Saturday, September 14, 2013

Settling in to Stirling

(Editor’s note: Below, Nancie Clare files her inaugural report from the Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival being held this weekend in Stirling, Scotland. Be sure also to read her interview with Lee Child, which was posted yesterday.)

On Friday night, two of Bloody Scotland’s original organizers, Lin Anderson and Alex Gray, were joined by fellow Scottish crime novelist Quintin Jardine to open this second-annual conference with a session entitled “Bloody Minded in Bloody Scotland.”

Anderson and Gray talked about the event that prompted them to take the uncharacteristic step of organizing their fellow Scottish crime writers for the first time in 2012.

It was uncharacteristic, because the Scots as a people--and Scottish crime writers in particular--had long felt a sort of collective insecurity when getting together with their peers to the south, in England. That was true, at least, until a gathering of authors in Lincoln, England, about three years ago, when Anderson looked around her and thought, Bloody hell, there are a lot of Scottish writers here. We should have our own festival. Anderson reminded the audience of something Ian Rankin once said, that “Scandinavia doesn’t necessarily have better crime writers than Scotland, they just have better PR.”

She and Gray certainly live in the right country. Scotland has a slate of festivals celebrating just about everything: the arts, science, sports, and combinations thereof. The Scots did not, however, have a crime-writing festival. Now they do. And this year’s conference is bigger and better-organized than last year’s (which I also attended), and the historic city of Stirling--nestled between the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands, on the River Forth--is a perfect location in which to hold it. After all, atmosphere in Scottish crime fiction is key.

Author Jardine took the presentation in a different direction, talking about the challenges of working with longstanding series and integrating into fiction actual changes in Scottish law enforcement. His protagonist, the bloody-minded Bob Skinner (Pray for the Dying), is a chief inspector in Strathclyde, on the country’s west coast. But with this year’s formation of Police Scotland, a national force, Jardine explained that Skinner can now aspire to greater career heights.

Gray, who pens a Glasgow-based series about Detective Superintendent Lorimer and psychological profiler Solly Brightman (The Swedish Girl), reminded the audience that inspiration for criminous yarns is frequently drawn from recent cultural and political developments. She noted, for instance, that the 2014 Commonwealth Games will be held next summer in Glasgow’s new national stadium. Now, what if someone were to plan to blow up that facility ... You could almost see the creative wheels start turning.

One thing that seems very important to the organizers of Bloody Scotland, and to established authors among its attendees, is encouraging new Scottish crime writers. There appear to be a number of them on hand at this year’s festival, including Outer Hebrides author Malcolm Mackay, whose second novel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, has been nominated for the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year. Mackay will also feature on Saturday afternoon’s “Fresh Blood” panel, together with Matt Bendoris and Lisa Ballantyne.

And next year, in addition to its Book of the Year award, there are plans afoot for Bloody Scotland to add a prize for Best Debut Novel.

* * *

While they were discussing new Scottish crime writers, Anderson, Gray, and Jardine also touched on the elephant in the room: J.K. Rowling, who as everyone now knows, produced this year’s The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It turns out that Gray was among the well-known Scottish authors who read an early, uncorrected proof of Rowling/Galbraith’s work and blurbed the finished book.

On Saturday, I ran into Gray at breakfast and couldn’t help asking whether she’d known, while she was enjoying that tale, who had actually concocted Cuckoo’s Calling.

“No, I didn’t,” she said. “David Shelley [Little, Brown’s group publisher], had sent me the uncorrected proof from what he called ‘a fabulous new writer named Robert Galbraith’ early in 2013. I read the book and thought to myself, Why bother if a debut writer can write this way? I thought [Galbraith] must be an academic.”

It was Gray’s opinion that The Cuckoo’s Calling ranked up there with the best mysteries she had ever read, and she said so in her blurb. Then this last spring, she received a note, supposedly from Galbraith, thanking her for her kind words and telling her that “he” was a big fan of Gray’s own books.

After Rowling was outed as the actual writer, Gray received another note, this time on Rowling’s distinctive golden owl stationary. The contents of that missive are private, but Gray’s pleasure at receiving it is not: she’s thrilled that Rowling has joined the ranks of Scottish crime writers and is looking forward to her next offering in the field.

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