Friday 9 December 2011

Guest Post: Sherlock Holmes's Big Finish, by Paul Simpson

Something a little different today, in a couple of respects. In the first instance – much as I did with critic Michael Barber and his essay on Dennis Wheatley at the start of the year – I'm turning Existential Ennui over to a guest poster, in this case Paul Simpson, a longstanding friend and colleague of mine. Paul is just coming towards the end of a five year mission as editor of Titan's Star Trek Magazine – a position I also held for a time – and has been writing professionally about genre movies, TV shows and books for close to two decades; he's currently one of the editors of Sci-Fi Bulletin. It's a great pleasure to be able to host a piece of Paul's writing.

In the second instance, Paul's guest post deals with an area of publishing I've only touched on tangentially previously: audio plays and adaptations – more specifically, the Sherlock Holmes adaptations and new Holmes stories devised by British production company Big Finish. I'll leave it to Paul to elucidate further – and of course I'll be back before too long with the next instalment in my ongoing series of posts on spy fiction series – but before we sally forth, let me just note that, speaking as someone who still hasn't read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories (shameful, I know), the Big Finish audio plays strike me as an especially fine way to experience those tales. Oh, and there's a tenuous link here with my just-finished run of posts on spy fiction writer William Haggard, in that Conan Doyle was a contemporary of H. Rider Haggard, W. Haggard's fifth cousin.

Well, I did say it was tenuous...

Sherlock Holmes's Big Finish, by Paul Simpson

Although anyone who recognises the name above this post may associate me primarily with sci-fi (and particularly Doctor Who and Star Trek), I've had an abiding interest in crime and spy fiction ever since childhood. My mother was brought up reading these sorts of books, so there were plenty of 1930s and '40s editions of Leslie Charteris's Saint stories, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown books, and of course, Sherlock Holmes on the bookshelves.

Like millions of others, I devoured the Conan Doyle canon (to the extent that when Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were quoting wholesale from the original stories in last year's update – which is due to return to our screens on New Year's Day – I was mouthing along with the lines), and then discovered that the local library had new Holmes adventures available. Some of these were dire – I can still remember wondering what the hell the Michael Dibdin one was all about – while others grabbed me from the first page. I've always been a bit of a sucker for stories that expand an already-established universe (Star Trek books that are about crews or situations that we never saw on TV, for example), and I loved reading what other people did with Doyle's characters. At the late lamented Murder One bookshop in London, there used to be shelves of these stories that I would raid periodically...

And of course there have been new stories in other media. One of my favourite Holmes films, after the Rathbone and the Cushing Baskervilles adaptations, is Murder by Decree – not for its off-the-wall theories about the Ripper, necessarily, but for its expansion of Holmes into "real" life. The BBC have produced The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which have been of variable quality in terms of story, but never less than entertaining.

Now independent production company Big Finish have got in on the act. Big Finish has been around for some time, producing audio plays connected to various TV series – Doctor Who primarily, but also Sapphire and Steel, The Tomorrow People, Stargate and Robin Hood among many others – and have gained a deserved reputation for their output. The current executive producer is Nicholas Briggs (yes, the guy who does the Dalek voices on telly), who also continues a career as a stage actor. One of the roles he's played is Holmes – and it's hardly surprising, therefore, that he has overseen a range of audio plays featuring the character.

The first set of three were released last year, adapting three of the Holmes stage plays. Two starred Roger Llewellyn: David Stuart Davies's one-man plays The Last Act and The Death and Life; the other, Brian Clemens's Holmes and the Ripper, starred Briggs himself with Richard Earl as Watson. Although Clemens's play doesn't particularly work for me, the combination of Briggs and Earl is a winning one, and that has been retained for the new season, currently being released.

The second season is different in format, with one canonical release followed by a new story, or adaptation of a new tale. It kicks off with a 2-CD version of The Final Problem and The Empty House – otherwise known as the "Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes". Hopefully there's no need to rehearse Conan Doyle's reasons for writing these stories, but particularly given that Briggs's adaptation is incredibly faithful to the source material, it's interesting to note the slight differences in style (and Doyle's ignoring of some of the events he chronicles in The Final Problem when writing The Empty House some years later – who cleared up Baker Street?).

Both Briggs and Earl excel in this release. The pent up emotions that Watson experiences in the tales is brought to the fore by Earl's performance, his voice threatening to break on more than one occasion as he recounts the dreadful events leading to Holmes's death, while Briggs delivers the long monologues as he describes his adventures in a way that grips the listener. This is a Holmes under more acute pressure than any he's experienced before, and you can hear that in Briggs's delivery.

