The Crime Writers’ Association

April 2019: Bowness-on-Windermere

Venue: The Macdonald Old England Hotel & Spa
Organiser: Jean Briggs

Overview by Dea Parkin

A host of crime writers, established and newly published, attended this year’s very successful CWA Conference at Bowness-on-Windermere. As well as enjoying some terrific speakers, delegates participated in excellent pre-Conference events arranged with Cumbrian Libraries in towns throughout the region, and in a post-Conference event also open to the public called Cupcakes and Crime held at the luxurious Macdonald Olde England Hotel, the conference venue. Attracting over 60 attendees the conference also saw delegates enjoy a boat trip on Lake Windermere, a visit to a local Arts and Crafts house and the many pleasant amenities in pretty Bowness. And the sun shone; and it didn’t rain once.

Friday report by Jason Monaghan

Old MacDonald had a hotel,
And in that hotel he had some crime writers.
With a plot plot here…

OK, you can guess the rest. The MacDonald Old England Hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere was the venue for the 2019 CWA conference. Arriving early on a clear, cold Friday having forgotten the ‘& Spa’ in the hotel name bought a pair of bathing shorts from one of the numerous healthy lifestyle shops, being urged by the salesperson not to swim in the lake. In the splendid lounge I met up with convener Jean Briggs patiently awaiting her salmon lunch before launching into the hurly-burly of registration then welcome drinks (which are always welcome).

It was the first time I’ve ever been to the Lakes when it hasn’t rained, and indeed this fact held from Friday to Monday. Several people remarked on it, including Martin Edwards who kicked off proceedings during drinks in a two-hander with MW Craven (Mike) discussing the Lake District as a setting for fiction. Mike indeed expanded out his brief to embrace Cumbria as a whole, given that the north-west coastal area had far more social problems driving crime than the cosy split-stone cottages and tourist traps of the Lakes themselves. He accounted for writing about Cumbria by claiming he was ‘just lazy’ and wrote about where he lived, quite the opposite of Martin’s assertion that once done with Liverpool-based plots he was tempted to set his next series somewhere ‘nice to visit’. Both expounded on the value of the landscape and history of the region to add depth to their stories. Martin was asked how he managed to put so much sex in his books (he smiled). Changing tack, Mike expounded on the obscure facts about sheep he managed to snuggle into his books. When Martin was later looking at the view I asked whether the excursions had inspired him for more places to dump bodies and he cocked his head and said that he now just had to think of new ways to kill people.

Saturday Report by Janet Laurence

Bright sun but a very cold wind greeted Saturday morning. Never mind, we were all safely in the warmth and comfort of the Macdonald Old England Hotel. After breakfast we assembled in the Garden Room to hear Doctor Charlie Wilson on Forensic Pathology for Crime Authors. Charlie has carried out over 1500 suspicious death autopsies so was well qualified to give us a wonderfully detailed talk on what he DID do and what he DIDN’T do. He visits crime scenes, believes it is vital to see the victim in situ. Like a doctor seeing a patient, he works to establish pattern recognition: briefing, scene, medical records, CCTV, witness accounts, intelligence, etc. He can’t say exactly what DID happen, he can say what DIDN’T. He also examines injuries sustained by living victims, including interpretation of photographic evidence of injuries. What he does NOT do is work in the dark in a white outfit (his is red, for obvious reasons!). He doesn’t decide who is guilty and who isn’t. He does not interview suspects. Nor can he establish time of death. The only sure evidence on this, we learned during the morning, is when victim was last scene alive. It was obvious that the TV has got it all wrong when it comes to the investigative side of being a forensic pathologist, particularly when assessing criminals. Charlie told us the stupidity of the general public can never be underestimated. His talk was highly informative and interesting.

We then had a talk from Detective Constable Vicki Wilson, who, yes, is married to Charlie. They met early on in their careers. Vicki joined Greater Manchester Police in 1988 and became a detective constable in 2004. Since then she has been based in the Moss Side area of Manchester. She has refused to move up the ladder since that would require her to work from a desk; Vicki loves being involved at the sharp end of police investigative work. Her description of the life of a detective constable was revelatory and no doubt several new series investigators were born to delegates as she talked of surveillance work, interviewing suspects (sergeants and inspectors do NOT conduct interviews), family liaison officers, dealing with mass disasters, acting as initial presence at a crime scene. It was quite obvious that Vicki loved her job working at the coal face of police work dealing with and solving with crime.

She told us how she and her team had identified a young man who had ‘footballed’ the head of another young man to the point of death after a night out in a local club. Witnesses had produced stray items of information, including that the perpetrator had been wearing Rockport boots. At this point we learned that in Manchester clothes can define the area where a suspect lives and Rockport boots meant Salford. A blurry CCTV image had jogged an experienced local officer’s memory and he produced a name. Suspect was living in a ‘no go’ area; warrants were issued and a police escort provided. The suspect was arrested and his boots and other items of clothing were recovered and sent for analysis. In the stitching of the boots were traces of blood that was identified as a match with the victim’s. The interview produced only ‘no comment’ from the suspect but the blood from the boot stitching together with a match of the sole with the pattern in the victim’s skull produced a ‘Guilty’ verdict. There were, in fact, two trials, the first for a Section 18 assault, as the victim was in a coma. He died eighteen months later, after which a trial for murder was held and, again, ‘guilty’ was the verdict.

