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Thursday, 5 July 2018

Cardiff Crime and Coffee Festival 2018

Report by Radmila May
Today’s Cardiff is the thriving, bustling capital of the Principality of Wales. The centre of the city is full of modern buildings, although more ancient structures such as Cardiff Castle are also prominent. Cardiff’s first ever Crime and Coffee Festival was held in the visually arresting Cardiff Central Library on June 1st and 2nd and provided two days of fascinating talks from Wales’s leading crime writers. There are a good few Welsh crime writers, 19 of whom are members of the Welsh Chapter of the Crime Writers Association, and a number of those took part in the Festival. I was not able to get to all the talks, but I went to a good few. *  denotes a writer who has been reviewed in Mystery People – look on the website under ‘Reviews’.

Friday  1st June


The first talk, Cardiff – The Cruel Streets Revisited, was given by former member of Cardiff CID, John Wake. John has written a number of books on the history of Cardiff and its criminal past and plays which have been
performed at the Edinburgh Festival, the Bristol Old Vic and the Barbican. He had numerous photographs which provided graphic displays of the poverty and deprivation in the city in the 19
th and early 20th centuries, particularly the influx of destitute Irish immigrants after the Great Hunger 1845-47. These conditions led to a considerable number of crimes particularly street robberies facilitated by the complete lack of street lighting in the poorer areas of the city such as the officially designated Temperance Town which had in fact 72 or more pubs and brothels. He then described a number of more recent crimes. John’s first experience of the area was when he first joined the police at a time when it was still very run-down. He vividly described how many homeless men there were on the streets; many were able to get shelter in the Salvation Army hostel and often were able to turn their lives around but others who had become meths drinkers slept rough and were often WWII veterans suffering, he suggested, from PTSD, sadly not then a recognised condition. Although conditions in the city have now improved immeasurably, there are still crimes including some recent murders. This account of real life crime, past and present, provided an excellent foundation for the fictional crimes which followed.


Next to speak were three Welsh authors, Evonne Wareham*, Derec Jones and Phil Rowlands*, all of whom write slightly outside the usual crime categories. Evonne writes romantic suspense novels: her first novel, Never Coming Home, won various awards. Her latest novel, What Happened at Christmas, contains elements of suspense, romance and comedy and will be the first in a series. Derec’s novel, Bums, is based around the council estate where he grew up and features Detective Inspector Frank Lee, a former punk and new age traveller who investigates the murder of a local headmaster and encounters those who have dropped through the cracks of modern society such as alcoholics, bag ladies etc. Phil’s psychological suspense novel, Siena, is about how Sara Llewellyn, having lost both her husband and young son who are by chance killed during an attack targeting a wealthy Italian business man, travels to Siena to find answers and achieve closure. Before taking to writing Phil was an actor and then a director.


Following on from those three Rebecca Tope* in conversation with Alis Hawkins* discussed her two series of village crime novels, The Cotswolds Mysteries (16 titles), featuring house sitter Thea Osborn, and The Lake District Mysteries (7 titles), featuring florist Simmie Brown. Although they might be classed as similar to the U.S. cosy genre, Rebecca told us that in fact they were inspired by her childhood where she was brought up on a farm and her experiences on the small holding in rural Herefordshire where she now lives and the contrast between the idyllic beauty of the countryside and the brutality and cruelty that is the underlying reality. In addition to those two series, Rebecca did have another series, The West Country Mysteries, and has written novelisations of some episodes of the TV Rosemary and Thyme series for which she has been longlisted for various awards. Both she and Alis said that their plots are largely
character-driven. Rebecca told us that village mysteries should always have a pub!


 After Rebecca came Alis Hawkins* and Graham J. Miller. The title of their talk was The Unsung Detectives – Coroners as Investigators in Crime Fiction.  Alis’s series is new and set in the mid-Victorian period in the Teifi Valley. Her protagonist in this first novel, None So Blind, is barrister Harry Probert Lloyd who is gradually losing his sight and returns to his home territory to become a coroner. The office of coroner is tremendously old and dates from the mid-eleventh century and was originally concerned with protecting the property of the Crown but is beginning laboriously to evolve. However, inquests were held not in courts but often in pubs and there were still juries and the balance of proof was not to the criminal standard (nor is it nowadays). The novel is set at a time of great unrest particularly in Wales where the Rebecca Riots were going on in which criminals could be involved. Harry is assisted by his clerk John Davies. Graham’s novel, The List, is set in the present-day when coroners may be either lawyers or doctors and are assisted by coroner’s officers whose duty is to work as directed by the coroner in liaising with bereaved families, and various official agencies. They have full police powers and so, when Graham was looking for an alternative to the usual police detective but wanted his investigator, Detective Sergeant Jonah Greene, to encounter bodies, he thought that since coroners deal exclusively with the dead a coroner’s officer would be appropriate. In this, Graham’s first novel, the death of a rough sleeper leads to the uncovering of an ~amazing conspiracy. My own view is that the introduction of coroners’ officers as an alternative to traditional detectives and private eyes is a welcome development. 

