Photographs by Gary Stratmann
I am delighted to welcome crime writer, Margaret Duffy, as my guest this month.
Margaret, your website mentions your Czech granddad. Was he the person who inspired your passion for creating and writing stories began?
Although my lovely Czech Grandad told me spooky stories about castles with corridors where candles suddenly blew out he died after having had several strokes when I was quite young so any connection with him must be in my genes. The Czechs apparently are known to be story-tellers. My Dad had a novel called Many Bridges published in the fifties that was based on truth, the Czech Resistance during the Second World War. My flights of fancy started with writing a play with me acting all the parts, six of them, performed in the living room in front of my parents. I really hope they weren’t too bored.
Your work has been delightfully described as ‘police procedural with a touch of romance’, do you have to keep the balance carefully, as crime is your first love – so to speak?
My characters are married which I suppose is also a bit boring. Twice actually as Ingrid (Langley) found Patrick (Gillard) so insufferable at one stage that she threw him out (of her cottage) and went on to smash his classical guitar. She can be like that sometimes. Later, when he was recovering after being horribly injured serving in Special Services and turned up on her doorstep saying he had to find a working partner for a new job in MI5 she took pity on him. But don’t worry he said, no relationship, no sex, just a socialising job, perhaps at house parties given by the rich and famous. In a word, spy-hunting. They soon threw the sex reservation bit out of the window when the old magic of their original relationship resurfaced.
DCI James Carrick of Bath CID eventually marries his one-time DS Joanna Mackenzie too and the four end up working on cases together when Patrick and Ingrid are recruited by the National Crime Agency.
To date you have had over 20 Patrick Gillards, 4 James Carrick and 3 stand alone novels published. Was it the character, setting, or crime that inspired these?
It’s these characters that inspire me all the time, I’m much more interested in how they get the better of serious criminals than the crimes themselves. And criminals are usually rather stupid.
Do you plan each novel out meticulously before writing a first draft?
No, I never know how the plot will develop or end when I start, I just write until it sort of grabs me. I don’t do drafts either, just make corrections and polish it as I go. I find it helps me to picture exactly what’s going on.
What is the most fascinating piece of research you have stumbled across when researching a novel?
The most interesting piece of research I ever did was to read a paper on the various changes that take place with regard to dead bodies when they’re immersed in water.
When did you fall in love with the beautiful city of Bath?
We lived near Bath for several years and I had a job in the City centre. I was struck how, just behind the tourist-thronged streets, beautiful buildings steeped in history and obvious wealth were slum areas, drunks and the homeless. A good place to set crime stories. It’s changed a lot for the better now though.
You are a member of the Crime Writers’ Association – what does the organisation mean to you?
The CWA is marvellous from the point of view that it’s so rewarding and valuable to mix and talk to people of like mind.
What key advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers should never take no for an answer, just work hard to improve what you’re trying to achieve.
What has been the highlight of your writing career to date?
The highlight of my writing career was getting my first crime novel, A Murder of Crows, published.
What is next for Margaret?
What next? I’m working on number twenty eight, Gillard’s Sting, and also trying to interest an agent, as mine doesn’t handle it, in a sci-fi crime novel, The Killing Mind.
Many thanks for your time in answering my questions and sharing some insight into your writing world. I wish you every success with your new project and hope you let us know when it is published.
Your writing career did not begin with fiction, but with non-fiction study of historical crimes. Where did this interest in researching and writing about real crime begin?
It began with my mother! She was an avid reader and a lover of history, and she was fascinated by famous trials. We used to watch true crime programmes on television – we especially liked Edgar Lustgarten – and also discussed cases reported in the newspapers.
In all the cases that you have researched did one motive stand out above all others: greed, hate, love, necessity, premeditated or spontaneous revenge?
The foundation of so many murders is financial, but it is not necessarily always greed, sometimes it is desperation. People kill for insurance money, often to extricate themselves from debt. They kill to escape a relationship because of the costs and consequences of divorce. In the nineteenth century, which is the era I write about most often, poor families poisoned their children just to get the money from burial clubs.
It is not surprising that with such a vast amount of accrued knowledge on true crime that you turned to writing fiction. What was it that enticed you to set both your Frances Doughty and Mina Scarletti series within the Victorian period?
Many years ago I wrote about a Victorian case, the trial of Adelaide Bartlett in 1886 for the murder of her husband. The case was so complex that I realised I needed to understand the Victorians in order to discover the truth behind the lies and the euphemisms; I needed to know how they thought, and how they expressed themselves, and what they believed. The more I researched the more fascinated I became with every aspect of that period. It was natural to want to recreate that time in my fiction.
