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Friday 2 April 2021

Mystery Fest 2021

All Kinds of Crime
by Carol Westron and Dot Marshall-Gent


On the 7 March 2020, Mystery Fest was one of the last conferences in Britain to run. It was a wonderful day despite some travelproblems experienced by attendees. On that day, I don’t think any of us envisaged being unable to meet in person in March 2021, but when it became apparent it was necessary, we turned to providing a splendid day via Zoom, and we had twelve speakers, talking individually or in pairs.
The theme for the conference was
All Kinds of Crime,
which offered lots of fascinating variety.
Thank you to all the speakers who gave so generously of their time and expertise.
To kick off the event,
Mystery Fest organiser,
Carol Westron interviewed 

Nick Morrish,
 a Hampshire writer who was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger  2020.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Nick has achieved success with his first novel for we learned that when he was young, he lived with his family just around the corner from the Co-op where Alan Bennet’s father worked as a butcher - affectionately described as ‘Alan Bennet’s butcher’s shop!’
Nick’s early love of all things outdoors and his enjoyment of reading ‘almost anything’ but particularly stories “with action” has stayed with him. Favourite authors included Ian Fleming and Desmond Bagley. About twenty years ago Nick, then working as a
chartered engineer specialising in turbine systems, “moved south” and was offered, and accepted, a job on an oil rig in Malaysia. This new workplace provided a perfect, isolated setting for a crime novel. It sparked his imagination when he envisioned an outsider being thrust into its close-knit community and the result was
Emergency Drill.
Nick had already achieved successes with his short fiction when he entered the novel to the CWA’s Debut Dagger Competition. 
When asked what had prompted him to put his book forward he cited encouragement from Carol Westron and the feedback and comments he received from members of a supportive writing group to which he belongs. Nick was, naturally delighted to be one of only five short-listed writers and is
looking forward to seeing the publication of
Emergency Drill soon. He is currently working on its sequel, another
action-packed thriller set on a remote Scottishisland.

This year’s
Guest of Honour,

million book bestseller and long-term supporter of Mystery Fest,
Leigh Russell,

who was interviewed by actor and author

Linda Regan.

Leigh raised several interesting points about her writing process, telling us that ‘I have a soundtrack of words running through my head,’ and putting forward the thought that ‘We don’t find our stories, they find us.’ Leigh also told us that her writing is organic and that she doesn’t plot, which she feels works well for her because the fear of not knowing where the book is going is good.

Leigh is best known for her series of Geraldine Steel police procedurals. She told us how, in the first book in the series, Cut Short, she became obsessed with the killer and had to make the police detective ‘more interesting’. As her 15th Geraldine Steel novel has recently been published (not counting cameo appearances in the three-book Ian Peterson series and one short story) it is obvious that Leigh succeeded. Leigh agreed that writing a long series had challenges, because the author does not want to bore the readers who know the backstory but it is necessary to provide enough information to engage new readers. She said that she found the Geraldine Steel books harder to write than her other writing ventures because the multi-viewpoint style made it harder to ‘pull the wool over
readers’ eyes’.

Leigh has also written three stand-alone psychological thrillers, all of which are in the First Person and in one viewpoint, and a three-book series featuring Lucy Hall, an amateur detective, which gave her the opportunity to write about some fascinating foreign settings. Leigh admitted that she does not like true crime because it’s about real people hurting other real people. In question time, when a member of the audience asked her about great crime fiction authors, she replied that, in her opinion, Shakespeare was the greatest crime writer, with his superb grasp of psychology and plots that encompassed a great range of illegal acts.


Our 2021 Expert Witness was Dr Nick Pamment, Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, who gave us a fascinating, and very chilling, presentation about Wildlife Crime. Nick started by giving us legal definitions of what encompassed wildlife crime and emphasised that this also included rare plants that are protected by law, and that there is a very active trade in stealing and smuggling such plants as orchids. He also gave us some terrifying statistics regarding animal crime.

Nick told us about the Ivory Project, with which he is actively involved. This attempts to help reinforcement of the law which bans the trade in ivory acquired after 1947. Sadly, the effectiveness of this law is dependent on the seller being educated and honest, and elephants and rhinos are still being slaughtered by poachers, and by farmers who wish to use the same land. However, it is the defenceless pangolin (the Scaly Anteater) that is the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Nick spent some time warning us about wildlife crime in the UK. He spoke of poaching, such as fish, deer and freshwater pearl mussels (which have great scientific value for water evaluation), and also illegal egg collecting. There is also persecution of birds of prey, mainly on the instructions of landowners who want to preserve their game birds for shooting, an industry worth millions of pounds; but birds of prey are also shot also by pigeon racers. Seal shooting is carried out to protect fisheries. Bat persecution is usually carried out by developers, who wish to eradicate the legally protected bats so that they can demolish or convert the buildings that are the bats’ habitat. Badgers and hares are both acquired from the wild to carry out the illegal and cruel activities of badger baiting and hare coursing, which involves not only animal cruelty, to both wild animals and dogs, but also involves trespass and illegal gambling. The wildlife smuggling trade is so active that Heathrow Airport has a large room which is full of confiscated animals and animal products. This smuggling is not only illegal but involves great cruelty, such as smuggling owls and parrots in and out of the country in plastic bottles or drainpipes.

