Sunday, May 31, 2015

Celebrating Crime in Bristol Fashion

(Editor’s note: CrimeFest 2015 took place earlier this month in Bristol, England. On hand for the festivities--as he so often is--was The Rap Sheet’s chief UK correspondent, Ali Karim. Below is his report.)

Authors Quentin Bates and Adrian Magson sample the wares on offer in the CrimeFest Book Room.

What’s now the annual British crime-fiction convention known as CrimeFest started out as a one-off installment of Left Coast Crime back in 2006. It’s chaired jointly by Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, supported by a dedicated team of helpers, and hosted by the wonderful four-star Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel. During this year’s gathering, from May 14 through 17, it seemed the international flavor that CrimeFest has cultivated approached a zenith, as overseas attendance was conspicuously visible, both in regards to speakers and general attendees. The popularity among Americans and others may have been boosted by the rare appearance of Sweden’s “Grandmother of Crime Fiction,” Maj Sjöwall, who engaged in an onstage exchange with Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child.

I thought the convention’s panel selections were especially interesting this year, thanks to careful planning by Scottish writer Donna Moore and her programming colleagues. The attractiveness of those group discussions was evidenced by standing-room only crowds at most such events, which resulted in a solid and consistent trade for Goldsboro Books. (Goldsboro managed the CrimeFest book room and also generously sponsors a number of genre awards in the UK, including the Goldsboro CWA Gold Dagger. In addition, it hosts various book launches at its store in Cecil Court, in London’s West End.) Another encouraging aspect of CrimeFest was the presence of so many new participants, which suggests that this genre is thriving, despite all the Chicken Little warnings about how the sky is falling on literacy. Yes, book publishing is currently under stress, thanks to continuing poor economic conditions in much of the world and increased demands upon readers’ time. But perhaps the crime, mystery, and thriller fiction field is best placed to survive, as it draws upon darker themes that appeal to so many of us.

Of course, one of the prime attractions of CrimeFest has to be the elegant, comfortable, Italianate-style Royal Hotel, with its superb convention facilities, helpful staff, fully equipped gym, and its location right in the heart of Bristol, convenient to myriad bars, restaurants, and overflow lodgings suiting all tastes and budgets.

What follows is an idiosyncratic recap of this year’s CrimeFest.

Thursday, May 14: Opening day, like all the days of this year’s gathering, began with events spotlighting debut authors and emerging talents. I have rarely attended a convention that boasted so many new names of writers and publishers, intermingled amongst the stalwarts. We can only hope that many of those new contributors to the genre will join trade organizations such as the CWA and the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), for when there is a storm brewing--as there most certainly is in publishing circles today--there’s comfort to be found in the old adage, “strength in numbers.” I always smile when I recall Stephen King’s words, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” Lobbying organizations such as the CWA work to ensure that politicians, as well as the wider masses, realize the importance of literacy as a coping tool for life. “Biblio-therapy” is now widely acknowledged as an important method to combat anxiety, stress, and depression--and it sure beats main-lining Seroxat.

As has been true in conventions past, Martin Edwards’ Forgotten Authors panel discussion was well attended. It has in fact become a regular and much-loved feature of these CrimeFest weekends. This year it enjoyed an additional tailwind thanks to the success of the British Library’s Crime Classics series of previously out-of-print works (for which Edwards composes introductions) and the recent publication of Edwards’ labor of love, The Golden Age of Murder, which details the history of mystery fiction from the cross-hairs of The Detection Club.

Crime Watch’s Craig Sisterson, “mystery addicts” Bill and Toby Gottfried, and Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky.

After finding our feet with Friday’s initial panels, Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky (lured all the way to England from his home in Philadelphia) and I wandered off to the take part in the CrimeFest Pub Quiz, an excellent ice-breaker for all attendees. Participants were divided into six teams, with über-readers and reviewers of the genre being split up, to prevent any “super team” from overshadowing the proceedings. It was all good-natured fun, with the quizmaster, novelist-critic Peter Guttridge, sharing in the mirth with all of his contestants. Our team eventually took fourth-place honors, which was wholly respectable.

