The Crime Writers’ Association

April 2011: Darlington

Venue: Blackwell Grange Hotel
Organiser: John Dean

Report by Kate Stacey

So, once again we have an accumulation of CWA members including the new CWA Director Claire McGowan and, to take his place as new Chair, Peter James. This time we’re at The Blackwell Grange Hotel, Darlington and we have the promise of a lively weekend full of fascination and intrigue.

Please pause for a moment to consider that this weekend could end badly. We have the components for a good mystery novel – crime writers in a country hotel possibly with plot ideas they might fancy experimenting with (‘All in the name of accuracy, m’lud’) and enough alcohol to grease those creative minds. Fortunately, as far as I am aware, nothing that included the expiration of life came to pass.

John Dean, I suspect, was partly the reason for this. He had organised food a-plenty and ensured that extra wine was in the cellar. He had laid on fascinating speakers to keep us all enthralled and an amazing trip to the Forensics Unit at Teesside University.

At the latter we had our powers of observation tested which, I’m sure you will agree, as crime writers is a very valuable resource. And I have to report that we failed miserably – except for Gaynor and Frances. ‘Thing is, m’lud, they gave us a form to fill in and a cup of tea to hold. Had we just been sitting watching the fracas unfold…’

One of the main themes of the weekend was the media. Several times we were made very aware of the media impact on how things turn out. We heard Tony Hutchinson talk about the ‘Canoe Man’ case. It was clear that he had a very close working relationship with the media but he was forced to pre-empt them at one point to prevent his suspect running.

We had a talk about the upcoming restructuring of the police force and there again, the media were being viewed as something to be pacified. The media, it seems, has an ever growing impact on how society is led to view things.

This discussion of media as publicity we took to the bar where we discussed Facebook and other ways to promote ourselves. This tied in very well with the final talk on the Sunday morning which was about the CWA website and how useful a tool it can be to us.

The other main theme was forensics. Thought provoking talks by passionate experts gave a strong structure to the weekend with the trip to Teesside University at its pinnacle. With rooms set up as scenes of crime we split into groups and were encouraged to find the clues. Again this was an interesting experiment into the observational prowess of the slightly hungover crime writer.

All in all, a rewarding weekend, so thank you John for all your hard work. With such a classic setting and with all the information we accrued on skeletons and how they can and cannot be read (and how to try and fool the media) there’s bound to be several novels of that ilk being written right now.

Talks Report

Report by Kate Ellis

This year in Darlington we were fortunate enough to be blessed with a fantastic array of speakers.

Our Saturday morning began with a talk by Retired Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson who’d spent twenty eight years in CID and seven in charge of a murder team. During the course of his career he’d dealt with fifty murders and led his force in historic rape investigations as a result of advances in DNA. He is, however, chiefly remembered as the man who brought the ‘Canoe Man’, John Darwin and his wife, Anne, to justice. Tony gave us a highly entertaining account of the case which involved Darwin faking his death, hiding in a concealed apartment behind a wardrobe in his own house, stealing a dead child’s identity (as in the famous film Day of the Jackal) and finally being tracked down to Panama. The case spawned such memorable tabloid headlines as ‘Day of the Kayakal’, ‘Canoe Come with Us?’ and ‘The Liar, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and guaranteed Tony, as the officer in charge of the case, unexpected fame. However, in the course of his thirty year career, he has dealt with many serious and distressing cases and he went on to give us a vivid picture of life in CID when being hauled out of bed in the early hours of the morning to attend a gruesome crime scene is all part of the job.

Our next speaker was Michael Banks, the Assistant Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary who gave us an interesting insight into the changing face of crime, the effects of government policy and the relationship between police and communities. Because of changing patterns of crime, police today face increasing problems with cyber crime, terrorism, organised crime, counterfeiting and people trafficking. However, the size of police forces is shrinking as recruitment is frozen and redundancies are made. The government’s idea of ‘Big Society’ means that the police might rely increasingly on volunteers such as Special Constables to provide vital services. He also spoke of the proposed new Police and Crime Commissioners (elected individuals responsible for policing) and their potential to conflict with the chief police officers under their authority – he even suggested this might be a potential source of inspiration for crime writers in the future. He then spoke about Restorative Justice (when a criminal meets his or her victim and learns of the impact the crime has had on somebody else’s life) and the need to break the cycle of offending by early intervention in problem households. He concluded with the subject of victim care: in his area most victims are very satisfied with the way police handle their cases, but less satisfied with the way they’re kept up to date with developments. People call the police when they’re facing a bad situation and the police can’t afford to let them down.

On Sunday morning a fascinating talk by Dr Tim Thompson of Teeside University made us all forget our hangovers from the night before. Tim is a forensic anthropologist with a background in Archaeology but his work differs from conventional archaeology as it is a scientific study of the origin, behaviour and physical, social and cultural development of humans, the official definition being ‘an analysis of human remains for medicolegal purposes of establishing identity.’ Tim deals with the body and the way in which everything someone does in life leaves a record on the skeleton which can be interpreted, almost like a skeletal archive. Forensic anthropology is used alongside other disciplines to get a broad picture of the life of the deceased and whereas in murder cases archaeologists deal with the search and the recovery of human remains and the analysis of the scene, the forensic anthropologist works mainly in the mortuary. Tim deals with bones so there are many challenges, especially in establishing the age of the remains and sometimes, if only an individual bone is found, it is even difficult for the police to tell whether it’s human at all: once the police found a cellar full of rib bones and thought they could have a serial killer on their hands until Tim confirmed that the house owner had been throwing the remains of his Chinese takeaways down there for his dogs. Tim went on to detail the things we can learn from skeletons about an individual’s life, age at death and illnesses and sometimes even the manner of their death. As well as working for the police in this country, he has worked in Kosovo finding evidence of war crimes by examining bodies unearthed from mass graves and he’s also attended the scenes of air crashes. The job in Kosovo proved rather hazardous as many of the graves were booby-trapped: fortunately, his work for the police in this country is rather less dangerous… but just as intriguing.

Our Sunday morning concluded with a talk by Roger Cornwell and Jean Rogers about the CWA website and how it can be beneficial for us. It was a talk I found particularly useful and it certainly reminded all the members present of how we can make our website work for us by notifying Roger and Jean of our forthcoming books and events. With that, unfortunately, our most enjoyable weekend was ended. And I am sure I’m not the only attendee who’d like to thank John Dean for all his hard work to make our conference in Darlington a success.

Conference Competition

By Robert Richardson

The rules of the Darlington conference competition were briefly explained; dream up one-word quotes from famous people, fact, fiction, living, dead, etc (with explanations if required), such as Torquemada: ‘Comfy?’ Members again spent the weekend saying it was too difficult this year before producing a flood of entries displaying the collective creativity of the CWA peppered with occasional fine lapses of taste.


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