Nick listed the reasons why criminologists should focus on wildlife crime: it causes animal suffering; it reduces protected species; it destroys the balance of nature; it risks human health; it links to other crimes and is a source of funds for terrorism and other illegal activities. Wildlife crime is the 5th most lucrative criminal industry. He also described the challenges of addressing wildlife crime, especially because of the shortage of wildlife crime police officers. However, he concluded on a positive note, with a description of new forensic techniques that have led to successfully getting a fingerprint from a pangolin scale, which should allow more successful prosecutions of  offenders in the future.

At different parts of the day, we had two pairs of authors in conversation about topics that they had selected. The first pair were two lovely actresses who had turned to crime fiction, Linda Regan and Alison Bruce, who discussed writing police procedurals. Both of them emphasised the importance of good research for all aspects of the importance of good research for all aspects of the book. Linda’s first book was set in the theatre, a background she knows well, but for later books she got permission to tour around in police cars on patrol and got out of the cars to talk to young prostitutes, and from this came the inspiration for the girl gang, which is featured in several of her books. Alison gave the audience several useful research hints and announced with pride that she had discovered that there was a Professor of Victorian Railway Timetables. Both Alison and Linda said that writers should never be afraid to ask for help from the people who have the expertise they want, because most people are very helpful. Also, they both emphasised that an author cannot write a police procedural in the way that it works in real life, because it would be too slow-moving and dull.


Our second double act was Alison Morton and Helen Hollick, two historical fiction authors who have recently turned to writing contemporary crime fiction, although Helen’s first cosy crime novel, A Mirror Murder, is only just contemporary, as it was set in the 1970s, almost fifty years ago. Alison started off writing alternative history, in which the Roman Empire had not disappeared but certain families had survived and established Roma Nova, a society in which women were in control but men were not disadvantaged. Alison’s Roma Nova books are fast-paced, political thrillers, so when Conn Iggulden suggested that she wrote a thriller using a modern European setting, it made sense and she wrote Double Identity. Helen’s writing career started with more traditional historical fiction, featuring real-life figures from history, as well as a lively series featuring fictional pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne. Regarding research for their new ventures: Alison said she had to make sure she was accurate in her descriptions of European law enforcement procedures and the buildings they were housed in; Helen explained that she had used a time and setting that she had experienced, the 1970s when she worked as a library assistant, but was amazed at how many details she had forgotten and needed to recheck. Both authors agreed that writing something different stretches your writing muscles.


We also had five short talks by Judith Cranswick, Dot Marshall Gent,
Peter Tickler, Carol Westron
and Jeff Dowson.

Judith Cranswick  gave a very topical presentation on the challenges of Writing Travel Crime in Lock-down. She conducted a survey amongst her writer friends and discovered that the main difficulties were staying focused; procrastination; reluctance to tackle anything difficult; too many in-house distractions; being cut-off from major sources of inspiration. In confirmation of this, Judith said that she is finding it very difficult to form a suitable plot for the Aunt Jessica novel that she is currently working on, because she misses the input of bouncing ideas off of people, although, fortunately, she has already visited Iran and has the location of the book well established. Because Judith’s crime fiction is set in exciting foreign locations, she found it especially difficult when she could not go abroad to experience the local colour, which is such a vital part of her books. In the end, she decided that, instead of visiting Europe, her travel courier protagonist, Fiona Mason, would be put in charge of a tour of places connected with Jane Austen. Judith had visited many of the places involved and updated her research through books and websites, but she had not visited Chawton House, which belonged to Jane’s brother, or Chawton Cottage where Jane lived with her sister and mother. To make things even more difficult, Judith decided that the best place to hold her murder was Chawton House and had to contact a member of the Chawton House staff to ask if it was possible to hide a body in the place she had in mind. The staff member was extremely helpful and sent Judith lots of useful advice and images of suitable places for concealment. Fortunately, in the summer, when restrictions temporarily eased, Judith was able to visit Chawton House and Chawton Cottage, and Blood Follows Jane Austen was published in December 2020.


Dot Marshall-Gent has been a regular speaker at Mystery Fest, talking about a wide variety of subjects, ranging from being a policewoman in the 1980s to Victorian Crime Fiction, however, this is the first time that she has sung to us. Dot gave a delightful presentation of songs about crime. Her selection of ballads started with Mutiny at Sea, and then moved on to a political ballad celebrating the fall and execution of Thomas Cromwell. After this, Dot described the nature of Warning Songs, and gave us a stirring example, A Caveat for Cutpurses, which had a lively chorus:

‘Youth, Youth, thou hadst better be starved by thy nurse,

Than live to be hanged for cutting a purse.’

