A celebration of Welsh crime fiction & ‘Crime Cymru’ at Cardiff Libraries’ ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’

The inaugural ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ was held in Cardiff on 1-2 June, organised by Cardiff Libraries (@cdflibraries), which provided a very lovely and hospitable setting for the event.

A number of the writers featured at the festival are members of Crime Cymru, a collective of Welsh crime writers who live in Wales, identify as Welsh, or set their books in Wales. ‘Cymru’, in case you’re wondering, is the Welsh word for Wales and is pronounced ‘kum-ri’. You can follow their activities on Facebook or Twitter (@CrimeCymru), or check out their website here: http://crime.cymru/.

The rather impressive line up for the ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ included Belinda Bauer, Christopher Fowler, Katherine Stansfield, Kate Hamer, Mark Ellis, Rosie Claverton, Alis Hawkins and Matt Johnson, along with Welsh-language crime writers Gareth Williams, Geraint Evans and Jon Gower.

I managed to get along to some of the Saturday sessions, all of which featured lively discussions with panellists and attentive, engaged audiences.

One stand-out session for me was ‘Beyond Psychopaths: Mental Health in Crime Fiction’, with Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. Rosie is a junior psychiatrist, whose ‘Amy Lane’ mysteries features an agoraphobic investigator suffering from anxiety. Matt is a former soldier and policeman who left the service with C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), and took up writing as a form of therapy. His ‘Wicked Game’ trilogy draws on his own experiences, and the first was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasy Dagger.

It was fascinating to hear Rosie and Matt, informed by very different professional and personal experiences, discussing the depiction of mental health conditions in crime fiction and film (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Gone Girl). Both emphasised the importance of researching mental health issues, and felt that writers had a responsibility to ‘find out and not simply imagine’. Reading will get you a long way, but MIND, the mental health charity, is apparently also able to put writers in touch with individuals willing to discuss their experiences, thus helping to minimise inaccurate depictions of mental health issues.

I picked up Binary Witness, the first in the ‘Amy Lane’ series, at the Octavo’s festival bookshop (after reading the first chapter I won’t be putting my bins out late any time soon).

Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson

The afternoon featured an engaging discussion with Mark Ellis, author of the ‘DCI Frank Merlin’ series, set in World War Two London. Mark told us a bit about how he came to write the series (partly inspired by anecdotes his Welsh mum told him about the war), about Merlin’s Spanish heritage, and about the rich possibilities that wartime opened up for the criminal community in London – a bonanza for the unscrupulous. His discussion partner was his editor Hazel Cushion, who also runs the Octavo’s Book Cafe and Wine Bar in Cardiff Bay. On my list of places to visit shortly!

Mark Ellis

The evening brought us all a wonderful treat, in the shape of Belinda Bauer, who’s undoubtedly one of the UK’s most exciting and most versatile crime authors. Belinda has written a number of outstanding novels, including Blacklands and Rubbernecker (a particular favourite of mine), which have been garlanded with prizes such as the CWA Gold Dagger. Her eighth novel, Snap, has just been published by Penguin.

A slightly blurry shot of Belinda Bauer, but one that captures the fun we all had.

Belinda was in conversation with Kate Hamer, and in spite of the sometimes grim subject matter, there was a lot of laughter.

Belinda talked a little about Snap and read us an unsettling extract from the opening chapter, which depicts what happens when three children are left by their mum in a car after it breaks down. We also heard how – rather astonishingly – she now reads only non-fiction, because she’s too aware of the mechanics of fiction to enjoy it when writing herself, and feels it frees her up to write whatever she wants (she probably wouldn’t have written Rubbernecker if she had known that there were other novels featuring leading protagonists with Asperger’s Syndrome at the time).

The need for meticulous research was another key theme – especially the importance of going to places to experience, for example, how they would smell. Rubbernecker, which features an anatomy student, involved visits to the Wales Centre for Anatomical Education in Cardiff, which wasn’t easy as she is rather squeamish. But, as she also wisely noted: ‘research always pays off’.

Another intriguing revelation: Belinda lived in South Africa for ten years in her youth, and would like to set a novel there during the Apartheid era. I’m very much hoping she does…

If you haven’t yet read any of Belinda Bauer’s novels, then I recommend you do: they have wonderfully compelling premises, are dark but leavened with sardonic humour, and feature beautifully rounded, interesting characters.

Congratulations and thank you to everyone involved in organising the first Coffee & Crime Festival. It was a rip-roaring success!

 

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