“We need books more than ever.” Award-winning crime author Elly Griffiths talks to Northern Soul
There’s a new champion in town and it’s the bestselling crime author, Elly Griffiths.
Readers will know her as the author of the hugely popular Dr Ruth Galloway series which, to date, includes 13 mystery novels beginning with The Crossing Places in 2009 and including The Lantern Men and The Nighthawks. She’s also the author of the popular Stephens & Mephisto novels, set in her native Brighton, and several standalones, including The Postscript Murders, shortlisted for the highest award at the prestigious CWA Dagger Awards, the Gold Dagger.
Now she has a new accolade to add to her bulging CV. The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), founded in 1953 by John Creasey with the aim of supporting, promoting and celebrating the crime genre and its authors, has appointed Griffiths as its CWA Booksellers’ Champion, a role which aims to build links between crime authors and bookshops.
“It’s an exciting idea and a wonderfully exciting title, Booksellers’ Champion, isn’t it?” enthuses Griffiths, a voracious reader who, like many others, has been reading even more during lockdown. “I’m really lucky to live near the sea and that has been a real lifesaver for me,” she says. “I walk to the sea every day and I swim quite a lot, but I have to say, I felt really lucky to have writing. I did write two books in lockdown. I have a writing shed in my garden and I was lucky to be able to go there every day and have somewhere to escape to [with my cat Gus].
“But books have really got me through, and I think that’s been true for a lot of people. I’ve been re-reading old favourites including diving into old Georgette Heyer novels. I’ve heard anecdotally that a lot of people have been doing that in lockdown, reading and escaping into books, as well as board games and jigsaws. It’s funny, isn’t it, that we’ve been turning to pre-digital comforts and people really have turned to books in a huge way.”
“Bookshops,” she observes, “are obviously really important to writers and have become even more important in the last year or so, as we’ve realised how much going into a shop, looking at the books there, and chatting to people means to us all. We need books more than ever and it seems that crime novels are especially popular in difficult times. So, we at the CWA decided, by having a champion, to show how much bookshops meant to us and to get more crime writers into bookshops to strengthen those links between author and bookshops, because we need each other so much. We’ve missed bookshops when they were shut and we’re encouraging all writers to go into their local bookshops and say hello, really.”
Griffiths is the pen name of author Domenica de Rosa, who published her first novel, The Italian Quarter, in 1998 under her own name. A holiday in Norfolk inspired her to write what would become the bestselling The Crossing Places, the first novel in her Dr Ruth Galloway series of mystery novels and her first novel as Elly Griffiths.
“It is odd, I suppose, that my real name does sound made up and my pseudonym doesn’t, but it’s just that I published the Domenica books first and my then agent suggested I have a crime name to keep them separate. But I never really expected my crime name to overtake my real name,” she laughs. “My four Domenica books are still in print and I’m always excited if someone turns up to an event and asks me to sign one, although I do sometimes have to think as it’s been so long since I’ve signed my real name, one doesn’t even sign cheques anymore.”
As for her personal history, her family moved to Brighton when she was five, remembers Griffiths.
“I loved Brighton and still do – the town, the surrounding countryside and, most of all, the sea. I wrote my first book when I was 11-years-old, a murder-mystery set in Rottingdean, near the village where I still live.
“At secondary school, I used to write fan fiction episodes of Starsky & Hutch and afterwards I did all the right things to become a writer. I read English at King’s College London and, after graduating, worked in a library, for a magazine and then as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins. I loved working in publishing and eventually became editorial director for children’s books at HarperCollins. All this completely put me off writing and it wasn’t until I was on maternity leave in 1998 that I wrote what would become my first published novel, The Italian Quarter.
“Three other books followed, all about Italy, families and identity. By then we had two children and my husband, Andy, had just given up his City job to become an archaeologist. We were on holiday in Norfolk, walking across Titchwell Marsh, when Andy mentioned that prehistoric man had thought that marshland was sacred because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between. So, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife. As he said those words the entire plot of The Crossing Places appeared, fully formed, in my head and, walking towards me out of the mist, I saw Dr Ruth Galloway. I didn’t think that this new book was significantly different from my ‘Italy’ books but, when she read it, my agent said, ‘This is crime. You need a crime name.’ And that’s how I became Elly Griffiths.”
