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Agents tell us what they’re looking for in a debut crime submission – The Pool / Virago New Crime Writer award

The first step to getting your novel published is getting an agent. Here, a selection of agents whose clients write crime tell us what they look for in a debut submission. 

I don’t know what it is I’m looking for, but in the best crime fiction something finds you. A character intrigues, an atmosphere chills, the tone unsettles… and before you know it you’re hooked. Personally I’m not good with gore but I do love a bit of sinister and creepy. And warped.

Jo Unwin, Jo Unwin Literary Agency, where her authors include Emma Flint, Kit De Waal and Nina Stibbe (and judge for the competition)


I love distinct and compelling characters who have a backstory, an identity and you want to spend time with. They should not feel derivative or stitched from other successful detectives/protagonists (a bit of Rebus, a dash of Tennison). They should feel truly YOURS.

A strong sense of place. This is so often forgotten in crime but the surroundings can be a huge part of what makes a novel stand out. Your large metropolitan town, your claustrophobic Icelandic village, your empty Welsh moorland, even an urban apartment building. The sense or absence of neighbours alone can influence the atmosphere. Root your story somewhere. The specifics of your world are so important.

A third act that delivers. I can’t underline enough how important this is! That third act has to reward a reader who has invested, speculated and followed your red herrings or clues. There is nothing more frustrating when all of the seeds of what have been sown amount to nothing or a novel finishes with a left field conclusion that feels tacked on. I want a twist that makes me rethink my own assumptions, that has me embarrassed at the conclusions I leapt to and delighted by your ingenuity. It needs to be tightly plotted and you need to examine each moment to ensure your characters would behave in the way you are asking them to!

Felicity Blunt, agent at Curtis Brown, where her authors include Renee Knight, Rosamund Lupton, Tammy Cohen, Laura Marshall and the Daphne du Maurier estate



The buzz you get from reading a debut novel is immense and I find that in particular when reading crime fiction. It’s a total art form to be able to weave an original plot that combines clever red herrings, smart layering and intriguing twists. I am always drawn to a standout, fresh voice and a hook that will rise above the crowd. Something creative and chilling and, of course, totally addictive.

Hellie Ogden, agent at Janklow & Nesbit, where her authors include MJ Arlidge and Kiran Millwood Hargrave



High quality writing aside, when reading a new crime submission (or in fact any submission) top of the list of things I look for relates to voice and characterisation. For me a fresh, compelling voice and authentic, engaging characters are essential. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these people so if they hook me then we’re off. Then next thing I look for is something unexpected. This can come in the form of the plot, its twists, the type of crime committed, the setting or even a playful, speculative element. Essentially I want to be taken somewhere new, be shown something different and ultimately to feel an ever increasing undercurrent of threat and conflict ending with a deep sense of satisfaction.

Sue Armstrong, senior agent at C+W Agency

Sue Armstrong is a senior literary agent at C+W Agency (formerly Conville & Walsh) representing a wide-range of novelists including New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller ML Stedman (The Light between Oceans); Sunday Times bestseller Joanna Cannon (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep); Sunday Times and international crime bestseller Daniel Cole (Ragdoll); Desmond Elliott winner Ali Shaw (The Girl with Glass Feet); award-winning and nominated novelists Simon Wroe (Chop Chop), Tasha Kavanagh (Things We Have in Common), Jess Kidd (Himself) and James Hannah (The A to Z of You and Me). Website @susanW1F

With the Virago/The Pool New Crime Writer Award, we want to discover an exciting new female writer for the Virago list who is writing a suspenseful, intelligent, original crime or thriller novel. Find out more, and how to enter here.