MysteryFest 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. S&C contributor Julia Davey reports.
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. Mysteryfest 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 three presentations including studies of two real life murder cases investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The guest of honour this year was author, director, and scriptwriter Simon Brett who in 2016 was awarded the OBE for ‘services to literature’.
The day took off with a panel discussion entitled In the Reviewers’ Hotseat with contemporary crime novelists being probed by Mystery People reviewers Dot Marshall-Gent and Jennifer Palmer, who asked the panel how they were initially drawn into writing crime fiction. The panel included international best-selling authors Leigh Russell (author of several series including DI Geraldine Steel Mysteries), American author Donna Fletcher Crow (author of three series including Lord Danvers Investigates), Diana Bretherick (City of Devils) and Carol Westron (South Coast Crime series, and new fiction series Strangers and Angels based in Gosport).
The one thing the entire panel had in common was a love of reading and in most cases, a love of history from a very young age. Donna Fletcher Crow and Carol Westron emphasised that as only children, reading and storytelling were a very important part of their childhood. Leigh Russell, like Donna Fletcher Crow, studied Literature at university and was an avid reader for forty years before getting hooked on writing crime fiction eleven years ago.
Leigh Russell said, ‘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 with what makes people commit crimes, as well as with the historic views of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) who believed crime is linked to nature and that some people are simply born ‘bad’. His attitude stands in contrast to today, where criminality in an individual is usually seen to stem predominantly from nurture, and no-one is simply ‘born evil’. The panel all highlighted the importance of a well-rounded character as central to their storytelling.
Regarding morality in story-telling, 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 it is that pushes someone to kill someone else.’ She considers William Shakespeare one of the greatest crime writers. Donna Fletcher Crow explained her Christian upbringing places morality and respect for human life at the heart of her writing. For Carol Westron, the main moral concern is the representation of children in fiction as victims or as being involved in crime, which in her view must be dealt with sensitively. In her novel About the Children, Carol emphasised the children are never killed ‘on screen’ within the text, instead the murders of children are given requisite background in the prologue.
The panel unanimously agreed that along with a strong cover design, respected reviewers help to promote a novel, especially when the reviews accompany a well-written synopsis on the back cover. All the writers agreed that it is not easy to get a first novel published, but that independent publishing can be a very successful route. Carol Westron explained that it gives her control over her content and output, which she enjoys, while Diana Bretherick highlighted writing competitions as a way of getting new writers noticed. Finally, networking events such as Mysteryfest and Crimefest (held in Bristol in May), both of which include ‘A Pitch to an Agent Day’.
Well-travelled mystery writer Judith Cranswick gave a fascinating presentation, Research for Crime Writers, as she undertakes much political and historical research for her novels set in foreign climes, including helping her clarify exactly where a body 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.
Guest of honour Simon Brett took centre stage after a tasty lunch. 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 and 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 Henry, No Commitments and Smelling of Roses. Simon gave a hilarious rendition of his crime monologue Lines of Enquiry that skewered all of the clichés of the classic police procedural. Everyone was enthralled, not just with the storyline, pace of the script, and creative use of rhyme, but equally with Simon’s acting ability as he changed the accent, expression, and diction of each character to suit.
Crime novelist Jeff Dowson – also a successful stage and TV writer, producer and director – interviewed Simon after his monologue. Simon explained it can be very solitary being a writer so he makes the effort to see friends during the week and swaps between novel, radio, script, stage play to add stimulus and help keep fresh. 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 remarking, “I always know when my husband wants a bit as he leaves his teeth in after supper.”
Richard Miller, a Portsmouth Library Volunteer for over ten years, said after the monologue, ‘Simon Brett is quite simply a genius. Brilliant words, incredible rhyming, strong storyline and very funny.’
The second panel of crime writers discussed the topic Single Offender or Serial Killer, a debate about standalone novels versus a series. It was moderated with great vivacity and humour by actress and crime writer Linda Regan. This panel comprised Jeff Dowson (Jack Shepherd Mysteries and Ed Grover 1940s series), Christine Hammacott (Taste of Ash), G.J. Minett (The Hidden Legacy) and Lesley Thomson (The Detective’s Daughter series ). The ‘series’ authors particularly enjoyed developing their characters over time and introducing new characters as the series progressed but also enjoyed writing standalone novels.
Linda Regan told me, ‘I love Portsmouth. It has a special place in my heart. I got my MA at the University of Portsmouth and my husband was from here. It has been a fantastic day.’
Three presentations followed the second panel starting with Laura Weston, Learning and Education Officer for the Conan Doyle Collection, bequeathed by Richard Lancelyn Green to Portsmouth City Council. Laura presented two real life murder cases which Conan Doyle was tasked 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, a man 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 in 1908. It was fascinating to hear these cases unfold.
The second presentation was given by ex ‘bobby’ Dot Marshall-Gent on Victorian crime writing. Dot is a researcher of crime fiction and reviewer for Mystery People and gave an insightful and fun look at writing crime in the Victorian era. 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.
After a packed day, it was time to close. The day was captured by Lizzie Sirett of Mystery People who said, ‘It has been a fantastic day with wonderful informative content and very enjoyable.’
Angie Gardiner from Southsea, was equally enthusiastic, ‘The variety of talks and the different ways of presenting, from the panels to monologue and interactive PowerPoints, made MysteryFest a very enjoyable and brilliant day. Clearly a lot of hard work to get it organised so well.’
At only £15 a ticket for a full day jam-packed with information offering something for everyone, MysteryFest 2019 offered tremendous value for money. Books were also available to purchase at a stall run by Colin Telford of the Hayling Island bookshop, with the opportunity to have them signed by the authors.
A big thank you to everyone involved: Carol Westron, Mystery People, Portsmouth City Council library staff, Hayling Island Bookshop and all the guests who generously gave their time for free.