Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Reading Festival of Crime Writing... The Professionals Panel Event

The main reason I wanted to attend this particular panel event was because I’d recently met Hazel Cushion of Accent Press for a drink and when I mentioned I was attending the Reading Festival of Crime Writing, she said I really must introduce myself to one of their writers, Simon Hall, who would also be there. I introduced myself to Simon just before the signing session and he was charming. He gave me his card and asked if there was anything he could do to help with The Yellow Room Magazine not to hesitate to contact him. I’m now more eager than ever to read one of his crime novels. Death Pictures is his first.
The purpose of The Professionals panel event was to discuss the different professions of the panel authors' protagonists.  The panel consisted of:
Simon Beckett, a freelance journalist since 1992, whose visit to the Tennessee Body Farm inspired him to write crime novels featuring forensic anthropologist David Hunter; John Macken, a research scientist in genetics and forensics who writes forensic crime fiction novels in his spare time; Simon Hall, BBC Crime Correspondent for Devon and Cornwall, who likes to incorporate the media in his novels; ZoĆ« Sharp, former journalist who now combines photo-journalism (especially involving fast cars) with crime novel writing and author of many books featuring a no-nonsense female bodyguard. Chairing the panel was N J Cooper, a former publisher, now the author of many crime novels and articles. 
There was, in fact, comparatively little discussion about the protagonists’ professions, but many interesting debates ensued. There was a great variety of sometimes controversial opinion. I liked the fact that all the authors were down-to-earth and honest. They didn’t flinch from telling us how it is.  
Following the recent case of the two Doncaster boys convicted of a vicious attack on other children, N J Cooper prompted a nature/nurture debate, asking the authors whether someone was born evil.  Does one’s genes predispose someone to commit murder, for example? Beckett said he believed that some people are indeed born evil and noted that more people now think ‘it's neither one nor the other’ in the nature/nurture debate, adding that he believed upbringing could bring out 'evil', which, under other circumstances could remain dormant.  Macken, backed by scientific study, had mutated fruit flies as part of his PhD.  He asserted that behaviour is 50-60% determined before the environment ‘muddies the waters’.  Hall, having spent many a day in court and seeing ‘too many broken families coming out of court in tears and victims treated as criminals’ and noting the dreadful treatment of women in the witness box by defence lawyers when it came to rape cases, stated that ‘society needs protection’. Simon Hall made it clear that he wasn’t in favour of rehabilitation of offenders.
Beckett came back saying he did not approve of the death penalty, but believed in keeping people who harm out of society. Then Macken spoke of life as a genetic lottery.  Stating a hypothetical population of 150k and with an annual rate of 10 murders in a year, he asked how we would screen to find the future psychopaths, something he explores in one of his novels.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sharp has a protagonist with a great propensity to violence, but controlled and applied in the best of circumstances, with her most recent novel, indicating that Charlie Fox - her protagonist - may have inherited that gene from her doctor father.
The panel then discussed science in modern crime. Simon Hall was of the opinion that science sometimes overwhelms crime fiction.  He’d recently read a Jeffrey Deaver novel and thought one passage went too far, with too much science.  Hall is an advocate of crimes that are conceived in the mind and solved in the mind.  Sharp agreed strongly with this, saying that she felt procedure had taken over in the last few years, but that character was needed for entertainment.  Sharp later added that she tries to avoid cartoon characters in her novels and that Charlie Fox is someone saved by her own humanity.
I guess some writers allow research to get in the way of the story. They get so carried away, reading about the latest developments in science (and science is moving on at such a great pace) and trying to incorporate these into their work to make it as authentic as possible, that these authors are in danger of forgetting their primary purpose of entertaining the reader and producing a cracking good story. I realised there certainly wasn’t any danger of allowing science to get in the way in my crime fiction. I tremble at the thought of pinpoint accuracy on the forensics stuff, and am very nervous about approaching the experts. That’s why the talks by various police personnel at events like Reading is invaluable to me.

One of the things I love about writing festivals is discovering new authors. It’s interesting how some writers appeal to you and others don’t, without having read a word of one of their books. I was intrigued by Zoe Sharp, for example. She was an author I’d heard of, but wasn’t sure that her type of crime novel would suit me. However, I agreed with her opinions on most of the topics discussed and I felt she was the sort of person I’d enjoy chatting to over a drink. I was also intrigued to learn that Zoe turned to crime writing after receiving death threats when she was a journalist. Apparently, Zoe likes nothing better than photographing fast cars for magazine shoots, riding motorbikes and firing Kalashnikoffs. I also liked the point she made about writing violent scenes. They should be ‘graphic but not gratuitous’ and she compared it to the scene in Psycho where we don’t actually see what’s happening, but we think we do. I guess it’s all about writing well enough to give the reader the ammunition to fire up the imagination into a frenzy.
Zoe Sharp’s heroine, Charlie Fox, seems feisty, ballsy and hard-nosed. A bit like a bloke, actually. Sharp told us, "Charlie has the ability to kill.  Once discovered that you have it, how do you deal with it?" An interesting question and one she explores in her novels. What also appealed to me about Zoe’s novels is that she says her prose style is very spare and economical, which lends itself to a fast-paced narrative. I can’t wait to read my first Charlie Fox. I’m just hoping it’s not too blokish!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Reading Festival of Crime Writing... A Riddle Of Maggots

On Saturday morning I attended a talk by Ken Wells, curator of the Thames Valley Police Museum and ex-scene of crime officer for Thames Valley. He had recently appeared on TV in a programme presented by Martine Cole about Amelia Dyer, the baby farmer who murdered children in her care.
Today Ken told us about a case in the 1960s when a virtually decomposed body was found in the woods in Bracknell and how the police went about establishing the time of death.
There are four main points which usually determine time of death: body temperature (drops 1 degree for each hour after death); rigor mortis (starts at the top of the body and works down until the body is in full rigor in around 12 hours); lividity (the areas of the body touching the ground leaving marks on the skin) and finally the degree of decomposition. 
Ken used The Lydney Murder as an example of how the time of death was established. Two young boys had found a body in the woods and raced to a local police station where the desk sergeant found it hard to believe their story. However, the boys seemed genuinely distressed, so officers were sent to the woods to investigate. Once there, they discovered a decomposing body covered in maggots. In fact, there were so many maggots covering the corpse, it looked as if it were moving. The officers who were first on the scene judged from the state of the corpse that it had been there between three and six months. 
Ken Wells, who was the scene of crime officer at that time, began quartering the area (sectioning the area around the body into quarters) and taking photographs. When it is uncertain when death occurred, as in this case, the home office pathologist from Guys Hospital attends the crime scene. The pathologist in question, Professor Keith Simpson, had written a lot of books on forensics. Another forensic expert, Professor David Bowen, was also asked to look at corpse to try and help establish a time of death. The police were asked to collect the maggots on the body for examination.
Professor Keith Simpson, on studying the maggots, declared that the body had been there no longer than twelve days and probably had been killed nine to ten days earlier. The maggots that had been collected were in the third stage of insta just before entering the pupa formation stage. It was estimated that the date of death was probably 16th or 17th June. 
It was established that death was caused by a single blow to the throat. There was also a beech leaf on the body and there were no beech trees in Bracknell Wood, the area where the body was found. Fingerprints from one hand (the ring finger and the forefinger) were retrieved, then police went about trawling through the missing persons file at Scotland Yard to try and ascertain who the victim was. 
It turned out that the body did have a police record and was Peter Thomas. He lived in Lydney, Gloucestershire and he had been reported missing on 16th June. 
Police, on searching Peter Thomas’s house, found some correspondence which linked him to a William Brittle. It seems that the deceased had inherited £5000. Brittle wanted to start a new business venture and advertised in the local paper for investors. Thomas decided to loan Brittle £2000, against advice from friends and family, stating that this sum must be paid back to him on 16th June. 
William Brittle’s car was examined. There was no blood, no hairs, but there were several beech leaves in the boot. Brittle was questioned and he claimed he received the £2000 from gambling, but there was no evidence to that effect from any bookmakers. The police also discovered that Brittle was an expert in karate, so would know how to deliver an effective blow to the throat which would result in death. He was charged with murder.
After four months of gathering evidence, witnesses came forward claiming to have seen Peter Thomas at Gloucester station on 20th June. Did that mean that Peter Thomas had only been dead 8 days when his body was found? Professor Keith Simpson was consulted and said that the maggots couldn’t be there for a shorter period than he’d originally stated, as they then wouldn’t be in the final insta. The defence decided to bring in an entomologist who confirmed what Simpson said.
William Brittle had a motive for murder in that he owed Peter Thomas £2000 and had no funds to repay the loan.
Now three witnesses were saying they saw Thomas on 20th June. Would these witnesses convince the jury more than Simpson’s evidence? Could it be that the witnesses had a memory lapse? This was a clearly a case of hard physical evidence versus human error.
The jury took just three and a half hours to convict Brittle. Professor Keith Simpson’s evidence was irrefutable.
I guess the moral of the tale is: Don’t lend money to strangers, particularly those who are expert in karate!
Ken Wells, as well as curator at Thames Valley Police Museum, does common approach path lectures to PCSOs (Community Support Officers) at the police college in Hendon. He is certainly an entertaining speaker, and there was a great deal of humorous banter between him and the audience. I, for one, will look out for Ken at writing festivals in the future, as I would like to hear him speak about more of the cases he worked on. 

