J. M. Hewitt writes, one year on…

JM Hewitt Exclusion Zone

One year ago, just after being accepted as a member of the CWA, I sat in an alfresco bar in Cal d’Or and wrote a piece for National Crime Reading Month, outlining my plans for the future.

I had recently completed a Holocaust-inspired novel entitled The Intelligence of Ravens, and at the end of the National Crime Reading Month blog post I made the following statement; ‘and now it is finished, waiting to fly out into the world. Originally marketed as historical fiction but now as a crime fiction novel, for surely if the Holocaust was to be recorded as anything, it would be as one of the greatest crimes in history.’


The following month, The Intelligence of Ravens won first prize in a pitch competition during BritCrime’s online summer festival. Evaluation of the manuscript followed, which contained feedback that would prove to be priceless. Ravens wasn’t a cut and dried crime fiction novel. It wasn’t a ‘whodunit’ or a mystery or a thriller. No matter what spin I put on it, Ravens was always going to be a sweeping epic of historical fiction.

It was time to stop messing around. It was time to sit down and write an actual crime fiction novel. I knew the rules and I had the tools, and I also had an idea that had been brewing for a while about a Chernobyl-based thriller. I even had my pitch; ‘what if terrible crimes were happening in a place where no law enforcement would go?’

While researching, I realised that the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was only nine months away. Was it possible to write and release a book in nine months? You know what – anything is possible if you want it bad enough.

There were pitfalls and stumbling blocks. For one, I didn’t even have a publisher. So as summer rolled into autumn I began sending out the half-written manuscript along with a promise that I could complete it by the end of 2015. On 16 November, Endeavour Press signed me up, giving me six weeks and a deadline of New Year’s Eve to write another 40,000 words.

So six months after my original National Crime Reading Month post I had a new, completed novel, a publishing contract and, as it turned out, a whole lot of support.

Hanging around the fringes of the crime fiction world had done me a favour and I found the generosity from established authors so heart-warming and encouraging. I formulated plans and called upon these people for help. I asked a few of my favourite crime writers if they would consider reading Exclusion Zone and provide cover quotes, and they all heartily said ‘yes’!

I asked the fabulous creator of www.crimebookjunkie.co.uk if she would like to do a cover reveal. My crime junkie friend went even further, cleverly revealing the cover over a week period to build excitement and momentum.

I was in Red Herrings (the CWA magazine), two local magazines, a newspaper, many blogs and I was a guest curator on BritCrime. To top it all off, one of my own quotes is being used on the back cover of a fantastic debut author’s book, (Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, via the amazing publisher that is Orenda Books.) That’s how far my journey has taken me in such a short while, from seeking cover quotes to providing them!

Now, a year later, I’m writing this blog post for National Crime Reading Month again and I’m reflecting over the whirlwind that has been the last twelve months.

Last year, I spoke about my hopes and dreams. They have been met, in full, beyond my wildest expectations but despite this, my longing to remain in this world of crime continues to grow. My ambition has not been sated or dulled by Exclusion Zone’s success.

And I hope it never will be.

Exclusion Zone:



AJ Waines

AJ Waines

Considering the popularity of crime fiction, true crime and TV detective dramas – we certainly seem obsessed with “the criminal mind”! But is there such a thing? And if so, how many individuals in our own neighbourhood harbour murderous intentions?

Carl Jung suggested that we all have a ‘dark’ side and most of us spend our lives promoting the ‘good’ and downplaying the ‘evil’ tendencies in our personalities. Few of us would claim to be capable of murder, but is this truly the case?

The British public loves a good murder mystery – why is that? Research suggest it’s because we’re curious about what lurks beneath the surface. We want to replicate the drama of fear and jeopardy from the safety of our own sofas – the chemical reaction itself from tension to resolution, is addictive. On the one hand, it reinforces our sense of wellbeing when the good guy wins. On the other, it allows us to inhabit our darker side for a while; to see the world through the eyes of a killer and gain vicarious gratification for our hidden impulses and fantasies.

According to experts, psychopaths are all around us, in the office and on the Tube; because they are competent and manipulative, they blend in. ‘After 40 years…’ says Robert Simon, a forensic psychiatrist, ‘I am absolutely convinced there is no great gulf between the mental life of the common criminal and that of the everyday, upright citizen.’ More chilling than this, he believes anyone has the potential to kill, but most of us choose to pummel the car horn, slam doors or find private ways to let off steam.

As a psychotherapist, I have worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, including Broadmoor and Rampton hospitals. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that there are numerous factors that contribute to an individual committing murder; biological, genetic, psychological, social, and that all forms of human behaviour exist on a continuum.

