Monthly Archives: November 2012


Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford, co-writer of Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom) was in town recently to show off the winners of Four Stories,  Intel/W Hotel’s screenwriting competition for emerging talent. You can see the winning entries at, including one shot by Coppola at W Hollywood. ‘I did that for convenience,’ he said. ‘Then I saw the footage from W Maldives and realized what a mistake I’d made. Duh!’

I went along to interview him for My Hols for The Sunday Times and, as expected, he talked a lot about his father’s places in Belize and Italy. I was beginning to think that this was going to be a run-of-the-mill My Hols (well, as run-of-the-mill as it can be if your dad directed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now) when he let slip that his next holiday would be on a Greyhound bus.

No, Roman isn’t going to be riding the freeways with the great unwashed, he has his own Greyhound bus. ‘It’s from the 1940s, the classic silver-sided one. I found it in Ohio.’ So, it’s like the one in The Gauntlet (1978), I asked, that Clint Eastwood armours up and rides into Phoenix to confront the corrupt city officials? Never seen the movie, he admitted.

He should. OK, so it’s a piece of schlock, but apart from being the only movie to star a similar bus to his (it is “Southern Trail Lines”, not Greyhound and, on re-viewing, it is a later model than Roman’s), it also has a great soundtrack. The music is by Jerry Fielding, but Eastwood, ever the jazz fan, made sure he booked the legendary Art Pepper (apparently on both alto and, unusually, baritone), who needed the gig, and a new kid, the stratosphere-scraping trumpeter John Faddis. It’s grand stuff, but be warned though, the OST is only 31 minutes long.

The Gauntlet bus was destroyed by 8,000 explosive ‘squibs’ to simulate bullet holes. In contrast, Roman has had his interior done out in mahogany, like a classic Hacker-Craft 1920s motorboat, with six berths and he intends to tour the Mid-West of America in it next year. You can read more when the interview appears in the Sunday Times in a few weeks.


Next year Bloomsbury Reader is to re-release one of Gavin Lyall’s titles from the sixties – The Most Dangerous Game. That’s good news, he deserves to be re-discovered. It’s just that it is the wrong book. It’s not that TMDG is a bad thriller. It has most of the tropes familiar from early Lyall: the ex-RAF pilot slowly going to seed until something re-kindles his spirit and his sense of self-worth, great flying sequences and an interesting setting – the Russo-Finnish border. But for me, Lyall’s best book will always be Midnight Plus One. This was his third novel and for once didn’t feature a pilot. Instead, the man going to seed etc is Lewis Cane, an ex-SOE agent who once worked with the French Resistance, now almost making a living as a freelance bodyguard in Paris. He is teamed with an American gunman, Harvey Lovell, to escort a businessman who has been framed on a rape charge to a meeting in Liechtenstein. Unknown assailants want to stop them.

It is really a kind of road movie book, describing a drive across France, mostly in a Citroen DS (which expires in one of the book’s most memorable scene – who knew a car could bleed to death?). Katherine Whitehorn, Lyall’s wife, once revealed that he drove every inch of the route. His research would shame us all:  “He spent many nights in the kitchen at Primrose Hill, north London, experimenting to see if one could, in fact, cast bullets from lead melted in a saucepan, or whether the muzzle flash of a revolver fired across a saucer of petrol really would ignite a fire”. No, apparently. Probably just as well for Primrose Hill.

There were and still are rumours that Steve McQueen had optioned the book, intending to play the alcoholic Harvey, but died before it could go any further. I once asked Alan Trustman who wrote Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair for McQueen about this. He said he hadn’t heard any talk of a screenplay, but it would have been a fitting end to a career – the man who rode shotgun for Yul Brynner doing the same for an ex-British spy (Michael Caine?), both more cynical and careworn than they’d care to admit. The sexual politics in the book might have dated, but Midnight Plus One holds up remarkably well as a thriller. It would still make a great, tight movie. Sadly, though, they don’t make Steve McQueens any more.

* The Most Dangerous Game is due in March 2013.


Well it has been a long wait and many a day I have almost weakened and thought: sod it, I’ll just buy the CD. But, finally, the vinyl version of The Face of Mount Molehill by the Neil Cowley Trio popped through the door, several months after the release of the CD. Well, it didn’t really pop through the door. Long Players, as we used to call them, are too big for that. A man had to knock and I had to sign for it. Anyway, it was worth the wait, as it sees the usual percussive piano of Cowley (who has more hooks in him than Robson Green’s tackle box) paired with skillfully deployed strings and electronica. Strings, yes. No, he hasn’t gone soft – listen to the pounding Rooster Was A Witness or Fable, which are as infectious and inventive as ever, with incisive support from new bassist Rex Horan and Evan Jenkins on drums. The problem with a vinyl album, of course, is that you have to turn it over half way through. But, like most modern LPs, FOMM comes with a code that enables a one-off download of the MP3 version. So you get the best of both worlds – the warmth and transparency of vinyl and the convenience of digital. The former still sounds better, though, even if it does cost almost twice the price of the CD. The new trio-with-strings format gets an unusual afternoon airing on Saturday 18th November at 2pm at the Barbican, when Cowley and cohorts team up with the Goldsmiths (Big) Strings as part of the London Jazz Festival. Old favourites, new material and collective improvisation is promised. And, much as I like the new album, the band is absolutely best appreciated live.