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Reading Festival of Crime Writing... Broadmoor Revealed

The first talk I attended at the Festival was on Friday lunchtime and told me all I ever wanted to know about Broadmoor Hospital in Victorian times. I was attracted to this talk, Broadmoor Revealed with professional archivist, Mark Stevens at the Berkshire Record Office, mainly because it was free!
Victorian records from the Broadmoor Hospital Archive are now open for research and reveal what Broadmoor was like 100 years ago. If you were mad and bad, then this was the place to go. Broadmoor provided psychiatric care for patients who would normally be in prison. This was a purpose built, modern lunatic asylum, sited at Crowthorne, isolated but with easy access to London near Bracknell Forest.

The first patients admitted to Broadmoor were female, as the female wing was the first to be completed in May 1863. Eight patients were transferred from Bethlam Hospital in London to Broadmoor. Six of the eight had killed.

Mary Ann Parr, 35 and a labourer from Nottingham was one of these six. She had learning disabilities and at 25 had given birth to an illegitimate child, then suffocated it against her breast. She was sentenced to death, but a medical examination revealed that she was a woman of ‘weak intellect’. She complained of pain in her forehead, had a ‘very irritable temper’ and had cataracts in both eyes. It was recommended that she would benefit from a daily routine of exercise and plenty of fresh air. She was set to work in the laundry at Broadmoor. Broadmoor must have been a relief from the poverty of her usual surroundings. She now had a roof over her head. Mary Ann Parr died in Broadmoor at the age of 71 of kidney disease.

In 1864 the first male inmates were admitted. By this time there were 200 men and 100 women in Broadmoor. A quarter of the men and 40% of the women were murderers. Some were charged with vagrancy, stealing or in the case of the men, for setting fires. Two thirds of the men were married and fewer than half the women.

Many of the women admitted to Broadmoor suffered from intemperance, vice, poverty, fever. These, as well as childbirth, resulted in their madness.

The blocks at the back of Broadmoor were reserved for the more violent prisoners. These blocks faced away from the beautiful views of the countryside the other inmates could benefit from.

