Daily Archives: June 13, 2011

2004 – Lesson learned: Crime Writing Masterclass.

As it’s now National Crime Writing Week, I thought I’d reflect on when I think I really got the bug to read and write more crime fiction.

It would have been around 2004, most likely in the lead up to this event in fact, and the team of Minette Walters (no relative) and Mark Billingham.

What follows here is my review of the English PEN/Daily Mail Crime Writing Masterclass, held at London’s Olympia conference centre on 14 March 2004.

Apologies if you’ve read it before (it did do the rounds a bit at the time in Ottakar’s crime fanzine, The Verdict, on Deadly Pleasures website and on Minette Walters’ website but, here it is again anyhow as a reminder to myself of just how I got hooked…

For me, the Crime Writing Masterclass with authors Minette Walters and Mark Billingham was one of those “I’ll probably kick myself if I don’t go and see what it’s like” kind of events. It meant the best part of a Sunday away from the family, an afternoon fighting my way to the Olympia conference centre on various forms of public transport, and a nice soaking courtesy of our glorious British weather.

But, the evening I made the decision to tap my credit card details into the order form to purchase my ticket, I had a feeling the £35.00 ticket price would be a very worthwhile investment and, I’m pleased to report, I was right.

The Crime Writing Masterclass was one of three (the other two being Screenwriting for Cinema and Writing for Television) scheduled as part of the London Book Fair and sponsored by English PEN and the Daily Mail. Peter Guttridge, author and crime fiction critic of the Observer, chaired the discussion, and he did a fine job of keeping the conversation flowing and the event within its three defined sections.

Before entering the hall, everyone was presented with a hardback edition of Sleepyhead – Mark’s first Tom Thorne novel – and a paperback edition of a Minette novel of their choice, plus a pack of notes and the latest copy of ink magazine.

The first section of the class took the shape of a Q&A between Guttridge and Mark and Minette – during which probably no more than a handful of questions were actually asked, with the remainder of the time taken up with interesting tales, anecdotes and advice from both authors.

Minette spoke of her years as a volunteer prison visitor and of one visit in particular that helped her pin down exactly how the character of Olive Martin should be realised on the page in The Sculptress. She was full of encouragement for young, as she put it, “about-to-be” writers rather than “wannabe’s”, and she offered specific advice, such as “go through your writing and take out two of every three adverbs and adjectives! Why say tabby cat when cat will do just as well?”

Both Minette and Mark spoke of their writing techniques and differences in their style. Whereas Mark’s novels feature a series character – Tom Thorne – Minette’s novels are all stand-alone books. They acknowledged the advantages and disadvantages to both styles. While series novels can gather a regular, loyal readership, they risk alienating new readers that might not want to jump into a series in the middle. And, while stand-alone books offer an author more latitude, they, too, carry a risk, since they don’t have a guaranteed fan base for a series character.

On the subject of how they start a book, again, both authors differed in their approach. Whereas Mark always has the theme and an idea of the ending scene of his novels in his head when he starts out, Minette stated that she preferred the “unknown” route. She used an example of driving from London to Glasgow: “When you leave London, there are a hundred different ways to go; by the time you get to Birmingham, there are 30 ways; by the time you reach the Scottish border, there are three; and when you get to the outskirts of Glasgow, it’s just straight in to the centre and you’ve reached the end.”

Minette said that when she’s writing a book, she wakes up every morning very thrilled because she wants to know where she is going next, as well as the reader. “If I knew the route in advance &I would be bored solid!” Mark, who is also a stand-up comic, put his wit to good use and told Minette that he hardly ever feels that way in the morning, so could she please call him and share her enthusiasm!?

After the Q&A session, the tutors gave the audience members some work to do during the 30-minute coffee break. As part of this writing exercise, we had to choose from a series of atmospheric first lines and start a story. The lines included: “The body lay in the snow…”, “The gun never wavered…”, and “The door was half-open…”.

