Silver daggers vs the kitchen knifers

Robert Richardson gives an insider's view of dissent among the crime writers
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The Crime Writers' Association on the front page of the Independent? We cynical members always thought we'd have to murder for that sort of publicity.

And all because of what P D James said on the World Service at two o'clock one morning, causing Chaz Brenchley to write to Red Herrings, the CWA's monthly magazine in June. Baroness James of Holland Park suggested that moral choice is a monopoly of the intelligent and well-educated and is beyond those who live in "the pits of the worst possible inner-city area where crime is the norm and murder commonplace".

The air was instantly filled with cries of political correctness and fears that the baroness might tear up her membership card with one hand while throwing away her CWA/ Cartier Diamond Dagger with the other.

Inside the association, two distinct camps formed - the traditional school and the hard-boiled young turks. The latter - eminently more quotable - were given more space. Mark Timlin repeated his revulsion at the CWA and everything therein, Val McDermid - like Chaz Brenchley, a CWA committee member - said the middle classes would fail to recognise a moral choice if it bit them on the leg, and Maxim Jacubowski, owner of Britain's only specialist crime bookshop, Murder One, commented: "The row reflects the division between the younger realistic writers and the old guard."

Good rows are rather rare in the CWA. While members do unspeakably nasty things to their characters, they are almost invariably tremendously nice to each other. Founded by John Creasey in 1953, the association exists to promote crime fiction, which it does principally through its Gold and Silver Daggers, the longest-established literary awards in Britain.

It is also an agreeable social club, members meeting once a month in London's Groucho Club (where they complain about the bar prices) or at one of several regional chapters. There's an annual conference, this year in the Lake District, and the awards dinner at the Law Society. Images of back-stabbing, plot stealing and bitter rivalries are completely wrong - perhaps that's what the hard-boiled school finds so unbearable. However, the division certainly exists - in so broad a church, it's surprising there aren't more - and appears unbreachable.

Members of the CWA are predominantly middle-aged and middle England (and white, incidentally) and inevitably write about the sort of people they know, which means the politesse of what Alan Bennett wittily called snobbery with violence.

Anyway, British crime fiction has long been a game played by the middle classes. The Americans may have dragged the body to where it more properly belongs - among real criminals, but more than 60 years after Dashiell Hammett's corpse-strewn Red Harvest set a benchmark of genuine brutality, many characters over here still live in placid suburbia or the mockingly named village of Mayhem Parva.

Of course, the crueller school also has its place. People living in wretched slums, surrounded by the depraved and disadvantaged, where drug dealers make life nasty, brutish and short, are entitled to have authors who give their condition a voice.

But is life for the angst-ridden middle classes somehow less real for the people who live it than for those who survive in squalor? Such a view, and I know several who adopt it, is the obverse of P D James's position. The fact is that a good book is a good book and a bad book is a bad book, whatever category they fall into. I regard both Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair and Phillip Kerr's The Pale Criminal as outstanding, but their only resemblance is that each has numbered pages.

So will P D James leave the CWA? I hope not, but while her departure would be a loss, an organisation with nearly 400 members, including John Le Carre, Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, Sue Grafton and Colin Dexter, will survive. Meanwhile, all this will be much discussed at Boucheron - the World Mystery Convention - in Nottingham at the end of the month.

The author is a former chairman of the CWA. His latest book, 'Significant Others', is published by Gollancz on 12 October at pounds 15.99.