Saturday, 25 June 2011

Playing the System by Bryony Pearce

Bryony Pearce: the picture of innocence

Would I ever commit a crime?  I can safely and confidently say, no, I wouldn’t.  I don’t download films or music over the Internet I don’t buy pirated DVDs and when I was a teenager, I once walked half a mile back to a sweet shop, because I had bought a penny chew (remember those?) and realised half way home that two were stuck together – I had to go back to pay the extra penny (don’t laugh). 

I attribute this rather extreme form of honesty to my mother, who, when I was a toddler caught me filling my pockets with nuts in a hardware store (they are so very shiny, aren’t they?).  She made the shop assistant (whose instinct was to tell me it was OK) inform me that she was in fact calling the police.  Apparently I spent some considerable time terrified that I was going to prison and hiding every time I heard a police car!  Thanks Mum.

My point however, is that although I would never commit a crime, I have thought about how I would go about it, y’know - if I did. 

Nowadays we have excellent forensics, everything gets recorded, uploaded, downloaded etc. so the chances of really, properly getting away with any crime, well it’s kind of small.  A criminal mastermind could perhaps do this – get away scott free with the will in his pocket, but I think a cunning criminal, one just clever, not genius, nowadays doesn’t try to duck the system, she plays it.
An avenging angel?

I live in a lovely village, but unfortunately there are some less than lovely people in it.  Recently there has been a spate of burglaries (my own house was broken into, but nothing was taken thanks to a bat-eared neighbour who heard my garage door being opened and hit all the security lights).  The police know exactly who is doing the B&E … but they can’t do anything about it.  They’ve even caught the man with stolen goods in his hands, but can only get him on possession as he claims he’s looking after the stuff for someone else. 
A couple of months ago, my neighbour caught this individual in her front room with a torch at 4am.  The police had her word that he was in her house, they had his wet footprints on the cardboard box she had inside her back door and they picked him up at 420am sneaking back into his own home (they didn’t have to chase him around the village, they just went to his address and waited for him to turn up – that’s how confident they are in his identity).  A couple of weeks later we heard that he wasn’t being prosecuted – there wasn’t enough evidence.  He hadn’t actually taken anything from my neighbour’s house (she scared him off first) so they were letting him go.  He got to pick up a nice benefits cheque and my neighbour hasn’t slept since.  

Let’s look at some statistics …

% of incidents reported to the police that are successfully convicted in the courts (attrition)
% of convictions after the case has gone to court (conviction)
Violence against the person

Leaving aside the horror that is the statistic on rape (that’s a whole other discussion) we can see that in 2009 only 4% of cases of violence against the person that were reported to the police ended in conviction (and if the case is taken to court, there’s still an almost 30% chance of getting off).

So, for example, if I wanted to say, take revenge on, someone … let’s call him Mr Bat Curglar I could:

1. Make sure everyone knew I was completely OK with his night time ‘habits’ – because I’m such a forgiving soul
2. Visit the doctor and make sure I was down on record as suffering, and I mean really SUFFERING with horrible, uncontrollable PMT (just in case it goes to court you can use this one to get off with temporary insanity)
3. Establish that I am having a bit of car trouble
4. Run the bastard over next time he’s out and about at 4am
5. Leg it home.

Now I might not even be reported.  But if I was, I have a 96% chance of never being convicted and then if I do go to court, a 30% chance of getting off.  To help that along, I have a decent temporary insanity plea, established car trouble (the brakes weren’t working that well) and let’s face it, even if I do get sent down – I’d be out in six months anyway.

When you weigh all that up, getting caught hardly seems like a deterrent at all. 

So there you go – my perfect crime.  Revenge manslaughter, maximum six months in prison, if I’m unlucky and I’d probably pick up a nice benefits cheque on my release.

Sadly I’m sure a lot of individuals out there have weighed up those exact figures (Mr Bat Curglar for example) and come to the same conclusion. 

It’s frankly terrifying. 

