Crime in Good Company

Until John Creasey founded the Crime Writers Association just over half a century ago, many British crime writers simply did not know each other. Even after the CWA was first established, crime writers based outside London tended to work in isolation, until around the mid-60s. An interesting insight into the life of a traditional mystery writer, can be gleaned from study of the George Bellairs archive, which his widow donated to the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Bellairs (whose real name was Harold Blundell) was the creator of Inspector Littlejohn and a prolific author of light-hearted crime novels; but as casual scrutiny of his contracts reveals, his writing was not especially lucrative. Today he would certainly be regarded as a ‘mid-list’ writer (a term that seems to encompass almost all of those who are not best-sellers) and he was wise enough to keep his day job as a bank manager until retiring to the Isle of Man. Bellairs was evidently an affable character, and a speaker in considerable demand at local events, but he seems to have had few connections in the crime writing fraternity. The legendary Francis Iles became an occasional correspondent after reviewing Bellairs favourably, and he offered Bellairs some useful advice about the unscrupulous ways of publishers. But apart from chance encounters, there were only limited opportunities for provincial ‘mid-list’ writers of that time either to socialise together or to meet readers who were based far from their homes.

Since the CWA established itself, and especially following the creation of its thriving regional ‘chapters’, the picture has changed out of all recognition. For most contemporary crime writers, the opportunity to socialise with colleagues, as well as the chance to meet readers at the increasing number of fan conventions, such as the legendary Bouchercon, is much valued. But in at least one respect, Bellairs and others of his time had it easier than writers of today. Then it was rare for mystery novelists to lose their publishers. Now it is commonplace. The changing, and increasingly brutal, economics of the publishing world seem to dictate that many authors who cannot command high sales are rapidly shown the door. The more astonishing results of this culling of crime lists in recent years have included the sacking of two highly distinguished winners of the CWA Diamond Dagger Award and the inability of a gifted winner of the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger to find a publisher. Not surprisingly, beleaguered crime novelists have started to look for safety in numbers. The past four years has witnessed the emergence of collectives of writers, pooling their talents, contacts and know-how, as well as sometimes financial resources, in an attempt to meet head on the perils of the modern marketplace.

Although British crime writers had occasionally banded together for publicity purposes in the past, the trend really got under way when Margaret Murphy founded Murder Squad. This grouping had its origins in the Northern Chapter of the CWA and Murphy recruited six fellow members to join her. Her idea was simple: ‘Discouraged and demoralised by being told that my good reviews didn’t translate into sales figures, I decided to try and find a way of building my profile…We decided initially that we would design and have printed a brochure advertising our books and our various talents, aimed principally at booksellers and libraries. We narrowed down the services we were prepared to offer to readings, signings, workshops and masterclasses, discussion panels, projects, residencies and talks.’

Part of the strength of the concept is that the members cover a range of different styles of writing. Murphy specialises in psychological suspense; Cath Staincliffe has created a detective who is a single mother; Ann Cleeves’ two series feature respectively an ornithologist with a taste for sleuthing and a professional policeman; Stuart Pawson writes humorous police stories with a distinctive Yorkshire setting; John Baker writes private eye novels and occasional stand-alones; Chaz Brenchley writes dark thrillers on the edge of the horror genre; and most of my books focus on a lawyer who is also an amateur detective. The Squad set up a website, efficiently maintained by John Baker, and produced a newsletter distributed by email. Ann Cleeves, with extensive contacts in the library service, became bookings secretary and organises many of the Squad’s ‘gigs’ and a couple of years ago, an anthology called Murder Squad was published. This contained 13 short stories, many of them brand new, and also a ‘collage’ of members’ work which the Squad performed at events up and down the country. Rather than merely being a publicity device, the book brought together the latest and some of the very best of the Squad’s work. Ann Cleeves’ story ‘The Plater’ eventually earned a place on the short-list for the CWA Dagger for the best short story of the year. By continuing to tackle new projects – a compact disc featuring members’ readings of their work is planned for this year, as is a trip to Bouchercon in Toronto – Murder Squad has managed to sustain its enthusiasm and to attract growing interest on the international scene. It even earned a listing in a book celebrating innovative new business ideas.

Given this success, it was only a question of time before other crime writers saw the merit of joining forces. The next crime writing collective to come into existence was the Unusual Suspects, whose members are based in the South of England. Writing in ‘The Author’, Andrew Taylor explained why he and his fellow Suspects feel the concept works: ‘[The collectives] are on the increase because they have much to offer all the interested parties. Events organisers…can book several authors with a single hone call or email. The authors will be used to working together and speaking in public…Most of them have developed programmes of material designed for different audiences.’

