Antony M. Brown has been shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition, and Eastleigh News (virtually) sat down with him for a feature interview.
Antony M. Brown is a true crime author from Eastleigh, who specializes on historical cold cases. He has written five books in the ‘Cold Case Jury’ series where each book reads like a fast-paced thriller, before inviting the readers to deliver their own verdict on what happened. His story ‘For Laura Hope’ is also shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition. We interviewed him to discuss that, and more.
When did you first know you wanted to be an author (and particularly specialize on cold cases)?
I was always drawn to writing when I was at school in Winchester. I liked creating stories when I was younger, but didn’t think I could make a career of it. It was only when I was at university and started to read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I suddenly thought to myself, I wonder if there’s any real life cases from that era? But then I got a proper job, and it was only in my 40s that I came back to writing, and that’s when I came up with the cold cases idea. So it had its roots in my school days, and then my university days, for sure.
With your books, you invite the reader to come to their own conclusion regarding the cold cases, was that something you were always keen to do? Did you want to raise awareness/ get people thinking?
I like to engage the reader, and there’s always that adage isn’t there? ‘Show, not tell’. I think I’ve taken that principle and made it the premise of my books. I want the readers to think for themselves, but that doesn’t mean the books are hard work, my genuine belief is that the more respect you pay to the reader, the more respect they’ll pay back to the author. Another key premise of the books is the writing idea of ‘two and two not four’. For example, if you’ve got two people in a scene and then another two people join them, you don’t say ‘and then there were four people’, the reader as an intelligent person will know that. Some true crime authors, in my opinion, like to fit the facts to their theories, they’ll start off with their theory and then everything in the book is just there to support that theory – and I don’t really like that.
How did you possibly undertake the research required for your books considering you have to get so many details accurate?
The first stage of the research is to find a good case, and the good case for me is a historical case, because I like the history as well as the mystery, so it’s got to have that sense of mystery and be an unsolved case, with at least two or three plausible explanations. The second phase is to do detailed research on the chosen case, and one of the things I really look for is does it have a good police file? You can find them at the National Archives in Kew, London. The police file is literally all the police statements, and all the evidence that the police would’ve gathered when they investigated that crime. In the books I give documentary evidence, you actually see the autopsy report, the witness statements obtained at the time. In fact, in my second book ‘Death of an Actress’ which involves Hampshire police, I was the first and only person to date to have access to the police file.
Has Eastleigh and the local area influenced your writing in any way?
Yes, in one sense. I went down to the Maritime Museum in Southampton to research this case, which was when I was working on the second book ‘Death of an Actress’. I was persuaded to do that case second because it was local, so even though the events happened on an ocean-liner off the coast of Africa, when it docked in Southampton the deck steward James Camb was interviewed and arrested of the murder of Gay Gibson, an actress onboard. It was an infamous trial held at Winchester and he was found guilty despite protesting his innocence. However, he was never hanged because of the political situation at the time, so the death penalty was suspended for six months and he was one of the lucky ones that didn’t actually hang.
Your nominated title for the award is ‘For Laura Hope’ would you be able to tell us a bit about it without giving too much away?
It’s a very curious title I must admit. It’s set in 1940 when the blackout has started, and this young guy who is a pharmacist assistant, is walking along Shaftesbury Avenue when a phone rings from a phone box. He picks it up and someone says ‘is that Mr Johnston?’ He’s left stunned because that’s his name. This chance phone call then leads him to a murder, as he visits a chess club on the basis of the phone call, and finds someone there dying, uttering his last words: ‘For Laura Hope’. The protagonist then goes on a quest to find Laura Hope, and finds someone that name who he falls in love with. So it not only changes his life, but as you get more into the story and the plot of why the man was murdered, you find that it also had a big effect on World War II as well. It’s a story that looks at how chance and coincidence runs through our lives in different ways.
What would it mean to you to win the CWA Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition?
Obviously, it would be a huge honour. As a true crime writer, I’ve only just started writing fiction, and the award really is prestigious because it receives hundreds of entries each year from all around the world, and it’s also judged blind so you can’t rely on reputation. So to come through that and to win would be a big accomplishment, perhaps I should then take that as a hint to write a novel! But even just getting shortlisted is quite an achievement in itself and I’m very proud of that. If I don’t win this one, I do have another story to enter next year as well; I think perseverance is key to success.
Do you have any advice to people who are interested in writing, or to people who want to research cold cases?
If you want to write for a living – it’s ferociously competitive and only a few actually make a lot of money out of writing. You need to be prepared for the challenge, and you need to have that perseverance I just mentioned; you will also probably need an agent to get you into the big publishers. But everyone’s got to start somewhere, so start writing! In terms of cold cases, if you really want to get stuck into a particular case I recommend a visit to the National Archives, and have a look at the police files if they have them. But you can also get a lot of inspiration from TV these days!
The winner of the CWA Margery Allingham Short Mystery competition is set to be announced midday on the 17th June.