An added incentive was the fact that in amongst the audience were talent spotters from publishing houses and literary agents. I was amazed at the diversity of results that were read out from the same first lines, and the sheer volume of accomplished work that some of the audience members were able to produce in such a short space of time.

Everyone who wanted a few moments to read their work was given the chance to; anyone less than comfortable with public speaking had the added treat of hearing one of the published writers on stage reading their piece, provided they could decipher the handwriting! Following each reading, both Minette and Mark offered helpful and constructive comments and, on more than one occasion, asked if they could steal a particular idea!

Following on from the review of our writing, Peter Guttridge opened the floor to anyone who wanted to ask a question – anything from how much of a novel you should send to an agent to whether they thought it possible to write a modern crime story these days without using the pathology and post-mortem scenes that are so popular in modern crime fiction.

Upon leaving the auditorium, Minette and Mark sat outside in the main lobby and happily signed the free novels and chatted with individual audience members. This is where Minette gave me some very good advice. We both share the last name of Walters (no relation!), and she said it can be a “real bugger” because we’re always shoved at the very bottom of the crime section! She suggested I change it to Billingham to guarantee shelf space at eye-level!

This was an afternoon I am extremely glad I took part in and I would like to thank all involved for their enthusiasm and entertainment. It has certainly inspired me to write a lot more in the week since the event than I achieved in the four proceeding weeks; plus, I’m not kicking myself now!


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Dead Wood by Chris Longmuir

(Dundee International Book Prize Winner 2009)

Published by Polygon.

As an extra treat at last year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, I bought a ticket to their ‘Come Dine With Me’ Murder Mystery Dinner, which promised each table hosted by a published crime author.

This year a similar event is being held under the title: Criminal Consequences.

I was very pleased to find I was part of Caro Ramsay’s sleuthing dinner team, but was also very pleased to find that on the same table was one of the CWA Debut Dagger shortlisted authors, Kathleen Stewart, and sitting right next to me another published author and winner of last year’s Dundee International Book Prize, Chris Longmuir.

As is the case throughout the festival, you never quite know who you’ve started a conversation with (whether an author, fan, blogger, agent or publisher) until someway into the chat. Once I’d discovered that Chris had her book out there, DEAD WOOD, and she found out I was starting to review more on my blog after the festival, she kindly offered to send me a copy.

When it arrived, I was also pleased to see that DEAD WOOD is published by Polygon – the same publisher from whom my previous reviews of Allan Guthrie’s Slammer came – so I already had a fairly good idea that this was going to be a great read.

It was – and a surprising one too. Despite the title, I knew nothing of Chris’s book until it arrived on the doormat and, if I’m honest, I was slightly shocked at tone and subject and language that this mild mannered lovely lady lets loose with on the page (it’s clear that she is in good company with Mr Guthrie).

Chris writes great female characters, victims and cops, but she also writes great villains, dealers, pimps and killers, and her scenes of crime, post mortems and conflicts are all handled very well.

The characters are well-rounded and several could easily be seen to transfer into a possible series should she choose to. And talking of series, I always like cheeky references to other authors to make their characters fictional in the ‘real’ world of a new author’s book, so the reference to a character reading the latest Ian Rankin Rebus book was a nice touch.

The tale itself is set in Dundee amongst the world of prostitution and drugs and a serial killer who is leaving his victims in Templeton Woods, believing them to be required as sacrifices to the trees there. The two crime worlds collide when young mother and prostitute Kara heads out to make money to pay a local gangster, Tony, back a debt owed to him and she finds herself in the woods with the killer’s victims – one of whom is Tony’s own daughter.

The Police investigation is headed up by newcomer to the area, Louise Walker and her team, and their search for the killer and involvement with Kara’s children who are taken into care is all handled with care and skill right through to the closing pages.

My favourite scene in the whole book has to be where a character has spotted the killer within a room and runs screaming away – but it’s a room full of all the possible suspects, leaving the Police and the reader scratching heads as to which one of them it may have been.

