We were honoured to welcome the award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian American and French novelist and artist Yelena Moskovich for the annual Noirwich lecture 2022. Moskovich’s ground-breaking novels trenchantly atomise and repurpose tenets of crime fiction to explore fractured identities, living histories and uncanny sins.
Their timely lecture – a transcript of which you can find below – reflects on the volatility and mutability of the written word and the world, and explored what if crime wasn’t a story being told, but a language being spoken?
There are things we think and things we do. Terrible, terrible things. There are feelings we feel and secrets we keep. Terrible, terrible code. I had never thought of myself as a crime writer. Though in retrospect – which happens to be the only way crime can be viewed, by looking back – I suppose I’ve always been a wayward type. More of a wildcat of language than a writer. In short, I have always been terrible. From a young hooligan of melody to a ripened offender of prose, I’ve told stories by going against the grain of storytelling.
In my first novel, The Natashas, Cesar, an immigrant actor vying for the role of a serial killer in a TV series, finds himself following a strange woman. We think the wires of reality and performance have crossed and surely he will kill her. But when he walks up behind her, she turns around and she tells him it’s too late – she’s already been murdered. She sings him a song and asks him to carry her pain.
In my second novel, Virtuoso, there is a bar called The Blue Angel, where people who exist and don’t exist can meet.
In my third and most recent novel, A Door Behind A Door, characters cross in and out of a purgatorial underground between America and the former Soviet Union.
I never thought of myself as a crime writer because the world of my writing is lawless by nature, and those who inhabit it, trespassers of form. In my stories, no one dies, because they are already dead. No one breaks the law, because the laws are already broken.
I stated in an essay I wrote about crime fiction that “all Russian literary work is a crime novel.” (By Russian, to be precise, I mean Russian-language works, which of course stem from all the post-Soviet Russian speaking countries.) This is in part because these literary works, like the Slavic character, exist inside a philosophical crime scene. We are not concerned with the human moral dilemma as much as the human metaphysical dilemma. The pain and poetry of being alive.
In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the teacher Medvedenko asks Masha, “Why do you always wear black?”, and she replies, “I am mourning for my life.” There is a simultaneous seriousness and satire in her response. Part of living is killing life and mourning for the life that we have killed.
Perhaps the apple doesn’t fall from the tree – or in this case – the cherry doesn’t fall far from the cherry orchard, and I can’t escape this Slavic literary heritage. It may seem like a Hellish consciousness with which to lead a life, but to us – life isn’t life without Hell.
And as I admit further it in the essay, it’s true, I’ve always liked novels where people go to Hell. Since the Soviet Union was built upon the communist rejection of religion, our Hell is a bit different. It is not a moral Hell. It is rather a place of transgression and truth. Above, upon our dear Earth, is a social and political code. Below, in our beloved Hell, there is the opportunity for truth – to contemplate, to face, and to integrate the spectrum of human conscious and unconscious intention free of right and wrong. It does not mean there are no consequences and no structure. It is far from the derelict anarchy the West has culturally defined it to be. It is actually a place governed by the purest rules of humanity, the innocence and the shame of our desire to live.
Within these spaces of existence, death becomes more of a hallway, a rite of passage, or a journey towards the purity of the self. In all my works, I write about immigration as a kind of death, a departure wherein the immigrant becomes the literal and figurative ‘departed.’ But there are many kinds of immigration as there are many dimensions of borders that one can – or is forced – to cross. For example, puberty is an immigration we all share – where our hormonal and physical body crosses the border from childhood towards adulthood. Loving someone is also a kind of immigration, across the border of the self to the other.
Then there are the extreme cases of immigration we are most familiar with via the media, refugee and asylum seekers escaping mental, emotional, or physical persecution. I could share with you in detail my own experience of having been a Jewish refugee from Soviet Ukraine to America in 1991 at age 7. And there is much to say about the experience of refugees and asylum seekers and their relationship to language and form. But unfortunately, this relationship does not garner much interest in the culture or arts. Artists or writers who come from geopolitical trauma are met with a narrative obligation to be creative ambassadors of their historical context. The world wants anecdotes and explanations, testimony, and pathos. These expectations are often our ticket into the arts and literature.
But being a difficult child of patronage, I’d rather stay terrible, terrible, and difficult. This is why I’m not going to go through my experience as a refugee from Soviet Ukraine or its parallels with the current war. I’m not saying this is not an important subject. But in general, I’m not so interested in subjects at all. I’m interested in the phenomena of a subject, its language, its movement, its way of coming into life and dying out.
In this respect, I’m inviting you into the metaphysical sense of immigration, or the journey of dying, of killing, and of being killed. What if this journey wasn’t a subject, but a phenomenon? Which brings me to the question at the heart of this lecture: what if crime wasn’t a story being told, but a language being spoken?
The queer experimental artist and writer, Renee Gladman, talks about ‘the inner anguish’ of language. The friction between something dying and something new being born. This twist in being also appears in the form containing language. Gladman goes on to speak of ‘a novel tired of its form.’ This phrase has stayed with me over the years. This is perhaps the perfect description of every novel I write. A work in resistance to itself. Writing that doesn’t want to be what it is expected to be. A novel that comes alive in its own disgrace. Though Gladman doesn’t point to this directly, her words evoke a certain criminality of a work. A way that the text, in order to exist as itself, must become an outlaw.
Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and semiotician, proclaims ‘language is never innocent.’ Barthes is firstly speaking of intentionality, whether conscious or subconscious. From the time a baby starts formulating the sounds they overhear, the blocks of language have significance and will to them. The baby does do not need to understand the structure of language in order to use it with connotation. As it pertains to literature, Barthes is pointing to the capacity of creative consciousness. The writer is composing with what words mean and with what they don’t mean, what they could mean and what they don’t want to mean. The writer is taking the subconscious existence of language out of its familiar shadowy place, and flipping the light switch on it.
I’m not sure if Barthes also intended this idea to extend to the cultural guilt inherent in language, but I’ll go there on my own and take the connotative leap. The rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and gender allotment of nouns come from the ways voice, its purpose and expression, has been sanctioned throughout history. The building blocks of language are a product of the socio-political regime. A regime which has been (and continues to be) heavily governed by religious moral code. Language existed as a way to spread the guidelines of holy texts and in turn keep people in line. Language existed to create empires, fortunes, military. Language existed to profit, to exploit, to control.
And so a writer is left in a peculiar position. How to use a guilty language?
Monique Wittig, a French writer and queer activist, wrote in her novel Les Guerillieres : “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. …You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
If the very mechanisms of the grammar we use today are constructed from centuries of crimes upon the voices and speakers and their languages, we as writers must go to Hell – so to speak – to go down into the underworld of the text, beneath grammar and syntax and lexicon as we know it, and remember or, failing that, invent form and language.
Queerness, in its essence, is an act of the imagination. It is existing in what does not yet exist. In José Esteban Muñoz’s book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, he writes:
“The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. (…) we must dream and enact (…) other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”
It is not merely as a poetic idea that queerness incites dreaming. As Carl Jung described, dreams allow for a mythology that has been forgotten by the day to exist at night. It’s a mythology in hiding, one that must not only be found, but made safe enough to step into the light. In the underworld, this mythology both yearns and refuses to be seen. This is Gladman’s anguish of language, a lingual anxiety.
Barthes also described this lyricism of our personal pain, stating that “each of us has his/her/their own rhythm of suffering.” We don’t often consider the intersection been crime and poetry in literature. Though a wonderful example is the crime novel written in verse, The Monkey’s Mask, by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter. My last novel, A Door Behind A Door, can also be described as a sort of crime novel in verse. Not just for the way the story unfolds in lyrical episodes, almost like a succession of poems, but also in the lyricism that is used to place and advance the plot – particularly when the plot begins to blur into surreal or imagined spaces.
