Category: Uncategorized

Basil, Nigel and me

Let’s digress a bit from Venice, Nathan Sutherland and Prog Rock for a bit.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that old films are a hobby of mine (I should probably expand on that by saying that I define pretty much everything after 1970 as “a new film”) and over the past few months I’ve been rewatching the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, in order.

Now, many other Sherlocks are available. You may wish to make a case for Eille Norwood, Christopher Plummer, Benedict Cumberbatch, even Buster Keaton. But my three favourites have always been, in no particular order, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing.

None of them are quite perfect, however. As brilliant as he was, it’s distressingly obvious that Brett was seriously ill during the latter episodes of his series, which can make them a difficult watch. Cushing’s film of The Hound of the Baskervilles is a wonderful thing, yet the low budget of his later TV episodes is plain to see and even the actor was less than enamoured of them.

As for Rathbone – well, here we have two problems that, in all honesty, aren’t really problems at all.

First of all, “The Contemporary Setting Problem”. In 1939, 20th Century Fox produced two big-budget ‘A’ pictures – The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes before Universal acquired the rights, and put out 12 modestly-budgeted ‘B’s, all of them running at about the seventy minute mark. Universal also set the series in contemporary times, to the extent of having Holmes battle the Third Reich in the early films. But this really isn’t an issue – yes, it’s a bit strange seeing Holmes with a very unHolmesian haircut fighting Nazis, but – after the first three – the series goes all shadows and fog and genuinely looks timeless.

The second one, of course, is “The Watson Problem”. Nigel Bruce’s characterisation, it is said, is silly, buffoonish and far away from Conan Doyle’s conception of the brave, resourceful ex-soldier. This is true. But you know what? I don’t care. Bruce’s Watson is a bit of a silly arse, and all the more so as the series progresses. Yet he’s also brave, kind, warm and – most of all – enormous fun. And that, frankly, is enough for me.

So with the two problems that are not actually problems dealt with, let’s have a quick rattle through the whole series.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939). Where it all begins. Tremendously atmospheric, with a terrific cast that includes Lionel Atwill and John Carradine; whilst Mary Gordon makes the first of her many appearances as Mrs Hudson. Rathbone nails the character of Holmes from the off, and Bruce’s Watson is actually played pretty straight here. The lack of a musical score is a bit odd though, and it has to be said that the juvenile leads (Rathbone was second billed to Richard Greene) are pretty wooden.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L Werker, 1939). Moriarty plans to steal the Crown Jewels. Basil sings “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”. Ida Lupino, no less, turns up as the heroine. This is enjoyable enough, but, really, it could have been so much better. There’s no getting away from the fact that it looks and feels stagey and, crucially, George Zucco’s brilliant Professor Moriarty is absent for much of the film.

So far, so quite good. There’s now a gap of three years, Universal acquire the rights, and then Basil and Nigel return to fight Nazis. I usually refer to the first three films as “The Bad Haircut Years”. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know why.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins, 1942). And this, perhaps, is where the story really begins. Holmes battles to uncover “The Voice of Terror”, a Lord Haw-Haw figure who occasionally takes over the airways in order to predict imminent death and destruction. It’s an effective and surprisingly grim set up. The great Henry Daniell makes his first appearance in a Holmes film, as does Evelyn Ankers. (Digression : all gentlemen of a certain age with an interest in genre cinema will go all misty eyed when they see the words “Evelyn Ankers” in the credits. This is actually the law. She’s great in this, in a different type of role to the ones she was usually given. And, if she can’t *quite* pull off a convincing Cockney accent, we don’t care).

Note : all the following films in the series are directed by Roy William Neill. Just so you know, because otherwise it’s going to get a bit boring retyping “Roy William Neill” time and time again.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). Holmes helps a Swiss scientist evade a trap set by the Gestapo, in order to smuggle a bombsight – the eponymous Secret Weapon – into Britain. Moriarty (Lionel Atwill this time), of course, also has his eyes on it. Holmes gets to wear lots of disguises. There’s a classic “I could kill you now, but instead I will subject you to this ridiculously over-complicated means of execution” scene. And, best of all, Dennis Hoey’s wonderful Inspector Lestrade makes his first appearance.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). I think this is generally seen as being the weakest of the “Nazi Trilogy” but I think I actually prefer it to Secret Weapon. Holmes and Watson are in the USA, where the MacGuffin is a microfilm that all all costs must not fall into The Wrong Hands. The Wrong Hands, in this case, belong to George Zucco who gets far more to do here than in Adventures. Henry Daniell appears for the second time; and there’s much fun to be had as Watson experiments with bubble gum, struggles with the US sports pages, reads comic books and declares Flash Gordon to be ” a very capable fellow”.

And this brings an end to the “Nazi Trilogy” or, if you prefer, “The Bad Haircut Trilogy”. They’re all good fun but, from now on, Holmes would look like Holmes and the films themselves would feel more like Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). This is where the series really kicks into gear. It’s a pretty faithful version of “The Musgrave Ritual”, but Neill ramps up the atmosphere so what we have is a near-horror Old Dark House movie. Watson gets a little more agency than usual, and it’s nice to see that he actually has a life beyond Baker Street. Hillary Brooke and her impeccable English accent appear for the first time, Hoey’s Lestrade is back and – well, it’s just ever so well done.

The Spider Woman (1943). This cobbles together bits of The Final Problem, The Sign of Four, The Speckled Band and probably many others as well. It really shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly due to a bravura performance from the legendary Gail Sondergaard; and Bruce, who gets to show that Watson isn’t quite such a silly arse after all. The climax does rather depend on us believing that fairground shooting galleries used live ammunition during World War II, but the rest of it is so good we can let that one go.

The Scarlet Claw (1944). Ah, now we’re talking! This comprehensively out-Baskervilles Baskerville as Holmes and Watson battle possibly supernatural forces in a remote Canadian village. Terrifically atmospheric, all shadows and fog, and there’s a nice twist to the ending as well.

