Monday, June 18, 2012

A Gathering of Criminal Masterminds

Diamond Dagger winner Frederick Forsyth being interviewed by Peter Guttridge at last month’s CrimeFest in Bristol

During my many travels over the years to crime and thriller conventions, I’ve had some great times. And last month’s CrimeFest in Bristol, England (the fifth year for this convention), was no exception. As I chatted up my fellow attendees, they all suggested it was the best fest yet produced by the organizing team of Adrian Muller and Myles Alfrey (plus Donna Moore, Liz Hatherell, Anne Magson, etc). The weather for this conference was glorious, and the familiar surroundings of the Marriott in College Green (not to mention that hotel’s helpful staff) made it a splendid venue in such a historic city.

The guest of honor list was also remarkable. No wonder all of the events, including the gala dinner, were sold out.

Even the panel discussions, which at other conventions have seemed somewhat less than fresh (sending many attendees in search of the nearest bar), were truly engaging, standing-room-only affairs. For once, I sat through as many panels as I could. (This may have to do in part, though, with the fact that I was doing research. I’ll be the programming chair for Bouchercon 2015, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I hope to contribute some British and international flavor to America’s Deep South. So I was interested in observing how other panels are engineered.)

I was also pleased to see that Blackwell Books, under the direction of Heffer’s Cambridge store manager Richard Reynolds, was doing tremendous business with an extensive array of titles--books written by CrimeFest’s many attending authors. In these times of economic austerity and gloomy media reports, it was encouraging to witness such interest expressed in reading, writing, and print publishing.

The Shots e-zine gang showed up in force. Editor Mike Stotter and I were joined by the energetic Ayo Onatade (who did her live-blogging at seriously odd hours--see here, here, here, and here); columnist Kirstie Long (who spent most of her time in the bar, networking with the authors and publishers--and drinking); Shots TV and book critic Robin Jarrosi; writer-reviewer Adrian Magson; copy editor Liz Hatherell (who lent assistance to Muller and Alfrey, and was never in one spot for more than a nanosecond); and finally, from the Shots Alumni Association, writer, critic, and broadcaster Peter Guttridge.

Also on hand were a number of British crime-fiction critics, including Barry Forshaw, Maxim Jakubowski, and Jake Kerridge, as well as Janet Laurence from the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA).

Thursday, May 24: CrimeFest kicked off at midday with three interesting panel discussions on a single track: “Conspiracies” with former CWA chair Tom Harper; “Cops and Killers” with ex-cop and thriller writer Matt Hilton; and “Forgotten Authors,” chaired by author Martin Edwards (who else?). The signal event of that day, though, was the very revealing interview with 2012’s CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Frederick Forsyth, conducted by Peter Guttridge. We learned how Forsyth managed to get his 1971 debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, into print--despite the fact that the story’s outcome is known, its writing style is dispassionate, and the central protagonist is unnamed. The audience was amused to hear that Forsyth’s publisher asked him if he had any other ideas to offer, which led to a three-book deal; his tale of fleeing Nazis, The Odessa File (1972), was his second, followed by The Dogs of War (1974), which fictionalized Forsyth’s experiences in war-torn Biafra during the 1960s. In closing, Forsyth explained that he has one more book planned before he retires from fiction writing, with the plot to revolve around cyber-espionage--even though he admits he is not terribly “techno-savvy” (he still has no e-mail address, and he continues to write on an electric typewriter, as opposed to a PC, so he had to mine his sources for the technological details that pepper his most recent novel, 2010’s The Cobra).

(Left) Irish writer Declan Burke with Martin Edwards

Then, after a quick snifter of gin, I was off to participate in the famous annual Pub Quiz, which this year was held at the Marriott and included the option of a pub supper. My team this time around was called The Icemen, as it also featured award-winning Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and her delightful husband, Ollie; fellow Icelandic novelist Ragnar Jónasson; and crime-fiction enthusiast Mike Linane. The quiz was remarkably good fun and was again chaired by Guttridge. Unfortunately, I had to leave early due to a dinner engagement, but I was delighted later to hear that my team had earned fifth-place honors--not bad, considering the impressive participation of crime-fiction masterminds in that quiz (and my self-inflicted handicap of gin).