For example, in this novel: Oxana, a mother who loses her husband then her young son in a tragic drowning, is murdered by an eight year old boy who lives in her building, Nikolia or Nicky. Nicky stabs her to death and yet doesn’t understand his own actions. He seems to have entered a trance and have been pulled to commit an crime that has no link to any personal intentions. This enigma stays with him for the rest of his life. But as the novel continues, we start to wonder if perhaps it is the woman herself who created the murder to be able to die from grief, and therefore unconsciously beckoned an innocent boy up the stairs with a knife.
When she dies, though she doesn’t quite die, she immigrates. We find her again in a small town in America, at a diner, dipping fries into a strawberry milkshake. She is told by a mysterious waitress that her name is now Sally and she must learn it. She repeats her name as she sees the waters of the Black Sea where her son died. The passage is a short stanza. It goes like this:
Sally. Sally. Sally. I sailed.
I felt so alone that my skin could have peeled off with the wind.
This sparse stanza contains her whole metaphysical immigration, from devastation to grief to a distant quiet. This simultaneously becomes a manifested literal immigration in the form of a teleportation from Ukraine to America.
The boy-murderer, Nicky, makes a similar journey. He knows that he will go to Hell for what he has done. He is put in prison, and as Olga, another neighbor describes: “Nicky was a bad boy and he went to prison to become a bad man.” But his years in prison become a portal through life, and he also magically immigrates through time and space to this small town in America. Olga, who immigrated to this town with her family long ago, doesn’t understand why he is here and not in Hell. Nicky explains: ‘To get to Hell, they take you through America. There’s a door behind a door.”
Growing up on Slavic literature, my inspiration for this episodic form made of sparse poetic lines came more from Alexander Pushkin’s quintessential novel in verse ‘Eugene Onegin”. I also thought about Russian crime novels, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Evgeny Zamatyn’s The Flood. For those not familiar with the latter, it’s a much overlooked novella about a flood that eerily brings out violent impulses between a husband, wife and an orphan they adopted. I thought about these works and wondered – Could crime be unhinged from its story and made lyrical and queer ? Queer in the sense of queer characters, but also queer as in – imagined beyond our here and now into the ‘then and there’.
In the Jewish-Ukrainian writer, Margarita Khelmin’s daring masterpiece novel Klotsvog, a sort of soap-opera telling of the persecution and survival of Ukrainian Jews, the narrator rarely and vaguely refers to the horrors of war and the ethnic cleansing she survived as a child. She states without much feeling: “At the hospital, during evacuation, I’d heard the moans of the injured without arms, legs, and tongues. The only thing left from the entire person was the moaning.” There is a leitmotif of the musicality of suffering throughout the novel, not just as subject, but in the Khemlin’s dry and tempo-ed language. And yet, Khemlin creates a world where the dead live amongst the living, their music a shadow of our human walk.
In my first novel, The Natashas, there is a group of girls and women who exist without themselves. As one of them explains, “There are people who leave their bodies and their bodies go on living without them.” I’m evoking the trafficking of women and girls from East to West. But on a deeper level, I’m inventing a language for the fragmented self. Just as Wittig, in her novel, The Lesbian Body, cuts the first person “I” (which is 2 letters in French Je) in half with a slash so it is J/e, as an attempt to disown the self, I intersect various storylines, lyrical screams, proverbs, that slash each other as the story advances.
“To be dead, there is no need to die,” Marina Tsvetaeva writes in Letter to the Amazon. Herein lies a different sort of crime. One that has nothing to do with the story – the who, what, when, where – but with the chasm of storytelling. In this chasm, the crime is no longer the event, but a language. It has not been committed but is being committed – over and over, with no finality to the breach of life. The crime and the criminal is out of sync. At times the crime seems to be happening ahead of the criminal and the criminal is catching up to it. At times the criminal is guilty before the crime has even been conceived.
Fragmentation and re-assembly is not only the corner stone of the mystery format of fiction – the gathering of clues – but a psychological exploration of the self, especially as insight into the effects of trauma on the psyche. I’m particularly interested in the construction and sense of reality of those who have experienced trauma as well as those with mental health neurodivergence.
From an early age, educators and care-takers alike noticed that I had a different way of storytelling. Highly creative and quick on my feet with languages, at the age of 7 I went from Russian to Hebrew to English, 3 different alphabets I learned simultaneously. It may be that refugee children become rapidly resilient as a way of creating safety and control for themselves in a drastically mutable environment. But for me, language as a whole, felt intuitively multi-dimensional. I held it both in fragments and its entirety, and had no need for linear organisation of narrative.
Three decades later, I’m an author whose work is described as experimental. I have no qualms with the label itself, but I do think it’s important to look at the reputation of this category.
There are many people who have a very different relationship to language and story. I’m one of those people. It may be shaped by my personal history or my own neurodivergence. I do have a way of experiencing the world and people that is perhaps atypical. But my rendering of this experience is not a stylistic choice. Most of the time, experimental literature is seen as a reaction to so-called traditional literature. As if it cannot exist on its own, but in relationship to the norm. This echoes our societal perception of those with a difference in mental, emotional, or physical abilities. They are often defined and categorised in relationship to a majority or norm – a norm that has been constructed within a system that functions and profits from the existence and measure of this normality.
I have ceaselessly been encouraged to make my writing more accessible, more cohesive. I have been nudged to iron out my fractured prose into something with less poetic divergence. It’s been alluded to me that I would certainly sell more books that way. I would be nominated for more prizes and get more funding that way.
I agree that every publisher, editor, agent, and reader has the right to like what they like. But I can’t help but be troubled by the reputation of experimental writing as reactionary, a sort of tantrum or fuss that lacks the level of sophistication or craft we associate with traditional canonical literature. When in truth, experimental writing merely takes interest in its own phenomenology, it braves the underworld of the text, seeking Hell. And yet this writing is deemed: tedious, dense, laborious, or even self-indulgently anarchic.
I do wonder why there is so much energy put into protecting this sort of patrimony of writing within the so-called norm, the need to discourage and contain writing that puts writing into question. Is it that writing like this is a threat, not just to the literary canon on which modern fiction is built, but to the societal and political structure at large?
If we look at Russian-language literature, writing that comes out of one of the most censored regimes, it has opted for another solution to this dilemma: Russian-language writers figured out that literature needs a decoy. This decoy is what it said. And literature happens in what is not said.
Reading Russian literature is a different way of reading, something actually more akin to the experience of reading experimental works. It’s a sort of reading in the dark with night-vision, where we can see language move in the wild, beyond its decoy.
Crime is precisely about darkness. It happens in the dark, always in the dark, even if it’s daylight. It is born in the shadow that our human glow has cast, in the black spotted vision of our blinding light. Most of crime fiction – let’s say most of fiction, regardless of genre, actually – is focused on the thought, feeling, and action contoured in the subtextual darkness. But what would this contouring look like if it was not revealed through the character’s relationship to themselves, the other, or the world, but the relationship between the text and the story?
An early poem of the Russian-Jewish poet, Boris Pasternak is called The Blind Wander at Night. It’s about a blind person crossing a square at night. It’s about navigating a darkened world. It’s about what it means to see and to not see. While Soviet verse prided itself on a diligent meter and rhyme scheme, this poem jumped out of these poetic credentials, with no discernable poetic scheme, and yet a distinct and strange melody. An experimental poem. It seems to step on its own feet, to stumble, to grope for light and catch itself on the walls of its own syntax.
I just want to share an excerpt of this poem:
“The blind live by touch.
