March 11 is a significant date in my world – not least because it’s my wedding anniversary, but it also marks the birth of one of the most important British crime writers of the last 15 years, Jake Arnott.
Today Arnott turns 54, and I can still remember the buzz I felt when reading his 1999 debut novel The Long Firm that sparked a magnificent – and much-needed – revival in quality, thought-provoking British crime fiction.
Arnott was never going to be a writer who would provide us with another clichéd, world-weary detective that would run on and on for years in cosy annual instalments. And boy we were tired of those. No, The Long Firm was a rousing one-off (just like his other five books since), exploring the tale of charismatic, homosexual nightclub owner and racketeer Harry Starks through the eyes of five people that knew him in 1960s London.
Those five different points of view gave us a finely executed deep character analysis of Starks, all woven within a subjective, forceful, tender and ultimately convincing narrative. Those perspectives came from a young boyfriend of Starks, a female singer and love rival, an old-school backbencher in the House of Lords, a wayward criminal on the edge of darkness, and finally a sociologist in the 1970s, giving the overall story a diverse, grand scope.
The characterisation was sublime, as was the period detail (it included perceptive references to some real-life personalities of the time including Judy Garland and the Kray twins), Arnott excavating the cultural minutiae of the era to give us an evocative feel for the bleaker side of the swinging sixties.
But it was The Long Firm’s magnetic, lyrical prose that made the novel stand out, that took the gritty British gangster genre to a higher level, blending a gripping storyline with genuine splashes of literary fiction. Good literary fiction, that is. Worthy, skilful fiction spawned from the soul and aimed at the heart.
Crime fiction was no longer just about a haggard, vulnerable cop having several stones thrown at him by professional enemies and being weighed down by personal demons before bravely exposing – and defeating – the arrogant criminal. No longer about conventional plot-led tales (albeit well-written and tension-fuelled ones) constructed to be read on long flights.
The literary ambition of The Long Firm served as a groundbreaking text for both writers and readers, possibly even agents and publishers as well. It gave writers who wanted to explore a world beyond another Rebus or a serial killer the chance to reach that brave new territory, that higher plane where character and prose – in terms of length and style – could be the preserve of their imagination, and engineered to however their particular story demanded. Not bound by the industry guidelines and perceptions of what sells and what doesn’t.
Not that those guidelines aren’t valuable (any industry needs to rely on past buying habits to build for the future), but the timing of Jake Arnott’s breakthrough was important. It allowed writers that followed the opportunity to forge their own creative path, to trust their own instincts and senses, and encouraged agents and publishers to take a chance on more decadent, quirky crime fiction that didn’t necessarily fit into a style and format they were previously committed to.
After The Long Firm we saw a wave of idiosyncratic British and Irish crime writers – authors who dedicated themselves to crafting and maintaining a powerful writing style faithful to their own tastes and desires – break through. The likes of Adrian McKinty, David Peace, Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie, Stav Sherez, Simon Lelic and Neil Forsyth all launched successful careers, while authors such as Ken Bruen, Nicholas Royle, Peter Guttridge and Gene Kerrigan achieved higher recognition. The range of contemporary crime writing had expanded way beyond the formulaic detective mystery – existential noir, irony, humour, ferocity, fact-fiction intrigue and horror all stood loud and proud as major pulse points within this fascinating genre.
Arnott’s second book, He Kills Coppers, was released in 2001 and carried much of the intimate verve and sensual swagger we saw in The Long Firm. Based on one of Britain’s most infamous true crimes, the 1966 murders of three Met police officers in Shepherd’s Bush (the name of the real killer, Harry Roberts, was changed to Billy Porter), He Kills Coppers was a huge critical and commercial success and paved the way for Arnott to carve a successful career that has been carried out largely at his own pace and to his own liking.
Not one to put himself under undue pressure by signing a contract that committed him to churning out a new release every year, his third book, True Crime, came out in 2003, telling the story of a dead gangster’s daughter seeking the truth surrounding her father’s murder (linked to The Long Firm). Arnott left the criminal underworld behind in Johnny Come Home (2006) to write about a 1970s glam rock star and the anarchist group ‘The Angry Brigade’, and shifted focus even further with The Devil’s Paintbrush (2009), detailing a 1903 encounter in Paris between the occultist Aleister Crowley and former British Army officer Sir Hector MacDonald, under threat of court martial following allegations of homosexuality, on the eve of the soldier’s suicide.
In 2012 Arnott released The House of Rumour, a conspiracy tale involving WWII spies (featuring Ian Fleming), science fiction writers in 1950s California and the new wave music scene in 1980s Britain. Again the mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters resulted in a dazzling, if sometimes baffling, effect in a book that was hailed as a time-spinning, genre-fusing, continent-hopping classic.
Who knows what’s next, but one thing is for sure – Jake Arnott is an author who has made full use of his intellect and passions to skilfully explore the themes of masculinity, class, sexuality, ambition and repression. And through his gifts for characterisation and innovative prose, he has given us some smart, enjoyable literature that proved forceful and eloquent writing can merge as one.
The reading public always passes the ultimate judgement on a book, so I thought I’d highlight some of the comments left by readers on the Amazon review page of my debut novel, Chasing the Game.
For those of you who would like to see how the book was received by literary critics, please click here to see what media reviewers and established crime fiction bloggers thought of Chasing the Game.
But here are some quick snippets from a selection of verdicts from those all important readers…
“Fantastic 1960s detail . . . can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a debut novel more.
Too many gangster books can slip into caricature, but the highest praise I can give is that so much of the authentic period detail and Gadsby’s sharp dialogue evoked memories of when I discovered Jake Arnott’s series of books more than a decade ago.
It would be interesting if it could be dramatized for the 50th anniversary of the theft in 2016.”
“What a fantastic book . . . The amount of research put in is immense, to nearly every detail. 60s gangsters and the rest of the trimmings, but with a clarity to the story, and writing. I can’t recommend it enough.”
“The characters’ personalities all come alive and keep you guessing at what their fate will be. The story moves along at a good pace and makes the book difficult to put down. This is not just for the guys.”
“Compelling, original and eminently readable. The story skilfully merges fiction and the real life events surrounding the actual theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966. This is a fast paced mystery with an atmospheric setting that succeeds in depositing the reader into the vibrant, rapidly changing London of the 1960s. The book will appeal to all mystery and crime aficionados.”
“I loved this book. It’s a real page turner. Beautifully plotted, with lots of twists and turns. The characters are very well drawn. The dialogue crackles and fizzes. The mixture of tension, humour and, at times, almost farce is really deftly judged and pulled off. Highly recommended!”
“A great read, couldn’t put it down. As I was in my late teens at the time of the ‘66 World Cup and the theft of the World Cup is still vividly etched in my memory. Paul’s account of the theft and subsequent recovery of the iconic trophy, whilst fictional, is very plausible given the gangland culture that existed in East and South London at that time. Brought back to life those black and photos that graced the tabloids the day after Pickles discovered the package in the hedge of that front garden. A brilliant first offering from a talented writer.”
“Well worth a read! Full of well researched detail, and the twists in the story keep you gripped until the very end. It’s not just a book about a football trophy, it’s so much more and I would highly recommend it to everyone.”
“Fantastic book, I couldn’t put it down. Well written and researched and a great twist in the book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Hope it’s not too long before the next one!”
“Paul Gadsby has created a very authentic 60s London and a crime firm that feels as though it really could exist. You will want the main character to succeed, despite being a criminal! And it ties in very well to real life events. A brilliant read.”
“A very plausible storyline depicting a historical moment of British history.
A fantastic read. Not only a very imaginative depiction of what could have happened when the World Cup was stolen but also an excellent underlying story of a criminal firm led by Dale. I was really impressed with how I could empathise with each of the characters in their own right.
This would make an excellent television drama which I feel would appeal to not only football fans but a wider audience.”
The short story is often regarded as an under-appreciated art form. The mainstream publishers have habitually baulked at supporting them in the face of sales figures that compare unfavourably with those of traditional length novels. This has often led authors, particularly crime and mystery ones, to only pen short stories on commission rather than write them out of pure creative enjoyment.
But that hasn’t stopped many of them rising to the challenge of expressing themselves through brevity. Creating a snappy, compelling tale with fascinating characters and quickly weaving it all into a striking conclusion that stays with the reader is no mean feat, and deserves high praise. But some excellent short stories have received more recognition than others, so this feature is to champion my favourite short pieces of fiction that have been underrated – or even criminally neglected – over the years.
The Five Orange Pips, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Many of Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories have of course received glowing acclaim and been adapted in some way for the screen. The likes of ‘The Speckled Band’, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Final Problem’ top many people’s favourite lists, but for me ‘The Five Orange Pips’ has always been left, undeservedly so, in the shade.
First published in The Strand magazine in 1891, this is an off-beat tale laced with fascinating elements. The case – or bizarre mystery – is presented by the client, John Openshaw, who has just received a letter with ‘K.K.K’ scrawled on the inner flap of the envelope and five orange pips enclosed. His father received a similar letter three years previously, as did his uncle five years ago. Each of them died in a suspicious accident a few days after receiving the pips. The day after visiting 221b Baker Street to see Holmes, a newspaper report reveals that Openshaw himself has been found dead in the River Thames. Shaken by the death, an emotional Holmes tells Watson: “I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.”
The showcasing of Holmes’ deductive skills that follow is particularly divine, and the ending is wonderfully elegant. Interestingly, this is one of only two Holmes short stories where the detective’s client dies. The 1945 film Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear was partly based on ‘The Five Orange Pips’ while a 2014 episode of the TV show Elementary took some facets of the story.