Dr Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, USA, interviews convicts on death row and claims that more than ninety per cent of serial killers are psychopaths and most are sadists. These are the calculating murderers (Hannibal Lecter is probably the most famous psychopath in fiction); cunning and callous without remorse. But what makes them this way?

The nurture argument explains a great deal. A dog, for example, neglected and badly treated is likely to develop an aggressive streak. A dysfunctional upbringing can have the same result in a human. Stone believes that revenge is one of the strongest motives for murder. He has spoken with Tommy Lynn Sells, a killer of around seventy victims, mostly women, about his feelings for his mother. Tommy was appallingly abused by her as a child, but he has always remained disproportionately protective of her. Stone believes Tommy acted out his anger towards his mother symbolically by killing others, repeatedly paying his mother back for what she did to him in a disassociated manner.

Professor Adrian Raine, a neurocriminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes biology plays a more important role than we think. In 1994, he took a sample of murderers and found the prefrontal cortex of the brain was significantly underdeveloped in comparison to non-offenders. ‘Psychopaths…lack conscience, remorse, and guilt. They just don’t feel feelings the way we do,’ he says. ‘It’s as if they don’t have the feeling for what is right and wrong.’ According to Raine, dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex can bring about less control over emotions such as anger, rage and risk-taking, and leads to poor self-control and problem-solving skills, all traits that could predispose a person to violence.

Head injuries can also cause changes in personality – often swift and dramatic. A disturbingly high proportion of serial killers have sustained head injuries at some stage in their lives. Fred West is a case in point. He suffered two serious head injuries; one, through a motorcycle accident, the other when falling from a fire escape, both of which left him unconscious. His subsequent behaviour is well documented!

My own experiences of the criminal mind have been sad, rather than disturbing. I largely met individuals from dysfunctional backgrounds who were struggling to cope in dire circumstances. Caught up in domestic violence, drug abuse or poverty, they felt they had no other course of action open to them, other than to lash out. Some made a fatal decision – seeing it as the only way out of debt or a damaging relationship. Others claimed they were protecting their children. Many chose a passive-aggressive approach, resorting to arson or poisoning, rather than physical attacks. Setting a fire meant they could walk away and let fate decide what happened. These individuals didn’t know how to communicate or contain their feelings and found themselves so deeply entrenched in unmanageable situations that they felt they had no escape.

I also came across people for whom crime was part of everyday life. These men or women had grown up with stabbings, shootings and muggings; they had mental health problems, a fragile personality-type, were easily led and got involved with criminal activity through the influence of others. They were anti-establishment; seeking leadership, gang-culture, excitement, risk-taking -often simply looking for a sense of ‘family’ and belonging. They knew no other kind of life.

As an author of psychological thrillers, I enjoy writing about fully-functioning individuals who make terrible mistakes under duress. They could be you or me. They make matters worse by covering up their wrongdoing with another blunder – and they could get caught at any moment. It can start with a small secret or lie – we’ve all been there – but, as panic sets in, the situation escalates into a serious crime…

The criminal mind, therefore, comes in many forms with complex biological, psychological and emotional triggers. One question remains: faced with overwhelming jealousy, hurt, rage, resentment or threats to loved ones – what would you do?

AJ Waines writes psychological thrillers. Both her debut novels, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train have been Number One bestsellers in ‘Murder’ and ‘Psychological Thrillers’ in the UK Kindle Charts. Girl on a Train has also been a Number One Bestseller in the entire Kindle store in Australia (2015).

A psychotherapist for fifteen years, AJ formerly worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, giving her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is fascinated by secrets and lies, crimes of passion, devious motives and anything hidden under floorboards. Her first two standalone novels feature strong intrepid women compelled to solve sinister mysteries – with twists and turns that drag them into serious jeopardy.

AJ Waines has traditional publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House) and lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband.

Find out more at AJ Waines profile

Cara Cooper

Cara Cooper

One of the key challenges in writing a historical crime novel is immersing yourself in the period. Difficult when in our modern world, surrounded by technology and mobile phones to think yourself way, way back into the 1600s. But that is what I’m doing at present with my lady investigator solving crimes in seventeenth century London. So how do I transport myself into a world where England has just come out of a civil war, your health was deemed to be governed by four mysterious humours, and the Plague regularly killed young and old?

