Crimefest 2017

Mix 150 panellists with a wave of crime writers and readers in two streams spread over four days in the Bristol Marriott and that was Crimefest 2017. I flew in late Friday so caught the second half of the programme, starting with the CWA party in the Palm Court where this year’s Dagger nominees were announced (see the CWA site  for the full list). I was asked to be the photographer at a late stage, challenged by the combination of subdued lighting and back-lighting. The fact that I’d changed my pen-name mid-year had not worked its way through to the organisers, and a number of friends frowned at my name-badge. Yes, Jason Foss is really dead I had to explain.

Debut Authors Panel

Mixing with the crowd I met up with Bill Beverley, double dagger winner in 2016 for Dodgers a distinctly different road novel which has been my favourite crime book so far this year. Apparently he was inspired by reading narratives of black slaves who had escaped the Confederacy and were awe-struck by the America that existed beyond their previous horizons. ‘Makes America strange again’ was a good slogan. I also chatted to Luke McCallin about The Man From Berlin, in which he pitched a ‘good German’ policeman into WW2. Shame his Ashes of Berlin is still a bulky hardback and I can’t lug it on my upcoming trip. How to keep a single crime relevant whilst the death and mayhem of war took place all around was another panel theme.

Picking panels (and working out which room they are in in time to get a seat) is Crimefest’s primary challenge. Then there’s the dilemma of whether to support familiar friends or explore something new. I learned that English books have ‘American editors’ to subtly adjust Britishisms for the US market. The Indie panel underlined that self-publishing has to be approached like a business, with as much time devoted to marketing as to actual writing. Professional editing and cover design were unanimously recommended by the panel. Short stories were extolled as opportunity to experiment, write in a new tone and actually finish a tale whilst the beginning was still fresh in the writer’s mind.

Anja De Jager and Felix Francis

Crime festivals are of course great social occasions. It was good to catch up with Fellow archaeology detective writer Kate Ellis, and say hello again to Anja de Jager, Leigh Russell and Mary Andrea Clark among many others. The bar proved to be a great place for (ahem) ‘networking’.

Old chestnuts were picked over, such as how ‘historical’ fiction can avoid simply dressing modern people in period costume, projecting our sensibilities into their actions. Panellists discussed how female characters can realistically make an impact in periods where women were expected to ‘know their place’, without straining credibility. The question was posed of where fact ends and fiction should begin (the truth being we make most of it up!). Several writers addressed ‘the twist’ and how whilst it is a thriller staple, simply awaiting ‘the Big Twist’ should not dominate the reader’s experience.

Anthony Horowitz was interviewed in the Great Hall, then entertained us quite unexpectedly at the Gala dinner. What could have been a straight five-minute after dinner slot with a few jokes turned into a brilliant impromptu cosy crime denuement. Horowitz announced that one of his table guests had been poisoned – at which point Felix Francis gamely ‘died’. One by one the motives and opportunities of the other six table guests were explored and the culprit ultimately unmasked.

Yes I could bore you all with another page of anecdotes, but even blogs have deadlines. With a book room crammed with the latest bestsellers and the backlists of the panellists, plus the goodybag freebies I ended an exhausting but thrilling weekend straining my case capacity and luggage allowance.

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Guernsey Literary Festival

It was close to home in more ways than one. I’m not on the organising Committee, but our Castle hosted some Literary Festival events and I had three slots to participate in, so it was a busy few days preceded by a week of preparation around the ‘day job’. The fun began with a reception in the inflatable ‘space igloo’ that was the festival Hub. Slam Poet Harry Baker entertained us with an epic story-poem of a trip to Weston Super Mare. I sat next to him later at the dinner in the newly-opened Slaughterhouse restaurant on the Guernsey seafront. It did not serve the bloody steaks that the name suggests, and I’d have been tempted to add a ‘5’. The chunky chips were gluten-free and the company excellent.

Friday coincided with Museums at Night, so the Festival decamped to the Castle. I opened the batting at 5.30pm which felt like the graveyard slot when I first saw it. I knew my Mum and a couple of others were coming along but wondered how many people would turn out to see a ‘local writer’ so unfashionably early on a Friday. The answer was ‘about 50’ and they filled out the gorgeous Hatton Gallery whilst I waxed about Guernsey and the Great War, and how I researched the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. After a Glint-signing session, I did a stint in the local author tent, which was largely bypassed by civilians making their way to and from the lectures, but it proved to be a companionable hour amongst fellow writers.

