After two remote meetups in 2021 and ’22, the Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival can finally call itself Aberystwyth-based when it invites crime writers, readers and publishers to confer in person around the seaside town. Hannah Collins spoke to one of the people behind it, author Beverley Jones.
“It’s taken me 12 years to be an overnight success,” Beverley Jones, author of Wilderness and The Beach House laughs, reflecting on her journey thus far as a Welsh crime fiction writer. We’re in the middle of talking about a Welsh first: the end of April will see Jones and a host of other cloak-and-dagger authors visit the coast for an international crime fiction festival. Technically, this Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival is the third iteration of its kind, but as the previous two were soft-launched online during lockdown, this is the first ‘real’, in-person event.
Previously, the likes of Lee Childs and a healthy few thousand were drawn to the Zoom-situated ones. Taking place in Aberystwyth, plenty of big local names from the Welsh crime fiction scene will be in attendance for this year’s – Claire Mackintosh, Fflur Daffyd, Caryl Lewis, and more – not to mention writers and festival programmers from Bloody Scotland and Newcastle Noir, like the widely revered Jacky ‘Dr Noir’ Collins (not that one). Unfortunately, and despite discussion on topics like neurodiversity and Welsh and English programming, there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, racial diversity in the lineup. In later correspondence with Jones, she agreed with me that this is likely an industry and regional problem, but stressed that the underrepresentation at the 2023 festival wasn’t “for want of trying”. The same can’t be said for previous editions, either. “As an organising group,” she told me, “we are hugely committed to promoting diversity and inclusion of all kinds […] It’s regrettable that not all authors invited are able to make it, or appear at an event that suits them.”
In terms of nationality, Wales has been lacking the representation on the festival circuit writers in Scotland and England enjoy, something Gwyl Crime Cymru is hoping to change with what are set to become biannual gatherings. “It’s been a difficult, challenging but rewarding experience,” Beverley Jones tells me, weary but still clearly eager to talk. Better known by her pen name B.E Jones, she’s one of the festival’s organisers alongside founder Alis Hawkins. Their shared aim, she says, is to strengthen the network of Welsh crime writers, who at present are far-flung and have few avenues to communicate en masse.
As is always the case in Wales, the country’s challenging terrain plays a part. Most authors like Jones work in isolation – demonstrated by her bedroom background on the other side of our video call. But it’s also this very land keeping people apart that brings Welsh crime fiction together as an emerging subgenre.
“We’ve got a great tradition of historical type dramas in Wales and local programming – Welsh-language programming,” Jones elaborates. “But now people get to see gritty, dark, interesting dramas with these amazing landscapes – and for the first time, for many people. Hopefully, it sets us apart from other countries.”
She adds that, aside from Cymraeg, it’s hard to pin down what makes Welsh crime fiction distinctive, other than the fact it can’t be pinned down: everything from “cosy crime procedurals to standalones to historical fiction” is covered. But there is still commonality to be found.
“That sense of setting is really strong and so is the intricacy of the storytelling. We don’t have a huge history of crime writing here in Wales: it doesn’t go back more than about 15 years. It’s something that’s emerged as crime writing has taken off [around the world]. Now it’s [one of] the biggest-selling genres; you’ve got the huge success of Scandi noir, which has had a knock-on effect on TV. And, of course, Scotland has got Ian Rankin and all those big crime names.”
Trying to track down where crime fiction in Wales begins is a job for a far more dedicated detective than me. What I can tell you is that writer Paul French, who did some of the legwork in a piece for Crime Reads, traces Wales’ appearance in crime fiction back to Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery Why Didn’t They Ask The Evans?, before jumping to 1994’s Bloody Valentine by Cardiff’s John Williams. Certainly not an exhaustive history, but the fact nothing of note appears until the mid-90s onwards corroborates Jones’ point.
“I think we felt that Wales was lagging behind – or we just weren’t shouting loudly enough about the fact that we are here and we’ve got something interesting to offer. We’ve got a stake in this wider market. It’s not something that’s necessarily niche – and you don’t need to speak Welsh.
“People like to read good stories if they’re set in a great and interesting location. You see sometimes a bit of reluctance amongst publishers – maybe in big London publishers – that it’s a bit too obscure, but readers are quite sophisticated. You’ve only got to look at the success of something like Hinterland to see people want to know about Wales. We’ve been a best-kept secret for a bit too long.”
It’s interesting hearing Jones discuss the merits of a Welsh setting, considering her 2020 novel Wilderness is an American road trip. Soon to be an Amazon Prime TV series, the adaptation will star Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman and The Haunting Of Hill House and Bly Manor’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and is set for release later this year. In spite of this, an excited Jones says, “it’s gonna bring Welshness to a wide audience because [the show] has retained the characters’ Welsh identity. We don’t necessarily see so many Welsh characters abroad, so that’s interesting – we can put ourselves into that context.”
A vacation framework falls in line with the ‘reluctance’ publishers have in the perceivably provincial, but the tide appears to be changing quickly. As Jones points out, slow-burn copper TV success Happy Valley is unmistakably Yorkshire, and before that, Scandi noir, as previously mentioned, has its geographical and cultural specificity in the title and appeals to audiences for those very reasons.
This shift is even reflected in mainstream cinema like recent Best Picture winners at the Oscars, Parasite and Everything Everywhere All At Once – offbeat dramas about East Asian families on both sides of the globe, one in Korean and the other bilingual. While our digital age has made us more globalised than ever before, audiences seem to be developing more of an appetite for the regional. Being niche is the best way to cut through the noise, not make yourself quieter.
“It’s wildly exciting for someone like me,” Jones says of Wilderness’ upcoming adaptation, “because as you can see” – she gestures behind her – “I’m in a terraced house – I’m from Rhondda in the Valleys. I live in Pontypridd now.
“Generally speaking, you don’t think this sort of thing will happen to you when you grow up in the 80s and early 90s in a post-industrial mining village – that you might see your work brought to 30, 40, 50 countries when it’s finished. I still pinch myself, really!”
Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival, various locations across Aberystwyth, Fri 21-Sun 23 Apr. Tickets priced individually. Info: gwylcrimecymrufestival.co.uk
words HANNAH COLLINS
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