Friday 29 June 2012

Crawl Space welcomes Jenny Williams

Jenny Williams spent 14 years as a detective in the Metropolitan Police, and Avon & Somerset Constabulary, before choosing to work with schools to show how crimes are really investigated. CSI Kids works in primary and secondary schools, holiday clubs, youth groups and at children’s parties. Jenny covers subjects from investigation skills to personal and internet safety, and is currently also working on corporate and team building events.

Welcome to Crawl Space, Jenny!

Q. You’ve said that your aim with CSI Kids is to spark an interest in science by setting ‘hands on’ challenges in forensics. It certainly worked with my 11 year old, who came home from school buzzing with news of how she’d spent the day ‘rummaging in corpses’! Can you explain a bit about how you enthuse and educate the kids you work with?

When I was an investigator with the police, I’d often send stuff off to the lab – and results would come back, as if by magic. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I got stuck into the science of case-solving: DNA, forensics and so on. I think with kids, it’s a similar thing. They have a natural curiosity and they love the hands on aspect of the workshops. I try to treat them like grown-ups as far as possible, setting challenges and seeing what they come up with. And of course I try to make it fun.

Q. What about the kids who want to muck about – do you have any tips for parents/schools?

I put on my old police hat… that generally does the trick! Seriously, though, I think if you engage kids’ imaginations, you won’t have any problems.

Q. You’re an Ambassador for STEM. Can you tell us a little about that? What’s been your proudest moment with them?

Well, I’ve done a couple of STEM workshops in schools, and I hope to go to careers talks in future. If it’s taught well, science can be one of the best subjects at school. I remember making soap in chemistry and absolutely loving it. In one session that I do with kids in the classroom, we construct a strand of DNA out of sweets. They love it. I call it science by stealth!

Q. You were 14 years with the police before you struck out on your own. Can you describe an investigation or two that sticks in your mind?

As a new detective, I was in charge of a drugs investigation where I had to search a house for drugs. There was a brand new patio in the back garden, and they’d given me this tiny dog that was also a newbie. The dog was convinced there was something under the patio. I had to decide whether to risk digging up this very new, very expensive patio – and incurring the wrath of everyone involved if we found nothing down there. The dog was so sure that in the end I gave the order to dig, and we found a thermos flask full of Class A drugs buried about two feet down. That tiny dog went on to become the Met’s top drugs dog.

A bit later, I was working a white collar crime case, involving a suspect who treated me like a bimbo. So I played up to that, let him think I was a dumb blonde, and he ended up tying himself in knots. He was convicted, which was hugely satisfying.

Q. I have to ask, do you read much crime fiction? If so, how realistic do you find it? How about TV crime?

I read very little crime, as I tend to find myself muttering about the inaccuracies. The same goes for TV, to an extent. Take a programme like Silent Witness. Anyone who’s ever actually been in a post-mortem room wouldn’t want to watch it on TV. And don’t get me started on the cross-contamination risks they all run, or the collusion between different parties – where’s their professional distance? All their ‘evidence’ would be thrown out before it ever got to court.

I did enjoy The Bridge recently. The main character being autistic was compelling to watch, even if the story was a bit weak in the end. Today’s mini-series are much better than the old days of The Bill, I think. The idea of the lone cop is just daft, though. The average detective team is thirty people – the only programme that comes close to that is Scott & Bailey with its cast of extras all hard at work in the background.

So much of what goes on in day-to-day policing just isn’t glamorous at all. Take CCTV footage, for instance. On TV, it’s always available really quickly. Well, in real life, a lot of CCTV footage is privately owned and can’t be handed over without paperwork etc. It can take weeks to trawl through just a few days of footage. Oh, and facial recognition software? Doesn’t exist as far as the police are concerned – we do surveillance the old-fashioned way; teams are trained to pass in a crowd, be dishevelled, wear neutral colours, never dye their hair and unlearn the ‘police’ way to drive a car and so on. I remember one day in training after I thought I’d learnt most of the key points of surveillance – it was raining and without thinking I turned up in a bright red mac. My training officer was not impressed!

Q. You run forensic parties for kids, with skeletons and fingerprinting… So much better than the average kids’ party! I heard a rumour that you’re thinking of starting something similar for grown-ups?

Yes! I’m actually thinking of murder mystery weekends, which will be interesting to organise. I was shortlisted for a parties’ award for the kids’ ones, which was great. It'll be fun to tackle grown-ups next.

Thanks, Jenny, that was fascinating – a real insight into your work, past and present.

Find out more about Jenny’s work with CSI Kids here.

