Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Harrogate Crime Family Adventure, Part II

(The first installment of Ali Karim’s recollections from the 2007 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival can be found here.)

On Saturday morning, the second day of the Harrogate festival, my family split up after breakfast. My wife and two daughters, Sophia and Miriam, went to explore historic Harrogate, England, and to do some shopping, while my son, Alex, and I returned to the conference.

Back at the Crown Hotel, we met up with Simon Kernick, a great British thriller writer who’s finally hit the bestseller charts with the paperback edition of his 2006 novel, Relentless, and with his new hardcover release, Severed. After also encountering Michael Marshall (Smith), author of The Intruders--a terrifying work, but one of my favorite books of 2007--the four of us made our way to the room where the “Getting Vigorous” panel discussion was to take place. Joining Kernick and Marshall on that panel were Zoë Sharp (Second Shot) and Caroline Carver (who has published her latest book, Gone Without Trace, as “C.J. Carver”). The panel’s moderator was Scotsman Stuart MacBride, who conducted the discussion as he might have a game show, quizzing the four panelists about various aspects of murder, mayhem, and criminal methodology. He’d ask, for instance, “What is the best way to dispose of a body?” And the writers’ responses would be judged against both known facts and an audience survey. Further adding to the complications, MacBride issued a bar of soap and a knife to each of his panelists. He explained that if they were suddenly thrown into prison, they’d have to fashion some sort of implement from the soap that would either help them escape, or help them to protect themselves. What would they make? Undoubtedly, the worst invention had to be Kernick’s misshapen Ninja Death-Star.

MacBride’s warped sense of humor helped make this panel discussion particularly funny, though Marshall seemed a bit concerned throughout, sitting next to Sharp, who he understood knew more about firearms than he thought altogether healthy.

Afterwards, my son and I dipped out for lunch, only to encounter Nick Stone and his wife. We shared our recent ThrillerFest adventures, and Stone couldn’t hide his excitement at the recent U.S. release of Mr. Clarinet, which has already collected some excellent reviews across “the pond.” Then Alex and I went off to spend a little time with Mark Timlin, who informed me that he’s currently composing another Nick Sharman novel (his first since 2000’s All the Empty Places), and that there’s quite a lot of excitement in the UK publishing sphere at the prospect of his South London private eye returning to action.

By the time we wound back to the conference, we had to go straight to see Paul Johnston (shown at the top of this post, with author Christopher Brookmyre), a longtime favorite of mine and the author of both the Quintilian Dalrymple novels (The House of Dust, 2001), set in a futuristic Edinburgh, Scotland, and a second series featuring Greek-Scottish private eye Alex Mavros (The Golden Silence, 2004). After suffering through a bout of cancer, Johnston is back in print this summer with The Death List, a brutally violent novel that starts him in a different direction. The panel he sat on at Harrogate was moderated by broadcaster Paul Blezard and asked writers to talk about how and why they had selected the specific locations of their fiction. In addition to Johnston, panelists were Michelle Spring, a displaced Canadian who sets her work in Cambridge; Graham Hurley, whose gritty police procedurals take place in the English seaside resort of Portsmouth; and David Hewson, for whom Italy provides the appropriate storytelling backdrop. This turned out to be lively discussion, and revealed just how seriously crime novelists take the business of story setting.

Hewson explained that he’d selected Italy as his backdrop, because as a child he had longed to live in a sunny climate, rather than be trapped forever in rainy Britain. Italy, which he visited as an adult, was an environment that met his needs. And setting stories in that romantic Mediterranean land makes the research he needs to do altogether pleasurable. Spring, on the other hand, explained that she prefers to use the background of Cambridge, England, because it’s there that the biotechnology industry rubs shoulders (not always amiably) with the secretive world of academia. For Hurley, Portsmouth was his home, but he realized that it was also rife with crime, drugs trafficking, and prostitution, all due to the town being a seaside resort. His police world, he explained, bears the marks of authenticity, because he has readers inside the local police department who can correct any errors. Finally, Johnston said he that he originally set his fiction in Edinburgh, because that was where he lived, but he also liked the idea of setting his Quint series in the future, because it gave him a bit of authorial distance. When he moved to Greece, though, he took his fiction with him--and thus Athenian Alex Mavros was born. Johnston’s new series, of which The Death List is the first installment, is set in modern London, which again he knows well.

