The Crime Writers’ Association

April 2010: Abergavenny

Venue: The Angel Hotel
Organiser: Rebecca Tope

Report by Lizzie Hayes

I have long been a believer in writing my holiday postcards before I go away. This ensures the maximum time for my enjoyment whilst away, with no need to interrupt the holiday festivities by having to record the holiday events for those who haven’t the good fortune to be with me. And so since I enjoy the CWA conference every year, I asked myself: why depart from a winning formula? But then I thought of the wrath of DSD and decided to abandon the habit of a lifetime, and to actually record, as it were, in real time. A good decision on my part, as even my vivid imagination could not have conjured up the find that is Abergavenny.

This year the conference was organised by the Wye chapter and orchestrated by the amazing Rebecca Tope who invited us to the picturesque town of Abergavenny, situated in the South Eastern corner of Wales, only 20 miles from the English border. Abergavenny is steeped in history, and whilst close to the industry of middle and western England, has the beauty of the Brecon Beacons National Park. But Rebecca had done more than provide an enjoyable weekend, she somehow invoked the most marvellous weather. In my goodie bag, amongst books, souvenirs of Abergavenny, and many items of local interest, I found allusion to witchcraft, and wondered just what had been sacrificed for this clement climate, but decided not to pursue the matter, just accept the gift.

At 5.30 on the Friday evening, we found ourselves in the Castle grounds basking in warm evening sunshine being welcomed by the Mayor of Abergavenny, Douglas Edwards, who said that our choice of venue for a conference for crime writers was an excellent one, as author Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) was born in Abergavenny, and was one of the USA during the 1930s and 40s. Her most famous book, The Wheel Spins, was adapted as the acclaimed 1938 Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes.

Promenading in the sunshine on Saturday morning I passed the plaque in Frogmorton Street where Ethel Lina White was born. So yes, the fantastic weather continued, making exploring very enjoyable, with regular stops at some of the quaint traditional teashops in the town, and while walking around the town, you could see the lovely hills in whichever direction you chose to look.

Courtesy of the organisers, two options were on offer on Saturday afternoon: Either a visit to Llantony Abbey or to Garway Church. I opted to stroll with friends in the sunshine and discovered a milliner’s at the far end of town, and not just any hat shop, but a renowned one, which stocks the largest collection of hats and fascinators I have ever seen; the creations of award winning designer Alison Tod. Alison, 37, has made a name for herself as one of Britain’s top milliners. Her innovative hats are for sale in more than 150 shops worldwide including Harrods. Alison has been awarded the Welsh Designer of the Year title for two consecutive years. What a find, as not only is the choice amazing but bespoke hats are fashioned on the premises. Of my companions, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Jane Conway-Gordon, the latter purchased the most divine creation of lace and feathers, in which she looked fantastic. A lover of headwear, I will regularly be returning to this emporium of enchantment. As I write this I am mindful that an array of fascinators are probably not going to hit the spot for all the membership, but at the weekend Brian Innes informed me that he had done a check of the CWA membership and established that two-thirds are female, so I take it I am addressing the majority element here.

The conference hotel, the Angel was an absolute delight. Whilst providing all the modern day conveniences of wireless broadband connection that was FREE, yes I said FREE, the Angel Hotel has retained the quality and style of an earlier age. The food was plentiful and exceptionally good, excellent breakfasts with butter and jam that required no unwrapping. What joy! And at all meals, large white linen napkins were provided, a welcome change from the silly thin paper things you get in most hotels. And not just for dinner, even a sandwich in the bar came accompanied by them. These large white squares can be tied French style around the neck to enable one to eat with gusto. A note of caution however, for those in the early stages of a relationship – it was I think, at the Ponderbys’ stately home in the delightful county of Shropshire, that Jane Oliphant decided to sever her engagement with her fiancé on observing, the first time she sat across the breakfast table from him, that when he ate a peach he ‘splashed himself to the eyebrows’.

As an associate member, I am prohibited from attending the AGM, which took place at 5.30pm on the Saturday, but undaunted I cajoled a member proper to take a couple of photographs so that I could record for you the Creasey Bell being passed to Tom Harper by the outgoing Chair Margaret Murphy, and flowers being handed to Rebecca Tope for her services as Membership Secretary. The rest of the proceedings were I understand dealt with in record time along North Korean lines.

The Gala dinner on the Saturday evening was a splendid affair, with pre-dinner drinks enjoyed in the late afternoon sunshine in the courtyard that opened off the ballroom. The final surprise that Rebecca had arranged was an after-dinner entertainment provided by the twenty-six strong Beaufort Male Voice Choir which was absolutely wonderful.

It was an excellent conference, and I offer my thanks to Rebecca Tope and all the team that made this weekend such an enjoyable experience.

Finally, I would like to extend my apologies to those attendees who spent most of the weekend with their fingers in their ears owing to my, apparently, highly distinctive laugh. On reflection it would be boring to be perfect, so it’s comforting to know I have one flaw.

Talks Reports

The Cromwell Street Murders
Prof Bernard Knight & Prof David Whittaker

Report by Margaret Murphy

This lecture took us back to the unfolding horrors of nineteen ninety-four.

Profs Bernard Knight and David Whittaker gave us the facts unsensationally, with the cool clear-headedness one would expect from forensic professionals, and many of the audience, as you would expect, knew the details, but often it’s the small insights into the day-to-day running of an investigation which transform a dry report into a far more human experience. For me, it was the Mars bars and coffee that cheered the police as they sifted through mud and sewage for the bones of lost girls, and Prof Knight, at the end of the day, having to be hauled out of the clay in his socks; his wellington boots being stuck fast in the stinking soup of bones and soil and raw sewage.

Each victim was allocated a team of police investigators, and as one team identified ‘their’ body, Prof Whittaker had to do the rounds of the rest, morale-boosting, which in itself provided us with a rather poignant insight into the psychology of an investigation on this scale and duration.

Forensic dentistry proved a fascinating aspect of the investigation into the murders, and crucial in identifying many of the victims.

Prof Whittaker’s account of his methods, and the animations demonstrating photographic superimposition were startling – a nameless, empty skull morphed into a smiling girl – a person, rather than a case number. Having access to the combined expertise and wisdom of the two professors was a rare privilege: Bernard Knight told me later that the CWA Conference was only the second time he had talked about the Cromwell Street murders.

All of the victims have now been identified.

What’s Your Poison?
Celia Kellett

Report by Margaret Murphy

I counted at least a dozen ways to do someone in, without ever having to leave a paper trail. Allergens, drug interactions, poisonous plants, and even foods can all have lethal effects, it seems. In the garden, Celia singled out aconite (all parts are toxic), fungi (so easy to mistake a deadly type for an edible one), belladonna (alkaloid), rhubarb (oxalic acid – a leaf can kill a child), hemlock, and castor oil plant (ricin – an amount equivalent to half a grain of sand can kill an adult). In all, Celia provided a Gerard’s Herbal for the criminally minded – and her books quickly sold out!

Chloroform and Crime
Linda Stratmann

Report by Kate Ellis

We are all familiar with the scene: an assailant slaps a chloroformed pad over the face of some hapless and unsuspecting victim who promptly falls unconscious to the ground, remaining senseless for as long as the plot demands.

The truth, however, is far less convenient for the would-be criminal as we learned from Linda Stratmann in her fascinating talk on ‘Chloroform and Crime’. Linda certainly shattered some myths. Far from having an instant effect, chloroform takes several minutes to work and can easily be fatal if the victim holds their breath then inhales too much at once. And pumping chloroform into a room to render a group of people unconscious is rather a non-starter as it would either be totally ineffective or, if huge quantities are used, highly dangerous. Also if the victim does become unconscious, he or she won’t oblige the criminal by staying that way for long. Chloroform is a pungent chemical, easily detected and difficult to use.

Conference Competition

By Robert Richardson

The Abergavenny conference competition invited members to emulate the more bizarre realms of headline writing with some manner of crime twist. As ever, entries displayed wit, creativity and a frequent indifference to sensitivity.


Join the CWA

Become part of a thriving community of successful crime writers with invaluable support, expertise and marketing opportunities for all our members.

Advertise with us