14. My Favourite Short Stories

30th August 2017

Having just published The Librarian & other strange tales I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to list my ten favourite short stories in the mystery/detective/horror/ghost forms, and what they bring to their respective genres.  A totally subjective and self-indulgent exercise but fun nevertheless, but would welcome comments.  In no particular order they are:

1. The Cask of Amontillado/Edgar Allan Poe

This has to be amongst the greatest stories of all in any genre of the shortened form – a model for any writer. Economy – just eight pages long, wit, black humour, tension and a horrifying denouement.

2. The Musgrave Ritual/Conan Doyle

One of the best puzzle stories, involving the lost crown of England, a clever riddle and a smart butler.

3. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas/MR James

Combines a memorable ghostly ‘thing’ with a fiendish cipher and a superbly ironic ending – the father of the modern ghost story at his most inspired.

4. The Naval Treaty/Conan Doyle

A Secret document, spying and a baffling mystery all combine to make this one of the best Holmes’ stories.

5. The Signalman/Charles Dickens

Seminal ghost story which influenced many later writers. Perfect construction using an epanaleptic phrase to enclose the narrative.

6. The Murders in the Rue Morgue/Edgar Allan Poe

The first modern detective story which is also a cunning locked room mystery. Set the standard for all ratiocinative fiction.

7. Water’s Edge/Robert Bloch

A disturbing horror story from the author of ‘Psycho’ using the classic technique of a stunning last line. A wonderful example of how to build tension – if you don’t like rats this is not the tale for you!

8.’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’/MR James

Wonderful example of the menace which comes from an innocent-looking object. James uses this as a cautionary tale featuring one of his most familiar themes – how curiosity is sometimes inadvisible.

9. The Phantom Coach/ Amelia Edwards

A very early ghost story much admired by Dickens – a ghostly coach renders the protagonist helpless against supernatural forces.

10. The House by the Tarn/Basil Copper

Superbly atmospheric story by a much underrated writer. Ethereal, suggestive and enigmatic.

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13. Detective Fiction and The Ghost Story and beyond …

4th August

A long time since my last post – have been preoccupied with the completion and production of Detective Fiction and The Ghost Story which has now been published by Palgrave Macmillan.  It represents the first extended work to examine the symbiosis between the two genres – it includes, for instance, a new look at The Hound of the Baskervilles which, the more I read it and analysed it seemed to stand just as well as a ghost story as it does a detective tale.  This chapter seems to be a paradigm for the rest of the book which gives a number of examples of how texts hitherto seen as classic detective fiction lend themselves remarkably well to supernatural readings.  My hope is that people will comment on what I have written and start a debate on this key relationship within popular fiction.  The details will be uploaded elsewhere on this site within the next week or so.

I am now turning my attention to the future, which is going to be something of a journey into the unknown for me.  I am going to become a critic turned novelist (well short stories to be precise; to begin with anyway) !  I have embarked on a group of short ghost stories which have an ecological theme – a series of warnings for the future, if you like.  This undertaking manages to encompass two things very dear to me, my former life in conservation as a Director of the National Trust and a passion for writing.  I will post more on this subject as time goes by.  Meanwhile, on the subject of writing ghost stories in the 21c, I have been struck particularly by Joanna Briscoe’s essay entitled ‘How to Write a Modern Ghost Story’ published in the Guardian, 4th July 2014.  It is especially interesting in reflecting on how the ghost story writer may overcome modern scepticism about the supernatural; something which M. R. James, his contemporaries and certainly his predecessors did not have to worry so much about.  Here is the link to Joanna Briscoe’s article:


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12. Conan Doyle and the double narrative

26th March

It is amazing how writing absorbs one’s time – it is quite a few months since my last post but the new book seems to have taken up all my every spare moment.  I have just finished a chapter containing a textual analysis of M. R. James’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ and Conan Doyle’s ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, the latter being one of my favourite Holmes stories.  Both concern the search for treasure and the consequences; both are steeped in the ritual of the puzzle and both have consequences for the curious.  In the James we might invoke Freud’s idea of the ghost as ‘The Uncanny’ (the unfamiliar), when the scholar’s familiar world of the antiquarian text becomes distinctly unfamiliar, as the pursuit of the Abbot’s treasure leads to a terrifying encounter with ‘the guardian’ of the treasure.  Conan Doyle’s story, written some years earlier story, sees Brunton the butler entombed with the Musgrave treasure – a punishment visited on all who would steal for pecuniary gain.  I see Brunton as a prototype for Stapleton in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ – both are highly intelligent, ex-schoolmasters, womanizers and with considerable criminal minds.   Interestingly, the Musgrave treasure is the lost crown of the Stuarts invoking a whole sup plot about Royalty and the crown of England.  This we might compare with the three Saxon crowns which are the subject of James’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’.

