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Sunday, 7 April 2019

Mystery People at Portsmouth BookFest

Report by  by Julia Davey

Mystery Fest 2019, the key crime and mystery
literature event of this year’s Portsmouth Bookfest - in collaboration with Mystery People - took place at Portsmouth Central Library on Saturday 9 March. The day was a huge success enjoyed by a talented panel of local, national and international crime writers, book reviewers and a literature loving audience. 

The day took off with a panel discussion entitled In the Reviewers’ Hot Seat, with crime novelists
Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell
 
Donna Fletcher Crow, Diane Bretherick and Carol Westron

being probed by Mystery People reviewers Dorothy Marshall-Gent and Dr Jennifer Palmer who asked the panel how they were initially drawn into writing crime fiction. One thing the entire panel had in common was a love of reading and, in most cases, history from a very young age.  Donna Fletcher-Crow and Carol Weston stressed they were the only children in their families and that reading and storytelling became a very important part of their childhood. Leigh Russell, like Donna Fletcher-Crow, studied Literature at university and she was an avid reader for forty years before getting hooked on writing crime fiction eleven years ago. Leigh remarked
It was like turning on a tap. The first book I wrote just for myself, but ended up getting it published with a three-book deal.’
Diana Bretherick, who has a PhD in Criminology , recalled that she has always been fascinated about why people commit crimes and also about the historic views, not given full support today, of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) who considered crime is all about nature and that some people are simply born ‘bad’. Today it is acknowledged that criminality in an individual usually stems from a combination of nature and nurture, that no-one is simply born evil. The panel highlighted the importance of a well-rounded character.
Regarding morality, Leigh Russell said she goes to
‘the heart of the matter in a way that is non-judgemental with a moral compass throughout’ and is ‘intrigued by what is it that pushes someone to kill someone else.’ She considers William Shakespeare one of the greatest crime writers. Donna Fletcher-Crow explained her Christian upbringing ensures that morality and respect for human life are very much reflected in her books and Carol Weston added children in fiction must be dealt with very sensitively whether they are innocent victims or involved in crime. In her novel About the Children, Carol emphasised the children are never killed ‘on screen’ within the text, but instead any child murders are given requisite background in the prologue. 

Reflecting on book reviews the panel unanimously agreed that book reviews along with a strong cover design, helped to promote a novel when accompanied by a well written synopsis on the back cover. The more well-known and respected the reviewer, the more likely the novels will sell well. They all agreed that the detailed and positive reviews from Mystery People reviewers were of great value in promoting a book.  It is not easy get a first novel published but Indi publishing can be a very successful route and Carol Westron explained how it gives her control over her content and output which she enjoys. Diana Bretherick also highlighted competitions as a way of helping new writers to get a foot on the ladder along with networking at conferences like Mystery Fest and Crimefest coming up in Bristol during May which also has ‘A Pitch to an Agent Day’.

Judith Cranswick
 Well-travelled mystery writer Judith Cranswick presented a very interesting PowerPoint on Research for Crime writers. She herself undertakes much political and historical research for her novels abroad including clarifying exactly where a victim is to be located. Judith’s Fiona Mason mysteries are set in Europe and the first of her new Aunt Jessica novels takes place in Morocco.

Simon Brett
The Guest of honour Simon Brett,  author, director, and scriptwriter who in 2016 was awarded the OBE for ‘services to literature’ took centre stage after a tasty lunch enjoyed by all. In 2014 Simon was presented with the Crime Writers’ Association’s top award, the Diamond Dagger. Simon has penned over one hundred books, including many crime novels, including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering and Blotto & Twinks series. Bill Nighy plays Charles Paris in the Radio 4 adaptations of his books. His thriller A Shock to the System, was made into a feature film, starring Michael Caine. Simon’s writing for radio and television includes After HenryNo Commitments and Smelling of  Roses.

Simon gave an absolutely jaw dropping, witty and hilarious rendition of his crime monologue Lines of Enquiry which skewered all of the clichés of the ‘Police Procedural’. Everyone was enthralled, and frequently in stitches - not just with the storyline, and pace of the script with creative use of rhyme - but equally with Simon’s acting ability to change accent, expression, and diction of each character to suit. For those unable to make it this year, you seriously missed something truly special.

Simon Brett and Jeff Dowson
Crime writer Jeff Dowson, also a successful stage and TV writer, producer and director, interviewed Simon after his monologue. In the interview, Simon explained it can be very solitary being a writer so he makes the effort to book social engagements and sometimes swaps between novel, radio, script, stage play - to add stimulus and help keep fresh.  With relation to inspiration for his writing, Simon highlighted he finds the middle class the funniest sector of society because they are all about ‘aspiration and disappointment.’ Voices and images for his characters develop as he writes but Simon admitted he avoids characters from Newcastle and Birmingham as they are two accents he finds tricky to impersonate. Random comments made by people also inspire and make him smile such as a lady he heard commenting, ‘I always know when my husband wants a bit as he always leaves his teeth in after supper.’

