the end of my fifth book which is entitled Cold, Cold Heart whilst also gathering ideas for the sixth. So far, that's a jumble of scribbled notes in a tatty folder.

Dot:  Thank you, Anne, it has been a pleasure to conduct this interview with you, and to learn more about how you go about creating such fascinating plots and memorable characters.  I look forward to reading Cold, Cold Heart and, when it emerges from the folder, book six! 

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police
officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s
College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and
piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

Thursday 25 January 2018

‘The Master Key’ by Masako Togawa

Translated by Simon Grove
Published by Pushkin Vertigo,
23 November 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-78227-363-9

The block of flats was built as a symbol of the way Japan was changing, with apartments for single working women, but over the years  those women have aquired secrets ...

This beautifully-written novel opens seven years before the main action, with the road-accident death of a woman who’s discovered to be a man. We then go back to three days before, when he arrives at the flat of  one of the women, carrying a suitcase containing the body of a young child, which they bury together in the basement.  From there, an intricate web is woven around the women in the flat as they wait for a marvel of technology: their entire building is going to be jacked up and moved out of the way of a new road – a move which will expose the former basement. There are the receptionists, Miss Tamura and Miss Katsuko, guardians of the master key to all the flats,  which goes missing during the story, and is used by several characters to spy on each other. There’s Professor Munekata, who’s working on her late husband’s manuscript, and Miss Suwa, a former violinist, whose world is turned upside down when a mysterious foreigner offers a large sum of money for a newspaper of the date of her beloved teacher’s last concert – the day his valuable violin was stolen.  The strange Miss Noriko, who lives nocturnally, scavenging fish bones, is determined to investigate Miss Suwa. Running over these threads is the story of the half-American child who was kidnapped seven years earlier. His mother suspects someone in the block of flats, and asks another resident, her former teacher, Miss Yunono, to investigate – an investigation which draws her into the seances held by the Three Spirit Faith. The intricate story moves from character to character, the plot keeps you guessing, and all the threads are drawn together in a triumphant ending.

An intricate novel with beautifully-drawn characters and a clever ending.  Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Matsali Taylor

Masako Togawa  was born in Tokyo on 23 March 1933. Her father died when she was young, and she spent the rest of her childhood living with her mother, in an apartment building for single women, which provided the inspiration for the setting of The Master Key. After leaving school she worked as a typist for some years, before stepping onto the stage as a cabaret performer in 1954. She soon began to write backstage during the breaks between her performances, and in 1962, her debut novel The Master Key was published, and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. She went on to become a hugely successful crime writer, but continued to lead a colourful parallel life as a singer, actress, feminist, nightclub owner and gay icon. She died 26 April 2016 at the age of 83.
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

A review of her recent book Ghosts of the Vikings can be read here.