On Sunday morning it was back to the Hub, where I’d been invited to interview crime writer Clare Mackintosh. Her second novel ‘I See You’ hit #3 in the Sunday Times paperback fiction charts this week, and was a former hardback #1. Prepping for the interview was more daunting than my own lecture. Of course I read the book, and her first novel ‘I Let You Go’, although unusually Amazon’s carrier snail took an age to deliver them causing a little angst as the date approached. I’ve been interviewed by the media or given a live lecture every couple of weeks for the past decade or more, but have only done a live author interview once before. This was new territory and I was very conscious that (a) although an exciting event, this was not about me; (b) I needed to provide the interviewee with space to talk about the new book, as writing is an industry and it demands that books be sold; and (c) I must not screw it up in front of a capacity audience. In the end it went swimmingly. The experience reinforced something I learned long ago; you can never do too much preparation.

Clare Mackintosh interviewed by Jason Monaghan at the festival Hub

So another festival slides past. Four days breather, then it’s Crimefest, Bristol. Watch this space.

 

I’m Reading…I See You

I See You is the second novel by Clare Mackintosh, having stormed into the bestseller charts with her debut I Let You Go. This week I See You is at #5 in the Sunday Times bestseller lists.

Zoe is a London commuter, taking the same route to work each day, following the patterns that we all fall into. She spots her photograph in a classified ad for a dating website and begins to suspect she is being stalked – but will the police believe her?

No spoilers here, but it begins in urban ‘domestic noir’ territory with a dash of police procedural as matters turn darker for Zoe.  I’m meeting Clare this Sunday 14th May at the Guernsey Literary Festival to discuss her latest book. It will be live on Radio Guernsey around 11am.

@GuernseyLitFest

True Crime

It’s conference season and I’m doing the rounds of crime and literary conventions. One aspect of crime writing conferences is that I get to meet, or at least to listen to, detectives and forensic investigators who have worked on actual cases. Although fascinating, there is a gruesome reality about them which can be hard to swallow.

In Edinburgh I was staying close to a pub called The World’s End, indeed walked past it a dozen times although never went in for a drink. In 1977 it was the setting for the ‘World’s End Murders’; the double killing didn’t actually take place at the pub, but that’s where two 17-year old girls were last seen alive. Their horrible deaths were not fully solved until 34 years later when forensic science had advanced sufficiently to pin the crime on two men (the instigator was already in prison for another sex killing and his wastrel sidekick was long dead). What made this case especially chilling was that I was 17 years old in 1977. The hairstyles and fashion of those two girls looked like those of my school friends when we made our first underage forays into the adult world on those Friday nights 40 years ago.

Walking past that pub and recalling that story made me reflect on the crime writer’s craft. We write about subjects too awful to contemplate in daily life, but people buy our books by the million. Crime fiction is rarely out of the Sunday Times top-ten list and usually steals several slots. So how can I write about painful death and wasted lives? My guilt falls away when I consider that the same is true of authors writing war stories, horror stories, spy thrillers, grim historical epics, apocalyptic novels and sword-swinging fantasy. None of these worlds are places we would want to find ourselves. Perhaps the only story we’d truly be comfortable inside is a light romance; preferably set somewhere warm and exotic, with a pleasing amount of cuddly sex and a whiff of adventure but no risk of actual harm.

We don’t want to inhabit those plots created by crime writers, but guided by the author we can dare to edge into them just for a while.

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 2)

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Having considered ‘Poor Decisions’ and the millennia-old revulsion against killing, let our thoughts turn to murder. The Sixth Commandment of God gave humanity an early steer that murder is a bad thing.

 

 

Centuries of religious and moral codes have been reinforced by laws and penalties, backed up by law enforcement agencies which threaten a killer with the likelihood of punishment for his crimes (let alone eternal damnation). Not only is it a bad thing, but also a really, really bad idea.

All this results, thankfully, in a tiny proportion of a ‘civilised’ population being prepared to kill, and an even smaller number prepared to do so ‘in cold blood’. The UK Murder rate is 0.9 per 100,000 people per annum, even gun-toting USA scores just 3.6 and the killing is concentrated in certain areas and certain population groups (i.e. poor young men from inner cities, and tragically infants under 1 year). The murder rate has to be very low for a well-ordered society to continue; beyond a tipping point it’s Gun Law, and every man for himself. Guatemala, which I discussed in a previous blog, has 10 times the murder rate of the USA and feels like a war zone. On my island of Guernsey there’s one every few years, generally a ‘domestic’ or the unintended consequence of a drunken fight.

Most murders are committed in hot blood; following an argument, an irrational impulse, or a sudden burst of fear. In many cases the killer is not thinking straight, acting under the effect of drink, drugs or mental impairment. I am annoyed by books and especially films that overlook the block constructed by thousands of years of human experience which shows that being willing to kill can act against self-preservation. This is especially the case where a second person in the plot is also a one-in-10,000 killer. In a recent English ‘cosy’ I read there were no fewer than three people in a small village willing to kill without remorse.

Even under stress, most ordinary people will struggle to fire that gun or plunge that knife in self-defence ­– one reason that the claim that ‘I have a gun at home to protect my family’ is bollocks.