The second story, The Reification of Hans Gerber, is a totally new tale by George Mann, and plays with a lot of the tropes of Victorian novels. There's a distressing death of a beloved relative, greedy grasping potential beneficiaries, lawyers who may or may not have hidden agendas, and among all this, the arrival of a mysterious figure from the continent – the eponymous Hans Gerber. To say more about the plot would spoil some of the surprises (although Mann plays fair, and everything that happens can be deduced from the evidence presented to the listener – from every source, it's fair to hint), and unlike many Holmes tales, this takes into account Watson's professional background. There's even a new foil for the great detective (nicely played by versatile voice actor Terry "Davros" Molloy). Both of these are highly recommended.

And next out of the gate for Big Finish? They're tackling the big one – The Hound of the Baskervilles...

Thursday 8 December 2011

A William Haggard / Colonel Charles Russell Spy Novel First Edition Gallery

For this third and final post on British author William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell spy series – introduction and bibliography here, review of the debut Russell outing (also Haggard's debut novel, natch), Slow Burner, here – I've a selection of Haggard/Russell first editions from across the series, which I picked up in various places and by various methods over the past few months. Beginning with this:

Slow Burner was first published in hardback in the UK by Cassell in 1958, under a vibrant but sadly uncredited painted dustjacket. As already mentioned, I reviewed the novel itself yesterday, the story of which involves skullduggery surrounding a top secret nuclear fission process. Haggard's early novels can usually be found fairly easily in paperback, but hardback first editions are sometimes not so common; AbeBooks, for example, currently has just five copies of the Cassell first listed, but of those, three are sans jacket, another is ex-library and in New Zealand, and the last is also in New Zealand. You might have a bit more luck on Amazon Marketplace... but then again, you might not.


The UK hardback first edition of the second Colonel Russell thriller – and Haggard's third novel overall, following 1958's The Telemann TouchVenetian Blind, published by Cassell in 1959. Once again the dustjacket illustration is uncredited, but at least copies of the first edition are a bit more readily available than Slow Burner: there are currently twelve of 'em on AbeBooks, in various states of disrepair. The story this time centres on Negative Gravity; check out the Charles Russell dedicated page on Spy Guys & Gals for more on Venetian Blind, and indeed on all of Haggard's Russell novels.

Moving swiftly on:

This is the UK hardback first edition of The Unquiet Sleep, the fourth Russell novel, published by Cassell in 1962; I'm currently missing the third Russell outing, The Arena (1961), but I expect I'll secure a first of that at some point. Just for a change, this one sports a photographic wrapper, but again, Cassell have let me down by neglecting to credit the photographer and the jacket designer. Unlike Slow Burner and Venetian Blind, both of which I purchased online, I found this copy of The Unquiet Sleep in the excellent Books by the Sea in Bude, Cornwall, during my summer holidays. Mind you, it's not exactly hard to find in first: presently AbeBooks has fourteen copies listed, many for less than a tenner. The story revolves around a relaxation pill called Mecron. I could do with a dose of that myself...


The UK hardback first edition of A Cool Day for Killing, published by Cassell in 1968. Quite a minimalistic dustjacket design on this one, and for a change it's credited, to one Brian Roll. The twelfth Charles Russell thriller, this one sees Colonel Russell protecting the daughter of a Malaysian Sultan, and is notable for being the final novel with Russell as head of the Security Executive; he was destined to retire in the next book, The Doubtful Disciple (1969), but would continue to assist the Executive in an unofficial capacity. Interestingly (er, possibly), by this point in the series (nearly midway), Cassell no longer felt the need to have the author's first name on the cover; he'd simply become Haggard (so to speak). Plenty of copies of the Cassell first of A Cool Day for Killing on AbeBooks: over twenty at present.

Forging ahead:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Bitter Harvest, published by Cassell in 1971. The fourteenth Charles Russell adventure, this one sees the good Colonel brought out of retirement to tackle rising political temperatures in the Middle East. The jacket design is by Brian Hampton, and once again there's a plentiful supply of first editions on AbeBooks. Bitter Harvest was retitled for its US publication – by Walker, in 1971 – and was known instead as Too Many Enemies; the subsequent Russell novel, The Old Masters (1973), was also retitled by Walker in the States, this time as The Notch on the Knife. Fascinating stuff, eh?

And finally:

The UK hardback first edition of Yesterday's Enemy, published by Cassell in 1976. I bought this for a few quid in the Albion Bookshop in Broadstairs, Kent, again during my summer holiday, but it's readily available on AbeBooks for around a fiver. In this one, Colonel Russell has to deal with a vanished nuclear physicist and the threat of a secret nuclear weapon. The front cover photo is by Mick Wells, and is a fine example of the kind of Raymond Hawkey-esque "artfully arranged weapons" photographs prevalent on British dustjackets in the 1970s. Great shot of Haggard on the back there, too.