The Birds Poised to Fly, by Patricia Highsmith
A story of a deranged man whose disappointment in love sparks an irrational reaction that leads to a cruel deception, this is Highsmith at her neurotic best.
Obsessed with dark subject matter throughout her writing career, this story was heavily inspired by a painful moment in Highsmith’s own love life. After engaging in a blissful affair with English doctor Kathryn Cohen during a holiday in Italy in the summer of 1949, Highsmith returned to New York and wrote to her. Each day she awaited a reply from Kathryn that didn’t come, suffering inner torment.
In ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’, Don returns from a holiday romance smitten with Rosalind and writes to her proposing marriage. When she doesn’t respond he convinces himself that her letter was delivered to his neighbour by mistake. He breaks into his neighbour’s mailbox, finds a letter written to him by a lovesick woman called Edith. Don assumes his neighbour’s identity and replies to Edith, arranging to meet her at Grand Central station. Eventually Rosalind replies, refusing Don’s marriage offer. A dejected Don still goes to Grand Central to meet Edith. “The story is so much K and myself” Highsmith later wrote in her diary.
It wasn’t published until 1968, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, before being released as part of Highsmith’s short story collection, Eleven.
The Living Daylights, by Ian Fleming
James Bond is captured in a rare morose mood during this dark, counter-espionage tale that was first published in The Sunday Times supplement of 4 February 1962. Assigned to prevent a prolific KGB sniper – codenamed ‘Trigger’ – from killing a fellow British agent who’s due to make a street crossing between East and West Berlin, Bond waits patiently at his hiding post for three days and nights, contemplating his mission to take out the KGB assassin. A killer killing a killer.
Fleming delves into a corner of Bond’s psyche we’d never quite seen before as he broods over the concept of committing a cold, calculated murder (with no high-octane build-up), something he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Each night he sees an orchestra arriving and leaving a building opposite for practice, a beautiful blonde cellist among them. When the agent is finally ready to cross over to Bond’s side of the street, Bond peers through his rifle scope to see the Russian sniper take up position in the building opposite. ‘Trigger’ is the blonde cellist. Faced with an instant decision and his finger on the trigger, Bond switches aim, shoots the stock of her sub-machine-gun, wounding her hand.
The relieved agent makes it back into MI6 hands safe and sound, but Bond gets an earful from top brass for failing to execute the kill. Bond is always at his most compelling through the theme of disobedience, and Fleming exploits that beautifully in this short work.
ICU, by Dennis Lehane
Intrigue lays at the heart of this tale, which formed part of Lehane’s collection of short stories titled Coronado, released in 2006.
Tension is present from the off when the protagonist, Daniel, is told by a woman regular in his local bar that a couple of guys were in earlier asking after him. Wearing smart suits and ties. A worried Daniel visits his ex-wife, who describes the same guys stopping by earlier looking for him. The mysterious well-dressed men (possibly federal agents, although it’s never revealed) are soon pursuing Daniel in a car chase. He takes refuge in the grounds of a large hospital, shifting from one specialist area to another before settling in the vast ICU unit.
Daniel, seemingly ignorant of his offence, remains in hiding there, becoming acquainted with family members of critically ill patients in the waiting room, and pretending to be a relative of one himself. His world is now one of helplessness, quiet anticipation and confinement.
Lehane’s exquisite turn of phrase and tight prose comes to the fore here, unravelling the character at his own pace and always keeping the reader guessing – not to mention engrossed. The story, more than a passing nod to Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, depicts one man’s journey to grasping the concepts of empathy and humanity, but without making any moral judgements. A fascinating read.
The Killers, by Ernest Hemingway
This 1927 story is an immaculate piece of writing but, perhaps due to its style (minimalist to the core, there is hardly any plot), never attracted as much praise as some of Hemingway’s more famous short pieces such as ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
Two hit men walk into an Illinois diner looking for Swedish boxer Ole Anderson, who they plan to kill ‘for a friend’. The duo tie up the proprietor, George, the cook, Sam, and the lunchroom’s only customer, Nick Adams (a recurring character in Hemingway’s short fiction), and wait for Anderson, who they’re expecting to walk in. But he doesn’t show up and the frustrated duo leave.
George knows the boarding house Anderson is staying at and sends Nick over there to warn him. When told about what happened, Anderson is resigned to his fate and tells Nick there is nothing to be done.
Having spent his younger years in Chicago during Al Capone’s rise to power, Hemingway had a strong knowledge of prohibition-era organised crime and weaves this understated story with an authoritative voice and from a marvellously objective viewpoint.
Duffers of the Apocalypse, by Victor Gischler
Part of the 2006 Damn Near Dead anthology, a collection of invigorating short stories based around senior-aged criminals, this story is dripping with smart, black humour.
Set on a golf course in the grounds of an Oklahoma retirement community (“the land of broken hips and strokes and backs thrown way, way out”), three old timers, narrator Roscoe Carter and friends Tony DeLuca and Pete Dexter, are having a round. A wayward tee shot from Tony strikes a course groundskeeper in the skull, killing him as he’d been raking a bunker. Tony, hinting that he has a bad history with cops, convinces Roscoe and Pete to help bury the guy in the sand.
Roscoe, a retired army veteran who’s just been told he has four months to live with stomach cancer, wants to spend his remaining time playing golf, not seeing the course closed down as a crime scene.
News of a major fire sweeping through the state towards them causes many of the panicked residents to flee, but Roscoe has no relatives who’ll take him in and is in no mood to go anywhere. “All I had was a set of Ping irons and a tee time.” He gets in his cart, takes to the course, flames swirling in, smoke burning his eyes, the course record for the over-65s the only thing on his mind. Gischler’s riveting prose makes this a darkly perverse, hilarious yarn.
The Shooter, by Irvine Welsh
The first entry in Welsh’s 1994 short story collection, The Acid House, this taut, stark thriller set in Hackney is a classic example of what makes a gripping short story.
An underlying sense of unease is present throughout as the narrator Jock sits through an uncomfortable meal with his bad-tempered mate Gary, his wife Marge and their young daughter. Later, Gary, recently out of prison for theft, and Jock talk through a plan to scare Tony Whitworth, who owes them two grand. They agree to pay Whitworth a visit that night. Jock turns up with a baseball bat, Gary brings a sawn-off shotgun.
Gradually that sense of unease turns into outright menace as Welsh skilfully cranks up the tension, the anxiety and curiosity peaking within the reader, until laying out a shocking and valiant ending where everything is at stake.[Top]
A crime novelist, poet and musician, Sallis, younger brother of philosopher John Sallis, cultivated a reputation as an influential writer in the 1990s with his Lew Griffin series of books set in New Orleans. But it was his 2005 neo-noir thriller Drive that catapulted him to global literary acclaim and was adapted into a 2011 film of the same name, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks.
Sallis’ inimitable talent comes from a precious devotion to his craft. For many years he has combined his own work with teaching novel writing at Phoenix College in Arizona, while he also keeps his creative juices flowing by playing with his string band, Three-Legged Dog, his instruments of choice including the guitar, French horn, fiddle, mandolin, sitar and ukelele.
His work first came to my attention courtesy of the terrific support he has received from astute British indie publisher No Exit Press, who published his ex-con-turned-cop John Turner series as well as his Griffin books, a spy novel Death Will Have Your Eyes, along with Drive and the sequel to that classic, Driven.
Often referred to as ‘a crime writer’s crime writer’, Sallis is admired for his Hemingway-esque economy of language and the emotional depth of the fictional worlds he creates, amplified through the engaging philosophical outlook of many of his characters.
His back catalogue deserves to be swamped with praise, but it’s Drive that I’d like to focus on here. A gripping story of a young man abandoned from an early age and searching for an identity, he utilises his one passion – driving (the character is only ever referred to as ‘The Driver) to become a prolific Hollywood stunt driver by day and a wily getaway driver for the LA criminal underworld by night.
Paying homage to the successful style conventions of the noir genre, Sallis uses just 157 pages to pen a work dripping with existential minimalism, taut plotting, brutal hostility and sharp-witted dialogue, the actions of the intensely conflicted characters driven by the heart and a longing for their sense of place in the world.
One tool that Sallis maximises in a unique way is backstory. Interspersed at relevant points throughout the book, pieces of The Driver’s past are delicately presented to the reader in a way that skilfully hooks the reader in. Some of these passages aren’t as terse as you’d expect in a noir novel, but Sallis’ ability to always cut straight to the heart of the matter means you don’t feel like you’re being dragged away from the central narrative.
Although the book has its violent outbursts, none of this is graphic. The rich, flowing narrative, reminiscent of 50s noir but also laced with a 70s cult movie feel, keeps the pages turning. And despite the sharp detail offered in the flashbacks, The Driver remains a mysterious protagonist – like the book itself he is compelling, stark and beautiful.
‘I find Driver fascinating,’ Sallis once told GQ. ‘I wanted to make him this iconic, almost mythic American character . . . he accepts that the violence is who he is, what he does and he learns to embrace that.’
For me Drive remains James Sallis’ finest work; quaintly witty and utterly readable, it’s a literary masterpiece that elevates Sallis into the ranks of noir legends such as Jim Thompson, Graham Greene, James M Cain, Cormac McCarthy and even the Coen brothers.
As Sallis himself wrote in his essay, Standing by Death: ‘The deepest, most engaging and damaging moments of my life become notes, then pages and, finally, books. This is the purpose my life has taken. Maybe in the end it’s only that I want to leave a mark, something to show that I’ve been here.’[Top]
Both the paperback and ebook versions of the book have seen a sharp increase in sales, with people seeing the book as an ideal stocking filler Christmas gift.