Almost all patients at that time had single rooms, 12ft long and 8ft wide. The patients’ day began at 6am in summer and 7am in winter. The asylum had its own farm, so was pretty much self-sufficient. There was no heating in the patients’ rooms at first and no artificial light. The male patients were shaved by a male attendant (couldn’t trust them with blades!). All patients were fed four times a day. Breakfast consisted of tea, bread and butter. Lunch consisted of bread and cheese. The evening meal got a little more interesting and they had something like mutton or beef with vegetables, potatoes followed by a steam pudding. The patients were also allowed three-quarters of a pint of beer, which probably didn’t help the more violent ones much! Supper was again bread, butter and tea.

Not surprisingly, the turnover of staff at Broadmoor was high. Staff discipline was a problem and staff were often dismissed. Reasons for their dismissal ranged from dishonesty, incompetence, drunkenness, using abusive language to letting patients escape. From 1863 to 1873 there were 24 escapes. The boundary wall was seemingly inadequate as were the bars on the windows. Three escapees were never seen again. They were David Maclean who claimed he heard voices; Alice Kay who suffered delusions and thought she was the queen and William Bisgrove from Wells in Somerset who was a murdered and had killed a fellow worker with a stone.

Mark Stevens then went on to tell us about some of the more notorious inmates of Broadmoor in Victorian times. First of all, James Kelly who was a murderer and killed his wife. Apparently, she had lingered in hospital on the brink of death and had forgiven him before she died. In 1888 Kelly escaped from Broadmoor. He had made a fourth key and scaled the wall. He had roots in both London and Liverpool. Years passed and in 1896 he turned up at the British Consul and said he was an escaped lunatic from Broadmoor and wanted to go back. He was put on a ship back to Liverpool where attendants from Broadmoor would be there to meet him and take him back. However, the ship docked a day early and the attendants weren’t there, so Kelly made off. Forty years later in 1927 Kelly presented himself at the main gate of Broadmoor asking to be let in. Apparently, he’d been wandering the world, making a living as an upholsterer. He was now old and profoundly deaf. He knew he would be provided with a roof over his head at Broadmoor and would be looked after in his old age. All the attendants who had been there in Kelly’s time and knew him had now retired, so the present attendants had to go and find one of these retired attendants to come and verify that Kelly was who he said he was. This was done and Kelly was let back in.

Kelly was accused, posthumously, as being Jack The Ripper, as were other Broadmoor inmates, William Bisgrove and James Sadler. Thomas Cutbush was also a suspect, but the year of the Ripper killings in 1888, he been declared ‘very insane’, was closely guarded. Cutbush was violent and tried to bite his mother’s face when in custody. He eventually died of kidney failure.

Daniel McNaughton was another famous inmate who died shortly after arriving in Broadmoor. He was a political radical who wanted to kill Sir Robert Peel. However, in a case of mistaken identity he ended up killing the wrong man. McNaughton had a hate campaign against the Tories. He’d been transferred to Broadmoor from Bethlam Hospital in London. The means used to judge his insanity became known as the McNaughton Rules and were used in this country until 1957. They are still used in the USA. Perhaps they should have tested George Bush before he became president?

Richard Dadd, the painter, was a Broadmoor patient. Before he was admitted he was already an artist of some repute. His fairy paintings can be still be seen in Tate Britain. Signs of his insanity emerged during his Grand Tour. He thought he was the descendant of Egyptian incarnation, Asyrus (sp?). Dadd believed his father was the devil in disguise and killed him by cutting his throat. He also had a list of people who he believed must die. Dadd was initially sent to Bethlam Hospital. He was one of the first male inmates of Broadmoor and was housed in Block 2, which was the privilege block. Dadd continued to paint while in Broadmoor, producing some of his best work there. He died of TB.

William Chester Minor, a US citizen who had served in the Civil War, was also an inmate of Broadmoor. A book has been written about him, The Surgeon at Crowthorne, which has recently been made into a film, The Professor and the Madman. He believed men came into his room and abused him. He had been convicted of murdering a man who he believed had come into his room with the intention of abusing him, but he targeted an innocent married man with children who was on his way to work.

