Thursday, August 25, 2011

That Old Peculier Criminal Brew

Authors Val McDermid and Denise Mina at Harrogate

(Editor’s note: Below we present British correspondent Ali Karim’s somewhat delayed report from last month’s Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival, which was held in Harrogate, England.)

I was delighted to hear from Harrogate’s chief executive, Sharon Canavar, that in its ninth year, the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival broke another record, selling more than 9,000 tickets. I’m not really surprised, as this year the festival had a truly remarkable line-up of events, managed by London author Dreda Say Mitchell.

My family and I enjoy our annual excursion to the heart of Yorkshire, where I can share my passion for crime and thriller novels with all of them, and my wife can share her equally strong passion ... for shopping in the spa town of Harrogate. With us went Ayo Onatade and Kirstie Long from Shots, and Chris Simmons and his Crime Squad gang--Michael Malone, Keith Walters and Graham Smith. Mike Stotter, the editor-in-chief of Shots, had wanted to attend too, but he had a scheduling conflict.

Thursday, July 21. This year the festival returned to the Old Swan Hotel, made famous by Agatha Christie’s vanishing act back in 1926. One joy of Harrogate as a venue is that there’s a wide selection of hotels available for every budget, and most of them are located within a 10-minute walk of the Old Swan.

The festival opened with the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award presentation. The BBC’s Mark Lawson was on hand to welcome the shortlisted authors, but first there were opening welcomes from Sharon Canavar as well as principal sponsor Simon Theakston, who announced that this year his brewers had developed a limited-edition ale in celebration of crime fiction. Then Lawson welcomed Scottish author Val McDermid to the stage. It was her job, in turn, to introduce Baroness Phyllis Dorothy “P.D.” James as the recipient of this year’s award for Outstanding Contribution to the Crime Fiction Genre. McDermid’s speech was a very moving and insightful piece of oratory, especially when she said that Baroness James was living proof that no author should ever complain about not having enough time to write. After all, as a young mother, James lost her husband and had no livelihood to fall back upon, so she took up writing in order to secure an income, and then managed to bring up her young children with very little support. After that, a standing ovation welcomed Baroness James to the stage. She said how much she loved the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival, so this commendation meant a great deal to her. That set the crowd to clapping at a truly frenzied pace.

(Left) Baroness James congratulated by Simon Theakston

After Baroness James stepped down, Mark Lawson welcomed all six of this year’s Crime Novel of the Year nominees to the stage: Mark Billingham, S. J. Bolton, Lee Child, Stuart MacBride, William Ryan, and Andrew Taylor. And when the envelope containing the winner’s name was opened, another huge cheer went up, for festival favorite Child had picked up the award for his 2010 novel, 61 Hours. Child looked a bit shocked that he’d won, as he has been denied this prize in previous years. But he was gracious in accepting it this time around, saying how moved he was to follow P.D. James onto the stage at Harrogate.

By this point, most people were well clapped out and ready to settle into the nearest bar. But the Karim family took Ayo Onatade out for a Chinese dinner, instead, in part to pay her back for helping after our elder daughter, Sophia, had a bit too much to drink during the CrimeFest Gala Dinner in Bristol in May. (An event, by the way, that had led my wife to remark, while looking at me pointedly, “The acorn doesn’t stray far from the oak tree, does she?”)

Friday, July 22. The weather had turned glorious, so after a hearty breakfast it was back to the Old Swan to listen to best-selling London-based crime writer Martina Cole in conversation with programming chair Mitchell. When I saw Cole arrive on Thursday, she said she couldn’t have the sort of late-night drinking session we have enjoyed in the past, as her panel was to begin 9 a.m. Despite that early start, the room was full and vibrant. Again, though, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: The Harrogate single-track presentation system does ensure full houses at most events.

Finally, after their own late breakfast, my family arrived for the 10:30 True Crime panel, moderated by novelist-journalist Duncan Campbell and featuring real-life ex-convicts who had turned their hands to writing. Although Noel “Razor” Smith was unable to attend, ex-Member of Parliament (MP) Jonathan Aitken, former football hooligan Cass Pennant, and former lifer (for murder) Erwin James together presented a insightful, if grueling hour’s entertainment. We learned that Aitken had been punched a few times by frustrated inmates, while Pennant explained that he had turned his life around after a fellow prisoner said, “I’m the free-est man in this prison.” When Pennant asked him to explain, his cellmate passed him a book and told him, “No four walls can hold my mind when I am reading, because reading is freedom.” Pennant told the audience that he was  soon thereafter referred to as the “Bookman,” due to his persistent reading--though he also told us about more harrowing experiences such as his having witnessed rape, and about the brutal violence that goes on behind prison walls. When asked what books were the post popular behind bars, we were told that Papillon (1969), by Henri Charrière, ranks as No. 1, while The Judas Pig (2004), by Horace Silver, has become a cult favorite in prisons due to Silver having been a criminal figure who changed his name after fleeing the underworld. This caused me to sink down into my chair a bit, as I had interviewed Silver for Shots back in 2004. I’d had my doubts at the time about whether Horace Silver was really a criminal, but Cass Pennant tells me he was, and that there are people still trying to find out where he’s been hiding himself.