Touching the world with their hands,
Without knowing light and shadow
And feeling the stones:
Walls are made of stone.
Men live behind them.
It’s terrible to die at night.
It’s terrible to die by touch.”
I want to read the same section in Russian so you can hear the way in which it grazes a rhyme scheme, but stumbles out of it.
Слепые живут наощупь.
Трогая мир руками,
Не зная света и тени
И ощущая камни:
Из камня делают стены.
За ними живут мужчины.
Плохо умирать ночью.
Плохо умирать наощупь.
A near generation later, the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky solidified the writer’s tactility towards language. In his poem Author’s Prayer, he describes the work of a writer, “I must live as a blind man / who runs through rooms without / touching the furniture.”
Darkness becomes a threshold, a way towards voice. The writer traverses this darkness as if walking down their own throat towards the act of speaking. In this darkness, the voice carries and contours the area, delineates it so that the echo fills the hollowness and outlines a space we cannot yet see. The dark allows us to distort time and territory, to stretch out one footstep into an entire life.
In another poem, Tsvetaeva evokes this poetic spatiality in relationship to the writer. “A poet starts her speaking from afar. / The speaking takes the speaker far.” It is not the body that carries the voice, but rather the voice that carries the body.
There is a dismembering of the physical self in this poetic space. The voice can travel where the body cannot. The arm can reach where the eye can’t see. The mouth can taste what the brain cannot identify. The suffering, pain, injustice, disconnection, isolation amongst others, can be evoked in the dismembering of the literary senses, chronology, point of view – and so on. In this way, a story does not to be told, but rather put into movement.
The African American Vietnam veteran and poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote, “I am this space my body believes in.” Physical reality is made tangible through our belief in it. At the brink of creation, there is a suspicion, and language as suspect. It means what it means and what it doesn’t mean to mean. It says what it says and can’t quite say. It asks what it asks and what it already knows the answer to. It assembles in grammatical order and roams wild. It starts and it ends and it has always been speaking. And if I can offer anything to you all today, it’s to go to Hell and be as terrible, terrible, terrible as you haven’t even yet imagined.
Bella Mackie and Scarlett Brade were the Noirwich panellists for: Murder Most Modern which was brilliantly facilitated by UEA’s Julianne Pachico, who is a lecturer in creative writing.
Mackie is a writer and freelance journalist. She is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, a candid account of how she ran herself to better mental health. How to Kill Your Family, her first novel, is a number one Sunday Times bestseller and the biggest selling debut fiction hardback of 2021.
Brade is the daughter of parents who migrated from the Caribbean to England in the early 1970s. She was born and educated in London. The Hive, Brade’s first psychological thriller novel, is a disturbingly prescient and terrifically suspenseful revenge thriller for the social media generation.
The panel discussed their contemporary revenge thrillers and the intersections with social media, mental health, and identity. Julianne opened the discussion by asking Mackie and Brade about their first experiences with writing and how they came to write novels in the crime genre.
In The Hive, the protagonist Charlotte, kills her boyfriend’s new girlfriend and live streams it from a hotel. The reader is actively involved, as viewers can vote as to whether her boyfriend should live or die.
Mackie’s novel is a black satire of a dysfunctional family and the media’s obsession with murder as the protagonist and anti-hero Grace Bernard reveals the extent of her murderous spree.
Both novels have a brilliant premise, and most readers would be able to relate to the characters experience.
Mackie stated that growing up she read lots of old-fashioned murder mysteries. By the age of eight she had read the entire Agatha Christie crime collection. Her Dad would buy her crime magazines. All summer long she would read. She loved true crime. She loved the idea of an unreliable narrator, and that the reader doesn’t know the truth until the end. The fact that Christie had the power to surprise her reader at the end of a novel, for Mackie, was fantastic. As an adult she has read fiction that is much more gritty, gruesome, and violent. She feels like we’ve gone a bit too far with the exploitation of real stories and disliked the fact that every protagonist was a gruff detective and victims were nameless girls. She always knew that if she wrote something it would have the light touch of an Agatha Christie novel and the plot and twists and intrigue versus the gore and sadistic nature of some modern crime novels.
Brade stated that she is interested in the story of what leads a character to crime. What were their motivations? She addresses everyday struggles in her novel and how social media and leading such a public life can lead to some dangerous things. Writing about things that are dark, usually stems from everyday life. Brade said she wanted to play with that and bring it to life. She likes the tight bonds of her characters, backstories, and the unusual lengths the narrator goes to protect her friends.
One of the most distinctive things about The Hive is the way that Brade has reproduced comments from social media. Through this narrative technique the reader gets to see the thoughts of different characters posting online, commenting on key events in the novel.
Brade said that writing some of the social media posts were the hardest parts of the novel. In terms of writing such cruel things about a person she had to get into a troll like mentality. She stated that it was hard to see why someone would sit behind a screen and write terrible things about another person’s life. She feels that she has a good relationship with social media now. It is tough but it can be rewarding. Some things are beneficial and others not so and it’s a fine line that we all need to navigate.
One of the striking things about How to Kill Your Family is the ways in which people die in the novel. Mackie said she wanted to write a book that wasn’t deep on gore or sadism. She knew that the murders would be slightly unrealistic, comedic and a little bit caricature of a murder scene, but they had to believable enough that a reader wouldn’t roll eyes and say that would never happen. She had a lot of fun deciding how people would die and she tried to focus it around the characters personalities. There’s a person that dies in a specific type of private members club (no plot spoilers!) and she did some research to ask if it was realistic, would this happen? Grace, her protagonist is a very thoughtful and deliberate narrator. The reader is on board and at times cheering for her as well as being gripped waiting to discover how she is going to pull off these complicated murders.
Both Mackie and Brade’s novels have very strong and distinctive first-person female voices and personalities. Julianne asked the panellists whether they thought characters needed to be likeable and what makes a dislikeable character likeable. There was a fascinating discussion around the controversy over the years of writing likeable narrators.
Mackie stated that she didn’t mean to write a book where you would root for a villain, but you do have to like them a bit as otherwise you can’t draw the reader in. She said that as women we are conditioned to be likeable, nice, quiet, and not to make people uncomfortable as otherwise you will be a bitch and that’s a terrible thing for a woman to be. She observed that whilst people can root for her protagonist, they know she is a bad person and that we all have nasty inner thoughts, but we don’t feel safe to reveal them. Perhaps this is what makes Mackie and Brade’s novels so appealing?
Both authors said that their characters have a refreshing honesty. Julianne pointed out that the reader doesn’t have to morally agree with what a character is doing to be interested in what they’re going to do next. She gave the examples of Fleabag and Killing Eve.
Brade stated that historically crime fiction has often denied women a voice. She wanted her characters to be real. Not everyone is likable. Life isn’t a bed of roses. What makes these stories so unique is that the characters are not supposed to be likable. The audacity of the characters is appealing to the reader.
Both authors talked about their process of writing and how their novels came about.
Brade stated that she had a bad breakup with someone that had a big online following. Through this, she saw the dark side of social media. The breakup was quite public, and she had complete strangers messaging her and speculating about what had happened and this is where she got her inspiration from. She wanted to take advantage of something that hasn’t been done before and embody what we live through on a daily basis. The Hive has rightly been described as feminist revenge. She said that writing it was cathartic and it was nice to be able to let her feelings out and show people that mental health is important, and social media can affect that if we let it into our everyday lives.
Mackie talked about her process of writing and described revenge as an evergreen classic.
Where she grew up in North London, she came across a difficult, bullying guy and thought that it would be amazing if this character got his comeuppance; someone incredibly wealthy and powerful and an adversary secretly trying to bring him down.
