The Crime Writers’ Association

The CWA’s history

The Crime Writers’ Association was founded in 1953 by the prolific author John Creasey who wrote over 400 books under various pseudonyms, but is perhaps best known to readers of crime fiction for the Gideon series. Creasey took up the challenge to found a members association of crime writers when it was suggested to him by fellow crime writer, Nigel Morland, who had just become the first British member of the Mystery Writers of America (formed in 1948). As there was no UK equivalent, other than the prestigious and selective Detection Club (formed in 1930), Morland and Creasey thought there was scope for a broader, more inclusive association of British writers of crime.

Early members

Writers to take up Creasey’s invitation included Julian Symons, who would become perhaps Britain’s most influential critic and historian of the genre, as well as a distinguished novelist. So too did Morna Brown (better known by her pseudonym, Elizabeth Ferrars), Josephine Bell and the journalist and thriller writer Paul Winterton, who wrote under various names, most successfully as Andrew Garve. The other attendees were John Bude, Ernest Dudley, Bruce Graeme, Leonard Gribble, T.C.H. Jacobs, Nigel Morland, and Colin Robertson.

Founding aims

Creasey became the first chairman of the Association which was founded with the aims of providing a social network for crime writers and to help them with business matters. In Creasey’s words: ‘to give reasonable hope that both the prestige and the fortunes of crime writers generally should be improved.’ An Information Service and an Information Panel were set up to assist members in their research, and in 1954, the CWA organised a successful National Crime Book Week.

The first CWA awards

In 1955, for the first time, a panel of judges was set up to choose the best crime book of the year. The first Awards Dinner was held at the Criterion Restaurant on 5 April 1956, and the Crossed Red Herring Award went to The Little Walls, written by Winston Graham, later more famous for his series of historical novels, Poldark. Agatha Christie was the principal guest.

In 1957 the awards dinner was combined with a conference, while in 1959, a Crime Book Exhibition was held at the Army & Navy Stores to coincide with the awards ceremony. Early meetings were held at the National Book League, and later venues included the Arts Theatre Club, the Overseas League and Whitehall Court.

The CWA Daggers in recent years

Over the years the awards ceremony alternated between semi-formal events to a full gala dinner. From 1997, the year Ian Rankin won the Gold Dagger, author Alison Joseph, who was to become a Chair of the CWA, took responsibility for organising the event with her friend Gilda O’Neill. Then for the three years 2011-2013 the awards were sponsored by Specsavers and televised for ITV. Specsavers’ focus switched away from books and writing and from 2015 the CWA held glamorous Dagger award ceremonies attended by authors, publishers, agents and many others at a London hotel. From 2016-2019 tables quickly sold out in what became an industry calendar highlight.

In 2020, with the Covid pandemic, the awards switched to online with Daggers Live. While after-dinner speakers varied every year, the M/C from 2016 was crime-writing connoisseur and historian, the urbane and always entertaining Barry Forshaw.

The birth of Red Herrings

In 1956, the CWA began to publish a monthly newsletter for members called the CWA News, launched by Herbert Harris. It became Red Herrings in 1957. Subsequent editors were H L Lawrence, Anne Britton, Martin Russell, and Alex Auswaks with Leo Harris. Leo began his editorship c.1987, and was assisted by his wife Jane. Still editor, he died in 1997.

From 1999-2004, the Leo Harris awards, instituted by Jane, ran to commemorate the best contributions to Red Herrings over the course of a year, judged by the editor. Winners were Peter Lovesey, Margaret Murphy, Julian Rathbone, Roger Forsdyke and Joan Lock.

After temporary editorships, Peter Guttridge assumed editorial responsibilities in April 1998 for two years.

David Stuart Davies took over the reins in May 2000 and enjoyed a very long and enormously successful stint as editor for 20 years. The magazine was a 12-page A4 colour delight, with illustrations and graphics by Darren Wills, the designer at the long-term printers of Red Herrings, Huddersfield-based Swiftprint. Matthew Booth took over as editor in April 2020, with Fiona Veitch Smith as his deputy.

The CWA anthology

Butcher’s Dozen, the first CWA anthology, appeared in 1956, and set out to include ‘thrillers, detective stories and suspense stories to cover the widest possible range of styles and to cater for all tastes’ and also to show ‘the versatility and ingenuity of the modern crime writer.’ The book was edited by Josephine Bell, Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons and other contributors included Maurice Procter, a pioneer of the police procedural, and novelist L. A. G. Strong. It was followed two years later by Choice of Weapons, edited by Michael Gilbert. He observed in his introduction that: ‘Writers of crime fiction are commonly heard to complain that it is damaging to them to have their work too much segregated and categorised.’ Not so much has changed as we might have hoped.

Martin Edwards has edited the CWA anthology since 1999.

CWA growth

The CWA grew in reach and popularity to become an increasingly significant organisation. After the CWA had been in existence for ten years, its journal was able to claim that ‘Our first ten years have brought prestige to the crime novel’. By that stage, there were just over 200 members. In 2020, there were 800. In 2021 the Association opened its doors to self-published and emerging writers.

A modern association

Determination to promote the genre remains central to the CWA’s thinking to this day, and is illustrated by the success of more recent initiatives including in 1999 the Debut Dagger, a competition for uncontracted writers, the founding of the Crime Readers’ Association (CRA) in 2011/12 and National Crime Reading Month, both of which help to connect crime writers and readers, as well as supporting libraries and bookshops.

The CWA endeavours to keep abreast of changes in the world of crime writing and now conducts much of its work online and via social media. It even hosts its own YouTube channel which came into its own during the 2020 global pandemic.

In 2020 the very first virtual AGM was held and Chapters met throughout the year via Zoom. The Dagger awards ceremony moved online where all but the excitement and the drinks in attendees’ hands was virtual.

Crime fiction is flourishing as perhaps never before, and for that the CWA can take at least some credit. The CWA’s seventieth birthday in 2023 will be a cause for celebration, as our archivist and 2020 Diamond Dagger holder Martin Edwards says: ‘not just among its members, but among crime fans everywhere’.

The CWA Archives

Martin Edwards, a Dagger in the Library winner (and between 2017 and 2019, the fifty-ninth Chair), is the official archivist for the CWA and of the British Crime Writing Archive, which jointly holds the historically important papers of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club. This is an internationally important depository of British crime writing. The archive is housed at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, North Wales.

(Thanks to Martin Edwards’ article on the origins of the CWA.)

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