Dinner in uptown Bristol came courtesy of Quercus Publishing’s Christopher MacLehose and Nicci Praca. During the repast, Stotter, Ayo, and I broke bread with authors Åsa Larsson (no relation to the late Stieg), Martin Walker, and Elly Griffiths. That was followed by late night drinks back at the Marriott.

Friday, May 25: With the programming now reverting to two tracks of panels, together with “In the Spotlight” sessions, I found it difficult to choose from the eclectic array on offer. Donna Moore’s obligatory humorous look at the “Bad and Dangerous” (featuring authors Michael Malone, Helen Fitzgerald, Doug Lindsey, and Damien Seaman) was funnier than advertised. Seeing James Sallis, fresh from film success with his noir piece, Drive, was a genuine treat, especially as No Exit Press has just reissued his entire canon with a wonderful range of minimalist covers. It was good to see that CrimeFest was being supported by sponsorships such as the Norwegian Embassy, which brought Thomas Enger, Ragnar Jonasson, Åsa Larsson, and Gunnar Staalesen to Bristol, where they were interrogated by Nordic crime-fiction expert Forshaw. And there was standing room only for Zoe Sharp’s panel featuring Lee Child, former CWA Diamond Dagger winner Sue Grafton, Brian McGilloway, and Jacqueline Winspear.

Jeffery Deaver with Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim

But my personal highlight of the day was Jake Kerridge’s interview with CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger winner Jeffery Deaver, probably one of the biggest advocates of reading I know. During the course of their exchange, Deaver acknowledged that his 2004 standalone novel, Garden of Beasts, ranks as is his favorite among his numerous novels and was perhaps his response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. I recall interviewing Deaver in 2003 at the inaugural Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, when he first mentioned that he was working on this novel--one that I continue to place right up there with The Day of the Jackal in terms of its espionage thrills.

Friday’s final event was the announcement of books and authors shortlisted for the 2012 Dagger Awards. This took place during a reception where we were treated to wine and excellent presentations by the Crime Writers’ Association’s judging chairs. CWA chair Peter James opened this event, in his usual self-deprecating manner, by saying that the reason he’s now serving a remarkable second term in that position is because the organization couldn’t find any other “mug” prepared to devote so much time to the crime-fiction cause. The reality, however, is that James is a prefect chair for the CWA, with his enthusiasm for the genre and his public profile, but most importantly because of his sense of humor and proportion.

This year’s Dagger Award winners will be named during a black-tie dinner on July 5. The event will be open to all CWA members--including Frederick Forsyth, who has previously been announced as the 2012 Diamond Dagger Award recipient.

Saturday, May 26: The penultimate--and rather hot--day would become a challenge as I tried to plan my way through the two-track program. Scheduled to put in appearances were Lee Child, P.D. James, Philip Kerr, Paul Doherty, Sue Grafton, James Sallis, Jeffery Deaver, Simon Brett, Andrew Taylor, and many, many others. CrimeFest organizers had also scheduled some of the biggest-name interviewers and moderators, including Barry Forshaw, Maxim Jakubowski, Peter Guttridge, and Jake Kerridge--all of whom wound up performing admirably, eliciting fascinating insights into the genre from their interviewees. The special treat for me was Søren Sveistrup, the Danish screenwriter of The Killing, in conversation with David Hewson, the man who’s novelized the first series of that popular TV show. Supplying them both with questions was the ubiquitous Forshaw. This was a rare opportunity to meet Sveistrop, who generally shuns the glare of the camera, preferring to be behind the lens rather than in front of it. Not surprisingly, seats for this conversation/interview were sold out.

(Right) Ayo Onatade with Lee Child

Following that, we were treated to a special reception by Professor Sue Black of the Center for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) at Scotland’s University of Dundee. She is currently endeavoring to put together £1 million to help build a new research center/morgue on her campus. That money is being raised through a “Million for a Morgue” campaign, which is soliciting funds to have one prominent crime novelist lend his or her name to the new facility. Three of the authors supporting that campaign--Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, and Peter James--told this evening’s listeners why they or their fictional characters deserve to be so immortalized. But it was Scottish author Val McDermid to whom Black first went for help in setting up this campaign, and she has since promoted the venture widely. “All crime writers rely on the help of forensics experts like Professor Sue Black to make sure we get the details right,” McDermid has said before. “Giving a bit of help back in return is the least we can do. I’ve known Sue for many years and the work she and her team do is absolutely fantastic. This is a great project and one which I hope you--as readers who also benefit from the great help the forensics people give us--can generously support.” Click here to make your own contribution to the project.