Both authors clearly really enjoyed writing their novels. They went on to talk about their experiences of getting published and hint of what is coming next; both writers have novels coming out next year. It was a fantastic discussion. A must for any crime writer.
You can purchase a watch back link for this event here for just £6!
Copies of How to Kill Your Family and The Hive are available from Waterstones now.
Helen Marsden has just completed the MA in Creative Writing: Crime Fiction at the UEA and has written a novel entitled True Things About You. An extract from her work can be found in the UEA MA Anthology: Crime Fiction 2022 available here.
You can find her on twitter @CriminalHelen
This year’s annual Noirwich festival lecture: “It’s Terrible to be Terrible and Still Want Love,” was delivered by Yelena Moskovich.
Moskovich is an acclaimed author, playwright and artist born in the Ukraine. She emigrated to Wisconsin with family as Jewish refugees in 1991 (aged seven), then alone to Paris in 2007. She is the author of three impressive novels: A Door Behind a Door, Virtuoso, and The Natashas which was long listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She also won the 2017 Galley Beggar Press short story prize. She has written for Vogue, Frieze, Times Literary Supplement, Paris Review and Dyke On Magazine.
I was lucky enough to attend the lecture and hear about Moskovich’s work and her intentions as a writer. It was a powerful keynote address and one of the most potent, insightful and thought-provoking discussions I have heard for some time.
The lecture focused on her most recent novel, A Door Behind a Door, which has been described as “an exploration of the post-Soviet diaspora, through a mesmeric blending of past and present, desire and violence.” Moskovich discussed her work and stated that she hadn’t really considered herself to be a crime writer despite many familiar tropes of noir running through her visceral writing.
‘A Door Behind a Door,’ opens with a phone call to Olga from a convicted murderer Nikolai, who used to live in the same apartment block as her in the former Soviet Union. She is now living in Wisconsin and is in a relationship with a nurse named Angelina. The call provides a catalyst for mysteries and intriguing encounters. An underground Midwestern Russian mafia, and a murder and a string of stabbings, are all connected to her past and pose a threat to her future and the stability of her new life.
The story moves between multiple narrators and the plot centres around an eclectic line-up of fascinating characters: A female prisoner, two teenage girls in a shopping mall, Olga’s brother Moshe, a penniless vagrant and a café waitress. The reader is left to piece together how the characters fates are related.
Moskovich has told stories by going against the grain of storytelling and said she had never thought of herself as a crime writer because the world of her writing is lawless by nature – those that inhabit it are trespassers of form. In her stories no one dies because they are already dead. No-one breaks the law because the laws are already broken.
A Door Behind a Door is focused on exploring a state of mind rather than solving a crime. Moskovich’s narrative technique has been described as experimental. The timeline is fractured which I personally liked. For Moskovich, language feels intuitively multidimensional. She held it both in fragments and in its entirety and had no need for linear organisation of narrative. Her writing style is as unsettling as the plot.
Moskovich informed the audience that she didn’t have a plan when she started to write, just a firm idea and a keen sense of what might happen. When she writes, she knows exactly how it will feel when it’s written down. One of the most striking things for me was the evocative, visceral nature of her narrative style and technique and the way she plays with the form.
The novel presents as a set of paragraphs; like poetry stanzas or a film script. Her style is innovative and striking. I felt the influence of theatre in A Door Behind a Door, it was dramatic and pacey; a page turner.
Moskovich noted that her novel has been described as a crime novel in verse. This is not just for the way the story unfolds in lyrical episodes almost like a succession of poems but also in the lyricism she employs to advance the plot.
Her work is often described as experimental. She has no qualms with the label itself but she does think it’s important to look at the reputation of this category. The term is seen as a reaction to so called ‘traditional literature’, as if it cannot exist on its own terms but in relation to the norm. Moskovich observed that this echoes societal perception of those with a difference in mental, emotional, and physical abilities. They are often defined and categorised in relationship to a majority or a norm. A norm that has been constructed within a system that functions and profits from the existence and measure of this normality.
Moskovich is troubled by the reputation of experimental writing as reactionary. She said that it’s as if the implication is that it lacks the sophistication of traditional literature. She observed that “literature happens in what is not said. Crime is precisely about darkness. It happens in the dark – even if it’s daylight.” Moskovich stated that most fiction – regardless of genre, is focused on the thought, feeling and action contoured in the subtextual darkness. But what would the contour look like if it wasn’t revealed through the characters relationships to themselves, the other or to the world around them but the relationship between the text and the story.
In the novel, we discover Nikolai’s violent upbringing and the grief that destroyed the family of the murdered woman. With a focus on trauma, it is inevitable that a writer would touch on crime. Moskovich’s writing evokes a sense of alienation that survivors of trauma often experience, especially in terms of insight into the effects of trauma on the human psyche. She said that she was particularly interested in the construction and sense of reality of those who have experienced trauma as well as those with mental health neurodivergence. This touches on the inherent link between trauma and crime. I personally really liked the subversive nature of her work. Nikolai is imprisoned: “He was a bad boy, and he went to prison to become a bad man.” She also observed that: “To be dead there is no need to die,” and “It is not the body that carries the voice but the voice that carries the body.”
Tom Benn who chaired the audience Q&A after the lecture, and posed a few questions to Yelena, described A Door Behind a Door, as “a crime novel like no other.” He observed that it does everything that the crime novel can and should do but entirely on its own terms. He noted that whilst there are elements of the genre in Moskovich’s other novels, he felt that A Door Behind a Door was her most ‘crimeiest’ novel and Moskovich revealed that although it was news to her that she was a crime writer, she agreed with his assertion. Tom asked her if it was a conscious decision to wade deeper into the waters of crime fiction.
With A Door Behind a Door, Moskovich wanted to go wild. She had always written about violence in the most tender way that she could, and she wanted to go as far as she could go with this dynamic – how tender and how violent could she be in one book. She talked about the link between violence and tenderness and posed the question: Can something tender be violent? She suggested that the most opposite of things are often the closest. If tenderness is given the full space to exist there wouldn’t be space for violence and vice versa. Moskovich observed that violence doesn’t come from nowhere – it comes from a lack of tenderness at a point in someone’s life.
Tom commented that all Moskovich’s characters are stuck and trapped in a dance of repetition and darkness on their way to hell. For him, the novel feels very noir. He noted that sometimes the characters swap roles where victims become instigators, murderers become amateur detectives. Tom asked her if she saw her characters as being responsible for their own transgressions. Tom also asked her if the protagonist in her work was crime itself. Moskovich stated that she would reflect on this.
In all her work, Moskovich writes about immigration as a kind of death. Moskovich invited the audience to consider the metaphysical sense of immigration: the journey of dying, of killing and being killed. She noted that there are many dimensions of borders. She mentioned puberty as an immigration that we all share – a border that one has to cross from childhood towards adulthood. Loving someone is also a kind of immigration across the border of the self towards the other. People are most familiar with refugee and asylum seekers escaping mental and emotional and physical persecution. There is much to say about their experience and the relationship to language and form.
Moskovich posed the question: What if crime wasn’t a story being told but a language being spoken?