Thursday 21 June 2012

International Short Story Day

Yesterday was International Short Story Day, and I had great fun collaborating with Stella Duffy, Tony White, Nicholas Blincoe, Maria Roberts and Calum Kerr, to come up with Dealing Honesty. The story was written in real time, with each of us allocated an hour to contribute 400 words, passing the baton as we went. I think the finished result is pretty damn smooth, given that six people pulled it together, against the clock. Teams in South Africa were also writing collaboratively. You can read their stories here. If you haven't already tried co-writing (think of Consequences, that game from childhood) I recommend you give it a go - terrific fun and a great way to kick your creativity into a higher gear.

International Short Story Day is being extended in my neck of the woods, so I can continue cheerleading at Ragged Stone in Portishead tonight, where I'm reading my stories and flash fiction as part of their Open Mic session. How're you all celebrating?

Monday 11 June 2012

Crawl Space welcomes Rhian Davies

Rhian Davies is a keen supporter of debut and midlist crime novelists, and one of the judges for the CWA’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award. Since 2005, she’s run It’s a Crime! (Or a mystery…), a blog focusing on books, literary festivals, publishing and authors – and one of the best online sources for crime writing news and intelligent (and entertaining) analysis.

Welcome to Crawl Space, Rhian!

Thank you for the invitation, Sarah.  This is a new experience for me.

Q. I think at the last count, your blog had over 190 book reviews. Are you always reading? How did you first get into reviewing?

It’s now 220 and not all of them are mine, although 200 probably are.  Bear in mind that’s over nearly seven years.  But the answer is yes, of course.  Not always crime novels either; my Android phone now performs many roles including phone (obviously), alarm clock, Kindle reading, and an internet resource for reading news and other stuff. 

And I have to tell you a story here.  I moved back to Wales in 2004 and a couple of years later bumped into someone from school at an M&S food hall.  We hadn’t seen one another for nearly 30 years.  She said to me, “I remember you always having a book with you …” adding, before I could get a word in, “and I was always the gobby one”.  I thought it was funny that I was remembered for being a bookworm as I can’t remember half of what I actually did read when young.  Said ‘gobby one’ and I then spent over an hour chatting at the end of the till area.  The girls had even switched over and we hadn’t noticed.  The one who’d been on the till came up and pointed to some chairs and said, “You could have sat there you know”.  But it was then time for goodbyes as M&S was about to close.  I hope the stream of customers passing through that till were entertained by salacious gossip from the valleys.

As for reviewing, originally I started a blog to share my first “Harrogate Crime Writing Festival” experience with online friends.  Being so inept with putting pics into free blogspot, I then moved to paid Typepad, thinking it would be better.  So I found myself with a blog I was paying for and then decided to populate it writing and enthusing about the books I’d read.  I never used the word “review” either.  It took until early 2010 when I was contacted by a well-respected author and mainstream media book reviewer asking me to “review” her latest novel before I felt worthy of using the description. 

Q. You review TV crime dramas too. Have you read any debut novels lately that you’d like to see adapted? Any adaptations you wish hadn’t been made?

Elizabeth Haynes’s Into the Darkest Corner would translate well to screen and I understand it has been bought for adaptation.  I’d like to see Danny Miller’s Kiss Me Quick go the same way, but as it’s set in the 1960s it presents one of the more costly adaptations because of the historical detail element and these are shied away from at the moment.  But there’s scope there for a series as Kiss Me Quick is the start of one and Danny Miller has already produced the second novel.

I can’t think of any truly dire adaptations recently apart from the non-crime Birdsong which was tedious in the extreme; something the book was certainly not.  It’s a shame the BBC wasted money on The Body Farm – the spin-off from Waking the Dead – as it was preposterous.  They’d have been better off spending the money on a second run for Zen.  If the stocks or hanging, drawing and quartering are brought back, please do the initial test on BBC1 Controller Danny Cohen.  I’ll happily supervise.

Q. I’ll second that. You took part in the Criminal Mastermind panel at this year’s CrimeFest in Bristol. Did you swot up for that?

I asked people to tweet me questions every day but everyone kept forgetting so I couldn’t rely on that!  I had plans though; just plans as it turned out.  Last minute, I managed a panicky overview for my specialist subject but that was about it.  It was fun and I am proud to say I didn’t come last.

Q. You also blog at Errant Apostrophe. Can you tell us a bit about that, share a favourite grammar atrocity maybe?

I set that one up after seeing another oh-so-obvious error in the Daily Mail online.  My patience had run out.  The blog covers more than just apostrophe misuse, but the apostrophe’s misuse is the one that gets me the most.  People are actually making up new rules when there’s no need.  What we already have is not broken and does not need fixing.  It’s simply a huge gap in education.  The Daily Mail has proven to be a rich source of blog posts by the way. 

