Books: Crime writers get their just desserts

Click to follow
On the last but one weekend in October, the cream of British crime writers, ancient and modern, cosy and hardboiled, traditional and cutting edge, plus a couple of Yanks, gathered together in a Manchester hotel close to Waterstone's for the Dead on Deansgate convention. The hotel staff were probably expecting a coterie of elderly females dressed as Miss Marple, so they didn't lay on enough staff to deal with the deluge of hardened drinkers,male and female, who descended on the one tiny bar, demanding more booze even as the shutters came down at 3am. And then on Sunday morning the fuses blew and the poor cooks were forced to supply hangover-cure fry-ups on the one gas ring that still seemed to be working.

A while ago I wrote an article for this newspaper bemoaning the state of British crime-writing, so I wore old clothes in case there was an outbreak of wine-throwing. But surprisingly I was warmly greeted by both representatives of the Crime Writers Association (CWA) and Waterstone's, who were co-organisers of the thrash. Mmm, I thought. No controversy and excitement here. But I was wrong.

First of all, on Saturday afternoon, some Madchester rascal decided to break into a number of delegates' cars parked in the basement. As writers ran off to check if the Lada was still in one piece, one guest, smug in the knowledge that he'd travelled up by Virgin Rail and his Jag was still safe in the garage, opined: "If you make a living out of crime, sometimes you get what you deserve."

Later, at an afternoon panel where authors were discussing "Sex & Drugs: The New Rock 'n' Roll", a first-time author and ex-punk poet, distressed that she couldn't get her turn at the mike, blew her top about whether abuse, be it drug abuse, child abuse or any other kind, was allowable as a topic for fiction. Hold on a moment - if you trouser an allegedly very large advance from a mainstream publisher and the publicity department flashes your first novel as the tale of "one of the sickest serial killers ever", don't start telling the rest of us what subjects we can use for our plots. We're in the final days now and, rightly or wrongly, anything goes as entertainment. And if you take the deal, you become the deal. Her final comment as she left the room was: "If all you're here for is to sell your books, then bollocks to you," and all the writers looked at each other in bewilderment as if to ask: "Well, what else would we be here for?"

At a party at a nearby hotel hosted by another publisher, which overlapped a wedding reception, one PR person saw off the bride - who was refusing to move from her perch at the top of the main staircase - by threatening to sabotage her photographs. So things were beginning to liven up as the evening ended with the awards banquet. The chefs were stretched to the limit, and the lamb that was served as the main course was so fatty that it should have signed up for Weight Watchers.

When it came to the awards presentations and speeches, it appeared that not everyone was singing from the same hymn book. Speakers vanished and reappeared like jack-in-the-boxes, but the whole event had a certain dotty charm, overseen as it was by the magnificent Janet Laurence, silver head held high, and Lindsey Davis, one of my favourite female crime writers, whose sly sense of humour held the whole thing together like hastily applied Sellotape.

First of all, several of the CWA's many glittering prizes were handed out, but not all, and more on these later. On this occasion they were The John Creasey Memorial award for best first crime novel, which went to Dan Fesperman for Lie In Darkness, set in war-torn Sarajevo. The award was accepted by Pam Smith from No Exit Press whose speech left the gathering as bemused as they were entertained, and the CWA New Crime Writer competition which went to Caroline Steed, of whom I'm sure more will be heard later. The award ceremony was followed by more speeches: from Val McDermid, who looks more glamorous every time I see her, Ian Rankin, chairman of the CWA and creator of Inspector Rebus, whose prosperity now seems commensurate with his talent, Elizabeth George, American guest of honour who commented on the state of British motorway traffic and not much more, and Michael Connelly, international guest of honour whose Harry Bosch novels are among the best crime-writing currently available on either side of the Atlantic.

The CWA and the distillers Macallan sponsor the prime awards for crime- writing in this country. Top of the list is the Gold Dagger, followed by the Silver. There are more Daggers for short stories, historical novels and non-fiction. The main awards are to be presented at a lunch at the Cafe Royal this week, and I'm sure I won't make myself popular by saying that rumours about the winners were floating about even before the shortlist had been announced, though these awards are supposed to be top secret. So who's won? Rumour has it it's the Gold Dagger to Val McDermid for A Place Of Execution (HarperCollins), and Silver to Frances Fyfield for Staring at the Light (Bantam). And no wine-throwing at lunch, please, I'll be wearing my best suit.

So what's the conclusion after our tired and emotional three days in Rainy Town? The suits in marketing have finally discovered crime-writing, and publishers are signing up youthful authors, paying them hefty advances and selling them on their personalities and looks, just like mainstream fiction has been doing for years. Not that their books aren't good. Precisely the opposite. These writers have landed fully formed, and I just hope that some of the stick that the new wave of Brit crime authors had to take as they tried to drag the form into the modern world throughout the 1980s and early 1990s has paid off for them, and they are accepted much more readily than we were. And we know who we are and I won't labour the point.

So who are these lucky people? For a start, there's John Connolly who looks like Sylvester Stallone around Rocky time. Hodder put a lot of money behind his first novel Every Dead Thing, and cleaned up. Then there's Mo Hayder, whose supermodel looks belie a darker side, and are certain to get her on magazine front pages when her first book Birdman is published by Bantam next year, and it won't surprise me if she walks off with the Creasey award next autumn. Also on the list are Rob Ryan, Lee Child and a host of others. All of us established crime writers should look over our shoulders because our little world is being shaken up good and proper, and if we're not careful we're about to be washed away by a wave of new talent. We all have to adapt or die. It's what I've been going on about for ages, and I can't wait.