The Pearl of Death (1944). A retelling of “The Six Napoleons”, but we’re still firmly in horror territory as Rondo Hatton appears as the back-breaking “Hoxton Creeper” (“‘Oxton ‘Orror, I calls him”, says Lestrade). One of the high points of the series, with a splendid performance from Miles Mander at its centre. Oh, and Evelyn Ankers (did I mention Evelyn Ankers? Oh, I see I did) gets to play a villain and she’s ever so good at it and…and…okay…let’s move on.

The House of Fear (1945). “The Five Orange Pips”, relocated to a remote Scottish mansion. Like Faces Death, it’s an Old Dark House film and all the better for it. Secret passages, a sinister housekeeper, an ever-decreasing group of suspects – it’s all here. Oh, and Watson has a chat with an owl in a graveyard as well.

The Woman in Green (1945). This one has a very grim premise for the time : a serial killer is preying on young women, and removing a forefinger from each victim. Hillary Brooke and Henry Daniell are back, and Matthew Boulton’s Inspector Gregson replaces Hoey’s Lestrade. The plot does strain credulity, hinging as it does on Brooke’s Lydia Marlowe being able to hypnotise people into believing they’ve committed murder. No matter, it’s an excellent little thriller, and Daniell’s Moriarty is quite possibly the best in cinema.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945). Adventures on the High Seas, as Holmes plays deck quoits, Watson sings “Loch Lomond” and Sinister Agents of a Foreign Power abound. Annoyingly, Watson is about to regale us with the tale of The Giant Rat of Sumatra when Holmes notices that a party cracker has a bomb in it and so we never do find out just why the world was not yet ready for it.

Terror by Night (1946). This one seems to be a little unloved, but I really like movies set on trains and so, of course, I really like this one as well. Alan Mowbray makes for a good Colonel Sebastian Moran and, down amongst the smaller roles, is minor genre favourite Skelton Knaggs. Lestrade is back for the first time since House of Fear, but, sadly, this is his last hurrah as there’s only one film left…

Dressed to Kill (1946). Another variation on “The Six Napoleons”, this time featuring a hunt for three music boxes made by a convict in Dartmoor Prison which reveal the location of stolen plates for forging £5 notes (well, it was a lot of money in those days). Did prisoners really make music boxes? Perhaps they did. Things go a little bit meta when Patricia Morison’s villainess fools Watson by means of the exact same trick that he had just written up in his account of “A Scandal in Bohemia”. But never mind – he gets to solve the mystery anyway, albeit accidentally.

And that, sadly, was that. Nigel Bruce, I imagine, would have been happy to continue to his dying day, but Rathbone was tired of being stereotyped and decided he’d had enough. He would never get such a great role again. If the more recent films, perhaps, were not quite as good as that wonderful sequence from Faces Death to Pearl of Death, they were never less than entertaining. There were, I think, still a few years of magic left had Rathbone decided to continue. Yet, even though he was tiring of the part, there’s never, ever a sense that he’s just phoning it in.

Fourteen films, then. Some are better than others, sure, but in all honesty there’s not a bad one among them. What we have, perhaps most importantly, is the sense of being amongst friends, amongst a great ensemble cast that stretches over seven years and nearly twenty hours of viewing time. George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, and Henry Daniell. Mary Gordon and Dennis Hoey. Hillary Brooke and Evelyn Ankers (did I mention Evelyn Ankers?) It’s impossible not to feel a little cheered upon seeing their names in the credits. But above them all, of course, are Rathbone and Bruce, slipping into their familiar roles like comfy shoes, relaxed and happy in each other’s company like the great friends they were.

The series has been a pleasure to revisit. So join me, please, in raising a glass to Basil and Nigel : the original Dynamic Duo.

For a far more in-depth view of the films than I could ever hope to give, do check out Adam Roche’s wonderful “The Game is afoot”, a lovely, warm-hearted view of the whole series. Or, for a closer look at The Pearl of Death, listen to All the Best Lines, episode 9

The Angels of Venice – Dates

Well, some of you lucky people have your copies already whilst I’m still waiting to see mine. Which means no unboxing video this year. Although, given what happened last year, that’s probably a good thing.

Anyway, Caroline and I are heading back to the UK tomorrow to see friends and family and – huzzah – to do a few events as well. The last two Nathan novels came out during lockdown and so this will be my first chance to actually, properly celebrate the arrival of a new book since The Venetian Masquerade came out waaaay back in 2019.

One of nicest things about the past few years has been re-establising contact with my old friend James Oswald. James and I first met in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, thirty years ago now and, sadly, lost touch after James and Barbara came to our wedding in 2000. Lovely, then, to meet up with him again, by sheer coincidence, at Bloody Scotland in 2019. Well, I say sheer coincidence. It was in the bar, so perhaps not quite as sheer as all that.

He has many, many stories about me. Some of which may even be repeatable. But to have the chance of hearing some of them, you’ll have to come and see us both in conversation, either in Edinburgh or Dundee.

So here are the dates.

Monday, July 18th, 19.00 : Waterstones, York
Tuesday, July 19th, 18.00 : Waterstones, Edinburgh West End (with James)
Wednesday, July 20th, 17.00 : Waterstones, Dundee (with James)
Tuesday, July 26th, 18.30 : Waterstones, Swansea

https://www.waterstones.com/events/search/author/3122316

Hoping to see you there! If you can’t, well I never pass a bookshop without asking to sign stock, so I’ll be tweeting those shops with signed copies.

It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks and much of it is going to be spent on the train. Many thanks to Jess at Little, Brown for organising all this and, of course, Caroline for dealing with the logistics of it all. It would, frankly, have been well beyond me.

And, of course, many thanks to all of you for all the messages and all your support. It means a great deal. I hope you enjoy the new book!


Ciao Massimo

Hi everyone! First of all, apologies if the subject of this particular blog might seem a bit obscure or not really your thing. But it was something I wanted to write. There’ll be more about Angels of Venice and signing sessions in the next few days, promise…

I often listen to music whilst writing – much of The Venetian Masquerade was written with the Monteverdi Vespers on continuous loop – but I find that words, particularly in English, get in the way of mine. So I listen to a lot of soundtracks, particularly Italian – Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Stelvio Cipriani amongst others. And, as many of you know, I also have something of a Goblin obsession.