It beats toiletries or a naff pair of socks, anyway.
Chasing the Game is a unique fictional depiction of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy (the original football World Cup) in London in 1966, a crime which remains unsolved. To read more about the book and the true-life crime that sparked its narrative, please click here.[Top]
As a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, I’ve always been fascinated as much by the novels that inspired his directorial work as I have his famed skills for generating treasured moments of cinematic suspense.
With that in mind, I have compiled my favourite – and what I consider the most accomplished – novels that Hitchcock later used as a basis to make a film. For the sake of sincerity, I’ve included some of the bigger-name titles that Hitchcock became best known for and just can’t be ignored, but I’ve also dug a little deeper to highlight some more unfamiliar works that deserve a mention.
10. Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square
Written by journalist and crime reporter Arthur La Bern in 1966, this relentless novel was used by Hitchcock as the basis for his 1972 classic Frenzy.
The book tells the story of Bob Rusk, a sexual predator and serial killer in central London, but circumstantial evidence leads the police to prosecuting Rusk’s friend, Dick Blamey, for the string of crimes known as ‘the necktie murders’. Always partial to a tale of an innocent man getting stitched up, it’s easy to see what attracted Hitchcock to the story.
The movie represented an important chapter in the director’s legacy, seen as a triumphant return to Britain in what was his first film set there for more than 20 years (and only this third made in Blighty since moving to Hollywood in 1939). It also ended up being the penultimate film of Hitchcock’s career.
He asked Anthony Shaffer to adapt it for the screen, and there were some significant changes made from the book’s narrative. The light-hearted domestic scenes between the meticulous Inspector Oxford and his wife were entirely new creations (presumably Hitchcock wanted them to serve as a change of pace and tone from the brutality of the murders). The film was set in the era it was made – the early 1970s – while the novel takes place shortly after the Second World War (hence the title, taken from a line in the song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’) and Blamey has an interesting backstory ignored in the film. In the novel he is a Royal Air Force veteran who feels guilty about his active role in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and his drunken references to his ‘killing’ past when first being interrogated by police about the necktie murders contributes to his unjust arrest.
La Bern was not a fan of what Hitchcock and Shaffer did with his story. In a letter to The Times, he called Frenzy a ‘distasteful film’, criticising the dialogue as ‘farce’ and adding: ‘I would like to ask Mr Hitchcock and Mr Shaffer what happened between book and script to the authentic London characters I created. Finally: I wish to dissociate myself with Mr Shaffer’s grotesque misrepresentation of Scotland Yard offices’.
9. The Manxman
One of writer Hall Caine’s greatest successes, this 1894 novel sold more than half a million copies and was translated into 12 languages.
Set on the Isle of Man, the book depicts a powerful love triangle between Kate Cregeen and her two friends, the illiterate but good-hearted Peter Quilliam, and the well-educated and sophisticated Philip Christian.
Notable for its regular use of Manx dialect unique to the Isle of Man, faithfully executed by Caine through unusual Manx Gaelic spellings, grammatical structure and phrases, the book received widespread critical acclaim, especially from high society. Britain’s Prime Minister of the day, Lord Rosebury, said: ‘It will rank with the great works of English literature’.
The novel was adapted twice for the stage and turned into a silent film by George Tucker in 1917 before Hitchcock developed it into his final silent movie in 1929.
Filmed almost entirely in the small Cornwall fishing village of Polperro, Hitchcock’s version was highly praised, his gripping portrayal of the love triangle emitting some of his most emotive characterisation and strongest imagery to date. Which is more than what the man himself thought of this work. Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut it was ‘a very banal picture’, adding the ‘only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one.’
8. The Thirty-Nine Steps
Now we’re on to one of the big hitters. This high-octane, pacey novel with its lethally sharp prose reads as smoothly as any sparse, contemporary thriller – Christ knows how rapid it must have felt on its release in 1915.
By far the most famous novel by Scottish author John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print since. It was in fact Buchan’s 17th published book, and catapulted him from a promising 39-year-old writer into a best-selling author of highly-acclaimed thrillers and adventures over the following two decades.
Despite the book perhaps being most remembered for its glorious evocation of the rolling Scottish countryside, of its 10 chapters only three and a half are actually set in Scotland. Main protagonist Richard Hannay (wonderfully played by Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation) offered the reading public in the first year of WW1 something relatively fresh; a physically dynamic anti-hero, cool and brave with the intellectual and emotional prowess that enabled him to turn detective under pressure (skills that earned him a leading role in four further Buchan books) while still maintaining a stiff upper lip.
Although the book was a pioneer of the ‘man-on-the-run’ archetypal thriller that would become a much-used plot device, Buchan’s enthusiasm for inserting unlikely events into the plot that the reader would only just be able to believe does give the book a somewhat fantastical edge, but it’s a barnstorming read nonetheless.
Hitchcock’s film does divert somewhat from the book, creating the music hall scene and the two major female characters for cinematic effect. In the book the 39 steps refer to literally that, while in the movie the 39 steps is a clandestine group of spies.
7. The Lodger
Prolific London-born novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes is said to have gotten the idea for this story after overhearing a dinner conversation where a guest was telling another that his mother’s butler claimed to have once rented a room to Jack the Ripper. That was the spark that eventually led in 1913 to her releasing The Lodger, a fictional take on the gruesome Whitechapel murders of 1888. It sold more than a million copies.
The style of the story is pure Hitchcock – the horror builds slowly and skilfully as landlords Richard and Ellen Bunting gradually begin to fear that a recent lodger they’ve taken on upstairs in their home, a Mr Sleuth, could be the mysterious killer of several local women.
Using the story, as well as the play ‘Who is He?’, a comic stage adaption of the novel co-written by Belloc Lowndes and playwright Horace Annesley Vachell, Hitchcock delivered one of his finest silent movies in 1927, titled ‘The Lodger: A story of the London Fog’. Oozing with psychological suspense, menacing camera angles and claustrophobic lighting, the film was also Hitchcock’s first foray into sexual fetishism and psychodrama.
Interestingly, Hitchcock wanted the film to end with ambiguity over whether the lodger was the serial killer, but he later claimed the studio, Gainsborough, wouldn’t let popular leading man Ivor Novello be considered as a villain. ‘We had to change the script to show that without a doubt he was innocent,’ Hitchcock said.
6. Before the Fact
Written in 1932 by Anthony Berkeley, under the pen name Francis Iles, this bold novel was adapted by Hitchcock into his 1941 film Suspicion.
Far from penning a popular whodunit, Berkeley ensured the readers of Before the Fact knew who the villain was pretty early on. Johnnie Aysgarth has married Lina McLaidlaw for her family’s money. Over the years that follow Lina gradually learns that Johnnie is a compulsive liar, thief, embezzler, adulterer and in fact plans to murder her. At the end of the novel, which has spanned 10 years, Lina, flu-stricken and mentally unhinged but still desperately in love with her husband, swallows a cocktail she knows Johnnie has poisoned. Her death is imminent, but not conclusive, when the book ends.
Hitchcock’s film covers much of this dark and suspenseful mood, but differs from the book in that Johnnie’s ‘murderous’ intentions are portrayed as a product of Lina’s imagination. In a similar predicament to The Lodger, there was also apparent studio interference with the plot ending, with RKO Radio Pictures said to be not all that keen on having one of Hollywood’s most heroic actors, Cary Grant, being shown on screen as a devious killer. Despite not being able to play Lina in the emotionally complex and compelling ending described in the book, Joan Fontaine’s depiction of the character in the film was strong enough to earn her the 1941 Academy Award for Best Actress.
I suppose it’s fair to say the film has eclipsed the novel on this one. Robert Bloch’s 1959 book was an instant hit, influenced from the pulp principles of the day – Psycho is fast-paced, terrifying, captivating and utterly disturbing, all laced with a healthy dose of murder, madness and mayhem.
Hitchcock’s seminal movie of the same name came out just a year later, the speed of the adaption perhaps an indication of how powerful a novel Hitchcock regarded it to be (‘Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book,’ he said, albeit nine years later). It’s one of the director’s most faithful adaptions, the narrative skeleton of the book retained throughout the feature, with suspense, mystery and horror leading the way.
One difference was Hitchcock’s clarity of focus when it came to driving the story through certain characters’ perspectives. Bloch was happy to shift the point of view throughout his narrative; the opening chapter is from Norman’s perspective, the second Mary’s (who was called Marion in the film), the third is split between the two of them, and we’re back in Norman’s head in chapters four and five. Some of the latter chapters are written in the style of neutral third person. Hitch had a clear agenda of who he wanted the audience to bond with; we’re solely with Marion from the start until she meets her maker in the shower; then it’s largely Norman.
In Bloch’s chapters written from Norman’s POV, the writing is exceptional. His blackouts appear so genuine that the reader is compelled to believe that his jealous mother truly is Mary’s killer.
Another example of great, daring literature, Winston Graham’s psychological thriller Marnie is a hugely suspenseful and captivating read.
A prolific author well known for his series of Poldark historical novels, Graham released Marnie in 1961 to great acclaim but also a fair bout of controversy. The title character is a beautiful embezzler (played by Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s 1964 film) whose life of crime was sparked by a traumatic incident in her early childhood that she and the audience only get to truly understand at the end of the story.