Bryony Pearce's debut novel Angel's Fury is published on July 4.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Creating a Believable Psycho by Colin Mulhern

    •  Clash, published in March 2011, is Colin Mulhern's first book for teenagers. It tells the story of  Alex, a young cage fighter, who goes off the rails when he witnesses a brutal murder and cannot fight anymore; and Kyle, a talented artist.
      When I first began writing Clash, it was meant to go off in a totally different direction. Alex Crow was just the school nutter – a cardboard cut-out character whose only real job in the story was to chase Kyle. He was someone to be afraid of, someone to run from. At the time, the story was purely from Kyle’s perspective. But bit by bit, Alex came to life, and as he did so, he brought a whole load of baggage with him.

      It all started with making Alex small and thin. I thought a bog-standard bully was a bit boring, so I changed the description. But in doing that I found that I had to justify why he was so scary to the other kids. I had to work out what was going on behind those eyes. What I ended up with was a snowball effect, where each reason I came up with filtered into the story line until the whole background of cage fights and his Uncle Joe blossomed. What began as a simple, uninteresting baddy suddenly began to muscle his way into the story until I reached a point where Kyle was battling for space on the page. That’s when I decided to put them up against each other and see how they’d do.

      In those first drafts, I never really knew what to expect. Having someone like Kyle stand up to a psycho like Alex is great for a story, but for a writer, asking yourself how a normal, quite nerdy kid like Kyle balance out chapter space with a cage fighting psychopath, is a far more interesting question - and a difficult one to solve.

      I think that’s what made Clash so interesting to write. It was a constant battle. The only way to keep the fight balanced was to deepen the boys’ characters with each successive chapter.

      Looking back, if I’d never expanded Alex’s character, Kyle wouldn’t be a fraction of the character he ended up. But that’s what writing is really about – trying to find a way to make your invented character come to life, to stand up on the page and become real for the reader.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Opposite of Amber: Gillian Philip interviewed

One of my absolute favourite writers for teens is the Scottish writer Gillian Philip, whose books are thrilling, terrfiying  -  she doesn't shy away from 'difficult' content -  and beautifully well written Gillian's latest book is The Opposite of Amber, the story of two sisters in a small Scottish town who fall into trouble and tragedy. I couldn't resist the chance to ask Gillian some questions about The Opposite of Amber, starting with the narrator, taciturn hairdresser, Ruby. -  Keren David

One of the things I loved about this book was the narrator, Ruby, who seemed to be full of contradictions. She says very little, she's left school young and she's working as a hairdresser. She jumps to conclusions and she makes tough decisions. But her inner voice is so intelligent and poetic, so deep and thoughtful. How did you create Ruby's voice? 
I think like all ‘book voices’, Ruby just grew on me. I knew from the start that she was a very monosyllabic, reserved person who was gauche in company and shy about expressing herself – indeed almost mute – but obviously that’s not ideal for the narrator of a whole book! Once I began to write from inside her head, I realised there was nothing reserved about her thoughts – that she was almost bound to be far more articulate in her own head, because she was repressing so much. She could be very grumpy and self-pitying at times, and she had to be able to express her anger somehow, and I found her (sometimes objectionable) thoughts more forgiveable when she could explain herself eloquently, but internally.

I was very impressed - and a little annoyed - that you managed to trick me right to the end - great sleight of hand. Is the plotting of a crime book something you enjoy? How much do you plan out beforehand?

Oh good! I hope you weren’t TOO annoyed... and I’m quite relieved that almost no-one has guessed, because I spent a lot of time worrying it was too obvious. That must be writers’ paranoia! I do enjoy plotting crimes (fictional ones), but it’s quite a haphazard process for me. I do plan it a little beforehand, but quite often things change unexpectedly, when characters don’t behave the way I thought they would, or unforeseen complications arise. This time, for once, I knew who the killer was from the start.

