Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? Yet as Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation. This is the second in the series of female crime writers on contemporary crime-writing.

Gillian Hamer

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

I think it very much depends on the period you set your work. Agatha Christie novels, and something like Grantchester set in the 1950s, were no less entertaining because of the lack of DNA evidence for example. There are times I yearn for the simplicity of that style of writing if I’m honest. Where intelligent characters and clever plots were more at the forefront. However, that said I’ve embraced everything modern day crime detection has to offer in my own work. It does mean more work, more research, more specialist knowledge but that’s part of the job.

I’ve written as an expert pathologist in one book and also a ‘dodgy’ pathologist in another and so took a forensic pathology course to give my writing, and my character, real gravitas. A lot of the DNA information was beyond me, but it gave me an overview, and means I have some excellent research books on hand too. I’ve also used the whole social media aspect for tracing suspects, following lines of enquiry through automated banking and vehicle tracking devices etc. So, I guess my honest answer is it neither helps or hinders – there is definitely room for both. And there should be.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

Pathology mostly. And also legal procedurals. I have had to check facts and figures, and make sure I have my legal processes were generally correct. In terms of police procedural, I do have an expert on call (ex armed police) who answers anything really technical. But in terms of influencing the plot, I don’t think it ever would. I feel my books are more character driven, and the people who read my books are, I think, probably more interested in the setting on Anglesey or Dara’s latest female escapade! I think it is obviously important to be knowledgeable and competent in your writing, but I don’t lie awake at night worrying that I may have used a wrong phrase or forgotten to put on overshoes at a crime scene! Fiction is fiction, and I don’t really write complex police procedurals in that respect, and if we aren’t serving police officers we have to use our imagination and intelligence in much the same way as we aren’t serial killers (I hope!) so can surely be forgiven if we fail to get everything single tiny element perfect!

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

Crimson ShoreYes, I would. Obviously I am from the Agatha Christie school of crime writing. I think crime fiction through the ages would be good. Roman murder plots, Tudor poisonings, right through to a WWII espionage plot. There has always been crime, so there’s plenty of scope!

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

I think it’s linked to reader expectations, and again as I mentioned this is fiction. Readers do not want to see a serial rapist walk free from court on a legal technicality even if that can and does happen in reality. So, maybe we are guided by the market in that respect. That said, I have always been a bit of a rule breaker, and my last novel, False Lights, did break the ‘happy ending’ formula.

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

False lightsI don’t think I could name a British crime writer that attempts the same kind of style as Scandinavian crime. I’m not sure what that says about us Brits – that we aren’t interested enough in politics to bother? Or that we leave it to the espionage writers, the Le Carres and Archers, to worry about politicians and society in general. I’m not sure I would say it is more focused on the individual, I think it’s maybe more focused on character and plot of each standalone story and doesn’t venture out into the bigger picture.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I think we have to be careful in our writing, again because we are trying for the most part to please our readers. I wouldn’t tame down bad language that suited the character or scene, but my rule of thumb is that if two or more of my beta readers have an issues with something then it has to go. I’m not here to break down barriers or take a stand against anything, that’s not what my writing is about.

Finally, when writing a series featuring the same main character, would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I will have to be a bit cryptic and say I don’t think so but I haven’t really made my mind up yet. I have plans to kill off one or more characters that appear throughout the series, but as I haven’t a concrete plan of how many books there will be, or how the series will conclude … then I think I will have to wait and see if my lead character annoys me enough!

 

About Gillian Hamer

Born in the industrial Midlands, Gillian’s heart has always yearned for the wilds of North Wales and the pull of the ocean.

She splits her time between Birmingham and a remote cottage on Anglesey where she finds her inspiration and takes long walks on deserted beaches with her Jack Russell, Maysie.

Find out more about Gillian on her website:

http://www.gillianhamer.com/

Or follow her on Twitter:

@GillyHamer

 

 

 

I’m an indie author and proud of it.
But I didn’t exactly go it alone.
I chose the collective route.
Here’s why.
http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk/home/4561070049

 

Triskele Books is an author collective spread over three countries and two time zones. So it’s no surprise that all Triskele novels have a strong sense of time and place.

