Jason Goodwin: Crime writers are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet – but romantic novelists are a nightmare

Our columnist – and novelist, and historian – recounts the day he met a charming and erudite fan whose kind words inspired him for years. Until they didn't.

A young American editor once came up to me in Harrogate to say that he’d read all my Yashim thrillers, from The Janissary Tree to The Baklava Club. I warmed to him. My sentences, he went on to say, were so beautifully constructed, so nobly cadenced, that he’d used them to teach his Harvard English class. Iambic pentameters, he said, or trochaic tetrameters – I can’t now remember which – and he actually quoted a line from one of the books.

Personally, I wouldn’t know a dactyl if it flew screaming over my head or, for that matter, a spondee if it laid an egg in my shoe, but I was appropriately embarrassed. I didn’t know where to look. I mumbled an awkward thanks and asked him about himself.

Naturally I was bucked up, too. It doesn’t happen every day, and I have clung to his nugget of praise ever since. In times of stress and disappointment I burnish it afresh. I may get things wrong, but always in the back of my mind I treasure the knowledge that in the professional judgement of a distinguished Harvard professor and New York editor I write a fine pentameter. Or maybe dactyl.

We were in Harrogate for the annual Crime Writing Festival, where we thriller writers get to hang out with crime-fiction addicts and each other. It’s like a convention for surgeons or ATM manufacturers, but with more jokes, because crime writers are a jolly bunch. The higher the body count, the more fun they are.

Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman – they’re all a scream. Mark Billingham actually had a career in stand-up before he created DI Tom Thorne. Yrsa Sigurõardóttir may make your flesh creep with her tales of Icelandic weirdness and murder, but in the flesh she’ll keep you in tucks. Even her tweets are snort-worthy.

‘They’ll probably go higher, his agent said. No, he said. A million dollars. Is. Just. Fine.’

Her compatriot, Arnaldur Idriõason, isn’t quite so persistently funny, but his joke is that in order to write his first Icelandic Noir he had to invent the homicide department in Reykjavik because Iceland doesn’t have a homicide department – nobody there ever gets murdered.

And crime writers are very friendly. They say that if you really want to see blood on the carpet, go to a convention of romantic novelists. Crime writers look out for each other, read each other’s stuff and enjoy the merriment and committee work. Theakstons, which brews beer, sponsors the festival, which should tell you all you really need to know.

Last year, though, I was at the Tallinn Literary Festival when I bumped into my flattering fan again, in the hotel lift. He asked after Yashim and I congratulated him on having written a bestselling thriller, under the pseudonym A. J. Finn, called The Woman in the Window. He didn’t do awkward thanks. He grinned, nodded and said it had been a great year, and that we’d catch up later.

As it happened, we never did, but I heard him speak at the festival and he was funny, gracious and fluent. He told a nice story about being offered a million dollars for his film rights. He was queueing for a flight when the phone call came through. They’ll probably go higher, his agent said. No, he said. A million dollars. Is. Just. Fine.

Then, in a recent New Yorker, I read an extraordinarily unkind article about him. It alleges that he is an egregious fantasist and quotes a colleague who accuses him of being ‘performative and calculating.’

Worst of all, for me, he is said to employ what the magazine describes as ‘rapturous flattery’. That sounds uncannily like my dactyl flapping away on its leathery, prehistoric wings.