Tom mentioned that in Russia the word for authority is sometimes used interchangeably with the word for gangster. He asked Yelena if she sees that the language for authority is also the language of transgression. Moskovich agreed and went on to discuss the concept of morality and the different cultural representations of this. She noted that Anglo-Saxon culture is consumed with morality. In American culture, morality was focused on: “I will die for justice.” French literature: “I will die for love.” Russian culture, simply: “I will die.” Moskovich observed that Anglo-Saxon culture was also focused on creating the perfect innocent character and a criminal who does horrible things to them. You don’t find this structure in Russian literature. There is an acceptance that life is hard. The reader is not looking for a human or structural explanation. Moskovich observed that there was flexibility in imagination and in truth. Truth, she noted was not a fixed position. Whilst she has always loved novels where people go to hell, the Soviet Union was built upon the communist rejection of religion. She said that “our hell is a bit different.” It’s not a moral hell but a place of transgression and truth. It is a social and political code; an opportunity for truth, to contemplate, to face and to integrate the spectrum of human conscience, unconscious, and intention. Free of right and wrong. It doesn’t mean that there are no consequences and no structure.
Moskovich is interested in the phenomena of a subject; Its language, its movement and its way of coming into life and dying out. She referred to the cultural guilt inherent in language. Rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and gender allotment to nouns come from the way its voice, its purpose and expression have been sanctioned throughout history.
The building blocks of language are a product of the socio-political regime. A regime that is heavily governed by religious and moral code. Language existed to spread the guidelines of holy text and in turn to keep people in line and to create empires, fortunes, military and profit. The writer is left in a peculiar position – how to use a guilty language.
Moskovich has been consistently urged to make her writing more accessible and coherent. She has been nudged to iron out her fractured prose. It has been alluded to her that if she did so, she could sell more books, be nominated for more prizes, and get more funding. I am glad that she has resisted.
It was a truly fascinating discussion. I would urge anyone to read her work (and Tom’s).
You can purchase copies of Yelena and Tom’s books from Waterstones.
Helen Marsden has just completed the MA in Creative Writing: Crime Fiction at UEA and has written a novel entitled True Things About You. An extract from her work can be found in the UEA MA Anthology: Crime Fiction 2022 available here.
You can find her on twitter @CriminalHelen
Creator and star of the hugely successful comedy series, The Fast Show, author of the bestselling Young Bond books, and the incredibly successful horror series, The Enemy, and four stand-alone crime novels, Charlie Higson was at Noirwich to discuss his latest adult crime novel Whatever Gets You Through the Night, in conversation with the UEA’s Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction, Henry Sutton.
Higson started writing when he was ten years old and studied English and American Literature with Film Studies at UEA. He was a singer and painter and decorator before he started writing for television. Henry noted that there are fifty-three boxes of Higson’s work in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA. I would imagine that is well worth a look.
Whatever Gets You Through the Night is a crime novel with a thrilling sense of humour about dark truths that lurk beneath the surface. The central character is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, Lauren Human, who needs rescuing from Julian Hepworth, a good-looking narcissist and sociopath tech-billionaire who is running a tennis training camp in Corfu for the girls tennis team that Lauren is part of. However, he is a suspected paedophile who has set up an abusive cult. The novel treads on Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell ground. Higson is known for his ability to write satire and Whatever Gets You Through the Night does not disappoint. Despite the dark topics it explores, it is laced with humour and wit and pokes fun at modern life. The novel illustrates how technology intrudes into our lives and dominates. It also touches on the male gaze and how the rich and powerful like to spread conspiracy theories.
What I personally like about Higson’s work is that he is not afraid to confront controversial topics. In Whatever Gets You Through the Night, his characters are the vehicle for this.
In creating Hepworth, Higson stated that he wanted to make him properly villainous and intended to construct a villain doing something upsetting and to get into the mind of Epstein and the nasty, evil at the heart of it. He also wanted to explore the dynamic between Epstein and Maxwell and did so by creating Pixie – a female character introduced in the prologue who enables Hepworth. He wanted to highlight how these poor teenage girls are at the mercy of these men and women.
The discussion between Higson and Sutton was like Higson’s work; hugely entertaining and a lot of fun – humorous and at times hilarious.
Higson talked with Henry about his love for noir, hard-boiled and pulp fiction and great crime writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. He said he likes writing where everything is stripped down and direct. Higson’s love of Ian Fleming’s work was clear, and his novel contains nods to James Bond.
The secret of Higson’s success is perhaps in the way he approaches his writing. He has mastered the components of a good novel: character, setting and plot. He stated that his work with Harry Enfield really helped in terms of learning how to make writing come alive very quickly by creating vivid characters. Higson’s strength is undoubtedly constructing visual and satirical characters and scenes. He stated that he isn’t really interested in police procedurals and solving crimes, but in characters. He likes multicharacter story lines and exploring views from different perspectives. Whatever Gets You Through the Night is told from multiple points of view. Higson described how important it was for the reader to understand other people’s feelings and care about them.
Higson talked about how he likes to explore the twisted mind in his writing and understand the criminal perspective. He finds it fascinating how these characters believe they are doing the right thing, in their own minds. Higson noted that to himself and his friends, Epstein was not evil and was not a paedophile. All his characters are unpleasant yet none of them see themselves like that. He particularly likes novels where narratives are told from the perspective of criminals. His favourite was Jim Thompson, noting that there is often elevation and humour in dark and disturbing themes. He observed that Elmore Leonard put comedy into his books. Higson stated that he felt that it was realistic to have comedy in a novel, even if you are writing about dark subjects. He sees humour as a way to cope with depressing topics. His characters are sadistic, and this makes them nasty and upsetting but he contrasts this by putting humour in everything he does.
The discussion moved onto the significance of place. Picture-postcard Corfu is the setting for Julian Hepworth’s tennis academy, and it is here that he also builds a drugs empire. There are breath-taking views and eccentric locals, but this is contrasted with corruption, crime and abuse. When asked about why he chose Corfu for the setting, Higson talked about the contrast between the coastline of Albania and Greece. Most of Albania at the Greek side is dry and brown. He talked about the damage and pollution that wealth and power create and how it seeps out. On the Corfu side the Rothschilds have an estate. He said that they bought part of Albania to protect their view so that nothing else could be placed there. For him, it was a case of the brighter the sunshine, the darker the shadows.
Higson discussed his love of music, and this also comes through in the text and the title of the novel, which is of course the name of a John Lennon song. When he writes he puts together a Spotify list. He noted that the soundtrack to Bond was roughly the length of a working day.
I won’t provide any plot spoilers except to say that the denouement converges on a grand finale showbiz party at Hepworth’s villa, and everything kicks off from there.
Higson was asked for his best advice for creative writing students. He disclosed that he gets most of his ideas in the bath. It was best not to write the boring bits in books that everyone skips through, and he always tries to write something that he would want to read. You must have a strong idea of what your novel is about and always know how a novel will end. He doesn’t have a detailed plan but does have a destination and to get there he can go off on any diversions. He writes his first draft quickly and then loves rewriting, shaping, cutting, and pulling it all together.
It was a very entertaining discussion. You can never have too much fun and humour. Whatever Gets You Through the Night is well worth a read.
Helen Marsden has just completed the MA in Creative Writing: Crime Fiction at the UEA and has written a novel entitled True Things About You. An extract from her work can be found in the Crime Fiction UEA MA Anthology 2022 available here.
You can find her on twitter @CriminalHelen
David Peace is probably most well-known for The Red Riding Quartet – a four-novel chronicle based on the decade prior to 1984 when the Yorkshire Ripper, corruption and hyper inequalities ravaged the hinterland of the Pennines. It was made into multi-award winning TV drama and broke the acting careers of Andrew Garfield and Rebecca Hall. But his other novels are equal literary giants: GB84 recovers the undeclared civil war following years of high inflation and the breaking of the unions’ power and industry – and the communities which built the UK. There’s the two histories on football legends, Red or Dead and The Damned United, and Patient X, the meditation on Japanese short story writer, Ryunosuke Atukagawa followed by the Tokyo Trilogy: Tokyo Year Zero, Occupied City and, most recently, Tokyo Redux.
