Daggers drawn as Black Leather Jackets take on the Blue Rinses
Stay away from the crime-writers' AGM tonight. It'll be absolute murder. By Jane Jakeman
Thursday 08 April 1999
Tonight, at their AGM, the 450-odd members of the Crime Writers Association will vote on whether their current silver-haired Chairman (the chosen term, irrespective of sex) should hand over the reins of authority. Janet Laurence is a writer of "civilised" crime stories about art and food, and a former Daily Telegraph food columnist. Her challenger is Ian Rankin, author of gritty murder fiction in tough settings. Should the vote go against her, it would symbolise a transfer of power not only from one generation to another, but from a style that has been dominant since the foundation of the CWA in 1953 to a new kind of crime-writing.
The truth is that the CWA embraces two uneasily co-existing parties, which we might for convenience's sake describe as the "Black Leather Jackets" and the "Blue Rinses". Sporadic warfare has been going on between the two factions for some years. "Really, the whole thing is septic," says one black leather-trouser-suited author, Gillian Linscott, whose suffragette detective, Nell Bray, is an unexpectedly tough cookie in petticoats. "For a small association, the CWA can be terribly quarrelsome."
The argument is not just about two types of crime-writing, but two elements of British culture. The "Blue Rinse" is the traditional detective story, usually set in a village, featuring middle-class investigators and barely noticeable violence. As a style, it rose to glory in the golden age of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and still has a strong following, currently showing in the work of writers such as Caroline Graham, whose recently televised Midsomer Murders featured the usual cast of vicars and spinsters-of-this-parish. In the traditional novel, the focus is on the detective - often an amateur sleuth or an unworldly policeman - rather than on the psychology of the perpetrator. The Baroness PD James is probably the most literary and respected current practitioner of the genre, but there has been a sense of critical unease for some time now that her books are out of touch with modern life.
The Black Leather faction write tough novels of the underworld and its drug culture, the world of Cracker rather than of Juliet Bravo, with lots of psychopathology and puke in the stairwell. It is reckoned to have some of the best contemporary writers, such as Nicholas Blincoe, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Its supporters give it a mainstream cultural identification as the British version of the French cinema's noir, a Chandleresque world in urban settings, usually run-down inner slums or bleak housing estates. Manchester is a favourite location but, recently, Black Leather has taken a distinctly Celtic turn, sometimes known uneasily as Tartan Noir. Rankin's Inspector Rebus operates in Edinburgh; prize-winning newcomer Denise Mina's Garnet Hill is set in the even tougher environment of Glasgow. There's a political take on the division, too: at the last CWA dinner, Ruth Dudley Edwards, author of several crime novels of the traditional "Caper in the Cathedral Close" type, and Spectator columnist, tried to interrupt a speech by Michael Mansfield QC, who was addressing the assembled crimesters on the seemingly inflammatory subject of human rights.
The debate has actually been coming to the boil for a couple of decades. Mike Ripley was one of the early supporters of noir. "The CWA didn't acknowledge the existence of a new wave of crime-writing," he says. "I see it as a vehicle for fiction about contemporary life -- though that may not be life as the CWA knows it!" Ripley is the crime reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, so do his readers share his taste? "Oh, yes, my readers love hard-boiled crime," he says. "In fact, their tastes in that direction are stronger than mine," which gives an interesting insight into the leisure activities of Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells.
But Ripley's objection is less to the traditional crime novel than to the failure of the Association to reward new writing. There are certainly awards, a plethora of Daggers, handed out since the CWA was founded by John Creasey in 1953: the Macallan Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year (formerly the Crossed Red Herrings Award), the Silver Dagger, the Dagger in the Library. Most contentious is the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best crime novel by a first-time crime-writer. In 1995, many expected that it would go to Nicholas Blincoe for Acid Casuals, but the glittering prize was withheld from his sharp-eyed account of a transvestite Manchester underworld: some felt that the book was too violent, too full of sex, drugs and obscenities to be in keeping with the genteel traditions of the CWA. And, it was muttered darkly in crime circles, the influence of the Baroness kept him from the prize - in what seemed like a deliberate gesture, no award at all was made that year.
Does Blincoe feel bitter against the old guard? "I've got over it all now," he said cheerfully. "Anyway, I enjoy hanging out with the old ladies. I like their sartorial style - I think tweeds and twinsets are terrific. As for Janet Laurence - I'd never call her a Blue Rinse. She's a Silver Fox - gorgeous!"
But the quarrel isn't just about style; it has other resonances and, this being Britain, the leading one is class. It came to the fore in 1995 when PD James was accused by Chaz Brenchley (whose latest book, Blood Waters, is dedicated to a Portakabin in Sunderland) of middle-class bias. Brenchley, crop-haired and sporting earrings ("one in each ear - please put that in - it's very important," said the rebel), was supported by a number of young authors.
"Social and political issues were involved, which the new writers were taking hold of," comments Mike Stotter, editor of the respected crime magazine Shots.
Margaret Yorke, author of over 40 novels and a doyenne of the profession, who will be the recipient on 6 May of the coveted Cartier Diamond Dagger, in the august surroundings of the House of Lords, might seem the exemplar of the traditional crime writer. Does she ally herself with Blue Rinse?
She called the epithet "abominably sexist", pointing out that it was only applied to women. "It's insulting and derogatory," she said forcefully. As Yorke commented, many crime-writers, such as Minette Walters, are pursuing psychological depths that would have been left genteelly unexplored a couple of decades ago.
Indeed, Janet Laurence's latest book, Appetite for Death, has some pretty noir undertones, and Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus has an unexpected affection for Mozart, so when the Silver Fox hands over the Presidency of the CWA to the Black Leather Supremo, they may not be so far apart as some like to believe.
Does Chaz Brenchley have any comments on his row with the Baroness? "I think, you know, it would be rather dishonourable to open things up again," said the Crime Tiger of the North.
Lord Peter Wimsey himself could not be more gentlemanly. Perhaps the New Carlton carpets won't need the services of Messrs Sketchley after all - but nevertheless, CWA members should probably keep a sharp look- out for the ultimate award, the Dagger in the Back.
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