Author Lee Child (right) with the Karim family

After that event, as after all other panels, there was a formal book-signing adjacent to the Waterstones bookshop, with the queues well managed and reasonably patient.

At noon, I attended the “Wrong ’Uns” panel, which found James Twining exploring the attraction of anti-heroes with fellow authors Mandasue Heller, Denise Mina, Craig Robertson, and Alex Wheatle. I was interested to see Mina again, as her latest novel, The End of the Wasp Season, has been broadly talked up, and I enjoyed her company last year during the Orion Publishing dinner at Bouchercon in San Francisco.

After a quick lunch, my family wandered off into Harrogate, while I looked forward to Martyn Waites’ “Old Blood” panel, which gave a new spin to the familiar “New Blood” panels focused on freshman authors. Waites’ intention was to look at writers who had broken through, and were now on their third or fourth novels--people such as Allan Guthrie, Cathi Unsworth, Mark Mills, and Nick Stone (who, after a few years in the wilderness, is back with another Max Mingus thriller, Voodoo Eyes.) The majority opinion among the panelists was that second and third novels are harder to write than debut works, due to the expectations of agents and publishers, as well as to the fact that they’re usually written to deadline--business-like--rather than as works driven by the author’s passion to finally get published.

Since I have much association with journalists, I was interested to hear Daily Mirror writer Henry Sutton (who, under the joint pseudonym “James Henry” concocted the Inspector Jack Frost prequel, First Frost) engage in a debate with fellow newsies Belinda Bauer, Stav Sherez, and Tony Thompson. They were joined by the tallest man in the room, former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) recruit and spy novelist Charles Cumming. Their debate was wide-ranging, with key points being that they all used journalism as a door through with to enter fiction writing as a profession. Soon enough, though, their discussion moved on to the News International phone-hacking scandal. Oddly, the majority opinion seemed to be that this story has been exaggerated, and that all legitimate (and legal) tools need to be available to journos who are serious about reporting the news. That qualification “legal,” of course, is where things might go awry for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Then it was time to rejoin my family for a quick dinner before moving on to the ITV3/Specsavers/Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger Awards in the Old Swan’s Wedgewood Room. During my walk back to our own hotel to change, I bumped into former drug dealer, now crime writer Howard Marks. This was a total delight, as I’d loved his memoir, Mr. Nice (which was recently made into a movie). I think of Marks as a genuine, if rather odd character, and we had a hilarious chat about his debut novel, Sympathy for the Devil. This year’s Theakstons Harrogate event was certainly notable for its true-crime elements, both in terms of panelists and subjects. The ability to talk with ex-convicts such as Marks and Pennant in convivial surroundings made this convention special.

(Right) Co-interviewees Lisa Gardner and Linwood Barclay

The evening’s main event--the presentation of the first five Dagger Awards of 2011--was bristling with renowned novelists such as Philip Kerr, Lee Child, Joseph Finder, and Linwood Barclay. Presentations included video montages and featured CWA chair Peter James along with former chairs such as Natasha (N.J.) Cooper, publishers, authors, and bloggers announcing the awards and shortlists. Emma Tennant and Amanda Ross were the television hosts. James, Tennant, and Ross all spoke of the importance of crime fiction as a genre for the TV audience ... and we must not overlook the commercial benefits to the writing and publishing community when a work hits the nation’s flat screens. The evening’s award winners are named here.

Friday’s next event was billed as Linwood Barclay in conversation with Lisa Gardner, but when we took our seats, a woman whose name I can’t recall (from the Daily Express) strode onto the stage and announced that she would instead be asking those two best-selling writers questions. Well, I have to say, from the moment she opened her mouth, with her monotonous “one-pitch” voice introducing Barclay and Gardner, the audience members looked at one other, and some giggled, and I heard several whisper “Who the hell is that nut?” I have to give huge credit to Barclay and Gardner for keeping the dialogue amusing and very funny--a stark contrast to their dreadful interviewer, who kept looking at her notes; it was patently obvious that she hadn’t read any of their books and had little background in the genre. Her opening question to Linwood was the groaner, “And where do you get your ideas from?” In a surreal manner, this actually provided great entertainment, but of the cringe-inducing variety. It’s just a guess, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing her back at a Harrogate event anytime soon. Judging by the length of the signing queues after the event, though, we will be seeing a lot more of Linwood Barclay and Lisa Gardner.

As my family heading back to our hotel, I loitered in the bar and noticed coaches of “non-literary” types arrive to fill the Old Swan’s lobby. From their eclectic dress sense, I realized they were coming to see Howard Marks, who was scheduled to be interviewed by Mark Lawson.

By the time I joined the line to see that onstage interview, the queue stretched out into the car park. It was there that I bumped into Marks himself, looking confused. He spotted me and shouted me over, remembering me from earlier in the afternoon. He was swaying a bit and, bizarrely, not a single other person seemed to notice his presence. “Hey, Ali,” he said, “can you help me?” One of the benefits of being a rare black face in the crowd, with an easy name to remember, is that people always seem to remember who I am. “Sure, what’s the problem?” I asked. To which Marks replied, “I’m dying for a piss. You seem to know your way around, where’s the pisser?” This made me laugh, and so I took him off to the nearest toilet. While I waited outside, a concerned Lawson found me and queried, “You haven’t seen Howard Marks, have you? He was right behind me, and then he vanished. We’re on in a couple of minutes.” He was relieved when I told him that Marks was in the toilet.

Drug dealer-turned-author Howard Marks with Ali Karim

After Marks reappeared, I pointed him out to Lawson, and those two went off to the green room, while I grabbed another beer and took my seat for the well-attended interview. Which, I should note, was hilarious. Marks was eloquent, as well as being funny, but he kept losing the thread of the conversation, much to his audience’s amusement.

I ended up later drinking with author Steve Mosby and the Telegraph’s Jake Kerridge until past my bedtime--but not as late as the hollow-legged Simon Kernick, Kevin Wignall, and literary agent Phil Patterson, all of whom enjoyed watching the sunrise through beer-rimmed glasses.

Saturday, July 23. Again the first event was at 9 a.m., this time an interview with Tess Gerritsen by Jenni Murray. And again, the house was packed. Much of their discussion revolved around the TV series based on Gerritsen
s books, Rizzoli & Isles, which is scheduled to air on UK cable this fall (and has already been green-lighted for a third season in the United States). The queue to have Gerritsen sign books was almost as long as the previous evening’s line for Marks’ event.

From there it was on to the “Outer Limits” panel. Chaired by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Andrew Taylor, it explored the supernatural edge of the genre. Guest panelists were Sarah Pinborough, S.J. Bolton, Patricia Duncker, and Phil Rickman. During the signing session afterward, Pinborough mentioned that she’d been standing in line at a local kebab house the night before, at 2 a.m., and seen me. I apologized for not saying hello, but noted that I had been rather drunk. She said that was fine, as she’d been somewhat worse for wear at the time and in desperate need of a kebab, and didn’t have much time for small talk anyway. The other people waiting in the signing queue did not appear to be connoisseurs of the Harrogate kebab scene.

Then came the customary Harrogate “New Blood” panel, chaired this year by the champion of new writing, Val McDermid. Also up front were newbies S.J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep), Julia Crouch (Cuckoo), Gordon Ferris (Truth Dare Kill), and Melanie “M.J.” McGrath (White Heat). There is no better chair for the new fiction writers panel than McDermid. Despite her international success (and TV series), she remains firmly grounded and asks questions that make the packed audience curious about all these fresh faces in the genre. In these tough times for publishing, McDermid’s efforts must be applauded.

The previous late night, and rushing around this morning, meant that I missed the “Legal Eagles” panel chaired by lawyer-crime writer Martin Edwards, and featuring some fellow writers and colleagues from the bench: Matthew “M.R” Hall, Francis Fyfield, Helen Black, and Peter McCormick. I heard that their discussion was much more amusing than the law would normally allow.

I went with my family in tow to one of the convention’s red-letter events: best-selling American authors Joseph Finder and David Baldacci in conversation. My wife and kids wanted to see this panel, as they had met Finder at previous Harrogate events. The session was lively and humorous, with much mention of the quirks of the writing life and the authors’ often odd brushes with Hollywood.

