The 2020 CWA Diamond Dagger Winner Interview
Award-winning historical novelist Andrew Taylor, holder of the Diamond Dagger himself in 2009, interviews the CWA’s Diamond Dagger in 2020: renowned editor, versatile writer of fiction and non-fiction and formidable Golden Age expert, Martin Edwards.
What was your first childhood encounter with crime fiction?
If we don’t count The Secret Seven (although Enid Blyton was a CWA member!), it was with Agatha Christie. Watching the film Murder Most Foul prompted me to read The Murder at the Vicarage at the tender age of eight – and I was hooked. What’s more, from then on I was hooked on the idea of writing detective stories as well as reading them. My first effort, Melwyn Hughes and the Big Four, ran for seventy pages. I was ten years old and it was a mash-up of Sherlock and Agatha, set in the Swinging Sixties. Naturally I included a copyright notice on the page listing the chapter titles (such as ‘A corpse!’; I was a macabre child) but amazingly this masterpiece has never been published.
For many years you were a partner in major law firm: how on earth did you find time to write, read and edit so much crime fiction?
A supportive family helped enormously. Once I joined the CWA, I would take not only my long-suffering wife but also, once they arrived on the scene, my two small children, to CWA events; in these and other ways I wove my writing into my life as a whole. Because writing meant so much to me, as it still does.
Has your legal practice influenced your work as a writer (and vice versa)?
I’ve never handled criminal law. I’m an employment lawyer, and employment law, like fiction, is about conflicts concerning human behavior – and how to resolve them. Presenting a case is rather like building a narrative – occasionally you have to try to persuade tribunal members to suspend their disbelief…
Has the business of authorship affected your life?
It’s been fundamental to it, and a source of continuing joy, because the only ambition I ever had was to write crime fiction. I became a partner in my firm at 27, but I worried that I might never get a novel published and I’d have regarded that (despite all my other good fortune) as a failure. I cared about my job and my clients, but writing was what I wanted to do most.
How do you write? Are you a planner, and do you set yourself daily/weekly targets?
I used to be a planner, but now my method varies from book to book. Gallows Court, to date my most successful novel, wasn’t planned. I set myself targets, which are usually so demanding that I fail to achieve them. But this masochistic method ensures I keep working…
As well as writing, reading and reviewing crime fiction, you also collect it. What is the appeal for you of collecting?
I am and will always be a crime fan, as well as a writer. I love reading books, and to me they are often beautiful objects, especially if they have a distinctive personality and history. I confess to a weakness for signed and inscribed books, especially vintage novels. One day I’d like to write a story inspired by a mysterious inscription…
As a crime writer, what would you like to be remembered for?
One sobering truth to emerge from my researches as archivist for the CWA and Detection Club is that many talented writers are rapidly forgotten. So although I strive to write novels that may possess elements of enduring quality, I focus on the present and trying to write interesting stories with hidden depths.
Your contribution to crime writing, non fiction as well as fiction, is extraordinarily varied – from short stories to historical crime novels, by way of the police procedural, amateur investigation, stand-alones and extensive critical writing: do you consciously seek to vary the formats you work in?
Yes, I have a very low boredom threshold, so I need to keep challenging myself. I’ve always wanted to keep improving as a writer, and no doubt there’s plenty of scope for that. At one time I suspected it was a disadvantage in career terms to keep ringing the changes as I always have done, but the main benefit of having a day job and alternative income stream has been this: I’ve written the books and stories that excited me, rather than those I felt under some kind of commercial pressure to churn out. I didn’t have a contract or publisher for either Gallows Court or The Golden Age of Murder – I wrote each of them simply because I was passionate about the idea behind the book. Each was a gamble, a leap out of the comfort zone. A decade earlier I’d written a couple of stand-alone novels in a similarly experimental way and they made relatively little impact (though I’m still proud of them). But Gallows Court and The Golden Age of Murder turned out to be lucky books for me. You never know…
Your role as an editor has been hugely influential: as an author and editor of crime short stories, you’ve done much to keep this branch of the genre alive, and also won the Short Story Dagger. Does the short story have a particular charm for you?
I’ve always loved short stories. Writing them helps me to develop my skills, to experiment with style, voice, setting, period, and so on. There’s no hiding place for sloppy writing. And there’s something artistically pleasing about taking a single idea or scenario and turning it into a snappy piece of fiction.
The Golden Age of Murder, which won four awards, including the Edgar, explored the little-known early history of the Detection Club and its members. It was very successful around the world, while The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books also won a Macavity award and earned various nominations here and in the US. Have you plans for anything else in that vein?
Yes, though I did get carried away with The Story of Classic Crime and actually discussed 102 books! Now I’m working on a history of crime fiction around the world. A long-term project, to put it mildly.