At the close of this discussion, Blezard announced that due to the flooding in southwestern England, Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal), who was to be this festival’s special guest, would be unable to attend. As compensation, the organizers had come up with a special panel for later that day. Moderated by BBC broadcaster Mark Lawson, it would be titled “U.S. Crime Writers vs. UK Crime Writers” and would place in philosophical contention Harlan Coben and Lee Child, representing America (even though Child was born in Coventry, England), and Mark Billingham and Val McDermid, defending the British side of the genre. A great cheer arose as participants hailed the organizers’ ability to manufacture a new panel discussion at such incredibly short notice.

Needing to change for our next engagement, my son and I returned to our hotel to see how much money my wife and lovely daughters had spent clothes-shopping. Then it was off to Harrogate’s Hotel Du Vin, where publisher Transworld/Bantam Press was holding a cocktail party. I’ve known Transworld editorial director Selina Walker for many years now, and have followed a number of that house’s writers with enthusiasm (Simon Kernick, Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, and more recently, Tom Cain among them). So it was pleasant to receive an invitation to this fête. Upon our arrival, my family was greeted by Walker and Patsy Irwin, Transworld’s publicity director, who made sure that my wife received a glass of chilled wine, while the kids were treated to juices. Deciding to make good use of my offspring, Walker asked if they would like to serve canapés to the assemblage, and by that means meet all the writers, editors, and other publishing personnel. Delighted, the three young Karims grabbed plates of finger cuisine and proceeded to circulate among the guests, greeting everyone. They even wanted to pour the wine. Poor Lee Child. He was almost force-fed by my well-meaning children, who insisted that he eat more.

Among this company, it was especially good to meet Manda Scott. I enjoyed her last crime novel, No Good Deed, which was published back in 2001. But since then, she’s been penning a series of historical novels about the ancient British warrior queen Boudica--not exactly my cup of tea. So I was quite excited to hear that she’s just finished an apocalyptic thriller, The Crystal Skull, which Transworld is preparing to release in January 2008. Advance word on this novel is very strong. Mark your diaries accordingly.

I enjoyed, too, talking with the pseudonymous Tom Cain. Particularly since my enthusiasm for his recent debut novel, The Accident Man, was ... well, nearly unbridled. During our Harrogate exchange, Cain informed me that the American book jacket art has been finalized and that that edition should be available in January 2008. U.S. readers will want to keep their eyes open for it.

And I had a long chat with Christopher Fowler. I’ve spent years reading his Arthur Bryant/John May retro-detective series, the latest installment of which--White Corridor--was next up on my reading pile. Most of our exchange, though, centered around the difficulties he faced in adapting an early novel, Darkest Day (1993), into Seventy-Seven Clocks (2005), the third book featuring Bryant and May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

While Michelle Spring and my wife talked about the former’s start in this genre (following her family’s confrontation with a deranged stalker), I fell into a pleasant conversation with Simon Kernick and Transworld senior editors Selina Walker, Simon Taylor, and Simon Thorogood about the state of the genre, and leapt from there into discussion with Barry Forshaw, the editor of Crime Time and author of the new Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. This Transworld party proved to be one of the weekend’s highlights, a civilized afternoon occasion spent chatting about books, sipping wine, and nibbling away at some great food.

After saying our thanks for the hospitality, the Karim family made its way back to the Crown Hotel for that U.S. Crime Writers vs. UK Crime Writers event.