An excellent police procedural but a lot more besides – I really hope it’s not long before the next book comes along from Chris. I would certainly buy a copy and would highly recommend DEAD WOOD.


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Soul Murder by Daniel Blake

Published by Harper

Daniel Blake is a man of mystery, both in his life and in his fiction. His work in the past for Control Risks, dealing with kidnap negotiation amongst other things, is presumably what lead to the fact that when he speaks about his first novel online his eyes are obscured by a black bar.

It was rumoured he might be at last year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and I was on the lookout for this mystery author, but it transpired that he wasn’t in attendance (or was he?).

If it’s possible for Daniel to step out from his hiding place, it would be a good thing. This debut crime novel, weighing in at over 550 pages of tightly woven plotting, is reason enough that he should step forward, even if briefly before ducking back into the shadows, to take a bow.

I loved this book.

It is full of rounded, and in most cases, likeable characters – most of which I’d like to read again in future books if this is to be first of series.

The duo of Pittsburgh Detectives, Franco Patrese and Mark Beradino were written in a way that after just a few chapters I felt that I’d known them for a lot longer, a sign of good characterisation and mannerisms being captured very early on.

Pittsburgh provides a great setting and, if I can say so without it sounding too cliché, a great character in itself. Was nice to have Pittsburgh as backdrop to something other than the living dead for a change.

The plot is very involved and gripping, from the initial murders and potential killers through to a range of interesting subplots and other themes, so many in fact that I feared that the author would struggle to tie everything up satisfactorily by the end of the novel. But, he does so, even adding a few extra twists towards the end which I had little clue were coming.

The subjects tackled are all carefully trodden, from a woman who may have been responsible for the death of three of her babies to medical negligence, religious abuse and Muslim terrorist plots – and the story could easily have taken any one of its strong story strands through to the end of a good book.

Instead, Blake chooses to take them all, grasp them tightly and run with all of them through to the end of a very satisfying and gripping crime thriller debut.

A great read.


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Captured by Neil Cross

Published by Simon & Schuster

Can Neil Cross do no wrong?

The evidence suggests maybe not.

I’ve been a fan of his great storytelling in BBC’s SPOOKS series for some time and, more recently, really enjoyed his detective series LUTHER (SECOND SERIES STARTS TOMORROW NIGHT! – and a new prequel novel is due from the author too) starring Eldris Elba from The Wire.

But, I have neglected the other strand to this creative force – his novels.

Now, having experienced the all-consuming new book, CAPTURED, that is set to change and I will be seeking out all of his other books trusting that they are also as good as this.

It’s been a while since I picked up a book intending to read maybe the first chapter before sleep and finding that I was 65 pages in without remembering to blink between those pages.

In CAPTURED he kicks off with a great young character, Kenny, and a numbing realisation that he is living on borrowed time with an aggressive brain tumour threatening to snatch him away from his life within weeks.

Kenny doesn’t start off angry – instead he writes a short list – a list of people he feels he needs to make things up with, before he leaves.

In a way it’s like his bucket list, but a list of appreciation he needs to show, of people who have shaped his life.

He begins with a young boy who he witnessed at risk of abduction years before and then a shopkeeper who chased the would-be abductor away – he just wishes he had done more at the time, but the guilt is his own and everyone else has forgotten the event which still seems so important to him.

His ex-lover Mary also appears on the list, as does the most important name on it, Callie Barton – a girl he knew at school, the girl who used to hook her leg round his under the desk – as close to a childhood sweetheart as he likely had.

And it is when Kenny begins to look for Callie that the story really kicks into overdrive and Kenny’s anger strikes.

Callie has gone missing.

Her husband, Jonathan Reese, although cleared of any involvement and denying any wrong doing, appears to be hiding a secret.

Kenny’s time is running out and his quest to find the answer and to punish whoever is responsible for Callie’s disappearance or possible murder grows in his head as fast as the tumour alongside it.

There are some brutal scenes within the novel – as the cover would suggest – but this does not quite step into the ‘torture porn’ that the same excesses would or might create on screen. We as readers sympathise with Kenny’s situation and we are right beside him as he does what he feels he needs to do to further his investigation and search for the truth.

