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What, in relation to your writing, are you most proud of?
My love of detective fiction dates back to the age of eight, when I first discovered Agatha Christie. I watched the film Murder Most Foul at a bizarre but memorable village fete – opened by Margaret Rutherford, who descended from a helicopter! – and my enjoyment of the mystery prompted me to start reading Christie’s books. The full story of that extraordinary day is told in The Golden Age of Murder, but really, from that moment on I was hooked. At the same time, I conceived the wild ambition of becoming a crime writer. Over the years, my passion for the genre has never faltered. I’ve been lucky to fulfil that early dream and perhaps I owe this to keeping the faith and writing books that I truly believe in.
At what point in your life did you start to describe yourself as an author?
In my own mind, from childhood, I always thought of myself as an author. I have spent many years as a lawyer, but for me writing always came first.
What did you buy with your first royalties cheque?
When I won the CWA Short Story Dagger, I decided to spend the prize money on a special celebration – buying a rare book, a first edition of the Detection Club novel The Floating Admiral. Similarly, when I won the CWA Margery Allingham Prize, I spent the money on a first edition of one of Allingham’s own novels which she had inscribed.
What is the first crime story you remember reading?
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie.
- 1983 – first non-fiction book published
- 1990 – first prize in a writing competition, resulting in my first published short story, ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’
- 1991 – first novel published, All the Lonely People
- 1991 – All the Lonely People nominated for the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger
- 1996 – appointed editor of the CWA anthology
- 2000 – founder member of Murder Squad, a collective of northern crime writers
- 2005 – ‘Test Drive’ shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger
- 2006 – The Coffin Trail shortlisted for the Theakston’s prize for best crime novel
- 2008 – The Arsenic Labyrinth shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year prize
- 2008 – ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ won the CWA Short Story Dagger
- 2011 – received the Red Herring award from the CWA
- 2014 – inaugural winner of the CWA Margery Allingham Prize for ‘Acknowledgments’
- 2014 – appointed consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series
- 2015 – elected President of the Detection Club
- 2016 – The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, Macavity, and H.R.F. Keating awards, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction and the Anthony award
- 2017 – ‘Murder and its Motives’ shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger
- 2017 – received the Poirot award for an outstanding contribution to crime writing
- 2017-2019 – Chair of the CWA
- 2018 – The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books won the Macavity award and was shortlisted for the Agatha, Anthony, and H.R.F. Keating awards and longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction
- 2018 – awarded CWA Dagger in the Library by UK librarians
- 2019 – ‘Strangers in a Pub’ shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger
- 2019 – Gallows Court shortlisted for the eDunnit award and longlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger
- 2019 – guest of honour, Shanghai International Mystery Game Expo, China
- 2020 – awarded CWA Diamond Dagger
- 2021 – Howdunit shortlisted for the Edgar award
I was born in Knutsford (alias Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford) in Cheshire, a county where I’ve lived for most of my life. We knew no writers, and my parents were disconcerted by my literary ambitions. They had a shrewd idea that writing wasn’t the easiest way of earning a living, so they encouraged me to study for a ‘proper job’. Having read that Michael Gilbert, a writer of distinction who would go on to win the Diamond Dagger, was a full-time solicitor, they encouraged me to study law.
As a result, I read Jurisprudence at Balliol College, Oxford, and trained as a solicitor in Leeds. On qualification, I joined a firm in Liverpool, and started writing legal articles and then books. I became a partner in 1984, but my resolve to become a crime writer remained unshaken. I enjoyed working in my chosen field – employment and commercial law – but I never envisaged that I would stay on the law as long as I have done. Even after my firm merged with Weightmans in 2011, I remained a partner for three years before becoming a consultant.
In the 1980s, I began to publish articles about crime writing and to review contemporary crime novels. On the strength of that I became eligible to join the CWA, and I attended the inaugural meeting of the northern chapter of the CWA, where I met Reg Hill and Bob Barnard, who would later win the Diamond Dagger, and Peter Walker, whose books were the basis of Heartbeat. Their active encouragement and warm friendship meant a great deal to me. Before long, I’d met two northern writers of my vintage, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, who would also win Diamond Daggers.
My future wife Helena accompanied me to that initial meeting, and remembers how excited and over-awed I felt that day. After we married and had children, one challenge was how to combine a full-time business career with writing and family life. This meant that my son Jonathan and daughter Catherine each attended their first northern chapter weekend symposiums when only a few months old. Through the years, my family’s support for my writing career has been invaluable.
I first came across the CWA at the age of thirteen, when I saw a copy of the new CWA anthology in a bookshop. I asked for and duly received it as a Christmas gift. I never dreamed that one day I’d be asked to edit the CWA anthology myself, but for the past twenty-five years, I’ve done just that.
Because I’ve always been fascinated by crime writing, the news that I’d been awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger took my breath away. It’s very special for two reasons. First, the illustrious authors who have won the award in the past; it’s a privilege to join their company. Second, the fact that this award is voted for by fellow crime writers, people whose judgements I respect. I’m tempted to describe the award as a dream come true, except that I never really dreamed it would happen to me.
Each author has their own reasons for writing. I do it because I need to write, and even though I have a vivid imagination, I can’t imagine not writing. But each author also has to make personal choices about how they go about writing, and what they write. I’ve always been determined to write books that I care about and believe in. So I haven’t written ‘for the market’ or produced books to suit publishers rather than myself. Quite the opposite. Because I’ve never tried to write fashionable books, the awards have come as a wonderful surprise. But I have always tried to write books that have a distinctive personality, and to stretch my talents and keep improving as a novelist.
However hard we work, whatever our natural abilities, we all need an occasional stroke of good fortune if we are to enjoy success, let alone sustain it. I’ve had several lucky breaks in my writing career. Above all I’ve benefited hugely from the support and friendship of readers and professionals in the world of books. I owe a good deal to libraries and librarians, so receiving the CWA Dagger in the Library was another great thrill.
I’ve spent years exploring the history of crime fiction and researching the lives and work of people who have made the genre what it is. As archivist for the CWA and the Detection Club, I’ve tried to do my bit to preserve and celebrate the genre’s diverse and wonderful heritage. This has led to my establishing the British Crime Writing Archives at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, near Chester. The more I see of crime fiction over the years, the more evident it is that fashions come and go. What endures is the art of telling a good story.
In the past, there was a tendency for critics to under-value crime fiction and for crime writers to be defensive about their work. Those days are fading into history, as more and more people recognise that the genre is not only enjoyable and entertaining, it also has a great deal to offer in terms of literary quality. Since 2007, I’ve written a blog about crime writing. I called it ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ because that is a question I’ve often been asked, by people too polite to say they have never heard of me. The blog has brought me into contact with fellow crime fans all over the world and discussing the genre with them is hugely pleasurable. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel the world, talking about crime fiction in places as diverse as Dubai, Hawaii, the Yale Club in New York, the Queen Mary, Tallinn, Reykjavik, Madrid, Toronto, and Shanghai. I’ve met wonderful people from all kinds of backgrounds who share my enthusiasms. And all this stems from that day when I was eight years old and fell in love with the idea of reading, and writing, mysteries. I still find it hard to believe, but also truly thrilling.
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