Flashback to 1999. A conversation with an editor: ‘You get such lovely reviews, Margaret,’ (sigh) ‘It’s a pity they don’t translate into sales.’ I was taken aback; sales weren’t my province – that surely was the publisher’s job? She frowned: ‘Oh, but it doesn’t work like that.’ Clearly, she was right – on that point, at least. Good reviews don’t sell books; marketing and publicity sell books. Yet only a tiny, favoured minority of authors have marketing budgets.
Not being one of this happy band – and not one to give up easily, either – I decided to try to find a way of building my profile – which meant publicising my own work. But one small voice is easily drowned by the roar of the collective publicity and marketing machines of the mighty publishing houses, who can spend six figure sums promoting their big names. At that point, my advances were under £10 000, so paying for PR wasn’t an option, and shouting about my own books was definitely not going to happen – but talking about other writers I admired – that might be fun.
The next step was to find a few like-minded colleagues, which proved remarkably easy. At the next meeting of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers Association I approached John Baker, Chaz Brenchley, Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards, Stuart Pawson and Cath Staincliffe, who all readily agreed, and so Murder Squad was conceived.
We shared ideas and contacts, set up a website, designed and had brochures printed, and emailed or wrote to every library reader development officer and festival we could find across the UK. The response was hugely encouraging, with offers flooding in from festivals, libraries, and bookshops, as well as from journalists interested to hear more about this band of northern crime writers, and we launched in March, year 2000. But the squad met with opposition – even hostility – from a quite unexpected quarter: within the CWA itself. While for many members it was a lightbulb moment, a few criticised Murder Squad as ‘divisive’, and in 2003, one Dagger judge even cited the absence of Squad members from the CWA annual conference as evidence of ‘an unwelcome schism in the membership of the CWA’. The reality was that we promoted the CWA at every event we did, and Martin Edwards had edited the association’s anthologies of short fiction since 1996 — in fact, he was editing a special collection to celebrate the CWA's Golden Jubilee in the ‘year of the schism’! By then, there were five other collectives of crime writers, most of whom were CWA members. A lively and frank exchange of opinion followed, the consensus being that, as the CWA had survived three whole years since the inception of Murder Squad, it was probably over the worst. Indeed, the CWA has thrived, despite the fifth columnists in its midst, and is stronger today than it has ever been. As is Murder Squad.
We could not have imagined that it would run and run. But it did, and here we are celebrating Murder Squad’s 20th anniversary. To date we’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops, published three Murder Squad anthologies (one of which won two awards), gained 20+ prizes – including CWA Daggers, Edgars, Macavitys, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, RTS and Agatha Awards – as well as honorary degrees. Not bad for a bunch of mid-listers who refused to accept the status quo. Sadly, Stuart Pawson died a few years ago and Chaz and John stepped down from the squad, but Kate Ellis and Chris Simms have joined us, and the mutually supportive ethos continues.
Ann has famously gone on to write two phenomenally successful book series, Vera and Shetland, which are equally successful on TV, while Cath created the highly popular Blue Murder TV series. I went on to Chair the CWA, as did Martin Edwards, and both Martin and Ann Cleeves have been awarded the association’s highest honour: the CWA Diamond Dagger.
The COVID-19 lockdown has meant we had to cancel parties, discussion panels and workshops across the UK, but we’ve increased our online activity to compensate, with more frequent newsletters and occasional ‘Personal Perspectives’ on writing – do join us at www.murdersquad.co.uk. The squad approaches the next twenty years with the same enthusiasm to reach a wider audience that we began with. In addition to our website and regular newsletters, we’re now on Twitter and Facebook – and we have a new anthology of short stories in the works. Called 21, it will celebrate our 21st anniversary with twenty-one stories – three by each of the current members, and one each from Stuart, Chaz, and John. The anthology will be published in 2021 in both the UK and the US by Severn House.
I started working on this novel over a decade ago. I’d always been fascinated by human psychology, and in 2001-2002, I’d even completed the first year of a degree in the subject at the University of Liverpool. During that time, I was volunteering at a refugee charity as part of my research for a novel and had befriended an asylum seeker. ‘Faith’ (not her real name) often became mute during consultations and interviews, and sometimes even collapsed. But slowly, her story emerged: she had been abducted in her home country, taken across the border into another country, and illegally imprisoned. Over many months she had been repeatedly raped, starved, and tortured. She had been forced to watch as her partner was murdered and had seen her friends mutilated by her captors. The UK government was adamant: there was no such regime in her home country – it was safe for her to return. My own research demonstrated that the British Government’s intelligence was out of date, but it was not accepted as sufficient proof, and it was only the delay in her asylum hearing which allowed time for their intel to catch up. After eighteen months, Faith was granted asylum and was finally able to begin building a new life.
With her permission, I included some of her experiences in See Her Burn, and a year or two later, I was invited to speak to professionals and service users at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust – a mental health trust in London which specialises in talking therapies. The trust wanted to hear about my practical experience of working with a refugee with PTSD. The session was introduced by the Portman Trust’s Clinical Director, psychoanalytic psychotherapist Stanley Ruszczynski. I told him that I wanted to write a novel centred around a psychotherapist, and Stan generously agreed to read and comment on my outline. His insights shaped the novel in such positive ways, and I am deeply grateful for his insights which gave depth and enriched the narrative.
The original version of Before He Kills Again went out (under a different title) to half a dozen editors, who praised it warmly – and rejected unanimously. But the late, great Reginald Hill read an early version of it, and he really liked it; he urged me not to give up on it, even when I found it impossible to place. This year, I rewrote the novel and submitted it to Joffe Books – and they loved it. An object lesson in never giving up on the stories you believe in.
Before He Kills Again is available in Kindle, and will be released in paperback at the end of July and is published by Joffe Books.
To find out more about Margaret’s books, visit www.margaret-murphy.co.uk