In late 1988 I was telephoned by an official (who had better remain anonymous) of the Crime Writers’ Association who asked if I was planning on attending the CWA’s annual awards dinner to be held, if I remember correctly, at the Honourable Artillery Company in December. As a new and enthusiastic member of the CWA, I was naturally excited at the prospect, my debut crime novel Just Another Angel having been published that August and especially as one of the awards to be given out at the dinner was the John Creasey Award (named after the founder of the CWA) for best debut novel…
As the identity of the winner of ‘The Creasey’ was in those days was not treated as a state secret until the awards dinner, unlike the more famous Gold and Silver Dagger awards, I casually enquired if it was known who had won. The CWA official on the end of the phone apologised profusely. She had been told which book had won, but had forgotten. However, she was ‘pretty sure that it had Angel in the title’.
Naturally I was delighted and for several days had a positive spring in my step; until I saw the official programme for the awards dinner and discovered that the John Creasey award for best first crime novel of 1988 had gone to Death’s Bright Angel by someone called Janet Neel and not to Just Another Angel.
It was an inauspicious start to what became a 25-year (so far) friendship.
During the 1990s, Britain saw the introduction of crime and mystery conventions where writers, readers, publishers, film and television producers could meet and mingle; events which were well-known in America and other countries, but unknown here until an infant film festival in Nottingham which specialised in crime and thriller films called A Shot In The Dark expanded its remit to include books as well as film and television. This strand of the festival became known as Shots on the Page convention and became a solid fixture on the social calendar of all fans of the genre. For one long week-end each year, Nottingham was overrun with criminal minds, giving fans a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Sara Paretsky, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, James Ellroy and a brash young film director called Quentin Tarantino. Not to mention Janet Neel and myself.
One of the first panels on which we appeared together at a Shots convention was to debate the advantages of writing crime fiction whilst not having ‘given up the day job’. At the time, I was working in the brewing industry and Janet, having had one successful career with the Department of Trade had now switched to an equally successful one in merchant banking. We spoke on how we fitted our crime writing around our day jobs which, we both admitted, gave us plenty of material for our fiction but we most impressed the audience by showing that we knew how to use mobile phones! (This was over twenty years ago and mobile phones were rare and exotic things, not to mention a lot heavier than they are today.)
As Janet’s writing career flourished with her Francesca Wilson and John McLeish mysteries garnering rave reviews and twice being short-listed for the Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger, every new title was marked by an elegant launch party which soon became the hottest ticket on the London crime-writing scene.
On one occasion, whilst serving as a Governor of the BBC (which she did 1994-98), she was given permission to launch her new novel in the Board Room at Broadcasting House and I was invited as the crime fiction reviewer of the Daily Telegraph. It was a splendid event and, as I said at the time, the nearest I was ever likely to get to the heart of the BBC!
Although we at one point shared the same literary agent, twice shared the same publisher and both worked in London, Janet and I lost touch with each other not long after the publication of her novel O Gentle Death in 2000. We were to renew our friendship in 2004 following a surprise meeting in, of all places, the House of Commons.
I was attending a reception held in the Terrace rooms of the House of Commons, lobbying MPs as part of a delegation representing the Public Lending Right. Across a crowded room I spotted a late arrival, my old crime-writing chum Janet Neel. We immediately began to catch up on each other’s news. When I expressed surprise at Janet being present, as I had not seen her name on the list of authors attending, she cheerfully admitted that she had ‘just popped in after work next door to show her support’. It was the phrase after work next door which rather confused me as the only thing ‘next door’ to the House of Commons as far as I knew, was the House of Lords…
It was then that I noticed the security badge hanging around Janet’s neck, which informed me that Janet Neel (her maiden name) was now better known as Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, having been made a Labour Life Peer. We had a considerable amount of catching up to do and in the course of our tête-à-tête, Janet mentioned the fact that she had written a crime novel featuring a new leading character, solicitor Jules Carlisle, and a plot involving illegal immigrants in East Anglia. She added that she was in need of a new publisher as, so it happened, was I. Without having read a word, I unreservedly recommended the book to an editor of outstanding taste, David Shelley, who was then at publishers Allison & Busby, and who was considering my new novel.
Thus it was, by an amazing co-incidence (!) that Ticket to Ride by Janet Neel and Angel In The House by Mike Ripley, were both published on the same day by Allison & Busby in 2005. There was, of course, a joint launch party which took place in a tasteful art gallery just off Trafalgar Square.
To promote the books there was even an author(s) tour which became known as the ‘Partners in Crime’ tour of libraries in London, Buckinghamshire and Essex which ended with sell-out events at Walton-on-the-Naze (with Essex County librarian Lesley Sharpe, below) and on Mersea Island.
Our last public appearance together was in 2010 at the infamous Bodies In The Bookshop event at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge, where Janet now lives.
However, having been her rival, her reviewer, her professional colleague at crime fiction conventions, her partner on a promotional tour and, I hasten to say, her friend; I seriously doubt that the world has seen the last public manifestation of these two particular ‘Angels’. Especially not as I am now her editor and both pleased and proud to present her books to a new generation of readers.
…and those Janet Neel Reissues from OSTARA CRIME:
The first three titles in the Ostara Crime imprint for 2013 all feature award-winning author Janet Neel (Baroness Cohen of Pimlico) and her series characters: police detective John McLeish and high-flying civil servant Francesca Wilson originally published between 1988 and 1993: Death’s Bright Angel, Death of A Partner and Death Among the Dons.
Janet Neel’s crime novels were the first to place the traditional English detective story in the contemporary world of business, boardroom politics and Whitehall influence. She introduced the investigative duo of a thoughtful, unassuming London CID inspector and a confident – sometimes over-confident – well-connected civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry. Not only did Neel give them both fascinating back stories, but from their first appearance in Death’s Bright Angel there was a clear chemistry in their relationship which was to develop into romance as the series continued.
This combination of strong characters, unusual but totally credible settings and the subordinate on-going themes of romance, infidelity, the claims of family, the role of women in business (and academia) and her obvious love of choral music, all combined to win Janet Neel a faithful readership on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her debut, Death’s Bright Angel, won the John Creasey Award for best first crime novel of 1988 and both Death of A Partner (1991) and Death Among the Dons (1993) were shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger. Death Among the Dons was described by the critic T. J. Binyon as “probably the best crime novel set in a women’s college since Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night.”
Janet Neel, the maiden name of Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, read law at Newnham College Cambridge, qualifying as a solicitor in 1965. She worked in the USA designing war games for the Department of Defense and in Britain as a civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry before moving in to a career in merchant banking. She established two successful restaurants in London and remains a non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange as well as chairman of the Cambridge Arts Theatre. In 2000 she was appointed to the House of Lords to sit as a Labour peer with particular interest in trdae matters, industry, taxation and communications.
Mike Ripley, the series editor of Ostara Crime, has known Janet Neel for over 25 years. For the story of how they started as rival crime writers but ended up “Partners in Crime”, follow the Ostara Crime links on the www.ostarapublishing.co.uk to any Janet Neel title and click for further information and the feature A TALE OF TWO ANGELS. Or go direct to: http://www.ostarapublishing.co.uk/article-129.html