ACTION PACKED

Does the name Johnny Fedora mean anything to you? What about Philip McAlpine? Gerald Otley? David Audley? No? Well, they were all heroes of action/spy thrillers produced in the sixties and seventies written by, respectively, Desmond Cory (a pseudonym), Adam Diment (an author who apparently vanished from the face of the earth), Martin Waddell and Anthony Price.

      I was reminded of these and many other players in the world of thrillers while reading Mike Ripley’s hugely enjoyable (especially if you recall any of the names from the first go-round) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a survey of British thrillers “from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and the social and political landscape that produced them.

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      My own personal favourite of the many authors covered is Gavin Lyall, whose best two novels, The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One, are featured within. Lyall specialised in shabby, careworn, often burnt-out cases who are forced to dig deep and remember the hero they had once been. As Ripley points out, The Most Dangerous Game features a most unusual setting, up on the Finnish-Russian border, and Midnight Plus One a car chase where a Citroen DS is fatally holed in a gunfight.

      “The car had been stabbed in its hydraulic heart: the fluid – the life blood – that powered the steering, brakes, gear-change, was dripping away from the main tank.”

      Bloody French cars – always over-complicated.

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Steve McQueen was rumoured to have optioned MPO to play Harvey, the alcoholic American gunman (not a great combination). I checked and Sony does own the rights. And no, they wouldn’t let me have a go at a screenplay. It’s a fine, tightly plotted book, although, as with many novels mentioned in Mike Ripley’s roundup, the sexual politics have not worn well.

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By coincidence, my own homage to Lyall appears in the new R J Bailey thriller (I am one half of RJB),  Nobody Gets Hurt, in that Sam Wylde, the series’ hero, has to go on the run in a Facel Vega (as once owned by Ringo Starr), which is beautiful but as lethal as a bleeding Citroen DS.

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Sam Wylde, who can jump start a car that has no battery… but don’t try at home

Nobody Gets Hurt (p/b to follow)  is out as an e-book in August (and available on NetGalley for advanced reading now. https://s2.netgalley.com/catalog/book/114770

 

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley is published by HarperCollins (£20)

THE LONG DROP

I don’t normally review books on this blog because that’s not what I do. But I’ll make an exception for Howard Linskey’s Hunting The Hangman, not just because it is a cracking read, but because its genesis struck a chord with me.

In 1994 I read a sentence in a motor racing report in the Guardian that said: “..and the Monaco circuit is much the same as it was in 1929, when Englishman Grover-Williams (who went on to became a Special Operations Executive saboteur in France during WW2) won the inaugural event.” Hold the phone. A Bugatti-driving Grand Prix champion joined SOE’s F Section? Not only that, I quickly discovered, so did two others, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. There’s a book there, I thought.

Indeed there was, but, for various reasons (including access to the then still-sealed SOE files), it proved difficult to write. Early One Morning didn’t get published until eight years later, by which time I had already produced three US-set thrillers.

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Howard Linskey’s novel has had an even lengthier gestation. His equivalent of that sentence about Grover-Williams was catching the second half of a documentary on the History Channel about the assassination of Hitler’s heir apparent, the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague by an SOE-trained Czech hit team. Fascinated, he began researching everything he could find on subject. That was in 2000. Seventeen years later, and after six well-received, hardboiled northeastern noir books (No Name Lane, The Search, The Damage etc. – also well worth seeking out), his novel about Operation Anthropoid (as the mission was christened) has finally seen the light of day. Makes mine look like speed publishing.

In fact, I always felt fortunate that Early One Morning wasn’t my first novel. It meant I could get some rookie mistakes out of the way in the first three thrillers, which didn’t trouble the bestseller charts – something writers rarely get a chance to do these days, it being perform or die with the majority of publishers. Early One Morning turned out to be, and remains, my most successful novel in terms of sales.

