In 1999 I was getting great reviews, but sales didn’t match the reviewers’ enthusiasm, and in publishing the marketing budget tends to be reserved for established names who are already big sellers, or debut authors who have fired the imagination of the sales teams. Catch-22 for a mid-lister. Reinventing myself as younger, sexier writer – while an attractive proposition – wasn’t really plausible, so I considered self-promotion. But with a meagre writing income and a pathological aversion to hyping my own books, I was stuck. Many sleepless nights later, I decided that a collective approach was the way to go, and I invited six other crime writers whose work I admired to join forces.
Some of the names on my list of brilliant-but-unknown writers might surprise you: Cath Staincliffe, Martin Edwards, Chaz Brenchley, John Baker, Stuart Pawson, and Ann Cleeves. In 1999, Cath Staincliffe had written only three Sal Kilkenny novels at that point, and her ‘Blue Murder’ TV series wasn’t even a twinkle in a TV producer’s eye. Martin Edwards had recently published the 7th in his Harry Devlin series, and his multi-award-winning ‘Golden Age of Murder’ was nearly sixteen years down the line. Although Ann Cleeves had two series and 14 books under her belt, she had only just completed the first Vera novel. In fact, it wasn’t until 2006 and her CWA Gold Dagger win that Ann’s career began to take off – twenty years after writing her first novel on a windy island off the Wirral coast. So we were each of us on an equal footing from the outset.
Ann Cleeves says, with typical modesty, ‘Things have changed a lot for me in the past twenty years,’ adding, ‘but what's remained stable is the friendship and support of my fellow squaddies. I love spending time with them at events and festivals and the very best are at the bar afterwards, when we share gossip and laughter and catch up with each other's news.’
Martin Edwards recalls memorable shared experiences, including one event when nobody showed up (we went off to the pub). Also, the full Murder Squad appearance on the BBC’s Inside Out. ‘The TV people decided to interview me wandering around underneath Runcorn Bridge, for no reason I could begin to imagine,’ he says, ‘But it gave me a setting for my next book.’ (Martin’s slightly baffled expression in that clip is something I treasure! MM)
Cath Staincliffe appreciates the sense of solidarity and friendship that being part of Murder Squad brings. ‘It’s my writing family,’ she says, ‘and we’ve created fresh opportunities for our work with our short story anthologies.’
A shared theme in all of the squaddies’ comments is the loneliness and isolation inherent in a writerly life and we all value the support and companionship of fellow writers who understand and can empathise with the experience.
Chris Simms and Kate Ellis are relatively new to the squad, but both mention the squad’s weekend of readers’ and writers’ workshops at The Word in South Shields, last year. Kate adds, ‘There are many highs and lows in a writer's life and it's good to have writing friends to share them with.’
Twenty years on, we continue to sustain and encourage each other, sharing not only the highs and lows, but also writing opportunities with others in the squad. I remember the email Ann sent to us all, saying she’d had a query from someone in TV looking for a strong female detective for a new series (this was eight years before ‘Vera’ first aired on TV). That email resulted in Cath’s popular and long-running ‘Blue Murder’ series on TV.
A big bonus for me has been the joy of making friendships that have not only gone the distance but have deepened with time.