And that, I think we'll all be elated to learn, is yer lot from William Haggard. I'll have further spy fiction posts for you shortly, more than likely on espionage series by Len Deighton – featuring the aforementioned Mr. Hawkey – and Adam Hall. Plus there'll be a Violent World of Parker cross-post or two before we head into Christmas/the New Year and my traditional end-of-year round-up posts. (Traditional as in, I did them once before, last Christmas.) But next on Existential Ennui, something rather exciting: a guest post by entertainment journalist Paul Simpson on a clutch of newly released Sherlock Holmes audio adventures. That's right: audio...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Review: Slow Burner (Colonel Charles Russell Series #1) by William Haggard (Cassell, 1958)

For this second of three posts on British writer William Haggard's series of spy novels starring Colonel Charles Russell, head of the branch of Intelligence known as the Security Executive – introductory post and bibliography here – we turn to Russell's debut outing – not to mention Haggard's debut novel.

First published in 1958, Slow Burner introduces Colonel Russell; his assistant at the Executive, Major Mortimer; Sir Jeremy Bates, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry; and Dr. William Nichol, eminent scientist and friend of Charles Russell. Nichol is the Administrator General of Nuclear Development, and one of the boffins behind the discovery of the secretive nuclear fission process known as Slow Burner. Thus far Slow Burner is only being tested in a number of factories across the land, but the process has the potential to put Britain way ahead in the nuclear energy race. However, epsilon rays – the signature emission of the Slow Burner process – have been detected emanating from the incongruous environs of Number Twenty-Seven, Chatsworth Road, Dipley, and so Russell and Mortimer must get to the bottom of why – and how – a quantity of the highly dangerous Slow Burner has come to reside in a semi-detached suburban house in Surrey.

As I mentioned in yesterday's introduction, Haggard's novels are characterized by a very British stiff-upper-lipped sense of decorum. As with Anthony Price's later David Audley spy thrillers, many passages in Slow Burner consist of the protagonists turning over the available evidence and discussing ways forward, but unlike Price's books, the dialogue is frequently punctuated by deferential asides, such as this early encounter between Russell and Mortimer: 

Russell smiled disarmingly. 'Major Mortimer,' he said, 'I have known you for a good many years. You haven't by any chance been lunching unwisely? You are not, perhaps, pulling my leg? If you are it is forgotten. But I must know.'

Mortimer, now, was really shocked. 'Good gracious no.' He hesitated uncomfortably. 'I don't think I have the reputation of being an impertinent man. If I may say so,' he added doggedly.

'You may. You do not. And I apologize.'

Haggard's – and therefore his characters' – preoccupation with the right and proper way of doing things is disarmingly charming, and extends to how Russell and Mortimer go about investigating the problem of the epsilon emissions. The resident of Number Twenty-Seven, Chatsworth Road is one Mrs. Tarbat, "A lady of easy virtue," as Mortimer puts it. To which Russell responds, "You mean a tart?" only to be corrected by Mortimer that Mrs. Tarbat is not a "tart", merely a "kept woman". This distinction may be slight, but to Russell it makes all the difference as to how she is handled – i.e., delicately.

Mrs. Tarbat, it transpires, entertains three different male suitors, one of whom may well be responsible for the epsilon rays, so Russell and Mortimer elect to bring in a disavowable third party to investigate: Charlie Percival-Smith, a subordinate of Mortimer's during the war. But when Percival-Smith is discovered by Mrs. Tarbat having broken into her house, he gets rather more than he bargained for...

All of this is wryly amusing, but there's a darker undercurrent to the novel, hinging on the unbalanced Sir Jeremy. His actions very nearly bring disaster on the whole enterprise, and speak to Haggard's willingness to entertain the deficiencies of the Establishment figures he depicts. Russell in particular is far from flawless; he spends much of the novel perplexed, trying to work out what on earth is going on. Evidently there are foreign powers at work, but to what end? The solution to the conundrum perhaps isn't a huge surprise, but as ever it's the journey to the answer which provides the interest, especially the Whitehall politicking that, out of necessity, Russell must negotiate. Haggard said of his books that they were, "basically political novels with more action than in the straight novel", and appropriately Slow Burner ends with a spot of welcome action: a mad dash to prevent a nuclear accident outside Oxford.

Colonel Russell would go on to feature in a further twenty-four novels, and in my third and final Haggard/Russell post, I'll be showcasing some of the British first editions of those novels I've managed to find over the past few months...

Monday 5 December 2011

William Haggard and the Colonel Charles Russell Spy Thriller Series: an Introduction to the Author and a Bibliography

Returning to my somewhat sporadic series of posts on spy fiction series (which was interrupted by nearly a week's worth of blogging on Richard Stark's Butcher's Moon), next we have a series by a British author who, despite having penned thirty-three thrillers over thirty-plus years, has slipped quietly into semi-obscurity.