Chester Minor was also housed in Privilege Block 2 at Broadmoor. He had two rooms; a bedroom and a dayroom, where he worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. The approach of night was very frightening for Chester Minor and he used to block his door with furniture. Even as an old man he was still a slave to his delusions. Eventually he was taken back to an asylum in the USA by his family.

Another female inmate was Christiana Edmunds from Brighton, known as The Chocolate Cream Poisoner. She had an affair with a married man, Dr Beard. She was jealous of his wife and gave Beard’s wife a box of chocolate creams into which she’d injected strychnine. Beard’s wife didn’t die, but was violently sick. Soon lots of people living in Brighton began to display symptoms of poisoning after eating chocolate creams. One boy died. It turned out that Edmunds used boys as runners to buy chocolate creams from Maynards, then injected them with the poison. She was an odd woman who liked to collect false hair. She liked to deceive for the pure love of deception. She was in Broadmoor for 35 years and didn’t show any remorse for her crimes. Her motive remains a mystery.

Margaret Davenport, 31, was a housekeeper, born in Shropshire and worked in Cheshire as a servant. She married a fellow servant and she began to go insane after the birth of her children. She used to be found wandering the streets naked or dressed in just a nightgown. One day she fetched her two daughters, 6 and 2, and drowned them in the bath tub. Then she tried to hang herself and failed. Then she attempted to slit her wrists and failed. So she laid the girls’ bodies on the bed and went to make tea for her husband who was due to return home, as if nothing had happened. Once she was charged with her daughters’ murders, she was admitted to Broadmoor, having been declared criminally insane. It was discovered she was pregnant on admission. The daughter she gave birth to there was taken from her and eventually, after much protest, her husband, Jack Davenport was made to take the child who died two years later. Mary was moved to an asylum in Liverpool and died there after choking on a bone.
Post natal depression was a common cause of insanity amongst the women inmates of Broadmoor. Often after a spell in the asylum these women were allowed to go back home to their families and went on to have more children.

Sometimes the male and female inmates of Broadmoor formed relationships, as the two sexes had access to each other through social activities and dances. The whole idea behind Broadmoor was to rehabilitate people, preparing them for the outside world.
There were relatively few suicides in Broadmoor in Victorian times, which spoke for Victorian society as a whole.

Attendants were attacked quite frequently and the weapon of choice was a stone in a sling.

At full capacity Broadmoor housed 600 patients in a ratio of 4:1 male to female. Rampton Hospital was built when Broadmoor became full. After the First World War numbers at Broadmoor dropped as lunatics were sent to the front and never returned.

Today Broadmoor is a single sex hospital housing the criminally insane. The Moors Murderer, Ian Brady and The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe are both inmates. It will be many, many years before their records are made public.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sue Welfare's Workshops

I had the good fortune to meet Sue Welfare for the first time over ten years ago at the first QWF Convention. She had written stories for QWF Magazine and kindly agreed to run a workshop for us. She was brilliant; funny, entertaining and wise. I thoroughly recommend the two workshops mentioned here.


Norfolk novelist Kate is teaching at home and away this Autumn,
so if you fancy trying your hand at writing there is something here for you.

On October 31st Kate’s alter ego, Sue Welfare, will be running a Making History writing workshop at
West Acre theatre, Near Swaffham in Norfolk from 10 am – 4pm
Places are limited so please book early.

This is of particular interest to people who want to write about their own
life experience or perhaps close family and friends,
although the skills learnt during the day can be applied to any aspect of creative writing.

There will be lots of practical and useful advice on offer as well as practical exercises to improve
your writing skills.

Tickets are £35.00 each and available from the box office
box office: 01760 755800.

Later in the year Kate will be teaching at The Tempest Arm, Eslack, in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales.
The Tempest Arm is a great place to stay for a weekend away or as the base for midweek break, so why not combine the two?

Kate with be running a Making History Workshop 22/23rdNovember 2009.
All inclusive residentlal rate for 2 sharing is £196.00 or single £118.00.
Great value, great food and great fun!