How does it work? Answers from the gang.

How does an author collective differ from a small press?

Jill: It’s very similar to a small press, but the crucial difference is our independence. Legally, we wanted to retain our own rights, so we chose not to create a publishing house. Instead, we just act like one. We’re a group of people who can edit, proof, consult, advise, co-promote and market on a shared platform. Each of us works as an independent entity but we all benefit from mutual support. Financially, we contribute equally to any costs incurred, such as webhosting, print materials, etc, but each of us keeps the profits from our own books.

What factors triggered each of you to go indie?

Liza: We’d met each other via an online writing group, and found ourselves in a similar situation: Gillian and I both had agents, but they couldn’t find our books a home. Jill stopped trying the trad route after an agent called her work too cerebral. Catriona was left dangling by a publisher for two years, until she wrote them a rejection letter. And Jane (JD) loved the freedom of creativity found by going indie.

We got together and discussed our options. Going the independent route, as a team, felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and committed ourselves to publishing the books we wanted to write, not what the market dictated.

Triskele_Group_018

Kat, Liza, Gilly, Jill, Jane

How did your publishing cooperative come together, and what made you decide to establish it? How many of you are there?

Catriona: I began reading about author collectives in the States. And I thought this has to be the way forward, the power in working together.
So four years ago, the original members of Triskele met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Ten of them.

Triskele has five core members and periodically we bring ‘associates’ on board, whose writing we feel we can develop. We were recently dubbed The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing.

What elements of the publishing process are done collectively? How do you handle the finances, such as royalties and so on?

Gillian: We critique, edit and proof each other’s drafts before they go for professional proofreadings. If needed we all give advice on cover design too.

Finances have been relatively simple. We all keep our own royalties from sales of our own books. If we choose to market or advertise Triskele collectively, we all contribute equal shares. And for joint ventures, like The Triskele Trail, we divide initial outlay and profits go into our Triskele bank account to cover future overheads like webhosting, print materials, advertising etc.

triskelites

Where does the Triskele name come from? Does a Triskele book have an identifiable style that sets it apart?

Jane: The name came from the Celtic symbol of the triskele, which shows three independent circles joining to form something greater than its parts. It represents the concept of our collective – authorial independence balanced by mutual support. Going it alone, together.

Triskele books are top quality – they must be well-written, tell a good story and contain a strong sense of place, which is Triskele’s USP. They’re also thoroughly edited, proofread, carefully typeset and have a professional cover.

What about the design aspects? Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

Liza: We’re lucky enough to have talented designer JD Smith on the team, so yes, we all use the same designer. We don’t go for a shared look since we range across different genres, but we try to harmonise all our visual material.

heads soft

Triskelites in Porto

You are located in three different countries. How do you manage the communication issue?

Gillian: Skype! And email. And we have our own Facebook private page. We communicate every day but only meet physically three or four times a year. But when we do, it’s brilliant fun!

What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages? What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same?

Catriona: Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say, so you don’t become one of those awful people on social media who just keeps bleating, ‘buy my book, buy my book!’ Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.

The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution. And on a larger scale, there’s the Alliance of Independent Authors, an amazing source of information.

Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.

My advice would be to learn from those who’ve gone before, then find the path that’s right for you. There’s no one way to do this.http://triskelebooks.blogspot.co.uk/How do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Triskele Books? Are you actively seeking new members?

Jane: Writing good books is a given. We as a group need to ‘fit’. When working so closely as a team, it’s important everyone pulls their weight and believes in the collective as a whole. We share experiences, snippets of information, the highs and lows, opportunities for genres, news stories relevant to an author’s theme, place or period. We’re really supportive of each other and the group. We’re not seeking new members at the moment. We’ve found our ideal balance.

What are your plans for the future?

Jill: Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We’re planning The Big Launch Party for November 2015, writing new books and organising festival appearances; exploring formats, such as audiobooks, boxsets, translations and adaptations, and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.