My absolute favourite character was Foley's vile little sister Mallory, who added comic relief. I was dying to know more about the Foley family, and indeed all the characters. Do you have to rein yourself in when it comes to developing minor characters? I get the impression that everyone has a long detailed backstory which is only given to the reader on a need-to-know basis.
Ah, I’m glad you liked Mallory. I have a soft spot for her, though she is diabolically awful. I have to rein in secondary characters in my head, because I do get interested in them, but I’m quite restrained when it comes to putting it on the page (that’s only now that I’ve learned the error of my ways – I used to overdo it enormously). I do know their backstories pretty thoroughly, though. I do remember that the appalling Ma and Pa Foley came about after I watched a dog training programme one night, where the parents actually did make daily roast dinners for their dogs, and stuck frozen pizzas in the microwave for their son.

How much research did you do for this book? I'm thinking about subjects like prostitution, drugs and serial killers.
More than usual. Normally I like to wing it to a certain degree, but for this book I had to find out details like what crack cocaine smells like, or how police forces share information. At one point I overcomplicated the prostitution subplot, which I blame on an overuse of Google. I had Jinn plying her trade via the web – I found a lot of sex workers promoting their business with websites – before I realised that she simply wouldn’t be that sophisticated, and she would be ‘winging it’ as much as I was. At that point I turned to a friend who had been a local policeman and picked his brains instead – I threatened to thank him in the acknowledgements for ‘help with prostitutes’, but he called my bluff, and I chickened out at the last minute!

And, leading on from that, these are strong subjects for teenage readers. Are there any taboos left, do you think? Personal and general. And has your appetite for challenging subject matter caused you problems getting published or with readers, librarians and booksllers?
It’s hard to think of a subject that would be completely taboo, even in the Young Adult market – there certainly seem to be no taboos left in adult fiction. If there’s a subject I personally wouldn’t like to touch, it’s probably the murder of a young child – but that’s a very personal thing.
I haven’t had problems with publishers – they’ll occasionally ask me to take out an f-word or two, but I’m usually happy to do that, and it usually makes the text stronger (an occasional obscenity always works far better than peppering the manuscript with them). Oh, and I’ve actually been ticked off by teen readers for swearing!
I have been told on the quiet, though, of an occasional school that won’t stock my books, or a shortlist that won’t have me – usually that’s down to fear of parents. The only time I’ve really been offended was when a school accused CROSSING THE LINE of ‘glamourising’ knife crime. Obviously they hadn’t read it.

I read this book a few weeks ago, and it's haunted me -  especially the character of Nathan. Was it hard to move on as a writer? 
Thank you – that is a really good thing to hear. I never intended to get so attached to Nathan myself, but his contradictions got to me after a while, and I became very fond of him (which of course doesn’t mean I cut him any slack). Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t so hard to move on from this one. AMBER was hard to write, and I spent a lot of time with the characters, and I was ready to say goodbye.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Saxby's School Visits by Simon Cheshire

Simon and just some of his books
Like many children's authors, I get regular updates on what's popular in my books because I visit a lot of schools every year. One thing that's emerged very strongly is something that's been a complete surprise to me.
            When I started writing my Saxby Smart detective stories, about a schoolkid private eye, I was very keen to make them different in some way, to give them a unique angle for readers to engage with: so I eliminated the sidekick role. Most fictional detectives have their sidekick, but I wanted to do something fresh. So Saxby has nobody trailing around after him, asking questions.
            I leave that up to the reader. Saxby's narrative directly addresses the reader at all times, and literally stops to ask the reader questions about the case. I liked the idea of the stories being interactive, with readers being able to attempt to solve the crime at the same time (or before!) the hero of the story.
            When the books started to be published over here in the UK, I assumed that this interactive element would make them more of a 'personal' read, not something you'd find on whole-class reading lists. But it's turned out that I was totally wrong.
            Wherever I go, I meet teachers who tell me that the Saxby stories are perfect for reading to a class of 8-12 year-olds, or for the whole class to read along together. The interactive element means that everyone can get involved in unravelling the mystery.
            Now that the books are starting to come out in paperback over in America, I'm finding that they're beginning to have the same impact in US schools. I'm looking forward to logging on during my regular Skype sessions with overseas classrooms and finding Saxby fans from coast to coast!