A group of writers based in the south west then formed Secrets of Crime Writing. Leading lights include Bill James, creator of the televised and critically acclaimed books featuring senior cops Harpur and Iles, Russell James, a specialist in dark stand-alone suspense novels, Gillian Linscott, author of a series featuring a suffragette-sleuth called Nell Bray, and Bernard Knight, a retired forensic pathologist of much distinction who has turned to writing fiction.

Crime writing collectives do not, of course, need to be based primarily on geographical connections. Mediaeval Murderers brought together a gang of four novelists specialising in historical crime fiction: Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Ian Morson and (again!) Bernard Knight. Their website says that they write about ‘probably the most exciting periods in English history but they also write in very different styles and about the areas which inspired them.’ This underlines the point that variety is one of the considerable attractions for readers who attend events featuring a ‘pick and mix’ selection of members from a collective.

Rogues and Vagabonds is a group focused on its members’ strengths as performers. Members include Mark Billingham (who gained useful experience of fictional crime with parts in ‘The Bill’ and ‘Juliet Bravo’) and Martyn Waites, both of whom have worked as stand-up comics. Fidelis Morgan and Maureen O’Brien have established considerable reputations as actresses (O’Brien’s credits include a major role in ‘Taggart’). Lynda LaPlante is another accomplished actress, although she is today best-known as a leading television script writer; her thriller series include ‘Widows’ and ‘Prime Suspect’. The group made an immediate impact when appearing at the National Film Theatre during the 2002 Crime Scene convention and their website explains:

‘Once, actors were seen as no better than criminals. So when actors become writers, what better subject for them to write about...? R & V is an ad hoc team of crime writers who have also worked, or continue to work as performers. As actors, comedians and improvisers they have, as individuals, achieved great success. As crime writers, their work is now hugely popular with readers around the world…crossing a number of popular mystery genres from the dark and hardboiled, through Tart Noir and psychological suspense to historical and comic. An R & V event, whether at a bookshop, festival or convention, puts the emphasis firmly on performance. Increasingly, writers are called upon to perform and while some may not relish this, there are others for whom it is second nature. An R & V reading will be exciting and dramatic, guaranteeing the audience at any event suspense, goosebumps and plenty of laughter.’

Ladykillers, established in 2003, brings together four women writers. Again, their website provides information both useful and entertaining. Of Danuta Reah, for instance, it is said that her ‘work as a part-time university lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, and her research into the link between language disorders and criminal behaviour has given her an insight into the darker side of life. Crime runs in the family: one of her ancestors, John Woodcock, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1646.’ Equally intriguing is the information that ‘Zoë Sharp decided to write a crime novel after being on the receiving end of death-threat letters through her work as a magazine columnist.’ Their colleagues are Lesley Horton, author of two novels exploring racial tensions in urban West Yorkshire, and Shropshire-based Priscilla Masters, whose books are notable for their well-evoked rural settings.

Meanwhile, West Country writers Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin, who have put on events together at irregular intervals for a good many years, have recently produced their own cd as well as completing a successful tour of the USA . Newer collectives include the recently launched Criminal Minds, comprising Mark Burnell, Sarah Diamond, John Fullerton, Joanna Hines, Simon Kernick, Jessica Mann, John Rickard, Boris Starling and Edwin Thomas.

Now that the internet and email have shrunk the world, these groupings enable authors to keep in touch with their readers across the globe, whilst engaging in vigorous programmes of events and tours which might not be practicable for those trying to fly solo. No-one has described the appeal of joint activities for their participants better than Andrew Taylor when he said: ‘If things go well, they will sell a few more books, make friends and have a wonderful excuse for not writing. And it doesn’t even affect our inalienable right to whinge about our publishers.’

Will collective action of this kind become a permanent feature of the crime-fiction landscape or prove to be a passing fad? Even if some of the groups fall by the wayside, it is reasonable to forecast that others will continue to thrive. There is no reason why authors in other genres should not collaborate in much the same way and it seems possible that we are witnessing the emergence of a phenomenon that will have a considerable impact on the literary landscape. It is in part a response to the desire of many readers to meet authors whose books they have enjoyed – and those whose work they have not previously encountered. But it is equally a reaction to market conditions. It seems likely that crime writers will rely on joint enterprise for as long as the publishing climate for the ‘mid-list’ remains in its current wintry state.

This article first appeared in ‘Sherlock’