After getting caught stealing from her employer, Mark Rutland, who also happens to be in love with her, Marnie is forced into marrying him in order to avoid jail. The marriage evolves into a complex but gripping web of deception, misinterpretations, mistakes and disputes, including a rape scene. Mark feels he loves her and is doing the right thing to get Marnie over her psychological problems; Marnie feels she was blackmailed into the marriage.
As the plot thickens, the book becomes a crime novel less centred around crime but by the mystery of Marnie’s secret past (and that of her mother’s), her core identity, and the complex issues of psychiatry. Written as a first person account by Marnie, the book is a finely-tuned introspective character piece that Hitchcock was fascinated by.
So determined to keep the divisive rape scene in his 1964 movie, Hitchcock dismissed screenwriter Evan Hunter from the project, who pleaded that the sequence be dropped because the audience wouldn’t bond with the male lead (played by Sean Connery). Replacement Jay Presson Allen shared Hitchcock’s keenness to include the scene.
There were some alterations made from the book though; Hitchcock changed the setting from England to the USA, thus losing the quintessential English ambience of the book according to some critics, a key character from the book, a lechy executive who pursues Marnie, is omitted altogether and the unravelling of Marnie’s childhood trauma that became the source of her emotional problems is a lot more simple and optimistic than the darker, more complex version in the novel.
3. The Rainbird Pattern
Plymouth-born thriller writer Victor Canning published 61 books in his lifetime, but one is widely regarded as by far and away his best – The Rainbird Pattern, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1972.
Elderly spinster Grace Rainbird, trying to bring missing elements of her family together before her time is up, promises spirit medium Blanche Tyler a large sum of money to locate her illegitimate nephew Edward Shoebridge. Blanche and her boyfriend, George Lumley, go desperately looking for Edward, who so happens to be living under a different name and co-ordinating several kidnappings of prominent officials, with his next project likely to rake in his largest ever ransom – the abduction of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This split-level story is woven together with deft skill, Canning building the suspense and heightening the violence beautifully before unleashing an unpredictable ending. The plot is so seamless and commanding that it’s fair to say this is a prime example of a book triumphing over a Hitchcock film.
Titled ‘Family Plot’, Hitch’s 1976 movie turned out to be his final motion picture before his death four years later. The setting was switched from the south of England to southern California, and the charismatic features of Blanche and her jack-of-all-trades quirky partner Lumley were magnified so the tone of the film came across as more of a black comedy. Although personally I’ve always thought Family Plot an invigorating and much under-rated film, its reception in no way matched the glowing reviews attributed to The Rainbird Pattern.
When it comes to linking Hitchcock with fiction, Daphne du Maurier is pretty much literature royalty. Her short story ‘The Birds’ went on to provide the basis for one of the director’s most iconic hits, but her glorious 1938 novel Rebecca goes down as a genuine literary masterpiece.
An outstandingly evocative opening sentence (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…), the razor-sharp description of a haunting fictional estate, a compelling combination of lead characters and a fascinating mystery all add up to a classic gothic romance thriller.
‘Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second,’ wrote du Maurier in her notes. ‘Until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.’
Her tale of jealousy, bitterness, identity, mystery and secrets broke the mould of themes being explored by her contemporaries of the day. She sidestepped issues such as war, religion, poverty, art and existentialist streams of consciousness to thread together a more simple narrative about love, adventure and mystery and the reading public lapped it up, its appeal enduring to this day.
Hitchcock did a marvellous job adapting it for the screen in 1940, his first project after moving to America. As well as being technically brilliant (it won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Cinematography) the film largely maintained the emotional drama of the book. There was one plot detail change though; in order to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which outlined that the murder of a spouse had to be punished, the book’s revelation that Max killed Rebecca had to be altered. He considers killing her as she taunts him into believing that she’s pregnant with another man’s child, but she is in fact suffering from incurable cancer and has a motive to commit suicide and punishing Max from beyond the grave, so her death is declared a suicide.
1. Strangers on a Train
Before Patricia Highsmith famously created the anti-hero Tom Ripley, she penned the breathtakingly sharp, taut and dark ‘Strangers on a Train’ in 1950, which remains one of the finest blueprints of noir fiction to this day.
Architect Guy Haines is desperate to divorce his unfaithful wife, Miriam. While on a train he meets coarse alcoholic Charles Anthony Bruno, a sociopath who suggests they ‘exchange murders’. Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy offs Bruno’s father; neither of them will have a motive and the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Guy thinks it’s a joke, but the deranged Bruno moves first and kills Miriam. Panic, guilt, a chaotic game of cat and mouse, and further tragedy all follows.
Highsmith flourishes in drawing the reader in by stacking complications on top of each other as the stakes rise, while the book also serves as a skilful examination of the allure of chance meetings, and of why it seems so much easier for us to unburden ourselves to strangers, to let our guard down in unexpected moments of intimacy.
Hitchcock’s 1951 adaption received deserved praise as a creative force in its own right, but there were flaws. Hitch later admitted to Francois Truffaut that casting Farley Granger as Haines was a mistake (‘I would have liked to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger’). The character of Bruno, meanwhile, was softened into more of a dandy charmer, while he also dies in a climactic scene on a merry-go-round rather than in a boating accident as he does in the book.
The homoerotic subtext – hinted at in the novel – is expressed more vividly in the film, possibly because Hitchcock thrived in subtly developing gay characters in his 1948 feature Rope (also starring Granger), and enjoyed presenting his audiences with sexually ambiguous characters.
Highsmith praised Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno, but wasn’t best pleased with the decision to turn Guy from an architect into a tennis player, nor with the fact that Guy does not, as he does in the novel, go through with murdering Bruno’s father.[Top]
As you can see from my influences page, many of my favourite books are standalone novels, but there are also some works that form part of a series.
Many a literary agent/editor/publisher will tell you that, particularly with crime fiction, long-running serials sell much better than standalones. Beginner writers are continually told by industry insiders that, if they want to break into the market, they stand a much better chance if they pen a manuscript ensuring the main character will return (preferably on many occasions) rather than fashion a one-off tale.
But why is this? Why are the series more appealing to readers and therefore more successful in the marketplace? Here are my thoughts, analysing the pros and cons of both standalones and series.
Standalones – the pros
By their very nature, standalones generally depict a very passionate story. The author has composed the tale based on a burning theme they wanted to pursue, a poignant story they wanted to unravel and a certain message they wanted to transmit to the reader. And they have been free to express that story in any way they see fit, tying up any loose ends (to an ultimate conclusion) if they wish, exploring any theme or location to the very limit, knowing they or their characters will never go down this road again. The shackles aren’t as much off; they were never on in the first place.
Authors can also lead their main protagonist down any dark alley they want to, even if the outcome proves fatal. The reader is on edge because they know that the character they’ve related to and connected with faces any degree of peril. The writer is doing it their way; they are pulling all the strings because they are under no pressure to sustain any part of the story or a character for a future instalment.
The authors are writing with their hearts, holding nothing back. Fire is in the belly as well as the fingertips as they unleash their saga. Whenever a media outlet releases a list of the greatest (or most popular) novels of all time, standalones are always there standing proud. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catch 22, David Copperfield, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Day of the Jackal, The Killer Inside Me, The Great Gatsby, American Psycho, Scoop, Disgrace, Libra, The Road, No Beast so Fierce and many, many more. Works that carry a central emotive core and bare the author’s soul; unbridled creations and unique artefacts.
Standalones – the cons
Imagine if Ian Fleming, having written his heart out on his debut novel Casino Royale, had left James Bond at that point and moved on to another project, 007 confined to history in 1953. Standalone books provide us with great high-stakes tales but there’s the downside that stopping at one story prevents further development of a fascinating character, denying us the prospect of enjoying this protagonist taking on more challenges and allowing us to bond with them further. There’s no doubt that the huge cultural impact certain recurring characters have had on the world (Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe et al) has done wonders for crime fiction and duly rewarded their authors with much deserved adulation.
Another point to consider here is that sometimes a standalone can be too long (Don DeLillo’s Underworld breached into this territory, as did Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon), possibly to the extent that you feel the author probably considered splitting it into a mini-series somewhere along the way but stuck with it anyway. And sometimes the total freedom an author enjoys with a standalone can lead to self-indulgence and a story/theme that winds out of control, but in a trade that depends on huge reserves of creativity and bravery, that’s often a small price to pay.
Series – the pros
Within the context of a series, particularly a long-running one, absorbing characters can be further enriched so they become legends, both literary and cinematic. There is plenty of room in standalones to develop and focus on characterisation (as there is setting and plot) of course, but with a series we just get to spend more time with our heroes, or at least people we’re fascinated by and have formed a connection with.
Another good thing about serials, especially in crime fiction, is that the cream of writing talent often rises to the top; series formats have allowed some magnificent writers to forge thoroughly deserved successful careers. Not many publishers dish out multi-book deals to poor writers. The likes of Patricia Highsmith (Thomas Ripley), Ian Rankin (Rebus), Mark Billingham (Thorne), Ken Bruen (Jack Taylor), James Sallis (Lew Griffin & The Driver), Adrian McKinty (Sean Duffy & Michael Forsythe), James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux), James Crumley (Milo Milodragovitch & C.W. Sughrue) and Ray Banks (Callum Innes) have all developed as writers over the course of sticking with their returning characters, the pressures of meeting their regular instalments perhaps forcing them to harness their craft in a quicker – and ultimately more confident way – than they otherwise would have done.