I don’t remember Howard Linskey making any rookie mistakes in his first book, The Drop, but again the delay might have been fortuitous, in that by his own admission the early version he produced was a mix of fact and fiction that he was uncomfortable with. The Hunting the Hangman of today is meticulously researched and firmly based, as they say, on actual events.

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Having written about WW2 organisations such as SOE, MI9 and MI19 myself, and seen a couple of movies about Operation Anthropoid, and the terrible retributions in its aftermath, I thought I knew the story well. But, in fact, Howard uses his novelist’s skills to really flesh out not only the monstrous Heydrich, but also the assassins, who are far from the usual bland action-hero stereotypes. There’s bravery, of course, in the tale, but also terrible treachery and cruelty. Historical fiction like this isn’t easy to pull off – cleaving to the facts and the real-life characters while creating novel-like suspense. Howard Linskey has pulled it off. It’s been a long time coming, but Hunting The Hangman was worth the wait.

 

THE FALLS GUY

 

Last Thursday was an important day in the calendar for fans of Sherlock Holmes. After its winter closure, the funicular to the Reichenbach Falls re-opened. Yes, the place where, in 1893, in one of the most cold and calculated acts of detecticide in literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent his Sherlock Holmes tumbling into the abyss, locked in fatal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, is easily accessible again. The location of the death plunge really does exist, although it often comes as a surprise to some people that Holmes isn’t real, yet the Reichenbach Falls are.

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Given that, until recently, I lived in a road in North London famous for its once-resident serial killer, I am not much given to Murder Tourism. Yet there we were, standing next to the site of one of the most notorious homicides of the late 19th century.

In truth, it is a rather lovely spot to send someone to their doom. Sitting above the town of Meiringen in the Swiss Bernese Oberland, reached by its seasonal funicular railway or a steep, winding path, the Reichenbach Falls cascade in a series of cataracts before spinning through the air for their final free descent, twisting through a hole in the rock halfway down, like liquid cotton threading through the eye of needle, and then plunging into an ice-blue pool at the base.

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With a total drop of 250 metres, the falls are dramatic, certainly, but don’t come expecting the Niagara-like flow as seen in the Robert Downey Jr Holmes movie, or even the tumult as described by Conan Doyle, which, before they went through that fissure in the rock, passed through the rapids of a writer’s imagination. It is not “a dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam” from whence no bodies could ever be recovered. And although there is a ledge claiming to mark the exact spot of the momentous struggle between the good and evil geniuses, in actuality the site Conan Doyle had in mind was much closer to the rushing water than the current photo-opportunity. However, the path has become dangerous over the years and, understandably, the local tourist board don’t want too many literal re-enactments of the death plunge.

Yet, all that aside, standing on the bridge at the top, looking down the narrow gorge of “coal-black rocks”, there is something haunting about the falls, the feeling that this beautiful and apparently benign chute is capable of a fatal capriciousness. The waters can, as Watson says, “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour ”. It isn’t difficult to see why Doyle took Sir Henry Lunn’s advice and chose it as the ideal spot to unburden himself of his over-popular detective, although public pressure meant a resurrection a decade later. And he shows no sign of dying again any time soon.

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Even if you are not one of the pilgrims convinced that Holmes was real, there is much to recommend this part of Switzerland, not least the spectacular mountains that ACD loved so much. Having visited with his first wife (as part of her TB cure), the author became a vocal ambassador for the country – arguably his tale of skiing from Davos to Arosa in The Strand magazine in 1894 kick started the whole British Alpine skiing movement.

If you have a Swiss Travel Pass (swisstravelsystem.co.uk; three days from £170), which covers the majority of train and boat services you can easily get to Meiringen and the falls from anywhere in the Bernese Oberland. You could reach Meiringen by using train only, but it would be a shame to miss out on the alternate ferry crossing over the startlingly green Lake Brienz, the hue caused by the cryophilic algae that thrive in the glacial waters. What will impress during the hour-long voyage is the sheer number of lesser-known waterfalls that punch out of the sides of the flanking mountains, as if the whole range is weeping silvery flumes. Many are strikingly lovely, but, thanks to a Scottish writer with a sick wife, none will ever have the resonance of the “tremendous abyss from which the spray rolls up like smoke from a burning house” that is the Reichenbach Falls.