Saturday 2 May 

Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson*, in their talk, Beyond Psychopaths – Mental Health in Crime Fiction, discussed psychiatric problems in crime fiction. Psychiatrist Rosie Claverton’s series features Amy Lane who is both agoraphobic and a hacker and is assisted by street smart ex-con Jason Carr. Her next title, due out late this year, is Hard Return. Rosie’s knowledge of psychiatry and her experience with those suffering from various mental problems form the foundation of her books. Matt, however, took up writing as a way of coping with his own problems: after serving first with the Army in Afghanistan and then in the police, he was suffering from PTSD and took to writing as a form of therapy. It worked. His latest books are part of a series, Wicked Game, Deadly Game, End Game, featuring police detective and former SAS officer, Robert Findlay. Rosie pointed out that there are actually very few murders in Wales, about 3-4 a year, and those are mostly domestic. Cardiff leads, she said, on mental health and neuropathology.


Hazel Cushion, managing director of Cardiff-based publishers Accent Press, discussed with Mark Ellis three books in a series set in wartime London, Prince’s Gate, Stalin’s Gold, Merlin at War, featuring part-English, part-Spanish, Metropolitan Police DCI Frank Merlin. At the time, not only did Londoners have to cope with the Blitz, the blackout, etc but there was a 50% increase in crimes such as looting, the black market, vice, and all the violence that accompanies such crimes, not to mention possible spies taking advantage of the prevailing conditions. He told us that, although his time at the Bar was brief, that legal experience trained him to think logically, a useful asset when plotting. Before settling down to write Mark does extensive research into the background of his novels. He was born in Swansea although he now alternates between London and Oxford.


Cut, Slash and Perfect was the title of the next panel in which Caroline Oakley talked with writers Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore. Judith came to writing late in life and has written three novels, featuring the Howarth family, and set during and after World War II with a suspense theme: Changing Patterns, Living in the Shadows, Pattern  Shadows. Thorne writes psychological suspense. Her latest title is Shadows and is set in Pembrokeshire.


That talk was followed by Kate Hamer* who told us about the relationship in her novels between her stories and the Grimms’ fairy tales which she read avidly when she was a child. With her first novel, The Girl in the Red Coat¸ which was the story of a young girl who goes missing at a fairy tale festival, it was not until the publishers wanted her to change the colour of the coat that she realised the connection between her story and that of Little Red Riding Hood. Although, she said, she thinks of the idea for her story before the relevant fairy tale comes to mind, she knows that soon the link between the two will come to her.


In the discussion, Into the Darkness, between Sally Spedding*, Beverley Jones, Cheryl Rees-Price, Katharine Stansfield*¸ all writers who have written novels which either fall into the category of ‘speculative fiction’ or come near it. Maybe ‘chiller thrillers’ is equally apt as a description of this new genre. That is how Sally Spedding describes her novels which have elements of witchcraft and fantasy, the latest of which is Cloven. In Beverley Jones’s Where She Went, a woman wakes up in bed with a man she doesn’t know and realises she is in fact dead. Katherine Stansfield’s mysteries, set in 1840s North Cornwall (where Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is set) and influenced by Cornish folklore, feature the unorthodox detective duo of Anna Drake and farmhand Swilly. Her latest story is the Magpie Tree. Cheryl Rees-Price’s stories are more in the traditional vein and feature DI Winter Meadows investigating mysteries involving children and vulnerable adults. The latest novel is Suffer the Children.

AND FINALLY, . . .One frequently asked question was to what extent writers plan their plots. The answer was very few, most writers preferring to see where their plots go after the initial idea has sprung to mind and being as much led by the development of the characters as the drive of the narrative.

There were several other talks which I was unable to get to, including Christopher Fowler and Belinda Bauer

Another talk, featuring writers writing in Welsh, had an audience of 10-12 people – evidence of the importance to the people of Wales of the importance of their language. And there were two workshops,
Katherine Stansfield* on Detectives and their Stories, and Sally Spedding*, Fear is the Key.

All in all, it was a great conference, excellently organised by the staff of Cardiff Central Library, and should do much to raise the profile of Welsh crime writing. It left me knowing that I had a lot more books to read! I’m
looking forward to the next Cardiff Conference!
Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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