I don’t remember when I first came across their music, but it must have been the first time I saw Suspiria. Which means it must be many years ago now. Like the film itself, the soundtrack is not something on which people have no opinion. You either find it a masterpiece, or you find it unlistenable. I’m firmly in the “imperishable work of art” camp. Caroline, by contrast, has only seen/heard the first fifteen minutes…

The band made their name with their soundtrack to Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso, the original composer Giorgio Gaslini having fallen out with the director. The main theme, with its memorable acoustic guitar / keyboard riff was a number one single in Italy. The soundtrack album, selling over a million copies, similarly hit number one in the album charts. It led to further collaborations with Argento, and beyond, in the Golden Age of Italian Progressive Rock and, perhaps, of Italian film music.

Goblin are often seen as being Claudio Simonetti’s band, but that, I think, is not quite the whole story. Yes, keyboards often seem to dominate, but listen more closely and you soon realise how much the others contributed in the classic lineup of Simonetti-Pignatelli-Morante-Marangolo. Profondo Rosso is unthinkable without Fabio Pignatelli’s bass, and his work on Tenebre is nothing short of amazing.

Morante, likewise, was a highly accomplished and versatile musician. Just listen to his needle-sharp riffing on Profondo Rosso or his use of bouzouki on Suspiria. Perhaps my favourite work by him, however, is the title theme to La via della droga , a bluesy, almost Hendrixy piece that sounds wonderfully 1970s. In a good way.

The band fell apart in the early 80s. The Tenebre soundtrack was credited to Simonetti-Pignatelli-Morante (a legal dispute meant they couldn’t use the name Goblin without Marangolo). Simonetti and Pignatelli were back, this time credited as Goblin, for 1985’s Phenomena, but, by 1989, only Pignatelli remained for La Chiesa. Morante, in the meantime, seemed happy pursuing a solo career.

The four of them reunited for one final collaboration with Argento, 2000’s Nonhosonno / Sleepless. It’s an excellent soundtrack, but the experience was an unhappy one. Old enmities quickly resurfaced, and – in his autobiography Il ragazzo d’argento – Simonetti recounts how he would record in one studio with Morante, whilst Pignatelli and drummer Agostino Marangolo would use another. Various versions of the band – New Goblin, Goblin Rebirth, Back to the Goblin, Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (yes, there were a lot of Goblins) – continued and still continue to this day, but this, effectively, was the end.

Massimo Morante died on 23rd June, 2022. He was just 69 years old.

There is one less Goblin in the world now. And that saddens me. Ciao Massimo.

Cooking with Nathan : Monkfish

Or, to be absolutely precise, bocconcini of monkfish with potato, tomato and a black olive crumble.

There really isn’t much to go wrong with this one. The only thing that takes a bit of time is the olive crumble, and you can prep that in advance.

I cooked this with a G&T to hand, and Kraftwerk’s 3-D. Der Katalog on headphones. Not the whole thing, of course. I think I’d barely made it past the Autobahn section by the time we were ready to go.

Now, this recipe is not an exact science in terms of quantities. As a rule of thumb, you’re kind of looking for an equal amount of fish, potato and tomato. That’s pretty much it. Look at the photo, that’s about right.

Ingredients (for two)

Two monkfish fillets (you could do this yourself, but your fishmonger will do it in seconds and maintain a complete set of fingers as well)
Similar quantity of potato
Similar quantity of tomato
Basil leaves
Ten black olives
Olive oil
Salt/pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat your oven to 120 degrees.
  2. Stone and halve the olives. Lay them on a lined baking tray inside the oven for up to two hours.
  3. Do something else for about an hour and a half
  4. Peel and dice the potato.
  5. Chop the tomatoes into similar sized chunks. Small tomatoes are the best here – I used datterini – but basically just use the best you can find. The key to this recipe is using the best ingredients to hand.
  6. Cut the monkfish into similar sized pieces.
  7. Put the potato cubes on to steam. For pieces this size, it should only take fifteen minutes.
  8. Gently fry the tomatoes. You don’t want them to fall apart; just enough to warm them through and release their juices.
  9. Take the olives out of the oven, and chop them as fine as you please.
  10. When the potatoes are almost done (after about ten minutes), add the monkfish nuggets to the steamer for another 5 minutes.
  11. Add the monkfish/potato combo to the tomato pan. Tear up some basil and throw that in as well. Drizzle with a generous quantity of the best olive oil you have – and this really is a dish that will benefit from the best oil you can find.
  12. Plate it up, and scatter the olive crumble on top. Prosecco or white wine to accompany (doesn’t have to be posh…notice from the photo that ours is coming out of a plastic bottle. A 1.5 litre plastic bottle, admittedly…)

    It all looks very pretty and – the crumble aside – it’s nice and quick to make, so ideal for entertaining. Caroline thought a little garlic might have made it even better but I’m not so sure – the flavours are quite delicate in this dish, and I’d worry that the garlic might overwhelm them. But by all means give it a go!

    Happy cooking and eating everyone!

Cooking with Nathan : Night of the Squid!

I’m at the pescheria on Palanca, buying fish for the weekend. Caroline’s new favourite dish is nuggets of monkfish with boiled potatoes, black olives, cherry tomatoes and the best olive oil you can lay your hands on. So, obviously, I need a couple of coda di rospo for Sunday. I wonder what else to buy. I was in a swordfish kind of mood, but they haven’t got any. Neither are there any moscardini, so it’s not going to be an octopus weekend either.

But what they have are some modestly-sized squid and some little gamberi rosa. And I think, you know, it’s been some time since I stuffed a squid. So that’s what I go home with…

Squid stuffed with prawns (for two)

Ingredients

4 medium sized squid

200g small prawns (unshelled weight, and you need the smaller, more delicate ones here)

Tbsp capers

Some basil. Not a lot.

Salt, to taste

Method

  1. You could clean your squid yourself. But, to be honest, your fishmonger will do it quicker and better than you ever will, so let them do that.
  2. It was Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday so I cooked this to Revolver / Band on the Run. I think it worked.
  3. Caroline had an “Etna” Spritz. I had a G&T.
  4. Take the wings/tentacles/prawns and fry them until just about cooked. Add a few capers – not too many, there’s a delicate flavour to the prawns and we don’t want to overwhelm them. A few basil leaves might be nice as well. Then chop the whole mixture up, but not too finely. We want a bit of texture here!
  5. Give the squid a good old rinse, just to be sure there’s no icky bits remaining in the interior.
  6. Take a tablespoon, and spoon the squid/prawn mixture into the interior. Don’t overfill them. You’ll think you haven’t got enough but, trust me, you have. They will also look a bit pale and wheezy and floppy, but take courage!
  7. You should now have four squid “sausages”. Gently fry them until golden. Don’t rush it, take all the time you need here. You want to get a nice golden, caramelised crust on the outside. As you cook them, the squid will contract giving you a lovely stuffed seafood sausage that will look ever so cheffy.
  8. I served this with roasted tomatoes and garlic, and some chilled red wine. It’s summer after all.
  9. Happy eating everyone!

Passports, Podcasts and Prog

Well, it’s been an interesting few weeks. I finished teaching a couple of weeks ago, giving me some proper time to knuckle down to next year’s Nathan novel. But I’ve also had the chance to pay a short visit back to the UK in order to visit my Mum and Dad in South Wales. More than that, I’d also been very honoured to have been invited to the presentation of the Dylan Thomas Prize at Swansea University.

So, it’s all planned out and, early last Thursday morning, I set out for Treviso airport armed with a pocketful of tickets and a helpful “what to do now” document that Caroline had put together for me, just in case things don’t run to schedule and I start to get in A Bit Of A State.

There are a couple of potentially difficult moments further down the line… Mum and Dad live in West Wales and the rail service, beyond Carmarthen, is that area of the map marked “Heare be Dragones” where I have just four minutes to make a connection: making this connection marks the difference between meeting my dad in the pub, and the landlord’s cry of “last orders gentlemen, please”.

Still, here I am at Treviso with all my documents neatly folded, and my “Carta Brexit” tucked away inside my passport.

There’s just one thing that bothers me.

My passport. There’s something about it that just doesn’t look quite right. The cover seems to be a little bit less weathered than I remember.

Don’t be silly Phil. It’s your passport. Of course it is.

I flick it open.

Caroline’s photo looks back at me.

I close the passport. I open it again. I stare fixedly at the photo for about thirty seconds because that, of course, will magically cause it to switch.

For a moment, I consider the alternatives. Could I feasibly bluff my way through this?

No. If it were that easy, then Carlos the Jackal would have thought of it years ago, and the plot of “The Day of the Jackal” would have been considerably simpler.

There’s nothing for it but to go home. By the time I arrive Caroline – bless her – has rebooked my flight for two days later. There will be no Dylan Thomas Prize ceremony for me – not this year – but at least I’ll get to see Mum and Dad.

So there’s a cautionary tale for you – I think the lesson is, never travel without your other half. And if you do, then check that ever-so-important photo before you leave the house.

What else has been happening? Well, I hope to have some dates lined up for signings in July, but – in the meantime – I’ve been lucky enough to be the guest on a number of podcasts.

First up was an episode of John Bleasdale’s excellent “Writers on Film”, in which we had a good old natter about my love for vintage horror and Italian horror.

https://shows.acast.com/writers-on-film/episodes/philip-gwynne-jones-talks-vintage-horror-and-a-troms-round-u

Next were two lovely Welsh guys, Gav and Stef. I joined them in their monthly battle against the Forces of Evil, when we discussed the idea of Euro horror and, in particular, two genuinely great films from Sweden and Spain – “Let the Right One In”, and “The Orphanage”.

https://anchor.fm/gav–stef-vs-the-forces-of-evil/episodes/Euro-Horror-Let-The-Right-One-In-v-The-Orphanage-e1hbmem

And, finally, I was delighted to be involved in a discussion with my Crime Cymru pals Alis Hawkins and Gail Williams at the CrimeTime podcast, where we discussed, well, Crime. And Wales! And Welsh Crime (with a slight diversion via Venice).

https://uk-podcasts.co.uk/podcast/crime-time-fm/gwyl-crime-cymru-festival-welsh-crime-fiction

‘But Phil!’ I hear you cry, ‘this is all well and good, but where is the “Prog” aspect of this blog title?’

A good question.

Well now <deep breath>, at this year’s online Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival, I found myself lucky enough to be on a panel with Mark Ellis, Mark Billingham and Barry Forshaw. We talked a lot about crime, the importance of place, the importance of period, the difficulties of men writing convincing female characters and… and…

…and, well, some idiot kept going on about Hawkwind the whole time. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll never be invited back again. Try and ignore him and concentrate on the chap with the sexy voice who does the voice-over on the introductory video. He’s good! I’m sure he’ll go far….

You can find the whole discussion here at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5Ahjo_r4BM

– along with tons of excellent panels from this year’s Crime Cymru festival. We hope to see you in Aberystwyth next year!

Well, that’s all for now. Caroline and I are heading off for the HeadRead literature festival in Tallinn next week. Lots of photographs will follow. And this time, I’m sure, all our passports will be in the right place….

Cheers for now,

Philip

Upcoming Events

Well, we’re still three months away from publication of “The Angels of Venice”. But I’ve been keeping busy with teaching, and working on next year’s Nathan Sutherland book. Yes, we have a title! But no, I can’t tell you…not just yet, anyway.

I’m hoping there’ll be a few UK signings when the book comes out in July, but – in the meantime – I’ve got some events lined up over the next month and a bit.

First up is Friday April 29th, online at at 19.30 CET at Il Ponte, Marburg; when I’ll be talking about the German edition of “The Venetian Masquerade” together with my translator Birgit Salzmann. I’ll be talking in Italian, Birgit in German, so – although I’ll be giving a couple of readings in English – do bear that in mind!

https://www.ilponte-marburg.de

Next is this year’s Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival ! Now, we should all have been in Aberystwyth downing pints in cozy pubs for this one but – due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control – we’re online again. I’m looking forward to chatting with Marks Billingham and Ellis, on Tuesday May 3rd at 20.00 GMT. The legendary Barry Forshaw will be chairing. Tickets available free at :-

https://gwylcrimecymrufestival.co.uk/pif/

– it’s a brilliant programme so, while you’re there, why not book for everything else as well!

