Friday, September 14, 2018

The Rest of the Fest

(Left to right) Ali Karim snaps a selfie with Scottish author James Oswald (Cold as the Grave) and Shots editor Mike Stotter.

(Editor’s note: Several weeks ago, I posted on this page a selection of photographs taken by Rap Sheet correspondent Ali Karim at the 2018 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which was held in Harrogate, England, from July 19 to 22. Ali promised to write more about that gathering once he’d had time to arrange his thoughts and dispense with a variety of day-job responsibilities. Unfortunately, at the time he sent me his report, I was hip-deep in unrelated assignments, so it took me a while to get all of this together. Below—finally—are Ali’s recollections of the event.)

By Ali Karim
Each year I attend the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival … and each year, it seems, I report back that the latest event was the best of its kind yet. After the 2018 convention, I couldn’t help making a bet with its principal sponsor, distinguished brewer Simon Theakston, and Harrogate International Festivals director Sharan Canavar that they couldn’t outdo themselves in 2019.

We’ll have to wait to see who wins.

Theakston’s Harrogate has come to resemble America’s Bouchercon in terms of scale. To enjoy the gathering in its full complexity, one would have to bring along a clone, or perhaps two, because to sample all of the events on offer would be impossible. Unlike Boucheron, however, Harrogate still schedules a single track of panels, which means the main hall is always at standing-room capacity, or pretty close to it. Lee Child was responsible for this year’s programming. He had to figure out how to provide the greatest interest and diversity in terms of panel-discussion topics, and how to satisfy publishers hoping to get their authors onto those panels. Due to the hot competition for such placements, and the fact that presentation facilities at the usual convention venue (the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate) were booked to capacity, many side events this year took place in hotel rooms, large canvas tents peppering the inn’s grounds, or adjacent lodging facilities and bars—resources that have become available as the spa town of Harrogate has become the tourist attraction it is today.

(Right) Abir Mukherjee with Stotter.

Due to other personal commitments, I left my friend and colleague, Shots editor Mike Stotter, in charge of planning our assault on this year’s festival. After we’d checked in to our hotel, the historic and nearby Cairn, I unpacked the selection of books I hoped to have signed during the weekend, along with two liters of gin I’d brought to help lubricate our stay. Stotter, meanwhile, pulled out his planner, which resembled nothing so much as a giant Snakes and Ladders game, complete with Harrogate party invitations, lunch appointments, meetings with publishers, and much more besides. On top of those commitments, I’d scheduled get-togethers with several authors, among them the legendary Joseph Kanon (Defectors), Joseph Finder, Linwood Barclay, Shari Lapena (An Unwanted Guest), and International Thriller Writers executive director Kimberly “K.J.” Howe, the last of whom had just returned from ThrillerFest 2018 in New York City, and was preparing for the UK launch of her second novel, Skyjack.

It’s hard to ever see or spend time with all of the people one wishes to encounter at Harrogate. This year’s festival attracted familiar stars of the genre (Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee, Ruth Ware, A.A. Dhand, etc.), as well as some new writing talents (such as Derlva McTieran, C.J. Tudor, Stuart Turton, and Will Dean). There were abundant literary agents milling about (Euan Thorneycroft, Judith Murdoch, Isobel Dixon, Phil Patterson), as well as a diversity of my fellow book critics, among them Deidre O’Brien of the Daily Mirror, Karen Robinson of The Sunday Times, Jon Coates of the Sunday Express, and John Dugdale of The Guardian and Sunday Times. I succeeded, too, in catching up with a number of old friends, including Dutch publishers Steven Moat and Chris Herschdorfer, who attend the Harrogate fest each year. My only real disappointment this time was to not bump into David Stuart Davies. That raconteur, author, actor, Sherlock Holmes scholar, and illustrious editor of Red Herrings, the in-house publication of the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), made only a flying visit to this year’s assembly.

This year’s Harrogate program director, novelist Lee Child, with English radio presenter and writer Simon Mayo.

Britain’s reigning “gangster fiction queen,” Martina Cole, with American copy editor and blogger Peter Rozovsky.

Daily Mirror books critic Deidre O’Brien squeezes in between authors Robert Scragg (What Falls Between the Cracks) and Kevin Wignall (To Die in Vienna).

Linwood Barclay inscribes a copy of his latest novel, A Noise Downstairs, to Mike Stotter.

The festival kicked off officially on Thursday evening, July 19, with a party welcoming the latest recipient of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award, Stav Sherez. He won that prize for his prescient and disturbing work, The Intrusions, which marked the third appearance of Sherez’s fictional Metropolitan Police detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller. The Intrusions beat out stiff competition from Mick Herron’s Spook Street, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, Sue Steiner’s Persons Unknown, and McDermid’s Insidiious Intent. All of those contenders are excellent reads; but I was especially delighted to see Sherez, a former music journalist who has become a close friend of mine since the publication of his first novel, The Devil’s Playground (2004), triumph in the end. He and I have traveled together, and his amusing perspective on life matches my own. Sherez is an ardent supporter of his fellow readers and writers, evidenced by his incisive book reviews in The Catholic Herald, for which he serves as literary editor.

