Poirot – The Greatest Detective in the World

Mark Aldridge and Sophie Hannah in conversation on The Writing Life podcast

Bringing together two of Hercule Poirot’s biggest fans for a conversation spanning the 100-year history of one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved creations. From the original novels, short stories and plays through to adaptations for stage, screen and radio – how has Poirot changed over the years, what makes him so compelling, and what will he look like in another century’s time?

Mark Aldridge is a lecturer, film historian and author of the definitive book about Agatha Christie’s book adaptations on film and television, Agatha Christie on Screen. His upcoming book Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (released October 2020) is a lively and accessible history of the world’s favourite fictional detective. Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling crime author and has written a series of ‘continuation novels’ based on Hercule Poirot: The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket, The Mystery of Three Quarters and the upcoming The Killings at Kingfisher Hill.

Hosted by Steph McKenna and Simon Jones.

You can go direct to the RSS feed here.

About the speakers

Mark Aldridge is a senior lecturer and film historian at Solent University, Southampton. He previously wrote the definitive book about Agatha Christie’s book adaptations on film and television, Agatha Christie on Screen, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. Twitter @DrMarkAldridge

Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling crime fiction writer whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide. Her crime novels have been translated into 49 languages and published in 51 countries. Her psychological thriller The Carrier won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the 2013 UK National Book Awards. In 2014 and 2016, Sophie published The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket, the first new Hercule Poirot mysteries since Agatha Christie’s death, both of which were national and international bestsellers. She went on to publish a third, The Mystery of Three Quarters in 2018 which was an instant bestseller, and her fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill will be published in August 2020. Sophie helped to create a Master’s Degree in Crime and Thriller Writing at the University of Cambridge, for which she is the main teacher and Course Director. She is also the founder of the Dream Author Coaching Programme for writers which launched in September 2019.

Sophie is also an award-winning, bestselling poet, and her poetry is studied at GCSE level across the UK. She has co-written two murder mystery musicals with composer Annette Armitage: The Mystery of Mr. E and Work Experience. She has written a self-help book called How To Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment – The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, and hosts the How to Hold a Grudge podcast. Website

We are delighted to welcome award-winning US author and screenwriter Attica Locke for the annual Noirwich Lecture, in which she explores the ways that crime writing can challenge the distribution of power and authority at a structural and individual level. Drawing on examples from her own career and writing, including the Highway 59 novels, she reflects on how stories and characters can pull back the veil on some forms of hidden power.

Attica’s most recent novel, Heaven, My Home, is an expertly-crafted thriller mystery, but also a sharp examination of ‘Trump-era’ America and issues of race, power, prejudice and white supremacy which still exist today. Her recent work as a television writer and producer includes When They See Us (Netflix); a portrayal of the 1990 wrongful conviction of five teenage boys from Harlem for a brutal attack in Central Park; and Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime).

The lecture is followed by a live Q&A with Attica and Nathan Ashman, Lecturer in Crime Writing at the University of East Anglia.

‘The Love Boat’ is a short story by novelist and Noirwich UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence, Anita Terpstra. It has been translated by Danny Guinan.


Julia drank her glass of wine down in one, the alcohol helping to erase the words that were burning liked acid on her tongue. They were out on the open sea and the rolling of the yacht was making her feel seasick.

At the stern, Robert, her husband, and her best friend, Fenna, were deep in conversation. Julia and Fenna had come up with the name ‘The Love Boat’ for the yacht. A tongue-in-cheek reference to the institution of marriage. 

Fenna laughed at something Robert said.

‘Slut’, Julia thought to herself. It wasn’t just the wine that had left a bitter taste in her mouth.

This little sailing trip had been organised to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of their son, Victor. They were on their way back to port. The light was fading fast. Tomorrow Victor would be celebrating his birthday with his friends, but tonight it was the turn of family and those they regarded as family. Like Fenna.

Fenna had become an object of ridicule within their circle of friends and beyond. Her husband – or ex-husband to be precise – was a successful businessman. She had divorced him a few months ago. Everyone knew about the succession of lovers he had kept in his expensive apartment while Fenna was marooned in their house in the country. Julia was the only one who had stood by her when things began to fall apart.  

And this was Fenna’s way of thanking her.

Robert disappeared below deck to join the rest of the party and escape the cold. Fenna was standing alone and Julia saw her opportunity.

‘What a fabulous evening,’ said Fenna when Julia came and stood next to her. Fenna was clearly a bit tipsy.

Julia wrapped her hands around the railing. ‘I know, I know about you and…’

‘Oh my god,’ said Fenna, shocked. ‘I…’

‘I don’t need to hear your excuses. It’s just got to stop.’

‘I had been meaning to tell you, honest, but he…’

‘Please, spare me, before you make an even bigger fool of yourself. If you had the slightest bit of respect for me or our friendship, you would never have started it.’

‘I love him.’

‘What?’ said Julia, looking at her friend in astonishment. ‘How could you do this? After everything I’ve done for you? I was the only one there when everyone else abandoned you after the divorce. Have you any idea how much shit I had to deal with just because I stuck up for you? And now this… Why him? Of all the men in the world, why him?’

‘We just fell in love.’

‘I won’t let this go on any longer, do you hear me?’

‘You can’t stop us from seeing each other.’

Fenna stared at her defiantly. She meant what she said, Julia realised. She took a quick look over her shoulder. No one around. Instinctively, Julia pushed her friend and watched with satisfaction as Fenna tumbled over the railing into the dark water. That’ll teach her not to start an affair with Victor.

She let out a deep sigh of contentment and walked over to join her son in the wheelhouse. Julia lay her head on his shoulder.

‘Mum, have you seen Fenna?’ asked Victor.

‘No, dear, I’ve no idea where she is.’


Anita Terpstra

Anita Terpstra
(c) Harry Cock

Anita Terpstra (1974) graduated in journalism and art history. Her successful debut thriller Nachtvlucht (Night Flight) was nominated for the Shadow Prize and the Crimezone Thriller Award. Samen (Together) was nominated for the Golden Gallows. Her books have been translated into German and French.

Anita is a UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence at the 2020 Festival.

Danny Guinan

Danny Guinan is a translator of fiction and non-fiction from Dutch into English. Born and raised in Ireland, he now lives and works in the Netherlands. His translated works include the books Attention and Concentration by Stefan van der Stigchel for MIT Press, as well as a number of short stories by Sanneke van Hassel that are due for publication in the autumn by Strangers Press as part of the New Dutch Writing series.

‘Solstice’ is a short story by novelist and Noirwich UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence, Anita Terpstra. It has been translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey.


“Hello? Team? I’m lost! Help me!” Nynke cried as she returned to the last clue, which was in Princentuin park. She must have taken a wrong turn.