And finally, at the end of May, I’m thrilled to have been invited to the HeadRead Festival in Tallinn. I’ll be in conversation with Jason Goodwin on Sunday 29th May at 16.00 CET. The programme has only just been announced and the website is still in a work in progress, so no idea yet if this will be streamed. But I’m very excited about heading off to Estonia so expect lots of photos here whatever happens!

https://headread.ee

As I said, I’m hoping to be back in the UK doing some live signings in July and hope to meet as many of you as possible then.

Finally, I learned the other day that over 100,000 Nathan Sutherland novels have now been sold in the UK. I find it very hard to get my head around that sort of figure. I certainly never expected it when I first started writing about the Honorary Consul back in 2014. Thank you all so much! There will be more to come, I promise…

A New Day Yesterday

Ten years on, and I still have the occasional nightmare. Now, I’m not averse to a bad dream…indeed, in this line of work, they can occasionally prove useful…but these particular ones are a bit different.

The details vary, but the the shape is essentially the same. I’m a computer programmer at some sort of nameless institution that is probably a bank. Something very bad has happened. I am not going to be allowed to go home until it’s been fixed. Quite often I’m hot-desking, wandering around an ever-shifting labyrinth of corridors in search of a computer to use. On one occasion I find myself carrying a duvet as well – because, of course, there is no question of being allowed to go home until the problem is sorted. Sometimes I even find myself dreaming in UNIX. Old habits, it seems, die very, very hard.

And then I wake up and realise that – well, I don’t do this sort of thing any more. Neither of us do.

Incredibly, March 4th marked the tenth anniversary of our moving to Venice.

March 4th 2012 didn’t begin all that well. The two of us were so stressed we genuinely couldn’t remember if we were flying out from Gatwick or Heathrow. We did, thankfully, finally decide on the right one although – thinking back – I’m still not one hundred percent certain which it was. I remember sitting down with a coffee at the airport and realising that, for the first time in my adult life, I no longer possessed a key for anything; a thought that was simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

And then…well, you know what came next. If you don’t, then some bloke called Philip Gwynne Jones has written a book about it. Suffice to say that everything changed. Italy gave us a second chance and we will always be grateful for that.

As for the nightmares…they’re few and far between these days. Dave Brock of Hawkwind even turned up in a recent one and told me it was going to be all right. That, I thought, was a good sign.

We have keys in our pockets again, now. Thank you Italy!

2022

I’ve got to be honest here – 2021 was not a bad year for us.

Okay, it wasn’t ideal that The Venetian Legacy came out when bookshops were closed in England, but we still managed to crack the Times Top 10 (which I genuinely wasn’t expecting!). There weren’t many real-life events, sadly, and I wasn’t able to do anything in the way of signings beyond scurrying around every Waterstones in London last October and signing stock. But on the plus side, I was able to meet up with readers and Crime Cymru pals at the Crickhowell Literary Festival. And, of course, there was the inaugural Gwyl Crime Cymru digital festival which was terrific fun. So, as I said, it wasn’t a bad year.

And there’s a few things to look forward to in 2022. The Venetian Game will be published in Estonia, and I’m very much looking forward to the Headread Literary festival in Tallinn in May. My German publisher, Rowohlt, continues to be committed to the series and so Venetian Masquerade comes out in March with Venetian Gothic following next year. My continued thanks to Dinah Fischer and, of course, my translator and friend Birgit Salzmann.

And then, of course, there’s this year’s Nathan Sutherland novel, The Angels of Venice. Now, this is our first time in hardback and so you might have noticed that the usual publication schedule has changed. Quite simply, a few of – shall we say – the Big Hitters have books out earlier in the year. By holding Angels back a few months, my publisher is hoping to maximise its visibility. My apologies for the delay but, from this year on, we should settle into a pattern of hardback/ebook/audio in July, with the paperback coming the following January.



We’ll have to see what happens event-wise. Crime Cymru will be digital again this year due to circumstances very much beyond the festival committee’s control. But, like last year, it’ll still be brilliant! Details as soon as I have them confirmed. Then there’ll be Tallinn the following month and I’m currently discussing possibilities for an event in Germany when Maskerade comes out, whether that be in person or online. And in mid-July I’ll be looking to do some signings in the UK. Fingers very much crossed.

As I said at the top, 2021 wasn’t a bad year for us. I know other people’s experiences were very, very different. With my continued thanks to you all, and sincerest wishes for a happier, more peaceful 2022.

A story for Christmas

I’ve just realised that – although I tweeted this a couple of weeks ago – there might be a few of you who haven’t seen it. My apologies, and I hope you enjoy it!


For Elena, Sebastiano and Vera

Dario, Vally, Federica, Emily and I stood at the great entrance to the Basilica of the Salute and realised that balloons were going to be a problem.

‘We should have thought of this,’ said Dario.

A young man in clerical garb stood at the entrance barring our way. He looked at us, and then down at Emily, happy and smiling with two enormous helium balloons floating above her head, one in the shape of the Amazing Spider-Man, the other in the shape of a motorcycle. His face bore the expression of one who is going to have to deliver bad news to a small child.

Signori -‘, he began, with a weak smile.

Dario interrupted him. ‘It’s the balloons, isn’t it?’ He turned to Vally. ‘I knew the balloons would be a problem.’ He turned back to the young man. ‘We’ll be very quick, I promise.’

Signori -‘, his smile grew ever more watery, ‘- I’m sorry but…’

‘Five minutes, that’s all.’ He looked at Vally. ‘That’s enough, right?’

I put my hand on his arm. ‘Dario, there’ll be people there wanting to pray. And I don’t know very much about that but I’m pretty sure having the Amazing Spider-Man floating in the air just in front of you isn’t going to help with getting into the right frame of mind.’ I stretched my hand out to Emily. ‘You go in, and just let me look after them, eh?’

