Article published on September 13, 2013.
The Crime Writers’ Association celebrates its Diamond Jubilee this year – on Guy Fawkes Night, to be precise. Today, the CWA boasts more than 600 members, a higher figure than ever, and various regional chapters are thriving. A new chapter has even been established this year in Iceland, catering for Icelandic members and those who write books set in that country. The CWA’s Daggers Dinner, held at King’s Place in London this July, was a crowded and glitzy affair, which saw a variety of awards given, crowned by the presentation to Lee Child of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger by last year’s winner, Frederick Forsyth.
And that’s far from all. Among many other activities, the CWA has established a Crime Readers’ Association (CRA), helped to promote new writing, and published an anthology to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee – edited by me. Deadly Pleasures includes brand new stories by representatives of the great and the good in contemporary crime, including Lindsey Davis, Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves, David Hewson and John Harvey.
Yet the origins of this august body were humble in the extreme. John Creasey founded the CWA, but the idea had been floated earlier by Nigel Morland. Morland, a prolific writer whose most famous character was Mrs Pym, was an enterprising character who issued a (sadly now long defunct) Mrs Pym Club Newsletter, and in January 1950, he suggested that there should be a British equivalent of the Mystery Writers of America, of which he was the first U.K. based British member. The Detection Club had been found in Britain twenty years earlier by Anthony Berkeley, but that was an organisation which elected members rather than accepting applications from anyone who met certain eligibility criteria. Mass producers of fiction like Creasey and Morland were, despite their commercial success, not deemed by Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and their colleagues to be writers of the highest standards, and were therefore never likely to be elected to the Detection Club. For the vast majority of British crime writers, therefore, no social network existed of the kind that had recently been created in the US.
Morland returned to his suggestion in 1951 and again the following year. Creasey had joined the “Mrs Pym Club”, and contacted him to discuss the idea. Morland said he was too busy with his own writing to take the matter further, so Creasey, an extraordinarily industrious man, decided to see what could be done.
The upshot was that he approached a number of crime writers with an invitation to attend a meeting at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place, London (“at 2.45 for 3 p.m.”), instructing attendees: “On arrival at the Club ask for (a) Creasey and if you get a blank stare, (b) the Oak Room.” Some people turned down his invitation: they included Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham (who did later join), Hammond Innes and E.C. R. Lorac, all of whom felt there was no need for a new body, and Francis Durbridge, who said he had no time to spare.
Among those who did make it to the Oak Room were Julian Symons, who would become perhaps Britain’s most influential critic and historian of the genre, as well as a distinguished novelist, Elizabeth Ferrars, Josephine Bell and the thriller writer Andrew Garve. Unavoidably absent was Michael Gilbert (a partner in a solicitors’ firm whose legal duties no doubt took precedence, but who, like his friend Symons, went on to become a major figure in the genre in the second half of the twentieth century.) Creasey was appointed Chairman, Ferrars and Garve joint Honorary Secretaries, and the now little remembered T.C.H.Jacobs Treasurer.
Interestingly, one of the first points discussed was the proposed appointment of a Public Relations Officer. This was almost certainly one of Creasey’s countless ideas, and shows that, even in the early Fifties, crime writers were acutely aware of the need for good P.R. – and of the need to be proactive personally in publicizing their work, rather than simply relying on publishers.
From these simple beginnings grew an increasingly significant organisation. After the CWA had been in existence for ten years, its journal was able to claim that “Our first ten years have brought prestige to the crime novel.” By that stage, there were just over 200 members.
A determination to promote the genre remains central to the CWA’s thinking to this day, and has been illustrated perfectly by the success of its recent initiatives such as the CRA. Crime fiction is flourishing as perhaps never before, and for that the CWA can take some credit. There is every chance that the years ahead will see further progress. In the meantime, the CWA’s Diamond Jubilee is a cause for celebration, not just among its members, but among crime fans everywhere.
Read an extract from Lachlan Smith’s debut novel, Bear is Broken