A ghost tour of Leeuwarden, even if it was to be followed by dinner in a restaurant, wasn’t exactly her idea of a fun company outing. Nynke hated horror films and was afraid of haunted houses, so this really wasn’t her scene. And certainly not in this kind of weather. It was pitch-dark, cold, windy, and raining cats and dogs. She was soaking wet, chilled to the bone.

At the Weighhouse, formerly the marketplace, a headless “Simon Lunia” had scared her senseless. Simon had been beheaded two centuries earlier during a public execution at the Weighhouse, and now the internet was teeming with stories about people being accosted by a man seeking his head. And at Oldehove, the crooked tower on Wilhelmina square, which had once been a cemetery, she’d been followed by “Red Frouk.”  Long ago, she had committed suicide, jumping off the tower because of a broken heart, and her spirit had been haunting the square ever since.

In Prinsentuin park, Nynke was on her guard, but nothing had happened. According to legend, on June 21—the day of the summer solstice in 1888—a young woman had entered the park, then disappeared without a trace. Ever since then, the young woman’s ghost had been trying to lure walkers into following her. And, just like her, they were never seen again.

With enormous reluctance, she walked through the park’s main entrance. Just ahead of her, a young woman emerged from a thicket. Nynke screamed. The woman wore a tattered brown dress and a white apron that was stained around the waist. No shoes, dirty feet. Two braids falling over her shoulders. Her face was as white as a sheet, and she was staring intensely at Nynke.

“Okay, I’m completely fed up with all this scary business. Can you please just take me to the restaurant?” Nynke said angrily. She had no idea where they were dining because it was supposed to be a surprise.

The woman beckoned, and Nynke quickly followed, but after a few minutes, she was struck by doubts. They weren’t walking to the town center. Instead, they were moving away from it, toward the water bordering the park, which was always full of boats when the weather was fine.

“Are you sure we’re going in the right direction?” Nynke asked.

The woman didn’t answer and continued walking until they found themselves at the edge of the water.

“Hello? Can you please answer me?”

Abruptly, Nynke stopped.  Was this woman actually part of the ghost tour? Or was she…? Fear flashed through her like lightning.

When the woman noticed that Nynke was no longer following her, she walked back and grabbed her by the wrist. The coldness of her hand startled Nynke.

“Let me go!”

The woman’s fingers tightened.

“Ow, you’re hurting me.”

Nynke gave her a shove, and the woman fell, hitting her head on the corner of a stone bench. She remained motionless, lying on the waterfront with her eyes wide open. Nynke made a run for it. Barely half a minute later, she almost crashed into a colleague.

“What happened to you?” He asked.

“Oh! I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you. I got lost and…”

“Didn’t my wife come and get you?”

“Your wife?”

“Yes, she’s wearing a brown dress and has braids in her hair. She’s part of the ghost tour. We thought it would be fun if the tour suddenly ended, you’d all get lost, then she’d pop up and lead you to the restaurant. My wife is really very good, isn’t she?” He said proudly. “That dimwit from the admin department almost peed her pants.” He laughed. Nynke swallowed hard. 

“No,” she managed to say, “I didn’t see her.”


Anita Terpstra

Anita Terpstra
(c) Harry Cock

Anita Terpstra (1974) graduated in journalism and art history. Her successful debut thriller Nachtvlucht (Night Flight) was nominated for the Shadow Prize and the Crimezone Thriller Award. Samen (Together) was nominated for the Golden Gallows. Her books have been translated into German and French.

Anita is a UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence at the 2020 Festival.

Sarah Timmer Harvey

Sarah Timmer Harvey is writer and translator currently based in Brooklyn. Sarah holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University. Sarah’s translations, interviews, and writing has appeared in several publications including Modern Poetry in Translation, Cagibi, Asymptote, and Gulf Coast Journal. Reconstruction, a chapbook of Sarah’s translations of stories by the Dutch-Surinamese writer, Karin Amatmoekrim will be published by Strangers Press (UK) in September 2020.

Below is an extract from Swimming in the Dark (Upstart Press, 2014) by Paddy Richardson, which was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Crime Fiction Award. You can order a copy of the novel here.


She can see the river now, a blue-green snake beneath the road.

Always there was the river. Rushing in after school, hauling on togs and running, leaping off the rocks, churning through the water. They’d be down there hours in the summer. The smell of thyme, like eucalyptus except fainter, sweeter. The grey-blue colour of it, the feel of it scratching her bare legs. The way the soles of their feet toughened up, turned into leather in the summer months. Sometimes Mum came down to find them, baby Serena under one arm, a packet of fish and chips under the other.  Thursday was Benefit Day. Fish and chips, maybe ice cream. Mum’s box of wine.

If it hadn’t been for the men, it could’ve been all right.

It could’ve been all right but it wasn’t.

Did you ever wonder why? Ever wonder why I left the way I did? Ever wonder how I was getting on in Dunedin with no one to help me, no one that I knew? Did you ever wonder if I was scared?

She’s tired but she’ll keep on driving.  Not long to go. Roxburgh, now. The wide main street with the churches, the pubs. Not long. It’s getting towards the end of the day and the sun’s lowering, bright and glaring on the windscreen. Past the dam, and she’s climbing now, taking the corners gently. She’s winding downwards. On the last stretch.

When she lived here Alex was the world. Everyone knew who was important, who owned the businesses on the main street, who lived in the big houses. Alex was the world and if you were important you could do what you liked. If you were important you could take someone little and stamp them out flat.

 Nearly there and she’s still scared. Scared of going back. When she left she wasn’t going back. No matter what happened, she wasn’t ever going back. Now she has to. No choice.

Still, there’s nowhere else like this; the burnt, golden land, the rocks like great looming ruins glinting silver in the evening sun. Fruitlands, with the crumbling stone buildings beside the road, the pine trees jutting out of sand and rock, the houses dotted up on the rise of hill and there, at last, the bridge.

That bridge was her last memory of the place. Getting up in the early morning,  pulling on her jeans and T-shirt, grabbing her jacket. Taking her bag and moving slowly and silently through the house, turning the door-handle, slipping through and easing the door shut behind her. She pulled the hood of her jacket up over her head, wove her way through town, keeping away from the main streets. Along the river, then up onto the bridge. She walked across it, her head down, too afraid to look up.

She was over the bridge, walking to the top of the rise when she heard the whine of a truck easing into a lower gear. She put out her thumb.