 

Further information: Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, MySwitzerland.com). Thomson Lakes & Mountain (020 8939 0740, thomsonlakes.co.uk) has various packages to the Bernese Oberland.

Big Ol’ Jetliners

 

Play word association with Seattle and most people will come up with a combination of Nirvana, Hendrix, Starbucks and maybe rain (thanks, Frasier). But the list should also includes aviation, because Seattle is home to Boeing, and is one of the few places in the world where the public can get to see a commercial airliner being built. That might sound like watching paint dry (and, if you’re lucky, you might be able to see just that) but for anyone who loves what Steve Miller called big ol’ jetliners – or those who still can’t comprehend how those monsters can get off the ground – it’s a fascinating 90 minutes.

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Forty minutes’ drive north of the famous Space Needle is the Future of Flight museum, which, more importantly, is the access point for the Boeing Factory Tour at Everett. And it is just that – a chance to stand in the largest building by volume in the world and watch the planes you might have flown across the Atlantic on being assembled. Illuminated by one million lights bulbs, it is the size of 55 football pitches (Boeing does love stats) and left to its own devices it has its own weather system, with clouds forming and rain falling thanks to condensation from the breath and perspiration of workers. Giant ceiling fans prevent this, but the warmth generated by bodies, lights and machinery means no heating is needed in this enormous shed.

The tour begins with a preliminary briefing (mainly – no phones, no photos, no fooling about) before visitors are allowed onto the factory floor (well, on balconies to one side) to watch shifts put together the 747, the 777 and the 787 Dreamliner. The number “7” prefix, by the way, indicates it is a jet aircraft, not a prop plane, a boat/submarine or, indeed, a spaceship.

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       The sleek Dreamliner is assembled like a giant Airfix kit from components produced across the globe. The carbon/polymer resin fuselage comes over from Italy, the engines from the UK, and eight other countries contribute parts. Completed planes have to be towed over a bridge that crosses a busy highway to reach the Everett Field runway for their first test flights. This is now done at the dead of night – during daylight, drivers below were either alarmed to see a very, very low flying aircraft or slowed to gawp, and accidents were not uncommon. 

        The long line of partially completed 787s was certainly impressive – and there are yet more trundling along a similar production line at a sister plant in South Carolina – but it was the sheer size of the sole Jumbo on display that day that still inspired genuine awe. The one I saw was being lined up for final assembly prior to painting (which can add 1,000lbs to the weight), still clad in a protective green skin.

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Boeing is down to producing just one Jumbo every other month as the order books switch to the 787s, even though the current 747 is much lighter and more fuel efficient than the original. Which is a shame, because I have a soft spot for it, being the first plane I flew to the USA on (who was it, when asked why they always preferred to fly on four-engined planes, replied “because they don’t make one with five”?). Speaking to the BA cabin crew about their favourite planes on the return trip this time, one them said that, despite its age, the majority of staff still love a Jumbo.

The coffee and the rain will always be there in Seattle, but the 747 will soon go the way of Cobain and Hendrix. Best get your skates on if you want to see this BFG of the skies being put together. 

* The Boeing Tour (001 425 438 8100/futureofflight.org) is at Everett Field and costs £16.30 for adults, £11.50 for 15 and under. Holiday Autos (020 3740 9859/holidayautos.co.uk) has seven days’ car hire from £27 per day. If you aren’t renting a car, Viator (020 3318 0421/viator.com) has tours with transportation from downtown Seattle from £54pp. British Airways (0344 493 0787/ba.com) offers return flights to Seattle from London Heathrow from £640. Virgin Atlantic (0844-573 0088, virginholidays.co.uk) will start flying the route from May 1, with similar prices. Further details at Visit Seattle (www.visitseattle.org) or www.Seattle-WashingtonState.co.uk.