You’ve been a published crime novelist since 1991. How has the genre changed in that time?
When I started, my cunning plan with my first series was to combine a gritty contemporary Liverpudlian backdrop with elaborate Golden Age style puzzles. The first book was nominated for the Creasey, and the reviews were kind – but they never mentioned the plots, which rather baffled me. The truth is that in those days, Golden Age fiction was hopelessly out of fashion. Thankfully I’ve lived long enough to see its merits become more widely recognised. Gallows Court pays homage to the Golden Age, but it’s also infused with psychological suspense. I adore cutting-edge crime writing as well as traditional whodunits. The two aren’t incompatible; there is room for all types of story, not just the flavour of the month. This diversity in the genre seems to me to be worth celebrating.
What are you writing now? What would you like to write next?
Mortmain Hall, a sequel to Gallows Court that I absolutely loved writing, hit the shelves in April, and I’m currently working on the next in my Lake District Mysteries, The Crooked Shore. I’d like to write more books set in the 1930s as well as cracking on with that non-fiction tome about the crime genre.
Few authors have made such a contribution to the Crime Writers’ Association (which you chaired for more than two years, longer than anyone else since the founder, John Creasey) and the Detection Club (of which you have been President since 2015). Where would you like to see both organisations go in the future? What do they offer their members?
I’m confident both have a great future. The writing life is full of challenges, and the benefits of being part of the CWA are incalculable. The very long-running debate about whether it’s a social club or there to promote and support its members’ writing is unnecessary; it can and does fulfill both functions. The Detection Club, on the other hand, is simply a small, congenial dining club, but one with a remarkable history that cries out to be preserved and honoured. I shall never forget my first CWA event, the inaugural meeting of the northern chapter, where I met people like Peter Walker, Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, and Peter and Margaret Lewis. They were kind and encouraging to a nervous newcomer at the start of his career and all became good friends. I remain hugely grateful. Their generosity towards me epitomised the CWA at its best. As long as that ethos endures, all will be well.
Your very successful partnership with the British Library has brought a new readership for many almost forgotten classics. How have you made it work?
I’m keen that the books selected for the series should be of high calibre and also as varied as possible. ‘Classic crime’ is actually a very broad church, much broader than sceptics realise. I favour showcasing a wide range of writers and types of mystery. The same is true of the anthologies in the series, which again reflect my enthusiasm for the short story. Readers who ‘risk’ reading an unfamiliar story or writer are often delighted to make new discoveries. The key is to encourage them to take that risk.
You were a founding member of Murder Squad, the pioneering cooperative for crime writers. How would you advise crime writers new to the CWA to approach the challenge of promoting their work?
We all want to promote our books, to find new readers. Although there are loads of opportunities, sometimes promotion seems like an uphill struggle. Writing is a tough game and it’s worth thinking about the big picture. Try not to lose heart because of a setback. Or even numerous setbacks. Banding together with congenial writers helps to get you through testing times. Again, it’s this issue of mutual support – wanting fellow writers to flourish too, and enjoying their successes, not just being totally absorbed in one’s personal ups and downs.
You’ve worked a good deal with public libraries (and have won the Dagger in the Library). How can libraries and crime writers best work together in the 2020s?
I’m convinced there is tremendous potential. The first step is to ensure communication between individual libraries and crime writers is as extensive and as multi-layered (at national, regional, and personal levels) as possible. Then it’s a question of translating good intentions into specific and worthwhile outcomes. Libraries play an invaluable role in their communities and the key is to think creatively about the possibilities for collaboration (which will vary from place to place) rather than being daunted by the obstacles.
You’ve strengthened the CWA’s ties internationally and built mutually beneficial partnerships with organisations such as Gladstone’s Library and the British Library. Is this a trend you would like to see continue?
Very much so. Gladstone’s Library is a wonderful home for our archives and it’s essential to treasure our past as well as keeping pace with the times in a fast-changing world. The importance and value of crime fiction heritage is becoming more widely understood, and I’m very committed to developing the archives. Just as the CWA’s work with libraries, festivals, publishers, and bookshops in the UK benefits everyone concerned, so connecting with writers and others overseas will reap dividends. If there are barriers, let’s see how we can sensibly overcome them. Again, the starting point is dialogue. Then we need to build long-term relationships – and make them work in practical terms for everyone’s benefit. Resources are inevitably a constraint, which is why it will always be essential for the CWA to be efficiently managed, but there are countless opportunities. My recent trip to a festival in Shanghai opened my eyes to the enthusiasm of young Chinese crime fans, and there are many other examples. The world keeps getting smaller and there are fans of our genre in every corner of the globe. From a writer’s perspective, what prospect could be more exciting?