* The Face of Mount Molehill is available as a 180gm vinyl disc plus download code on the Naim label ( for £17.99


I was at the ceremony for the unveiling, by The Princess Royal, of the memorial to SOE agent Noor   Inayat Khan yesterday (November 8th). I was an interested party because Noor’s is a fascinating and tragic story, one I almost used in my novel Early One Morning, but realized it would unbalance the book (the beautiful, shy, dreamy but tenacious half-Indian, half-American daughter of the founder of Sufi mysticism, descended from Indian royalty, talented musician and writer – it was all too much for a secondary story). The short ceremony brought home once again the bravery of the men and women of Special Operations Executive who parachuted or were landed into occupied territories. I recently interviewed Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon children’s books and she mentioned her ‘grandfather Alan’ had been in SOE in Albania. So I looked him up. It turned out Alan Hare was a friend of the recently deceased Patrick Leigh-Fermor and, as his obituary in The Independent confirmed, cut from the same cloth:

“Betrayed by partisans and ambushed by the Germans, Hare only escaped after a grim chase across snow-bound mountains. Ravaged by frostbite, he was the sole survivor of [the mission] to the isolated valleys of the Balkans. He remained far longer than either reason or compassion would have dictated, tending to the wounds of a fellow British officer. He was later awarded a Military Cross.”


Noor Inayat Khan, operating as a wireless operator, was also betrayed, in October 1943.  Imprisoned and questioned by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – the SS intelligence service) at its notorious Avenue Foch HQ, she escaped over the rooftops only to be re-captured during an air raid (the German routine was to head count all prisoners when the air raid alarm sounded, hence her absence was discovered). She gave nothing away during her interrogations. However, against all the security protocols of SOE (which, as MRD Foot has pointed out, were often ambiguously worded in the manuals), Noor had not destroyed her transmission notes or ciphers. The Germans were able to decode the messages and ‘turn’ her radio and, despite some suspicions at home, for several months the British believed Noor was still at large and transmitting. This led to agents beings sent to France with the SD waiting to receive them.

The fact her radio was turned should not detract from Noor’s bravery, either before and after capture – at one point she had been given the chance to pull out, but elected to stay on as the last Paris-London link. Sadly, it was an all too common an occurrence, especially in Holland. There the Germans played the devastating Englandspiel (the English Game) with captured transmitters through most of 1942-3, arresting the agents SOE sent in, the majority of whom perished.

After Avenue Foch, Noor endured months of solitary confinement in shackles in a German prison and was eventually murdered and her body burned at Dachau concentration camp in September 1944, along with fellow SOE recruits Yolande BeekmanEliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment (with a terrible irony, one of the agents lured to France by the SD using Noor’s radio). Noor was 30 years old. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Her memorial, a bust sculpted by Karen Newman, is located in Gordon Square Gardens, near the University of London.

Recommended books on SOE and the female agents include Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets (a fascinating biography of Vera Atkins, who was a lynchpin of SOE’s F – for France – Section), Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer, which traces the lives of the four girls murdered at Dachau and, the book that led directly to the memorial, The Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu.

Thanks to Martyn Cox who has created an invaluable archive of interviews with SOE, FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), escape line and ‘special duty’ RAF squadron veterans. See


Dead Man’s Land is out on January 3rd. It is a novel about Dr John Watson. It might look like that I am, unusually for me, surfing the zeitgeist, with Sherlock Holmes being more popular than ever, but I realized that the concept dates back almost two years to January 2011, when I had a meeting with Maxine Hitchcock, editorial director of Simon & Schuster. She mentioned that they were looking for a work of fiction featuring a ‘detective in the trenches of WW1’. I said it was an interesting idea – what better spot to commit murder than in a place where thousands are being slaughtered each day? But I also knew it had its problems, not least because the front line was very fluid (soldiers did not spend weeks in the trenches – they were rotated back on a regular basis) and also most Military Policemen were concerned with desertion and cowardice than crime. So I said: ‘Actually, it would be better if he wasn’t a copper, but a doctor, just behind the lines, a man who might recognize a murder when he sees one. And why not go one step further and make the central figure Dr Watson?’

Why Watson? Because at the end of His Last Bow, a story written by Conan Doyle in World War One and set in 1914, Holmes mentions that Watson will be rejoining ‘his old service’, which by that time was known as the Royal Army Medical Corps. Holmes, meanwhile, will go back to his beekeeping. And so, for once, Watson is a man very much alone when he finds that there has been at least one murder out on the Western Front.. and that he has been added to the killer’s list.