 

The Car That Killed Albert Camus

As I know one half of the writing duo R J Bailey very well, I got a sneak preview of the next book (the first one in the series, Safe From Harm, is out soon) and it features a starring role for the same make of car that Albert Camus died in, although the author wasn’t driving the Facel Vega at the time, it was his publisher behind the wheel. The Facel Vega was notoriously tricky to handle – beautiful to look at, with elegant French-American styling, coupled with big, brutal US-sourced engines but not always the brakes to match.   cf1c9d6ba074e764358f48e125b18ffdThe authors unearthed the original owner’s manual, which gives a clue as to its unpredictability:.

Driving your Facel Vega. At high speed drivers are warned to be careful to hold the steering wheel with both hands except when shifting gears; to keep as close as possible to the centre of the road; not to overtake on the brow of a hill; to reduce speed over the brow of a hill as a car might have stopped on the far side; not to look at anything else but the road; not to change the radio programme; not to smoke”

Thank God they didn’t have sat navs and iPhones to distract the unwary driver back then. The novel featuring the Facel Vega (“The Hurting Kind”) will be out at the end of this year. Meanwhile, Safe From Harm  (below) is out in paperback from Simon & Schuster this Thursday (Jan 12).

You can read about the role of cars in that book in my interview with half of the team here:

http://www.crimetime.co.uk/mag/index.php/showarticle/4767

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Somebody call the cops….

…Kurt Elling has just stolen a show.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, as there were many highpoints to Guy Barker’s storming Big Band Christmas Show (not least seeing the leader play trumpet, a rare event these days, and the calibre of both the players and arrangements) at the Royal Albert Hall last night, but one of the earliest was Kurt Elling hipping and scatting into The Little Drummer Boy, backed by the two drummers who were another delight of the evening. It is featured, in a slightly politer version, on his new Christmas album, The Beautiful Day.

71kgeex1rl-_sl1200_I have been playing it all morning and was going to review it, but discovered Dave Gelly in the Observer had beaten me to it.

This album’s unlikely subtitle, Kurt Elling Sings Christmas, doesn’t signify wall-to-wall jingle bells. Read the three pages of notes if you want to know exactly where he stands, Christmas-wise. But if you want to hear a subtle, beautifully crafted and constantly surprising set of seasonal songs, just listen. The whole thing starts with bits of favourite carols, apparently thrown together at random, but in fact minutely layered. Along with his superb vocal technique, this artful casualness is one of Elling’s great strengths. From a funky New Orleans version of Little Drummer Boy to a breathtaking evocation of peace in The Snow Is Deep on the Ground, it’s flawless.

He is absolutely right. There’s Leslie Bricusse in there, Edvard Grieg and even Dan Fogelberg. As well as Kurt’s daughter Luiza. And it is great.  It makes most of the other jazzy Xmas albums in my collection look like tasteless kitsch (although I have a very soft spot for Jimmy Smith’s dramatic march into “God Rest..”, as played by Guy’s band at the concert).

Just buy it. And make sure you see him in concert next time he is over. And lobby for the Barker Big Band Christmas to become an annual event.

STOP PRESS: There WILL be another Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas Show next December.

 

 

Get Shirty!

I have had a shirt made for me just three times in my life. The first was at Gieves & Hawkes in London, the second in Hong Kong and thirdly, just recently, at Regent Tailoring in Salisbury. Three is not really enough, because a bespoke shirt is thing of joy, especially the pleasure that comes from having the perfect sleeve length. I would recommend it as either a personal indulgence (go on, you deserve it) or a gift (which mine was). However, one thing I would also advise is this: do your homework before you go and get measured up. I know very well that having a suit made is like the reverse of death by a thousand cuts – creation by a thousand questions, about jacket length, trouser width, pleats, ticket pockets, collar notches, button holes etc. etc. There might be fewer such decisions to make for a shirt, but I had forgotten that there’s still a bunch of them, starting with the very basic one: what colour?

