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Celebrity crime novelists: the latest literary fashion

Crime and thriller titles have replaced Strictly Come Dancing as the new craze for celebrities

I decided a little while ago what the literary hill that I would die on should be. Thankfully for what remains of my reputation, my crusade is one that many people support me in. I don’t believe that celebrities make particularly distinguished children’s authors, and whenever I see that some past-it comedian, some more than usually irritating television presenter or a former soap star has secured a lucrative deal to write a book aimed at a younger audience (or to be more exact, have it written for them), I sigh and restate the sentiments in my piece. It has served me well for some time. 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, Viking

However, it now seems that I may have a new target for my scorn and opprobrium, which is all grist to the proverbial. The enormous, indeed near-unprecedented, success of Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club – it sold over a million copies, but then Osman had been paid a seven figure sum for it, so the marketing machine had to work overtime in order to make the publisher’s money back – has led to crime and thriller titles becoming the new area for those who are well known in other industries to turn their hand to. It’s either that or Strictly Come Dancing, or in some cases, both. 

A glance at what’s coming up, or what has emerged in the past few months, reveals quite the eclectic selection. Strictly’s Richard Coles dips his toe into cosy crime with next year’s Waters of Salvation, which is clearly supposed to introduce the crimefighting sleuth Canon Daniel Clement. Alan Johnson has moved from memoir to thriller with his suspenseful novel The Late Train to Gipsy Hill. Tom Watson has elicited the assistance of the crime novelist Imogen Robertson to write The House, which modestly bills itself as “the most utterly gripping, must-read political thriller of the twenty-first century”. And Robert Peston boldly donned a pink suit on the cover of the Times Saturday magazine to plug his own debut, The Whistleblower. 

In fact, it seems as if the fields of politics and political journalism have been fruitful ones for would-be thriller writers to launch a novelistic career from. The cynical might argue that if you’ve either been around liars or been economic with the actualité yourself for a living, you are already au fait with a genre that generally requires disinformation and the withholding of secrets until the final moment.  In addition to Watson, Peston and Johnson, the likes of Andrew Marr and James Naughtie have had their own crack at the genre, with mixed results; Marr’s “bestselling Brexit thriller” Head of State led one unimpressed Amazon reviewer to suggest “this book is an awful piece of fiction…it feels like it was written by a child”, and Naughtie’s crime novel The Madness of July was described as “leaving the reader disoriented and decidedly unthrilled” by The Guardian.

Yet well-known political journalists who fancy their hand at fiction can count on supportive reviews and glossy magazine features from their colleagues, and high-profile politicians have similarly extensive contacts throughout the industry. The success of Ed Balls in reinventing himself from Brownite bruiser to much-loved showman has been noted with envy by many of his former colleagues and opponents alike, and who could blame them for wanting to be popular? Writers, after all, attract enthusiastic audiences and much ego-boosting flattery at sold-out events, whereas politicians simply soak up abuse from constituents. It would be nice to have a change, one imagines. Little wonder that Hillary Clinton is making her debut soon with the thriller State of Terror. One hopes that it refers to something other than Bill’s bedroom habits.

It is strange that crime and thriller writing has to correlate with public popularity

There is, of course, a corollary to all this. The likes of Coles, Osman and Marr are all enormously popular figures with enormous national platforms, either as broadcasters in their own right or as regular guests on television shows. Alan Johnson, lest we forget, was one of the contestants on The Masked Singer, much to social media surprise and exultation. Yet if someone isn’t especially popular or beloved, then there is a greater challenge. 

Stig Abell announced recently that he had signed a deal to write two crime novels for HarperCollins, beginning with Death Under A Little Sky. Abell, for the uninitiated, is a former editor of the TLS and current presenter on Times Radio whose dashing good looks and undoubted literary heft are countered by his having been managing editor of The Sun at the time that Katie Hopkins was allowed to offer her views comparing migrants to cockroaches. 

Although Abell has protested – with some accuracy – that his position on the newspaper was to “restore confidence among staff who’d had the stuffing knocked out of them because so many had been arrested for paying public officials”, such nuance has been of little interest to the ever-alert keyboard warriors of social media, who met the news of the deal with scorn. “Will not be stocking”, one independent bookshop responded to the announcement, and the splendidly named “Barbarian Chucklefuck” called this a “repulsive and regressive decision, especially given the recent conversations about racism in publishing”, and described this as a “gross, gross judgement.”

While few would argue that Abell is himself either a racist or a bigot, his association with The Sun has tainted him in many people’s eyes, and therefore his debut novel will be dismissed sight unseen by a decent number of potential purchasers. It is strange that crime and thriller writing has to correlate with public popularity, but in this new era where the number of social media followers that a writer has is seen by many sales and marketing departments as more important than literary ability, it now seems all-important that the authors of books that usually involve skulduggery and murder have to be presented as personally likeable and sympathetic. 

If there is a real-life skeleton in the cupboard in the form of dodgy tweets, or a former job that does not meet with Twitter’s approval, then the outcry will be swift and decisive. In such cases it won’t need a Marple or Poirot to see why a much-heralded novel may not be the success that the publishers are craving. This may seem harsh, but publishing is an unsentimental, if socially conscious, industry. But look on the bright side. At least none of these books are written by a deeply disgraced former national treasure.  

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