‘You sure, vecio? Why you?’

‘Because I’m the least religious person here. And I’ve always wanted to be a balloon monitor.’

Emily passed them over to me, slowly, and with an expression on her face that suggested it would be the worse for me if the same number of balloons was not there upon her return.

Vally took her by the hand and led her inside. Fede smiled, touched my cheek, and followed her.

Dario frowned. ‘You sure this is okay?’

‘Dario, they’re balloons. What could go wrong?’

‘Okay, now I’m worried.’

I grinned. ‘Don’t be. Go on, have a good time. Sorry, wrong words. I mean, just go on in. Take all the time you need.’

A fine rain was starting to fall, and I leaned back into the shelter of the walls, trying not to look as if I was selling anything. I looked out at the procession of Venetians making their way across the votive bridge that stretched from the sestiere of San Marco across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro.

At least we’d had a Festa della Salute this year. The previous one had been a dour affair shorn of almost everything that made it special. But this year some sort of normality had been restored. The temporary votive bridge was back, to the delight of all except the residents in the vicinity of Santa Maria del Giglio, who – as ever – found their vaporetto stop disappearing. The mercatino was back, and the air was rich with the smells of anything and everything that could be fried, doused in sugar or – ideally – both. Small children with enormous balloons were back, meaning that your space on the vaporetto would be shared with a menagerie of cartoon characters that I was far too old to be familiar with. I looked upwards. Except for Spidey, of course. At least I recognised him. And later that evening, we’d head out together to eat castradina, that hearty Venetian stew of smoked mutton and cabbage that really was better than it sounded.

Yes, close your eyes and take in the smells and the sounds and it could be any normal Festa della Salute. Open them again and, well, you saw the masks and the not-always-convincing attempts at social distancing and realised that it was no more than normal-ish. But Venice would settle for that, right now.

Vally, Dario, Emily and Fede emerged from the Salute, and smiled as they saw me trying to shelter from the rain with only Spider-Man to help me.

‘Good?’, I said.

Fede squeezed my free hand. ‘A bit strange. I always light a candle for papà but they’re not allowing us to do that this year.’

‘They’re not?’

She shook her head. ‘No. We just give them a candle and they light it at some point in the future. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.’

Normal-ish, then. And that would do for now.

Emily tugged at my other hand. I smiled down at her, and passed her the balloons. She stared up at Spider-Man, as if to be absolutely sure that he’d come to no harm whilst in my possession, and then smiled and skipped away after handing the strings of the motorcycle to Dario who looked a little embarrassed.

I grinned. ‘Wait a minute. That’s not Emily’s, is it? That’s yours.’

Vally laughed. ‘You’ve only just worked that out?’

‘Yes. I naively assumed the balloons were for the small girl. Was I wrong?’

Dario pretended to grumble, and looked down at his shoes. ‘Well, okay, yes. It’s mine. But that’s a Ducati 950. Good bike.’

‘Even in balloon form?’

‘Even in balloon form.’ He gave up trying to look serious. ‘Come on, I’m hungry. It’s raining and Nathan’s lost his superhero to keep the rain off. Let’s go and eat.’

Dario pushed his plate aside, and sighed happily.

‘Good?’

‘Sure was.’ He tapped on the window, inclining his head towards Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. ‘The lights will be going on soon. Christmas is nearly here.’

‘It certainly is. Any plans?’

There was silence around the table for a moment, and I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing.

‘I mean, you’ll be heading off to Trieste, right? To see Vally’s mum and dad.’

Vally sighed. ‘Maybe. We’re not sure.’

‘But we can travel again now. In between regions, I mean.’

‘We can. At the moment. But what about in a month’s time? Who knows?’

‘I know. But we can hope for the best, eh?’

She shook her head. ‘No. We did that last year. Right up until the last week. And then we had to cancel. That made it worse for them.’ She nodded at Emily, and lowered her voice. ‘And for her. Having to tell her that we wouldn’t be seeing nonno and nonna on Christmas Day. So no, no plans this year. Maybe we’ll see them at New Year. If we’re allowed.’

‘Ah, that must be difficult. How are they?’

Vally looked down at the table. ‘It’s been tough for them. Being a long way from us. When I see them now, I just keep thinking that they look older, you know?’

I nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Look, why don’t you come around to ours?’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course. Look, if you’re at home , you’ll be stressing out about not being with your mum and dad. And somebody will be having to cook as well. Whereas if you come round to ours I’ll do the cooking and you can just relax. Six will be just as easy as three.’

‘That’d be so nice.’ Vally reached across the table and hugged me. ‘Thank you.’ She looked down at Emily. ‘Christmas dinner with Uncle Nathan then, cara. Won’t that be fun?’

The little girl frowned slightly as if unconvinced.

‘Remember he’s got a cat,’ Vally added.

Emily brightened, and I winced inwardly. Vally looked over at Fede. ‘This is okay, isn’t it?’

Fede smiled. ‘It’ll be lovely. Mamma will be there as well. She’ll be so happy to see a proper family around the table. Be prepared for her to make a big fuss over Emily.’ She leaned over and kissed me. ‘Well done tesoro, you’re becoming quite the New Man.’

‘Wow. Have we reached the moment at which everybody hugs me and tells me what a great guy I am?’

‘We have.’ Dario stood up and pulled me half out of my chair, drawing the breath from my lungs and a plaintive little N’yeep from me. ‘Thanks man. We’ll look forward to it.’

‘It’s settled then. Fantastic. Oh, but you might want to bring a chair with you. Actually make that two chairs. We’ve only got four.’

**********

Dario insisted on grappa at the end of the meal. To be honest, it didn’t take that much insisting, and we made our way happily and only slightly unsteadily homewards.

I’d been in a good mood upon leaving the restaurant, but started to fret during the walk home. Fede kept looking at me, knowing that something was up but not wanting to press me. She suggested a nightcap at the Brazilians but I wasn’t really in the mood and told her I’d rather have an early night.

She waited until I put the kitty biscuits down for Gramsci, and then gave me a gentle hug.