Firstly, I read around my subject. There are standard reference works and I have a whole bookshelf full. Occasionally, with the wonders of the world wide web, you can also come across gems such as Mike Rendell’s ‘Georgian Gentleman’ blog. This is a little later than the century I am researching, nevertheless it provides valuable insights. Mike Rendell is lucky enough to have inherited a pile of papers, superb first person accounts from his ancestor Richard Hall, which he is kind enough to share with the world. Topics cover everything from phonetic pronunciation where we see Richard Hall’s original beautiful handwritten notes usefully advising us that ‘bosom’ was pronounced ‘boozum’ to depictions in art showing how the pastime of constructing a house of cards from playing cards is nothing new. These little snippets of days gone past are what can colour a novel and make it real.

Another thing I find essential is to visit the settings of my novels. They say the past is another country and you can still, today visit the past, particularly somewhere as ancient as London. In the City, you can go to St Olave’s, the church where the bust of Samuel Pepys’s beloved wife Elizabeth is on display. You can also walk down steps into the church and wonder why they would sink the building two feet or more into the ground. Research will tell you that on the contrary, the church wasn’t built into a dip. Instead the ground around was raised by default because the Plague resulted in so many bodies requiring burial that the constant heaping of bones and earth around the churchyard has caused it to raise up. Just thinking of those thousands of poor people perishing and the plight of those remaining who saw whole families and streets of neighbours disappear daily is something to transport one quickly back to a different age. The closeness of death for our forebears is something very different from our own lives today and something to be aware of when creating the atmosphere in a historical novel. Only recently, deep digging to lay the foundations for crossrail has resulted in the unearthing of bones from the Bethlem burial ground and an informative website has been set up to record the finds

Another way to get in touch with the past and to smell the atmosphere of open fires and meat roasting on the air is to visit the site of a civil war battle whilst people are preparing for the fight. Each Easter, Basing House in Hampshire is the site of a re-enactment by the Sealed Knot of one of the significant battles overseen by none other than Oliver Cromwell himself. The original house was destroyed even though at one time, with 360 rooms it was one of the largest private houses in England. Each Easter people dress in their authentic gear and are happy to talk for hours to anyone who will listen about the 1600s. These enthusiasts are invaluable and they really know their stuff. It is not just the battle I was interested in although I spoke for ages to a Master Gunner who revealed the secrets of how to measure the trajectory of your mortar to blow up exactly the piece of land you’re aiming at. In addition, there are many camp followers and I was rewarded for my visit by a fascinating discussion with a lady who was spinning flax to make linen and enlightened me on the underwear such a lady would wear. We were also let into the intricacies of the game Nine Men’s Morris. All fascinating stuff. More eerie was the trip I took to Knole house in Kent where they recently made an extraordinary discovery. In preparation for a visit by King James who wrote one of the seminal works on identifying and punishing witches, witch marks were etched into the beams near his bed. It was thought these would protect him. The theory was that witches flying down the chimney and in through the fireplace would become confused and tangled up in the strange circular patterns thus protecting the king.

But the thing I have found most evocative of the past is to own a portion of it. There is nothing like twirling in your fingers an object crafted by someone who lived over four hundred years ago, closing your eyes and imagining them holding that same object. The two things I own are firstly a roof tile which I picked up from the Thames foreshore opposite the tower of London. This was on a guided mudlarking session run by a river archaeologist. The tile has a neat hole in it and the archaeologist told us that any where the hole is blackened (the tiles were secured with wooden pegs) would almost certainly have come from the time of the Great Fire. The other treasure I have is a piece of lead shot. These are regularly dug up in Hampshire villages around Basing House and I obtained mine in a junk shop for the princely sum of £1. I fancy sometimes that I can see in the soft lead, the fingerprint of the soldier who made it, reputedly from the lead roof of the chapel at Basing House. Now that really is treasure for an author to own.

Cara Cooper has recently gone over to the dark side. She started by writing romance for My Weekly and People’s Friend magazines and has had serials, short stories and pocket novels published by them. It was after she wrote short stories for two anthologies, ‘Shiver’ and ‘A Case of Crime’ for Accent Press that she really developed a taste for crime writing. Cara lives and works in London and gets lots of her inspiration from that great city. At present she is writing a historical set in the capital in the 1600s which gives her an excuse to eat pies and drink gallons of coffee around Covent Garden, all in the name of research. She is often to be found haunting the Museum of London, and the Wellcome Institute in search of inspiration. Lately, mudlarking on the Thames has fired her imagination. A career which has spanned the civil service including a long stint spent in a Government Minister’s office and following that, in human resources for a charity has given her some useful insights into human nature. Cara can be reached on Facebook and at @CaraCooper1 on Twitter. She also blogs intermittently at caracoopersblogspot.co.uk.


Isabelle Grey

Isabelle Grey

Why is crime fiction addictive?