Julian Fellowes has been written about quite a lot with the success of Downton Abbey.  But, ending with “s”, his surname presents some problems in the media.  My favourite “atrocity” has to be the one where his surname was effectively changed because someone could not deal with the possessive for him.  He was recorded as “Fellowe’s” thus suddenly making him Julian Fellowe.  Don’t know how to handle the apostrophe?  Oh, it’s OK to change someone’s name these days it seems.

But seriously, if anyone does want some practice in this, I suggest reading Anne Zouroudi’s latest The Bull of Mithros.  Set in Greece and with many characters whose names end in “s” – all are handled perfectly in the possessive.  It’s a beauty of a book on many levels.

Q. You’re also involved with Celebrating Reginald Hill for the CWA’s Crime Writing Month.  How did that come about?

Reginald Hill was much loved as a person as well as for his work.  I thought Crime Writing Month was a great opportunity to remember him, so I asked Margot Kinberg to co-host the idea with me.  Her breadth of knowledge across the world of crime fiction is highly impressive.  The first key area for us was to identify the right individuals to approach for contributions in the curation process.  The response has been overwhelming and we’ve had some fabulous input including from some who contacted us in the first week with offers of articles and pictures.  We’ve now extended the deadline for the site to July 5, the official closing date for Crime Writing Month.  Reginald Hill is sorely missed and fondly remembered, and it’s all coming out on the site.

Q. You’re something of a champion of debut and midlist authors. Is it all about discovering exciting new talent, or is there more to it than that?

It actually started when I became a bit bored with some of the bestselling authors and the production of too much “same old”.  I scouted around for new authors to read and found some great talents in both the midlist and the debut camps.  Both sets need support to get their names out there and I was very happy to help out in that.  It’s also very exciting finding a new, fresh and innovative voice.  I am about to take this one step further and will have some exciting news at the end of June.

Q. I know you have a policy to only publish reviews where you can be positive overall. Do you think this is a policy more reviewers should adopt?

I have seen this brought up and debated many times on blogs and, quite frankly, it bores me.  Each to their own.  We all have different constraints.  I once subscribed to the disclosure “policy” of acknowledging the source of a book, but when I became a judge on the Creasey this presented problems, so now I don’t bother.  It doesn’t suit me.  As I said, each to their own.  All that matters in my opinion is being honest.  Crime fiction readers are not stupid and can spot a gushing reader endorsement over a sensible and informed review.  What I write on the blog, and what I publish there from others, is aimed at honesty, but also a sharing of enthusiasm and encouragement to read.

Q. Having helped to judge Flashbang 2012, ahead of CrimeFest, what do you think the standard of entries says about the undiscovered talent out there?

It’s very healthy and thriving.  I think we will see some exciting new authors debut over the next few years.

Q. Finally, if we could bottle the essence of a good book review, what would the ingredients be?

What I look for when reading a book review: something that tells me what the book is about; what’s good about it; what’s not so good about it – if anything – and if that can be overlooked in the scheme of overall enjoyment.  I don’t consider scathing reviews to be productive; they often simply reek of jealousy on the part of the reviewer.  And if the reviewer has had extremely good sex from the author, I think this should be disclosed.  ;)

Thanks, Rhian, and see you in the bar at Harrogate!

Thursday 7 June 2012

Taking the Chain Gang Challenge

Comma Press, small publisher supreme and from my home city of Manchester, are playing a big part in organising this year's International Short Story Day on 20 June. One of the real-time highlights of the day will be the Chain Gang Challenge, described thus by Comma:


The Challenge : 6 writers, 6 hours, 1 story.

As part of the International Short Story Day celebrations, The Book Lounge (South Africa) and Comma Press (United Kingdom) will be going head to head across the globe as their teams battle in the chain story competition. At 8.00am GMT* on Wednesday 20th June, the first of the teams of literary legends will sit down around the globe and start writing. An hour later, the keyboard will be wrested from his/her hands and passed on. As each segment of the story unravels, we’ll upload it to the Short Story Day Africa website. Readers will be able to watch the stories unfold online and, at 2pm GMT**, when the last writer adds the final full stop, the polls will open and readers can begin voting for their favourite story. 

* 9.00am UK and 10.00am SA **3.00pm UK and 4.00pm SA

The Prize: Bragging Rights and six copies of The Silence Room by Sean O’Brien, published by Comma Press.

UK team: Stella Duffy, Maria Roberts, Sarah Hilary, Nicholas Blincoe, Calum Kerr, and Tony White.

SA team: TBC
So, yes, at 10am GMT on 20 June I'll be taking up where Stella Duffy left off, before passing the story on to Nicholas Blincoe. Exciting stuff. Who else is celebrating International Short Story Day?

Comma's advice: Take up The Chain Gang Challenge yourself by assembling a team of writers and registering your chain gang with us on

For more info, contact or