When I'm not writing...
I love writing. It's a treat. And these days it's squashed into weekends and evenings. More of my time is spent talking to readers, not just to promote my own work, but a huge range of authors who deserve to reach a wider audience.
Murder Squad: 21 in 21
Murder Squad was the brain child of Margaret Murphy. She was getting wonderful reviews, readers loved her books, but sales didn't reflect that enthusiasm. Publishers seem to concentrate their marketing budget on the best selling writers and she realised she'd have to take a more proactive role to promote her novels. She contacted six other crimewriters living and working in the north of England and suggested that we come together to push our books collectively to a wider audience.
So John Baker, Chaz Brenchley, Martin Edwards, Stuart Pawson, Cath Staincliffe, Margaret and I became Murder Squad. Since then, the Squad has lost some members and attracted others. Two of the original line-up, John Baker and Chaz Brenchley, have since stepped down from the Squad, and Stuart Pawson retired due to ill-health. Stuart died in February 2016 and is sorely missed, though his Charlie Priest books live on. Kate Ellis and Chris Simms have joined us to provide new voices.
This year we are delighted to be celebrating twenty-one years of mystery, mayhem and murder since our launch at the turn of the century. It's been a brilliant journey and along the way between us we have garnered 22 prizes including Daggers, Edgars, Macavity, Writers' Guild of Great Britain, RTS and Agatha Awards and honorary degrees. And in 2020, Martin Edwards became the second member of the squad, after Ann Cleeves, to be awarded the Crime Writers Association's highest honour - the Diamond Dagger. We have published collections of our short fiction and travelled nationally and internationally to promote our work and crime fiction in general, appearing at festivals and conventions, libraries and bookshops. In the process we've become firm friends as well as co-conspirators.
One exciting event in late summer is the release of a new anthology. Entitled Many Deadly Returns: 21 stories celebrating 21 years of Murder Squad, it will be published by Severn House. Suspenseful, poignant, wryly ironic by turn, the stories involve unreliable narrators, unusual settings, various ingenious methods of despatch and plenty of surprising twists in the tale. Covering such highly topical themes as recycling, COVID, illegal immigration, and climate change, these are very much stories of the 21st century; yet whether they take place at a council tip, a mystery writers' convention, a rowdy hen weekend, the wintry Yorkshire moors or a packed train to Liverpool, what they all have in common is a rich atmosphere and a compelling narrative. Ann says:"I'm very much looking forward to meeting up with the other squaddies to celebrate our birthday and the opening of the wonderful new bookshop in Whitley Bay. A new book crammed full of stories comes with the ticket and we'll be there to sign. We're limiting numbers - we still want people to feel safe and comfortable - so if you'd like to join us, do book early."
DIY Murder Mystery kits
I have been working with my publisher, Pan Macmillan, to come up with a way of doing events in libraries that don't involve me being there - I receive far more requests than I could possibly deal with. It's important too because libraries don't have the funds that they did to pay author expenses, publishers are getting much tighter and unless they're very successful authors can't pay their own way. So with the Reading Agency we put together a pack which should bring a new audience into the libraries but which staff should be able to manage by themselves.
It started wih a murder mystery script based on my novel The Glass Room, starring DI Vera Stanhope, which I had already written for independent bookshops, festivals and public libraries: now I have teamed up with The Reading Agency to produce a special murder mystery night pack for libraries. The pack includes my script, a CSI report (prepared by Professor Lorna Dawson, a forensic soil scientist of the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen), 'whodunnit' forms to be completed by attendees, and a prize - everything librarians to hold spine-chillingly successful murder mystery nights for the readers in their libraries.
Libraries and independent bookshops will only survive if they provide a social, vibrant and interesting place for readers to talk about books. This project provides a template for a book-based event which will engage with regular readers and pull in a new audience. The traditional murder mystery has the accessibility of a familiar format - we've all played Cluedo or watched Poirot - but gives readers the chance to discuss their favourite crime fiction across the range of the genre. There are opportunities for income generation through books and tickets sales, for developing partnerships with community organisations and between libraries and bookshops, and for reader development training for frontline staff. But above all, it's great fun.
Download the Glass Room Murder Mystery pack from the Reading Agency website.
I followed up with a murder mystery based around a traditional Shetland Sunday tea: there's a script for four actors (with a guest appearance from detective Jimmy Perez), and - for a really authentic experience! - there are recipes for Shetland homebakes! The full kit is available on the Pan MacMillan website.
Finally - for now - there is a Darkest Evening Murder Mystery, conceived during lockdown, and designed to be run online. Scripts are availablem and it too can be run as an in person event, but it has also been filmed, with four actors reading the parts, turning St Aidan's church Thorneyburn into a grand house.
Ann Cleeves is delighted at progress on a scheme she is helping to fund, looking at the importance of reading on health and wellbeing.
The first Community Reading Workers are now in place for a pilot project. The scheme is also being supported by five North East local authorities: Northumberland, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Co Durham and South Tees. GPs, social prescribers and community workers will be able to refer individuals who may be struggling with chronic pain, anxiety, stress, depression or loneliness to the reading workers, who will provide friendship and a listening ear, as well as access to books, enthusiastic librarians and other readers.
Working in areas of high social deprivation, the workers will take a holistic and personalised approach to support, empower and motivate individuals to take proactive steps to improve their health and wellbeing by providing practical help though access to books and spaces/places for reading, and emotional support through improved confidence in reading and relationship building.
All the workers - nine in total over the five local authorities - will complete a bespoke Reading for Wellbeing course designed by the brilliant Opening The Book as part of their induction, and the project will undergo evaluation by academics in the region. While initial funding is for one year, Ann hopes the evaluation will support future investment and scale up.