All sorts of ‘rules’ can be bent or broken when writing genre fiction except one: that the story must confront the genre’s greatest fear. In romantic fiction, for example, it is that love cannot prevail. In crime fiction, it is that the riddle may go unsolved.

All sorts of novels can encompass murder, or be about unlocking the past, confronting secrets, pursuing justice, righting a wrong, revenge, investigating current social and moral concerns, but a crime novel must also solve a puzzle. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘this is the purpose of detective investigations … to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.’

Certainly two other great crime writers would agree. Raymond Chandler described the detective story as a tragedy with a happy ending, while P.D. James spoke of the detective taming the outrageous breach of nature that is crime and restoring society to order and stability by unraveling complexity and containing irrationality. Sometimes the pattern is reversed, and we identify with the perpetrator and wait to see whether we will get away with it. Either way, in choosing crime as a favourite genre, we seek the frisson of risk that the breach will not be resolved, that evil will escape unpunished and we will not be safe.
Our anxiety is pleasurably channeled into how we as readers collude in arriving at the solution to the puzzle. It’s vital that we actively experience that heady mix of transgression, anxiety and satisfaction that makes crime so popular, whether in books, film or television: the question ‘How will all this turn out?’ has to be made to matter to us. The settings, characters, social issues and means of detection will always change, but what must remain is the addictive gratification of teasing out the riddle in tandem with the teller of the story.

It’s clear from the long and distinguished tradition of series protagonists – Holmes, Marlowe, Marple, Warshawski, Rebus, Salander – that readers desire the satisfaction of repetition. Freud thought that we enjoy the compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to re-live events that were traumatic because, in doing so, we can gain mastery over them. As readers, we have the reassurance of knowing that a familiar central character will crack the riddle while simultaneously we can believe that we’re working it out for ourselves – and maintain the illusion that we might fail.

The crime writer’s ability to never quite let us in on the secret, to create suspense, anxiety or dread by crafting hooks, twists and unexpected reversals or by scattering false leads and withholding information, and in the end to allow us to feel as if we have uncovered the truth for ourselves, is not a matter of superficial puzzle-solving cleverness but of truly understanding the primal pleasure of reading crime fiction.

For, after all, the riddle to be solved is not only ‘outside’: it is also within ourselves. Our greatest fear – glimpsed through the flaws of the greatest detective protagonists – is that we ourselves might not be either safe or good. As in the classic whodunit, we’re all guilty until the killer is unmasked.

Isabelle Grey’s crime fiction debut is Good Girls Don’t Die, the first in a series featuring Grace Fisher, a murder detective with the Major Investigation Team in Colchester, Essex. Some Girls Do, published by Quercus, is the next in the series.

Isabelle Grey has also written two novels of psychological suspense, Out of Sight and The Bad Mother, and is a television screenwriter. In addition to commissions for original drama, she has contributed episodes to crime series including The Bill, Wycliffe, Rosemary & Thyme, Midsomer Murders and Jimmy McGovern’s BAFTA-winning Accused. She was previously a freelance journalist, contributing to national newspapers and magazines, and also writes for film and radio.

She grew up in Manchester and now lives and works in north London.

You can follow her on Twitter @IsabelleGrey and on her blog www.isabellegrey.com

Find out more at Isabelle Grey’s profile

Linda Stratmann

Linda Stratmann

The single question that writers are asked most often is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, so much so that it has become a cliché . Not so long ago someone started asking me this question, realised in mid-sentence it was a cliché and quickly re-worded it, but I wasn’t fooled – it was the same question!

Some writers tackle this by making up answers. I have been told there is one writer who jokes that he buys them from a shop. I have two answers, and they are both true. Ideas are actually all around us for the taking – but often it is not the writers who get the ideas but the ideas that get the writers, demand to be written and won’t go away until they are. The problem is that for many of us developing and writing plots is such a subconscious procedure that it is very hard indeed to describe what is happening.

But it is clearly an important question and one I want to address. So here is a story.

Three people go out for a walk. A chef, a photographer and a writer. They all pass by a tree, and the chef thinks about the wonderful fruit on the tree and the dish that can be made with it. The photographer notices the interesting pattern of the branches and realises what a great picture it will make. The writer spots a cleft in the tree and imagines a story about someone hiding stolen jewels there. All three have seen the same tree and in each it has sparked off an idea, but a different idea. All three of these people are working in a creative environment and when someone is immersed in that kind of activity the mind becomes attuned to spotting little cues that will lead on to a project.

