We Begin at the End: Sawbridgeworth crime writer Chris Whitaker wins CWA Gold Dagger for third novel
Author Chris Whitaker has a hugely personal reason for his third novel being the brightest star in the firmament of his work – he credits it with saving his life.
The Sawbridgeworth-based crime writer began writing We Begin at the End 20 years ago as therapy after he endured the terrifying experience of being stabbed by a mugger.
And after the thriller was finally published during the coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, it has carved a place in others' hearts, with rave reviews worldwide and now two prestigious awards.
In July the novel won the Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Gold Dagger – previous winners include John le Carré, Ruth Rendell, Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters and Patricia Cornwell – and it was also named the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2021.
That follows the mega news of the story being taken up Disney's 20th Television, with top US producers engaged in the production of a TV series.
After accepting the Old Peculier award at a ceremony in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Chris, 39, who lives in Sawbridgeworth with wife Victoria and their three children, said: "I began writing this book as a form of therapy after being mugged and stabbed.
"Without doubt this story saved my life, so to win this award feels like the most wonderful, dreamlike end to a journey that has been 20 years in the making."
He modestly added: "I've read the short-listed books so know with some certainty that I’m not a worthy winner, but I am a grateful one, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling now.”
Chris – whose first two novels were Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls – did not anticipate success in Harrogate as the shock of winning the CWA Gold Dagger was still sinking in.
"It was totally unexpected," said Chris, who was completely unprepared when his name was read out during the online ceremony. "I managed to thank my wife but forgot to thank my agent."
Despite all this acclaim, he continues to work part-time at Bishop's Stortford Library, although it is getting harder to find time and has had to reduce his shifts.
"I love working there but the book stuff is getting really intense," said Chris, who has been a regular guest at the Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature.
The word 'intense' best describes Chris' work. He has now turned his attention to the young adult market and just had The Forevers published in hardback. He describes it as a dystopian end-of-the-world book about an asteroid and it has already been well received.
One reviewer said of Chris: “He writes like a dark angel, conjuring characters and places so memorable you’ll ache when it’s over. A very real, very rare talent.”
And another said of the book: “Brutal, yet beautiful, this painfully human tale cements Whitaker’s status as one of the most talented authors writing today.”
His skill at holding the reader in a grip of suspense and wonder was a major reason Disney became so taken with We Begin at the End and was determined to win the rights of the book. Chris was overjoyed that the project also involved Hamilton director Thomas Kail and his producing partner Jennifer Todd.
The story follows a convict named Vincent King, released from prison 30 years after being convicted of killing a seven-year-old girl, and his connections with the victim's 13-year-old niece, Duchess Ray Radley, and the chief of police in a small California town – Vincent's former best friend whose testimony helped send him to prison.
Disney president Karey Burke told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year: "Chris’ spellbinding murder mystery had us enthralled from the very first page, and Tommy and Jen are exactly the right producers to bring it to the screen.
"The characters, the suspense, the emotional arcs, we were all captivated and knew we had to make this into a television series."
It's clear that for We Begin at the End and for Chris it is just the start of something big.
And for the mugger who set the wheels in motion, he could never have known where his actions would lead.
CWA GOLD DAGGER 2021 SHORT LIST
S A Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland
Ben Creed, City of Ghosts
Nicci French, House of Correction
Robert Galbraith, Troubled Blood
Elly Griffiths, The Postscript Murders
Thomas Mullen, Midnight Atlanta
Chris Whitaker, We Begin at the End