Paddy Richardson

Paddy Richardson is the author of two collections of short stories, Choices and If We Were Lebanese and seven novels, The Company of a DaughterA Year to Learn a Woman, Hunting Blind, Traces of Red, Cross Fingers, Swimming in the Dark and Through the Lonesome DarkTraces of Red and Cross Fingers were long-listed for the Ngaio Marsh Crime Fiction Award and Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark were short listed. Four of her novels have been published overseas, A Year to Learn a Woman, Hunting Blind and Traces of Reds have been translated and published by Droemer Publishing, Germany, and Swimming in the Dark by Macmillan, Australia. Through the Lonesome Dark was shortlisted for the New Zealand Historical Novel Award and longlisted for The Dublin International Literature Award.

Paddy has been awarded Creative New Zealand Awards, the University of Otago Burns Fellowship, the Beatson Fellowship and the James Wallace Arts Trust Residency Award. She has been a guest at many writing festivals and was one of the New Zealand writer representatives at both the Leipzig and Frankfurt Book Fairs in 2012 when New Zealand was the guest of honour. In 2019, she was awarded the Randell Cottage residency in Wellington where she spent six months writing and researching her latest novel to be published in 2021.

Paddy lives in a beautiful part of our world, on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she swims, walks, reads and works as a full-time writer.

Paddy is a UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence at the 2020 Festival.

Here, Noirwich UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence Paddy Richardson reflects on her home city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and its relationship with writing and crime fiction.


On the globe, our little country, New Zealand; three narrow islands at the end of the world and Dunedin, there, right down the end.

Dunedin is a place of hills, trees and harbour, the central city spreading towards the enclosing hills, the houses tucked in amongst them. Out on the peninsula, the albatross soar, the seals bask on rocks. On clear days the sea sparkles, on others the mist comes in, a soft flowing veil of grey. Our buildings are a mix of grand Victorian and semi-modern, the beautiful stone buildings beside the Leith River which form the oldest part of the university, the grand railway station, the now disused prison buildings, gothic and harsh, once the scene of the only hanging of a woman in New Zealand.

Dunedin, at one time the wealthiest city in the country after gold was discovered nearby, has a chequered history of grandeur, wealth and lofty hopes.  We are the only city to have castles, two of them in fact, now serving as shrines to the men who wanted to implant European opulence in this land. One is now a crumbling ruin whereas the other has been coaxed over years into its past splendour.  But while it has been made beautiful again, Larnach Castle is a place of bygone scandals, secrets, deaths and ruin. If you slide past the black curtain into the third wife, Constance’s, boudoir, you feel a shiver in the atmosphere; rigid respectability mixed with disappointment, loss and heartbreak.

Dunedin is a writers’ city. The Octagon, placed in the centre of our main streets, is presided over by Robbie Burns’ statue and many of the paving stones are embossed with writing from our most famous writers, Janet Frame, Charles Brasch, Dan Davin, James K. Baxter.  The University of Otago Burns Fellowship, a year’s residency for writers, means that poets, playwrights, novelists come and go in this city leaving their mark.

There is atmosphere and inspiration in our history, our buildings, our breathtakingly beautiful landscape and mood-changing climate. Over the past years, crime fiction has flourished in New Zealand. Here in Dunedin, Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard series gives us a sassy young female Dunedin police officer who takes the reader into what Vanda sees as ‘a wonderful mix of moody, gothic architecture and happily grubby and tired modern buildings amongst a diverse and off-beat population.’  Writer, Jane Woodham says ‘it was easy to set my first novel Twister in Dunedin as the city’s gothic architecture and sometimes morose weather helps to create the grim atmosphere we have come to expect in a crime novel’. Finn Bell also uses Dunedin and the far south as settings for his award-winning crime fiction novels whereas Liam McIlvanney recalls his home, Scotland, for inspiration-entirely fitting within a city often referred to as the Edinburgh of the South. Maxine Alterio, one of Dunedin’s best-known writers, has also veered into suspense fiction with her latest novel The Gulf  Between set in and near Dunedin and in Italy.

As for me, Dunedin, continues to be the city where I love to write. My windows look across the harbour. I watch as the words take shape.


Paddy Richardson

Paddy Richardson is the author of two collections of short stories, Choices and If We Were Lebanese and seven novels, The Company of a DaughterA Year to Learn a Woman, Hunting Blind, Traces of Red, Cross Fingers, Swimming in the Dark and Through the Lonesome DarkTraces of Red and Cross Fingers were long-listed for the Ngaio Marsh Crime Fiction Award and Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark were short listed. Four of her novels have been published overseas, A Year to Learn a Woman, Hunting Blind and Traces of Reds have been translated and published by Droemer Publishing, Germany, and Swimming in the Dark by Macmillan, Australia. Through the Lonesome Dark was shortlisted for the New Zealand Historical Novel Award and longlisted for The Dublin International Literature Award.

Paddy has been awarded Creative New Zealand Awards, the University of Otago Burns Fellowship, the Beatson Fellowship and the James Wallace Arts Trust Residency Award. She has been a guest at many writing festivals and was one of the New Zealand writer representatives at both the Leipzig and Frankfurt Book Fairs in 2012 when New Zealand was the guest of honour. In 2019, she was awarded the Randell Cottage residency in Wellington where she spent six months writing and researching her latest novel to be published in 2021.

Paddy lives in a beautiful part of our world, on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she swims, walks, reads and works as a full-time writer.

Paddy is a UNESCO Virtual Writer in Residence at the 2020 Festival.

From leading drugs raids to rescuing hostages and preventing attempted homicides, Olivier Norek has experienced first-hand the dark underbelly of the criminal world. His latest suspenseful police procedural The Lost and the Damned without a doubt draws on the author’s own experience as a police officer.

To celebrate our upcoming event with Olivier on Saturday 12 September, we asked him which books have influenced the lieutenant-turned-crime-writer over the years and first inspired him to put pen to paper…

Les Pilliers de la Terre / The Pillars of Earth by Ken Follett

1135 and civil war, famine and religious strife abound. With his family on the verge of starvation, mason Tom Builder dreams of the day that he can use his talents to create and build a cathedral like no other. Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, is resourceful, but with money scarce he knows that for his town to survive it must find a way to thrive, and so he makes the decision to build within it the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.

A spellbinding epic tale of ambition, anarchy, and absolute power set against the sprawling medieval canvas of twelfth-century England, The Pillars of the Earth is Ken Follett’s classic historical masterpiece.

Les Oiseaux / The Birds and Others Stories by Daphné Du Maurier

‘How long he fought with them in the darkness he could not tell, but at last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew…’

A classic of alienation and horror, The Birds was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verità’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd…

L’attrape-coeurs / The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Sallinger

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caufield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days.

