Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Yorkshire Noir - An Evening of Crime Writing, a review

Four of the region's foremost crime authors presented an evening - chaired by Alison Taft - of readings, crime writing history (in film and in fiction), discussion and debate as part of the Headingley Literature Festival on Sunday evening.

It's no surprise that the crime genre is undergoing something of a renaissance.  For anyone interested in crime fiction, the evening showcased exciting new writing talent and took audiences on a trip through the annals of great British crime writing.

Alison Taft - Our Father Who Art Out There Somewhere, Shallow Be Thy Grave, My Time Has Come

Nick Triplow - Frank's Wild Years

Helen Cadbury - To Catch A Rabbit, Winner of the Northern Crime Award 2012

Nick Quantrill - Broken Dreams, The Late Greats, The Crooked Beat

Alison Taft, writer in residence for Headingley Literature Festival, Nick Quantrill author of the Joe Geraghty novels, Helen Cadbury joint winner of the Northern Crime Award and published by Moth Publishing in 2013 and Nick Triplow, currently completing a biography of Brit-noir novelist Ted Lewis, made up the crime panel, the format of which was 40 minutes of each writer discussing their writing life and reading extracts from their novels, followed by a break and then a Q&A session before book signing.

Nick Quantrill chose a P.I. instead of a policeman due to laziness.  Joe Geraghty is an ex-rugby league player, to add extra local colour, using the P.I. template but more modern.  The famous five books were the first thing he remembers reading, then Sherlock Holmes.  He then stopped reading, but started again in his early 20s with The Commitments, before finding Rankin.  He studied social psychology and then when he read a bad crime novel and thought, I could do that, he did but it is not as easy as it sounds. 

Nick is trying to become a plotter and he finds his first 10k words easy, but he uses a 3 act plot as a loose broad map and feels it is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, and the next 90k in a consecutive manner is harder.

Helen is trying to plot more but feels the voyage of discovery is in the middle.  PD James sets who done it and then changes it half way through and Nick Q finds it hard to believe that Lee Child writes the full novel without needing to edit.  Nick combines writing with looking after his 3 year old, 2 1/2 hours a day to write 1k words. 

Nick then read a couple of extracts from his first novel Broken Dreams, which he was commissioned to make a short film of about the fishing industry in Hull (this can be found on YouTube directed by Dave Lee) and his third novel, The Crooked Beat.

Helen Cadbury wonders about the proportion of fe/male readers of British crime fiction.  Her adult reading started with Agatha Christie with no sex, violence stylised and straight forward plots, then New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh and revealed that her next book features dog racing.  She then moved on to reading Dorothy L Sayers, followed by hard-boiled American crime when it was reissued in blue editions, e.g. Jim Thompson, then for 7-9 years she did not read crime until her boss, when she was teaching (she worked for 5 years teaching in prisons), gave her King Suckerman by George Pelecanos and she loved the book.  It is set in Washington DC about a guy working in a record shop and the novel deals with social issues and contains real and plausible people and plot.

Helen started writing freelance when her family moved North from the South and she signed up for a University of York Centre for Lifelong Learning (where she will be a visiting lecturer in 2 years time) course at night school writing poetry and short stories, where her tutor Carole Bromley advised her to do an MA in Sheffield and To Catch A Rabbit started off as her MA novel.

Helen started off wanting to write children's fiction, she has a YA novel in a drawer, and had the idea to use a non-gender specific name to publish under for that, but published under her own name for her crime novel.  She then read from To Catch A Rabbit, the opening where PCSO Sean Denton, a dyslexic in his 20s (her son feels this was a stroke of genius as her character Sean can outlive her), is shown a body found by two young boys.  Helen is currently editing her 2nd book Bones in the Nest which comes out 23 July, and starts with an action-filled prologue.  She feels that once your first book comes out it is easier to talk to the police and they told her that PCSOs are for intelligence.

Nick Triplow feels that crime novels have many sub-dividers that publishers want to pigeonhole a writer into, but he doesn't want to call himself a crime writer.  Inspired by Graham Smith's Last Orders, he feels Frank's novel is a mystery as all novels are mysteries, and at the beginning the author needs to ask a question that needs to have been answered by the end of the novel.  Some writers start with a problem, but he starts with a character.  As with Stephen King, start with a solid 'What if?' and expand to a paragraph.  He feels there are 2 kinds of writers, ones that see things and ones that hear voices/dialogue.  He hears it but can visualise it as well, like a camera position and direct it.

He feels setting is important, fundamental, like a character in itself.  He too has a first novel in a drawer which he plotted to within an inch of its life, then he re-plotted as he went along, with 3 different narratives like a knitting pattern.  His second novel is far less so, as writing needs some sense of where you are writing to - pace and guiding people through the story, but you have to have the space to allow for detours.  He is an obsessive compulsive writer and re-writer.

Nick then read from Frank's Wild Years (he always used to read the beginning but he reads further in now) to share a little bit of contemporary and a bit from what Frank used to do.

