Saturday, July 08, 2017

Still Savoring CrimeFest Memories

Barry Forshaw (far left) and Mike Ripley (far right) discuss the relative virtues of American noir fiction and vintage British crime thrillers during a presentation refereed by Peter Guttridge.

By Ali Karim
Yes, I know: It has taken me more than a little while to deliver a full assessment of CrimeFest 2017. In the meanwhile, Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce featured an array of photographs from that May 18-21 event, and reported both on the winners of seven different prizes handed out during CrimeFest and the announcement of longlisted rivals for a number of 2017 Dagger awards (sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association, aka CWA). But after weathering both a computer crash and scheduling difficulties, I’ve finally found free time enough to deliver a recap of this year’s convention.

CrimeFest, born in the wake of the popular 2016 Left Coast Crime convention, has always been held in one of England’s most invigorating cities—Bristol—and at the same four-star venue (the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel). This allows returning attendees to feel at home immediately upon arrival, for the hotel is centrally located, on College Green, with bars and restaurants all within easy walking distance, and an attentive, helpful staff.

Yet each year’s conference feels a wee bit different, if only because of the programming. This year’s wonderfully eclectic schedule was credited to author Donna Moore, who gave us an assortment of panel discussions (three tracks of them on Friday and Saturday!), covering the field of crime and mystery fiction from edge to edge—from Golden Age works to English-translated yarns and most everything in between. As always, organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Alfrey deserve particular applause, for their annual event creates great camaraderie among writers, and between authors and readers. More importantly, it encourages literacy—something that is essential to a functioning society.

* * *

I arrived in Bristol at high noon on Thursday, May 18, accompanied by Shots editor, Western fiction writer, and CWA Dagger liaison officer Mike Stotter. Immediately, I was reminded of what an international affair CrimeFest has become over the years, for greeting us were not only Detectives Beyond Borders blogger and man of mystery Peter Rozovsky, from Philadelphia, but also thriller novelist Karin Salvalaggio (Silent Rain), who hails from the U.S. state of Montana. This made me smile, as I resided in neighboring Wyoming for a time during the 1980s. Then I laughed when I was reminded that Karin has been living in London for a number of years, so her journey to Bristol was unlikely to have left her suffering with jet-lag.

One of Thursday’s opening panel presentations focused on debut authors, while that afternoon closed with a discourse on “forgotten writers,” during which CWA chair Martin Edwards and authors John Lawton, Jane Corry, Sarah Ward, and Andrew Wilson looked back at genre stylists such as Lionel Davidson and Elizabeth Daly. As a reviewer, I often like to refresh my palate with older works of fiction, so this was a most welcome interchange. I was delighted, too, with the opportunity to meet Wilson, who penned the definitive 2003 Patricia Highsmith biography, Beautiful Shadow, as well as a historical mystery novel titled A Talent for Murder (soon to be released in the States by Atria), which fictionalizes Agatha Christie’s 1926 disappearance.

(Left to right) CrimeFest 2017’s extremely able organizers, Donna Moore, Myles Alfrey, and Adrian Muller.

British crime-writing stars Andrew Taylor and Peter Lovesey find a quiet corner to catch up with each other.

Then it was time for some gin and the annual CrimeFest Quiz, which this year took place within the Marriott and found writer-critic Peter Guttridge holding forth once more as quizmaster. You can always count on this game to offer merriment (as when Felix Francis asked Guttridge, with a smirk, whether there was “any chance next year of having some equestrian questions”). It was no less expected to see the team made up of trivia authorities Martin Edwards, Cathy Ace, Kate Ellis, and Dea Parkin declared the winners. Fortunately, Adrian and Myles had many prizes to dispense to the runners-up, all of which were handed ’round by Mike Stotter.

We concluded the night with casual networking. After a few glasses of gin, my recollection of what exactly was said turned somewhat hazy. However, I do remember complimenting Andrew Taylor on the fact that his remarkable latest novel, set during the 17th century and titled The Ashes of London, has enjoyed a long-term stay on UK best-seller charts. Andrew is one of the most modest writers I know, and he simply smiled and put the success of his yarn down to a remarkable cover and the support of bookseller Waterstones—but we all understand the real reason is Ashes’ quality of writing.

* * *

As usual, Friday morning arrived way too soon for me and my fellow barflies. But thanks to an excellent breakfast at the hotel (which included copious quantities of industrial-strength coffee), and short visits to the swimming pool and steam room, Mike and I eventually composed ourselves for the long day ahead.

The three-track set-up of panel presentations held wide appeal for fans of debut novelists, serial-killer tales, legal thrillers, fictional police duos, and everyone interested in how journalists approach fiction writing and how to make a happy ending appear credible in this genre. Especially worthwhile was an early afternoon session called “Wunderbar! The Hidden Wonders of the German Krimi.” Sponsored by the Goethe-Institut London, it gathered together a variety of authors—Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher, Melanie Raabe, and moderator Kat Hall—who enlightened readers as to the diversity and quality of modern crime fiction from Deutschland.

That evening’s events closed with the much-anticipated announcement of which books and authors had been longlisted for several 2017 Dagger awards (a process managed robustly by Mike Stotter and CWA secretary Dea Parkin). The CWA is currently narrowing the competition, with expectations that the shortlists of contenders will be broadcast on Wednesday, July 26, and the winners proclaimed during a festive dinner in the British capital on Thursday, October 26. (Look for both sets of results in The Rap Sheet.) For now, I can only prod you to investigate the books that have managed to get through the first stage of CWA evaluation, as they are all entertaining and enlightening reads.