Vicki opened our eyes to the extent of a detective constable’s role in the investigation and prevention of crime. Though currently on a career break to look after her family, her enthusiasm for the job ensures that she will at some stage be back on the job. She and Charlie form a great partnership.

The last item of the morning was a short talk by David Donachie, Chair of the Society of Authors in which he demonstrated that the Society is the best insurance any writer can have, for a cost of £2 a week. The Society has an excellent website packed with information and experts at the end of the phone call from members

We all buzzed with comments in the hotel lounges afterwards as bar meals were ordered and we enjoyed looking at the ‘shining levels’ of the lake.

The afternoon offered a choice of a cruise on Lake Windermere or a visit to the Blackwell Arts and Crafts House. The cold wind on the lake sent many of the sailors down to the covered section of the Silverholme, where there was a bar as well as warmth and a splendid view of Windermere’s many wooded islands as the cruise explored the full extent of the lake.

The Mountain Goat small coach took another eighteen of us to Blackwell House in nearby Bowness. Built in 1900 as a holiday home for the Holt family the house was designed in the Arts & Crofts style by noted architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott. The influence of William Morris is to be seen everywhere. Scott was one of the most important and influential architects and designers of the early twentieth century and Blackwell is his most important surviving house. Unusually for its time, it has an open plan layout and the rooms are decorated with specially designed (by Scott) plasterwork, hessian wall coverings, stained glass, mosaic floors, wrought iron and lead work, ceramic tiles and carved wood and stone, all created by local crafts people working with local materials and local building traditions. The house in furnished with items reflecting the Morris influence and there was a shop offering beautiful works by local artists.

Back at the hotel we attended the CWA AGM. Martin Edwards presented his last report and set of accounts, showing the Association in a stable financial state. The longest serving Chair since John Creasey, Martin was thanked for all the work he has done for the Association. He has instituted many helpful administrative changes and different projects which will be developed and taken forward over the coming years. Linda Stratmann was handed the Creasey Bell as the incoming Chair.

In the evening we were treated to an entertaining and informative talk by Richard Rhodes, who has topped a career as a teacher and headmaster by becoming the first Police and Crime Commissioner for Cumbria: Chalk and Cheese, From the Classroom to the Police Cell. Richard solved the problem of speaking to a room with a number of large round tables and a couple of pillars by promenading amongst us while giving his talk in a clear and audible voice.

The conference’s Saturday was a full and entertaining day that had provided a wealth of information.

Sunday Report by Christine Poulson

The morning began with a talk by Ian Anderson, a retired officer from Lancashire Constabulary. He took us through what happens when a serious incident occurs, such as the death of Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004. A Major Investigation Unit is set up. The enquiry is supported by HOLMES 2 (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) and absolutely everything must be logged there, with everyone who is contacted or interviewed given a number. Number 1 is usually the dead person.

Every new piece of information has to be actioned by an enquiry office and in a homicide investigation those actions can run into tens of thousands. CCTV must be seized as soon as possible. Ian gave the example of the murder of Claire Atkinson by Alan Entwhistle: CCTV from the local bus company showed that he had been stalking her and that the murder was premeditated. Covert recordings can be used, but are problematic because background noise can make it difficult to get a good result. However we were given the example of two men who were exonerated of murder at a retrial on the evidence of recordings. Exhibits must all be registered, and their movements logged. Essentially, there must be a paper trail – or rather a digital trail – for every aspect of the investigation.

Ian’s talk gave us an excellent overview of the day to day running of a major enquiry from beginning to end.

After coffee we heard criminal barrister Alison Heyworth on the topic, ‘Mad, bad, and dangerous to know: the criminal justice system and the myths about those that inhabit it.’ In her gripping and entertaining talk, she claimed that it is all less colourful than it used to be in the days of Rumpole. However some of her stories did rather seem to disprove that: there was, for instance, the judge who invited her to hear him playing When I’m Cleaning Windows on the ukulele with full backing track. And then there was the famously right-wing judge who came into court and announced that it was Margaret Thatcher’s birthday. ‘Are you a Tory?’ he asked the defendant. ‘No, I’m an Aries,’ came the reply.

On a more serious note, she told us of the stresses of a criminal barrister’s career: the exposure to the terrible details of cases of murder and child abuse; the technology which has replaced the paper briefs tied with pink ribbon and which often recreates more problems than it solves; the everyday struggle with an under-resourced system that is collapsing under the strain. It is no wonder that depression and alcoholism are occupational hazards.

Yet there are glorious moments too that restore her faith in human nature: the neighbour who ran into a burning building to rescue a six-year old: the woman who saw someone stabbed and stopped her car to cradle the dying man.

And her most embarrassing moment? The time that she was in court listening to the closing speech of the barrister who was her mentor and her mobile phone went off. The ring tone was The Lumberjack Song from Monty Python.

The conference ended with Annette Crossland talking to us about the job of the literary agent. She gets hundreds of submissions a week and she suggested that a current growth area is historical crime fiction. Domestic noir is still very popular, as is foreign crime, and suspense with an element of comedy.

As a coda to a splendid weekend, that afternoon the hotel hosted an event for the general public, Cupcakes and Crime. I moderated a panel consisting of Mike Craven, Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis and Peter Lovesey. As you’d expect from such a line-up, there was a lively and well-informed discussion.


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