Serials also offer authors the opportunity to write a smartly conceived mini-series based mainly on theme rather than one principal character. With these each book is often significantly different in terms of timeframe or minor characters becoming major ones in the next book and vice versa. David Peace’s Red Riding quartet would fall into this category, a wonderful series that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful as a standalone, nor a long-running series. James Ellroy’s LA quartet and Underworld trilogy also spring to mind here, as do Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway, the narratives of those two connected works separated by 10 years.
Series novels also tend to get talked about more in social circles (so I’ve noticed anyway), allowing more opportunities for readers to share their experiences. An extensive, consistent body of work seems to bring people together more than standalones appear able to, and anything that gets people talking about reading, whether it’s at home, work, the beach or on social media, is a positive thing.
Series – the cons
The downside of an author under pressure to publish an annual instalment of a long-running series is of course the danger that they end up just churning them out. Just as their main character may have helped that author achieve fame, the process can also push them over the edge, their creative forces crashing and burning. Pumping out a novel a year to meet marketplace pressure can be a trap to penning prose unworthy of the writer and their initial ambitions, and that’s a real shame.
There’s also the danger of too many new writers feeling they have to launch their career with a main character that has ‘plenty of legs’, which all too often leads to the creation of a cliché-ridden detective we’ve all read enough of. You know the type; divorced, has a troubled relationship with his teenage son/daughter who’s growing up too fast, puts his work before his health and lifestyle, he’s the only one who despises corporate suits and bureaucracy, he unwinds in the winter evenings by listening to music anyone under 35 would scoff at, with a stiff drink in his hand. And the evil activities of each particular rival he encounters eventually results in the duo facing off in a duel, where the arrogance of the criminal leads to victory for the humble hero.
The readers lose out big time here. Not only can the returning character lose their appeal, but the plot can also lose its punch. Let’s face it, as the stakes rise in the final third we always know the main character will get out of this latest scrape relatively unscathed because they’ll be back for another adventure next year.
An example of an author who made his name with a solid series but broke free of the format to express himself in standalones is Dennis Lehane. After five instalments of blue collar detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, he pulled himself away to write Mystic River (later adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster) and then Shutter Island (ditto), two superb one-off thrillers that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful.
Series are obviously easier to market. The industry loves them, often to the extent that a new release is promoted as a series right from the off. The first time I saw publicity for Malcolm Mackay’s debut novel The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, it was labelled as the first instalment of ‘the Glasgow trilogy’. Almost as if his agent pitched the debut manuscript to a publisher who said “Forget it – unless your guy’s got two more up his sleeve, then I can call it a trilogy and I’ll have something to sell”.
David Peace’s ‘Tokyo trilogy’ was marketed as such on the release of the first instalment in 2007. After releasing the second in 2009, Peace drifted away from the concept and wrote Red or Dead, his standalone football novel about the late Bill Shankly. At the time of writing (September 2014) there’s still no sign of the final part of the Tokyo trilogy. Perhaps a sign that the desire for a series is more pressing for the marketing people than it is for the authors.[Top]
The in-depth feature included an interview with me that focused on the storyline and background of the novel as well as my history in supporting the Diamonds, which goes back to 1990 when the club was known as Rushden Town.
In June 2014 the AFC Rushden & Diamonds programme, edited by Stephanie Webb, won the Programme of the Year award for the entire United Counties League, which has 41 clubs over two divisions.
Chasing the Game of course has strong links with football, depicting a fictional version of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet trophy in London ahead of the 1966 World Cup.
The crime thriller has received a raft of glowing reviews since its release, including from Britain’s biggest crime websites Crime Fiction Lover and Crime Time. For more details about the book and the true-life crime that influenced its narrative, please click here.
For more details about AFC Rushden & Diamonds, please click here.[Top]
While reading through the Amazon reviews of my crime thriller Chasing the Game recently, I was struck by one comment in particular: “It would be interesting if the story could be dramatized for the 50th anniversary of the theft in 2016.”
The novel’s main character, Dale Blake, who plots the theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1960s London, would certainly make a powerful and captivating on-screen presence, and it got me thinking about those actors who have really pulled off a performance that matched the momentous work of the author who created their character.
There have, of course, been many examples of on-screen portrayals of literary figures not working out (John Hannah’s version of Rebus just didn’t hit the mark) but let’s focus on the positives and run through some shining examples of compelling character acting that either lived up to – or even surpassed – our high expectations, having sat down to watch with the literary versions of these characters foremost in our minds.
The characters listed below are simply some choices I’ve made from my experiences of watching TV or film adaptations of my favourite books (and ones that I’ve managed to recall on the spare evening I’m writing this). I’ve thrown in a few unusual ones to catch the eye, but if you feel I’ve made a glaring omission or a ludicrous pick, tell me about it on Twitter – @PaulJGadsby – I’d love to chat about it with you.
Mark Strong as Harry Starks (The Long Firm)
Jake Arnott’s debut novel was a groundbreaking piece of fiction that rejuvenated the gritty British gangster genre, and charismatic nightclub owner and racketeer Harry Starks stole the show. When it came to the BBC’s four-part dramatization of the book, Mark Strong nailed the role to such a degree that it’s impossible to read the book now without imagining Strong’s face in every description of Starks and every line of his dialogue. Strong’s performance was magnetic, forceful, tender and utterly convincing, piercing into Stark’s complex and fascinating soul and capturing every single aspect of it.
Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown (Brighton Rock)
The 1947 film version of Graham Greene’s haunting classic is widely regarded as one of the finest ever cinematic expressions of British noir, and this was in no small part down to the skill Richard Attenborough applied to playing Pinkie, the story’s lead villain. A sadistic teenage gangster, a thrilling and terrifying embodiment of pure, irredeemable evil, Pinkie is one hell of a character to play and his relationship with young waitress Rose takes him on an emotional rollercoaster in the second half of the movie and Attenborough expertly maintains his immense control over the part throughout – resolute, chillingly sociopathic, and downright creepy wherever appropriate.
Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger
Okay, at some point I was going to squeeze a Bond villain into a list of crime fiction characters. Goldfinger was not only one of my favourite books from Ian Fleming’s series, it was also one of the best films from the franchise. German actor Gert Frobe captured the subtle gestures and nuances from Fleming’s alluring prose quite beautifully, and he just . . . looked like the guy you imagined in the book. Frobe was a strange casting choice as well – in that he couldn’t speak English – but that was nothing a bit of voice dubbing couldn’t fix. Frobe’s appearance and mannerisms matched the essence of the character, and for me he is the finest representation of a literary Bond villain we have seen, with Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale coming a close second.
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Now we’re talking classic. Rathbone appeared as the cunning sleuth in 14 films between 1939-1946 and for me no one has quite matched him since. When I read the books, I imagine Rathbone’s face, Rathbone’s profile, Rathbone’s turn of phrase, Rathbone’s charm. The fact that Nigel Bruce’s stupendous depiction of Watson during those films has since blurred into the background perhaps says it all about the impact Rathbone brought to the lead role. With his deerstalker silhouette having reached iconic status, Rathbone will always be, for me, the quintessential Holmes.
Matt Damon as Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr Ripley)
A bit left-field this one but still worthy of extremely high praise. Patricia Highsmith was a glorious novelist and this is my favourite book of hers (just beating Strangers on a Train). There are so many angles to the character of Ripley, her darkly twisted young man who’s in Italy trying to escape his true self, that Damon really has his work cut out in order to slip into Ripley’s skin. Morally vacant, haunted, desperate, sad, lonely, evil, lost, gifted, tender – Damon masters them all in a powerhouse performance that’s as fantastically elegant as it is deeply unsettling. You just can’t look away from him on the screen. To me this is still Damon’s signature role despite the subsequent success of the Bourne franchise.
Ashley Judd as Joanna Eris (The Eye of the Beholder)
Marc Behm’s 1980 novel paints a vivid picture of this psychologically scarred character who’s no ordinary femme-fatale. The composed and striking Joanna employs her raw survival skills to hop from city to city, changing wigs and aliases as she preys on rich men before marrying and then killing them. A private investigator (played by Ewan McGregor in the film), absorbed by her life and fascinated by her backstory, follows her as she cuts a deadly swath from New York to San Francisco to Alaska with many scintillating stops in between. The killing is Joanna’s coping mechanism to get through life, but when she genuinely falls in love with a sophisticated but vulnerable wine merchant (who’s blind) and falls pregnant, tragedy strikes. Judd crawls into the heart and soul of Joanna, expressing her wild personality changes, her dark cunning and her crushing sense of abandonment and loss with such sincerity that we never judge her. We, like the PI who follows her, just want to watch and understand her.
Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter (Nineteen Eighty)
In this second instalment of the three-part Channel 4 serial depicting David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Peter Hunter is the lead detective in a disturbing fact-meets-fiction investigation to catch the Yorkshire Ripper. A Lancastrian called in to lead the paranoid and dejected Yorkshire CID team who’ve failed so far to catch their man, Hunter is up against it to get the officers who hate him on his side and the infamous serial killer behind bars. As the pressure mounts in a community gripped by fear and a police force riddled with corruption, Considine brings just the right amount of steel, anxiety and dismay to the role that Peace so poetically conveys in the book.
Ryan Gosling as Driver (Drive)
The lead role in this tale (James Sallis only ever referred to him as ‘Driver’ in his novel while in the film he was unnamed) is the archetypal example of the neo-noir hard-man male, a walking embodiment of the description ‘enigmatic’. The prose in the book is so startlingly sparse that we are captivated by this mysterious lead character and are desperate to know more about him. A Hollywood stuntman by day and underworld getaway driver by night, Driver is a weighty creation and Gosling does a mighty fine job of representing him faithfully on screen – his performance is poised, restrained, slick and brutal.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
I guess the Academy Award says it all. Hopkins’ portrayal of Thomas Harris’ cannibalistic serial killer will never be forgotten. Clearly one of the most strikingly visual cinematic performances of all time, my favourite scene is how Hopkins appeared the first time we meet Hannibal as Clarice Starling approaches his cell. He’s not gripping the bars or slouched on his bed as he awaits his visitor; he’s standing bolt upright in the middle of the room, arms down by his sides, staring right at her. Chilling.