Following the break, Nick Triplow revealed that he felt that Yorkshire Noir is a mix of Agatha Christie-type detective with 1938 Graham Greene's Brighton Rock gangster that filtered into film late 50s early 60s.  Ted Lewis' Jack's Return Home, filmed as Get Carter, was set in Humberside - non-metropolitan noir fiction.  Glenda, his second novel, was a blackmail thriller.  This type of fiction took a dive in the late 70s, early 80s but by the late 80s was popular again.  The noir is not about the city, but the dark side in the character and plot.  Nick has spent the last 7 years writing a Ted Lewis biography, as Lewis' work was never published properly in the U.S.

Nick Quantrill feels that crime is so popular because the reader can get a thrill through the safety of a book.  He wrote his novel when Hull was down on its luck and now it is City of Culture. 

Helen feels it is dark writers feeding a dark audience.  She grew up in Saddleworth and was used to walking home when the Ripper was at large, always with the fear he could be passing through there.  In the 1930s there was a murder in a pub, they had wet summers and this all adds to the noir.  Her 3rd book opens with wet pavements.  Helen feels a writer never switches off, she can see a circular hay bale and imagine feet sticking out from the middle as it would be a great place to hide a body.  She recommends the search website Duck Duck Go for researching as it leaves no history, therefore no awkward questions about why you were researching how to kill your Dad.  Helen was recently on a canal boat with Joe Bell, the canal poet laureate and she was imagining how to kill people with various canal boat implements and he was exclaiming over flowers.  She also thought that the large chest freezer in her sons flat would be a great place to store a body and then noticed the fake skeleton his ex-physio student flatmate kept in the room and felt it had got too dark when they offered to show her the real one they had upstairs.

The floor was opened up to questions and it was revealed that the most popular Scandinavian crime tv programme is Midsomer Murders.  Helen admitted she was tempted to write cozy crime in her teems but now she is influenced by Scandinavian crime like Jo Nesbo.  Wallander has a lot of landscape that is dark for so much of the year and it is similar to East Yorkshire that it is flat landscapes and a lot colder.  York has Norse place names like Osbaldwick.  Scandinavia has a low crime rate, there are far more murders in the books and Doncaster is the romance capital as more romance books are bought and read there.

Domestic noir is popular now, but it was felt that Bill Sykes is in this area and that if Dickens was writing now, he could be writing for The Wire.

Nick Triplow does not find it difficult to write female characters and feels that all of the decisions are made by the women in the background and the voice in his hide decides the characters gender.  Helen does not find it hard to write from a mans POV, she writes close 3rd person in both parts of the story, and from a female perspective.

Alison said that if it is a crime novel you have to have a body by page 7, but do writers ever break the rules to stand out from the crowd?  It takes 18 months to 2 years to get a book out (one writer took 5 years before accepted and 6 before published), but some writers do have an uncanny knack of predicting things, e.g. Eva Dolan whose book Tell No Tales is about a right-wing politician (not unlike Nigel Farage) but she wrote it 2 years before anyone had heard of him.  The concept has to grab the reader and convince someone into marking and publicity to go out and sell the book, but they advise writing the book you feel you've got to write rather than trying to chase trends.  Nick Quantrill agreed, although he had written about green energy before Hull became UK City of Culture.

The crime market is not always a 'who dunnit', but a 'who done what'.  Grab the reader straight away - some of the audience choose a book from Amazon on the blurb and first few pages to see the writing style, but others go to the middle of the book.

Edinburgh now has a Rebus walk and there is a Peter James walk and Whitby a gothic walk too.  Alison admitted that her AJ Taft was an attempt to disguise who she was as her first book had some things taken from real life, but it was pointless because as soon as you start doing publicity, everyone knows who you are.  SJ Bolton is now Sharon Bolton, but it was a cultural thing to begin with (e.g. the Sharon and Tracy from Birds of a Feather).

Helen revealed that in the To Catch A Rabbit new publication there is only a change of cover and it was copyedited in a slightly different process (house style affects edits, e.g. semicolons, commas) and more closely proofread.  The New Writing North Northern Crime Award was set up to help Northern writers (New Writing North takes in Newcastle and now Yorkshire and the Humber) and there were 4 winners, Rebecca Muddiman (based in Redcar, Teesside), Michael Donovan (Lytham St Annes, who now has a second book out) and Alfie Crow (from Thirsk with his novel Rant, a comic crime, who is working on a different project now) and for all four it was game changing.

The evening concluded with a booksigning (Blackwells Bookshop) where I purchased my copy of Alison's new novel My Time Has Come.

#HeadlingleyLiteratureFestival  #AlisonTaft  #NickQuantrill  #HelenCadbury  #NickTriplow


  1. Karen, this is a very comprehensive and informative review. I wish I had been there even though you've managed to tell me much more than I would have probably picked up in person. Thank you.

  2. You are very welcome crimwritingsolutions, I am glad you enjoyed it and found it useful. It was a great event and I can recommend attending the Headingley Literature Festival.