The Crime Writers’ Association

April 2016: Norwich

Venue: Maids Head Hotel
Organiser: Dea Parkin, assisted by Kathryn Skoyles

Report by Chrissie Poulson

Norwich, according to Charles Dickens’s view, was a good place to see a hanging. Executions were big business in the nineteenth century with crowds of 20,000 or 30,000 converging on the city to enjoy the spectacle of notorious criminals being hanged. But when fifty or so crime writers, spouses, and friends converged on the city on 8th April for the CWA conference, they had more civilised pursuits in mind.

Nevertheless a macabre strand did run through the weekend. We stayed in Tombland at the Maids Head Hotel close to the Cathedral. The Maids Head was a lovely welcoming place, with claims to be the oldest hotel in Britain. There was a choice of activities on the Friday evening with options including a walking tour of Norwich and ‘A Walk on the Dark Side.’ I chose the walking tour and if the other walk was darker than ours, it must have been grim indeed. Our very capable city guide told us stories of cannibalism among plague victims, bodies being buried in iron coffins to foil grave-robbers, and horrible murders, one of which in 1851 resulted in body parts being scattered through Norwich. Various ghosts are reputed to roam the city, including one of a landlord who obligingly does the washing-up in the pub where he was murdered.

We ended the walk in the crypt of Bedford’s Bar where we had a hot buffet supper.

On Saturday morning a talk on forensics was followed by the AGM, very ably conducted by Len Tyler, who was voted in as Chair for another year. And although Len didn’t quite beat the record for brevity, which was set, I’m told, by Ian Rankin, the AGM was still over in good time for our excellent lunch.

It’s not my brief to report on the talks, so I’ll skip to the afternoon’s activities.

Sadly, it was pouring with rain, so a tour of the castle was a more attractive prospect than a tour in an open top bus (though six intrepid souls opted for that). Our guide at the castle took us through the history of crime and punishment in Norwich. We learned that in medieval times the prison was used only to hold people awaiting trial, but about one in four succumbed to prison-fever or some other disease before they made it that far. By the nineteenth century the prison included everything for the administration of justice including a condemned cell. It’s now a gent’s loo and our guide admitted that he doesn’t feel altogether easy there when the museum is closed for the night. From the cell the condemned person would be taken to be executed on the bridge outside. On a lighter note the Castle Museum contains the world’s largest collection of teapots, including some wonderful eighteenth century cream ware.

Saturday evening saw the Gala dinner with wine – and lots of it – generously supplied by our accountants, H W Fisher. This may be why your correspondent is a little hazy about the details of ex-coroner William Armstrong’s excellent after-dinner speech. However I do recall that it contained some splendid jokes, including one about the membership of the CWA being broken down by age and sex.

All too soon it was Sunday morning and the conference was drawing to a close. As always old friendships had been renewed and new friends had been made. Len Tyler thanked Dea Parkin, who had stepped in as acting director late in the day, and Kathryn Skoyles, who had assisted her in organising such a successful and smooth-running conference.

Talks Reports

Report by Kate Ellis

Saturday morning began in style when Richard Hooker spoke about The Role of Forensic Science in solving the Perfect Crime. This was a comprehensive and fascinating overview of crime scene investigation and how difficult it is for any would-be criminal to commit the Perfect Crime. Fortunately for the law-abiding amongst us ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (a principle discovered by Edmond Locard 1877-1966, a forensic scientist who became known as the Sherlock Holmes of France) and it is the job of the forensic scientist to collect, preserve and analyse all scientific evidence for any traces the criminal might have left behind at the scene (or the scene might have left on the perpetrator). We were taken through all the weapons in the forensic scientist’s armoury from the transfer of fibres, the detection of forgeries and staged break-ins to the use of lasers to analyse fingerprints, even on fabrics. At present work is being done to improve moving images to provide better video evidence and, all in all the Perfect Crime is becoming more and more difficult to carry out.

Our second talk on Saturday was given by Charlie Flowers who is currently an adviser on terrorism and extremism to government departments and think tanks. His talk The Secret History of UK Counter Terrorism post 7/7 took us into the murkier aspects of the Internet. Surveillance is carried out on line by the use of SOCMINT – social media intelligence – which reveals links between people and Charlie went on to outline the use of domain tools, ferret profiles, an anonymous browser called ‘the onion ring’ and deep web search engines in the search for terrorist suspects. Even uploaded photos contain metadata to show where they’ve been taken. After 7/7, CONTEST was set up to combat extremism and Sara Khan set up an anti extremist group for women called The Cheerleaders. Surprisingly, some high profile extremists are really informants for MI5 and if the government is to keep tabs on terrorist groups, it is necessary to infiltrate them and put people on the inside.

Following a highly entertaining and informative after-dinner talk by retired Norfolk Coroner William Armstrong on Saturday evening we reassembled on Sunday morning to listen to Chris Gribble, the Chief Executive of the Writers’ Centre in Norwich, speak about opportunities for writers in education and international working across the country. Norwich became the first Unesco City of Literature in 2012 and, as well as outlining opportunities and grants for authors, Chris gave us an account of the history of literature in the city from the thirteenth century to the present day. Not only did Norwich open the first provincial library in the early seventeenth century but the first provincial newspaper was founded there in 1701. It is the home of the busiest public library in the country and in 1970 the University of East Anglia started the first Creative Writing MA. Norwich was also home to Black Beauty author, Anna Sewell, and crime writer ST (Sylvia) Haymon who won the CWA Silver Dagger in 1982.

Our final speaker on Sunday morning was Lindsay Siviter whose talk, Lord Lucan: Reinvestigating the Mystery, outlined her extensive research into the case. Richard John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan was a gambler who had a stormy relationship with his estranged wife, Veronica. Veronica had custody of their three children but Lucan had hired a private detective to discredit her and was trying to frighten her, exploiting her fragile mental state. Shortly before the violent murder of Sandra Rivett, the children’s nanny, Lucan had lost custody of the children and was heavily in debt. It was assumed that Lucan had murdered Sandra, mistaking her for his wife and that he’d escaped justice with the help of powerful friends. However, Veronica might have lied to incriminate her husband and the statements of the children who were in the house at the time opened up several new possibilities. Did one of the nanny’s many lovers commit the crime and Veronica seize upon the opportunity to get rid of her husband once and for all by accusing him of the murder? Then there was the question of what happened to Lucan. Did he die soon after the murder or did he escape to Africa? Only recently has he been declared dead to enable his son to claim his inheritance. Then there’s Lucan’s brother’s recent revelation that he knows where he’s buried and the strange fact that the missing Earl’s three children have disowned their mother, the alleged potential victim. It’s a case that continues to fascinate and a suitable finale for a wonderful weekend.

Conference Competition

By Robert Richardson

Did CWA members at the Norwich conference pray for divine inspiration beneath the exquisite cathedral spire soaring over the unapostrophed Maids Head? If so, the Lord must have heard them, because copious competition entries were of stunning quality, ending with a sublime winner.

The challenge was to insert a word or words into the title of a celebrated book. Examples on the entry form included Burke and Hare Bring up the Bodies and Oliver Twist and Shout.


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