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The rise of Welsh crime fiction

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Aberystwyth Welsh crime fiction

With Wales’ first international crime writing festival approaching, it’s time to discover the burgeoning community of crime writers in the principality. Wales is not just a country of song, rugby and coal, it’s a land of crime stories – books, TV and film. We all know Scottish crime writing is a ‘thing’ and while perhaps the same can’t be said of Wales at the minute, is that about to change?

Crime author Beverley Jones thinks so: “Honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be writing crime fiction in Wales.”

So why is Welsh crime fiction not an identity we recognise? From the Mabinogion to Dylan Thomas, the country certainly has a literary heritage – yet is there no Welsh equivalent of Val McDermid or Arnaldur Indridason. One reason may be that nations like Scotland and Iceland have promoted their crime genre credentials better. Regular festivals help to raise the profile of writers from these countries and encourage a sense of common identity. Until now, this has been missing in Wales. Allied to this is a communal confidence and camaraderie, which Welsh crime writers are just beginning to explore. The establishment in 2017 of Crime Cymru was a big step forwards. A collective for Welsh crime authors writing in English, it was founded by Alis Hawkins, Matt Johnson and Rosie Claverton. The trio is also the driving force behind the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival, alongside Literature Wales. It will take place online between 26 April and 3 May this year, and in real world Aberystwyth in 2022.

Critics often write about Welsh authors without mentioning their nationality in reviews and features. For some reason this isn’t considered significant, even though we would almost certainly mention Tartan noir or Nordic noir if the book came from Scotland or Scandinavia, respectively. It’s interesting to note that the population of Iceland is roughly that of Cardiff, yet most crime fiction lovers can probably name more Icelandic crime authors than Welsh ones. This is because many successful Welsh authors are seen as British, rarely trade on their nationality and often don’t write about Wales at all.

Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce front cover

For example, Bev Jones’s 2020 novel Wilderness is a psychological thriller about a deadly road trip across California, Utah and Arizona. Philip Gwynne Jones couldn’t have a more Welsh name but his Nathan Sutherland series is set in Venice. Meanwhile, Chris Lloyd’s new mystery, The Unwanted Dead, takes place in World War II France.

However, there is a widening clan of authors whose settings, characters and themes are pure Welsh.

Here on Crime Fiction Lover we have reviewed books in the Tudor Manx series by Dylan H Jones, set on Anglesey, plus the excellent Fiona Griffiths series by Harry Bingham, based in South Wales. Rosie Claverton’s Cardiff crime story Binary Witness was also a hit with us. Malcolm Pryce writes inventive comic crime capers and Aberystwyth Mon Amour and Last Tango in Aberystwyth are set in, you guessed it, Aberystwyth. For lovers of historical crime fiction, Alis Hawkins writes about Harry Probert-Jones, an Victorian coroner cum detective based in the Teifi Valley.

The Welsh identity goes hand in hand with the language, of course. Even when speaking or writing in English, Welsh writers use Celtic rhythms and modes of expression that flavour the text. Like any country, Wales has its own culture and character, increasingly reflected in published work. “Welsh authors share a love of dark edges and moral grey areas, boundaries that Welsh crime fiction is very good at exploring,” explains Beverley Jones.

The Welsh crime community

Writing is a solitary art but the crime writing community in Wales is a real thing. Members of Crime Cymru support each other, help new authors to develop, and encourage an understanding of Welsh writing in the wider sphere. The Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival will raise the profile of Welsh writing by showing the world that Welsh crime writers are passionate about their stories. Its online debut on 26 April will be a momentous occasion for Welsh crime writing, but the real action will begin when the live event opens at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on 30 April, 2022.

Co-organiser and author Alis Hawkins is calling for support from Welsh crime readers and writers as plans for next year’s event come together: “We are going to need boots on the ground, from stewards to direct guests and the public to panels, to checking tickets. We’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to give some time to be part of the event, by contributing to the showcase of Welsh culture.”

This year’s digital festival has a star-studded cast from many countries, including Lee and Andrew Child, Elly Griffiths, Martin Edwards, Abir Mukherjee, Clare Mackintosh and Ragnar Jonasson. However, there will be Welsh authors on every panel in order to showcase their talent. There will also be a Welsh language panel and the whole event will be inclusive for Welsh speakers. “The festival will provide Welsh crime writers with a big public awareness boost,” says Bev Jones. “Without getting that word of mouth going, securing sought-after shop window space outside the bestseller list can seem impossible. If we can give readers, and guest writers, a great experience and show everyone what Wales has to offer, they will start investigating new books.”

Excitingly, Welsh publisher Honno has commissioned a new anthology of Welsh women crime writers. Co-edited by Katherine Stansfield and Caroline Oakley, submissions from debut and established authors are due by 30 June, 2021. The book will be launched at the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival in 2022.