American police shot and killed 963 people in 2016, which is just over 1 person per 1,000 law enforcement officers. So in a 25-year career roughly 1 cop in 40 will kill someone. That doesn’t make very exciting TV, does it? It pushes many cop shows into the realm of fantasy. Last week we had the highly visible shooting dead of a terrorist by British police – remarkable not only for the terrifying 80 seconds that preceded it but for its rarity.

So how do my fellow crime-writers climb this wall? Ordinary housewives and vicars are not easily turned into murderers and policemen do not happily pull their guns and start shooting. A switch must be pulled, that block must be broken down. Writers need to work to convince the reader this has happened. The reader of murder-mystery will expect at least one murder; it’s part of the contract. Belief is therefore suspended to the benefit of the writer; the reader cuts us a little slack. The 700-plus members of the UK’s Crime Writer’s Association probably ‘kill’ more people annually than do actual criminals, but to be fair, science fiction writers also defeat more alien invasions than actually occur. Amid all this fictional mayhem the trick is then to keep it real, keep that killer’s motivation believable. Murder must be the only option available to our criminal at the split second it takes place, assuming he or she is of sound mind and capable of taking rational decisions. It can’t just be there to fulfil that contract; we must be convinced that the killer will break the oldest taboo: ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on Friday 12 May.

Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

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‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

Poor Decisions

In the paper the other week, a defence advocate explained that her client had made some ‘poor decisions’ in her life. We might say that committing a crime is the ultimate poor decision, so at the core of our crime novels are villains who have not just acted badly, but thought things out badly too.

All around us, we see friends and acquaintances make decisions we think poor. That seventh pint of beer when its work the next day, that seventh baby they can’t possibly afford, that suicidaly frank email to the boss. Indeed we characterise people as having ‘poor judgement’ or ‘a poor choice in men’, assuming if we were in the same position we would have acted differently. Much of the time we don’t stop and analyse what we are doing deeply enough to spot our errors in advance.

First up, most decisions are trivial. Shall I go to the shops now, or in ten minutes? Shall I talk to that workmate who looks lost over on the other side of the bar? Then the butterfly flaps its wings and the decision no longer becomes trivial. By delaying for ten minutes, I am hit by a bus crossing the road. By talking to that workmate I find my life partner.

Two soldiers leap out of a trench – one breaks left and makes it to safety, the other breaks right and is killed by a stray bullet.  Here small decisions lead to an outcome that could not have been predicted because we did not have enough information. Some people call it ‘luck’, but ‘luck’ is a shorthand for not having sufficient data and the ability to analyse it. If we had known the exact moment the enemy soldier fired his rifle, applied the laws of ballistics, adjusted for gravity, wind direction, the angle of the shot, the symmetry of the bullet, the precise amount of propellant in the cartridge and the range to the unfortunate target we could have given that soldier enough information to tell him to break left, or delay his move for half a second. The roulette ball follows the laws of physics as do the balls tumbling in the National Lottery bucket. It is said that ‘people make their own luck’ and to an extent this is true: analysing the information you have reduces that uncertainty we lazily call luck.

Analyse your own life and think how many REAL decisions have you made for which you were aware of the consequences. Then think how many of your big decisions were ‘no brainers’: do I marry the person I love? Do I take this promotion? Do I buy this dream house? We are not gambling, there is no ‘luck’ involved. We use hindsight to judge, and more often than not base it on the outcome not the starting conditions

The outcome of a decision does not determine whether it was good or bad. We often criticise politicians for taking the wrong decisions (although ‘wrong’ can be a matter of opinion). The fact  David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum does not in itself mean it was a poor decision; the poor decision was acting without enough information and without planning for the downside consequences. It was a gamble. A man who stakes £10,000 on a 100-1 bet and wins did not make a ‘good’ decision either; he knew the most likely consequence would be he would lose his money but he acted against this data.

So what of our criminals? Many impulse crimes are committed by people who are daft, drunk, drugged up or desperate. The consequences of their actions never occur to them, so they are not taking ‘poor decisions’, as they are  barely taking a conscious decision at all. Moving up to the career criminal brings us closer to the gambler. He knows there is a risk of getting caught, being imprisoned or even killed. However he minimises this risk in his calculations, being over-confident in his ability and just not understanding how ‘trusting to luck’ (ignoring facts outside his knowledge) will be his undoing sooner or later. This is poor decision-making at its worst. Stupid criminals are hard to empathise with.

Finally we have the literary criminal, the one we like to write about and read about. He is not stupid, although possibly psychologically damaged. He takes decisions which in his world appear good, possibly even no-brainers. He might be a gambler, but playing for very high stakes where calm calculation suggests his risk of being caught is small relative to the reward. The criminal may have no choice, or face unenviable options whichever decision he takes. We might feel sorry for his dilemma, and if written well enough even take his side.

Good decisions versus poor decisions are at the core of my new novel. You might decide that  I should be writing Draft 2, and not this blog…

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