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; Zoë 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!