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I think even Don Draper might have rejected this one…

But that is just the beginning. It was my friend Jonathan Futrell who pre-warned me about one important aspect (he knows about clothes, fabrics, etiquette; check out his hip outdoor website – yes, those two words do go together here – http://www.goodgear2go.com, which displays but a fraction of his sartorial knowledge). As I wanted a formal shirt to wear with a suit, he cautioned against going with the modern trend of straight cut bottom/tail, on the grounds that they tend to pull out of the waistband of the trousers, which isn’t a good look.

There is one surefire way to prevent this, as used by Frank Sinatra. David Gale, head cutter at Turnbull & Asser, explained it to me thus: ‘It is called a quorn strap, like the hunt [and not the meat substitute], and it runs from the tail and is attached to a lower button at the front. It was originally designed for hunting, so the shirt didn’t pop out of the breeches, but in Sinatra’s case it would be so he could lift his arms on stage without the shirt bunching or coming adrift.’ As I reckon I am unlikely to be singing My Way on stage anytime soon – or, indeed, ever – I decided to go forego the strap in favour of traditional  shirttails.

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“Look, no bunching!”

However, having got that out of the way with Jason Regent,  owner of the eponymous store and the man who was measuring me up, he had plenty more to quiz me on. I first met Jason a few years back when I was profiling him for GQ magazine and I wrote this:

“Regent, who worked at Ede & Ravenscroft (Est. 1689) before branching out on his own, often sounds like a mix of Jeeves the valet, Alfred the butler and a naughty uncle as he advises clients on the conventions of dressing for sporting or social occasions. ‘It runs in the family,’ he says, ‘My grandfather was butler to the Flemings, the bankers, which included Ian Fleming, and he used to pick me up at school in a Bentley, which at the time I thought was his. He would tell me things like, never trust anyone who is too polished, that old money is usually a bit scruffy round the edges. He also gave me the first puff on a cigar and drink of whisky. I think I was ten.’

       Born in Essex but brought up in Henley-on-Thames, both Regent’s personality and products effortlessly straddle town and country, traveller and toff, Glastonbury and Glyndebourne. The shop, which is a combination of Timothy Everest’s higgledy-piggledy Spitalfields atelier and the bric-a-brac emporium style of early Paul Smith stores, reflects this. It sells moleskin country trousers, but with a narrow, urban cut, sharp city suits but with roomy shooting jacket pleats and brilliant own-brand woodland boots with a tweedy upper section that really ought to give Hunter a run for their money as the preferred footwear of the country squire manqué. Plus there are little twists that make you smile, such as the tweed caps that can come, if you wish, with matching hip flask.”

All of which is still true, although Jason has recently cultivated a luxuriant beard that makes him look like an East London hipster who has suffered a sudden attack of good taste. So, Jason’s job, apart from getting your dimensions correct, is to guide you through the important decisions, asking if you want to close the cuffs with buttons or cufflinks (he isn’t fan of dual-purpose cuffs, but will make exceptions), what type of collar (I went for a Kent, named after the Duke, rather than the more cutaway New Kent) and buttons (do upgrade from plastic). Then there is the little matter of choosing your fabric….

Eventually, I got through this shirty Spanish inquisition and a month later the much-debated garment arrived. I’d say it fits like a glove, except it fits like a very well-made bespoke shirt.  It’s due its first public outing very soon at a Christmas party where, apparently, there will be be dancing.

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Let’s hope I don’t regret rejecting the quorn strap.

Regent Tailoring (73 New St, Salisbury SP1 2PH, 01722-335151, http://www.regenttailoring.co.uk). Custom shirts from £130 (minimum order: one) .