Mon chien stupide / West of Rome by John Fante

West of Rome’s two novellas, “My Dog Stupid” and “The Orgy,” fulfill the promise of their rousing titles. The latter novella opens with virtuoso description: “His name was Frank Gagliano, and he did not believe in God. He was that most singular and startling craftsman of the building trade-a left-handed bricklayer. Like my father, Frank came from Torcella Peligna, a cliff-hugging town in the Abruzzi. Lean as a spider, he wore a leather cap and puttees the year around, and he was so bowlegged a dog could lope between his knees without touching them.”

The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez Reverte

Lucas Corso is a book detective, a middle-aged mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients. When a well-known bibliophile is found dead, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment. Across Madrid, Spain’s wealthiest book dealer has finally laid his hands on a 17th-century manual for summoning the devil.

But the further Corso follows the trail of devil worship, the more it leads him back to Dumas. He’s the unwitting protagonist in someone’s evil plot, but is he sleuth or hero, Sherlock Holmes or d’Artagnan?

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Along with his partner, Chuck Aule, he sets out to find an escaped patient, a murderess named Rachel Solando, as a hurricane bears down upon them. But nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems. And neither is Teddy Daniels. Is he there to find a missing patient? Or has he been sent to look into rumors of Ashecliffe’s radical approach to psychiatry? An approach that may include drug experimentation, hideous surgical trials, and lethal countermoves in the shadow war against Soviet brainwashing…


Don’t miss…

THE LOST AND THE DAMNED: OLIVIER NOREK

12 September, 5.30pm, online (Youtube)

Join Olivier Norek and his translator Nick Caistor for a fascinating discussion about his new novel, the French justice system, the process of being translated and why France is producing some of the highest calibre crime writing in the world. 

Free to sign up and watch – all are welcome. Sign up here

By Duncan Campbell

Has there ever been a time when True Crime – as opposed to the fictional version – has had such a high profile? Whether in television documentaries or podcasts, accounts of famous murders or heists are never absent from the airwaves. True Crime books, meanwhile, tend to fall into two different categories. There are the memoirs of the protagonists – criminals, detectives, victims, lawyers – and there are the works of writers, reporters and historians. It’s hard – very hard – to say what the best ones are in two such crowded fields.

Of the latter category, two of the deservedly best-known are, of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son by Gordon Burn. The former explores the story behind the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959 by two ex-cons, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The latter is about Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ and an examination both of his character and of the bungled police investigation that allowed him to carry on killing. Of the more than fifty books about or by the Kray twins, John Pearson’s The Profession of Violence remains the best, not least because of the remarkable access he had to the twins at the time when they were still busy posing for David Bailey photos.

Putting our fascination with killers into context is Judith Flanders’s wonderful book, The Invention of Murder, which explains how Britain as a nation became intrigued by criminality and gore in Victorian times. And the potential pitfalls of the true crime genre are brilliantly highlighted by Janet Malcolm in her book, The Journalist and the Murderer. It opens with a famously provocative sentence: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’

Most professional criminals are men but Gone Shopping by Lorraine Gamman tells the story of  Shirley Pitts, a shoplifter who operated in the 1950s and 1960s. When she died in 1992, she was buried in a £5,000 Zandra Rhodes dress that she did not buy over the counter. Above her grave was a floral tribute in the shape of a Harrods shopping bag and the legend ‘Gone Shopping’, hence the title.

Of books by protagonists, these by former criminals stand out: Gentleman Thief by the late cat burglar, Peter Scott, who stole Sophia Loren’s diamonds in the 1960s. Scott ruefully admits that although he was described as a ‘master-criminal’ in fact ‘a master idiot would have been a better description.’ A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun by Noel ‘Razor’ Smith is, unlike too many memoirs of professional criminals, remarkably candid about the pointlessness of choosing bank robbery as a career. He recounts one occasion when he tried to hold up a newsagent’s with a Luger pistol and was told by its Ugandan-Asian proprietor, with commendable sang-froid, ‘Your gun is unloaded – you are minus the magazine. And you swear far too much for such a young man.’ Smith bought a Mars Bar instead and told him to keep the change.

Of other memoirs, I would add two thoughtful books: Jimmy Boyle’s A Sense of Freedom and Erwin James’s Redeemable. The former is by the ex-Glasgow-hardman-turned-artist, the latter by Erwin James, who was jailed for life for two murders in 1984 and tells his remarkable story with commendable frankness and introspection.

Police memoirs – like criminal memoirs – can sometimes be rather unreflective and self-aggrandising. Two recent books that are neither of those things, are Good Cop, Bad War by Neil Woods and Graham Satchwell’s An Inspector Recalls. The former is an account of the life of an undercover drugs squad cop who is now an advocate of changing the drugs laws. As he puts it: ‘fighting to end the War on Drugs will do more to harm the gangsters than anything I ever accomplished as a cop.’ An Inspector Recalls is a very honest account of life as a detective with the British Transport Police.

Books by those who have been victims of crime are much rarer; we remember the names of the murderers but rarely of those murdered or attacked. The serial killers, Fred and Rose West, prompted many interesting books, including Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing, Howard Sounes’s Fred & Rose and Brian Masters’s She Must Have Known. But one of the most revealing is by Caroline Roberts, who was 16 when she was attacked by the Wests but managed to escape. Years later in the trial of Rose West, she bravely gave evidence on behalf of ‘all those girls who didn’t make it”. Her account of what she suffered and her sometimes grim experiences at the hands of the press is equally poignant.


Photo: Linda Nylind

Duncan Campbell has been writing about crime for nearly half a century. He was the crime correspondent of the Guardian and chairman of the Crime Reporters’ Association. He has written extensively on the subject of crime for various publications, including Guardian, Observer, Esquire, New Statesman, London Review of Books, Radio Times and Oldie. He has written four other books on crime: That Was Business, This Is Personal; A Stranger and Afraid; If It Bleeds and We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain. Duncan was the first presenter of BBC Radio Five Live’s Crime Desk and the winner of the Bar Council newspaper journalist of the year award. He has appeared in numerous documentaries about crime and was the consultant on the 2018 film about the Hatton Garden burglary, which was partly based on an article he wrote about the case for the Guardian. Underworld, the definitive history of Britain’s organised crime is published by Penguin.

Duncan is leading an online true crime writing workshop on Saturday 12 September at 10am and 2pm BST. Find out more below.



Noirwich 2019 has come and gone, with hundreds of crime fans arriving in the city for a weekend of crime fiction indulgence. Across four days at Jarrold, the University of East Anglia and Dragon Hall, writers and readers celebrated and explored the genre.

Today we have the first of several highlights from the festival, courtesy of the National Centre for Writing’s podcast. George Alagiah delivered the 2019 Noirwich Lecture, focusing on the relationship between fiction and fact. His first work of fiction, The Burning Land, explores many of the issues he has encountered as a BBC journalist in his career but from an entirely new perspective.

