Category Archives: Books

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

come-quietly

CONAN DOYLE: THE REMIX PROJECT

This blog is actually about some “new” Arthur Conan Doyle stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But stick with me for a while…

Back in 1998 Sony Records released Panthalassa, a sound collage of music made by Miles Davis between 1969-74, but given a radical reworking by Bill Laswell. Actually, it wasn’t that radical, he simply updated techniques used by Miles’ original producer, Teo Macero, who was the master of cut and splice and extracting a coherent shape from hours of studio jamming. Regardless of its honourable precedents, there was predictably some outrage from Miles Davis purists, claiming that what Laswell had done was sacrilege. These were the same people who, presumably, were happy to listen to the original In A Silent Way, with its whole section repeated verbatim (or whatever the musical equivalent is) – the last six minutes of the first track “Shhh” are actually the first six minutes of the same track repeated in identical form – the same performance, in fact. (To be fair, only a very few reviewers and listeners noticed this at the time).

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     But there is another reason why the purists are wrong. Laswell did not destroy the originals of In A Silent Way, On The Corner or Get Up With It. Those are still there to enjoy. And in fact, I play the original and Laswell’s versions of In A Silent Way about equally (incidentally, the boxed set of IASW contains two killer unreleased tracks – the blues-soaked Ghetto Walk and Joe Zawinul’s wonderful Early Minor).

The reason I mention this is because today (September 3) sees the release of The Case of The Six Watsons where, like Laswell, I have taken something considered as a sacred text and tinkered around with it. I therefore expect similar opprobrium to rain down on me. For I have taken Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts and inserted some of my own words into them, this creating a collage of my own (although the majority of the text remains ACDs). The idea is to create “new” Holmes/Watson stories from the template of his non-Sherlock shorts which, let’s face it, are widely ignored compared to the 56 that make up the Holmes ‘canon’.

Case of the Six Watsons ebook cover

       Five of the six short stories I used are Conan Doyle stories that were among the hundreds (of variable quality) that he produced in addition the familiar Sherlock Holmes cases. Two of them actually make oblique reference to a famous detective, and in some countries are anthologised with the other 56 short stories (there are also the four novels, of course). The other three stories were the ones I thought could easily be transformed into Holmes tales (in fact, as the title suggests, it is mainly Watson who features in all of them) without disrupting the original text too much. The sixth is an original Watson short story by me, set in Egypt in 1915, when Watson would have been in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So the contents are as follows:

  1. The Beetle Lover. This immediately struck me as one of Conan Doyle’s short stories that most resembled a Holmes tale. It has a mysterious newspaper advertisement (as in ‘The Red-Headed League’), a job opportunity at a country house with some strange provisos (‘The Copper Beeches’) and the original narrator of ‘The Beetle Hunter’ (1898) was indeed a doctor, albeit somewhat younger than Watson. Until now. As with all the stories in this collection, I have changed the title slightly (from “Hunter” to “Lover”) so that there is no chance of confusion with the non-Watson original.
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  1. The Wrong Detective. This is the story that kick-started the whole idea of recasting ACD stories. In my Watson novel A Study in Murder (for which it formed an appendix), this was called ‘The Girl and the Gold Watches’, a slight twist on the original title, ‘The Man with the Gold Watches’. But I wanted to suggest that Holmes appears in this one, hence the new name. Holmes did get a mention in the version published by Conan Doyle in 1898, as an anonymous ‘well-known criminal investigator’ who offers some of the explanations that Holmes uses here.
  1. The Brazilian Wife. At its core this is an ACD story called ‘The Brazilian Cat’, originally published in 1908. My retelling is set during the Great Hiatus, when Holmes was assumed to have perished with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. I have inserted various events and references from ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, the two short stories that bracket the Great Detective’s absence. This version sees Watson doubly bereft, with both Holmes and Mary Morstan gone from his life. Is it any wonder he acts irrationally?

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  4. The Prisoner in B.24. Originally written in 1899 (under the title B.24) in the form of a  submission to the court of appeal, with no clear outcome. I have substituted Dr Watson for the court and given it a new ending.

5. The Missing Special. There are some anthologies of the Holmes stories, especially in translation,that include ‘The Lost Special’ (as it was originally called) in the ‘canon’ (or as apocrypha), becasue the celebrated detective who writes to The Times is clearly Sherlock. His identity is betrayed by he opening sentence of his letter – it is a classic Holmes maxim. So I have re-jigged this story to give the Great Detective and Dr Watson a more central role. Plus in the original (published in1898) there is a reference to a villainous Englishman at work, so I have taken the liberty of identifying him.

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6. The Broken Crocodile. Having played fast and loose with some of Conan Doyle’s work, I thought it about time I gave myself a taste of my own medicine. This ‘samples’ a section of a novel I wrote about TE Lawrence (of Arabia) called Empire of Sand. The setting is from that book, but the mystery of the broken bowl is entirely new, although those who have read Dead Man’s Land – the first in the Dr Watson at War series – will recognise a character in the opening scene. It is set in the spring of 1915.