Not that the idea springs into the mind full-blown. Far from it. I compare it to one of those crystal experiments I used to do at school with copper sulphate. If you suspend a tiny crystal in a saturated solution the crystal will grow. That is how ideas grow. It starts small, and as it develops in the mind it attracts other thoughts to it. So the little crystal could be a real event, one you read about in a book or a newspaper, or you have witnessed, or an interesting fact, or even just a comment someone makes, but the story it inspires will be different from the way it developed in real life. This is because writers are always asking themselves ‘what would happen if’ and a story will go on from the starting point, one event flowing organically from the one before, or two events combining to lead to another.

Sometimes it is possible to trace the start of a project to something very specific. When I read about a conference in 1880 that decided to ban the teaching and use of sign language in schools for deaf children, a well-meaning idea that actually set back the education of deaf children for about a hundred years, I knew I wanted to write a book in which this was an important issue. That led to Frances Doughty book 5, The Children of Silence, which begins with another real event, which I discovered in a newspaper, the draining of the Paddington canal basin during which fragmentary human remains were found.

I was once given as a secret Santa present a book called Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson about the fear of premature burial and I decided to write a novel involving a fictional mortuary — this was A Case of Doubtful Death. The events in my novel have nothing to do with the events in Buried Alive, but it was that book that provided the initial stimulus, that tiny crystal of an idea.

But I also read so widely on Victorian society and history that sometimes I don’t know where the idea came from at all. The idea for Mr Scarletti’s Ghost, which comes out in September, came to me as I was walking along the street and I just couldn’t say how or why it appeared. It was probably an amalgamation of lots of things I have read about, but as soon as it popped into my head I knew I wanted to write it.

Sometimes a reader will approach a writer and say ‘I’ve just had this wonderful idea and you are the person to write it!’ That’s a difficult one. I only really want to write ideas that energise and fascinate me, and maybe the suggestion will and maybe it won’t. Recently my editor suggested two thoughts to me one of which I knew at once was not something I wanted to do. The other one I wasn’t sure about. I considered ways I could make it work to my satisfaction and couldn’t come up with anything. Then, months later I was thinking about something else and suddenly the two things combined in my head, and locked together into something that really excited me.

Places like Crimefest where writers and readers mingle and talk about books are like a rich nourishing soup all bubbling away. It is an amazingly stimulating environment. Last year an idea that had been idling at the back of my mind as little more than a title, suddenly formed itself into a coherent project while I was at Crimefest. I think the inside of a writer’s mind is also like a kind of soup, heaving away with lots of little bits bobbing about, just waiting for stuff to clump together. I must have been born with it, because the first thing I ever wrote was a poem stimulated by a TV programme, when I was six.

But even if an aspiring writer didn’t start to scribble that early the writer’s mind can be developed. It’s simple really. Read lots. Write lots. Flood yourself with words and information. A man once told me he would like to write a book and when I asked him what about he said he didn’t know. Maybe he thought if he could get the right idea he could write the book. That’s the wrong way round. You write because there is something inside you that needs to be expressed. Be a writer, and the ideas will come to you.

Linda has a virtually life-long interest in true crime, and a large collection of books on the subject. She is a qualified chemist’s dispenser, having trained in a very old branch of Boots, just before the shop and the course were modernised. After taking a BSc in Psychology she was an Inspector of Taxes for 27 years, before leaving to pursue her writing. She is a black belt in both aikido and Japanese sword.

She has a passionate though not uncritical love of the Victorian period, and probably spends more time in the 19th century than the 21st. She will dress up in the appropriate costume at every possible opportunity. Linda’s research skills are self-taught but over the years she has become a competent amateur genealogist, and archive user.

Linda has given many public talks on true crimes. She was a guest panellist at Crimefest Bristol in 2011, 2012 and 2013, has been a guest on radio shows and appeared in two television documentaries on the history of anaesthesia and two editions of the Fred Dinenage Murder Casebook.

Find out more on Linda Stratmann’s Profile

CWA Dagger Longlists

The Crime Writers’ Association are delighted to reveal the long listed authors for the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger, the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.
The results were revealed mid-way through National Crime Reading Month and the shortlists will be unveiled at the Dagger Awards dinner on 30th June 2015.

“Our judges have had a wonderful time reading all these brilliant books,” says CWA chair Len Tyler. “What a year for crime fiction. These long lists are a great demonstration of how diverse and fascinating the genre is right now. No wonder it’s the most popular type of fiction with UK readers.”

The CWA Goldsboro Gold, CWA John Creasy (New Blood) and CWA Ian Fleming Steel Daggers will be presented to the winners at a ceremony in the autumn. Full details will be announced in due course.

The longlists

CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger

CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger