MysteryFest 2020: All Things Crime and Mystery Fiction

MysteryFest Guests (L-R): LJ Tyler, Charlie Cochrane, Linda Regan, Becky Milne, Christine Hammacott, Peter Tickler, Dot Marshall-Gent, Jeff Dowson (Front: Carol Westron, Linda Stratmann) Credit: Clare Forsyth.

MysteryFest 2021 will be delivered virtually next spring because of the uncertainty surrounding the current pandemic, local S&C contributor Julia Davey reports. The event will feature renowned authors speaking openly about their own literary journeys and sharing their expertise.

This year promises to be another quality MysteryFest. Speakers will include, amongst many others: bestselling author, Leigh Russell; ‘Expert Witness’, Dr Nick Pamment, of the University of Portsmouth; Linda Regan; and Alison Bruce.

MysteryFest is the key crime and mystery literature event of Portsmouth BookFestundertaken in collaboration with Mystery People. This year it took place at Portsmouth Central Library on Saturday 7 March, shortly before lockdown. Despite the circumstances, the day really was a huge success enjoyed by a talented panel of crime and mystery writers, special guests and a lively literature-loving audience.  

The event was co-ordinated by Hampshire crime writer Carol Westron who warmly welcomed everyone and clarified last minute changes to the author panels due to transport issues linked to the Coronavirus.

‘It was a pity that some of our speakers could not make it but I am really grateful to those authors who took their places on panels, especially Linda Regan, who stood in at literally an hour’s notice. Several members of the audience commented that the whole day was excellent which is lovely to hear.’

The programme included two panel debates with bestselling authors: an interview with comedy crime writer and Guest of Honour, LC Tyler and a fascinating insight into the methodology of police interviewing by Becky Milne, Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Portsmouth. Screen and crime writer Jeff Dowson gave an informative presentation about writing for screen and Peter Tickler rounded off the event by seeking  out everyone’s favourite crime novels. The audience networked with the guests and purchased books from the Hayling Island Bookshop pop up stall with the opportunity to have them signed by the authors. At only £15 a ticket, for a full day jam-packed with information, tea and light lunch included, it really was great value for money and had something for everyone. 

Panel One (Part of): Jeff Dowson, Peter Tickler, Carol Westron. Credit: Jack Halsall

The event opened with a panel discussion entitled ‘The Right Place to Kill’, where authors discussed the locations for their fictional crimes. The panel included Oxford based crime writer Peter Tickler (Blood On series), whose next book is due out this autumn; Bristol-based crime writer Jeff Dowson who is  working on a new novel in his Jack Shepherd crime series (provisional title Leading the Blind); and Cockney ‘girl’ come University of Cambridge alumni, Charlie Cochrane, known for her Edwardian gay protagonists in the Cambridge Fellows series, and her contemporary Lindenshaw Mysteries. Author Christine Hammacott (Taste of Ash) added a local dimension with her two new contemporary novels in development based in the Solent area. The panel was moderated by Carol Westron  whose new novel This Game of Ghosts was published at the beginning of the year and is set in the 90s around the now extant Fareham Folk Festival. 

The panel highlighted it’s the author’s job to make places and stories believable. Charlie, Christine and Carol base their writing around real life locations but use imaginary place names, characters and communities in their novels. Carol commented that she chooses locations and landmarks to appeal to a local audience but added sometimes ‘real life’ can catch up with you when key landmarks in your story are demolished before publication.  

By contrast, Jeff and Peter use real names and locations but highlighted it is crucial not to connect a person to a real-life address. Jeff states he may move a property in a well-known street a ‘couple of doors up’ and change the name/number to disguise the real address and Peter added that when briefly using the real name of a cafe in Oxford recently, he ensured it was shown in a positive light. All the panel authors stressed the importance of research when dealing with historic places and buildings.  

Professor Becky Milne, Forensic Psychologist, University of Portsmouth. Credit: Jack Halsall

Becky Milne, Professor of Forensic Psychology at The University of Portsmouth, gave a fascinating presentation on ‘The Reality of Police Interviewing’. Becky holds a number of significant positions outside of University including being one of the lead Academic members on the Association of National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) Investigative Interviewing Strategic Steering Group, as well as working internationally with other police forces. 

Fiction versus reality was explored by Becky who advised authors to consider the police procedures that existed during the period of their novels because procedures have changed over time in the UK and some countries are forty years behind us. Today in the UK, police operate under the Peace Framework – an open-minded approach of interviewing, where crime is treated on presumption of innocence until proven guilty, unlike some countries which still investigate crime on the basis of guilty until proven innocent. 

The first job of the police is to preserve life; the second is to preserve the crime scene. Hardcore forensic evidence tends to be small – around 15% – but in her role, Becky focuses on evidence held within the minds of key witnesses who are ideally ‘uncontaminated’ and have not been influenced by others at the scene. She highlighted that different people have different memory capabilities but the information obtained through police questioning is only as good as the questions posed. Becky emphasised effective communication is about emotional intelligence, developing trust and a good rapport.  