Since this was the first day of the convention, Rozovsky and I made a point of ending it at the hotel bar, where we looked up old friends and practiced the pronunciation of some of our overseas visitors’ names--not the easiest exercise as the alcohol flowed and our tongues became somewhat better lubricated than normal. As anyone who’s ever attended a book festival such as this will tell you, there are few things in life that can rival being surrounded by people who share the pleasures to be found in the written word.

Friday, May 15: This morning once more offered up debut authors (this time during a presentation managed by critic Jake Kerridge of The Daily Telegraph), as well as a writing-craft panel overseen by M.J. (Melanie) McGrath (The Bone Seeker). On top of its concurrent two tracks of panel events, though, Friday provided a series of In the Spotlight Sessions focusing on individual authors and authorities addressing a wide variety of crime-related subjects (such as Leigh Russell talking about “Gender Issues in Crime Fiction”).

(Left) Ali Karim with Golden Age mysteries expert Martin Edwards.

The topics covered this day by panel commentators (and occasional brave readers willing to offer up their opinions in public) ran from psychopaths and realism in fiction to the ways this genre covers sex, espionage, war crimes, and private eyes. There was also a very interesting Spotlight Session featuring horror writer-turned-crime fictionist Conrad Williams (Dust and Desire), who talked about the line that separates--or binds--those two literary genres. Not surprisingly, Nic Pizzolatto’s TV series, True Detective, merited a mention, as many of us are awaiting the start of its Season 2 with impatience and expectation.

Thanks to sponsors such as the Norwegian Embassy, and assistance from International Thriller Writers (ITW), the British Centre for Literary Translation, the CWA, and assorted others, CrimeFest succeeds in putting on an excellent show. Among the particular highlights was my meeting Kati Hiekkapelto as well as Hans Olav Lahlum, whose English-language debuts--The Hummingbird and The Human Flies, respectively--have generated considerable interest among readers here in the UK. I also enjoyed thanking outgoing CWA chair Alison Joseph for the hard work she put in during her tenure in that post, and welcoming incoming chair L.C. (Len) Tyler. Deserving of a word of appreciation, too, is the often eclectic array of panel moderators, this year including Irish writer-critic Ruth Dudley Edwards and Barry Forshaw, who was pretty much everywhere at this event, presenting (with notable panache) some of the key names on the international edge of Euro Noir, such as Italy’s Roberto Costantini, Norwegian author Jǿrn Lier Horst (who won the 2013 Glass Key Award and the 2014 Martin Beck Award for his breathless thriller, The Hunting Dogs, Englishman Michael Ridpath (who has changed direction from his bestselling financial thrillers to a crime series set in Iceland), and the legendary Gunnar Staalesen.

The day finally wound down with publisher Hodder & Stoughton’s party introducing its stable of crime-fiction writers, followed swiftly by the announcement of shortlisted authors for five Dagger Awards to be given out on June 30 by the CWA. Not surprisingly, considering the crowd, those names were celebrated with a prominent clinking of glasses all around. Afterward, I joined Rozovsky and a cabal of writers with an equally parallaxed view of reality for a very amusing dinner.

Saturday, May 16: This proved to be an especially challenging day, as its schedule crammed in not merely two parallel tracks of panel presentations, but three. Again, things got started with the introduction of more debut wordsmiths, this time stage-managed by Laura Wilson (The Wrong Girl), winner of the 2008 Ellis Peters Historical Award. Topics under discussion on Saturday included police procedurals, the changing face of fictional espionage, rural menaces, the horror end of the crime-fiction genre, and socio-political themes. Other interesting sessions were John Curran’s look back at 125 years of Agatha Christie’s renown in the genre, with Sophie Hannah and Mathew Prichard; an examination of the supernatural or weird end of this field, with Kevin Wignall holding order amongst authors A.K. Benedict, Oscar de Muriel, J.F. Penn, and Mark Roberts; and a curious investigation into the gray line that divides the gritty from the gratuitous, with Andrew Taylor riding herd over fellow writers Felix Francis, Helen Fitzgerald, Steve Mosby, and Nev Fountain (the last of whom explored “non-politically correct” vernacular used in literature to describe the darker-skinned members of society, such as myself).