Triskele_Group_041 bw

http://triskelebooks.blogspot.co.uk/
http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk/

 

Gillian E Hamer’s novels are set in North Wales, blending modern crime, ancient history and an otherworldly element.

JJ Marsh writes contemporary European crime. The Beatrice Stubbs series explores ethics, politics and justice – from Athens to Zürich.

Liza Perrat’s historical fiction novels are set in rural France against the backdrop of the French Revolution, WWII and The Black Plague from the perspective of extraordinary women.

Catriona Troth’s novella, Gift of the Raven, takes place in Canada in the 1970s while Ghost Town tackles the themes of race and identity in 1980s Coventry.

JD Smith’s retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend brings ancient Ireland and Cornwall vividly to life. The Overlord Series takes the reader back to 3rd Century Syria to tell the story of Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra.

 

In a weeks’ time, the winner of The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced.

Here’s the shortlist in order of my reading:

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Last week, I reviewed three of the novels. Here, with the help of my colleague Gillian, are reviews of the remaining three. Next Wednesday will be June 4th, the day The Baileys Prize is awarded, and I’ll choose my own wholly subjective winner.

 

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee

the undertakingThe literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?

This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.

Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them both.

Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.

The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.

This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.

 

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

burial rites1828 Iceland. A woman, with one male and one female accomplice, murders her lover. Convicted by the court, she is sentenced to death by beheading.
Icelandic custom involves sending its criminals to Denmark for their punishment, but here, the District Council decides to make an example of the three.

They will meet their fate on Icelandic soil.
The system entails several appeals and deliberations, meaning a potential delay of months, even years before the sentence can be applied. So the three convicts are put to work on District Officers’ farms.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to Kornsá, and the farm of Jón Jónsson. She is to work alongside Jón, his wife Margrét and his daughters, Lauga and Steina. The shock of hosting a murderess throws ripples of confusion through the family. When news reaches novice priest, Reverend Tóti, that he is to be her spiritual counsellor, even the servant says, ‘Good Lord, they pick a mouse to tame a cat’.

The presence of the criminal excites and alarms the neighbours, but the household finds its own way of dealing with the unwanted guest. Steina is bewitched, Lauga is detached and Margrét sees Agnes for what she is – a woman, suffering.

The subtle change and adaptation of each character to the circumstances reminds me of the so-subtle-you-don’t-notice shifts in Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín (I tell you, this accent key has never seen so much use in its life). In addition, the author’s choice of changing points of view, evocative detail of Icelandic peasant hardships and use of letters, documents and storytelling allows the reader to piece together a very different account to the official rendering of events.

A delicate, understated, hot under a cold surface story that had me in heaving sobs at the end. By which I mean to say, I loved it.

 

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Review by my Triskele Books colleague, Gillian Hamer

goldfinchAs I grow older, I find I increasingly yearn for flawed characters, those who have so many layers that as you unpeel them, you go from shocked to emotive to repulsed and back again. Here, we are spoiled. We have Theo Decker, who to say is troubled is the biggest understatement of the year. We have Boris, whose life story was so complex he’d lost sight of his moral compass at birth. We have darkly secretive art dealers, darkly secretive women, and the adorable Hobie. And I loved them all.

This is an epic novel, ten years in the making, and you can see how the layers have been honed, polished and perfected over time. This is a how-to example of perfection in literary fiction for me. The depth and attention to detail, the perfect characterisation and the rambling narrative and dialogue that suits every scene to perfection. Even the accents! Boris was sublime.

Theo Decker must have been a wonderful character to create. Left alone after the loss of his mother at a young age in the most dramatic of circumstances. Passed into the guardian-ship of the Barbour family whose imprint lasted right through his turbulent years in Vegas with his father. A relationship with Boris that fell under no distinct category. His return to Hobie whose paths crossed via a life changing moment. Bound by layers of guilt that he carries for life and almost lead to his destruction. I could almost weep I didn’t have chance to create and live this life with him.

Without doubt, this is a lesson in excellent writing, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.