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep)
Another choice that perhaps picks itself. I think the strongest element to the 1946 film version is how the script is heavy with graceful dialogue rather than loaded with action – the characters are free to talk, in keeping with Raymond Chandler’s book. And when it comes to verbal tone and visual style, the cool Bogart earns the plaudits. His wry, humorous delivery, set amongst the beautiful black and white cinematography, just oozes noir, while his lusty on-screen chemistry with Lauren Bacall adds a dynamic, hearty charge to the narrative.
The colourful, in-depth feature describes the theft of the Jules Rimet (World Cup) trophy in London in 1966, as well as dramatic events in Rio in 1983 when the trophy was stolen once again, never to be recovered.
Another feature I wrote about the 1966 theft was published in the London Metro newspaper – ‘Holding the 1966 World Cup to ransom: The curious theft of the Jules Rimet trophy’ can be found here.
To read more about Chasing the Game and the real-life crime that influenced its narrative, please click here.
The book has already received several rave reviews in the media, including from Britain’s biggest crime website Crime Fiction Lover and the highly revered Crime Time. To read a summary of those and more glowing reviews for Chasing the Game, please click here.[Top]
The highly distinguished website ‘Of Pitch & Page’ is in agreement with other literary critics by giving the book a glowing review, saying my 1966-set thriller depicting the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in London is “full of period detail and moody violence.”
Reviewer Matt Oldfield added: “Gadsby takes the undisputed facts about the infamous robbery and has some good old-fashioned fun. With the exception of Pickles the dog, all names are changed (FA Chairman Joe Mears becomes Clement Spears), and many characters are constructed from scratch, namely the gang members and their families. Multiple narrative perspectives are handled well, the pacing and plotting are strong, and the dialogue rings true. . . the pages turn, and the reader is drawn into the murk.”
“Chasing the Game is a well-crafted and entertaining novel. Despite its timely release for the buzz around Brazil, its readership should extend beyond the World Cup dreamers. Because if you’re in the market for historical crime fiction with a lot of heart, Gadsby’s your man, whether you like football or not.”
Esteemed crime reviewer ‘Crime Thriller Fella’ also sung the book’s praises, saying: ‘Gadsby takes the [1966 World Cup] theft and uses it as a hook to explore the downfall of a complex and conflicted gangster, Dale Blake.”
“There’s a lot to like here, a hell of a lot. Gadsby knows the mechanics of drama, and he gives his protagonist problems before the first page, so that the tale he’s telling seems like a small part of a wider canvas. . . Dale’s a sympathetic character, a man out of his depth, and we genuinely feel for him in his Harold Shand moment.
“Gadsby is a writer by trade, but this is his debut novel, and he has a focused control over his material. He knows his story, and knows how to tell it. A lot of new authors – you can tell they’ve not rewritten and then edited enough. They’ve not gone through the manuscript again and again, removing every superfluous phrase, every redundant word. Gadsby has removed every bobble and clump from the page, so that the writing is as smooth as a lawn in Chelsea.
“The prose is lean and terse, and his dialogue is muscular, but never slips into gangster parody. . . It’s not a footie novel, so you really don’t have to give a fig about the beautiful game.”
One of Britain’s biggest crime fiction websites, Crime Fiction Lover, also loved the book, reviewer David Prestidge saying: “I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose is unpretentious, brisk, and will move the reader through the 200-odd pages with minimal effort. Gadsby has taken a real-life event that remains a mystery to this day, and provided a perfectly plausible, well-timed and entertaining fictional account.” That full review on Crime Fiction Lover can be found here.
Other excellent reviews have greeted Chasing the Game’s release, not least from the highly-revered Crime Time website as well as critically acclaimed author Guy Portman and blogger ‘Book Addict Shaun’.
So far on Amazon, the book has attracted ten reviews; nine of them 5 star and one 4 star.
To read more about Chasing the Game and the true crime that influenced its narrative, please click here.[Top]
This weekend I was a guest on Radio Northants, where I talked about my new book Chasing the Game.
Joining host Lindsey Samples on her Sports Saturday show, I was asked about the inspiration behind the book and the plotting that went into creating the narrative.
We also talked about the World Cup, which starts this week, where I was put on the spot to predict a winner; Argentina were my choice, so let’s see how that works out!
An audible recording of the interview will be available here soon.[Top]
The two-week event, held at the enchanting Bristol Planetarium (pictured) on the eve of the 2014 World Cup, is a celebration of how literature, art, film, music and comedy can connect with football.
My talk, within a section called ‘Altering the narrative’, was titled ‘Chasing the Game – A Creative Twist on the Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy’.
I spoke about how I used aspects of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet (World Cup) Trophy in London in 1966 and combined them with fictional elements to create Chasing the Game, a dramatic and gripping depiction of this famous crime that remains unsolved to this day.
The Festival, running each night until Saturday 14 June, will feature further talks and performances from artists, writers, poets, academics, musicians and comedians. Full details of all the exciting events are available at the Festival’s website here.
During my talk I also spoke about football’s link with literature in general, particularly books that have been bold enough to try and use football as a theme within a fictional narrative. The novels/novellas I discussed were:
The Damned United, by David Peace (2006)
Red or Dead, by David Peace (2013)
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, by Leonard R Gribble (1939)
The Thistle and the Grail, by Robin Jenkins (1954)
Shoot on Sight, by Michael Hardcastle (1967)
Goalkeepers Are Different, by Brian Glanville (1972)
How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup, by JL Carr (1975)
A Book of Two Halves, edited by Nicholas Royle (1996)
Perfect Pitch series, edited by Simon Kuper (1997-99)
For Whom the Ball Rolls, by Ian Plenderleith (2001)
Heartland, by Anthony Cartwright (2009)
One of Britain’s biggest crime fiction websites, Crime Fiction Lover, has followed in the footsteps of other leading media sources by awarding my debut novel Chasing the Game with an excellent review.
Led by a team of expert contributors and critics within the genre, Crime Fiction Lover is one of the most firmly established and well-respected websites around, covering news, reviews and features across a wide range of crime from atmospheric noir and thriller mysteries to hardboiled detectives and police procedurals.
Reviewer David Prestidge read Chasing the Game, my fictional depiction of the real-life theft of the World Cup trophy in London in 1966, and the full review can be found here.
Amongst his comments, David wrote that the story provides ‘a mixture of criminal incompetence, jealousy and black comedy, which presents itself as a plausible account of one of Britain’s greatest unsolved mysteries.’
He added: ‘This is a London where the smart boys smoke Dunhills because the slimline pack doesn’t spoil the cut of their suit jackets, a Mark II Ford Cortina could just about take a man’s breath away, and Michael Caine was doing something similar to young women with his screen portrayal of the amoral Alfie.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose is unpretentious, brisk, and will move the reader through the 200-odd pages with minimal effort. Gadsby has taken a real-life event that remains a mystery to this day, and provided a perfectly plausible, well-timed and entertaining fictional account.’
This write-up of Chasing the Game comes after further glowing reviews greeted the book’s release, not least from the highly-revered Crime Time website as well as critically acclaimed author Guy Portman and blogger ‘Book Addict Shaun’.
So far on Amazon, the book has attracted eight reviews; seven of them 5 star and one 4 star.
To read more about Chasing the Game and the true crime that influenced its narrative, please click here.[Top]
I was interviewed by ‘Crime Thriller Fella’ this week about my new book Chasing the Game and my writing regime in general.
A transcript of the interview can also be found below.
Crime Thriller Fella writes screenplays and novels, and reviews crime movies, TV shows and books for his blog, as well as providing interviews and latest news.
Here is the interview transcript. . .
We love writers with synchronicity. Paul Gadsby’s novel about the true-life disappearance of the World Cup trophy is released with the 2014 tournament just round the corner. Paul is a journalist and writer. Having worked in sports, news and trade journalism for 14 years, he’s the co-author of the seminal snooker book Masters of the Baize. Chasing The Game is his first crime novel, and you can buy it right here. Paul gives us the lowdown on an intriguing unsolved mystery – and, of course, his writing regime.
Chasing The Game is based on the true story of the disappearance of the World Cup trophy in 1966 – what happened?
It’s a fascinating story – one that has a dose of crime, shame, desperation and intrigue in roughly equal measures. The World Cup, or Jules Rimet Trophy as it was known, was on display in Westminster Central Hall in March 1966, three months before the World Cup tournament was due to begin. The stakes were high because the Football Association (FA) wanted the event to go very smoothly, it being the first – and so far only – time England have hosted the World Cup.
But one Sunday lunchtime the trophy was stolen from its display case. A few days later a ransom demand was made to the FA, and a note later delivered setting up a rendezvous where the trophy would be exchanged for the cash. But the plan fell apart, the switch never took place (despite coming tantalizingly close) and the thieves were never identified. The trophy, for reasons unknown, ended up under a bush in a London street where it was discovered by a dog named Pickles a week after the theft. Pickles briefly became a national hero, praised for sparing England’s blushes and saving the reputation of the World Cup tournament as a brand.
How closely is your novel based on true events?
