“Outstanding” Scottish mystery-maker Val McDermid.
By Ali Karim
Saturday, July 23—the third day of this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England. A sunny, warm day, to be sure. As I looked out across the diverse array of attendees gathered on the grounds of the Old Swan Hotel, all of them clutching books, drinking gin, smiling, and chatting, or else browsing the W.H. Smith Book Tent, I realized something I should’ve known from the first: I was home, among friends and colleagues who find comfort and insight at the darkest edges of literature—that is to say, in the crime, mystery, and thriller genre.
The words of a favorite song by the late Ricky Nelson came to mind:
I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friendsI had missed taking part in the last couple of these Harrogate gatherings due to diary clashes, as well as my commitment to help organize last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina. So the 2016 event was eagerly anticipated.
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again …
That July 21-24 festival offered far too many engaging episodes (and interesting people to speak and drink with) than I can detail here. But I would like to draw special attention to ThrillerFest executive director Kimberley “K.J.” Howe, who winged her way to Harrogate after capping off her recent duties at ThrillerFest IX in New York City. I’ve known Kim since 2006, when we met at ThrillerFest I in Phoenix, and was pleased to hear that Vicki Mellor of Headline Publishing has picked up her debut thriller, The Freedom Broker, for release in early 2017. It was also great to happen across David Stuart Davies, editor of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Red Herrings magazine (and something of a renaissance man), who made a flying visit to the conference, as did Philippa Pride, Stephen King’s UK editor.
Those days in Harrogate gave me an opportunity, as well, to spend time with literary agent Judith Murdoch, a very dear friend of longstanding, and to benefit from the assistance of Gaby Young of Michael Joseph Penguin in organizing an interview with the talented Julia Heaberlin (Black Eyed Susans), which I conducted in tandem with New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson. I found time to catch up with Felix Francis, who has a new horse-racing mystery (Triple Crown) coming out in September—an extension of the legacy he inherited from his famous father (and mother). And it was excellent to meet up with one of my Bouchercon board colleagues, Erin Mitchell, who’d come over from America to visit Ireland and post-Brexit Great Britain.
ThrillerFest executive director K.J. Howe being greeted by Red Herrings editor David Stuart Davies.
* * *Even before the festival officially commenced, an event took place called Creative Thursday, which was of great interest to writers wishing to turn a storytelling hobby into something professional. On hand to help were authors such as Sarah Hilary, Alex Marwood, Matthew Hall, and William Ryan. They were joined by literary agents, publishing representatives, and the literary journalist Danuta Kean.
Theakstons Harrogate works in part to promote literacy for the local community, and this year’s writer-in-residence was former UK probation officer Mari Hannah (Deadly Deceit).
Things really got started at Harrogate with a Thursday evening reception, followed in close succession by a welcome from both festival director Sharon Canavar and principal sponsor Simon Theakston, the latter of whom came supplied with plenty of his beer-brewing family’s most renowned product, Old Peculier. Then Harrogate regular, broadcaster and author Mark Lawson (The Allegations), took to the podium to begin the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year ceremony. Clare Mackintosh was excited to receive this year’s prize for her debut novel, I Let You Go. And that accolade came backed up with cash—a £3,000 check—plus a handmade engraved oak beer cask (which the author almost left behind on stage). You can see the highlights of that ceremony by clicking here.
Also shortlisted for the prize were Time of Death, by Mark Billingham (Sphere); Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere); Tell No Tales, by Eva Dolan (Harvill Secker); Disclaimer, by Renée Knight (Black Swan); and Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail).
Following the tribute to Mackinstosh, veteran Scottish author Val McDermid was presented with the seventh Theakstons Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award. Previous winners of that same commendation have been Sara Paretsky, Lynda La Plante, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, and Reginald Hill. After hearing that she would be this year’s recipient, McDermid said: “It’s an honor and a thrill to receive this award. The community of writers and readers at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is unlike any other in its warmth and generosity and so this means a huge amount to me. This year sees the publication of my 30th novel [Out of Bounds, due for a U.S. release in December from Atlantic Monthly Press] and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate that.”
I should mention that Mark Billingham delivered an exceptional, often funny introduction to McDermid, which you can watch (in a rather “gonzo” video) on YouTube.
