Cracking the case with crime writers: my ‘Grill a Killer’ experience

Donna Morfett recounts her experience at our ‘Grill a Killer’ event at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

Donna Morfett

When Graham Bartlett announced he was doing a fringe event at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, in partnership with the Professional Writing Academy, I just knew I had to take part.

Their event was called ‘Grill a Killer’, and featured Graham as the lead detective, author Dale Brendan Hyde as the ‘suspect’ and fellow author Caroline England as his solicitor.

‘Grill a Killer’ was held in the library of the Old Swan Hotel so on a rainy Saturday afternoon, my friend Sharon and I arrived, to be briefed on what was going to happen.

The suspect had discovered his wife dead in their hot tub, and according to him, tried to pull her out. He’d called 999 but hung up on them when they suggested attempting CPR. Already suspicious behaviour…

In my group there were four teams ready to quiz the suspect, and a full room of observers. Sharon and I were last, so we got to watch how everyone else approached the challenge, but it also meant that a lot of the questions we might have asked had already been asked, often repeatedly, much to the feigned annoyance of Dale and his ‘solicitor’! 

We were given a pack with all the details of the crime, and the crime scene photos. It showed the victim half out of the hot tub, a bucket with champagne glasses and bottle, and some other detritus around the pool. A timer for twelve minutes was set, and the first team was off. 

It was fascinating to watch how everyone tackled the questioning.

We later found out that we all came from completely different backgrounds, some crime writers, one children’s writer, one a wannabe writer (me) and a couple of people just wanting to give it a go. 

We watched as Dale struggled to answer some of the questions, and became irate, with Caroline having to step in from time to time to try and move things along, and deflect the interviewers. Sometimes this was for Dale’s benefit, often because the question had been asked many times already and there was no other way to answer it. All credit to Paul Gitsham who was the only person to interview alone. He not only handled it with ease, but also managed to extract a lot of information.

As more evidence was revealed and more clues uncovered, it was finally our turn. I know Caroline, Dale, and Graham quite well, yet sitting in the hot seat was really nerve wracking.

Graham passed two evidence bags before we took our seats; a belt, and a bag of white powder, assumed to be drugs. He told us they were found behind the pool after the photos were taken. I had noticed a couple of things in the crime scene photos that no one else had picked up on, which I was quite pleased with, so started with those questions, before going in with the new evidence. 

I soon discovered my partner had no filter, and no ability to stop what she was thinking coming out of her mouth! I was sitting there thinking ‘oh my god you can’t say that.’ I tried my best to stay composed and to move the questioning back on track. I tried to be calm and thorough, but inside I was thinking ‘I know you’re lying!’ It was difficult to quiz someone about drug taking when you had no proof the powder in the bag was drugs, and the suspect and solicitor knew that too!

As Graham said at the end, that’s how it would be in a real case, the forensics wouldn’t be in by that point, so you just had to go in with what you had and do the best you can. 

Dale was absolutely brilliant, his hammy acting was actually spot on, and he was a lot calmer and more forthcoming that I would normally expect a murder suspect to be! He wasn’t the best liar though, and I would have loved to keep going at him to break him down and trip him up over his lies. Although as it was, Sharon and I ran out of questions just as our twelve minutes were up. She was brilliant at reinforcing my questions, and really hammering home the important points. We made the perfect team. I wish I’d taken a notebook and pen, to have something to do with my hands, and to write down crucial answers to make myself look a little more professional! 

Graham then briefed us at the end and told us what had really happened. Safe to say we were nowhere near, although we’d touched on a couple of the vital clues between us. He then commented on all our interview styles. He said that we were all great. There were the good cop/bad cop styles like my friend and I. Then there was the calm and considered – almost matey – questioning, and the little digs were also evident, used to get under the suspect’s skin before the tape started recording.

Graham advised us how we could make the most of it in our own writing, then opened the floor to questions. 

I really enjoyed the experience and am glad to know I can remain calm under pressure, but I do wonder how long that would have lasted when I became frustrated with the constant lies coming from the person in front of me. I wonder how long it would have been before my friend was holding me back! I took it more seriously than I was expecting to, and tried to take as much away from the experience as I could.

Sitting across from a suspect and solicitor, and the tension I felt, as well as mannerisms and noises, body tics etc will all add another layer to writing interview scenes in future books, which in itself is invaluable. 

I hope this will be repeated at further events, and I can see it becoming something really incredible. Thank you to Graham, Dale and Caroline for being so wonderful, and for the opportunity to take part. I loved it. 

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Meet your Guest author

Donna Morfett

Donna is a dedicated reviewer, interviewer and supporter of the writing community. As a crime writer herself, she can be often found at writing festivals chatting to readers and authors alike.

Like many others during lockdown she wanted to find a way to try and wile away the many hours while the country came to a standstill. She’s always been an avid and voracious reader, so decided to see if there were more book groups on Facebook. Three months later she was up to her eyes in advanced copies of books and quickly learned all there was to know about blogs and blog tours.

Donna has been blogging ever since. She’s heavily involved in the crime fiction community, interviewing authors, attending as many festivals as she can, and is currently trying to find a home for her debut novel.



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