Both of these women have to overcome difficulties and work to make a life for themselves that is at odds with the expectations of their gender within the period. Were they influenced or based on real characters that you had researched?
Frances is not based on anyone, however Mina Scarletti, who suffers from scoliosis was inspired by two people. Eva, who had a very severe distortion of the spine, was the aunt of a friend of mine. I never got to know her well and she died when I was a child.
Annie Jane Fanny Maclean had a curvature of her spine and walked with a limp. In 1879 a scoundrel called Lewis James Paine romanced her and induced her to transfer her property to him. He then plied her with alcohol and withheld food until she died. A court found him guilty of manslaughter and he was imprisoned for life. Annie’s fate highlighted for me the vulnerability of a disabled young woman in the Victorian marriage market. I wanted a heroine who could overcome this and be strong and independent.
How far did you delve into the world of psychics to help Mina Scarletti unmask the Victorian fraudsters?
I have about a hundred books on the subject – so far! These are both contemporary accounts and modern studies. I have read numerous online journal articles and newspapers, both nineteenth century and more recent. I have also read books by Victorian conjurors and illusionists, and attended a Victorian séance workshop. When I describe a séance in my books I always have to know before I write it how the effects were produced.
In the light of all your research would you agree that the truth is often stranger than fiction?
That is often the case, which is why I like to append historical notes at the end of my fiction books. I have just written one for the fourth Mina book because a reference I included was so odd that I felt I needed to reassure the reader I was not making it up.
Are you a detailed plotter when you start a new project?
I always know when I start who the villain is and how and why the crime was committed. I also write what I call the ‘back story’, the details of what has happened up to the point when my book begins. So I know the start and the finish, but what happens between those points has to be natural and organic, as my heroine needs to learn the facts and solve the mystery in a convincing way. That develops as I write.
In all the cases you have studied:-
Which real criminal did you most despise and why?
There are so many! When I wrote The Secret Poisoner I was especially appalled by Richard Overfield who cruelly and cold-bloodedly murdered his baby so he wouldn’t have to support it, by giving it sulphuric acid. He was hanged in 1824.
Was there a real criminal that you admired the cunning of even if not their actual acts?
In cases of fraud there are many clever people who misuse their considerable talents for criminal purposes. Harry Benson and Willam Kurr who I wrote about in Fraudsters and Charlatans were extremely able career criminals who overreached themselves through greed.
Was there anyone you empathised with, or at least understood their motive to commit murder?
Of course I don’t approve of murder, but I did feel sorry for Eric Brown. (Essex Murders) He had suffered constant abuse and cruelty from his father for many years and seen his mother being led a life of terror and misery. He dealt his father a fast and merciful death by planting an anti tank mine under the old man’s wheelchair.
Did you come across anyone who was condemned, yet would have been acquitted as innocent if they had been tried today?
I tend to find that most failures of justice go the other way – people who are almost certainly guilty being acquitted due to insufficient evidence to convince a jury. In the case of Holloway and Haggerty, however (Middlesex Murders) two men were hanged for a murder it is almost certain they did not commit, on the false evidence of a man who was trying to get his own sentence reduced.
What has been your proudest author moment?
The publication of The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis. Between forming the determination to write the biography and actually holding it in my hands was eleven years. The first eight were spent trying to find someone who believed in the project as much as I did!
How long ago were you diagnosed with hyperacusis and has it dramatically affected your daily routine?
Hyperacusis is a condition usually resulting from noise damage or physical accident, in which everyday noises, especially if high pitched are painful. The sound of laughter, squeaking brakes, babies crying, electronic beeps, clattering dishware, are all examples. I have had hyperacusis for over twenty years but it took several years to get a diagnosis because it was not well understood or known about. At the time I was working in an office and general office noises and daily travel were hard to tolerate. I can’t wear earplugs all the time as over-wearing makes my tinnitus worse. Since I retired from the day job I have worked from home and been more in control of my daily environment, so life is better. If I go out I carry hearing protection, but even with that, social gatherings are difficult and some locations, especially noisy restaurants, are impossible. I wrote about hyperacusis in one of my novels, The Children of Silence.
What do you do to relax away from the world of writing about crime?
I love cooking, and in the last few years have taken up baking sourdough bread. The scent of a crusty loaf baking in one’s oven is magical!
What is next for Linda Stratmann?