With Thursday evening’s festivities done, it was time to uncap a few bottles of gin and share anecdotes, leaving some of us to welcome in the next day’s dawning with a breakfast of aspirin and coffee, accompanied by fragmented memories of the night before.
* * *Friday started early with an eclectic array of events, and though programming chair Peter James generously passed all the credit to the team behind Harrogate International Festivals, he was obviously one busy bloke, appearing everywhere—almost as if he had cloned himself, like a character from his techno-thriller Perfect People.
Mark Billingham chats up fellow novelist Linwood Barclay.
That day’s first highlight found Canadian wordsmith Linwood Barclay (The Twenty-Three) engaging in a well-attended onstage conversation with Billingham. It turned out to be a wickedly amusing exchange between two crime writers whose dark imaginations were balanced by their surreal sense of humor.
Then it was on to an investigation of real-life crime by Peter James’ writing partner, former Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett, together with authors Sharon Bolton, Mari Hannah, and (straight from Iceland!) Ysra Sigurdardottir. Other Friday events included a panel talk called “The Killer Behind the Front Door,” featuring Julia Crouch, Helen Fitzgerald, Paula Hawkins, Clare Mackintosh, and Alex Marwood; and another one titled “The Golden Age [of Crime Writing],” with Simon Brett, Frances Brody, Ann Granger, Catriona McPherson, and Ruth Ware. There was also a forensics panel and another devoted to stage and screen adaptations of written crime and mystery works.
Because Theakstons Harrogate offers a single track of panel presentations, it is advisable to find a seat at one’s preferred events early, lest there not be room left. The alternative is to sit in some overflow room and observe the proceedings via TV screens.
I thought it was a great innovation this year to have the book sales area and author signing section relegated to a large tent on the lawns overlooking the Old Swan. This prevented the snaking queues to the signings from congesting the hotel itself. When Peter James and Martina Cole began their signings, for instance, the lines were long enough that they might’ve been spotted from the orbit of Mars.
In addition, credit should be given to W.H. Smith, the festival’s official bookseller, whose staff was extremely helpful in moving things along at a good clip. You can watch a short video focusing on the W.H. Smith Book Tent by clicking here.
Next up on that day’s program was the 2016 Dead Good Reader Awards presentations, hosted again by Mark Lawson, who was helped out this time by international stars Linwood Barclay and Tess Gerritsen. This was a smartly orchestrated affair, with a number of moving parts, including early review-copy giveaways, raffles, and a substantial display from the prolific James Patterson, promoting his BookShots initiative, which turns out crime/thriller novellas for our time-constrained era (and reduced attention spans). Whatever you think of the quality of Patterson’s yarns, it’s hard to argue with his obvious commitment to literacy and the survival of independent bookshops—efforts that will be celebrated during Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, Texas, at which he’ll be a guest of honor.
We filmed the announcements of the Dead Good Reader Award recipients, with the results embedded below. A full list of 2016 nominees and winners is available at this link.
After a quick bite to eat, I was back to my reportorial duties, attending a couple of evening events. Firstly, we had Val McDermid in conversation with Scottish comedienne Susan Calman, who’s a familiar face on UK shows such as Have I Got News for You and Would I Lie to You? Secondly, I sat through one of my favorite events of the weekend, a presentation titled “The Hard Yards,” which found authors Sophie Hannah, Simon Kernick, Laura Lippman, Martyn Waites, and Laura Wilson all speaking candidly about their journeys up the greasy pole of crime-friction renown, and how they’ve stayed on top.
In the wake of all this hubbub, I was delighted for an opportunity to visit at dinner with my dear friend, best-selling thriller writer Martina Cole, who had arrived late to Harrogate. Afterwards, she and Kim Howe, together with some people from Headline, retired to the gardens overlooking the Old Swan, while I went inside to organize some gin and tonics. I wound up chatting with thriller writers Graham Smith and Mason Cross (the latter of whom pens the Carter Blake novels, and has apparently forgiven me for the rather tough questions I fired at him during a CrimeFest Criminal Mastermind competition several years ago). Soon after that, I fell into conversation with Linwood Barclay, who—thanks to his increasing stature as a fictionist (can it really have been less than a decade since No Time for Goodbye gave him his big boost?)—drew additional notice from passersby, until we found ourselves at the center of a small crowd. As usual, Barclay was amusing and self-deprecating in equal measures, and generous with his time. It’s characteristic of the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival that its attendees, whether authors, critics, or readers, mix well, with nobody feeling like an outsider.