As is the way with a lot of thriller writers, William Haggard – real name Richard Henry Michael Clayton, "Haggard" being his mother's maiden name, not to mention the surname of his fifth cousin, H. Rider Haggard (many thanks to Garen Ewing for those nuggets of info) – came to writing relatively late in life. Born in Croydon (not far from Beckenham, where I grew up) to Henry James and Mabel Sarah Clayton in 1907, Haggard was educated at Lancing College and Christ Church, Oxford, after which he embarked on a career as a civil servant, in the first instance in India, where he eventually became a judge. He served in the Indian Army from 1939 to 1946 – undergoing a course at the Staff College, Quetta – and after the war returned to Britain to join the British Civil Service, taking up a position at the Board of Trade, where he worked until 1969 (for a time as Controller of Enemy Property). But parallel to his day job Haggard had begun writing fiction; his debut novel, Slow Burner, was published in 1958 when Haggard was fifty-one, and introduced a character who would go on to appear in a further twenty-four adventures: Colonel Charles Russell.

Colonel Russell is the head of a branch of British Intelligence known as the Security Executive, tasked with defending the realm from any and all foreign threats – many verging on the science fictional in nature. Initially working behind the scenes, by the time Russell is introduced in Slow Burner he has already been serving with the Executive for twenty years, and is in his late fifties and close to retirement. (He would actually retire midway through the series, but would continue to assist the Executive thereafter.) 

Russell is very much a part of the Establishment, and a product of Haggard's own political views, which were firmly to the right of centre; in many ways the series was a precursor to Anthony Price's later David Audley spy novels: both series are set in Whitehall, and are as much political or detective thrillers as they are espionage fiction, although Haggard's books are characterized by an underlying preoccupation with decorum, with the correct way of doing things, whether it be in action or in conversation. Mind you, even compared to the avowedly conservative Price, Haggard was pretty far to the right; as Price himself put it during my interview with the writer in July, "he was more right wing than even me! He made me look like a liberal!"

Haggard's own view of his books, which he shared in a letter to Donald McCormick for McCormick's 1977 survey Who's Who in Spy Fiction, was that they were "basically political novels with more action than in the straight novel". Even so, much of the "action" takes place in offices and consists of clever types reasoning out sticky dilemmas (again, see Anthony Price). McCormick also notes in Haggard's entry in Who's Who in Spy Fiction that Haggard was "associated with Intelligence work during his career", so it seems that, in common with many spy novelists, Haggard knew of what he "spoke".

Haggard came to my attention thanks to Existential Ennui reader Richard, who left a comment on my review of Anthony Price's The Labyrinth Makers directing me to Haggard's work. Haggard died in 1993 and all of his books are long out of print (some have become quite scarce in any edition). There's scant information about him online either; the best resource for the Charles Russell series is this dedicated page on the Spy Guys & Gals site, while The Independent has a decent obituary of the author and an additional entry in the paper's Forgotten Authors series. For my part, I have another couple of posts planned on Haggard and Charles Russell: a review of Slow Burner, which will be up next, and a gallery of some of the Haggard/Russell first editions I've found on my travels. Hopefully all three of these posts will go some way towards raising the profile of William Haggard, a fine writer who's long overdue a reappraisal. 


Colonel Charles Russell Series

1. Slow Burner (1958)
2. Venetian Blind (1959)
3. The Arena (1961)
4. The Unquiet Sleep (1962)
5. The High Wire (1963)
6. The Antagonists (1964)
7. The Hard Sell (1965)
8. The Powder Barrel (1965)
9. The Power House (1966)
10. The Conspirators (1967)
11. A Cool Day for Killing (1968)
12. The Doubtful Disciple (1969); features Russell's replacement as head of the Security Executive, Richard Laver
13. The Hardliners (1970)
14. The Bitter Harvest (1971), a.k.a. Too Many Enemies
15. The Old Masters (1973), a.k.a. The Notch on the Knife
16. The Scorpion's Tail (1975)
17. Yesterday's Enemy (1976)
18. The Poison People (1977)
19. Visa to Limbo (1978)
20. The Median Line (1979)
21. The Money Men (1981)
22. The Mischief Makers (1982); features fellow Security Executive operative William Wilberforce Smith
23.  The Heirloom (1983)
24. The Meritocrats (1985)
25. The Vendettists (1990)

Paul Martiny Novels

The Protectors (1972)
The Kinsmen (1974)

William Wilberforce Smith Novels

The Martello Tower (1986)
The Diplomatist (1987) 

Other Novels

The Telemann Touch (1958)
Closed Circuit (1960)
Need To Know (1984); this one may or may not be a part of the Charles Russell series – opinions vary
The Expatriots (1989)