Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Every so often a book comes along which is a joy to read and this set of essays by Christopher Fowler is one such offering. Of course, the term ‘forgotten’ is subjective. A writer who is unheard of by one reader is possibly a favourite of another. Fowler begins by asking the question: why are good authors forgotten? He makes a convincing case for possible scenarios. Authors, such as Richard Condon, who become famous for one title who then fade in obscurity or others such as John Creasey, whose output is so prolific that perhaps quantity is at the expense of quality. There are some lovely anecdotes here as Fowler describes trying to track down what became of the writers he discusses.

Of course, there are some authors in the book who I still read. Arthur Upfield, Dennis Wheatley, although his books have dated, and Barbara Pym who is one of my favourite writers. Others such as Baroness Orczy I have tried and given up on. It was fascinating, though, to rediscover authors I did read as a teenager and who are most definitely out of fashion. Eleanor Hibbert, for example who wrote as Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy (and other pseudonyms) was a favourite of mine  as was Virginia Andrew whose Flowers in the Attic had an appeal which is hard to decipher.

A mark of a  good book is when I get my pencil out and make notes in the margin. I’ve now a list of authors who I fancy reading including Winifred Watson and Caryl Brahms whose books I can see I already have on my shelves. The Book of Forgotten Authors would make a wonderful Christmas present for any bibliophile you know and is definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Review: Bryant and May – Wild Chamber

I was first introduced to the Bryant and May series by Chris Simmons from I’d recently moved to London from Liverpool where I used to live near the old Bryant and May match factory on the Speke Road. The first book in the series, Full Dark House, had just been published and I wanted to see the characters he had created using the iconic name pairing. In Fowler’s books, Arthur Bryant and John May  head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the Met police founded during the Second World War to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest. It’s a great premise for a series and the books have been of a consistently high quality.

In Wild Chamber, the death of a child has unforeseen consequences. A woman is found murdered in a locked private garden in London and her husband and nanny are missing as is the dog she was walking. A killer is on the loose and planning his next victim but Bryan and May become embroiled in a national scandal which hampers their investigations.

What I increasingly like in the crime novels I read, is a story beyond the mystery that is presented. Fowler’s books give insights into London’s history (here the private gardens or ‘wild chambers’), splashes of humour, intelligent prose and an otherworldly setting. This otherness usually comes from Arthur Bryant and his out of body experiences. If anything, the slight supernatural element was toned down in Wild Chamber but balanced by the wonderful insights into London’s private gardens that I used to look at enviously through railings  when I lived there.

This is the fourteenth book in series and, as ever, a joy to read. Its intelligent crime fiction that’s accessible to everyone.

Music To Write Books By – Christopher Fowler

612ww2vvqrl-_ux250_Today on Crimepieces I have Christopher Fowler. Chris is the multi award-winning author of many novels and short story collections, and the author of the Bryant & May mysteries which I love. The latest book in the series, London’s Glory, is a collection of short stories that I can’t wait to read.  His first bestseller was Roofworld and subsequent novels include Spanky, Disturbia, Psychoville and Calabash.

Hi Chris. Thanks for taking part in this series. Do you have particular pieces of music you write to?

I always write with music playing, so long as there are no vocals. My experience is the reverse of most writers; when I was a teenager I loved classical music, but later I came to love EDM and modern pieces. However, I’ve always found that soundtracks can provide the perfect atmosphere in which to create. For many years I worked in the film industry and was often given soundtrack recordings by directors, many of which didn’t make the final cut. Soundtrack music is created to enhance the emotion of visuals and is an ideal accompaniment to writing. I have no taste boundaries, and will happily play demanding minimalist pieces next to cheesy sixties scores; music is unapologetically personal, and no-one should have control over your tastes!

I went through a phase of writing to Michael Nyman scores, particularly the Handel-like ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Drowning by Numbers’ (based on Mozart phrases), plus a limited edition album of his called ‘Sublime’. His score for ‘Prospero’s Books’, Greenaway’s version of ‘The Tempest’, also conjures images.

Minimalists Wim Mertens and Max Richter heavily feature on my writing playlists. Phillip Glass is a little too intrusive to write to.

Has a particular piece of music ever inspired you to write something?

Mark Isham’s score for ‘Crash’ inspired a number of my short stories. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for ‘Gormenghast’ definitely had an effect on a new novel that’ll be out next year called ‘The Foot on the Crown’. Composers contacted me directly and asked to write pieces for the Bryant & May mystery novels, and several of them have proven inspirational for further stories; a case of creative reverse-engineering!