For a limited period these six stories are available to download for free as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle store.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Case-Watsons-Robert-Ryan-ebook/dp/B00VBY4H1W

And if you don’t approve, then I shall invoke the Laswell Defence, in that the original ACD stories are readily available, unsullied by me or anybody else, in the collections Tales of Unease and Round The Fire Stories.

THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOCKED ROOM

On September 3rd Simon & Schuster will publish The Case of the Six Watsons (see http://tinyurl.com/pcouonn) as a free Kindle book. In it are five variations of non-canonical Arthur Conan Doyle Stories (such as The Lost Special), re-cast to include Holmes and (mainly) Watson. The sixth tale is entirely new and set in Cairo in 1915.

51wJMmWonbL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-56,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_

But there is a seventh story, based on The Adventure of the Sealed Room by ACD. I did not include it in the anthology because I thought Watson (and the original narrator) too passive. He merely observes, rather than deduces. Nevertheless, it is quite a fun tale and I am including a PDF below for anyone interested in the style of the Six Watsons. The illustrations are by Claude A Shepperson.

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

The re-imagined story begins…

THE LOCKED ROOM
A widower doctor of active habits with a busy practice must take what exercise he can in the evenings. Hence it was that I was in the habit of indulging in very long nocturnal excursions from my rooms in Mortimer Street, up towards Regent’s Park and, on occasion, to Baker Street itself. This was during those years when my friend was missing, thought dead, and that street and our old address always brought on an attack of melancholia. So, where possible, to preserve my sanity, I stayed to the east of the park. It was in the course of one of these rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so embarked upon what has been the most extraordinary adventure of those lost years which many now call The Great Hiatus.

Read On:

THE LOCKED ROOM

SPY STORY

I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.  

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The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.

*

Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’  – plenty of MI6 men used it and  it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.

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Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.

[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]

Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.

STAR TURN

STAR TURN

One of my finest sources of background information when researching my WW2 books (especially Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day)  was John Debenham-Taylor who, over the years, has become a friend. This week I learned that he has just been awarded a medal, 75 years after the event. In fact, he now has two medals gained during the war and two awarded afterwards. Both of the post-war medals concern the Winter War in Finland when, in November 1939, Russia invaded.

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The Arctic Star

 This conflict is little remembered now in this country, but at the time (during the so-called ‘Phony War’) it was front-page news. Martha Gellhorn sent brilliant dispatches from a bombed Helsinki. An International Brigade, of the sort that fought in the Spanish Civil War, was raised across Europe, with some 12,000 volunteers, including the recently deceased Christopher Lee. Around 50 of these died, a low figure because the Finns (probably wisely) kept most of them from the front line. The Finns were fighting a new kind of war – hopelessly outnumbered, they opted for guerilla tactics. They were the first to mass-produce Molotov cocktails for use against tanks and their lethal, well-camouflaged skiers/snipers became a source of fear among Russian troops. Farmer and hunter Simo “Simuna” Häyhä, known as ‘White Death’ because of his snow camouflage suit, killed more than 500 Red Army Troops with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.

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The British tried to help. It secretly sent obsolete WW1 guns to Finland, although there were no instruction manuals. Which is where John Debenham-Taylor, who was with the Royal Artillery, came in. I already knew his story but digging a little deeper I found an obit of a British pilot who had ferried Blenheim bombers, donated by the British, to the country and had been awarded the Talvisodan muistomitali (the Winter War commemorative medal). Surely John deserved recognition for his service there? So I wrote to the Finnish Embassy:

John was just 19 and was a very good gunner of ‘instructor quality’ and a 2nd Lt. When asked if he would volunteer to help ‘a friendly nation’ under attack (he guessed Finland) he volunteered and along with seven others he was taken out of uniform and sent to Finland in civilian clothes via Sweden.

       He stayed there for months, writing manuals for the guns that SOE had smuggled up (mainly 3 inch anti-aircraft guns). Then, with the diplomatic bag consisting of a briefcase plus great crates of Russian guns and bombs for the British to analyse, he went north to the Artic circle and caught a trawler back to Liverpool

       The whole story is quite an adventure, and although he did not fight, his commitment to the Finns and his love of them and his time in Helsinki and the countryside shines through to this day. (He even introduced one fellow officer to his future Finnish wife). Because it was a secret mission and because he later became a full-blown SOE operative the story never came out. He believes that, as he was the youngest of the group, he is the sole survivor.”

The Finns acted with admirable speed. A new Winter War medal was struck and John was invited to the London Embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché.

Winter War medal

Winter War medal

But the story didn’t end there. John’s son-in-law discovered that anyone who had served north of the Arctic Circle was entitled to the Artic Star. John had commandeered that trawler, loaded with captured weapons, and sailed in it from the far north of Finland. He even passed Norway while it was being invaded by the Germans. I asked if he had witnessed any of it and, as laconic as ever, he said: ‘Actually, no. I was below. I was suffering from terrible constipation – living on reindeer for six months rather blocks you up, or so I found.’

And so, last week, the Arctic Star arrived through the post, almost 75 years to the day after that escape from Finland. Well deserved, and better late (John is 95 this year) than never.