I am near to completion of the fourth Mina book, The Ghost of Hollow House, in which she is asked to investigate a haunting. I have also been commissioned to edit a new volume in the Notable British Trials series, which is a huge honour.
Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to do the interview and I wish you every success with your ongoing and future projects.
‘The CWA is constantly expanding. So are the benefits we offer our members. Writing is a solitary occupation but we offer the chance to join regional chapters, attend our national conference, and receive an excellent monthly newsletter, Red Herrings – plus much more besides. Members value our various social media platforms, and the chance to promote their work to the large subscriber bases of the very popular Case Files and Crime Readers’ Association newsletter. But it’s the collegiate ethos of the CWA that remains its most valuable asset and benefit. In my 30 years of membership I’ve met many wonderful people, and made some very good friends. And their support, through good times and bad, is beyond price.
The CWA has changed a lot in the 64 years since it was founded by John Creasey. Although it is UK based the membership is international and is open to published crime writers, with provisional membership to writers who have a contract but whose book is not yet out: Full or Provisional Membership cost from £55 annually. There is also an option for associate membership for those in the publishing industry.
This does not mean that the aspiring crime writer has been forgotten.
We are keen to encourage new talent within the genre. The CWA is a professional organisation for professional writers, and others in the crime writing business, but – to take just two examples – the CWA Debut Dagger for unpublished novelists and CWA Margery Allingham Prize for new short stories both play an important part in encouraging and developing talent. We also have the CWA Criminal Critique service where, for fees beginning at £87 writers can receive professional feedback on, as yet, unpublished work.
The Crime Readers’ Association, which is free to join, was set up to make the authors, their works and events accessible to their readers. However, the new writer can pick up advice and tips, such as the Do’s and Dont’s when approaching a literary agent.’
Martin is very optimistic about the way the crime genre continues to evolve.
‘Digital publishing is changing the industry fast and nobody knows exactly what the future holds. But crime writing (fact as well as fiction) is as popular as ever. I’m a contemporary crime novelist, but I’ve been delighted by the revival of interest in classic crime fiction, and the truth is that the genre is a very broad church. So is the CWA.’
In light of all the changes that have happened in recent years within the publishing industry Martin views the future of the crime genre and the organisation in a very positive light.
‘I’m confident about the future of both crime writing and the CWA. Despite the fact that we have been around so long, today we have more members than ever before – and the number is rising all the time. That’s genuinely exciting. Writers face many challenges, not just when they are starting out, but throughout their careers, and the CWA is doing more and more to support them. I’ve also just appointed our first Libraries’ Champion and our first Booksellers’ Champion as we seek to collaborate with others for the benefit of all.’
Although the organisation is genre-specific Martin is keen to establish mutual links with other writing organisations within the industry.
‘Whilst the CWA is by definition genre-specific, I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and since becoming Chair I’ve initiated dialogue with a range of groups both here and overseas. A good example is our developing links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association, at both local and national level. Again, these relationships are mutually beneficial, and have great potential for all our members.’
Martin is a relatively new chair but he has already set many new goals to achieve during his tenure.
‘My aim is to oversee the modernisation and professionalization of the CWA, whilst remaining absolutely committed to its core traditional values of collegiality. Achieving this requires action on many levels – local, national, and international. We are modernising our infrastructure, strengthening our finances, recruiting more members here and overseas, and developing relationships with sponsors and other like-minded organisations. What we are seeing really is a quiet revolution, a radical one in some respects, but a process of making sure that the CWA and its members thrive in a challenging environment, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We don’t neglect our past – for instance, we’ve just launched the British Crime Writing Archives at the wonderful Gladstone’s Library, near Chester, with a weekend festival, Alibis in the Archives, that was such a success that we plan to repeat it next year. But we also look to the future – for instance, we’re starting to work with the ALCS, and looking at how we might contribute to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group. A huge amount remains to be done, but our continuing growth illustrates vividly that writers see a real need for the CWA, and are keen to be part of a forward-looking association that always strives to support and promote crime writing in general, and its members in particular, as well as encouraging new writers into the genre.’
When asked what advice Martin would give to new writers of crime he explains that he is a planner.
‘The great thing about writing is this – you can always improve what you have written. A plan works well for me – not everyone is the same, of course. But even the best laid plans are sometimes capable of being changed for the better. So far, I’ve never changed the original solution to any of my novels, but I’ve tinkered with many other elements of my stories.’