Frederick Forsyth’s absence may have been disappointing, but this replacement panel was excellent. Mark Lawson started things out by asking each team to explain why their continent produced the best crime thrillers. Lee Child opened for the United States, contending that British mysteries are too preoccupied with weather (mostly bad). Harlan Coben took the spotlight after that, but managed almost to speak in favor of the Brits, rather than the Yanks. Val McDermid and Mark Billingham were both funny debaters, as they extolled the virtues of British writing and flayed Child as something of a traitor to his native land--their tongues firmly placed in their cheeks, of course. Following up on all of this, Lawson called upon supporting witnesses from the audience, with Dan Fesperman (The Prisoner of Guantánamo) and Laura Lippman (What the Dead Know) defending America, while Martyn Waites and Christopher Brookmyre upheld the Empire’s honor. I put in my two cents, arguing that crime fiction would simply not be the same without its array of British villains. This turned out to be a very entertaining panel, perhaps the weekend’s most amusing offering. Not half bad for a gig that wasn’t even on the schedule.

The indomitable Shots team: (Back row, L-R) Peter Guttridge, Ali Karim, Sophia Karim, Nick Stone, Alex Karim; (seated, L-R) Thalia Proctor, Liz Hatherall, Myles Allfrey, and Adrian Muller.

A moment to regroup at the bar (where I found Kevin Wignall and chatted with him about his upcoming novel, Who Is Conrad Hirst?), and then it was time to settle in for the evening’s main event: the Harrogate Quiz. Last year, a team from the e-zine Shots came within a whisker’s breadth of winning, falling only to the folks from CrimeSquad. Determined to be triumph this time, we fielded our strongest team: novelist-critic Peter Guttridge, Shots subeditor Liz Hatherall, Little, Brown’s Thalia Proctor, Myles Allfrey and Adrian Muller (both of whom had organized Left Coast Crime Bristol), and myself, with my three children led by Nick Stone, and my wife cheering us on. The quiz was tough, but I was anaesthetized against all pain by the volume of wine I had consumed at the Transworld party. In fact, I was very intoxicated; I kept banging the table really hard each time I got an answer correct. It proved challenging for quiz masters Natasha Cooper and Simon Kernick to keep up with my table-banging routine. It eventually fell to my elder daughter, Sophia, to tell me off, after I knocked over a load of drinks. Having answered all the questions, we felt quietly confident of victory.

A hushed silence (and really, what other kind is there?) fell over the room as we awaited the announcement of a winner in this competition. When Kernick and Cooper finally declared that “It was close for second and third position, but in the lead by a massive margin--the 2007 Harrogate winners are the Shots team,” I couldn’t stop myself from jumping up and down. I lead our team to the stage, where we were presented with our trophy and a selection of books as prizes. Then it was back to the bar to celebrate. However, since my children were growing sleepy, I had the chance only for a nightcap with Mike Marshall before driving my family back to our hotel.

The next day, Sunday, as my wife and daughters returned to shopping, Alex and I went back to the Crown Hotel, where I tape-recorded an interview Dan Fesperman. Concluding our exchange, we made a date to meet again in Baltimore, Maryland (his home town), for Bouchercon 2008.

Then Alex and I went to see Harlan Coben be interviewed by Laura Lippman. This proved to be a real treat, as Coben talked a great deal about his early life and about his late parents, who it seems cultivated in him the habit of reading, which later provoked a passion for writing. I’ve known Coben for a while now, and can see that while his generosity and kindness is limitless, it’s his sense of humor that makes him special. By the time this session was done, a lengthy queue had formed of people wanting their books signed by Coben and Lippman. It just showed how popular they both are.

Since that was our final event of this conference, Alex and I rejoined my wife and daughters (back again with new loads of clothes), and said our good-byes to everyone. But as we departed, Lee Child called over to my son: “Look after your dad. He is a bit weird, but a great guy.” Words to warm this bookworm’s heart.

I’ve heard that a number of noteworthy U.S. and UK authors have been tapped for next year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, so if you want to attend, now’s the time to begin saving your pennies. And if you want to face off against the Shots team in the Harrogate Quiz? Well, you had better cancel everything else and catch up on your crime-fiction reading. You’re already behind!

READ MORE:Murder Most Horrid,” by Paul Vallely (The Independent).

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