It was highlighted that recording interviews is now statutory in the UK and four other countries: Australia, Norway, Ireland, and New Zealand. The Netherlands is about to start recording as is Iceland. Despite the availability of technology today, many police statements are still handwritten, which is something Becky highlights needs addressing. All of us learnt so much about police interviewing techniques through time – in the UK and globally through Becky’s educational and charismatic presentation. 

Guest of Honour LC Tyler and Linda Regan. Credit: Jack Halsall

After lunch, award winning Guest of Honour LC Tyler (Len) took centre stage, interviewed by actress and crime writer Linda Regan. Len is renowned for his comedy crime writing and to date has written fifteen novels including – eight in his Herring Series about crime writer and amateur detective, Ethelred Tressider and his literary agent sidekick, Elsie Thirkettle; and six, about seventeenth century lawyer and spy, John Grey and his sidekick Aminta. The next in the John Grey series, Death of a Shipbuilder, is scheduled for publication this October and is inspired by Samuel Pepys’s diary.

In 2015, Len was elected Chair of the Crime Writers’ AssociationLen highlighted that few authors write comic crime novels as it does not pay so well in comparison, and a number of editors/publishers are wary of taking such novels on as a delicate balance is needed to write about dark matters in a light-hearted way. Len stressed the importance of good taste, e.g. his murders take place ‘off camera’ and the victim is always someone that is ‘not liked.’ Len also only writes jokes about his characters –  he never makes fun about the act of murder. Len is a passionate supporter of our libraries and still remembers the excitement of being given his first library ticket in Primary school. A fun and engaging presentation Len, thank you.

Panel 2: Linda Stratmann, Carol Westron, Dot Marshall-Gent, Linda Regan, Mia Emilie. Credit: Jack Halsall

The equally engaging second panel of renowned authors discussed ‘Supernatural and Religious Beliefs in Crime Fiction’. The panel comprised Mia Emilie (A Hidden Life, first in The Watchers Crime Trilogy);  Linda Regan actress and crime writer (Stage Death and London gangland novels); Carol Westron (Strangers and Angels); and Linda Stratmann (Mina Scarletti mysteries). The panel was moderated by ex ‘bobby’ Dot Marshall-Gent and guest speaker from MysteryFest 2017 who is a crime fiction researcher and literary reviewer for Mystery People. 

Linda’s Stratmann’s Nina Scarletti Mysteries set in 1870s Brighton are about a horror writer who uncovers fake mediums that prey on the vulnerable during séances. Linda highlighted that being a spirit medium back then gave poor, pretty young women a step up the social ladder. Carol Westron also highlighted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascination with the seance when his son died and that the Golden Age of Crime fiction was a period of national grief which led to an increased interest in Spiritualism. Carol’s novel Strangers and Angels is inspired by the Gosport cemetery where Victorian Turkish sailors are buried and highlights the prejudice and bigotry they suffered against a backdrop of Victorian Christianity. 

 Mia Emilie’s novel A Hidden Life – the first in The Watchers Crime Trilogy – is about three detectives following the same plot- the investigation of Lady Amy Dudley’s mysterious death – in three different time zones – 1560, 1840 and 2008, focusing on past and present beliefs. 

In contrast Linda Regan’s first novel Stage Death, and her current London female gangland series, are bang up to date and highlighted the dangerous rituals young people undertake today to become accepted as a member.  

Author Jeff Dowson. Credit: Jack Halsall

Next came successful Author, Scriptwriter, Director and Producer Jeff Dowson with his fascinating presentation entitled ‘Screen Plays, Crime Thrillers, Marlowe and Me.’

Jeff is famed for his Jack Shepherd thrillers with the fourth in the series Bending the Rules published last year, while the fifth, provisionally entitled Leading the Blind, is in development. Jeff also has a film script currently in production called Brilliant Exile, the story of Frederic Chopin’s years in Paris and his fatal fall from grace. 

A huge admirer of the British-American crime and screen writer Raymond Chandler and his detective Philip Marlowe, Jeff highlighted the fact that twenty-five different actors have played Marlowe, compared to nine playing Miss Marple, and ten playing Poirot, which is a testament to the quality of Chandler’s writing. Chandler’s prose with his rye, humorous descriptions, written in first person, cleverly reveal the complexities of human nature and Jeff highlighted how Chandler talks directly to the reader and his stories don’t just ‘end’ they make people really sit back and think. All of the Philip Marlowe novels have been made into successful films and Jeff highlighted that Chandler’s setting descriptions are so brilliant, it makes the director’s life easy. Through film, Marlowe’s mind is projected into the audience. One of Jeff’s favourite crime novels is Chandler’s The Big Sleep. 

The day was cheerfully rounded off with Peter Tickler encouraging the audience and all the guest speakers to share their favourite crime novels. It was truly a great day, a fabulous MysteryFest and thanks must go out to all involved including Carol Westron, Mystery People, Portsmouth City Council library staff, Hayling Island Bookshop, Jack Halsall photographer and all the speakers who generously gave their time for free.

If you have any enquiries about MysteryFest, contact Carol Westron via her website or the Mystery People website.


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