Not only does Peace’s work span decades, cultures and literary techniques, he repeats his intense process of production time and again to create polyphonic tomes. Undaunted by raw unfiltered detail, he focuses on the most culturally relevant detail (Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, Soviet food boxes full of, as I recall, revolting spam and canned apple, brown dust masquerading as coffee – yes, starvation will make you stoop that low) and patterns, rather than literal fact. Peace seems to be creating a song from the noise. Some feel frustrated by a crime novel with no resolution, but the neat ending is not Peace’s aim. It’s not resolution but the deconstruction of myth, allowing the reader to see the processes of crime within time and place. Peace’s disassembling of history is fearless: nothing is sacred but truth.
In a time of overblown soundbites and memes, his paragraph-free prose of pattern, rhythm and voice create an intimate link with the reader. Reading Peace’s novels is like a meditation or litany; it’s not so much the content you remember, but the steady pattern, the steady removal of artifice. While there is a whole subgenre of Ripper lit, none produce the scorching analysis, at once panoramic and microscopic, of Peace’s Quartet. He is the conductor of this polyphony – and it is a polyphony, an entirely new sound made up of many different sounds – which has such a visceral impact on the reader. The resolution, if there is one, is finally seeing a thing for what it is.
Peace grew up in the North of England in the 1970s, when the UK music press was the forge for a new critical culture, where readers could engage in ideas as diverse as comics, cult films, new musical forms and radical underground politics. Music, particularly the ‘press’ that introduced it, created an alternative collective cultural common made up of an intricate network of news bulletins, lyrics, fanzines, rival weeklies and monthlies such as NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror. It was always polyphonic and formed the conversation which nourished and built up an entire culture as well as subcultures. Music is not that anymore, commodification having removed that liminal space music provided. Music is no longer the soundtrack of the twenty first century; crime is. We understand ourselves through crime – not music – now.
And Peace gets this. From the rhythmic ‘ton-ton’ in his Tokyo novels, the repetitions, and rhymes in GB84 and Red Riding, the patterns and refrains, his novels are curated like albums. It is this talent for obsessive cultural detail and rhythm which allows him to recreate news events from the past, handling time like a camera: panning out, zooming in, cutting across, reframing, cutting. These techniques become a moral filter for undigested fragments of history leaving the true patterns and rhythms of ‘what went wrong’. His novels occupy that haunted space previously occupied by music journalism of the 1970s-80s, a place that is curious, in stark defiance of its context, that creates perspective, stranded between the past and an unreachable future.
The paradox of Peace’s unresolved crime fiction is that its effect on the reader is surprisingly calming. It shouldn’t be but there is no one left to hate. Like an expert watchmaker, Peace carefully dismantles time in such a way that the reader can finally see it, and themselves, clearly. Crime fiction should entertain but, if it doesn’t also bring insight, it’s just fodder for the same ghoulish appetites mainstream media serves. Crime fiction goes where the true crime documentary can never go: the collective cultural subconscious, pulling at threads and nuances abandoned as flotsam, enabling the reader to make connections and see the whole through the specific. If more people in the UK had read GB84 instead of The Da Vinci Code, we would not be reliving it now. If more people in Japan had read Tokyo Redux, maybe the events of this summer need never have happened.
Reading a David Peace novel feels sacred, a space where you can retreat into some dark, quiet place to examine indignities. Many crime novels are page-turners, but few resonate on such a deep level. Peace is Dickens for our times of crime.
It was such a privilege to interview him for Noirwich 2022 and ask him about his process.
NB: How long does your research take and how do you fit your writing round it?
DP: At one time, I would have said it was roughly a year of research and a year of writing – though it was never quite as clear cut as that – but the research now seems to just take longer and longer. Tokyo Redux, in terms of both research and writing, took over ten years, and went through three very different drafts, but it was also interrupted by writing Red or Dead and Patient X (though that book had been ongoing for some time). But as I’m researching, characters and scenes are coming to mind from the material I am researching, and so there are notebooks of both research and of writing and, at some point, hopefully, the writing just takes over from the research. Not to be too pretentious, or mystical about it, but the research is ‘the key to the door’, and at some point, the research enables me to step through that door into the world – the time and the place – I want to write about.
NB: You studied Japanese short story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa and it is clear structure and repetition is an important technique of yours. To what extent do you think Japanese writers have allowed you to develop the uniquely intricate yet sturdy structures of your historical crime fiction?
DP: Japanese literature was first and foremost a way to help me try to learn about the country I was (and still am) living in. I was always fascinated by the history of Tokyo, in particular, and then, as I began what became the Tokyo Trilogy, novels, poetry, plays – along with music and film – became a way to learn about, and try to ‘imagine’ post-war Tokyo; keys to the doors again. In particular, Kafū Nagai, Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi were very influential in the writing of Tokyo Year Zero and Akutagawa, too; a quote from Akutagawa starts Tokyo Year Zero, the structure of his short story ‘In a Grove’ suggested the structure for Occupied City, and the character of Kuroda Roman in Tokyo Redux echoes traits of Akutagawa himself. I also read and re-read a lot of Japanese crime fiction, too: classics such Edogawa Rampo, Seishi Yokomizo and Seichō Matsumoto, but also more recent writers such as Natsuo Kirino, Hideo Yokoyama and Kaoru Takamura. And so I am sure the influence of many, many Japanese writers is present in my writing.
NB: In the light of the recent shooting of Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, do you think the Tokyo Trilogy could one day become a quartet, like Red Riding?
DP: Well, originally, it was going to be a quartet, and I would like to write about Japan again, at some point. But in many ways, the shooting of the former PM Abe is very much connected to the events and history covered in Tokyo Redux; the roots of this killing go back to Abe’s grandfather and his links with the Unification Church, the CIA and various Japanese right-wing groups and fixers, all of which were collaborating in trying to halt the post-war rise of Communism within Japan.
NB: All your novels are liminal, on the edge of becoming something else. What do you think that ‘something else’ will be in our current myopic times? Are there any writers you feel are creating a new structural form for historical crime?
DP: I believe crime fiction has the potential, and the obligation and responsibility, to be the great moral literature of our times, seeking to understand why crimes take place in particular times and particular places. And so, I am always seeking to try to better fulfil that potential and obligation. In this quest, I was and still am inspired by Jean-Patrick Manchette, and by Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond, and by Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy. And I am always looking for books and writers who are pushing the boundaries of what “crime fiction” can be, and so, for example, I greatly admire Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor [and which was recommended to me by Tom Benn who, himself, is pushing the boundaries of crime fiction]; Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth; The Treatment by Michael Nath; Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas; and in Japan, Out and Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino; 64 and Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama; and the recently translated Lady Joker by Kaoru Takamura. In short, read a lot, write a lot!
NB: Your ability to create a polyphonic whole out of so many disparate but distinct voices is incredible. How do you find your voice(s)?
DP: That’s very kind of you to say so, Nina, thank you. As I’ve just said above, reading and writing a lot is important. I spend a lot of time ‘practicing’ writing, experimenting, and trying to improve. But, ultimately, I think the voices are born from the research, from stepping through that door, and then just listening, trying to hear and record the voices of the victims, the voices of the dead …
Nina Bhadreshwar is a writer and illustrator, usually doing beauty and music editorials on both sides of the Atlantic. She has been writing crime fiction in secret for decades and has just finished her first crime fiction novel for publishing at UEA.
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Looking for electrifying new crime fiction reads this summer? Enter the Noirwich + The Crime Vault book bundle giveaway!
In celebration of Noirwich Crime Writing Festival 2022, we’ve teamed up with The Crime Vault to gift one lucky winner with ten unmissable crime fiction books.