At the moment I am working on the next chapter looking at how the past returns to haunt the present in both detective fiction and the ghost story.  This is particularly prevalent in the long Sherlock Holmes stories where past events are the root cause of present disturbances.  ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and ‘The Valley of Fear’ are formally divided into two narratives with separate sub-titles; these two threads are temporally inverted so that the underlying story of the past returns throughout the present narrative to haunt it in the manner of a spectre from the past.  This metaphorical haunting by one text on another  is a recurring theme in all the Holmes series and manifests itself as the way of underlining how the ordered context of the conventional detective story overcomes the chaos of an anterior world.  In ‘The Valley of Fear’ for instance, what returns from the past is the lawless, anarchic world of the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvanian coalfields in the 1870s to intrude on the apparently tranquil environment of rural England.

I hope my latest book will be published by this time next year.



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11. My New Book on Themes in Conan Doyle and M R James

6th October

My first post for a few months – have been working hard finalizing the outline for my new book.  I’m pleased to say that I have now signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan with a view to publishing later next year.  I have already alluded to some of the ideas in previous posts but now the format is decided.  As I work through the chapters I shall be posting regularly on the contents, both expected, and unexpected, throughout the coming months. I say unexpected because all writing is a journey full of unforeseen contingency and sudden changes of mind brought about by research.  I liken it to a voyage into the heart of a Borgesian labyrinth; the outcome is never what one expects.

The title of the book is Detective Fiction and The Ghost Story: The Haunted Text and the narrative is centred around themes in the works of Conan Doyle and M R James.  I have always been interested in the relationship between the two genres which have a common origin in the Gothic tales of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century.  Both, too, have a common thematic approach; a central mystery, investigation building to a clear denouement.  But there are differences too, most obviously rationality v. the supernatural, and even plots where the distinction between the two is blurred.  I also take the broadest view of spectral characteristics, not merely the subject of conventional hauntings, in that I think it is quite possible for texts themselves to be haunted, haunted by texts which have gone before and by places and locations which as settings exert a powerful influence over an author’s writing.  These themes invariably give the impression of a wider canvas than the superficial narrative may represent.

The contents of Detective Fiction and The Ghost Story: The Haunted Text include the part played by the past in present narratives, the notion of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a ghost story, The Locked Room as a supernatural event, The incidence of academe in both genres, the appearance of Magical Realism in some recent detective fiction and the loss of childhood, especially in the works of Susan Hill.  All of these subjects I have introduced in previous posts but one which I have hitherto not mentioned concerns the works of Ian Rankin.  In the book I will examine the relationship between the Rebus novels and the city of Edinburgh, the works of Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson both sons of the Scottish capital and the figure of Rebus himself haunted by his past and outlawed by the present.  I have the highest regard for Rankin’s work, one of the true tests of writing is that it can transcend the boundaries of genre in which it may pigeonholed – anyone reading the Rebus novels is transported far beyond the boundaries of conventional detective fiction.

I will talk more about the Rebus series and the intriguing novels of Tony Hillerman and their association with mystical native Indian beliefs, in future posts.



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10. Conan Doyle, Laurie King, Michael Jecks and Dartmoor

June 10th

My new book on the relationship between detective fiction and the ghost story will surface next year.  I am thoroughly enjoying the research and as indicated in my previous blogs one of the chapters will be a reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles as an exercise in the supernatural.  I have been reading recently Laurie R King’s novel The Moor (1998) which is the fourth in her series of Mary Russell novels.  King has reincarnated Sherlock Holmes, to whom Mary Russell is married, and in this outing he returns to Dartmoor to investigate murder and mysterious happenings on the moor.  I was sceptical about this kind of literary resurrection before I read it but I must say I am very impressed with this book – the writing is elegant, witty and, for someone like me who knows Dartmoor well, shows an excellent knowledge of the moor and its ghostly possibilities.  The other three Russell books, which I have not yet read, also feature Holmes as her better half.  The Moor also includes the influential figure of Sabine Baring Gould, parson, squire, hymn writer (he wrote the words to Onward Christian Soldiers with music by Arthur Sullivan), antiquarian and folklorist – one of those rare polymaths, a friend of Conan Doyle whose writing about the moor was undoubtedly influential in the tale of the hound.  The Baring Gould family home was Lewtrenchard Manor at Lewdown, now a hotel.

Another author who has cropped up during this research is Michael Jecks who has written a whole string of historical crime novels about Dartmoor.  I must confess to my utter shame that I have not read any of these books before despite the fact that Jecks is a former Chairman of the Crime Writers Association and lives only a few miles away from me!  Do read them, they entertainingly written in the manner of Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series, but always with a profound knowledge of history and of Dartmoor, in particular – I love the way they portray the logic of detective work alongside what might appear to be its antithesis, the superstition and supernatural belief of medieval England.  His serial detectives are Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King’s Peace and Simon Puttock, Bailiff of Lydford – particularly interesting for me as Lydford Gorge and Castle were in my portfolio of responsibilities for the National Trust.

