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Saturday 4 May 2024

Mystery Week? Today Debbie Young


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To murder or not to murder, that is the question…

‘I don't really like murdering people,’ I once said in a public place when chatting to writer friends, startling innocent bystanders unaware of our occupation.

Of course, I was speaking about murdering fictitious characters in my books. In real life I find it hard to kill as much as a fly. This may surprise you when you hear I’m an author of murder mystery novels.

Admittedly I write in the sanitised sub-genre of cosy mystery, which lies at the upbeat end of the crime writing spectrum. Here, no gruesome scenes are allowed, murders are mostly neat and tidy, and the stories won't put you off your tea. My neatest fictional death to date was to shove someone down a well, keeping his injuries entirely out of sight.

I'm not particularly squeamish, but I am sensitive and suggestible. Watching anything violent on television gives me bad dreams. Knowing my limits, I avoid what will upset me. My daughter was only about 12 when our roles reversed when watching television. She had to tell me when it was safe to uncover my eyes, rather than the other way around. She found it hilarious that the BBC TV production of The War of the Worlds gave me such nightmares, I had to stop watching after episode one.


Early on in my career as a crime writer, I read a craft book that laid down a formula for the perfect mystery novel. ‘Writing by numbers’, I call it. It insisted that every murder mystery requires two deaths, each at a specific percentage point through the story. Crime writer Bryan Mason told me the other day that if you’re writing about a serial killer, the minimum headcount is three.

And here's me struggling to bump off just one victim per book. I try to make the murder victims unlovable, but even then, I find it hard to stomach their deaths. Each one is some mother’s son or daughter, I find myself thinking, and that’s enough to make me want to stay my hand.

 Sometimes I even allow a stay of execution leading to a last-minute rescue. There's still plenty of page-turning intrigue and tension, just as in those old black-and-white movies where the heroine is tied to a railway line as a steam train approaches, to be rescued at the last minute by the dashing hero.

My novels also include copious humour and sweet romantic subplots to lift the mood.


A few years ago, I was invited to do a book signing event at Books on the Hill, the excellent independent bookshop in Clevedon. An elderly lady stopped at my signing table to examine the covers of my books. All the novels I’d published at that point had ‘Murder’ in the title (Best Murder in Show, etc), but the covers were bloodless.

‘What sort of books are they, exactly?’ she asked.

‘Oh, they’re murder mysteries,’ I replied cheerily.  ‘But they’re upbeat, funny stories too. Nice murders, really.’

She fixed me with a hard stare.

‘There's no such thing as a nice murder,’ she retorted and stalked away.

I couldn't disagree. There’s already far too much murder in our daily news, whether by individual criminals or by nations and terrorists in the name of war. But still readers hunger for more fictitious murders.


Perhaps it was ever thus. The modern preoccupation with murder mysteries dates back to the Golden Age of Detection Fiction between the two World Wars. Even in the aftermath of the First World War, whose carnage deeply affected just about everyone, crime writers readily embraced fictitious murder and death, including direct references to the War itself. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot arrives in the UK as a Belgian refugee from the war on mainland Europe, and Dorothy L Sayers gives her detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who served on the front line, recurring shell shock (PDTSD). His valet, Bunter, had been his batman.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, addressed other kinds of crime to add variety to Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, including theft, blackmail, smuggling and fraud among the many murders. I’ve read a few Agatha Christie in which no-one dies, but her body count across her vast oeuvre is high.


In the UK, prior to 1965, when the death penalty was suspended, to be finally abolished in 1969, any fictitious sleuth solving a murder mystery was potentially sending the murderer to their own death by hanging. Wimsey is often plagued by remorse after securing a conviction; I wonder whether his creator shared this experience.

My own aversion to murder made me decide when starting my second cosy mystery series that the crimes would be anything but murder. The Gemma Lamb series is set at St Bride’s School, and I couldn’t bring myself to introduce dead bodies to a school setting, although many writers do, e.g. Val McDiarmid in her debut novel, Report for Murder (great title, by the way).


I’ve also written cosy mysteries novelettes that focus on other misdemeanours. In The Natter of Knitters, the ‘crime’ might be described as a breach of the peace at a yarnbombing event. In The Clutch of Eggs, I write about the illegal collection of wild birds’ eggs. Both novelettes are set in the same cosy world as the Sophie Sayers novels. They include a rewarding amount of intrigue, but no-one loses their lives, and the denouement of each story is 100% heartwarming. (I hope the elderly lady from Books on the Hill would approve!)

Not all crimes would make entertaining reading, such as failing to pay your TV licence or council tax, but there are plenty of other crimes that would be fun to write (and to read) about. I’ve got a little list…


Ringing the changes with different crimes offers authors another advantage: it’s much easier to differentiate your stories from each other. When I announced my ambitious plan to write a seven-book murder mystery series, author Orna Ross’s top tip was, ‘Don’t fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over again.’  Excellent advice, especially for a long series. (My original seven-book series is now nine books long and set to grow further – shades of Douglas Adams’ famous ‘five-book trilogy’ that is his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.)


For any authors who are still dithering as to whether to diversify from murder, this quote from Sherlock Holmes’ creator might persuade you. In his excellent autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle answers a question he was often asked: ‘To what extent does Sherlock Holmes represent yourself?’

He replies: ‘A man cannot spin a character out of his own inner consciousness and make it really life-like unless he has some possibilities of that character within him. Which is a dangerous admission for someone, for one who has drawn so many villains as I.’

Perhaps in future I’d better keep my public confessions of murder to myself!

© Debbie Young 2024

Debbie's Amazon author page:



About the Author' writing career
Not for me the most frequent starting point of  local paper reporter!  My first journalistic post was on the international trade journal, Telecommunications, read around the world, in the days when mobile phones were rare, perhaps because they were the size and weight of a housebrick.

Lured by a handsome man and a salary increase, I hopped over the fence to PR consultancy, where I spent many years writing press releases, articles, brochures and newsletters.  I wrote for national trade press and special interest magazines on topics ranging from company cars to cat litter, from superstores to factory shops, from private education to public health. My favourite projects were the Wall’s Pocket Money Monitor for Wall’s Ice Cream and launching Clark’s Village, the first factory shopping centre in the country.

I also spent 13 years writing about education as part of a marketing role at Westonbirt School, a traditional girls’ boarding and day school in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside. I’m not sure how I lasted so long there, being politically very left-wing – though the joy of working in a grade-I listed mansion in a private 250 acre estate may have helped.

As a freelance, in the past I’ve written for Cotswold Life and Country Garden & Smallholding (now  Country Smallholding) on subjects such as organic box schemes, poultry keeping and country crafts, and I very much enjoy writing regular columns for the two magazines closest to my home. You can find these articles among my blog posts, tagged Hawkesbury Parish News and Tetbury Advertiser.

These days my freelance commissions are primarily for writing-related publications including Writing Magazine, Mslexia and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Self-publishing

When I left Westonbirt in 2010, I started blogging, and projects related to books, reading and writing started to materialise as if by magic. I spent three very rewarding years working for the national children’s reading charity Readathon, promoting children’s reading for pleasure, at home and in hospitals. In 2013 I was appointed commissioning editor of the Authors’ Advice Centre blog at the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) until 2019. I also contributed to ALLi’s series of advice books for authors, and I am still a UK Ambassador for ALLi. In 2022, I began teaching a twice-yearly course called Simply Self-publish for Jericho Writers.

I also give occasional talks at writing conferences and literature festivals and am often asked to be a judge for events such as Stroud Short Stories. I have also contributed to magazines for writers, including Mslexia and Romance Matters.  

In 2014 I began to self-publish my fiction, and there followed three collections of short stories, nine novels, a novella, and two three novelettes. Two of those novels were shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies Award, given for the best independently published adult fiction in the UK. 

In 2022 I gained three publishing contracts, licensing English language rights for my two series of novels to Boldwood Books, audiobook rights for seven novels to Saga Egmont, and German translation rights to DP Verlag.

I now write full time. 

Set at St Bride’s School for Girls
“A deftly comic series of perfect, feel-good reads.” – Susan Grossey

“A cracking example of cosy crime” – Katie Fforde

“Pure escapism and entertainment, filled with warmth, wit and humour” – Liza Perrat

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