Richard Miller, who has been a Portsmouth Library Volunteer for over ten years, told me after the monologue that ‘Simon Brett is quite simply a genius. Brilliant words, incredible rhyming, strong storyline and very funny.’

Linda Regann with Lesley Thomson
 Following Simon, the second panel of crime writers convened to discuss the topic: Single Offender or Serial Killer moderated by the fabulous actress and crime writer Linda Regan who with great vivacity and humour managed this debate about the stand-alone novel versus the series. The panel comprised of
G J Minette and Cristine Hammacott
Jeff Dowson Christine Hammacott , G.J. Minett and Lesley Thomson   The ‘series’ authors particularly enjoyed developing their characters over time and introducing new characters as the series progressed but also enjoyed writing stand-alone novels along with stand-alone panel specialists Graham Minett and Indi author Christine Hammacott.
 
It is interesting to note that Graham Minett, after completing a part-time MA at University of Chichester, won both the Segora short story competition in 2008 and the Chapter One competition in 2010 – the latter going on to form his debut novel The Hidden Legacy. Linda Regan’s first crime novel, Behind You, set backstage in a pantomime, won the Creme de la Crime worldwide search for new authors competition and she has gone on to write eight more successful thrillers. Finally, Lesley Thomson’s first novel A Kind of Vanishing won The People’s Book Prize and her The Detective’s Daughter series has sold over three quarters of a million copies. The Playground Murders, number seven in the series, comes out in April 2019. So winning competitions can lead to real success as a writer.

Three presentations followed the second panel starting with Laura Weston, the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection Learning and Education Officer for Portsmouth City Council. Laura presented two real life murder cases which Conan Doyle was employed to solve. The first was the case of George Edalji [1876-1953], an English solicitor of Parsi descent who was unjustly sentenced to seven years for supposedly slashing horses and other livestock.  The second case was that of Oscar Slater Leschziner of German Jewish descent who came to London in 1893 to evade military service and was the prime suspect for the death of an elderly spinster, Marion Gilchrist in Glasgow [83yrs] in 1908. It was fascinating to hear these cases unfold.


The second presentation was given by ex ‘bobby’ and Mystery People reviewer Dot Marshall-Gent on Victorian crime writing. Dot is a researcher of crime fiction and reviewer for Mystery People and gave an insightful, and also fun look at writing crime in the Victorian era very much enjoyed by all.

 

The final talk was given by historical lecturer, researcher and Mystery People reviewer Jennifer Palmer regarding ‘Bodies in the Library’ within crime fiction – about people either found murdered in libraries, murders plotted in libraries, or bodies hidden in libraries. A fascinating and very informative presentation.

It was time to end the day but what a marvellous Mystery Fest it was, as echoed by Lizzie Sirett of Mystery People who remarked
‘It has been a fantastic day with wonderful informative content and very enjoyable.’

Member of the public Angie Gardiner from Southsea was equally enthusiastic saying
‘The variety of talks and the different way of presenting from the panels, to monologue and interactive PowerPoints made Mystery Fest a very enjoyable and brilliant day. Clearly a lot of hard work to get it organised so well.’

At Mystery Fest Linda Regan told me ‘I love Portsmouth. It has a special place in my heart. I got my MA at Portsmouth University and my husband was from here. It has been a fantastic day.’

At only £15 a ticket for a full day jam-packed with information, it really was tremendous value for money and had something for everyone. Books were available to purchase at a stall run by Colin Telford of the Hayling Island Bookshop, with the opportunity to have books signed by their authors.

Mystery Fest was creatively programmed and co-ordinated, by Hampshire crime writer, reviewer, and expert on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Carol Westron and included lively and informative debates, tips on writing crime fiction and four presentations on: crime fiction research, studies of two real life murder cases investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Victorian crime novel Susan Hopley and an exploration of fiction involving Bodies in the Library.


Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People.  Carol’s most recent book is Strangers and Angels


Julia Davey is a half-Welsh Hampshire girl born in Portsmouth. She has University Degrees inLandscape Architecture and Town and Country Planning but recently gave up her long-established career as a Planning Project Manager (MRTPI) to become a writer. Julia has embarked on an MA in Creative Writing and has completed courses in Playwriting, Screenwriting and Directing for Stage. Julia has been longlisted for the Mogford Short Story Prize 2019 and was published in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018 Anthology.

A big thank you to everyone involved in particular Carol Westron, Mystery People, Portsmouth City Council library staff, Hayling Island Bookshop and all the speakers, who gave their time for free.

Photographs courtesy of Jack Halsall.











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