 Does a detective need a sidekick? Which books work well in the classroom for older teens?
Find out more about Simon Cheshire and his best-selling books, including the Saxby Smart detective stories  at

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Incidental Crime by Rachel Ward

Numbers 3 - published this month
There’s a lot of crime in my books, a heck of a lot. My books aren’t crime novels, though. Really, they’re about life and death and love. But along the way I write about car theft, drug dealing, rape, murder, kidnap...okay, now I see why my mum’s disturbed that her daughter writes books like these!

I’ve written three books now – the Numbers trilogy – and crime is there in the background of all of them, as are a whole range of social issues. My characters grow up in crime-filled environments. They are victims and they are criminals. They make stupid choices sometimes, choices that you wouldn’t recommend to anyone. I’ve been criticised in some places for letting my characters make the ‘wrong’ choices, but I want the people in my books to feel real. They’re the sort of people you might know from school, or maybe cross the road to avoid. And real people don’t live lives according to the manual – we do things we regret, make decisions on the hoof, sometimes recognise the right thing to do and do the wrong thing anyway.

The award-winning first in the Numbers trilogy
But books aren’t real life. They’re a skewed version of reality, and as a writer you can shape things they way you want them to be. So in my books I don’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends, but I do try to show that actions have consequences and I try and give a glimmer of hope (okay, you might have to squint to find it). People get hurt, physically and emotionally. Things are messy, but my characters try and deal with them as best they can. And in the end, whatever you’ve done, whatever gets done to you, you try and carry on, and hold on to what’s important. Life and death and love.
The first in Rachel Ward's Numbers trilogy won the Angus Book Award, the Oxfordshire Book Award, the Stockport Schools Book Award, Key Stage 4, the Hounslow Book Award and the Wandsworth Fabulous Book Award 2010. The final book Numbers 3 Infinity, was published on June 6. Find out more about Rachel and her books here.

Monday, 6 June 2011

EGA interviews...Anne Cassidy

EGA's keen readers
 The Reading Group at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London interviewed Anne Cassidy for Crime Central. Here's the first half of the interview..more next week.    

1.      What inspired you to become a writer?

I love reading books. I read book after book and one day I wondered if I could write a story. I tried a few things but realised that I was just writing for myself. So I joined a writer’s group and for two years went every fortnight and shared my stories and poems. It gave me confidence about what I was writing. One day I said to myself, I’m a writer! Once I’d admitted it it seemed that the next step was to write a novel.

2.      How did you get into crime/mystery writing?

I love reading crime fiction. I love the fact that there is a mystery which will unfold over 300 pages. The writer knows what the secret is but the reader has to find out. When I decided to write my first novel I was working as a teacher and I wanted to write about teenagers, using my own memories of being a teenager. I decided to write a murder mystery where two teens overhear a murder during a phone call. They decide to find out what happened. It’s called BIG GIRLS’ SHOES and is long out of print.

3.      Are you planning on getting into other genres?

No, I don’t think so. The crime genre is a popular and I’ve still got lots of stories to tell.

4.      What is your favourite book out of all those you’ve written?

I have two favourites. The first is LOOKING FOR JJ. This is because it was so successful for me. It’s my best selling book and people still come up to me and tell me how much they liked it. The other one is a book with an odd title STORY OF MY LIFE. It’s a crime thriller with a boy, Kenny, as the main character. It’s fictional but the boy, Kenny, was definitely based on my son so this book has a special place in my heart.

5.      What is your favourite book overall?

I don’t have a single favourite book. I like lots of books at different times. I’ve just read REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier. This is an ‘old’ book but I had never read it and I enjoyed it very much.