‘You’re thinking too much, tesoro.’

I gave a weak smile. ‘Is it that obvious?’

‘You hardly said a word on the way home and then you turned down a drink. Obviously, it’s serious. Come on. Tell me.’

I sighed. ‘I dunno. Things suddenly seem a bit complicated that’s all. So many things to go wrong.’

‘About Christmas? Come on, you’ve done a nice thing tonight. We’ll have a lovely time, all being together. And don’t worry about cooking. I’ll help. So will mamma.’

‘That’s just it. What if we can’t all be together? What if the rules change again? What if it’s like last year? Because if it is, I’ll…’

She put a finger to my lips. ‘Shush now. That’s four IFs. Let’s not worry about the IFs.’

‘I know, but I keep thinking…’

’Stop thinking then. This is Mr Grappa talking isn’t it? Come on now, there’s nothing we can do, whatever happens.’

‘I suppose you’re right.’

‘Of course I am. That’s my job. Now, would watching one of your horrible films cheer you up?’

I brightened. ‘Even Profondo Rosso?’

She did her best to keep the disappointment out of her voice and I loved her for it. ‘Again?’

‘We haven’t watched it since last Christmas.’

‘I’ll never understand why you think it’s a Christmas movie.’

‘It begins at Christmas.’

‘It begins with a stabbing at Christmas.’ She smiled. ‘Come on then. If this is what it takes.’

And so we curled up on the sofa together to watch a giallo from 1975 that even I had to admit was only tangentially related to the festive season. Gramsci’s ears twitched upon hearing the opening theme, and he slunk wearily under the sofa, safely out of reach of the terrible events unfolding on screen.

**********

Fede was right. It did cheer me up. Nevertheless, the IFs were still there, nagging away insistently at the back of my head, and I found it difficult to fall asleep…

At first, I thought it was just cold and that Fede or Gramsci had managed to steal the bedclothes away from me. But then my back twinged and I wondered if I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, thinking that perhaps both of them had left me to my own devices whilst watching yet another terrible old film of no interest to either of them.

I opened my eyes.

No wonder I’d felt cold.

The pink and white marbled floor could have been from any number of churches in Venice but, nevertheless, seemed familiar to me. A red glow came from a candle placed on top of a simple altar, and moonlight streamed in through the windows illuminating a gilded, empty picture frame.

The Valier chapel, in the church of Madonna dell’Orto.

I yawned, scratched my head and stood up, and yelped with the shock of the cold floor against my bare feet.

‘You should put some shoes on, you know?’

I yelped again, and jumped backwards.

The speaker was sitting on the opposite side of the chapel. At first I took him for a priest, but then I realised that what I had mistaken for a clerical collar was just a white collarless shirt under a flowing black robe. His hair, reddish, shoulder-length and almost painfully unfashionable, was topped off with a black cap, and he stared back at me with some amusement in his eyes.

I shook my head, and screwed my eyes shut. I heard the sound of his gentle laughter echo around the chapel.

I counted to ten and then opened my eyes. He was still there. For that matter, I was still there. There was something about his face, something familiar…

The Valier chapel in the church of Madonna dell’Orto. From where a Madonna and Child painted by Giovanni Bellini, in the fifty-first year of his long life, had been stolen almost thirty years previously, leaving nothing behind but a gilded picture frame.

I sat back down again, happy to take my feet off the freezing cold marble. ‘You must really like Bellini to come and look at an empty picture frame in the middle of the night,’ I said.

‘I could say the same about you,’ he smiled. He got to his feet, and walked to the altar, stretching up to trace his fingers around the empty interior of the frame. ‘Beside, this was a good piece. I was quite proud of it, you know.’

He turned around to stare at me, and this time there was no mistaking the resemblance. The face of a man I’d last seen in an oil painting at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

’You?’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Of course. Hello Nathan.’

‘I have to say I wasn’t expecting this.’

‘Me neither. So what brings you here?’

‘Too much castradina and a grappa too many.’

He shook his head. ‘There must be more to it than that. Something’s on your mind. I can tell. We should go for a drink.’

‘At this time of night?’

‘I’ll find somewhere that’ll let us in. Most people know me.’

‘Well, if I’m just imagining this, why not make it Florian’s?’

He sucked his teeth. ‘That’s a little too expensive. Even in your imagination. Besides, it’s Sunday. Casanova’s always there, holding court. Just showing off, if you ask me. He’s a terrible old bore and I’ve heard all his stories before. How about Quadri?’

‘Excellent. Do you think they’ll let me in in pyjamas?’ A thought struck me. ‘That’s a point. I never wear pyjamas. What am I doing in pyjamas?’

He sighed. ‘Nathan, I’m a long-dead painter from five hundred years ago. What you choose to wear in your subconscious is up to you. Now come on.’

**********

’So what are we drinking?’

‘I’ll have a small glass of red. It’s late, even for me. How about you?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe a Bellini would be appropriate?’

He grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. I gave decades of artistic service to this city. I’d hoped to be commemorated by something rather better than a fizzy drink.’

‘Oh. Okay then. I’ll have a small red as well.’

‘Two small reds it shall be. My treat.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course. Don’t worry I’ve had a tab here for nearly five hundred years. They’re not showing any signs of calling it in yet. So come on, Nathan. Tell me your problems.’

‘Where to start? Well first of all, I don’t understand why you turned up? I mean, why would my subconscious conjure up Giovanni Bellini to pour my heart out to?’

‘Well, who else would you have chosen?’

‘I dunno. Maybe Myrna Loy? Ingrid Bergman?’ I clicked my fingers. ‘Dave Brock!’

Giovanni frowned. ‘Who?’

‘Oh, never mind. I don’t understand it though.’

‘Well, we have a bit of history together Nathan. My painting in the Valier chapel. You pushed a cigarette into it once if I’m not mistaken.’

‘A copy! It was a copy!’

‘A very good copy, though.’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘That was rather naughty of you.’

‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Hey, I don’t suppose you know where the original is?’

‘Not at the moment. But I imagine those responsible will be joining us – on our side, if you see what I mean – in the not too distant future.’