Then came the Criminal Consequences dinner, during which many crime writers and readers came together to celebrate Harrogate regular M.C. Beaton on her 75th birthday.

This was followed by the sold-out event during which Lee Child was queried about his pet hates by Independent columnist Christina Patterson. We gleaned from Child--“all-round nice guy and down-to-earth supporter of the genre”--that his principal gripes are (a) writers who purport to have inside knowledge of either espionage or FBI credentials, when in reality this is self-imposed delusion; and (b) writers who give sidekicks to their protagonist heroes, so that those heroes don’t have to engage in any morally dubious work that might soil their images. We also heard a bit more about Child’s experiment with an e-book, the new Second Son, which is a prequel of sorts to his famous Jack Reacher series and a companion piece to the forthcoming Reacher novel, The Affair. Altogether, it was an amusing hour.

In the wake of the Child interview came the much-heralded Harrogate Quiz, chaired this time around by Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. I had most of my family participating--wife Muriel, daughter Miriam, and son Alexander--and we added Ayo Onatade and Joe Finder to our ranks. We had a lot of fun, and it was great to see Miriam excited to get the answer to a question right. Muriel and Alex were only on the team as mascots. Joe, Ayo, Miriam, and I were the brains of the outfit. Unfortunately, we were defeated by Jake Kerridge’s team, which also featured Martyn Waites, Elly Griffiths, Jane Wood, and Laura Wilson.

After a long day I turned in early, even as the bar seemed to be teeming with writers and others oblivious to the effects of time and alcohol.

Mark Billingham and Dennis Lehane in conversation

Sunday, July 24. I was thankful to see that the first event of the day started at 10 a.m. and was Laura Wilson’s “No Place Like Home” panel. The topic of discussion was exotic locations for stories. We heard about Anne Zouroudi’s fondness for Greece, where she went when she fell in love with the place--and a man; Chuck “C.J.” Box, who sets his stories in rural Wyoming, which is where he was born; Urban Waite, who uses Seattle, Washington, as his setting; and Elly Griffiths, who employs rural Norfolk in the same manner. I particularly enjoyed Box’s insights into Wyoming, as I lived in Laramie during the 1980s. However, the funniest moment came when Laura Wilson got her words tangled and said to Box that she loves all that rugged Western territory populated by “well-hung cowboys.” She immediately turned traffic-light red, and the audience collapsed in laughter while she tried to recompose herself.

Harrogate’s concluding event for 2011 was sold out, and afterward boasted what had to have been the longest book-signing queue of them all. It found Dennis Lehane in conversation with Mark Billingham. In a rare UK visit, Lehane was in top form, highly amusing and insightful. Billingham, an extremely well-read crime novelist, was ready with a series of questions that allowed Lehane to fully traverse his life in writing, from his humble origins in blue-collar Boston, to his abandoning intentions of “literary writing” in order to pen the Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro private-eye series and such well-received novels as Mystic River, Shutter Island, and The Given Day. I’ve seen Billingham many times, as I have Lehane, but this session was the best I’ve witnessed--and maybe the best of all those I attended during this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was the best event in all the previous Harrogate conventions I’ve visited.

So after a round of farewells, especially to people with whom I had spent copious amounts of bar time (such as the very knowledgeable Angus Cargill from publisher Faber & Faber), and some of my American contacts (including agent Ann Rittenberg, the uproarious Christa Faust, and Donna Moore), I managed to thank Sharon Canavar and Erica Morris for their organizational work that made this year’s convention run like clockwork. I also managed to corner the energetic Dreda Say Mitchell, who as programming chair was rarely in one spot for any length of time. And of course my last good-bye was to Simon Theakston, without whose support the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival would never have reached the stature it now enjoys internationally. I look forward to the 2012 convention--Mayan calendar be damned!

Next stop: Bouchercon in St Louis.

(A shorter version of this report will appear in next month’s Red Herrings Magazine from the Crime Writers Association.)


Unknown said...

Thanks for that, Ali - I feel like I was actually there! One day...
Kind regards,

lil Gluckstern said...

This was wonderful. You have a remarkably personal way of writing that puts us right in the picture. The writers sound so delightful, and it sounds like everyone had a good time. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ali, with regards to Horace silver have a look at this video and tell me if you think the guy in the beret is him:

it features mark Powell and Phil dirtbox, both of whom were in Judas pig and friends of Horace. Compare the beret guy in the video to the Horace photo shoot, they look identical.