By the way, I was seated at the back of the auditorium during Sherez’s award acceptance speech. And I noticed that behind me were his Faber and Faber editor, Angus Cargill, along with U.S. authors Alafair Burke and Laura Lippman, the latter of whom I could hear whispering, like an incantation, “Thank Jane, thank Jane, thank Jane”—a reference to Stav’s delightful partner. When, at the end of his address, Sherez said, “But mainly, this one’s for Jane,” we all clapped loudly. You can watch my rather overexposed video of Sherez’s speech here.

Other publicly staged events of particular note held during these four days: Laura Lippman in conversation with Linwood Barclay; Stav Sherez talking with Denise Mina; Lee Child quizzing American legal thriller author John Grisham; and the intense interview former CWA chair N.J. Cooper (aka Daphne Wright) conducted with another U.S. writer, Don Winslow (The Force)—a task she managed with aplomb.

Then, of course, there was the hotly contested Theakston Crime Writing Quiz. As in previous years, I was leading one of the competing teams, The Journos. But this time my co-captain, writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson, had instructed our fellow members—Jon Coates, Mike Stotter, John Dugdale, and Joe Finder—to keep a close watch on my activities. It seems our team suffers a reputation for always being the runners-up, thanks to my tendency to imbibe a bit more gin than is good for our odds. Apparently, I am pretty good with the stuff until the halfway point of the game, at which time I start talking sheer gibberish. I cannot confirm these accusations, as I am always drunk by the end of competition. Hoping to avoid that result again, Lawson and Stotter permitted me only a single beer (and no gin) while we watched Cooper question Winslow, and then blocked my access to the bar, since the quiz was coming up right afterward. The result was that I remained sober throughout the tournament … and yet we still finished out of the winner’s circle. Oh, well, it was all in good fun. I recorded the conclusion of the quiz, which you can watch here. Pay special attention the fact that—in dubious honor of my tippling practices, and much to my surprise—Lawson decided to give our team a rather more amusing name this year than The Journos.

The weekend also brought an announcement of which books and authors had won this year’s Dead Good Reader Awards, sponsored by the British books site Dead Good. And it boasted an abundance of lunches, parties, publisher events, and general merriment. It was pleasant to meet up again with Martina Cole (Damaged), the Queen of London Gangster Fiction, who made an impromptu appearance at Harrogate, which entailed considerable laughter. Cole is a concocter of very dark fiction, yet like so many writers in this genre, she can be one of the most amusing and kindest people around.

Always the bridesmaids, never the bride: Harrogate Quiz teammates Joseph Finder, John Dugdale, Jon Coates, Mark Lawson, Ali Karim, and Mike Stotter.

Peter Rozovsky chats with Sharan Canavar, the chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals.

During an event at Bettys Café Tea Room, Stotter and Karim ham it up on either side of American thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz.

Retreating to one of the large canvas tents set up on the grounds of the Old Swan Hotel are Joseph Kanon, Peter Rozovsky, New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson, Mike Stotter, and Joseph Finder.

I had the chance to lunch with Laurence Howell, the director for content at audio entertainment company Audible, and his team, who had come to this festival to present the inaugural Audible New Writing Grant: The Crime Edition, touted as “the first of its kind recognizing writing for the ever-growing audio format.” It was enjoyable, too, to see copy editor and Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky, a frequent Bouchercon-goer, who was making his debut appearance at Harrogate. Plus, Stotter and I were invited to “high tea” at Bettys Café Tea Room by Rowland White and his team from publisher Penguin Random House. This afforded us the opportunity to learn something about what U.S. thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz will be offering in Out of the Dark, the next installment in his nerve-shredding Orphan X series, to be released by Minotaur in January 2019.

Another highlight of my Harrogate adventure was being asked, along with Stotter, to spend a wonderful afternoon with American spy novelist Joseph Kanon. It was delightful to share with Kanon anecdotes about legendary publisher Peter Mayer, who had passed away in mid-May, and had been so instrumental in securing me an interview with Robert Littell back in 2006. And I was glad, as always, to share a breakfast with Lee Child and broadcaster Simon Mayo, thanks to the folks behind Penguin Random House’s Transworld imprint.

As this gathering finally wound to a close on Sunday, I thanked festival head Sharon Canavar for a terrific weekend, one that had allowed all of us to escape reality—at least for a short while. And I promised to return again next year, when I’ll find out whether I won that bet with Canaver and Simon Theakston. Topping the 2018 convention is going to be one hell of a task! Learn more about the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival by clicking here.

(All photos in this post copyright © Ali Karim 2018.)

Another version of this report appeared in the August issue of
Red Herrings, published by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

No comments: