Back in January last year, I received an email from Harry Bingham, author and founder of the Writers’ Workshop. I’d last seen Harry at the York Festival of Writing. Somehow, he’d persuaded me to give a last-minute key note speech to four hundred other writers. Why I agreed to that anxiety dream brought to life, I couldn’t tell you. I should have known he’d be back for more.
‘Is there any chance I could prevail on you for a story?’ he asked. ‘It’s for a Quick Reads antholo-gy.’ There were several amazing, bestselling writers already on board – the likes of Mark Billingham and Clare Mackintosh. But ‘we don’t have anyone who can swear quite like you can’. The man knows how to flatter.
I said yes at once. Quick Reads – if you haven’t heard of it – is an adult literacy initiative. Among many other things, the QR team produces a set of books every year – short reads, written for adults, with clear, uncomplicated language.
I loved the idea of a short story collection that encouraged new readers while also entertaining ex-isting crime fans. The book would go into libraries and bookshops, and also workplaces, colleges and prisons. I was proud and pleased to be asked to join in.
Now I just had to write a short story. Something I hadn’t done since school.
Luckily, the idea sprang into my head at once, including the twist. I’d always fancied the idea of writing a prequel to my first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, featuring Samuel Fleet – bookseller, assassin, and all round menace to the social order. It was good to meet up with him again, a few years before the events in the Marshalsea. Grieving and heartsore, he is in search of distraction, and finds it in a Newgate prison cell.
He’s come to visit Charles Simmons, a man set to hang for murder in the morning. Fleet is con-vinced Simmons is innocent. Simmons knows he is guilty. This is exactly the kind of perverse situ-ation Fleet is drawn to… and hopefully gives the reader a good mystery to puzzle out.
Having now read the whole collection, I’m struck by both the high quality and the variety of the sto-ries. With a limited word count, each writer has created a little world, a plunge pool to dive into. Then out, and into the next. I think it makes for a very satisfying read – and hope it encourages a few new readers into a very welcoming world of crime and mystery.
‘The Night Before the Hanging’ by Antonia Hodgson is published as part of the Quick Reads Dead Simple crime anthology, available now (Orion, £1). Quick Reads is an annual initiative run by The Reading Agency whose mission is to inspire more people to read more.