Crime lovers rejoice! The sixth Noirwich Crime Writing Festival begins tomorrow with James Runcie at Jarrold…but to get the party started early, why not pop along to The Ivy Brasserie on London St for a crime-themed cocktail or two?

In honour of Noirwich, The Ivy Norwich have created six limited-edition cocktails; each more devilishly delicious than the last and inspired by popular murder mystery board game, Cluedo, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Created by the brasserie’s talented bar team, each cocktail is named after characters from the famous game and will be available for guests to enjoy until Sunday 15 September. Bespoke cocktails include ‘Miss Scarlett’, a delicious blend of Maker’s Mark whisky, Cointreau Blood Orange, grenadine & ginger ale; ‘Colonel Mustard’, a spicy blend of Ketel One Citroen Vodka and Bloody Mary spice mix; and ‘Mrs Peacock’, incorporating Beefeater Gin, Créme de Violet, lemon and Maraschino liqueur.

Why not book a table in advance and treat yourself to dinner? Visit The Ivy website for further information.


Melanie Cook, PR & Marketing Manager, VisitNorwich


It’s curious that even in the 18th century, coffee houses were as popular as ever. Though in those days, they were packed out with men whilst the women did the service.

Today, if you visit the Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell, there is a recreated coffee house exhibit, particularly memorable for the historically-accurate wig you can try on while you’re here.

While the hairpiece may have gone out of fashion, the places we hold dear for our oat milk favourite flat white are as important to us as ever. Whether you want a bit of peace and quiet, a chat, a chinwag or a break with a book, these are my top five favourite places to grab a coffee and drink in the history of this wonderful city.



1. The Britons Arms, Elm Hill

This beautiful 14th century thatched building is a hidden gem in Norwich, even though it sits proudly on Norwich’s most complete medieval street. Close your eyes and picture a cobbled street with ancient, leaning buildings and you’ll summon a picture pretty close to how Elm Hill looks today. And The Britons Arms is truly inviting. It’s cosy and quaint with a quintessentially English offering of savouries and cakes, all homemade daily. Don’t miss the lush private courtyard garden in good weather.

2. Norwich Market, Gentlemen’s walk

This is the largest open-air market in the country, and has been in its current space for over 900 years. Recently it has seen an influx of artisan food makers and producers, meaning the hungry (or thirsty!) visitor is never stuck for choice. It’s the place for breakfast or lunch from around the world and a quick stop coffee, especially if you love people watching.



3. Bread Source, Upper St. Giles

Scandi style chic plus a bakery equals Bread Source. On the cusp of opening its third cafe in Norwich – surely that says it all. And you can’t have a coffee here without trying their signature Cinnamon Bun! Like making the most of your breakfast or brunch experience? You won’t be able to resist the coffee and unlimited toast offer, with at least 6 types of bread which you toast yourself.

4. Strangers Coffee House, Pottergate, Norwich Lanes

The Strangers were a group of Protestant refugee weavers who fled the low countries in the 16th century as a result of religious persecution. They were welcomed in Norwich where they helped create a prosperous textile industry, and where their influence is still felt today. Right in the heart of the Norwich Lanes, sit at the window in Strangers Coffee House – named after neighbouring Strangers Court – and take it easy with an espresso and pecan pie.


5. The Ivy Brasserie, London Street

Situated in a beautiful building designed by architect George Skipper – a leading Norwich architect of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. This is French style coffee, served in a beautiful brasserie styled by Martin Brudnizki design studio. Order breakfast al fresco and enjoy your hot drink served in a silver coffee pot with complimentary refills. Wear your best Insta outfit here.

Indulge in some crime-themed cinema this September with the Film Noir season of Vintage Sundays at Picturehouse Cinemas!

Each Sunday, Cinema City brings classic films back on the big screen where they belong. Starting on 8 September, you can dive into the dark heart of Hollywood with five classics from the likes of Orson Welles and Billy Wilder.

In a Lonely Place

Double Indemnity – Sun 8 Sep, 1pm

Billy Wilder’s paradigmatic film set the template for the genre when first released in 1944. Insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) schemes the perfect murder with the beautiful wife of one of his clients (Barbara Stanwyck): kill her husband and make off with the insurance money. But Walter’s colleague (Edward G. Robinson) – a shrewd insurance investigator – has a feeling that not all is as it seems with the widow’s claim.

In a Lonely Place – Sun 15 Sep, 1pm

Humphrey Bogart delivers one of his best performances in Nicholas Ray’s hard-boiled, LA-set thriller. Dixon Steele (Bogart), a moody, volatile Hollywood screenwriter who’s had his heyday, is accused of murdering a coat check girl from a showbiz restaurant. Laurel (Gloria Grahame), an actress who lives in Dixon’s apartment complex, provides an alibi for her neighbour when questioned by the police, and the pair start a relationship. But the chief of police is unconvinced of Dixon’s innocence and, after learning of his violent past, Laurel begins to question if she is putting herself in danger by staying with him.

The Killers – Sun 22 Sep, 1pm

Director Robert Siodmak brings Ernest Hemingway’s gripping short story of robbery and betrayal to the big screen. Two hit men walk into a diner asking for a man called “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster). When the killers find the Swede, he’s expecting them and doesn’t put up a fight. Since the Swede had a life insurance policy, an investigator (Edmond O’Brien), on a hunch, decides to look into the murder. As the Swede’s past is laid bare, it comes to light that he was in love with a beautiful woman (Ava Gardner) who may have lured him into pulling off a bank robbery overseen by another man (Albert Dekker).

Touch of Evil – Sun 29 Sep, 1pm

Beginning with perhaps the most celebrated tracking shot in history, Orson Welles’s bravura film noir is a shadowy tale of murder, malevolence and police corruption. When a car bomb explodes on the US-Mexican border, Mike Vargas (Heston), a Mexican official investigating drug trafficking, is drawn into the case. Vargas is convinced that American cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) is planting evidence to incriminate the prime suspect, and he becomes obsessed with exposing Quinlan as a rotten apple. Quinlan then seeks revenge by conspiring with gangsters, who terrorise Vargas’s wife Susan (Leigh). Welles gives a stunning performance as a man increasingly depleted of humanity, and his deliriously daring thriller with a dark emotional core is one of the greatest of its genre.

This week we have an interview with author Winnie M Li, writer of the novel Dark Chapter which was described by the Guardian as “a defiant retelling of personal trauma.” Winnie also wrote an article for us about activism and literature – keep scrolling to read it!

Please note that this episode discusses assault, which some listeners may find distressing.