Moving on to highwaymen, Dot sang The Girl With a Box on her Head, which is also known as The Staffordshire Lass, a very different and feminist twist on the usual highwayman ballads.

Dot concluded with The Ballad of Sam Hall, which was in the voice of an unrepentant and resentful criminal who was about to be hanged.

Everybody expressed how much they had enjoyed this unique and fascinating presentation and many of the
audience hoped that Dot would return for a longer time next year, so that she could talk about – and sing – some 20
th Century crime ballads as well.

Peter Tickler, has graced many a Mystery Fest event and took time out from his writing schedule to give us a presentation entitled Recycle and Re-use – Lessons from a Crime Writer.  With his usual flair and humour, Peter described what it was like to have a manuscript rejected by his publisher. He even provided visual examples of several eco-friendly uses he considered for the papers that had been returned - including a somewhat less-than-air-worthy paper aeroplane! Fortunately, Peter reflected that, despite the setback, he still believed that his book had merit and rather than consign it to an ignominious end he would place it into the bottom drawer of his desk whilst he continued working on his next project. When he picked up the story again, he was able to view it through fresh eyes. Peter read us the original opening to the novel and let us into his thought processes as he re-envisaged one of the characters. A sweet-looking small child who waves ‘regally’ from the back of a car,  being driven along the M40, was transformed into a ‘sulky Goth” teenager.’ In Peter’s revised opening, the girl in the car is described as ‘black-eyed, black-haired, black-clothed’ and directs ‘an unregal one-fingered salute’ in the direction of his detective when she catches him looking at her as they both travel along the motorway. Peter’s redraft was published under the title White Lies, Deadly Lies and is the second in his Doug Mullen series. The talk was both entertaining and informative to writers and readers alike. It provided an insight into Peter’s writing process as well as a lesson in tenacity and self-belief.


Carol Westron needed no introduction to the virtually assembled Mystery Fest audience, having organised the conference since 2018. She is also the author of several contemporary and Victorian crime fiction novels and teaches Creative Writing. Carol spoke about The Emergence of the Elderly Female Sleuth a perfect topic for someone who regularly contributes articles about Golden Age Crime writers for Mystery People’s ezine. The two sleuths at the heart of Carol’s talk were Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who made their literary debuts almost simultaneously, ‘you wait ages for one elderly gentlewoman with detective skills to appear and then two come along at the same time.’ The talk offered insights into the similarities and differences of the two criminal investigators. Their gender and age make both women unlikely investigators and both are shrewd enough to use this ‘illusion of elderly harmlessness’ to their advantage when required. The women shared an understanding and respect for the past and both could be ‘determined, not to say stubborn’ when engaged on a case.  Carol pointed out, however, that these equivalences belie their contrasting situations.  Miss Marple was an amateur detective, rooted in village life and able to solve mysteries by “discovering village parallels.”  Miss Silver, on the other hand, is based in London and works for cold hard cash. Of the two, Carol points out that Miss Silver offers a link to women’s emerging independence as the twentieth century progresses and it is Miss Silver who continues to live in London and keeps working throughout the Second World War.  Carol ended a fascinating talk by suggesting that it might be time to rediscover Patricia Wentworth’s detective without, of course, neglecting Christie’s ever-popular Miss Marple of St Mary Mead.


Detectives who have influenced my Detective was the final talk of the day and given by author, scriptwriter, director and producer Jeff Dowson. Jeff is another Mystery Fest stalwart and discussed how the work of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, amongst others, has inspired his own fictional detectives Jack Shepherd and Ed Grover. Jeff read out some examples of the taut, economical style and snappy dialogue used by Hammet and Chandler and described how Chandler imbued his detective, Phillip Marlowe, with wry humour which, within his first-person narrative, reveals the character as tough and sceptical but also complex. Jeff said that it is the immediacy and pace of narratives penned by the two authors that allows their work to be so successfully converted into playscripts and screenplays. He should know having worked as both an actor and writer of screenplays himself.

The talk ended with Jeff Dowson reading from another writer known for pithy and pacey narratives - Lindsey Davis - and one of her detectives, the ‘Roman informer,’ Marcus Didius Falco. Although written in an era very different from the hard-boiled private investigators of the early twentieth century, Jeff explained how Falco shares many similarities with Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. By combining a first-person narrative with cynicism and humour, Davis’s sleuth, like his pulp-fiction predecessors, may present a devil-may-care persona, but underneath lies a complicated and often dysfunctional human being – much like the rest of us! Jeff’s reading of what he described as ‘the shortest chapter in history’ was a perfect example of how great writers are able to get the most out of their prose with a single, well-placed word! Jeff’s talk, far from being the graveyard shift was a great end to a conference that really did buzz with All Kinds of Crime in a year that we will never forget.

 My grateful thanks to all the authors who took part in the day’s event.
With particular thanks to the organiser Carol Westron for all the hours of work that she put in to make the day a success.
Thank you Carol.
Lizzie Sirett
Mystery People

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