‘You think they’ll tell you where it is?’

‘Eventually. Caravaggio tells me he has something unpleasant planned for them. He hates art thieves.’

‘You know Caravaggio?’

‘Of course. Good company when he’s sober. But he’s a nasty drunk. Oh, and it goes without saying, one should never play tennis against him.’ He winced. Just ever so slightly.

A handsome young man with long flowing locks clapped my companion on the back. Giovanni squeezed his hand. ’Ciao ,Giorgio.’

They exchanged a smile and a nod before the young man’s attention was distracted by the sight of a pretty girl at the other end of the room. He gave an apologetic shrug, and squeezed his way through the crowd to her, running his hands through his hair to be absolutely sure of presenting as bella a figura as possible.

‘Friend of yours?’, I said.

‘Giorgione. He might have been my best student. Always had an eye for the ladies. I always thought that would get him into trouble. And sure enough, it did.’

‘He died of the plague, didn’t he? He contracted it from his lover. At least, that’s what Vasari says.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, Vasari. I’d take anything he says with a pinch of salt. But there’s some truth in it.’ He looked across the room to where the young girl was blushing, as Giorgione leaned in for a kiss. Giovanni shook his head. ‘Poor Giorgio. She’ll be the death of him.’

I looked around. I’d been unaware of the sheer weight of people before, and, for a moment, I felt uneasy. The only face coverings to be seen were Carnival masks, and social distancing – particularly in young Giorgione’s case – was not being treated as a priority.

Giovanni caught the expression in my eyes. ‘What are you thinking, Nathan?’

‘I’m thinking that having a drink, at Quadri, in pyjamas, with Giovanni Bellini feels bizarrely normal.’

‘Perhaps it is. Given the past few years you’ve had. That everyone’s had.’

‘Yep. My subconscious dredging up a long-dead artist as a drinking buddy is what we now call the New Normal.’

He smiled. ‘It’ll pass, Nathan. All this.’

I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t feel like it, Giovanni. Sometimes it feels like it’ll never be normal again. I’m one of the lucky ones, I know. But I’ve had to deliver bad news to people. And I’m tired of that. Just so tired of that.

‘I remember when it all started. All those signs in people’s windows. Tutto andrà bene. “Everything will be all right”. And for those first few months, just sitting at home, it seemed we had all the time in the world. But we didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t time being given to us, it was time being stolen from us. And now I’m thinking about Dario and his family. About Vally’s parents. About people growing older and that we might not be able to see them for much longer. About not being able to be there when they need us. And right now, all I want is for Dario and Vally and Emily and Marta to be able to sit around a table at Christmas and just do normal, silly stuff and I’m wondering if…’

Giovanni frowned. ‘Enough of the IFs Nathan.’

I smiled. ‘Do you know my wife by any chance?’

’Well perhaps you should listen to her.’ He reached over and shook me by the shoulder, ever so gently. ‘There’ll be other Christmases, Nathan.’

‘You’re right, of course.’ I took a deep breath. ’But so many people have died, Giovanni.’

He nodded. ‘I know.’

‘And more people are going to die. Aren’t they?’

He nodded again. ‘Yes. Yes, they are.’

‘But it isn’t – ‘

‘Fair. I know. Of course it isn’t.’ He paused. ‘What do you want me to say, Nathan?’

‘Tell me it’s going to be all right, Giovanni.’

‘It wouldn’t mean much coming from me. I’m just a long-dead painter.’

‘I know, but I’ve said those words to so many people over the past two years I’m not sure if I believe them any more. I’d just like someone to say them to me, you know? Is it going to be all right?’

‘Oh Nathan.’ He tapped me on the chest. ‘I think you know.’ He smiled and reached across the table, pulling me close to him. Then he leant over and whispered in my ear. He sat back in his chair, but not before jabbing me in the chest once again. ‘I think you know,’ he repeated.

**********

Something was pressing down on my chest. No, more than that. Not pressing, but pushing at me.

I opened my eyes. Gramsci, pleased to have got a reaction, gave a miaow before prodding at me once more.

I closed my eyes again, wanting to hold on to the dream before it slipped away forever. But it was no use. This was just with a paw, a warning prod. Ignore it for much longer and claws would be involved.

I sighed, and sat up in bed as best I could with Gramsci’s weight on top of me. ‘I guess that means it’s time for your breakfast, eh?’

Fede stirred beside me and yawned. ‘Oh, is that you getting up?’

‘I guess I am.’

‘Are you going to feed Unfriendly Cat?’

‘I think I’ll have to.’

‘Could you make me a cup of tea?’

‘I could do that as well.’

‘Oh, and you could make yourself a cup of coffee as well if you like.’

‘Well thanks. That’s very kind. I’ll try to remember that.’

I kissed the back of her neck and closed my eyes. And just for a moment I was back in Quadri, where a smiling Giovanni Bellini had leaned across the table and whispered in my ear.

Gramsci prodded me once more, claws out this time, and I gave a little yelp that turned into a laugh.

Fede opened an eye, and looked up at me smiling down at her. ‘You’re unusually happy for this time of the morning,’ she said.

I slipped out of bed, and tucked Gramsci under my arm, his little legs scrabbling away in indignation.

‘I think I am,’ I said. ‘I just met with an old friend.’ I leaned down to kiss her. ‘He told me everything was going to be all right.’

The End

In case you’re wondering

A few years ago, I was asked to talk about my books to a group of high school students. We read through various parts of The Venetian Game together, I got them to act out a couple of scenes and then I set them a challenge : whoever wrote the best “missing scene” from the book would get a credit in the upcoming Venetian Masquerade.

Elena, Sebastiano and Vera came up with the idea of a meeting between Nathan and a time-travelling Giovanni Bellini in St Mark’s Square, an idea so delightful I thought I really should use it myself. This is my attempt. If they ever read it, I hope they’ll think I did it justice.

You’ll notice that this doesn’t fit into Nathan’s timeline as it stands at present. Is it ‘canon’? Quite simply, it is if you want it to be.

Wishing you all, wherever you are, a happy and peaceful Christmas. Tutto andrà bene.