Griffiths will be supported in the new role by fellow crime authors Vaseem Khan and William Shaw. Khan is the author of two crime series set in India – the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 50s Bombay, while Shaw worked as a journalist for more than 20 years and is author of the DS Alexandra Cupidi series, the acclaimed Breen & Tozer crime series set in 60s London, and the standalone bestseller The Birdwatcher.
“We are a team,” she emphasises, “and the three of us are thinking of going on a bookshop crawl for Independent Bookshop Week and trying to visit as many bookshops as we can. Plus, June is Crime Reading Month, so we can liaise with bookshops, making sure that they have all the information that they need and reminding our members that bookshops like to see us. I’m sure it will be a two-way thing because we both need each other. We love bookshops, particularly independent bookshops, and we really miss them so I definitely do hope that live book tours will be back in the near future. Of course, a lot of bookshops have done really good online events in the past year, and I think that will continue. That’s great as well, especially if people have issues about getting to live events. I hope that both will happen because we really miss getting into bookshops and doing live events, going out and meeting people.”
In a sense, her recent standalone novel The Postscript Murders, in which an elderly woman called Peggy is discovered after her death to have a number of business cards describing her as a ‘murder consultant’ and to have been friendly with many crime writers, was inspired by Griffiths’ love of reading, particularly of Golden Age mysteries.
“I slightly got the inspiration for Peggy from my own aunt,” she says. “She would ring me up and say, ‘I’ve thought of another good murder for you,’ and I started to think, ‘what if there was such a thing as a murder consultant?’
“In fact, she came up with a very good plot twist for one of my Dr Ruth Galloway books that involved a stair-lift. I remember that when the book was reviewed in the Financial Times they said, ‘it contains one of the nastiest uses of a stair-lift that I’ve ever heard of’. I cut that article out for my aunt, and she was so proud of her stair-lift murder that she framed it.
“Of course, there’s absolutely nothing cosy about murder, so it is a strange thing that lots of people, me included, do find reading about these murders quite comforting, really. I think we do like unlocking the puzzle and in The Postscript Murders the answer to the puzzle lies in books, it lies in Golden Age mysteries, it lies in readers and in writers. I did draw upon not only my aunt, but also my mum as well, those characters that seem to know everything. People in the book ask, ‘how could Peggy have known that she didn’t travel to those places,’ but she knew it all through reading. Both of them were great readers and seemed to acquire all this knowledge through reading, so I think it’s also a book about reading, and the power it gives you.”
Has lockdown affected her own writing in any way, does she think?
“It’s a really good question and I have asked myself that,” she ponders. “I think so, because The Nighthawks, the Ruth book I wrote during lockdown, is quite spooky and quite claustrophobic, as it takes place in a lonely farmhouse and there’s this ghostly dog which roams Norfolk. It’s full of lots of Norfolk myths and legends, lots of Norfolk landscape, so I think it’s probably the most Norfolk of my books partly because I couldn’t go to Norfolk, so it’s part of my longing to be there.”
What about actually setting a novel during lockdown?
“It’s a real decision a lot of us have had to make if you write a long-running series, and I’d thought about omitting COVID-19 and lockdown altogether. But I’m writing Ruth 14 The Locked Room now, and it is set during lockdown. I’ve written a Ruth book every year for 14 years and it would have felt very strange in a way to miss out 2020.
“But there’s no right decision. It’s interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a bit of a gift for a writer as you have instant isolation and tension. On the other hand, nobody can wander around and bump into anyone else in the pub or whatever, so you do have a few plot issues working with lockdown. But I enjoyed the challenge.”
The CWA Daggers will be announced in July 2021. Elly Griffiths is one of the guests at this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate from July 22-25, 2021.
The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths is one of six books shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2021. The others titles are The Man On The Street by Trevor Wood, Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton, The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway, Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, and We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker. It’s a public vote via harrogatetheakstoncrimeaward.com and the winner will be announced on the opening night of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on July 22.
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