A footnote – my researches seem to confirm that the notorious Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles is, in reality Fox Tor Mire.  A throwback to the time before the Inclosure Acts ultimately untamed by fences and modern farming the perfect place for the imagination to run wild in tune with nature – no more than a soggy walk actually but a desolate place nonetheless …











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9. The Titanic and Jacques Futrelle … and a footnote on The Hound of the Baskervilles

Funny how events jog the memory – this week has seen considerable coverage of the Titanic disaster centenary.  It was a timely reminder to me that one of the passengers who perished on that fateful voyage was detective story writer,  Jacques Futrelle.  Futrelle was just 37 when he died but he left behind a distinct legacy.  Just to whet your appetite below is a picture of Futrelle on the deck of the Titanic taken from an excellent short article by Steve Powell on this site: www.Venetianvase.co.uk do read it because it contains fascinating information about one of the more intriguing writers of his time.

Although Futrelle wrote a number of books he will be forever associated with the creation of his brain-box detective, The Thinking Machine aka Professor S. F. X. Van Deusen, and in particular with one locked room story destined to achieve legendary status among aficionados, ‘The Problem of Cell 13’.  In my view Futrelle’s Van Deusen stories with their unswerving focus on the problem foreshadow the detective story’s Golden Age where ingenuity of plot transcended all other considerations.  I treasure my copy of the first edition of these tales.  This site also has some useful info: www.futrelle.com

As a footnote to my last blog about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ I have discovered some superb writing on Conan Doyle in Michael Dirda’s excellent recent book ‘On Conan Doyle’.    One line had me purring:

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first “grown up” book I ever read – and it changed my life’

It seems Michael Dirda and I have been leading parallel lives (see my earlier blog on buying my copy of the Sherlock Holmes editions as a boy)!

April 11th

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8. The Hound of the Baskervilles – a ghost story?

I am going to include a chapter on The Hound of the Baskervilles in my second book.  Despite being one of the most written about stories of the last hundred years or so like all great texts it seems to have an endless capacity as a subject for literary analysis.  The more I study it – and I must have read it a hundred times or more – the more I become convinced that, at its heart, lies a ghost story.  I say this not merely because of the overarching legend of the hound but the part played by the landscape, that ‘forbidding moor’, as Conan Doyle puts it.  Holmes, Eliza Barrymore’s convict brother, Selden and Stapleton all appear as spectral figures in this wilderness during the story, as if they are somehow in thrall to it.  Much of the narrative is overshadowed too by the image of the great Grimpen Mire where the denouement takes place – it is a place of death, worthy of any Gothic tale.  This dreadful tract of land claims its victim in the same way that a ghost does in the conventional supernatural tale – Stapleton is not captured but literally absorbed by the landscape.  Consequently, Holmes’s deductive powers often play second fiddle to the atmosphere – so critical in any ghost story – created by the dramatic landscape.  I live near Dartmoor and when I worked for the National Trust I managed some remote parts of it and if ever there was a ghostly landscape where orientation and certainty become blurred it is here.  One nice, off-the-wall touch links The Hound of the Baskervilles  to Henry James’s ghostly tale ‘Owen Wingrave’, as the eponymous hero views the portraits of his family many of whom will haunt him – Holmes too recognizes Stapleton’s likeness to the Baskervilles (and thus his reason for wanting to murder Sir Henry Baskerville so that he may inherit the estate) from a portrait at Baskerville Hall.

Conan Doyle was a writer of ghost stories and so were/are many crime writers – one such I have been re-reading recently as part of my research is Edmund Crispin (he was also a composer and noted cruciverbalist) who wrote witty, elegant and erudite detective stories in the immediate post-war period.  In The Case of the Gilded Fly one of the characters actually relates a Jamesian type ghost story at some length, a remarkable intrusion into a seemingly conventional who-dunnit.  Some critics have questioned this device, but they underestimate the self-reflexive and metanarrative tendencies present in detective fiction of this period.  Whatever the motive it underlines once again the close relationship between the genres and the textual homage that they frequently pay each other.  Check out Crispin’s output it’s well worth it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Crispin

Finally, I hope others enjoyed Dirk Gently on BBC4 as much as I did – Douglas Adams’s idea of the interlinking of all strands in a narrative – holistic detection – makes me think of it as a parody of some of the great 19c novels such as Bleak House where all roads eventually end up in the same place.  Stephen Mangan as Gently had just the right touch of sociopathy and Darren Boyd as Macduff is quietly hysterical!!