Sophia Karim with audio book reader Saul Reichlin, nominated this year for a Sounds of Crime Award

After talking with Professor Black, I went to find my daughter Sophia. She had just finished her second-year exams in Bristol, where she is studying Statistics and Mathematics, and as a reward, I’d organized her a seat at that evening’s CrimeFest Gala Dinner. Sophia has been to Harrogate and CrimeFest events in the past, and enjoys meeting writers, editors, agents, publishers, bloggers, and readers. She was especially delighted when she saw that (thanks to the efforts of Messrs. Muller and Alfrey) she was to be seated right next to Lee Child. The dinner was marvelous, of course, and the postprandial speech by toastmaster Deaver was amusing in the extreme, filled with witty remarks on the writing life. Particularly delightful was an anecdote he’d borrowed from Lawrence Block, about how a reader had asked Sue Grafton for the proper reading order of her Kinsey Millhone novels.

Soon afterward, this year’s CrimeFest guests of honor--Child, Grafton, and Swedish genre giants Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström--were invited up to the podium and asked to address the assemblage. And then came the announcement of this year’s CrimeFest Award winners, followed by a trip back to the hotel’s bar to toast the prize recipients and other nominees. As there were many of those to be heralded, the night proved to be a long one.

Sunday, May 27: Even on this, the last day of the conference, the program of events was packed. For attendees who were able to awaken without the aid of aspirin, there were four diverse panels on offer, featuring authors such as Michael Ridpath, Laura Wilson, Sophie Hannah, Martin Edwards, Tom Harper, and others. Janet Laurence also interviewed the Swedish duo, Roslund and Hellström, who are known for posing moral dilemmas in their usually dark novels. It was good to hear, during that exchange, that a film version of their first novel, the terrifying The Beast, is due out later this year from Sweden’s Yellow Bird film company, which has already given us the Swedish Wallander TV series and three movies based on Stieg Larsson’s books.

(Left) Author Brian McGilloway with blogger Peter Rozovsky

The last event for CrimeFest 2012 was the Criminal Mastermind Contest, chaired by critic-editor Maxim Jakubowski and aided by Liz Hatherell and Ayo Onatade. Competing were Peter Guttridge, answering questions about his favorite topic, the novels and films of Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake; gin lover and blogger Peter Rozovsky, all the way over from Philadelphia and fielding queries about Dashiell Hammett; Telegraph crime-fiction critic Jake Kerridge, who chose Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels as his preferred topic; and blogger Rhian Davies, who had selected as her topic “crime novel debuts since 2010”--rather apt, since she is one of the judges of the CWA New Blood Dagger Award. The quiz was lively and tough, as expected, and Gutteridge won in a nerve-shredding finale against Rozovsky.

With all of that behind me, I thanked the CrimeFest team for their efforts, inserted next year’s conference into my diary, and headed homeward. If you’d like to view some video snippets of the panel discussions for yourself, simply click here. To enjoy some more scenes from CrimeFest 2012, keep scrolling down this page.

Quercus Publishing editor Christopher MacLehose together with authors Åsa Larsson and Peter James

Shots editor Mike Stotter, author James Sallis, and ubiquitous British correspondent Ali Karim

P.D. James being interviewed by critic Barry Forshaw

Back row: authors Börge Hellström, Anders Roslund, Jeffery Deaver, Sue Grafton, and Lee Child. Front row: CrimeFest organizers Myles Alfrey and Adrian Muller

All photos in this post © 2012 by Ali Karim


Peter Rozovsky said...

If only you Brits talked normally. If only I'd slept a bit more and drunk a bit less. If only ...

Ah, hell: WE WUZ ROBBED!
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Clare2e said...

That was a GREAT and wide-ranging write-up! I've never been to CrimeFest, but not for lack of wanting. Maybe next year--you've made me very envious!