Asking the questions this week is Elspeth Latimer, a UEA postgraduate researcher in crime fiction who worked on the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival with us, courtesy of a CHASE (Consortium of the Humanities and Arts South-East England) placement.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

Activism and literature

Winnie M Li discusses whether novels can be a creative and effective way of exploring and drawing attention to important issues – and is fiction better at doing this than non-fiction?

When you live through a trauma, and that trauma changes your life — And when you realise that trauma is actually part of a much larger societal problem, then as a writer, it becomes vital to write about it. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

My debut novel Dark Chapter is a fictional retelling of something that happened to me ten years ago: I was followed by a stranger in a park outside of Belfast, and I was violently assaulted and raped. At the time, it was very much a matter of survival for me — not just during the attack itself, but in the months and years that followed. I felt isolated, cast adrift, often hopeless I would ever recover.

Along the way, I learned that sexual violence is actually something many people suffer: approximately one in five women become victims. And as I gradually became an activist around this issue, I realised how much readers need a novel that truly testifies to the survivor’s experience — the horror and the injustice of it all — while also showing a path towards recovery. I wanted to show how ill-equipped the criminal justice system can be for victims.  And If I could tell this story in the form of a compelling crime novel, then I could not only engage readers through the twists and turns of a plot, but also place them in the shoes of both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. Through my characters, I could do justice to the experience of injustice.

Writing as a means of demonstrating injustice has long been an impetus for many a novelist. From Charles Dickens’ exposé of debtors’ prisons and the urban poor in Victorian London, to Harper Lee’s child-framed view of racism in the American South, novels have always been an important way of exploring societal inequalities.  Would we call this writing a form of activism? I suppose it’s up to the individual writer which word they want to use. But I’d say yes, these types of novels very much have activism at their root.

However, we often picture activism as being very in-your-face: protestors brandishing signs, shouting collective chants, chaining themselves to gates. Novels are more subtle. Instead of yelling angrily at you, novels win you over by investing you emotionally into the life of a character who might be suffering through injustice. They dramatise the human experience behind a larger problem, render that experience lived-in and relatable for readers.

This is why fiction, with its immersion into the mind of a character, can have an edge over non-fiction, which carries a duty to presenting actual, proven fact. Fiction also has a plot which can keep readers riveted. And it’s more likely to appeal to the general public. Not many people would want to pick up a treatise about squalor in Victorian debtors’ prisons. But peopled with Dickens’ colourful characters and an intriguing plot, that unjust, dangerous world can come alive in a novel. So by writing fiction around a form of injustice, we can reach a wider audience, and raise a greater awareness about what needs to change.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this in greater depth with two fantastic crime writers Eva Dolan and Mari Hannah at Noirwich this year. Through our novels, we all touch on ways in which society could be better at handling issues like violence, mental health, inequality, gender. Come along on September 15th to ‘Writing Wrongs’ and join in the conversation — after all, change can’t happen without a dialogue first.

Matt Wesolowski is the author of Six Stories and was at Noirwich 2018 on the Books, Box Sets, Big Screens panel alongside Jane Lythell and Nicola Upson. Here he discusses the term ‘hybrid writer’ and how he incorporates new forms into his storytelling.

I often get described as a hybrid writer. That’s an apt description; stylistically I’m like any writer. I’m a semblance of bits, a crucible of influences. I’m more jumble sale in a village hall than high end fusion cookery but there you have it. I’m not really a crime writer. Not a proper horror writer either. I’m a hybrid.

When I was young I read everything and anything I liked the look of. I remember feeling bemused by a girl in school who asked me (rather witheringly) why I always read ‘girls’ books’. We were in year eight. I never understood what she meant; I still don’t. Mind you, she was the same girl who wished me a ‘terrible future’ in my end of year book. I get the feeling she’s probably not a fan.

Limiting yourself to books that are only of a certain label or genre makes little sense. I often hear people say they like to read ‘trash’ on holiday. I don’t know what that means either. Why would you go and read a book that isn’t good? That didn’t do something to you emotionally? I don’t get it.

It’s the same with the ways of storytelling. I’ve always loved the idea of different formats within the same book. That’s when hybrids start to form; odd shapes shambling out of our brains and into the world. I studied Linguistics at university and have always been fascinated by how our language evolves; how patois and dialect find their way into our lexicon, become standard, forcing older words into archaisms. I feel that fiction does the same thing. I love it when an author slips in some form from the modern era. It feels almost taboo; a strange hybrid brought to life. I remember seeing Lauren Beukes use Reddit threads in Broken Monsters, Paul Tremblay using blogs in A Head Full of Ghosts – the thrill it gave me, how relevant it was. How perfect. I loved it.

Technology gives us new ways to tell stories. As a species, we have always told stories. Podcasts are a new way we tell stories and that’s why I wanted to use this form, to make this hybrid of audio and literature. Writing a book in the form of a podcast wasn’t difficult, it felt new, it felt exciting, it felt taboo. I didn’t even know if it would work. My own hybrid creature unleashed from the lab.

I’m sure there are some who hate literature being tainted by new formats, who see fiction as a sacred cow, an untouchable art form that should not be sullied by the frivolity of modernity. I feel like the emergence of new ways of storytelling will always play a huge part in what I write. So long as a story is being told effectively, so long as it’s relevant, for me it’s valid.

But there will always be people who will shun a hybrid, will drive the monster from their village. I imagine they’re the same types that tell boys they can’t read ‘girls’ books’ and read ‘trash’ on holiday.

Or maybe I’m a weird creature with a terrible future…

Val McDermid delivered the annual lecture at the 2018 Noirwich Crime Writing Festival, on the subject of “What we really talk about when we talk about crime fiction”.

As well as being a legendary crime author, Val is also one of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges, and her lecture examines where crime fiction sits in the wider literature scene and how it relates to society and the real world.

The Noirwich Lecture is presented by The Times and Sunday Times Crime Club.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

Leo Benedictus was at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival in 2018 to talk about breaking rules and pushing boundaries alongside Jacob Ross and Louise Welsh. Here he muses on the importance of genre definitions – or the lack thereof.

There is a little speech I find myself giving, when someone asks what kind of books I write. “Publishers call it literary fiction,” I say. “It basically means novels that aren’t thrillers, or romances, or sci-fi, or something else. It’s the stuff that doesn’t sell.” I spare us both the embarrassment of what “literary fiction” really means. It means I think I’m an artist.

So when my second novel, Consent, went out to publishers, I was surprised that people started calling it “a thriller”. In retrospect, I am surprised I was surprised. The book tells the story of a stalker and his victim. I meant it to be very frightening. I’ve not read many thrillers, but the resemblance should not have been hard to see. Nor was it unwelcome, altogether. If Consent could be called a thriller, it seemed I might be better paid for it, so I kept my surprise to myself. Now I’m booked to speak at a crime writing festival. These things get quickly out of hand.