24th March

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7. ‘The Woman in Black’ and my second book – The Haunted Text: Detective Fiction & The Ghost Story

Well, I am now actively pursuing my next book, which will consider the relative positions of detective fiction and the ghost story, and in particular how they engage with each other.  I was, then, especially intrigued to read about the release of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, which I am looking forward to seeing soon.  Susan Hill’s story is among the greatest ghost stories of modern times and as it appears that she was involved in the production it should ensure that the film has a certain veracity.  Like many ghost stories it has at its heart the subject of loss, in this case that of a child, and the tragic consequences that flow from that traumatic event.  Hill is a very interesting author whose work I enjoy and admire – she also has the added attraction, from my point of view, of writing both detective fiction (I believe I read somewhere that she prefers the term ‘crime’ rather than ‘detective’) and ghost stories and I am hoping to feature a chapter on her work in the new book.  Before I leave the subject may also put in a plug for the original production of The Woman in Black made in 1993, starring Adrian Rawlins and Bernard Hepton with Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon in the TV series ‘Poirot’) memorable as the eponymous anti-heroine.  This film, first shown on ITV, is one of the most atmospheric I have seen – the production is spare, the shocks are superbly understated (but nonetheless frightening!) and the passages of silence create a very special effect which chimes with the moribund landscape – an unforgettable experience.  It is a very difficult DVD to get hold of but I do recommend perseverance – how interesting it will be to compare the two …

While I’m talking about TV/film I should, rather belatedly, mention Endeavour which was shown on ITV in early January.  It is the ‘prequel’ to the much loved Inspector Morse series – usually I am very sceptical about son ‘ofs’ and young ‘such and such’, but I felt that this was an outstanding production which rather than find a young Morse lookalike sensibly tried to portray the formative qualities of the character itself – the young Morse comes across as intelligent, diffident and with a gauche attitude to the opposite sex.  I do hope that a series comes out of it as I think, paradoxically, it has something distinctive to say about the later series.  The period feel was captured with exemplary deftness.

February 16th

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6. The Death of Josef Skvorecky

A sad event to record since my last blog – the death has been annouced from Canada of Josef Skvorecky.  Coming so soon after the death of former President, Václav Havel, these have been especially poignant days in recent Czech history.  Skvorecky was one of the instigators of the Prague spring in 1968 and had to flee Czechoslvakia in the wake of the Russian invasion later that year; as a result his abhorrence of totalitarianism, its absurdities and cruelties, permeate much of his work.  He became a Professor of English at the University of Toronto and set up a Czech language publishing house in Canada which enabled the printing of a number of works by Czech authors, including Havel.  Apart from his other novels Skvorecky wrote four volumes of excellent detective stories about a Lieutenant Boruvka which are by turns witty, even humorous and yet profound.  They include an excellent locked room murder called  ‘The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory’ and a series of stories, in a much darker tone, set during the occupation.  I feature a critique of Skvorecky’s detective fiction in the last chapter of Narratives of Enclosure as a classic example of contextuality.  The narrative enclosure here is entirely provided by ideology.

My condolences and thoughts go out to his family – a great writer, who will be missed.

After further research I now find that I have a straight choice to make regarding my next book; to pursue the idea of analysing key classic texts which characterize the Golden Era of detective fiction or look at the genre’s relationship with the ghost story.  More in my next blog …

January 12th (2012)


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5. Torquemada, Crosswords and Detective Fiction

I have had a recent win on the AZED crossword in The Observer which has nicely coincided with my continuing research into my next book on the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Yes, there is a link and it’s not even tenuous!  From 1926 onwards until his death in 1939, The Observer’s setter was Edward Powys Mathers, known as ‘Torquemada’, the creator of some of the most fiendish puzzles ever seen.  I have a book (Torquemada: 112 Best Crossword Puzzles, London: Pushkin Press, 1942) with 112 of his greatest puzzles and believe you me they are something else.  Anyway, more to the point Mathers was also an eminent scholar and reviewer of detective fiction – William Reynolds’s article ‘The Detective-Fiction Review of Torquemada: A Selective Index’ (in ‘Clues’ 1986) states that he reviewed some 1200 books in 4 years!  In the book with his 112 puzzles is a tribute from John Dickson Carr on his death in 1939.  This places Mathers, and the puzzle, right at the heart of the Golden Age – and food for thought while I’m writing.  Incidently the tradition of Torquemada at The Observer is alive and well AZED’s puzzles continue to delight, his real name is Norman Crowther – if you reverse AZED you get the name of another Grand Inquisitor.  For those interested here are a couple of links:

home.freeuk.net/dharrison/ximenes/torq.htm en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Powys_Mathers

December 4th

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