Pretty closely in many ways, which is why I didn’t go into too much detail above! I always wanted this project to be a work of fiction, though, so certain elements – the nature of the theft in particular – were dramatised in order to drive the narrative. I kept certain characters such as the chairman of the FA (although I changed his name and created my own persona for him) while the gang of thieves was entirely down to my imagination. I’ve always felt the theft had an organised criminal element behind it, but not a large scale one, so it was fun creating a ‘firm’ who could carry out the raid but were under real pressure to collect the ransom because they desperately needed the cash.
Pickles is the only character that maintains his real-life name. In 1966 there was also a replica of the trophy made, commissioned by the FA but against FIFA’s wishes, and I exploit this conflict in the story. I’m a big fan of blending fact with fiction (David Peace and James Ellroy being the masters at this) and have always felt authors should be encouraged to use fiction as a vehicle to enhance intriguing factual narratives and sharpen the motivations of characters or historical figures.
What drew you to the story?
The curious nature of the theft, the bizarre discovery of the trophy, and the fact that the crime remains unsolved. Who were the gang of thieves? What went wrong between them to result in the trophy, worth a significant amount of money, ending up under a suburban hedge? I was surprised that no one had taken the Pickles story and done something exciting with it, so I thought I’d jump in there and weave my own narrative.
I also tied this in with a theme I’d been toying with basing a crime novel on for a while – leadership, and the pressures that come with fronting a criminal enterprise or firm. I’ve always been fascinated with the internal struggles and conflicts that crop up within a systemised criminal set-up, and seeing people try to take on the skillsets required to fill certain roles. So the tense and complex professional relationships that exist between members of the gang make up a central theme of the book.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I wish I had more of them! I write around a day job (I write copy for a marketing company) and am married with a three-year-old son, so my blocks of time for creative writing can be varied and unpredictable. On the occasions when I have a few hours to write, I begin by (and most writing guides advise against this) doing a light edit of what I’d written previously. I trained and worked in journalism for a few years and the editor in me just can’t resist, but I do enjoy ploughing on with a first draft knowing that the product behind me is a strong one.
Obviously the second draft stage is always an extensive one, but I don’t want a major re-structuring job at that point; I’d rather fix problems and enhance areas as I go along. I’m also a big fan of Stephen King’s theory of ‘write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’ so I’m very much in my own head when unleashing a first draft, then liaising with friends and fellow writers for feedback on the second draft.
Chasing the Game is my first published novel but I wrote three crime thrillers before that; I’ve been writing seriously since about 2005 when I had a non-fiction book published and got the bug for writing full-length works.
Who are the authors you love, and why?
I adore Elmore Leonard’s dialogue, Adrian McKinty’s action sequences, Ken Bruen’s humour, the powerful prose of James Sallis, Jake Arnott’s deep characterisation, Patricia Highsmith’s ability to build drama, James Crumley’s sense of time and place and Graham Greene’s story structure. James Ellroy, David Peace and Don DeLillo do a glorious job of mixing fact with fiction while I also love Ian Fleming’s Bond books. As remarkable standout thrillers I really enjoyed Eddie Bunker’s No Beast So Fierce (which apparently inspired Tarantino to write Reservoir Dogs) and The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Probably the fact that it’s incredibly difficult – and increasingly rare – to make a full-time career out of it. At a recent writing event I had a chat with an established, award-winning author who’s terrifically talented but told me how many copies her last book had sold and how many other things she had to do in order to supplement her time to write, and I thought that was a shame. The less time an author has to write, the fewer chances we have to enjoy them.
On a technical point, I like writing a synopsis but find it bizarre, frustrating and amusing that every agent and publisher appears to have a different idea about what they want to see in one. It’s an area that takes subjectivity to a new level!
How do you deal with feedback?
I embrace it during the editing stages of my writing. An interesting point is what to do with all the feedback you collectively receive. I know some writers who literally change everything that is recommended from all sources, but the danger of this is that the focus of the manuscript can then fragment and before you know it you have several half-realised themes and sub-plots going on.
I don’t think an author should ever lose sight of the initial purpose they had at the onset of the project. I think it’s best to take all feedback on board, apply a great deal of it if necessary, but to always consider that this is your book and the reader has to be convinced that it has come from one soul.
As for feedback from the industry, rejections are a familiar tale and for me have always been tempered by the fact that you know thousands upon thousands of writers are going through the same thing. Many writers collect their rejection letters but I’ve never really gone in for that. Positive responses from the trade, meanwhile, are obviously fantastic; it’s great to spend time speaking with agents, publishers and authors, and when you’ve had your work praised by such people it comes as a relief as well as a joy.
Give me some advice about writing…
Tough one. Any advice given by writers is obviously going to be very personal to them, but I’d say the most valuable way to spend your time is to focus on both finding your own distinctive voice (there’s no better way to make an impression on your first page) while at the same time reading as much of other writers as you can. If you’re writing a full-length novel you need prose worming through your brain pretty much all the time. The passion to write can only be driven by the passion to read.
What’s next for you?
I’ve written a first draft of another crime novel, which I’d like to polish and edit in the near future. It has another sports link, and is about the physical and mental struggles of a recently retired boxer who gets dragged by his former manager into a murky world of crime and an underground bare-knuckle fighting circuit, while also struggling to deal with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. It’s called When the Roar Fades.
Who’s going to win the World Cup this summer?
All World Cups previously held in South America have been won by a nation from that continent, and I can’t see that pattern changing. It’s hard to see past the hosts, Brazil, but Argentina could be handy. I think England might sneak through their tough group but I’d be surprised to see them go beyond the quarter-finals.[Top]
The solid gold Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen from Westminster Central Hall three months before the tournament and famously discovered by a dog named Pickles in a London street a week later, wrapped in newspaper. But the circumstances behind the crime, and its perpetrators, remain unsolved to this day.
Chasing the Game brings this intriguing tale to life, weaving a set of vivid characters into the tale to create a gripping – and shocking – version of a story that still draws much speculation today.
The book enjoys a timely release in the build-up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, a country where the Jules Rimet Trophy was actually stolen again in 1983, and this time never recovered.
The book is available as a paperback as well as an ebook in all major formats.
More updates about the book will be posted on this website and on my Twitter page, @PaulJGadsby
If you would like to order a review copy for your newspaper/magazine/website/blog, or discuss an interview with the author, please feel free to email pauljgadsby(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)uk[Top]
Synopsis: Joe Coughlin is nineteen when he meets Emma Gould. A small-time thief in 1920s Boston, he is told to cuff her while his accomplices raid the casino she works for. But Joe falls in love with Emma – and his life changes for ever.
That meeting is the beginning of Joe’s journey to becoming one of the nation’s most feared and respected gangsters. It is a journey beset by violence, double-crossing, drama and pain. And it is a journey into the soul of prohibition-era America…
Review: Live By Night was an important book for Dennis Lehane. His tenth novel, written in 2012, it was both a follow-up (but not a direct sequel) to his 2008 epic The Given Day and penned around the time his TV writing career was really taking off. His work on HBO’s worldwide hit The Wire had earned him a call-up to the writing team of the highly-acclaimed Boardwalk Empire, another HBO success.
There were questions, from fans and critics alike, that Live By Night would therefore answer. Did Lehane still have the taste, and passion, for a powerful literary work? Did he still have the time to produce one? Would Live By Night (with its 1920s east coast gangster setting – the same backdrop as Boardwalk) be just a simple extension of the themes explored in that show?
Since making his commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s, hailed as part of a trio of new-age American crime writers with George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly, Lehane’s literary career has soared.
His first five books featured quirky detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro in modern-day Boston, but his next effort, Mystic River, catapulted him into the major leagues, the novel being turned into a film starring Sean Penn and directed by Clint Eastwood. Psychological thriller Shutter Island followed (also adapted into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese).
The Given Day was his first foray into historical fiction, exploring the 1919 Boston Police Strike and its dramatic aftermath, and my initial impression of Live By Night was that Lehane had once again successfully employed his gloriously muscular, confident prose that dominated his other books.
We’re thrust into the 1920s; prohibition is rife, opening the floodgates for bootleggers, gangsters and corrupt police to line their pockets. Police captain’s son Joe Coughlin, just 19, has a taste for living on the criminal side of the moral line, and an even bigger taste for Emma Gould, the girlfriend of veteran gangster Albert White. Joe and Emma begin an affair that is as clandestine as it is passionate, and it’s here, in the book’s early stages, where Lehane’s engrossing style leaps from the page.
The dialogue between Joe and Emma is as witty and sharp to draw comparisons with the Coen brothers’ script for Miller’s Crossing, while Lehane expertly paints a vivid picture of the age but never once allows the pace of the story to slip into second place. History is merely a backdrop; Lehane’s extensive research doesn’t blunt the sweeping narrative, allowing the evocative characters and the crisp dialogue to bring the book to life.
We don’t have to wait long for something to go wrong. Joe’s outlaw instincts draw him and a small gang into a bank robbery. But their escape plan is botched, and Joe is forced to go on the run from the police. He goes back for Emma in the hope of seeing them elope together, but this is tough, merciless noir and Joe’s plans – and more literally his beaten body – end up in the gutter before he’s arrested.
Serving a lengthy prison sentence, we experience Joe’s intense struggle for survival in a desperate, cut-throat environment. With Lehane’s skill, this is a haunting passage within the book and we’re totally convinced by the authenticity of rival mobbed-up inmates and their internal war, and Joe’s dilemma of which side to pick in order to survive.
