PETER LOVESEY First Crime Novel Contest

Written by Peter Lovesey

Soho Press recently announced the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest with a $10,000 prize to mark the fiftieth year since Peter’s crime-writing career was launched with a similar competition. This is his wry look back at the way things were done half a century ago.

For crying out loud! (as I think I said in 1969) A thousand pounds is more than my salary as a teacher. I’d seen a small ad in the personal column of The Times and sent for the details. The long-established publishing house of Macmillan had decided to start a crime fiction list and had persuaded the editor at Collins Crime Club to defect to them and set it up. He was George Hardinge and he was a peer, the third Baron Hardinge of Penshurst. It was his idea to launch the list with the first crime novel contest.

What would work as a crime novel? In 1969, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout and Ngaio Marsh were still writing. The detective story was regarded by purists as a classic form in which clues were laid, fair play was important and everything was revealed at the end.

I had written a non-fiction book called The Kings of Distance about the history of running, but a crime novel was a daunting new challenge. Fortunately my wife Jax was a keen reader of crime fiction and encouraged me. I used a Victorian six-day long-distance race as the setting and wrote a story that slotted easily into the whodunnit structure. The press called such races wobbles, providing me with a catchy title.

In June, 1969, a letter arrived from Lord Hardinge that began, ‘We have been considerably interested in Wobble to Death . . .’  My own knees wobbled. Macmillan wanted to know more about me before reaching a decision. I sent back a brief CV and was invited to meet Lord Hardinge for a drink at his London club, Brooks’s. I’d never been inside such a place.

George Hardinge, the grandson of a Viceroy of India, had been Page of Honour to three kings and looked and sounded as if he had risen above them all. I was in awe of him, but his conspiratorial smile soon disarmed me and I almost hugged him when he told me my book was the winner from more than 250 novels.

In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have guessed what would happen to me as a result of becoming a crime writer. I would find myself wobbling around Sloane Square with the Carry-On star, Barbara Windsor; placing my hand on a skull and promising to keep the rules of the Detection Club; and spending a night filming in the Chamber of Horrors.

The party at the Law Society Hall in October was another eye-opening experience with pinstripes, bow ties and cigars much in evidence. I met some of the top crime writers – Julian Symons, Edmund Crispin and H.R.F.Keating. The runners-up in the contest were Graham Lord, the Sunday Express book critic and Alfred Draper, also an Express man. Each, like me, would go on to write more crime novels, so the contest paid off handsomely for Macmillan. I learned years later that a young man not long out of Oxford called Simon Brett had also submitted a story.

When I was invited up, Alan Maclean, the director and senior editor (and brother of the spy, Donald Maclean), offered the cheque, but held onto it so tightly that I almost tore it in half. He wanted a word in my ear about writing a follow-up. In all the excitement, I hadn’t given this a thought. But I was cornered soon after by Roger Longrigg, a witty, engaging and prolific writer who published under a string of pseudonyms. ‘A word in your ear, dear boy. Always make sure that you’re well into writing the next one before a book is published and then the critics can’t hurt you because the new one is always going to be better than the last.’ How right he was. I’ve adhered to this advice ever since.

Roger Longrigg was a publishing legend. In the guise of Rosalind Erskine, a precocious schoolgirl, he had written The Passion Flower Hotel, a mildly erotic bestseller, and he also produced comic fiction, historicals set in Scotland and spy thrillers, all under different names. As Grania Beckford, he wrote the first erotic send-up of Jane Austen, a reworking of Persuasion entitled Virtues and Vices: a Delectable Rondelet of Love and Lust. In the crime world he was Ivor Drummond. Like me, he entered and won a first crime novel competition, the John Cheever Mystery Prize, reinventing himself as Frank Parrish and causing a scandal when they discovered this was actually his twentieth published book.

Publication day for me was marked with a publicity stunt, a 24-hour wobble around Sloane Square for charity. Barbara Windsor joined in and wobbled better than anyone.

My career after the fanfare of the competition was an endurance event on its own, beginning with eight historical mysteries featuring Sergeant Cribb, the bowler-hatted detective played by Alan Dobie in the Granada TV series. In 1975, I asked Lord Hardinge for advice about acquiring a literary agent and he told me the best in London was George Greenfield of John Farquharson Ltd. With George’s enterprising help, my income improved and I retired from teaching to earn my living as a writer. After George retired in 1986, I joined Vanessa Holt, who had been the foreign rights director at Farquharson and has looked after me ever since. I wrote several stand-alones and three more Victorian whodunnits casting Bertie, the Prince of Wales, as an inept amateur sleuth.

 In 1991, I joined a short-lived publishing venture called Scribners with a book called The Last Detective, which opened with a drowning. It seemed prophetic. Within months the body of the owner of Scribners, the infamous Robert Maxwell, was recovered from the Atlantic. Fortunately Little Brown took over and I have been with them ever since and published twenty contemporary police procedurals, most of them starring Peter Diamond, the Bath detective.

It will be a joy to me when a new writer is discovered through the Soho Press first crime novel contest and has the opportunity of all the excitement and fulfilment I have enjoyed.

Details of the new Peter Lovesey crime novel contest can be found at

Peter Lovesey’s website is

Peter Lovesey

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