Tag Archives: Richard Attenborough

Magic – William Goldman

MagicWhen the sad news of Richard Attenborough’s death was announced, I’d just started reading William Goldman’s Magic.

Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure  footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.

I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.

At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.

This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.

So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…

Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose  career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.

As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.

Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.

As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…

If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.

Hold That Thought

With Crime Thriller Fella’s summer readership flatlining faster than Jessica Fletcher’s Christmas Card List, it’s time to take a short break to catch some rays and recharge the batteries.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this blog over the last few months, and I’ve been amazed and gratified by the reaction to it. I’ve learned a lot about writing, and the blog has introduced me to some brilliant new authors.

There’s nothing more dispiriting, more likely to bring a lump to the throat, than a slowly-stagnating blog page, so I’m going to put up some archived reviews and other stuff, starting below. But feel free — if you’re new here, or just really love wasting time — to take a look around.

Back in a jiffy.

Criminal Minds: Agatha Christie

Think you know about crime thriller writers? Have nothing to contribute around the dinner-party table? Amaze your friends with some astonishing facts about the genre’s leading authors… First up, the woman who has sold more books than anyone, with the possible exception of God.

images1/ Agatha Christie wrote her first book after a dare by her sister Madge. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was turned down by six publishers. Since then, she’s sold about four billion novels. That’s four billion. She’s only outsold by The Bible.

2/ Christie famously made the headlines in 1926 when her car was found abandoned. She was missing for ten days. Her disappearance made the headlines, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even trotted out one of his  mediums in an attempt to find her. She was discovered staying under an assumed name in a Harrogate Hotel. The incident has never been fully explained – she refused to discuss the incident – but it’s suggested Christie suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother and the discovery that her husband had had an affair. She was booked into the hotel under his lover’s name.

Unknown-53/ The final Miss Marple and Poirot books, Sleeping Murder and Curtain, were published in 1975 and 1976, but were actually written in the 1940s and kept locked away until Christie’s death – there’s forward thinking for you! In the event, she died in 1977.

4/ Curtain is a controversial end to the career of Christie’s Belgian detective – and the book ends with a vicious little twist. When Curtain was published in 1975, Poirot received an obituary in the New York Times, the only fictional character to have done so. If you haven’t read it, you’ll be able to see what the fuss was about when ITV broadcasts it as the final episode of the long-running David Suchet series.

5/ Christie grew to dislike her most famous creation, but the public’s appetite for Poirot never dimmed. By the 1960s, she had descended to name-calling. She regarded him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Christie  claimed to have seen him twice, once while taking tea at the Savoy.

6/ And Then There Were None is Christie’s bestselling book, with 100 million copies sold since 1939. Ten people, all implicated in murder, are invited to a remote island, and bumped off, one by one. Arguably, this concept has been used as a template again and again in countless slasher movies.

7/ Christie wrote romantic novels as Mary Westmacott, a pseudonym she managed to maintain for twenty years until it was discovered in 1949. It was as Westmacott that she reputedly wrote a whole novel, Absent In The Spring, over a weekend.

8/ Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November, 1952, with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, and, of course it’s still running. One cast member has survived all the cast-changes down the years. Deryck Guyler can still be heard reading the news bulletin.

9/Christie was irrirated that the last of the four Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films – Murder Ahoy! – wasn’t based on one of her novels. It was a flop at the box-office, much to the spurned author’s delight.

images-110/ When Christie died in 1976, London’s West End theatres dimmed their lights in respect.

For a the top ten best Christie novels, as listed by Agatha expert John Curran, go here.

Criminal Minds: Agatha Christie

Think you know about crime thriller writers? Have nothing to contribute around the dinner-party table? Amaze your friends with some astonishing facts about the genre’s leading authors… First up, the woman who has sold more books than anyone, with the possible exception of God.

images1/ Agatha Christie wrote her first book after a dare by her sister Madge. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was turned down by six publishers. Since then, she’s sold about four billion novels. That’s four billion. She’s only outsold by The Bible.

2/ Christie famously made the headlines in 1926 when her car was found abandoned. She was missing for ten days. Her disappearance made the headlines, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even trotted out one of his  mediums in an attempt to find her. She was discovered staying under an assumed name in a Harrogate Hotel. The incident has never been fully explained – she refused to discuss the incident – but it’s suggested Christie suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother and the discovery that her husband had had an affair. She was booked into the hotel under his lover’s name.

Unknown-53/ The final Miss Marple and Poirot books, Sleeping Murder and Curtain, were published in 1975 and 1976, but were actually written in the 1940s and kept locked away until Christie’s death – there’s forward thinking for you! In the event, she died in 1977.

4/ Curtain is a controversial end to the career of Christie’s Belgian detective – and the book ends with a vicious little twist. When Curtain was published in 1975, Poirot received an obituary in the New York Times, the only fictional character to have done so. If you haven’t read it, you’ll be able to see what the fuss was about when ITV broadcasts it as the final episode of the long-running David Suchet series.

5/ Christie grew to dislike her most famous creation, but the public’s appetite for Poirot never dimmed. By the 1960s, she had descended to name-calling. She regarded him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Christie  claimed to have seen him twice, once while taking tea at the Savoy.

6/ And Then There Were None is Christie’s bestselling book, with 100 million copies sold since 1939. Ten people, all implicated in murder, are invited to a remote island, and bumped off, one by one. Arguably, this concept has been used as a template again and again in countless slasher movies.

7/ Christie wrote romantic novels as Mary Westmacott, a pseudonym she managed to maintain for twenty years until it was discovered in 1949. It was as Westmacott that she reputedly wrote a whole novel, Absent In The Spring, over a weekend.

8/ Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November, 1952, with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, and, of course it’s still running. One cast member has survived all the cast-changes down the years. Deryck Guyler can still be heard reading the news bulletin.

9/Christie was irrirated that the last of the four Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films – Murder Ahoy! – wasn’t based on one of her novels. It was a flop at the box-office, much to the spurned author’s delight.

images-110/ When Christie died in 1976, London’s West End theatres dimmed their lights in respect.

For a the top ten best Christie novels, as listed by Agatha expert John Curran, go here.