During the dinner honoring Peter Lovesey, Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller share their taste for Burt Bacharach’s music.

With the Dagger pronouncements completed, and cheers having been offered to the honored challengers, some convention-goers headed off to a drinks reception sponsored by Orion Books and celebrating novelists Steve Cavanagh, Mason Cross, and Steve Mosby. Others departed the Bristol Marriott to sample menus at the abundance of surrounding restaurants. For our part, Mike Stotter and I were lucky to have been invited to an exclusive celebratory dinner for Peter Lovesey, CrimeFest 2017’s Featured Guest Author. This meal was organized by Thalia Proctor of Little, Brown UK and took place at a quaint little Italian restaurant. It was a pleasure to spend time in the company of Lovesey, who, despite his deserved success over the years remains—like Andrew Taylor—a grounded and fairly humble wordsmith. I also discovered, during our chatting at that feast, that both Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller are quite knowledgeable on the subject of American Burt Bacharach’s musical career. Who knew?

Then it was back to the CrimeFest bar for further conversation, which centered on the merits of works comprising this year’s CWA Dagger longlists. As there was some grumbling about the unusually large selection of Ian Fleming Steel Dagger contestants, and since I had been one of the judges responsible for choosing those 18 books, I found it advisable to maintain a low profile while sipping my drink.

* * *

Saturday kicked off with still more hot coffee (thank heavens!), followed by Telegraph critic Jake Kerridge’s 9 a.m. panel, “Debut Authors: An Infusion of Fresh Blood.” Among the featured experts was American teacher Bill Beverly, who last year received the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for his first novel, Dodgers. (Later that same day Beverly took part in another colloquy, about “noir” fiction.)

Once more, the three concurrent tracks of presentations made it difficult for attendees to choose where to plant themselves during any given hour. How could we know in advance whether we would be happier to attend a discussion of, say, “What Makes the Straitlaced Victorians a Criminal Goldmine?” than we would to sit through one titled “A Little Bit Creepy: Scaring Your Readers with Death”? And would we rather listen to the wisdom of Christopher Fowler and Barbara Nadel than that of Ragnar Jónasson or Gunnar Staalesen? Our dance cards were quickly booked … and overbooked.

Among the red-letter events on Saturday were Peter Lovesey’s onstage conversation with Martin Edwards (watch it here); Tom Adams and John Curran talking about the long shadow Agatha Christie continues to cast over the mystery-fiction genre; critic-author Barry Forshaw interrogating novelist-screenwriter Anthony Horowitz; and Kerridge interviewing this year’s CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Ann Cleeves.

Sophie Calder and Kate Mills from HarperCollins UK.

Later, Mike and I joined head publicist Sophie Calder and publisher Kate Mills at the HQ Harper Afternoon Tea. For me, one of the most pleasant characteristics of book conventions such as this is encountering old friends. I’ve known Sophie since her days at Titan Books, and Kate from her work with Orion. Over steaming cups of Earl Grey they offered us some background on HarperCollins’ new genre imprint, HQ, and introduced us to their editorial team as well as some of the authors with whom they’re working.

Thus fortified in mind and spirit, we returned to our hotel room, changed into lounge suits, and with daylight in serious retreat, located our tables for the CrimeFest Awards Dinner. As ever, the food and service provided by the Marriott were exemplary, and we found ourselves thoroughly entertained by the evening’s master of ceremonies, Barry Forshaw. Droll and knowledgeable, Forshaw also demonstrated a skill for organizing, as he coordinated this event’s schedule. Among the highlights were speeches by Ann Cleeves and Peter Lovesey, as well as the handing out of seven different CrimeFest awards (including the bestowal, by Forshaw and author-reviewer Sarah Ward, of the 2017 Petrona Award; and of the 2017 H.R.F. Keating Award by Forshaw alone). However, what I’ll probably remember best about that night was an impromptu oration by Anthony Horowitz (Magpie Murders) called “The Curious Murder of Felix Francis,” which cleverly used author Dick Francis’ younger son in an examination of British Golden Age mystery fiction. You can watch that here.

* * *

Normally, Sunday panel events are subdued, as the convention winds down. But this year there were half a dozen excellent exchanges, among them one showcasing “Iceland’s Queens of Crime” and another that looked at crime/mystery/thriller short stories, which seem to be very much in vogue again as readers’ free time and attention spans dwindle, and audiobooks increase in popularity. CWA stalwarts Janet Laurence, L.C. Tyler, Ann Cleeves, Peter Lovesey, and Martin Edwards all weighed in on the future of short-form crime fiction.

Finally, capping off this year’s CrimeFest, was a thoroughly witty public conversation having to do with distinctions between U.S. and British contributions to this genre, moderated by Peter Guttridge and featuring both Barry Forshaw, author of the new book American Noir, and Mike Ripley, who wrote Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a study of classic British thrillers. (Video footage of their tête-à-tête can be enjoyed here.) One of CrimeFest’s most commendable aspects is how well it manages the melancholic feeling one is left with after late nights, lack of sleep, too many chilled libations, and days spent in near-constant conversation. Organizers always close with an amusing last presentation, so you’re left saying good-bye to friends old and new with a smile on your face.

If you haven’t attended CrimeFest before, I strongly encourage you to do so. Many regulars (myself included) have already registered for next year’s convention, which has booked Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver as Featured Guest Authors. For more information, click here.

(An abridged version of this piece is set to appear in the Crime Writers’ Association’s Red Herrings magazine later this month.)

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