BRIGHTON last weekend had gone convention potty. As the tourists faded away for the winter, in came the mystics and psychics, consulting their crystal balls at the annual Shadows Fair in a seafront hotel. Two doors down, the Labour Party, less certain of the future, was consulting its rule book in the conference centre. And between the two, in the foyer of the Old Ship Inn, members of the Crime Writers' Association, in town for their yearly conference, were gathering for a tour around the sights immortalised in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

'I'm surprised none of the Labour delegates has cottoned on to the fact that we're here,' said Lisanne Radice, the literary agent for several of the crime writers and wife of the Labour MP, Giles. 'You know, popped in to ask for some poisoning tips. Oh hello, John,' she said, as John Edmonds, of the boilermakers' union, drifted through the foyer, a small retainer with a mobile phone trotting in his wake. Mr Edmonds looked intrigued, as if mentally totting up how many block votes the CWA could muster.

'Mind you,' continued Mrs Radice, 'they're infinitely nicer here than next door, a lovely bunch. Not like romance writers. A right bitchy crew they are. Or so I've been told. Crime writers are the nicest people . . . they seem to get rid of all their viciousness on the page.'

The Crime Writers' Association was founded in 1953, not so much as a trade union but as a social club for a dozen or so lonely authors, a chance to swap crime notes with their peers, or, when in Brighton, with the piers.

'When we first started, the question we were constantly asked was 'Is Agatha Christie a member?' ' said Julian Symons, a founding light. 'And the unfortunate answer was no. Nowadays everyone always wants to know if P D James is a member. And I'm happy to say the answer is most certainly and emphatically, yes.'

Baroness James was not able to attend the conference. One hundred and fifty other members, though, had made their way to Brighton from as far away as Minneapolis. Million sellers such as Sue Grafton (creator of Kinsey Mullhone, private investigator) sat through sessions next to part-time enthusiasts such as Ian Barclay, a clergyman and academic who writes ecclesiastical theory by day and crime by night. You could tell who was who as everyone wore name-tags. Those who preferred to write under pseudonyms carried these on their tags. B T Stockman, a balding middle-aged man in a tweed jacket, proudly bore the unlikely legend 'Rocky' Stockman.

'You notice our fingerprint logo,' said Mr Barclay, pointing to a red smudge on his name tag. 'That is the print of a genuine criminal. We got it from Brighton police. No idea who he was, but I'd love to know what he did.'

The morning session of the conference had included a talk from a local policeman about a particularly gruesome recent murder. The writers enjoyed the colour pictures of the corpse and quizzed the detective endlessly. However, they were not interested in stealing plot details.

'No, this murder was solved by a series of the most improbable coincidences,' said Michael Z Lewin, creator of Albert Samson, private investigator. 'They would be laughed off by any decent editor.'

Instead, the sleuths were after a look, a phrase or an attitude to help in copper characterisation.

'The police are very keen to help us because they are anxious to be represented accurately,' said Liza Cody, creator of Anna Lee, private investigator. 'Mind you, sometimes when you talk to them you're not sure whether you're getting real research or a filtration of Colin Dexter. They all watch the telly cops, read the crime fiction and start to ape it. When The Sweeney came out you couldn't find a policeman who didn't say 'You're nicked'. Now they all seem to listen to opera.'

As the members talked shop ('it's lovely to gossip crime without the person you're talking to looking at their watch and yawning,' said Sue Grafton), Ian Barclay mother-henned them into a coach for the start of Greeneland tour. It was conducted by a guide in a distinctive outfit of white ice-cream seller's hat, white gloves and white T- shirt so that her charges could keep track of her on the tour.

Once on board the coach, the writers began testing their sleuthery compulsively, comparing notes as soon as the guide started to point out the places where Greene's anti-hero Pinkie Brown got up to mischief.

'That accent,' said one delegate, a sprucely dressed middle-aged woman. 'Where would you place it?'

'Irish,' said her equally spruce companion. 'With maybe a touch of American.'

'And why's she wearing gloves?'

'Obvious. Doesn't want to leave any fingerprints.'

When the bus pulled up to the cliff-top at Peacehaven, from which Pinkie made his death leap in the book, the writers bombarded the guide with questions. Not so much about Brighton Rock, as about her.

'Why do you wear the hat?' they asked. 'And the gloves? That accent, where do you come from?'

She came from New York, she said, and wore the gloves out of habit because she was sensitive to the sun.

'Oh, so you're not Irish,' said the spruce middle-aged sleuth, disappointed. 'That's the nice thing about crime fiction, you can make the facts fit any old theory.'

With that the sleuth wandered off to look at a nearby parade of houses. Outside one, she stood and stared.

'That is a real eye-opener,' she said. 'Three types of net curtain, 18 garden gnomes, four lions guarding the front, all with green eyes. What sort of person lives there, do you think?'

After a brisk run past the race-course, through Kemptown and along the front, the tour bus stopped outside the railway station, and everyone decamped to continue on foot.

'Sod research,' said the middle-aged sleuth as the rain began to wash the Lanes. 'I'm off to watch the golf.'

Through the Lanes the tour lost several more members to the antique shops and through the parts of Brighton Pinkie Brown would have recognised (drunks in doorways, broken windows in shops, the smell of urine in alleyways) yet more disappeared back to the dry of the hotel. When the party finally reached the shelter underneath Palace Pier, where Pinkie met his death in the film version of Brighton Rock, numbers had dwindled to the die-hards.

'I'm presuming the missing members are voluntarily lost,' said the guide. 'Or should we send out a search party?'

At which a dozen plots began to crystallise in a dozen minds.

Back on the front, the psychics and mystics had had the foresight not to plan an outdoor session for such a rainy afternoon. And like them, Lisanne Radice, with her Labour Party conference experience, had not got wet either. Instead of the tour, she lunched with her husband, who made a joke when he arrived to meet her.

'That's completely off the record,' he grinned, when he noticed that his wife was talking to the press.

It would not be breaking too many confidences to say the joke involved crime writers meeting in one place and the criminals meeting next door.

(Photograph omitted)