6.      Where do you get your inspiration from?

Inspiration is the wrong word. I get my ideas from real newspaper stories of crimes and terrible things that happen. I read something that moves me or makes me think a lot and so I file that away in my brain and it may turn into a story.

7.      Like, Keren David's ‘When I was Joe,’ ‘Looking for JJ’ has a central character with an assumed identity. How did you research this?

I didn’t research it. I just tried to imagine what it would be like to pretend that you were a completely new person. To wipe away all links with the past, with the people you loved, friends and so on and start again, fresh. For some people it might be a good thing for others, not so good.

8.      How do you choose names for your characters?

I work out the year they were born and then I go onto a website which lists the most popular names for that year. Sometimes I hear a name that I like a lot. I was doing a school visit and I signed a book for a girl called ELISE. I used that as the name of the main character in JUST JEALOUS.

9.      Did you like writing as a child?

No, I was hopeless at school. I was terrible at English. I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties.

10.  Why do you like writing for teenagers?

I think it’s because I remember that time so well. Three or four years when I wasn’t a child and wasn’t an adult. It was a time of deep frustration and a sense of longing to be older. I hated school and for a while hated my parents (loved them again later). I felt that everyone had a better life than me and I wasn’t very easy to get along with. Oh, as well as that, I kept falling in love with unsuitable people. That’s why I remember it so well.

11.  Do you have any relatives who are police officers?


(If you're part of a school reading group and you'd like to interview a crime writer, let us know and we'll try and arrange it.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Knife in the Playground by Tom Avery

‘We have gathered you all together because, this morning, something shocking was discovered.’  This is how pupils at a London school were greeted in a special assembly one Monday – ‘A knife’s been found in school.’  They were then presented with exhibit A; a stained blade of dubious origin.

This was, thankfully, a fiction.  This literacy project was created and run by class teachers at Torriano Junior School, one of which is me, Tom Avery.  As well as teaching, I write, my debut book Too Much Trouble, published today, explores crimes of survival alongside other themes, themes, which I cannot help but take into the classroom.

From this shady start a shared narrative began in which the pupils took the role of experts addressing the issues explored.  Led pre-dominantly by the pupils, this knife, its history, owners and usage, was the centre of the year six pupils’ learning experience. 

Why was the issue of knife crime chosen?
The pre-dominant reason was the pupils themselves.  In the heart of North London, Torriano Junior School, draws its intake from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.  However, despite their differences, the pupils there are all affected by crime, from hearing about it in the news to witnessing it first-hand. 

The streets around the school are not strangers to serious knife crimes and the teachers were very aware that their pupils, who would shortly be leaving to attend local secondary schools, would also lose that innocence.  Alongside this, gang mentality and behaviour was beginning to show in groups of pupils.  It was felt that the issues had to be addressed.

What do you do with an illegal weapon?

The pupils decided that the right thing to do with the knife was report it to the police.  Pupils wrote letters to the police to report the weapon and to share their concern over theirs and their community’s safety.  ‘The police’, in the form of the teachers, wrote back to the pupils informing them of the operations which were currently running, the metropolitan police’s website is excellent by the way, and furnishing them with CCTV photos of the two possessors of the knife.

From here the pupils took the project in several directions.  Leaflets about knife crime were created, in order to persuade people like our perpetrators to hand in their weapons.  The photos were used as the starting point for drama pieces, play-scripts and narratives, which all attempted to piece together the events leading up to the knife being deposited in the school grounds.  The real police were invited in to share in the project and give the pupils a richer experience of the issues.  Witness statements were created, debates took place, awareness was raised throughout the school.

Was it a success?
If we measured the success of the project in output of work or English progress as defined by the DfE, the answer would be a resounding yes.  If our measure was the pupil’s engagement and enjoyment of the project, the yes would be even louder.  If, however, we looked at our original aims, to influence, away from gang and knife culture, the young people who took part in the project, the success remains to be seen.

Too Much Trouble won the Diverse Voices competition 2010. It is published today by Frances Lincoln.