Sunday, August 08, 2010

Barking Up the Right Tree

A rather amusing, coincidental, even surreal event took place during last month’s Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Britain--one that might have deserved this soundtrack.

In company with novelist Roger “R.J.” Ellory (The Anniversary Man), I drove to the famous Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, in Northern England, on the convention’s opening day, Thursday, July 22. Although Roger was not scheduled to participate in any panel discussions, he wanted to attend the Harrogate festival because he had been nominated for the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger in the Library award (given to authors for a body of work, rather than an individual title). His 2008 novel, A Simple Act of Violence, had also been shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award. He said on our way down, though, that he had little chance of winning either commendation, but especially not the Crime Novel of the Year as that shortlist of nominees featured many strong competitors.

(Right) Sharon Canaver, R.J. Ellory, and Simon Theakston at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

I tried to reassure him, pointing out that while 80 percent of the vote for the Crime Novel of the Year Award was weighted toward the opinions of a judging panel, the general reading public controlled the remaining 20 percent--and it’s been my experience, when it comes to such literary prizes, that no one knows anything until the winning envelope is opened. But Roger dismissed my eternal optimism, telling me to forget about the awards and just have some good laughs over this weekend. The Harrogate festival is always enjoyable, and I’d prepared to make the most of it, bringing along a liter of gin to keep us fresh.

After unpacking in the hotel room we’d chosen to share, and tipping back a couple of libations, we set off on foot toward the convention hotel. On our way, Roger felt peckish, so we tried to hunt down a cheeseburger, in the course of which we bumped into broadcast journalist Mark Lawson, who was to present that evening’s awards. Lawson is a great champion for crime fiction, and he and his BBC radio show, Front Row, have been permanent fixtures of the Harrogate festival since its start in 2003. Roger hadn’t met him yet, so I did the introductions, and then Lawson wished us luck both in our search for sustenance and in Roger’s pursuit of the Crime Novel of the Year Award.

It turned out that all of the restaurants on our way were closed, so we had to settle for drinks at the convention hotel, when we finally reached it. Afterward, we located the Harrogate opening night party, and then found seats in the hotel’s grand hall for the awards ceremony.

This year’s festival was officially opened by Harrogate operations director Sharon Canaver. Principal sponsor Simon Theakston delivered his own welcome, and incited a huge and appreciative cheer when he announced that his company, Theakston Brewery, will be extending its support of the Harrogate convention for another five years.

Without further ado, Mark Lawson then welcomed onto the stage the authors whose works had been shortlisted for the 2010 Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award. The first funny moment came when “Tania Carver” walked up to shake hands with Lawson. It was The Rap Sheet that broke the news last month that Carver, who wrote 2009’s The Surrogate, is actually two people--husband-and-wife wordsmiths Linda and Martyn Waites using a pseudonym.

Before he opened a golden envelope containing the winner’s name, Lawson asked his audience to remember recent news stories about Paul, the German psychic octopus that had successfully predicted the results of this year’s World Cup championship. Lawson went on to wonder aloud whether his own family’s pet dog, “Mystic Fred,” might possess
similar supernatural powers. He then showed on a big screen photographs of Fred sniffing around copies of all the Crime Novel of the Year contenders. Lawson finally said that the book Fred thought would win was ... and he brought up a photo of the dog sniffing at Roger Ellory’s A Simple Act of Violence. After explaining that he hadn’t sat on the judging panel, so really had no clue as to who the winner might be, Lawson tore open the envelope and exclaimed, “The winner is Roger Ellory, also known as R.J. Ellory, which is most surreal as I bumped into Roger an hour ago, while he and Ali where hunting down a cheeseburger.” Lawson then pulled out a mobile phone, explaining, “Now I must phone home and see if Mystic Fred can tell us next week’s lottery numbers ...”

A huge round of applause followed that statement. Roger stepped onto the stage to accept his award, visibly shocked to have won. I managed to capture--on video--the end of his acceptance speech, which was very good considering that he was totally unprepared. (That video has been embedded above, left.) In his own remarks, Simon Theakston called A Simple Act of Violence “a most impressive, fascinating and surprising book, and a worthy winner.” He added that “each page seems to bring about a new twist and take you deeper into a world that could only have come from a true master of crime fiction.”

Following this presentation, Roger and I went around to congratulate the other shortlisted authors. I also cornered Mark Lawson, who admitted to being shocked that his dog guessed the winning novel. (In an aside, Roger said to me that he wished to send Mystic Fred a thank-you of sorts, so I gave him Lawson’s address. Subsequently, Lawson’s wife sent Roger a photograph, displayed at right, showing that the dog received his well-deserved gift hamper.)

Later that night, after he had absorbed his unexpected win, Roger remembered to pass me an advance reading copy of his next novel, Saints of New York (Orion), which is due out in Britain this September (with a U.S. edition slated for publication in February 2011). Based on this author’s success so far, it’s to be expected that Saints will collect fans, as well. The book’s publisher synopsizes its plot this way:
The death of a young heroin dealer causes no great concern for NYPD Detective Frank Parrish--Danny Lange is just another casualty of the drug war. But when Danny’s teenage sister winds up dead, questions are raised that have no clear answers. Parrish, already under investigation by Internal Affairs for repeatedly challenging his superiors, is committed to daily interviews with a Police Department counselor. As the homicides continue--and a disturbing pattern emerges--Frank tries desperately to make some sense of the deaths, while battling with his own demons. Trying to live up to the reputation of his father, John--not only a legendary NYPD detective, but also one of the original “Saints of New York,” the men charged with the responsibility of ridding New York of the final vestiges of Mafia control in the 1980s--Parrish struggles to come to terms with the broken pieces of his own life. But, as the murders escalate, he must discover the truth behind them before there are further innocent victims. Dark and intense, Saints of New York is a novel of corruption and redemption, of the relentless persistence required to find the truth, and of one man’s search for meaning amidst the ghosts of his own conscience.
I’ll surely have a chance to read and digest Roger Ellory’s new book well in advance of our next trip together, when we fly to San Francisco for Bouchercon in October. It doesn’t take Mystic Fred to predict that we will have a good time there, too. See you at the bar!

(Photo of Mystic Fred with Roger Ellory’s thank-you basket © 2010 Sarah Lawson. Photo of Sharon Canaver, R.J. Ellory, and Simon Theakston with the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award © 2010 Ali Karim.)

READ MORE:Harrogate: Liver Poached in Wine But No Fava Beans,” by Mark Billingham (BookBrunch).

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