Origins of the CWA

The origins of the Crime Writers’ Association date back over sixty years. The Mystery Writers of America was formed in 1948, and in January 1950, Nigel Morland, the first U.K.-based British member of the MWA, suggested that there should be a British equivalent.

Morland was a prolific writer with a flair for publicity. His most famous character was Mrs Palmyra Pym, deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, and British fiction’s first senior female police detective. Morland’s enterprise extended to setting up the “Mrs Pym Club”, and issued the Mrs Pym Club Newsletter, in which he argued for a social network of British crime writers.

The first such network, the Detection Club, had been founded in Britain twenty years earlier by Anthony Berkeley. Members were elected, and the Club set its face against accepting applications from anyone who was not regarded as achieving the high literary standards to which Berkeley and another prime mover, Dorothy L. Sayers, aspired. Mass producers of fiction like Morland and his friend, the even more productive John Creasey, were - despite their commercial success – never likely to be elected.

Morland returned to his theme in 1951, and again the following year, while the thriller writer Bruce Graeme also voiced a similar suggestion. John Creasey contacted Morland to discuss the idea, but Morland said he was too busy with his own writing to take it further. This prompted Creasey, an extraordinarily energetic man, to see for himself what could be achieved.

The upshot was that he approached a number of crime writers with an invitation to attend a meeting at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place, London (“at 2.45 for 3 p.m.”), instructing attendees: “On arrival at the Club ask for (a) Creasey and if you get a blank stare, (b) the Oak Room.” Some people turned down his invitation: they included Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham (who did later join), and E.C. R. Lorac, all of whom were members of the Detection Club and felt there was no need for a new organisation. The thriller writer Ralph Hammond Innes was not interested, while Francis Durbridge, who said he had no time to spare.

Among those who did make it to the Oak Room were Julian Symons, who would become perhaps Britain’s most influential critic and historian of the genre, as well as a distinguished novelist. So too did Morna Brown (better known by her pseudonym, Elizabeth Ferrars), Josephine Bell and the journalist and thriller writer Paul Winterton, who wrote under various names, most successfully as Andrew Garve. The other attendees were John Bude, Ernest Dudley, Bruce Graeme, Leonard Gribble, T.C.H. Jacobs, Nigel Morland, and Colin Robertson. Unavoidably absent were Frank King and the rather more celebrated Michael Gilbert. Gilbert was a partner in a solicitors’ firm whose legal duties no doubt took precedence, but like his friend Symons, he went on to become a major figure in the genre in the second half of the twentieth century.

Creasey was appointed Chairman, Ferrars and Garve joint Honorary Secretaries, and the now little remembered T.C.H.Jacobs Treasurer. Interestingly, one of the first points discussed was the proposed appointment of a Public Relations Officer. This was almost certainly one of Creasey’s countless ideas, and shows that, even in the early Fifties, crime writers were acutely aware of the need for good P.R. – and of the need to be proactive personally in publicising their work, rather than simply relying on publishers. Ernest Dudley was nominated for this role, but rather charmingly “was diffident” (according to the minutes) “about the personal publicity which might arise from this office.”

The plan was to recruit one hundred members as quickly as possible. Meetings would be held monthly, and the annual subscription fee would be three guineas. One of the key aims would be “to give reasonable hope that both the prestige and the fortunes of crime writers generally should be improved” – this reflects the view, quite widely held at the time, that in Creasey’s words, the genre was “a kind of poor relation of the writing craft, a back door to literature.” Creasey felt that this aim, perhaps more than any other, motivated the founder members.

Another objective was to seek “a more equitable share of library income”, a cause long dear to authors’ hearts, and the subject of a long-running campaign which led to the establishment of Public Lending Right. Significantly, the meeting agreed to develop the social side of the new organisation alongside its business-related activities. There was ongoing debate about the association’s name. Creasey said he couldn’t get out of his head “The Guild of British Crime Writers”, but eventually the founders settled on the Crime Writers’ Association.

Creasey brimmed with ideas. Within months, he was proclaiming a massive increase in membership, conveniently omitting to mention that, of the sixty members on the list, about one-third happened to be Creasey himself, under his many pseudonyms. He proposed that he be shut up in a glass-sided box during a public exhibition about crime writing, a box within which he could be seen starting to write a book that he would finish before the exhibition closed (he was a very fast writer.) That suggestion came to nothing, but later a crime quiz was held by the CWA in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. When a spotlight was moved, the model on the guillotine began to melt, and its nose fell into the basket.

Creasey chaired the CWA until 1956, and was succeeded by Bruce Graeme and then Symons. They were followed by Josephine Bell, Jacobs, Val Gielgud (brother of John), Charles Franklin, John Boland and Michael Underwood. There was no rivalry or conflict with the Detection Club, which was a purely social (if avowedly select) group which simply met for dinner a handful of times each year. Like Symons, Ferrars and Garve, Gielgud, Bell and Underwood were also members of the Detection Club, and so were many other CWA members.

An Information Service and an Information Panel were set up to assist members in their research, and in 1954, the CWA organised a successful National Crime Book Week. A year later, for the first time, a panel of judges was set up to choose the best crime book of the year. The first Awards Dinner was held at the Criterion Restaurant on 5 April 1956, and the “Crossed Red Herring Award” went to The Little Walls, written by Winston Graham, later more famous for his series of historical novels, Poldark. Agatha Christie was the principal guest.

In 1956, the CWA began to publish a monthly newsletter for members, Red Herrings, the first editor being Herbert Harris. A year later, the Awards Dinner was combined with a Conference, while in 1959, a Crime Book Exhibition was held at the Army & Navy Stores to coincide with the awards ceremony. Early meetings were held at the National Book League, and later venues included the Arts Theatre Club, the Overseas League and Whitehall Court.

Butcher's Dozen, the first CWA anthology, appeared in 1956, and set out to include "thrillers, detective stories and suspense stories to cover the widest possible range of styles and to cater for all tastes" and also to show "the versatility and ingenuity of the modern crime writer." The book was edited by Josephine Bell, Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons and other contributors included Maurice Procter, one of the pioneers of the police procedural, and the talented novelist L. A. G. Strong. It was followed two years later by Choice of Weapons, edited by Michael Gilbert. He noted in his introduction that: "Writers of crime fiction are commonly heard to complain that it is damaging to them to have their work too much segregated and categorised." It is sobering today to realise how little has changed.

From these rather humble beginnings grew an increasingly significant organisation. After the CWA had been in existence for ten years, its journal was able to claim that “Our first ten years have brought prestige to the crime novel.” By that stage, there were just over 200 members.

A determination to promote the genre remains central to the CWA’s thinking to this day, and has been illustrated perfectly by the success of its recent initiatives such as the CRA. Crime fiction is flourishing as perhaps never before, and for that the CWA can take at least some credit. There is every chance that the years ahead will see further progress. In the meantime, the CWA’s Diamond Jubilee is a cause for celebration, not just among its members, but among crime fans everywhere.