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Terms and Conditions
The prize draw (the “Prize Draw”) is open to people aged 18 and over living in the UK who enter their details on the Noirwich competition entry page.
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One winner will be chosen from a random draw of entries received in accordance with these Terms and Conditions. The draw will be performed by a random computer process. The draw will take place on Wednesday 31 August 2022.
The winner will receive a bundle of 10 books from The Crime Vault. Book titles are subject to change.
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Mo Hayder’s Tokyo (aka The Devil in Nanking) was the novel that made me sit up and want to write crime fiction. A random purchase from W H Smiths in 2005 while studying in Falmouth changed all that. I inhaled the novel in a weekend; it crawled under my nails and never left. On the Monday, I went into class and said, ‘I want to write like Mo Hayder.’ ‘Who?’ I showed my tutor the book at which she sniffed dismissively. ‘Ohhhh. Genre fiction.’
I didn’t care what it was – it was the kind of writing I wanted to do, the stories I wanted to tell and read. Mo was elusive but her writing was not. She fearlessly presented some of the ugliest parts of human nature – not as deviant but latent, in all of us.
An early precocity drove her, a school-leaver at 15, to get into fights, an early disparate marriage, stints as a Page 3 model, actress, barmaid, security guard, a TEFL teacher and filmmaker. The logical conclusion, if not the expectation, of such a trajectory was crime fiction. She duly exploded onto the scene with Birdman in 2000, a tautly structured tale of unravelling horror. Far from repelling, Birdman became an instant bestseller, Jack Caffery a favourite flawed detective.
Mo said crime writing was a way of ‘getting rid of ghosts’, her style the opposite of cosy crime. She had a fascination with death and violence against women – interesting as most of her TV roles were based on the objectification of women. As a filmmaker, she made films where couples who went to bed together resulted in the woman pulling the man’s head off and casually eating it before throwing the skull out the window like chicken bones. Some might say that’s the healthy reaction of a former Page 3 model. But, instead of taking the most expedient route of writing novels about seedy men in TV and media, Mo crafted dark, subversive page-turners set in worlds at once familiar and exotic, with the confidence to compete with the sharpest thrillers in a male-dominated genre. While an elliptic biography hints at plenty, it also indicates a sharp wit, a woman who knows her own worth and escapes just in the nick of time. Ultimately, the blonde bombshell outshone all the headline acts she was asked to play the object in, trod on Benny Hill’s and Cannon’s balls, serving up the goods to a ringing cash register. Five may have gone mad on mescalin but Mo kept mum. Crime fiction is indebted to a woman who chose a different route, her true intellect blazing through intricate plots, leaving corpses of her tormentors in undignified places. She tugs at the reader, charming you into accompanying her down alleys and hovels no rational self would ever go. But, afterwards, far from feeling violated, there is a sense of exhilaration. It’s empowering to read narratives where the protagonist walks directly into his or her fears.
Although known for graphic gore, the elements that made Mo a bestseller are to do with craft: impeccable suspense writing and weaving themes, subtle as ghosts and gossamer, throughout pages of intense dialogue or sharply observed places. The detail of the lives of hostess or show-women is so intimate you can smell the hairspray, the cigarettes and diesel fumes. She plays with the expectation that pretty women are built to please, not to be smart, and this combination creates anticipation of the inevitable violence. Hayder uses this as her leverage for suspense, inverting the femme fatale and creating something entirely different.
Delicacy and violence proved a winning combination, riveting readers on the page. Mo was ultimately a storyteller of the highest calibre, her commerciality preventing her from being savoured critically. She is still both inspiration and muse to many. Her early departure is speculative fiction’s loss. Thankfully, crime will always have her true and golden legacy: ten terrifying novels.
Nina Bhadreshwar is a writer and illustrator, usually doing beauty and music editorials on both sides of the Atlantic. She has been writing crime fiction in secret for decades and has just finished her first crime fiction novel for publishing at UEA.
Content warning: murder, death, execution, violence, violence against women, anti-Semitism.
Perhaps you’ve heard from Norwich locals of how aa soldier of the Eighth Hussars named Frank Miles entered The Gardener’s Arms pub on Timber Hill in the June of 1895 and bludgeoned a woman named Millie with a brewer’s bung picker. He then willingly handed himself in to the local police, reasoning his actions as being “provoked by her conduct”. Millie was his wife, the daughter of the Gardener’s landlady, who had estranged from Frank and went to live with her mother. Many of the local papers claimed she was working as a prostitute, servicing the allure the murders at Whitechapel had fostered into the public reader base; but in truth Frank had seen her with another man in passing and come to the pub to confront her on the subject. It is still vague what her “conduct” had been like that night, but Frank soon found his charge for unlawful wounding would (after, eventually, Millie suffered fatally from her injuries) become a trial over murder. On June 19th, a Wednesday, the city Sheriff called for his execution. Even Frank was sure he would hang, but he was saved by an outcry of the people. It was a crime of passion, said the public, perhaps many believed the papers’ claims that Millie was a sex worker who had betrayed her marital oath. Why should poor Frank die? In a letter to his mother, thinking he would soon be meeting an end of a rope, he stated “I did not intend to beforehand, and would now I believe give all the world if it were in my power not to have done it. I hope God will give me grace truly to repent, and forgive me for what I have done.”
He is saved his sentence through the plea of the Home Secretary, who has been informed of his case through a petition of more than 6,000 signatures asking him to intercede and falls to Frank’s side. Instead, Frank served a ten-year sentence in HMP Parkhurst, where he died in 1905. The Gardener’s Arms has always held a second name since, known more famously by the locals as The Murderers.
Then, maybe you know about the martyrdom of William of Norwich. In 1144, a boy who was found to have been brutally murdered in the secluded wood of Mousehold Heath, the body was recognised as a local tanner’s apprentice last seen alive on Holy Tuesday. The religious flare to the boy’s death continued to grow in parts; he was allowed a burial on Easter Monday, became a regular figure in the local parish sermons and, soon, locals were swearing of a ritualistic re-enactment of the crucifixion had taken place.
No investigation ever occurred (at least none that could find the evidence we desire today that could lead to a certain culprit) but the Christian imagery from the written accounts helped point grieving locals to their Jewish communities. William’s uncle, a priest for the synod, demanded a trial of Norwich’s Jews and was prepared to instigate the judicial functions of the times; a trial by ordeal. Could the community hold a hot iron for an allotted time or dig out a stone from boiling water, and the injuries they acquired be healed in three days, they were innocent. If the marks were deemed not to have been healed, they were guilty. This would have been a large feat for an entire Jewish community to participate in and is labelled by historians as the first known accusation of the “blood libel”, the antisemitic accusation that Jews practiced ritual murder. This trial never took place. Trying to stop further bloodshed, the Sheriff of Norwich intervened to offer protection to the Jewish community. And without a killer, the case grew in interest. Thomas of Monmouth would write a seven-volume epic on the event which blamed a secret cabal of Jews in the French city of Narbonne of organising a European-wide plot of murders. This story read today is bizarre, outlandish, fabricated and disgusting. Two years on from William’s death, a Jewish man would be murdered in the city, but again no one was ever brought to justice. Years went on and the local clergy tried to build a cult of personality around the demise, trying to sanctify William as a saint but never reaching the levels of hysteria that could solidify this belief. Some modern accounts even accuse the clergy of murdering William themselves as a way to build a case against the growing Jewish populace. Or maybe it was a lone killer with no religious motive at all. Or an accident that occurred on the Mousehold that was misinterpreted as murder. Poor William… he would never leave that heath alive.
