Bill Clinton, it is alleged, once described the Hay-on-Wye book festival as the “Woodstock of the mind,” a proposition that would presumably make the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate the “Woodstock of the criminal mind”. If only, that is, Europe’s largest crime writing festival, now celebrating its 10th year, wasn’t such a splendidly pleasant, friendly, high-spirited and utterly inclusive affair.
“I don’t know why I was ever worried about writing a genre novel. Crime writers and fans are such a fantastic, open bunch of people, especially compared to the people I usually meet,” mused Norwegian By Night writer Derek B. Miller at New Blood, showcasing some of the year’s most exciting debut authors. Miller, it should perhaps be noted, is a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, with a PHD in international relations from the University of Geneva and an MA in national security studies from Georgetown University.
I spent a Friday night and Saturday at this year’s festival, eschewing the self-evident pleasures of Harrogate’s Blues Bar just across the road from my hotel so enamoured was I of the atmosphere at the resort’s Old Swan Hotel (where Agatha Christie once hid herself away). There are, incidentally, lots of elegant, reasonably-priced hotels in Harrogate, befitting its reputation as a spa resort, and one useful tip I got from a local café-bar owner was that, contrary to what you might expect, the Travelodge is one of the most expensive places to stay because hen parties and the like tend to use it.
Meanwhile, in the sophisticated surrounds of the festival, and quite literally within minutes of arriving and picking up a goody bag agreeably weighty with hot-off-the-press books, I found myself sipping wine alongside Denise Mina who’d just won the Crime Novel of the Year for an unprecedented second year running for her Gods And Beasts, and the hilarious, urbane William McIlvanney, so-called “godfather of tartan noir”. This was not some sort of journalistic perk but one of the striking features of the festival. Fans, would-be writers, best-selling authors like Ian Rankin, Lee Childs and Kate Atkinson, and famous folk (including, incidentally, the then yet-to-be-announced new Dr Who, Peter Capaldi) mix freely, especially in the hotel bar or in the celebrated late-night Saturday quiz, of which more anon.
“We don’t hide the writers away, we include them in the rolling party in the bar,” acknowledges author Val McDermid, one of the festival’s founders. “And in everything we do we include the readers, because writers without readers are redundant.
“Ten years ago, a handful of us were cajoled into putting together a crime festival in this sedate Victorian spa town,” she recalls. “We called in favours from reluctant friends, persuaded publishers to come north of the M25 and compiled a programme that excited us.
“We hoped it would attract readers too and we must have done something right because the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is now the most vibrant and popular event of its kind anywhere in the world, precisely, I believe, because we’re inclusive. We include the very best writers, from newbies to icons of the genre. We include translated fiction, TV and film adaptation, a quiz and, of course, beer.”
Introducing McIlvanney in the slightly more formal setting of the Saturday morning In Conversation session, fan Ian Rankin acknowledged that “it’s unlikely I would be a crime writer without the influence of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy. Here was a literary novelist turning his hand to the urban, contemporary crime novel and proving that the form could tackle big moral concerns and social issues”.
Now in his late 70s and the author of 15 or so books, albeit with only a few of them in the genre and featuring his erudite but tough Glasgow cop Laidlaw, McIlvanney admitted that he “wasn’t aware at all of the effect Laidlaw had until people like Val McDermid said to me ‘You started it all’. Did I? I’ve been quite moved that folk regard me as the forerunner of Tartan Noir. In my old age it’s like getting a pension of esteem you didn’t know you were going to get.”
Talking about the birth of Laidlaw (allegedly the inspiration for Taggart) in the late 70s, he remembers “I would say I was aware enough of crime fiction to want to do something different from what I’d seen. It was a new area which fascinated me and which I thought was underdeveloped. I’m not saying I thought I could grandly redevelop it, but I could at least try to suggest that there’s more here. It seemed to me that it usually fought as a flyweight and it could fight at least as a middleweight.”
Now, of course, the bookshops are bulging with intelligent and challenging crime novels of every imaginable form – and Harrogate has an enviable record reputation for spotlighting new writers. Saturday’s proceedings included not only New Blood, with the aforementioned Derek B. Miller as well as the hugely promising Colette McBeth (Precious Thing), Anya Lipska (Where The Devil Can’t Go) and Malcolm Mackay (The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter), but also a panel called South Of The Equator, noting that ‘in Britain miserable weather is as much a character of crime fiction as its murderers and detectives’ and posing the question ‘is crime committed in sunnier climes different from ours?’ to a panel of authors from the Southern Hemisphere including Lauren Beukes from South Africa.
Lauren has just released The Shining Girls, a dazzling, utterly enthralling crime novel that’s about as different from McIlvanney’s gritty Laidlaw books as you could imagine, its premise being that of a time-travelling serial killer who is tracked down by one of his victims who manages to survive.
“I’m a writer who is incredibly lucky to get paid to make up stories all day. It wasn’t always like this. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been a journalist, a TV scriptwriter, a documentary maker and a mom to a small and amazing daughter – and had to find time to write novels in between,” Lauren offers by way of introduction. “I guess I’m best known,” she laughs, “for winning the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2011 for Zoo City, a black magic detective story set in Johannesburg about refugees, redemption, criminals with magical animals and the evils of autotune.”
Even by those standards, The Shining Girls is an audacious concept for a crime novel, not least as it came to her almost fully-formed.
“This is a little embarrassing but I was messing around on Twitter instead of writing, as you do, and threw out the idea of a time-travelling serial killer who leaves anachronistic clues on his female victims in the middle of a random conversation. I immediately deleted the tweet because I was like, ‘Yes! That must be my next book! Quickly! Before someone else thinks of it!’
“But I think interesting ideas often come around when you’re least expecting them, in those moments when you’ve let your subconscious off the leash to romp in the grass.
“Yes, there are a lot of social issues that leak through my novels, which partly comes from having grown up under a terrible repressive racist regime, otherwise known as apartheid, and from 10 years as a journalist, getting backstage in the world.
“So I wanted to use time travel as a way of exploring how much has changed or, depressingly, stayed the same over the course of the last century, especially for women, and to subvert the serial killer genre by keeping the focus much more on the victims and examining what real violence is and what it does to us.
“The hardest thing to write was the killing,” she reveals. “I wrote deep portraits of interesting women, from an African American World War Two single mother welder to a ‘troublesome broad’ architect accused of pinko sympathies in the 50s to a gentle abortionist and a burlesque dancer with a terrible secret…and then I had to kill them.
“But the attacks usually happen from their perspective, so you’re not riding along with the killer, complicit in the murder, getting off on it. You’re with the women, feeling their fear and their outrage and grief and trauma and that was pretty hard to write, to make it more than a gratuitous murder, to get at the shock and emotion of it, because violence should be shocking. It should punch us in the face. It was about creating characters rather than pretty corpses.
“But the resonances of stuff that happened then with stuff that is happening now was a little scary. There are a lot of echoes, some of them obvious, like the Great Depression and our current recession, or the Red Scare tactics coming up again in the War on Terror, sneakily eroding our privacy and stirring up fear for political control, or the fact that women’s rights to control their bodies is apparently somehow still up for debate.”
More established authors like Kate Atkinson and the mega-selling, ex-Granada TV man Lee Child predictably had the ‘House Full’ signs outside and the signing queues snaking around and out of the book tent. But, even there, the festival played with expectations, for instance having Child’s on-stage interview conducted by comedienne Sarah Millican, hilariously undercutting the monosyllabic machismo of Child’s hero, Jack Reacher.
Another wholly unexpected treat was the omni-present McDermid’s In Conversation with Sue Black. Who? Well, she’s a forensic anthropologist, one of the leading in the world, in fact. But when she’s not identifying bodies in Rwanda, she often helps crime writers like Val get their forensic facts right. Black turns out to be quite the star turn herself and, should you ever get the chance, try to get her to tell you the “two prostitutes’ heads in a bag” story. Believe me, it’s a lot funnier and a whole lot more moving and humane than it sounds…
As Val points out, the festival doesn’t confine itself to the printed (or electronically-disseminated) page. Another sell-out session was devoted to the successful TV drama Vera and boasted none other than double Oscar-nominated actress Brenda Blethyn discussing her role as the unglamorous detective in the company of writer Ann Cleeves, writer of the source novels; screenwriter Paul Rutman; and series producer Elaine Collins, who discovered a copy of the first Vera novel in an Oxfam shop and went on to bring the books to life for millions of TV viewers. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been involved in the script-to-screen process that it’s a fraught journey but it was still astonishing to watch this quartet publicly divulge hiccups along the way that even some of the people on stage apparently hadn’t been aware of before that very moment.
And so to the Late Night Quiz, which, as you might imagine, is not just any old quiz despite the traditional heroic consumption of alcohol and good-natured bending of the rules. Mark Billingham and Val McDermid hosted and, given that former champions include the likes of The Wire‘s David Simon and the great US author George Pelecanos, my lovely wife and I had no intention of taking part, assuming that we would be trounced by the professionals and the more dedicated fans. However, we were persuaded to join a team with some lovely folk we’d literally just met in that great levelling-ground, the bar, including would-be writers and even a sports journalist or two, and somehow came second in the non-professional category. Soundly thrashed by the professionals, of course, but not disgraced. I tell you that not merely to show off but as yet another example of the inclusivity of the whole event. And, as a compensatory act of self-abasement, I feel compelled to disclose that our downfall was the beer-tasting round. How embarrassing…
If you’ve got even a passing interest in the crime genre, I’d be astonished if you too didn’t have a great time at this tremendous festival. Bring a spare bag, though, to hold all the books you’ll feel moved to purchase.
By Kevin Bourke
What: Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival
More info: for details on the next Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, please contact www.harrogateinterhationalfestivals.com/crime or call 01423 562 303
*Northern Soul’s very own Helen Carter will be discussing how a city can influence and shape its writers, especially crime writers, with Val McDermid, as well as Scott & Bailey author Cath Staincliffe, and rising star of ‘Manc Noir’ Tom Evans at the Manchester Literature Festival event Manchester Crime Scene on October 15, 2013. More details from www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk
*Partly inspired by the success of the Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate International Festivals has just announced a new History Festival this October. Authors including Rose Tremain, Fay Weldon and Lindsey Davies will star in a series of events that promises “a spectacular combination of the very best historical writing today: from the Roman Empire to the 20th century; fiction and non-fiction; thrillers, romances, literary works and television, bringing together writers and readers, researchers and fans in an atmosphere of shared passion and fascination.”
The Harrogate History Festival takes place from October 25 – 27, 2013 at the Old Swan Hotel. Visit http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history/ for a full programme or call the box office on 01423 562 303. First tickets will be on sale this month.