Martin Edwards’ eighteen novels include the Lake District Mysteries and the Harry Devlin series, and The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. He has edited thirty five crime anthologies, and won the CWA Short Story Dagger, CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and the Poirot Award. He is series consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, President of the Detection Club, and Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. His The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books was published in August.
Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!
I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press. Many congratulations!
Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?
The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.
Who is the ‘Girl’ in Red Velvet?
The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.
Do you remember the 60s with fondness?
I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.
What is next for Creative Writing Matters?
We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.
What is next for Margaret?
It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.
Hi, Martin, and welcome back. It was great to meet up again and congratulations on becoming the Chair of the CWA.
Thanks, Val. It was a pleasure to spend time in your company at the CWA’s enjoyable annual conference in Edinburgh recently. You know from your own experience that the CWA is a vigorous and highly collegiate organisation. For me, it’s a huge honour to be elected Chair.
The CWA keeps growing – it now has more members than ever before in its 64 year history. Although most are British writers, we have an increasing number of members based overseas, plus corporate and associate members involved in many different ways with the business of crime writing. We also prize non-fiction crime writing – a CWA Gold Dagger is awarded each year for the best factual book as well as for the best novel.
So the CWA is a very broad church. That makes it a vibrant organisation, but it also presents challenges. How can we make sure that we deliver value to all our members? That has to be our central aim. It’s not the committee’s organisation, far less my own. It belongs to the whole of the membership. And that’s something I keep at the forefront of my mind.
At present, for instance, self-published writers are not eligible for membership. The writing business is changing rapidly, and my personal view is that our eligibility criteria will change too. But this will only happen when there’s a clear consensus in favour on the part of the membership – it’s not a decision that can or should be imposed.
Already, we do a great deal for our members. If you take a look at the membership benefits on our website, you’ll find that there are very wide-ranging, and rarely matched by comparable groups. Our regional chapters offer an eclectic mix of social and professional activities; each chapter operates with a high level of autonomy, which is the way our members like it. As well as social media platforms, we run the Crime Readers’ Association, with its monthly newsletter going to over 10,000 subscribers. The bi-monthly Case Files has a similar readership. Our members have exclusive access, therefore, to a key target audience, an audience that is expanding all the time.
But I want us to keep growing, and to offer our members even more. My belief is that the CWA’s potential is almost limitless. Crime writing is, after all, enormously popular worldwide, and few “brands” within the genre can match the prestige of the CWA, and of our internationally renowned Dagger awards.
Let me mention just a few of the areas that I’d like us to explore in the coming years – not just while I’m Chair, but on a continuing basis. Our links with libraries are very important, and mutually beneficial. The CWA Dagger in the Library is a popular award, and our National Crime Reading Month links writers, readers, and libraries each June. I’ve just appointed our first Libraries Champion, Ruth Dudley Edwards, who will develop those links further, to everyone’s benefit.
I’m equally keen to develop our links with booksellers nationwide, and with publishers large and small, as well as with like-minded people and organisations in the UK and further afield. So I’m talking to – among others – the Society of Authors, the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Crime Writers’ Association of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America to explore ways of deepening our relationships to the benefit of all concerned.
And there’s much more – too much for one blog post! But I’d like to highlight the valuable work we do for the public benefit, not least encouraging the next generation of writers via the exceptionally successful CWA Debut Dagger, and also a flash fiction competition for students at the Edinburgh conference. This is another area of our activities that I’d love to expand.
I’m also proud that our archives are a central part of the British crime writing archives now held at Gladstone’s Library. Over time, I hope this will become an internationally recognised resource for researchers and crime fans. The archives are being opened officially at a week-end event in June, Alibis in the Archive, which quickly sold out – surely a sign we are doing something right. In fact, the tremendous level of interest means that we’ve already agreed to run another Alibis next year.
Of course, there are constraints. Our resources are limited, and so – crucially – is the time of committee members who are unpaid volunteers. We can’t do everything we’d like to do, and we will never be able to please everyone – no organisation can. We need to build up our management infrastructure, and operate as professionally as possible, so that our worthy aims can be implemented efficiently and over the long term. Making sure that all this happens in a sound way cannot be achieved overnight. But the portents are good. The future of the CWA promises to be even more exciting than its prestigious past.
Read Martin’s original interview here!
Martin Edwards’ eighteen novels include the Lake District Mysteries and the Harry Devlin series, and The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. He has edited thirty crime anthologies, and won the CWA Short Story Dagger, CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and the Poirot Award. He is series consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, President of the Detection Club, and Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. His The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books appears in July.
The CWA Dagger logo is a registered trade mark of the CWA