In June this year, Exeter-based crime writer, Martyn Waites became our first ever digital writer-in-residence.

During his time as writer-in-residence, Martyn worked with a group of talented writers on the Quay Words ‘Locked Door Mystery’ based at a virtual version of Exeter Custom House created on Slack. Martyn also gave his ‘History of crime fiction‘ talk and hosted the eight new writers at a Quay Voices event – all broadcast live, online.

Now, as the year draws to a close, Martyn reflects on his time as Quay Words digital writer-in-residence.

Martyn Waites square

Hi. This is a belated blog post from me, Martyn Waites. I was the digital writer-in -residence at Exeter Custom House during the early summer when we were all in lockdown for the first time. Ah, happy days. And I’m a crime writer. So naturally, murder was involved.

So why crime fiction during a pandemic? Haven’t we got enough to worry about? Well, yes. And also, that’s why. Let me explain by telling you a story. It’s how I explain everything, really.

A woman came up to me at a bookshop signing I was giving in the town where I once lived and had set a couple of novels. She asked me to sign it and said, ‘I loved the last book. You had someone murdered on my street!’

I was slightly taken aback at this. I asked her if she didn’t find that disturbing, that I had thought her street a suitable place for a horrific murder to take place. ‘Oh no,’ she replied, happily, ‘because it wasn’t my house.’

I know that’s just an anecdote, and I tell it quite a lot but I think it goes some way towards explaining the popularity of crime fiction. Especially in times of crisis, or even pandemics. You would think, again anecdotally, that when there’s a sense of death all around that people would want escapism, something that would take their minds off what was happening in the news, outside their doors, in their neighbourhoods. And they do. It’s just not as clean cut as that. Sales of crime fiction and borrowing of crime novels from libraries has rocketed this year. And I think if we’re asking why crime, why not romance for instance, then the sentiment of the woman in the bookstore goes some way to explaining that.

Crime fiction can make order out of chaos. At least in a limited way, in the parameters of a novel. In crime fiction people die. And there’s a reason for it. And there’s someone on hand to discover that reason, to give that lost life meaning, to let the people left alive know that this person’s death didn’t go unnoticed or unavenged. That it’s worth going on. That their – and by extension all of us as readers – life is worth living. In that sense it can be a paradoxically uplifting genre. Others may have gone, but we’re still here to talk about them.

I wanted to bring some of that to my residency. So I was given a socially-distanced tour round Exeter Custom House and let the building inspire me. I came up with a locked room mystery. A historical mystery. Something with rich, atmospheric setting that a writer could really get involved in. Something miles away from now. It meant turning the Custom House into a massive online game of Cluedo. And why not? How much fun is that? So I came up with a bunch of suspects and a detective to solve the case. And a deliberately open ending. And then I threw it open for other writers to solve it.

And solve it they did.

I should say that this is something else I love about stories and writing. There are no wrong answers. Only different ones. As the writers took my premise, the bare bones of the story, they ran with it. It was mine no longer, it belonged to them. No two people came up with the same conclusion to the story. Some even changed the genre to a ghost story. Great. Throw it all in.

Then came the unfortunate part. Instead of a public event at the Custom House where an audience could listen to those stories (and, oh I don’t know, enjoy drinking wine and eating crisps while it happened, perhaps) it had to happen online. But that’s OK. Because that was the nature of the residency. Digital. So we did it online (wine and crisps viewer’s own). And I believe it was a great success. The stories were all excellent, all different and all honoured the original premise and the setting.

And that’s something else about the power of the written word. Writing, along with reading is by its nature a very solitary pursuit. But sharing that writing with others isn’t. And in difficult times shared commonalities, shared stories, become important. They become part of our collective narrative as a whole. And that narrative tells us we’re still here. We’re lucky. We can go on telling stories that acknowledge we’re still here while also remembering those who are no longer with us and celebrating their lives too.

I loved being writer-in-residence. And I would love to be part of Quay Words once more. But who knows what’s going to happen to anything and any of us from now on? All I know is that I’ve taken the experience of the residency with me and I’ll continue to tell my stories about hope, however distant and twisted it might be, in the dark. And I hope to share them too. And I hope you’ll still keep sharing yours.

Stories, even crime stories – especially crime stories – are the voice in the darkness that says we’re not alone.

If you’re looking forward to curling up with a good book this festive season, why not check out our ‘crime fiction recommendations’, inspired by Martyn’s ‘History of crime fiction’ talk? This list was Quay Words’ contribution to Exeter’s virtual Christmas market and was produce in partnership with Waterstones in Exeter.