For more details or to book contact Anne at the Tempest Arms on 01282 842450

Kate Lawson

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Hardly Oxford, Darling! - Reading Festival of Crime Writing Part One

I've been to one or two literary festivals in my time, including Oxford (several times), Cheltenham and the Harrogate Crime Writers Festival (twice). I was therefore under the impression that they were held in genteel middle-England kind of places. I automatically assumed Reading would be no exception. How wrong can you be? Apparently, Queen Victoria positively disliked the place and if you look at her statue in Reading centre, she's turning away from the place.

However, once I'd walked until my feet were sore on the Friday I arrived, I discovered there are charming parts of Reading. I went on the Crime Walk led by David Cliffe on Friday evening, discovering the lovely Caversham and the walk alongside the Thames. We stood by the weir in the dark and were told this was where the baby farmer, Amelia Dyer, threw the parcel- wrapped body of one of her victims. We then walked down a spooky path which led to the road in which she lived, Piggotts Road. We wondered whether the people who lived there now knew about its famous former inhabitant and the numerous babies she'd murdered while in her care. Towards the end of the walk we stood opposite Reading gaol where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for two years. I shuddered to hear of the acrobatic hangman who used to stand on the convicts shoulders or swing from their feet as they dangled on the end of the rope, their bodies jerking in spasms as they took many minutes to die. I was all too ready for a large Shiraz at The Sun Inn on Castle Street at the end of the Crime Walk. I also needed Dutch Courage before walking the half mile or so back to my B&B which, unbeknownst to me when I booked it, was in one of the seedier parts of town. Help came in the form of a rather timid librarian, Natalie, who'd accompanied us on the Crime Walk and who offered to walk me back, as she lived in a neighbouring street.

Being alone in a strange city can be disconcerting. I always felt safe in Oxford, maybe because it's compact, bijou and comfortably studenty. Reading, however, is a sprawling modern city and without an adequate map, it's easy to get lost. Thank goodness I have a pretty good sense of direction. There are some attractive old buildings in the city which contrast sharply with the huge new shopping complex, The Oracle, alongside the canal where you could also find a whole host of places to eat.. all very similar in style; modern, spartan minimalist decor and expensive wine.

I'll leave you with that thought while I dash off to do one of the many, many tasks on my list today. I'm feeling under pressure to get the next issue of The Yellow Room done and dusted, but admin, housework and ironing are also beckoning. The house is in chaos again. That's what comes of leaving husband in charge of the children for the weekend! More on Reading and the talks I went to later!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

What a summer!

I still haven't quite got my breath back after a very hectic summer. It's been busy, but fun. The children and I have done a lot of visiting, walking and socialising generally. The summer seems to have passed in a whirlwind of activity. You get the idea?

Megan went back to school yesterday and Matt goes back tomorrow. It was wonderful to get back into some sort of routine and I feel I've already made inroads into the huge pile of tasks on my list.

I have a pile of Yellow Room submissions to read; competition entries to log and read; Issue 3 of The Yellow Room to get ready for typesetting; website to update; Wannabe writing exercise to set; lots of clutter clearing to do; ironing; cleaning; Matt's school shoes to buy (got to do that this afternoon!); teach Matt to make a cottage pie, which I promised him I'd do during the summer holidays. You name it and it's probably on my list. And then there's the novel. It has been put on the back burner once more, but only for a few days.

I was clearing some clutter in the office today when I came across two boxes full of old QWFs. I have stacks of Issues 47-49, competition anthology, Dust of Time, and several other issues as well. If you'd like a bundle (850g worth), then please send a cheque for £3.25 and I can post them first class (cheques made payable to J M Derrick). Send to: 1 Blake Close, Bilton, Rugby CV22 7LJ.

I hope to blog more regularly from now on!

Don't forget to enter The Yellow Room Short Story Competition, closing 30th September. Details are on the website: