Holy Island murder mystery wins book prize

Cressida Downing, winner of the Lindisfarne Prize for Debut Crime Fiction, with author LJ Ross.
Cressida Downing, winner of the Lindisfarne Prize for Debut Crime Fiction, with author LJ Ross.

The winner of the inaugural Lindisfarne Prize for Debut Crime Fiction has been announced.

Cressida Downing impressed judges with her work, The Roll Bearer’s Daughter, which is set on Holy Island at the turn of the 15th century.

The Lindisfarne Prize for Debut Crime Fiction was launched at the beginning of this year by bestselling crime author LJ Ross in a bid to find and encourage new literary talent, as well as celebrating the North East.

Named after the place which inspired LJ Ross’ own first novel, the prize was open to unpublished writers either from, or whose work celebrated, the North East.

After being overwhelmed by the response to the first Lindisfarne Prize, LJ Ross, along with a panel of industry experts, narrowed down the pool to a shortlist of four.

Now Cressida has been announced as the winner of the £2,500 cash prize to support the completion of her work, as well as free editorial and mentoring from Cheshire Cat Books and the funding towards various industry memberships.

Cressida was announced as the winner of the prize at a packed-out ceremony held in association with the Newcastle Noir Crime Writing Festival in the Bewick Hall, Newcastle Library, where LJ and the Lord Mayor of Newcastle presented the prize.

Freelance editor and ex-bookseller Cressida said: “Until recently, I didn’t have any urge to write myself but a chance visit to Lindisfarne sparked a idea. My novel is a murder mystery set in 15th century Lindisfarne Priory.

“My protagonist is a female scribe who is running from her past and confronting danger in her present.

“I’ve been sitting on the idea for about two years thinking I’d start writing it ‘some time’ and the Lindisfarne Prize gave me the impetus to get going with a concrete deadline. I am so grateful to LJ Ross and the other prize organisers for getting me off the ground and winning it is just amazing! The practical and emotional help offered is so valuable.”

Cressida, who is half-Australian and lives in Cambridge, was on holiday in Northumberland when she says she was ‘really taken by the stark beauty of the area’ and felt it was the perfect place to base her novel.

She said: “I help people write books all the time. The hardest thing is just sitting down and writing. You can have all the ideas in the world but, until you put something on paper, it doesn’t really matter at all.

“This is a wonderful prize to celebrate one of the best regions in the UK. Writing is often very London-centric and there’s a sense that if you are not in the capital where all the agents are then there is no point in trying. That’s very wrong because we should celebrate all parts of the UK.”

Cressida added: “This whole idea about this slightly remote priory came to me that if you had difficult or awkward monks then it would be a really useful place to put them, and if you had three or four difficult or awkward monks in one place, that would be the start of an interesting story.

“I had the image of this monk who drowned even though he was a swimmer, and swimming was seen as something strange then. Not even the fishermen would swim.

“An obituary roll would be taken from priory to priory so each place could write their own thoughts and prayers about the person who died.

“The people who took these rolls from place to place didn’t get paid. They got their expenses paid, but they had to do some side stuff.

“I thought if you were the daughter of one of these people who took these things from place to place, you would be very aware of monasteries and when to keep quiet. I’m just so grateful for this prize because that’s really what forced me to sit down and write the book.”

LJ Ross said: “The wealth of talent on display by authors either born and bred in the North East, who have made the region their home, or who have been inspired by it was truly incredible.

“It was tough to narrow down entries into a shortlist and then to choose a final winner, but Cressida’s work stood out because of the originality of her plot, her characters, and unique narrative voice.

“Having read the first chapters submitted for her entry, I genuinely can’t wait to find out what happens next. While it wasn’t part of the decision-making process, it’s also lovely that the work which won was set on Lindisfarne where I set my own first novel.”

As well as DCI Ryan author LJ Ross, the prize was judged by Paul Jones, head of publishing at Cheshire Cat Books, award-winning culture journalist David Whetstone, and Dr Jacky Collins, festival director of the Newcastle Noir Crime Writing Festival.

Paul said: “I was looking for that spark of originality. I was looking for potential. It didn’t necessarily have to be the complete item that was sat in front of us, but I wanted to see great characters, a great sense of place and also a good story.

“When I looked at the entries, the question I asked was, ‘Did I care enough’? Did I want to know what happened next, and certainly with the winner we chose, we all wanted to know what happened next in that story.”

David said: “We were looking for something that had the seed of potential more than anything.

“We weren’t looking for something that could leap straight from the manuscript onto the bookshelves. It was somebody who could develop the seed of an idea that was worth developing, maybe an exciting new character, a good scenario, something to make the reader turn the page. If we saw that, that was going to be the one that got the nod.”

“We weren’t looking for something that could leap straight from the manuscript onto the bookshelves. It was somebody who could develop the seed of an idea that was worth developing, maybe an exciting new character, a good scenario, something to make the reader turn the page. If we saw that, that was going to be the one that got the nod.”

Jacky said: “For the winner and the shortlisted authors, I hope they all go on and feel they can develop those stories and offer them to publishing houses, to independent publishers or to self-publish.

“I was looking for a story that even in embryo form would grip me, a story that would make me want to know more about the protagonist, following their story, an idea that would make me think ‘this can be a series’.”

The four authors and the entries shortlisted by LJ, along with a panel of experts, were:

1. Frank Hutton - Winter’s Gibbet

2. Keith Dickinson - Miss Bloom’s Final Summation

3. Harry Wright, writing as Wes T. Mead -Evens, Evens, Evens

4. Cressida Downing - The Roll Bearer’s Daughter (winner)

The Lindisfarne Prize was open to new authors who have not had work published yet, who are from, or whose work celebrates, the North East.

They had to submit a short story of not more than 10,000 words or two chapters along with a synopsis within the genre of crime or thriller fiction, for consideration.

LJ named the award after the place which launched her own literary career.

LJ, who lives close to Corbridge in Northumberland with her husband and son, gave up her career as a regulatory lawyer in London to pursue writing.

Passing Holy Island on the train one day, she remarked what a fantastic place it would be for a whodunnit. The rest is history. Jotting down her ideas for a plot there and then, she went on to release her debut novel, Holy Island, three years ago which went on to knock The Girl on the Train off the #1 spot in the Amazon U.K. chart.

She has now released 11 novels in her DCI Ryan series, amassing a further nine UK #1s, and collectively selling four million copies of her novels worldwide.

As well as a cash prize and editorial support, the Lindisfarne Prize winner will also receive a year’s membership of the Society of Authors (SoA) and Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Entries for next year’s competition opened again from May 2019 and will close on March 31, 2020.