THE CASE OF THE NEW WATSONS

Coming in September, a free Kindle anthology of six “new” stories featuring Dr Watson. In writing these I have drawn upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Holmess short stories, as I did in the tale that concluded A Study in Murder. There is also a seventh story, which didn’t make the cut, called The Locked Room (based on ACD’s The Sealed Room). It will probably appear here sometime soon. Meanwhile, the cover of the new collection looks like this.51wJMmWonbL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-56,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_

CANON FODDER: A “NEW” SHERLOCK HOLMES STORY

In the newly released Dr Watson Book 3, A Study in Murder, the poor doctor is incarcerated in the most feared POW camp in Germany. During his incarceration, he is asked to contribute to the camp magazine. During the process of writing the book, I decided that snippets of the story he creates should be interspersed throughout the novel. But which Holmes story to choose? Even casual fans are familiar with the Sherlock canon, so I decided against incorporating one of the 56 oft-told tales. I could have created a pastiche in the style of Conan Doyle, but I have always tried to avoid that pitfall (it is not as easy as it seems at first glance). My Watson books are, after all, styled after the simpler third-person narration of His Last Bow.

 

Illustration from The Lost Special in The Strand magazine

Illustration by Max Cowper for The Lost Special in The Strand magazine

In the end I decided to look beyond the canon and at the short stories which function as Apocrypha to the main body of work, where an unnamed ” amateur reasoner of some celebrity” appears. The stories are The Man With The Watches and The Lost Special, both of which appeared in The Strand Magazine and are sometimes included in collections of Sherlock Holmes stories compiled outside the UK (most French compendia include them). If I were to adapt one of those, I thought, using as much of Conan Doyle’s language as possible, I might have something that was only part pastiche – a New/Old Sherlock Holmes tale, unfamiliar to most readers.

Illustration by Frank Craig for The Man With The Watches from The Strand Magazine.

Illustration by Frank Craig for The Man With The Watches from The Strand Magazine.

So, I set about taking The Man With The Watches and turning it into a full-blown Sherlock Holmes story, albeit one where (as in A Study in Scarlet) much of the action takes place away from Baker St. Although I used only excerpts in the body of the the novel, the entire exercise is printed as an appendix in A Study in Murder. Conan Doyle’s story begins:

“There are many who will still bear in mind the singular circumstances which, under the heading of the Rugby Mystery, filled many columns of the daily Press in the spring of the year 1892. Coming as it did at a period of exceptional dullness, it attracted perhaps rather more attention than it deserved, but it offered to the public that mixture of the whimsical and the tragic which is most stimulating to the popular imagination. Interest drooped, however, when, after weeks of fruitless investigation, it was found that no final explanation of the facts was forthcoming, and the tragedy seemed from that time to the present to have finally taken its place in the dark catalogue of inexplicable and unexpiated crimes.”

One of the first things I had to do was change the date, for The Final Problem, in which Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, was set in 1891. This was the beginning of the ‘Great Hiatus’, the years when Watson thought Holmes dead. I also borrowed some lines from other Sherlock stories to set the scene.

“It was April 1890 (and not 1892 as some accounts would have it), as the debilitating bone chill of a lengthy winter had finally begun to relax its grip on the metropolis, when my friend Sherlock Holmes turned his attention to what the daily press were the calling The Rugby Mystery and some others The Girl and the Gold Watches. Holmes had recently completed his investigation into a most gruesome business, involving jealousy and murder. The solution to the case had put him in a rather sombre mood. ‘What is the meaning of it, Watson?’ he had exclaimed, not for the first time. Peering into the darkest corners of the human soul often caused him to recoil in revulsion at the depravity of his fellow man. ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever?’

Illustration for The Man With The Watches by Frank Craig.

Illustration for The Man With The Watches by Frank Craig.

That resultant brown study, a cloud of melancholia that wrapped itself around him like a winter fog, persisted for some weeks, to the point where I feared he might reach for solace once more in the seven per cent solution. I sought permission – freely granted – from my wife to move back to our rooms in Baker Street that I might keep an eye on him until the black dog was driven away. And sure enough, as the thermometer rose on a certain bright Monday morning, Holmes stirred himself from his regular position, curled on the sofa with a newspaper, and began to pace the floor of our Baker Street lodgings, a practice I knew sometimes drove Mrs Hudson on the floor below us to distraction, for it could last many hours.
I lowered my own newspaper – I was studying an article about the recent rash of card-sharping incidents across the city and the methods the fraudsters preferred – and peered at him. He looked like a freshly coiled spring and something burned in his eyes. I knew that look of old and it warmed my heart. ‘Yes, Watson, you are thinking that my hibernation is at an end.’
I felt a surge of relief course through me. ‘You don’t have to be the world’s only Consulting Detective to deduce that, Holmes.’
‘Quite so. But, as your faculties are in such good order, you’ll be well aware that we are about to have a visitor.’”

The visitor then proceeds to narrate the story (essentially a ‘locked room’ mystery set on a train) and the narrative follows Arthur Conan Doyle as closely as I could manage, using as many of his own words as possible. It is hoped my publishers Simon & Schuster will put the entire thing online as an e-story sometime this year.

A Study in Murder is out in hardback now.