* * *After a wee bit of late-night drinking (OK, maybe more than a wee bit), Saturday crept up quickly, and brought with it a series of red-letter offerings. The award-winning Jeffery Deaver was interviewed by the ubiquitous Mark Lawson (you can see the opening of their exchange here). Then there was a rare appearance by onetime journalist and the author of Harry’s Game, Gerald Seymour, who took questions from BBC Radio 2’s Joe Haddow. However, Theakstons Harrogate does not restrict itself to Big-Name Scribblers; McDermid held an audience in thrall on Saturday as she introduced four “New Blood” talents for 2016: Martin Holmen (Clinch), J.S. Law (Tenacity), Beth Lewis (The Wolf Road), and Abir Mukherjee (A Rising Man).
An uncommon sighting of thriller writer Gerald Seymour.
That afternoon boasted of an international flavor, with N.J. Cooper, Paul Mendelson, Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, and “Michael Stanley” (aka Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) all navigating South Africa’s criminal darkness. Meanwhile, Pierre Lemaitre, Bernard Minier, and S.J. Parris transported their listeners to France, as moderator Barry Forshaw kept his hand gently on the conversational rudder.
A standing-room-only crowd assembled to hear Martina Cole and Peter James in conversation—a truly fascinating session, since James pens his Brighton-based Roy Grace thrillers from a law-enforcement perspective, while Cole focuses instead on the often complicated family relationships between gangsters. (We have archived two sections of their discussion here and here.) Later that day, James talked to a crowded room about the dark side of Brighton; separately, Tess Gerritsen addressed the nuances of writing medical thrillers, a subgenre in which she has gained significant renown.
Closing out that evening was the Theakstons Crime Fiction Quiz. Frankly, I’d rather not dwell overlong on this event. I thought I’d assembled a strong team of Barry Forshaw, Craig Sisterson, literary agent Helen Heller, and Dutch publisher Steven Moat. But thanks in part to my, er, overindulgence in gin, we only earned third place in the competition. The night’s winning team was led by literary agent Jane Gregory, and featured authors Sarah Hilary, Natasha Cooper, Laura Wilson, Harry Bingham, and Mick Herron. You can watch the victors accept their just desserts here.
A very late night on the lawns outside the Old Swan, spent with friends such as Simon Kernick, Stav Sherez, Kevin Wignall and Sarah Pinborough, closed out Saturday, followed by a 2 a.m. pizza delivery … because we can always benefit from a tad more in the way of stomach contents to soak up drink.
* * *As usual, Sunday came around too fast. With my queasy stomach and sore head, I found comfort (as well as intrigue) in a “Political Corruption” panel discussion involving Charles Cumming, Frank Gardner, the by-now-inevitable Mark Lawson, Kate Rhodes, and Gillian Slovo. Then it was on to this festival’s capper: a presentation by Peter Robinson (When the Music’s Over) and Mark Lawson, who talked about contemporary fictional themes inspired by the notorious Jimmy Saville sexual-abuse scandal. The opening of that event, including Peter James’ introduction, can be enjoyed here.
If I may be allowed a few final words (after so many previous ones), let me begin by noting that the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival was remarkable. Professional management, combined with glorious weather and a collegial atmosphere, will have attendees talking about these doings for quite some time. Should you be interested in participating in next year’s Harrogate festival (July 20-23, 2017), it might be a good idea to book early, as ticket sales are already notably brisk.
Next stop, Bouchercon next month in New Orleans.
(Part II of our belated wrap-up of the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival can be found here.)
Photographs and text © Ali Karim, 2016
An edited version of this report will appear in the August edition of Red Herrings magazine, the official monthly publication for members of the British Crime Writers Association. Click here for details about how to join the CWA; and click here to learn how you can join the affiliated Crime Readers Association.