Could you recommend any particular pieces of music for a specific mood?

I have the obsessive gene, and once I fall in love with a composer, I set out to hear everything they’re written. I’ve been like this with Spanish soundtrack composers, particularly Federico Jusid’s deliciously sinister soundtracks for ‘La Cara Oculta’ and ‘Isabel’, Joan Valent’s score for ‘Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi’ and Roque Banos’s moving score for ‘The 13 Rosas’. I’ve also written specifically to his wonderfully Hitchcockian soundtrack for ‘La Comunidad’. Speaking of Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann is also a favourite when writing tense scenes.

 French and Spanish soundtracks also provide great mood music for sad or melancholic scene-setting, especially the scores for ‘Loreak’, ‘Dans La Maison’, and the beautiful hymns and adagios in ‘Joyeux Noel’. If you want to write something joyful you can do no better than play Camille Bazbaz’s score for ‘Hors de Prix’ (‘Priceless’). The last soundtrack score I heard that I fell in love with was the jazzy, big-band ‘La La Land’.

Thomas Newman’s minor key scores for ‘Angels In America’ and ‘American Beauty’ sound European and are so distinctive that I can pick out his music in three or four bars. Likewise, the late great John Barry used such recognisable key changes that I will pinpoint anything he wrote across a crowded room. Older soundtracks can be more intrusive on the ear because their orchestrations are cleaner and more streamlined, with smaller orchestras.

Composers now have a tendency to ‘thicken’ sound with overlaid instrumentation and effects. Listen to Barry’s original masters for ‘Goldfinger’ and you’ll be shocked at how simple his arrangements are. It sounds as if you’re in a smoky room with a small jazz band. I once sat in with the orchestra while one of the later Bond films was being scored, and the sound was overwhelmingly huge.

Are there any longer works you can recommend. If you need to write for an hour, for example, is there a particular composer/artist you’d chose?

The longest piece of music I have ever written to lasts for 24 hours! ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter is a piece designed to be slept through, and has a slowly mutating chord change that’s very relaxing. Thomas Bergersen’s long pieces like ‘Sun’ and ‘Illusions’ and the lengthy soundtracks for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films by Howard Shore are good for writing grand action. An easy solution is to pick the work of one soundtrack composer and leave it on play, as a style will emerge across several soundtracks. You can very clearly hear the development in the works of both Michel Legrand and Ennio Morricone.

What are you working on at the moment?

A new Bryant & May paperback has just come out, London’s Glory, and their new hardback novel, Wild Chamber is published next year. Those will be followed by The Book of Forgotten Authors for Quercus.

Review: OxCrimes

I like short stories. I remember reading a lot of them when I was a teenager, although those with a crime theme were less popular Oxcrimes-Bookthen. More recently there have been a number of good anthologies containing stories from across the crime fiction genre. In particular, I always enjoy Otto Penzler’s annual anthology of The Best American Mystery Stories. Last week, Oxfam published its own compilation containing 27 stories from an impressive list of crime writers. OxCrimes authors include Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman, Anne Zouroudi, Ann Cleves and Peter Robinson.

There are a couple of stories in particular I’d like to recommend. I’ve read very little by Christopher Fowler but I loved his story, The Caterpillar Flag. Set in Spain, it has a brooding feel and relates a tragedy seen through innocent eyes. Another story set in Europe is Reflections in Unna by Louise Welsh. It’s an overtly menacing tale with a strong sense of impending doom and written in her trademark compelling style. Finally, OxCrimes features one of my favourite crime writers, Fred Vargas. Her story, Five Francs Each, has Commissaire Adamsberg trying to persuade a down-at-heel street seller to give up the identity of a murderer.

There are many more readable stories and it is a tribute to the excellent work that Oxfam undertakes that it has managed to get so many high quality crime writers to contribute to it.

My anthology was from Oxfam bookshop in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Run by Lynsey and the team, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re in Derbyshire you should definitely pay it a visit.

With previous books ‘OxTravels’ and ‘OxTales’ having raised over a quarter of a million pounds since their 2009 publication, Oxfam is hoping ‘OxCrimes’ will raise even more, helping to tackle poverty and suffering around the world. Visit Oxfam’s emergency Response pages to find out more about how you can help.