Some people say that only snobbery preserves a distinction between literary fiction and the rest. I don’t agree. I think the distinction is clear. It just isn’t very useful – and is frequently misused – because it describes something you can’t see on the page. Literariness is an intention. It exists only in the minds of authors, a mysterious place, especially for authors themselves.

Because when writing a novel, you face one question above all others. Why am I doing this? Is it for readers, or for myself? Both, may be the answer you want to give. But in practice, over and over, you are forced to decide. Do you use an unusual word that delights you, or find a better known alternative? Do you want people to consider your ideas and admire your craftsmanship, or would you rather not distract them from the story? Should the book be easy to read, with a hook at the beginning, a twist in the middle, and a satisfying end? Or can it have longueurs, moments of strangeness, that release their pleasures slowly, if at all?

Every novel is made from choices like these, and if it were possible to list and study them, we would see whether most faced out or in. If you write mainly for yourself, it is a literary novel. It may please others, but that isn’t what you wrote it for. Novels written to please other people are non-literary. They naturally tend to repeat what has been popular before, and as a result they mingle into streams, which we call “thrillers”, “romances”, “space operas” and so on.

In practice, the distinction muddies easily. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy uses the pattern of detective fiction, but was made with literary choices, it seems to me. And let’s not kid ourselves. It is more prestigious to be an artist than an artisan, and some novelists write with that in mind. Their books resemble literary novels, but aren’t, because of course they too are trying to please an audience. As a result, their novels often form new streams. Right now, quasi-memoirs, some of them excellent, are enjoying much commercial and critical success. But if you write one because you know this, it isn’t literary. You are not writing for yourself.

At first glance, challenging avant-garde novels seem to guarantee their author’s literary intentions, because nobody would write one to be popular. On the other hand, for the same reason, this is the genre you would expect to attract people who yearn for literary prestige. Not caring what readers think and trying to look that way are – obviously – quite hard to tell apart.

Which is why it’s best not to worry about the word literary. Yes, it is a badge that means something, but we can’t pin it anywhere. Not even on ourselves.

BBC One’s Death in Paradise is one of the top three most popular programmes on British Television, enjoyed on screen as well as in a series of novels: we asked its creator, Robert Thorogood – how does writing the novels compare to writing the screenplays?

Although the genre, style and tone of the books and TV shows are broadly the same, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the process of writing for both of them is wildly different.

The first and most obvious difference is that the TV series really is a gang show: from original idea through to finished script, each writer on the TV show is helped by the input of the other writers, a script editor, story producer and other execs on the show. It means the writers are constantly supported, and the entirely natural crippling fear, doubt and panic any writer feels trying to get a story to ‘land’ is shared among the whole group.

Whereas when you write a novel, you’re on your own. And not just for a few days or weeks. For months. This can be hugely liberating (up to a point), as you can make and implement decisions in the story as quickly as you can think of them, but I have to confess that I really miss that feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ that a TV show gives you.

Having said that, it’s surprising how much more freedom there is when you’re writing a novel rather than a TV show.

This is mainly because novels don’t have any budget restrictions, problems with hiring locations, actors’ availability, or sudden tropical downpours (or hurricanes) to contend with. In a TV show you’re always limited by what you can actually shoot, whereas with a novel you only have to write a sentence and you can conjure anything into existence.

For example, both of the stories for books one and two in the Death in Paradise series were ideas I’d first pitched as TV episodes, but we’d not been able to make them ‘work’. This was because the murder in A Meditation on Murder required a Japanese style paper tea house we couldn’t afford to build; and The Killing of Polly Carter required a cliff from which to throw a supermodel – and there’s no such cliff anywhere on Guadeloupe (where we film the TV show).

What’s more, we tend to have only limited locations in the TV show, because it’s already so very expensive to make each episode, whereas in a novel it’s possible for the police to go anywhere on the island for free. (This was something it actually took me quite a while to realize, and I’ve tried to make this a feature of Book 4 – Murder in the Caribbean, published in December 2018 – where I’ve purposely come up with a story that takes us on a tour of the whole of the island of Saint Marie).

But perhaps the greatest joy of writing the novels rather than the TV show is that a novelist gets to access his or her characters’ internal thoughts. Rather than rely on an actor as brilliant as Ben Miller to show the audience what my hero might be thinking, it really is liberating finally being able to access his misanthropic internal monologue and actually commit it to paper.

In summary, it’s hard to say which format I prefer writing, and perhaps the only conclusion I can come to is that while TV and books are both so very different, I’m extremely grateful that I get to do both.

Elodie Harper shares her impressions of a certain place in Norfolk that inspired her novels…

The first time I got a sense of the true menace of the Norfolk landscape was after I moved to the county to work for ITV News Anglia. I was assigned a reporting job in Great Yarmouth and set off in the car with David Bush, the company’s longstanding cameraman.

We reached the Acle Straight – or ‘new road’ as David called it, in typical Norfolk fashion given it’s almost 200 years old – and entered the marshes. It was early morning and the ground mist rose like smoke. On either side of us, the land rolled out, seemingly forever, and through the fog stood the blue outlines of what looked like windmills. The odd cow or sheep loomed up close to the road, separated from the cars by nothing more than a ditch. I felt like we had driven into the middle of a 16th century painting by an old Dutch Master.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“This is Halvergate.”

“Bit eerie isn’t it?”

“People get mesmerized staring out at the marshes,” he said, looking straight ahead. “End up in the ditch. Drowned, mostly.”

I didn’t know David too well at this point, so it was a relief after we got to Yarmouth, finished filming, and he became less gloomy over a helping of chips, but Halvergate never became less strange. I later learned it had originally been called ‘Hellfire Gate’, which seemed appropriate for a landscape that’s literally smoking from the flames beneath. It was where I built my fictional prison, HMP Halvergate in The Binding Song, but the marshes are also the place that I picture in my mind’s eye whenever I am writing and want to draw on the peculiar menace of the landscape. For me it’s the soul of Norfolk Noir.

Noirwich festival co-director Henry Sutton also writes under the name Harry Brett; here he reveals how Norfolk pervades his work.

There’s the Norfolk Noir of Henry Sutton and the Norfolk Noir of Harry Brett: both begin and end in Great Yarmouth, but Sutton’s stretches further, while Brett’s goes darker. From the beginning Sutton explored domestic dysfunction, driven as much by character, as place. North Norfolk – the eerie marshes, the fast-flowing tides, the vast skies, the unstable land – provided not just the backdrop but the tone and the hints of menace that my early novels, particularly Bank Holiday Monday, were packed with.