An unsettling, at times moving, and thought-provoking crime book and a demonstration on just how far a normal guy can be forced to go to search for justice and to find out what has happened to someone who meant so much to him all during his final weeks of life.

Highly recommended.



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Assassin by Tom Cain

Published by Transworld

Assassin is the third book from Tom Cain to feature his Special Boat Service Operative, and all round action hero, Samuel Carver.

All concerns that I’d missed the first two books in the series (The Accident Man & The Survivor) were quickly washed away as I ploughed into the book on the first night I opened it and the pace rarely lets up throughout.

The comparison by the Guardian to the Bourne movies is very fair as Carver cracks through the action sequences and events in the book barely pausing for breath. In Assassin he is the constant victim of an old enemy and former colleague, Damon Tyzack, who is determined to frame him for crimes and acts of terrorism, culminating in a planned assassination of the American President Lincoln Roberts. Roberts has set himself a whole army of enemies in his proposal for a war on people-trafficking and slavery, which he is scheduled to announce at a conference in Bristol.

The action sequences, particularly the set-up of a bomb blast in an Oslo Hotel, are excellently handled and gripping, with the author successfully placing the reader right in the centre of the action and the tension.

In fact only one scene didn’t quite work for me when Carver stepped (or cycled) into a bit more James Bond meets Jackie Chan role, leaping a skip on a bicycle – but a very minor gripe for one scene on one page out of over 500 other amazing ones.

On my ‘to be read’ pile now are the first two Carver books and the follow up to Assassin, Dictator – looking forward to more high octane thrills.



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Love books? – Love book signings and events…

I love to read – that kind of goes without saying but, there I’ve said it anyway.

But I also love to meet authors, to hear them talk about their work and to have them sign their books to me.

Maybe it’s in someway a hope that some of whatever magic formula they possess will transfer itself to my own writing somehow.

All around my writing desk are framed copies of what authors have written by way of encouragement to me to get on with my own books, Ian Rankin, John Connolly, Mark Billingham, John Harvey to name but a few.

It’s John Harvey’s comment that takes pride of place; written around his own title page it reads ‘Okay Keith, remember NOW’S THE TIME ! – Don’t waste it !!’.

The one from Stuart Macbride that says ‘To Keith – Grow the rest of the beard’ is placed a little further away from my line of sight, as is his one from 3am in the bar at Harrogate last year which features an illustration of a ghost and the words ‘Aaarrgghh VIAGRA!’ – no, me neither.

I cannot remember which was my first signing event but I suspect it may well have been one at Forbidden Planet to get Clive Barker to sign books for me. Meeting him several times were certainly some of the most memorable signings – particularly for the launch of his movie Nightbreed and all of his novels close to that launch. It was held at the Café Munchen at the rear of where the London FP used to be based. I went early with a bunch of friends and queued for ages clutching a brand new leather briefcase full of his books. The case was a gift from my godparents (thinking I’d need it for an office job one day) – my friends just mocked and made comment that I might as well get Barker to sign it as it contained all his books.

So, when my turn came, I did exactly that and, after he cracked a few jokes about doing a Nightbreed luggage deal with Samsonite, he kindly signed and illustrated the front of the briefcase with a unique monster head image – truly a one of a kind item now and a prize possession.

But whether it was Stephen King or James Ellroy at the Royal Festival Hall, the countless list of great names each year at Harrogate, Reading and the Crimefest events, or individual author events at bookstores, I have treasured the memories of each and every one of them, and the signed books I have left with.

There have been times where I’ve missed out on more good stuff after an event – leaving early only to find that John Connolly took a whole group of fans out for dinner and drinks for his 40th birthday after an event was one such regret.

But, I have never come away from one feeling anything other than even greater respect for the authors that I read and their books that I love.

If all you do is read your favourite authors, you are really only getting some of the story.

To get all of it, you really should get out there and meet them.


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