(Right) Maj Sjöwall, photographed by Peter Rozovsky.

On offer, too, were a couple of keynote events: Kerridge’s onstage interview with Catherine Aird, winner of the CWA’s 2015 Diamond Dagger, and Lee Child’s conversation with Maj Sjöwall. The queue into that latter event was absolutely packed, because those “in the know” understood the significance of the 10 Martin Beck thrillers, penned during the 1960s and ’70s by Sjöwall and her husband, Per Wahlöö. Let me just say, it was a fascinating hour we spent listing to Child and Sjöwall talk about the Beck books and Scandinavian crime fiction, in general. Due to the event’s significance, I recorded it on video; you can watch it all by clicking here.

So busy was Saturday, that I only survived it because I stoked up on a gourmet breakfast, and then darted from panel to panel, looking like a man trapped in a giant array of elevators and choices. There was no time at all to visit the hotel’ s pool and sauna/steam room, which had become rituals of my lunchtime breaks; instead, I engaged my brain with the plentiful insights on offer.

We closed out this most engaging day with a drinks reception kindly sponsored by The Dark Pages, a British Web site featuring “breaking news from the crime scene,” and then moved on to CrimeFest’s gala awards dinner. Our toastmaster for this occasion was the witty James Runcie, author of The Grantchester Mysteries, but we were also treated to an impromptu speech by Lee Child, who thanked organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, along with the rest of their team for the hard work they had deployed to make this weekend so special. Then Child handed the microphone back to Runcie, and five awards for excellence in the crime-fiction field were presented.

As per official CrimeFest policy, after dinner we all retreated to the hotel bar to toast that evening’s award winners, along with the other honored nominees. By this point we were feeling quite proud of the genre, which--with the exception of children’s fiction--represents the most popular end of book publishing these days.

CrimeFest organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey.

Sunday, May 17: Many of us greeted this morning with large black coffees and handfuls of aspirin before setting off for yet another Debut Authors panel, again managed by uncommonly early riser Laura Wilson. Her event was followed closely by presentations about the appeal of short stories, tales that push the boundaries of crime fiction, and legal thrillers. Oh, and critic Kerridge took to the stage to interview James Runcie. Unfortunately, there was no CrimeFest Criminal Mastermind tournament this year, as the usual organizer, Maxim Jakubowski, had a conflict in his schedule and there weren’t enough braves souls willing to test the depths of their crime-fiction knowledge.

Maybe next year …

Coming up on the docket of major crime-fiction conventions are ThrillerFest (July 7-11 in New York City), the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 1-19 in Harrogate, England), Boucheron 2015 (October 8-11 in Raleigh, North Carolina), and Magna Cum Murder (October 30-November 1 in Indianapolis, Indiana). I am particularly interested in Bouchercon this year, because together with Kerry Hammond, I’m involved in the programming of that event. It should be lots of fun, and Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce promises to attend. I’d probably better start getting in shape now for all the imbibing and boisterous camaraderie to come!

Below are a few more photos taken at CrimeFest 2015.

Euro Noir panel (left to right): Barry Forshaw, Roberto Costantini, Gunnar Staalesen, Michael Ridpath, and Jørn Lier Horst.

Doug Johnston, Helen Fitzgerald, and Stuart Neville.

Ali Karim and Lee Child enjoy a much-needed break.

Shots critic Ayo Onatade with author Donna Moore.

CrimeFest attendees wait to hear which authors and books have been shortlisted for the CWA’s 2015 Dagger Awards.

Authors Alexandra Sokoloff and Craig Robertson.

(With the exception of Peter Rozovsky’s Maj Sjöwall shot, all other photos in this post are © 2015 by Ali Karim.)


Peter Rozovsky said...

What's this about difficulty with foreign visitors' names? Repeat after me: Hiehhapelto. Sigurðardóttir. Sjöwall. (Correct accents count.)

Now, have some gin, then try again.

Kristopher said...

GREAT recap of the events, Ali. One of these days, I am going to find myself over there for many of the UK crime festivals.