But despite the prose being laced with Lehane’s usual stark, atmospheric edge, this section of the book for me slightly disappoints. The problem with widespread narratives that cover a large part of the main protagonist’s life (we’re living Joe’s epic journey from a cheeky 19-year-old to one of the USA’s most dominant and influential gangsters) is that, in crime fiction, these often encompass prison time. Joe is sentenced to five years and serves more than two, but the necessity to move on to his career after prison results in this stage of his life feeling a tad rushed. The format, to avoid the book ending up with an absurd word count, drives the narrative here.
Even though we get plenty of value in the relatively short prison sequence and experience Joe’s troubles and anguish close up, it doesn’t feel like we’ve lived over two long hard years behind bars with him by the time he gets out. To Joe, the bleak brutality of those years would have felt like half a lifetime. The structure of the book’s scope works against the author here, but Lehane isn’t the first crime writer to find it tough to effectively convey a long prison sentence on their main character within a small portion of a novel, however he comes closer than most to cracking it.
A pure delight we do get from this spell in Joe’s life, however, is the growing significance of his strained relationship with his father, Thomas. The book is written in the third person and we’re treated to some scenes from Thomas’s perspective. Complex father-son bonds are a particular strength of Lehane’s and here we get some real pearls of great writing. ‘Joseph was the most open of his sons. You could see his heart through the heaviest winter coat.’
Having been forced to link up with a dominant crime boss to survive prison, Joe is sent by the mob to Florida on his release to run the rum-smuggling syndicate they have going. He flourishes in his seniority, making the mob – and himself – a huge amount of money. He meets a girl too, a member of the Cuban émigré community whose world he immerses himself in, and his personal life begins to give him the inner equilibrium he perhaps deserves but, once again, this is noir – and heartbreak is never far away.
Live By Night fully merits its tour-de-force marketing tag. It’s another success for Lehane, earning virtuous distinction from his mounting TV work, and for us readers it’s another chance to enjoy his graceful, sassy prose set within a deeply moving novel.
My rating: 9/10
Note: This review first appeared as a guest book review on Morgen Bailey’s Writing Blog[Top]
The cover for my forthcoming crime thriller Chasing the Game has been released, and the book is now available to pre-order from many retail outlets.
Chasing the Game is the first fictional portrayal of one of England’s most enduring and fascinating crimes – the theft of the Jules Rimet (World Cup) Trophy in London in 1966.
The solid gold trophy was stolen from Westminster Central Hall three months before the tournament and famously discovered by a dog named Pickles in a London street a week later. But the circumstances behind the crime, and its perpetrators, remain unsolved to this day.
For more details on the background behind the real-life theft of the trophy and the plot of Chasing the Game, please click here.
The book will enjoy a timely release in the build-up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, a country where the Jules Rimet Trophy was actually stolen again in 1983, and this time never recovered.
You can pre-order Chasing the Game from the book’s publishers Matador, as well as the UK’s iconic independent bookseller Foyles and major retailer Waterstones, as well as Amazon, who you may have heard of.
The book will be available as a paperback as well as an ebook in all major formats, including Kindle and ePub.
More updates as we near publication will be posted on this website and on my Twitter page, @PaulJGadsby
If you would like to order a review copy for your newspaper/magazine/website/blog, or discuss an interview with the author, please feel free to email pauljgadsby(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)uk[Top]
American writer Joe McGinniss produced a highly acclaimed body of work, both fiction and non-fiction, before his death on 10 March 2014 at the age of 71.
He enjoyed an immediate commercial breakthrough with his debut release, The Selling of the President 1968, a powerful work that described the stage-managed, theatrical marketing of Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential campaign and landed on The New York Times bestseller list.
Many successful books followed, most notably his controversial true-crime book Fatal Vision, but the one that stood out for me was his wonderfully charming exploration of Italian football, The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, published in 1999. Part travel memoir, part sporting analysis, part cultural discovery, it was, perhaps unintentionally at its outset, a project that covered a particularly wide literary scope. When I heard of McGinniss’ death earlier this week, this book was the first thing that sprang to mind.
McGinniss wasn’t a lifelong fan of the beautiful game (or ‘soccer’ as he’d have called it) by any means, falling in love with the sport at the 1994 World Cup, staged in his own country. He soon became obsessed with the cultural significance of the game in Italy, transfixed by the religious-like passion of the fans, their fierce devotion to their local village, town or city, and how their football team serves as a proud representation of that community and its values.
He read about something bizarre – miraculous even – that took place in Italy during the 1995-96 season. The team from the humble, rustic village of Castel Di Sangro had secured a highly unlikely promotion to Serie B, the country’s second division. A league normally the preserve of firmly established city-based teams or those clubs from large towns with financial (often industrial) backing, it was five divisions higher than Castel Di Sangro’s natural level. They were now punching above their weight to a degree that was as nearly comical as it was fascinating.
The talk ahead of the 1996-97 season was, therefore, whether this small (tiny in this context) provincial club could survive in the harsh, cold-blooded professionalism of Serie B. Could they avoid relegation and create a second miracle? McGinniss wanted to find out – and he wanted a front-row seat.
He packed his suitcase and headed for the Abruzzo region in central Italy, leaving his life in the States behind to spend the whole season in a rented apartment in the heart of Castel Di Sangro.
With the village having a population of just over 5,000, McGinniss placed himself at the centre of the community, embracing the warmth, fortitude and pride of the locals, who treated the players and coaching staff as family, and in turn McGinniss was welcomed by the villagers with open arms.
As his mission to closely follow the team through their tough series of matches (both home and away) progressed, McGinniss really bought into the emotion of Castel Di Sangro’s fight, their quest for ‘la salvezza’, enriching his deepening passion for the game in the process.
He learnt Italian and gained increasing access to the players and management staff, harnessing a greater understanding of their motivations and lives. Centre-back Davide Cei, for example, was studying The Great Gatsby and was especially concerned with learning the precise location of West Egg, while readers were treated to a stark impression of authoritarian head coach Osvaldo Jaconi, who banned his players from eating garlic and stubbornly only ever uttered one English phrase: ‘I bulldozer’.
It wasn’t long before McGinniss located a darker side to this fairytale. The club’s owner, Pietro Rezza, with his long cigars and lines of bodyguards, was a big player in the village and it was clear that the locals feared him and his shady reputation. In the book McGinniss claimed that Rezza, a compelling character who could have fitted seamlessly into any scene of the first couple of Godfather films, baulked at paying the team promised bonuses and refused to invest in buying quality players or building a stadium befitting their Serie B status, despite apparently having access to the required funds.
Life in the village got even more dramatic as the long, hard season intensified. Two young players died in a car accident that sent shockwaves and heartbreak throughout the village, and after having a cosy evening meal in the home of veteran player Gigi Prete and his alluring Chilean wife, McGinniss later learned of the pair’s arrest in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring.
Relations between McGinniss and the club became more strained, much of it caused by the author brazenly airing his thoughts on team selection and tactics in front of the club’s staff and the locals on a frequent basis. Rezza, a man who clearly valued his privacy, didn’t take kindly to the American writer sticking his nose in. He wasn’t alone, either. Jaconi and some of the players dropped hints to McGinniss (some more heavily than others) that he should back off.
It’s these passages of the book that picked up most of its criticism. Written from McGinniss’ perspective of course, and perhaps with a predominantly American audience in mind, his take on football and his understanding of the practical elements of the game didn’t come from a basis of spending a lifetime following it. Devoted long-time fans of the game can get immensely frustrated when they read a football-related text that’s written by someone who knows less about the sport than them. But for me McGinniss’ relatively untrained eye offered a fresh context to this book that seasoned fans or journalists couldn’t provide. Not every football literary work has to be penned by someone who’s lost count of how many long winter evenings they’ve endured freezing in the stands and whinging about the shoddy food and the ineffective use of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
The troubled relationship between McGinniss and the club reached an almighty climax as Castel Di Sangro played their final away match of the season down in the southern city of Bari. The hosts required a victory to reach Serie A. McGinniss, repeatedly advised to stay at home for this one, noticed a change in the players’ behaviour in the hours leading up to kick-off as they made the journey south. He overheard a poolside conversation between some of the players at a beachfront hotel that exposed a shocking and crooked element to the forthcoming match, and McGinniss couldn’t keep his cool. The bond of trust between McGinniss and the club, stretching throughout the season, snapped spectacularly, and could never recover.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro was written by a writer; not a football fan or journalist who wanted to write a book. It came out around a time when a glut of football-travel books were hitting the bookshelves, including two set in Italy; Greg Burke’s Parma: A Year in Serie A and A Season with Verona by Tim Parks. McGinniss’ book stood out from the crowd because he successfully framed an engaging narrative woven from what was happening around him; the politics, the passion, the corruption and the tragedy.
Maybe it wasn’t his place to claim he could pick a better starting eleven than the coach, and it’s understandable that some readers saw this behaviour as sanctimonious, but the book was never marketed as a tactical overview by an expert. Although structured chronologically (which makes the whole thing very readable), the skilled prose sucks you into the story. Rather than dwelling on the darker moments, McGinniss keeps the pace motoring along, always identifying with the team’s fight for survival throughout all the ordeals that confront the characters.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro goes way beyond football but, because all the lies, deception, scandal, heartbreak and joy are fundamentally linked to the team’s on-field objective, it succeeds in magnifying the game’s importance at the same time.
McGinniss wasn’t an expert on football tactics, or even decorum within a close-knit team setting, but he was an expert at writing. His shrewd style and the enthralling tale he fashioned made for a compelling book that, after reading it on its release, I have never forgotten.[Top]