Crime Starters

A pioneering course at City University has turned aspiring mystery writers into published authors. Andre Paine joins them in the lecture theatre to learn about creating suspense and spreadsheets for murder.

There’s a new crime wave taking place in Clerkenwell. The bodies are starting to pile up at this St John Street location, but don’t worry — this is just a hot spot for fictional crime. Like many other academic institutions, City University runs a creative writing MA course. But the tutors at EC1 can boast that they were first to target crime and thriller writing, which is the most popular genre among adult fiction titles.

“We set it up in 2012 and it was the first genre writing MA in the country — in the world possibly, as far as we know,” says senior lecturer and crime writer Claire McGowan. “It’s a two-year course, so the students have an extra year on the end to write their novel with our support and hopefully be ready for publication.”

As The Post joins McGowan and her students, she’s quick to point out that City has had “quite a few people published, which we’re really happy about”.

In fact, some of those successful authors have come back for this lively discussion event with a panel of fellow crime writers. The wine is flowing during a relaxed gathering to share writing tips, ideas and inspiration.

Susi Holliday, who writes as SJI Holliday, confesses to the audience that her editor described the spreadsheet detailing the kill list for new novel e Deaths Of December as “creepy”. Mel McGrath talks about the research she did interviewing a senior forensic psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital about junior psychopaths for her book Give Me The Child. Paul Hawkins, author of e Girl on the Train, has given it a rave review (“dark, clever, terrifying”).

“Secrets are grist to the mill for the crime novel,” McGrath explains to students hoping to emulate her suspenseful prose. As well as workshops, seminars and lectures, the core of the crime thriller creative writing MA is one-to-one tutorials to discuss a novel in progress. City University’s pioneering course clearly works because it’s helping aspiring authors to get published, as well as securing agents as a vital first step to appearing in print.

Following their graduation in 2014, three alumni — David Young, Steph Broadribb and Rod Reynolds — from the first year’s intake of 12 are successful authors. Several other City alumni are set to appear in print with debut novels this year, including Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Fran Dorrico and Chris McGeorge.

Young won the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger for his debut, Stasi Child, and has just published the third book in the series, A Darker State. Describing the tutoring as “invaluable”, he says the MA was “key to me ge ing a book deal” and praised the feedback of City lecturer, author and Guardian crime critic Laura Wilson. 

“When I finally got a deal, she emailed me to say she’d punched the air and run around the room like a victorious sports star,” Young tells The Post. Broadribb published her debut, Deep Down Dead, last year and now has a sequel, Deep Blue Trouble. Writing under the name Stephanie Marland, she’s also been snapped up by major publisher Orion for her serial killer thriller My Little Eye, the central character of which happens to live on St John Street.

“It gave me the courage to experiment with style, voice and point of view, to try writing in different sub-genres of crime, and find what worked best for me,” says Broadribb of the MA. “The professional critique from the tutors and my fellow students as we workshopped our pieces of writing was a major part of this, as was the camaraderie between us students — we still meet regularly as a critique group several years on.”

“My absolute favourite thing is when I see them get published and end up doing panels with them and going to the same events,” says McGowan, who’s taking a break from teaching for screenwriting in Los Angeles. 

Applications are open for September 2018, and you’ll need to submit 5,000 words of fiction. Judging by the recent bestseller lists, the market for suspenseful stories is stronger than ever with the likes of Hawkins, Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid regularly topping the charts.

“Crime as a genre is not going to go away any time soon, it’s only ge ing bigger,” says McGowan.