Then came the novel Kid’s Stuff, which had the landscapes and big, doom-laden skies – along with what I’ll call a Norwich Noir setting and theme. The novel’s centred on a white, working-class bloke, living in a place very like Norwich. He’s struggling to modernise, and the people closest to him suffer most from his frustration. The most chilling scene I think I’ve ever written takes place in this novel, on the Acle Straight, as he drives to Great Yarmouth.

Yarmouth features in all but name in My Criminal World. As does Norwich – again in all but name. The novel revolves around a crime writer dealing with block and outdated, bourgeois notions of genre. The work he’s trying to finish is a crime novel set in Kingsmouth – my amalgamation of King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth, though really it’s much more Yarmouth than Lynn, even down to the use of real street names. The point was to explore Norfolk’s most diverse and challenged communities.

This work and focus has continued with my Harry Brett novels, which are firmly rooted in Great Yarmouth, and combine, I like to think, the extraordinary physical vistas – both natural and manmade – with a tension derived from a town on the edge in every sense. While I’ve long believed that character and plot are intrinsic, I’d also like to add place to the mix, in equal measure. The Sutton and Brett novels are defined by character, plot and place. None could have happened elsewhere.

Nicci French is the hugely successful writing partnership created by married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Here they discuss what it’s been like to live and write with the characters in their thrilling Frieda Klein series.

One of the surprises of writing fiction is that when you finish your book, when it’s published and sent out into the world, it’s still not really finished. As people start to read the book, the characters develop and slip out of your control. We had become used to that. Sometimes it’s disconcerting. Readers may not love a character as much as you do. Even more strangely, you create a villain, a violent criminal, and you meet readers who wish you had let him end up with the heroine. But he was a murderer, we protested, uselessly.

It didn’t matter. He was out of our hands now and he belonged to readers as much as he did to us.

Even so, we weren’t prepared for the entirely different experience when we began writing about the psychoanalyst, Frieda Klein, in Blue Monday and then followed her dark course over eight books and almost a decade of our life and of hers.  Previously we had finished a book and sent the characters out into the world and we were done with them. Now we sent them out into the world, we talked to readers, we heard what they thought of them. And then they came back out of the world and we followed them in the next book and the next, as they changed and life changed them.

To take one example, in Blue Monday a Ukrainian builder called Josef Morozov literally falls through Frieda’s ceiling into her consulting room while she is conducting a session. Josef was invented to perform a specific role in this one book.

But he just wouldn’t go away. He refused. And readers were asking after him. They wanted to meet him again and we wanted to meet him again.

We came to discover that creating characters in a series of novels is like inviting people to a party. You invited friends, some family members, a couple of people from work, a few neighbours. Some of the people know each other, most of them don’t, but you never know who will get on with who. One of your best friends leaves early while two people you barely know and don’t know each other, get on uproariously and keep the party going until midnight.

Creating the characters for the series was rather like that, except if someone is sulking in the corner at your party, you can’t kill them off. Some characters appeared, did the job they were meant to do and then left. Or if they didn’t leave, they were killed. Others wouldn’t leave. Karlsson was a detective involved in the kidnapping case at the heart of Blue Monday. We weren’t sure how much he would be involved in later novels. But readers kept asking whether he was going to get together with Frieda. We had to keep him. Characters in the background – Chloe, her niece; Sasha, a one-time patient; Reuben, her mentor – gradually moved to the foreground as our solitary heroine gradually accumulated a family around her.

And all that attention still affects us. We’ve finished Frieda’s story but people still ask us about the characters. Where are they now? Where is she? We don’t know what to say. They’ve gone. She has gone. Out there somewhere, but beyond our control.

Cathi Unsworth introduces the real-life people and events behind her latest novel, That Old Black Magic. As Cathi reveals, the truth can be strange indeed, and very inspiring…


Portrait of Helen Duncan

When it comes to writing noir fiction, I have found that the most bizarre characters and plotlines are ones you just couldn’t invent. Which is why my books are based on real cases that have either remained unresolved or contentious to this day. In That Old Black Magic I combine one of each, intertwining stories of witchcraft from the darkest days of World War II, with a cast drawn from reality that even the most imaginative of scribes would be hard-pressed to invent. Mediums, Ghost Hunters, music hall managers, Suffragettes-turned-Fascists and the corporeal spooks of British Intelligence haunt these pages. Please allow me to introduce you to some of them.

I first wrote about HELEN DUNCAN, the Highland-born medium who was the last woman to be prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in March 1944, in my last novel Without The Moon. My interest piqued about this still-controversial case by Tony Robinson’s BBC documentary The Blitz Witch, in the course of research, I discovered two more fascinating characters. Her ally, HANNEN SWAFFER was Britain’s most popular and trusted journalist – despite being a self-professed Spiritualist and Socialist, neither of which would gain you much Fleet Street traction now. Her nemesis, HARRY PRICE was the founder of the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, who investigated the phenomena of mediumship as Spiritualism reached its peak of popularity between the Wars, was a member of the Magic Circle and President of The Ghost Club. While Swaffer, along with scores of distinguished witnesses, testified to Helen’s veracity at The Old Bailey, Price provided the prosecution with photographs of the medium projecting ectoplasm that looked suspiciously similar to cheesecloth.


Portrait of Hannen Swaffer

Price, alongside the remarkable MI5 spymaster MAXWELL KNIGHT weave together my two central stories. Knight ran a circle of agents throughout WWII who infiltrated the many strange, mystic cults with allegiances to the Nazis. His most infamous recruit was the traitor propagandist William Joyce, aka LORD HAW HAW, and his most famous friend the novelist DENNIS WHEATLEY, who also worked in Wartime counter-intelligence. In my fiction, Knight assumes the enigmatic form of The Chief. The case that binds them harks back to the April of 1943, when four young boys illicitly foraging in the grounds of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire made a grisly discovery inside a tree. Itself resembling a thing of nightmare, ‘the Wych Elm’, as it was locally known, was acting as coffin for the body of a woman, apparently ritually murdered and hidden there two years previously. Though no one came forward to identify her, graffiti started appearing across the region, asking: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? Is she the woman that my fictional detective, Ross Spooner, has been seeking since, on hearing the confession of a German spy captured in the Fens, The Chief sent him to the Midlands to find the elusive Agent Belladonna?


Graffiti, sprayed in August 1999, on plinth of obelisk on Wychbury Hill, Worcestershire

It is certainly the most intriguing mystery I have ever had the fortune to pursue. The many links between spies, Spiritualists, stage magicians and witchcraft covens, coupled with a breathtaking real life backdrop, might at first seem a little far-fetched. But I can promise you that all the weirdest details and strangest characters in this book are those I haven’t made up. And that’s… magic.

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