Sunday, August 13, 2017

Harking Back to Harrogate

(Left to right) Authors Robert Goddard and Simon Kernick.

By Ali Karim
Although the North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate has much else to commend it—such as exquisite public gardens, elegant historical architecture, and its renowned Bettys Café Tea Rooms—crime-fiction fans may recognize it best as the place where top-selling mystery writer Agatha Christie was finally located, following her 11-day disappearance in 1926. (Whether the author had intended her escapade to be a publicity stunt, or part of a scheme to save her collapsing marriage remains unclear.) So it wasn’t surprising that her former publisher, HarperCollins, should have mounted a first-ever display of correspondence between Christie and HarperCollins chairman Billy Collins at the town’s Old Swan Hotel late last month.

The Old Swan was the ideal venue, of course, for it was at that distinguished retreat—formerly known as the Swan Hydropathic Hotel—where sleuth Hercule Poirot’s creator lived for 10 days as “Mrs. Teresa Neele,” before being recognized and returned to her former life. And the fact that the exhibition of Christie’s letters, as well as “candid photographs,” took place from July 20 to 23 was no coincidence, either; that was when this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival was held in Harrogate. The Christie display was predictably popular with convention participants.

2017 marked the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival’s 15th year, and drew an international assortment of genre celebs. People such as Kathy Reichs, Dennis Lehane, and Joseph Finder from America; and from the European mainland, writers of the caliber of Swedish fictionist Arne Dahl (aka Jan Arnald), Germany’s Melanie Raabe (The Trap), and my favorite Dutch publishers, Chris Herschdorfer and Steven Maat of AmboAnthos, who attend this Harrogate event annually. The programming for the festival was adroitly managed by British novelist Elly Griffiths (aka Domenica de Rosa), who interspersed emerging talents among the stars—much to the satisfaction of Val McDermid, who likes to champion up-and-coming writers during what has become a regular “New Blood” presentation. (It’s her way of acknowledging the help she herself received from established wordsmiths early in her career.)

Things got rolling fast at last month’s festival. An opening-night gala party included the announcement that Scottish fictionist Chris Brookmyre had won the Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award for Black Widow (Little, Brown). He was later quoted as saying: “I’m really quite taken aback. I’ve been shortlisted three times before for this award, always the bridesmaid, today I get to walk up the aisle. A book is not just the work of the author behind it. I’d like to thank my editor, Ed Wood, for his caliber and daring that made a good book greater. I’m mainly just very proud.”

That same evening, it was a particular delight to watch as festival director Sharon Canavar and Simon Theakston, the executive director of Theakston Brewery and this event’s principal sponsor, bestowed upon London-based literary agent Jane Gregory a commendation for Special Services to the Festival. Gregory was instrumental, back in 2003, in helping to set up this ongoing and wonderful event. Honored along with Gregory was Lee Child, who collected the festival’s Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

So that was Thursday night. Friday brought a second volley of accolades: the 2017 Dead Good Reader Awards. Featured among the recipients of those were Michael Connelly (whose The Wrong Side of Goodbye was honored with the Case Closed Award for Best Police Procedural), C.L. Taylor (winner of the Hidden Depths Award for Most Unreliable Narrator for The Escape), and Hollie Overton’s Baby Doll (which picked up the creatively titled Cat Amongst the Pigeons Award for Most Exceptional Debut).

Cheering on prize winners is a familiar exercise at mystery-fiction celebrations such as this one. So, too, are opportunities—both calculated and serendipitous—to meet and catch up with wordsmiths, critics, and other questionable characters who might otherwise be hiding in their day jobs. Retailer W.H. Smith capitalized on this gathering by setting up an expansive book room in a tent, and publishers scheduled special receptions throughout the weekend, hoping to curry favor with authors and reviewers alike. It was especially nice to see Laurence Howell, the content director for audiobook retailer Audible, as he and his team were promoting their annual Sounds of Crime Award (given out during CrimeFest).

British writers Luca Veste, Mark Billingham, and Chris Brookmyre, the last of whom walked away with this year’s Old Peculier
Crime Novel of the Year award.

Saturday evening brought a different brand of enjoyment in the form of the annual Theakston Crime Writing Quiz. I’ve often participated in this challenge, and did so again this time around, teamed with UK broadcaster Mark Lawson and a squad we dubbed “The Journos.” Other members of that group were Mike Stotter, my longtime friend and colleague from Shots; author Joseph Finder; The Guardian’s associate media editor, John Dugdale; and Jon Coates of the Daily Express. As the competition grew heated, we looked to have the win firmly in hand … only to be pipped at the post, losing by one point to Jane Gregory’s team, “The Velociraptors,” which boasted a roster rounded out by Jake Kerridge of The Daily Telegraph, and authors Danuta Kean, Natasha Cooper, Sarah Hilary, and Mick Herron. As quiz masters Val McDermid and Mark Billingham presented the winners with their trophy, I shot video footage of the moment, which you can watch here.

Later, Lawson and I recapped our inconsistent history with this trivia contest. As team captains, we’ve both notched up victories in the past; but last year our gang had also to be content with second place. Lawson joked about my ability to choke in the home stretch. “Karim,” he said, “you were great until about halfway, and then you talked gibberish. Next year you are banned from swigging all that gin.” At which point the rest of our team roared with laughter!

In the interests of brevity (and because the aforementioned gin has left my recollections of Harrogate a tad hazy), I shall end my report here and move on to additional photographs taken during last month’s gathering. This annual event is always enjoyable, and worth your time if you wish to take part someday. Information about the 2018 Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival can be found here. I urge you to book early, as these get-togethers tend to fill up fast.

Scottish fictionist Ian Rankin ... in disguise, of course.

Young German journalist-turned-author Melanie Raabe.

Dennis Lehane signs copies of his novels, with help from Zoë Hood, the deputy publicity director with Little, Brown UK.

Thriller writer Kathy Reichs with Shots editor Mike Stotter.

Jane Gregory makes off with her Special Services award.

Transatlantic best-sellers Joseph Finder and Arne Dahl.

UK mystery authorities Ann Cleeves and Martin Edwards.

ThrillerFest executive director and author Kimberley “K.J.” Howe (The Freedom Broker) with fellow American Karen Dionne
(The Marsh King’s Daughter).

Mike Stotter goes head to head (sort of) with Simon Toyne.

Smile for the camera!: Zoë Sharp and Lee Child.

Sneaking up on a couple of Neils—Broadfoot and White.

Festival programmer Elly Griffiths.

They missed it by that much: Theakston Crime Writing Quiz second-place finishers John Coates, Ali Karim, Mike Stotter, Joseph Finder, Mark Lawson, and John Dugdale lick their wounded pride …

… While the trivia quiz winners—Natasha Cooper, Mick Herron, Danuta Kean, Jake Kerridge, Jane Gregory, and Sarah Hilary—are unhesitant in showing off their trophy.

Noted Dutch publishers Chris Herschdorfer and Steven Maat.

And what do you know, there’s Mike Stotter again, this time palling it up with mystery-fiction promoter/blogger Lizzie Hayes and Dea Parkin, secretary of the British Crime Writers’ Association.

(Photographs © Ali Karim, 2017)

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