And if you know all that, you might just remember the ten days when a gangster came to the city to wait for death. On the 21st September 2000 a frail half-of-a-man would check in to room number 4 of the Town House Hotel. It hadn’t been a long trip, he had only come indirectly from Wayland Prison, where he had spent the last three years before being released on compassionate grounds. In fact, this person hadn’t been a free man since 1969, when the courts sentenced him to a thirty year minimum incarceration alongside a gang of companions linked to a string of violent acts and multiple murders. They had been enforcers, nightclub owners, racketeers, ex-soldiers, blackmailers and criminals of the worst reputation to Scotland yard. Two of the sentenced were his brothers.
The final getaway had been planned by the man’s wife, Roberta, who had picked the spot for its locality to the River Wensum, a perfect view when having a pint in the sun. She decided to ask the landlord the more-than-simple question, “how would you feel about Reggie Kray staying here?” Booked specially was the hotel’s couple suite, a popular choice for newly-weds, with the room focused around a four-poster hardwood bed in the centre. Mr Kray was not a healthy man and spent much of his time in this bed in drug-dulled agony. Not long after the stay began, the press had found him and encircled the hotel. Old friends from the East End of London travelled to see the newly free crime lord now fatally afflicted by his bowel cancer. He was no longer the tough boxer-built presence he and his twin brother had been feared for, fatally decrepit at 66 he couldn’t impose he same enigmatic persona that had built his popularity. Reporters were kept away, camped outside to wait for the inevitable. And by 30th September the killer of Jack “the Hat” McVite, one half of the twin rulers of the East End, succumbed in a four-poster bed in room number 4. To prevent the news getting out, Kray’s body was hidden in the landlord’s apartment whilst a distraction could be made, at which point the body was wheeled out into an ambulance. Even after the corpse had been removed, the morbid would rent the room specifically for its status as the abode where Reggie Kray died.
Perhaps you know these local natters, perhaps not. Perhaps their factuality allures you to them, but there are so many similar stories, and never a lack of crimes in the nearby world. But one case in a large police file of stories rarely has the subtle allure to become something of a legend. You might have heard of how Mary Anne Wright poisoned her husband and her father at Wells-next-the-Sea but was stayed her execution by a mysterious pregnancy. You could have been told of how James Bloomfield Rush, who was hung in 1849 for the murder of his landlords at Stanfield Hall, attended by a crowd of 20,000 which included the author, Charles Dickens. Did you know of the 1645 witch trials that hanged five women for colluding with the forces of darkness? Or the body snatchers of St Nicholas’ Church Yarmouth who set up a trading route of the dead with the universities in London? So shows the dark sides of the City of Stories, an old city which has housed all kinds before. Murderers, thieves, criminals perhaps a cult or two. This is the influence of the crime writer, the murder historian, the journalist, the keenly intrigued. It can be found in every city in Britain and around the world if your able to find the right narrator. And there’s many a voice in the City of Stories that’s just that…
Finley Little was born in Worcester, England and is currently living in Norwich. He is a graduate of the University of East Anglia with a degree in English Literature with Creative Writing and is working on self-publishing several short stories. You can find him on his Instagram account @Fictioncanbestranger
The ninth Noirwich Crime Writing Festival returns in September, with a special line-up announced featuring an award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian novelist, a well-loved comedian and a host of leading and cutting-edge international writers.
The festival is being run by University of East Anglia (UEA) and is taking place between Thursday 8 and Saturday 10 September with events both in-person on UEA campus and online.
Charlie Higson, Yelena Moskovich, Vaseem Khan and Bella Mackie lead the discussions, which explore new directions in cosy crime, the contemporary revenge thriller and paradise lost. Emma Bamford and Emma Styles mark their debuts, while graduating students of UEA’s Creative Writing MA Crime Fiction provide a window into the future.
UEA now leads the Noirwich programming and production, having previously worked in conjunction with the National Centre for Writing. Known for its innovative programming and contemporary critical debates, Noirwich aims to take readers and writers of the genre to vibrant new places.
Award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian born novelist and artist Yelena Moskovich will deliver the 2022 Noirwich Lecture. Moskovich’s timely intervention will reflect on the volatility and mutability of the written word – and the world – and why ‘Every Russian literary work is a crime novel’. Previous Noirwich lectures have included Megan Abbott on adaptation and crime writing in the era of Netflix, Attica Locke on colonialism and theft, George Alagiah on environmental destruction, Val McDermid on gender and violence, and Arne Dahl on organised crime and class.
Joining Moskovich at the top of the bill is UEA alumnus and creator and star of the hugely successful comedy series The Fast Show, Charlie Higson. Author of the bestselling Young Bond books and the incredibly successful horror series, The Enemy, Higson will discuss Whatever Gets You Through the Night – a sun-soaked thriller and his first adult crime novel in 25 years.
Emerging crime sensations Emma Bamford and Emma Styles, both graduates of UEA’s Creative Writing programme, will explain how to write an attention-grabbing debut, what gave them their big break, and how they found inspiration for their thrilling debut novels.
With wildly new approaches to Cosy Crime booming in the last few years, as readers return to escapism, Sunday Times bestselling author, Janice Hallett, and CWA Historical Dagger 2021 winner Vaseem Khan, explore the revival and the precedents.
#1 Sunday Times bestselling author Bella Mackie (How to Kill Your Family) and sensational debut crime writer Scarlett Brade (The Hive) consider the most recent innovations in the thriller form, reflecting on how Domestic Noir has already turned a chilling corner.
Henry Sutton, Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction at the UEA, said: “Noirwich has always been at the forefront of the key conversations and debates framing the wonderfully dynamic crime writing world. We’ve always strived to give a platform to the voices that demand and deserve to be heard.
“2022 marks a new chapter and determination in our ambitions to be the foremost global centre for the study and creation of crime narratives. Please join us once again on our urgent, necessary, engaging and entertaining journey.”
THURSDAY 8 SEPTEMBER
6.30pm, Drama Studio, UEA
The Price of Paradise | Emma Bamford and Emma Styles: Noirwich launches with two of the best debut novelists in crime writing – Emma Bamford and Emma Styles.
8pm, Drama Studio, UEA, free event
UEA MA Anthologies: Crime Fiction 2022 Launch: Meet the freshest new voices in crime writing at this year’s UEA MA Anthologies: Crime Fiction (featuring an introduction by Lee Child) launch, with live readings and a drinks reception.
FRIDAY 9 SEPTEMBER
6.30pm, The Enterprise Centre, UEA
The Noirwich Lecture | Yelena Moskovich: Award-winning Ukrainian-born artist and writer Yelena Moskovich delivers the annual Noirwich lecture: It’s Terrible to be Terrible and Still Want Love. Presented in partnership with the National Centre for Writing
8pm, The Enterprise Centre, UEA
Whatever Gets You Through the Night | Charlie Higson: Writer, actor and comedian Charlie Higson will discuss Whatever Gets You Through the Night, his first adult crime novel in 25 years, following the phenomenal success of his Young Bond and The Enemy series for younger readers.
SATURDAY 10 SEPTEMBER
New Directions in Cosy Crime | Vaseem Khan and Janice Hallett: CWA Historical Dagger 2021 winner Vaseem Khan and Sunday Times bestselling author Janice Hallett, will discuss the revival of cosy crime writing.
Murder Most Modern | Bella Mackie and Scarlett Brade: #1Sunday Times bestselling author Bella Mackie and debut crime writer Scarlett Brade, dissect their compulsive contemporary revenge thrillers.
We were honoured to welcome the award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian American and French novelist and artist Yelena Moskovich for the annual Noirwich lecture 2022. Read a transcript of their lecture here.Read more ⟶
The Crime Vault
National Centre for Writing