Welsh crime shows

One thing Welsh crime writing has going for it is a growing number crime shows set in Wales with a securely Welsh sensibility. Hinterland, Hidden and Keeping Faith, for example, are all excellent and all of them were produced in Welsh with English subtitles or English versions. Their appeal is being used to help put the spotlight on Welsh crime writing. Keeping Faith returns for its third series on 27 March on BBC One and iPlayer, and writer Matthew Hall and actor Aneirin Hughes will be talking about what keeps Faith going as part of the Gŵyl Crime Cymru virtual festival the following month. Sober factual drama The Pembrokeshire Murders, an ITV production about the investigation of serial killer John Cooper by detective Steve Wilkins and journalist Jonathan Hill, will also be the subject of a panel.

Keeping Faith Welsh crime show
Keeping Faith – dramatic Welsh landscape, intriguing mystery.

“Ever since Hinterland appeared on TV, people have been getting more interested in looking for Welsh crime, and not just on their TVs,” says Gail Williams, convenor of the CWA Welsh chapter. “I believe we are in a growth industry. I’m always amazed by the range of Welsh crime fiction, everything from the hard-bitten, no holds barred, to cosy crime, to romantic thrillers, to historical, familial, psychological, police procedures, amateur sleuths, even comedy private eyes.”

Gail continues: “It’s also a genre that lives in two languages. There’s a common misconception that Welsh crime means the book is written in Welsh, and yes, some of it is, but lots of it is set in Wales or about the Welsh people and it’s written in English, accessible to a wider audience. Like Scotland has everything from Rebus to Perez, to Hamish Macbeth and so many, many more, Wales offers a range of characters, series and locations, it’s well worth trying a few. We’ve got series and standalones based from Cardiff to Anglesey, Pembroke to Newport.”

According to Gail, the future is bright for crime writing in Wales, and membership of Crime Cymru and the Welsh Chapter of the CWA is growing.

Author and Crime Cymru co-founder Matt Johnson says the numbers bear this out: “There’s already a huge will for the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival to happen, at all levels, inside and outside the team. We’ve already sold over 500 tickets for the online event.”

Find out more about Crime Cymru here, and the festival here. Aberystwyth image (c) AMP Digital.

A Welsh crime fiction reading list

The Silent Quarry by Cheryl Rees-Price front cover

In addition to the books mentioned above, here are 19 more Welsh crime novels – something for crime fiction lovers of every stripe…

Cathy Ace‘s The Corpse with the Silver Tongue was the first in her Cait Morgan Welsh-Canadian criminal psychologist series. The author also writes the WISE mysteries, and The Case of the Dotty Dowager was first to feature the four woman detectives – one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English.

Belinda Bauer, author of several zeitgeisty crime thrillers, takes inspiration from living in Wales these days. Her new novel, Exit, sees Felix Pink on the run from the police after offering aid to a dying man.

Mark EllisPrinces Gate brings us detective Frank Merlin, star of a series set in World War II London and featuring a beleaguered policeman dealing with crime, the black market and the blackout.

Rebecca GriffithsA Place to Lie is about a woman who returns to the Forest of Dean after many years, only to be confronted by secrets from her own dark forgotten childhood. Gripping psychological noir.

Matt Johnson‘s Wicked Game is the story a police officer looking for the quiet life, haunted by secrets from his SAS days when two of his former comrades are murdered.

Emma Kavanagh‘s Falling is about a missing woman, a plane crash and a killer on the loose.

Clare Mackintosh is based in North Wales and her next thriller, Hostage, sees a plane full of celebrities heading for Australia with a passenger on board determined to stop it from reaching its destination.

Graham H Miller‘s The List introduces Jonah Greene. Exiled from CID to the coroner’s office, he investigates the death of a homeless man, putting himself in danger.

Thorne Moore‘s The Unravelling is a gritty domestic noir but she has also written historical crime novellas.

Louise MullinsLove You Gone sees journalist Rachel Harper investigating a girl’s death in a gritty psychological noir.

Jan Newton‘s Remember No More is the first twisty DI Kite mystery, set in Builth Wells in mid-Wales.

Gwen Parrott wrote her debut Dead White in Welsh and English. It is set in West Wales during the great snowfall of 1947.

Cheryl Rees-Price‘s The Silent Quarry is the first DI Winter Meadows mystery. A woman visits the site of a childhood tragedy and begins to remember details of her friend’s murder 20 years earlier.

Sally Spedding‘s The Night Hawk Is the first DI John Lyon Mystery. The retired Nottingham detective finds himself at the heart of a mystery in the Pyrenees.

Leslie Scase‘s Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow is set in 19th century Pontypridd, A train crash sparks a murder mystery, in a vivid reimagining of time and place.

MJ Trow‘s Maxwell’s House opens a long-running series featuring teacher Peter ‘Mad Max’ Maxwell, who seeks the killer of sixth form student Jenny Hyde.

Sarah Waters‘ 2003 literary crime novel, The Fingersmith, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s an evocative, emotionally rich pastiche of the Victorian London gothic mystery novel.

GB WilliamsThe Chair is set on Cadre Idris, in the fictional village of Pen-Y-Cwm. A hacker on the run gets away from modern communications and surveillance in the place where his parents complained about getting no phone service, but Snowdonia is no escape.

If you can add to our list of Welsh crime novels, please do so in the comments below.

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