Mystery Fest Review: A ‘Must-do’ Conference of Crime and Mystery Literature

From left: C.Hammacott, J.Cranswick, C.Westron, J. Dowson, L.Russell, P.Tickler. Credit: Jack Halsall

The Mystery Fest conference of crime and mystery literature took place at Portsmouth Central Library on 2nd June 2018. Julia Davey gives a thumbs up to the day’s events and looks forward to next year’s in an exclusive review for S&C.

Mystery Fest was a key event of Portsmouth Bookfest 2018 that was rescheduled due to the unforeseen snowfall in March. Organised and coordinated by Hampshire crime writer, Carol Westron, it was an inspiring and thought-provoking day featuring six hours of crime related literary advice, facts and debate including: two panels of successful local, national and international crime/mystery writers; a presentation on forensics by the University of Portsmouth; a discussion of Spiritualism in Agatha Christie’s works; and a gloriously witty and eye-opening presentation by ex-female bobby from the 1980s, Dot Marshall-Gent.

In addition, there were book-signings at a stall run by Colin Telford of the Hayling Island bookshop; a scrumptious lunch provided by the Lily and Lime Café, and a Mystery Fest crime quiz, won by three participants who were thrilled to select a crime novel from the book stall as their prize.

At only £15 a ticket for a jampacked day with something for everyone, this was tremendous value for money: attracting an audience of published and unpublished writers, lovers of crime fiction, creative writing students, and members of the public interested to learn more about crime literature, forensics and how a crime writer’s mind works.

The day took off with a panel of contemporary crime novelists debating why crime fiction has such an appeal to both writers and readers. Jeff Dowson – Bristol based producer, screenwriter, director and novelist (Jack Shepherd Mysteries) – moderated a lively panel of international best-selling authors: Leigh Russell (DI Geraldine Steel Mysteries), Peter Tickler (Blood On … Mysteries), Judith Cranswick (Fiona Mason Mysteries), Hampshire based crime writer Carol Westron (South Coast Crime series) and local author Christine Hammacott (The Taste of Ash). 

From left: C.Hammacott, J.Cranswick, C.Westron, J. Dowson, L.Russell, P.Tickler. Credit: Jack Halsall

Leigh Russell, author of three psychological crime series, including the famous DI Geraldine Steel, gave hope to unpublished writers. She started writing later in life with her first book receiving several rejections before being offered a three-book publishing deal – she has not looked back since.

Leigh said: ‘Local literary festivals are a very enjoyable way of introducing authors to new readers. For anyone interested in books, there can be few better ways to spend a day. Local author Carol Westron did a brilliant job organising Portsmouth Mystery Fest 2018.’

The panel discussed their writing experiences and methods, including the importance of creating strong characters. Judith Cranswick remarked how she gets inside the skin of her characters: exploring their every expression and movement. Other authors described how minor characters can develop into major characters as novels progress. All stressed the importance of considering your readers as you write, e.g. new readers should be able to pick up the backstory of a series even if their first introduction is a book mid-way through it.

Each author has found a niche and/or location in crime literature that has become their trademark. Peter Tickler shows Oxford as a real city away from the picturesque University Colleges of Morse and Lewis fame. Judith Cranswick focuses on crime in foreign climes, combining travel with research – the best job ever.  Her tip was never to base an entire novel in a place unless you have lived there for a significant period of time. She advised writers to explore foreign places from a visitor’s perspective unless you know the place inside out.

A lively debate followed: is it best to name and write about real places as opposed to fictional places? Some supported writing about real places as readers can relate to it (and importantly, may be more likely to buy your books). However, this does not mean you cannot make places up. Thomas Hardy based his fiction on real places, although he used fictional names. There was a unanimous view that a writer cannot do enough research and that whilst this rarely finds its way in any detail into a novel, it is essential to inform the plot and characters.

Then came The University of Portsmouth’s Forensic Innovation Centre, represented by Director, Dr Paul Smith (formerly Leicestershire Constabulary) and Colin White (Hampshire Constabulary). They gave an informative and enjoyable presentation about the reality of the CSI role as opposed to its fictional counterparts, emphasising the forensics motto, ABC: Assume nothing. Believe no one. Challenge everything.

Paul and Colin highlighted the difference between fiction and reality and acknowledged if authors wrote exactly how an investigation takes place it would be boring to read. Around eighty per cent of all crime investigation is data analysis involving huge teams sitting for hours trawling through information. Also, in reality, there is not the continuity of the same detective/police officer at each stage of an investigation – different officers of varying rank interchange throughout. They noted that whilst fiction does not always depict forensics accurately, it can benefit the reader or viewer to have the truth moderated.

From left: Colin White and Paul Smith Credit: Jack Halsall

Much forensic analysis today is outsourced from the police to private service providers, and it was emphasised that only major cases have forensic examination as it is so costly. Two tips for crime writers- the context of the evidence is extremely important, and DNA is only found in white blood cells not red.

Cheryl Brooks, studying an MA in Creative Writing at University of Portsmouth, remarked how much she enjoyed Mystery Fest 2018, ‘The opening panel discussion gave me the opportunity to hear from a fascinating group of local (and not so local) writers who ranged across a wide variety of topics. This was followed up with a great session on forensics in the real world. I’m really looking forward to reading novels written by local writers new to me. I hope to attend more events like this in the future.’

Four micro-presentations followed the forensics team, including Gaynor Baker (MA Creative Writing, University of Bath Spa) who presented key findings of her study entitled ‘Agatha Christie’s Use of Spiritualism in her Inter-War Books and Short Stories’. She told a fascinated audience how Christie’s mother’s belief in Spiritualism influenced Christie as a child and was woven into her novels.

Credit: Jack Halsall.

Next was ex-WPC Dot Marshall-Gent, who gave a wonderfully rich and witty recollection of what being a policewoman in the 1980s when sexism and inequality could be the norm. One of her examples tickled the audience, when she compared a 1980’s policeman’s truncheon with a policewoman’s, which was less than half the size! ‘How else would it fit into a policewoman’s handbag!’ Dot remarked. (Image inset of Dot holding a policewoman’s truncheon.)

The final panel was a History Mystery panel, featuring Linda Stratmann (Frances Doughty Mysteries) and, William Shaw (Breen & Tozer 1960s series), Barbara Nadel (Inspector Ikmen Mysteries and Francis Hancock 2nd World War series), Nicola Slade (Charlotte Richmond Victorian Mysteries), Jeff Dowson (Jack Shepherd Mysteries and Ed Grover 1940s series), Leigh Russell (Journey to Death) and Carol Westron (Strangers and Angels- Victorian Murder Mystery set in Gosport).

The panel discussed setting the scene in historical crime fiction, why they favour certain periods and how their protagonists draw their readers into those periods.

Carol Westron said, ‘It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, with excellent speakers and a really vibrant atmosphere. It’s a good basis for an annual conference as part of Portsmouth Bookfest.’

The most impressive and generous discovery in Mystery Fest was that everyone involved gave their time for free.

Mystery Fest is back next year – so for all of you that want to enrich your knowledge of crime fiction, forensics and learn more about how to write a mystery novel (not forgetting networking opportunities), get this date in your diary now: Saturday 9th March 2019.

I can’t wait.

Mystery Fest returns on Saturday 9th March 2019. In the meantime, to find out more contact Carol Westron via her website or the Mystery People website.