Saturday, June 14, 2008

CrimeFest Hits Bristol, Part I

(Editor’s note: This is the opening installment of hard-working British correspondent Ali Karim’s report from last weekend’s CrimeFest convention, held in Southwest England. Three more posts are expected to follow over the next few days.)

The Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, this year’s CrimeFest venue.

Bristol, England, holds a special place in my heart, because it was the birthplace of a man I consider to be the grandfather of modern-day thrillers: Geoffrey Household. Best remembered for writing the definitive chase novel, 1939’s Rogue Male, Household has often been cited by crime writers as a source of inspiration. David Morrell (Scavenger) once explained to me the importance of Household’s work to his own authorial career:
“I believe that if you’re going to write a certain type of fiction--mysteries or thrillers or science fiction or horror--you should be an expert in the history of your specialty. Philip Klass was the person who told me about Geoffrey Household. He saw some similarities between my work and Household’s. So I read everything Household wrote. Rogue Male, Watcher in the Shadows, The Courtesy of Death, Dance of the Dwarfs. Wow. When I found Household, I said, ‘You mean I’m allowed to write like that?’”
Coincidentally, Morrell was one of the special guests at Left Coast Crime 2006, which was also held in Bristol under the direction of Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, with support from Liz Hatherall and this year’s Bouchercon fan guest of honor, Thalia Proctor. I really enjoyed that event, as it seems did everyone else who attended. I guess that’s why Muller and Allfrey decided to launch CrimeFest (originally intended to be a biennial event, but now slated to become an annual conference). And as the weekend went on, I became ever more glad they had.

Organizing an event of this magnitude takes a lot of nerve, especially given the to-be-expected lot of unexpected problems--one of which was a calendar issue regarding guest of honor Lee Child, whose touring schedule for Nothing to Lose ultimately precluded his participation in CrimeFest. Fortunately, Child had forewarned Muller and Allfrey in time that they could find a substitute: Jeff Lindsay (aka Jeffry P. Freundlich), author of Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) and its sequels, who flew over from the States to participate. This development was rather exciting to me, as I had interviewed Lindsay via phone back in 2004. I would finally have the chance to meet him in person and maybe chat about his books, as well as the cable-TV series they’ve spawned.

Also slated as a featured guest was Norwegian novelist Karin Fossum (Black Seconds, Broken), who I first met--in company with blogger-author Sarah Weinman--at the inaugural Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2003. I’ve been a follower of Fossum’s melancholic tales of crime ever since. And joining Fossum and Lindsay under the spotlight was star Scottish wordsmith Ian Rankin (Exit Music), who--like David Morrell--was a Left Coast Crime participant in 2006. (I vividly recall drinking the night away with him in a bar, talking about rock music and our mutual appreciation of Hawkwind.) Just to prove how tight and tangled is the British crime-fiction scene, last year’s Harrogate programming chair, Natasha Cooper, had been recruited for CrimeFest as “toastrix.”

In preparing for this convention, I checked the roster of attendees. It read like a who’s who of crime fiction, not just in terms of authors but also from the standpoint of reviewers and other critical readers. And I was surprised to see that many Americans and Europeans from the continent were registered. Of course, I wouldn’t have any more time to get acquainted with all of the prime participants, than I would have an opportunity to attend the complete selection of panels and other events on offer. Conferences of this sort always force one to prioritize. I could only drink with so many old acquaintances and endure so much sleep deprivation. Complicating everything, I was scheduled to battle author Charles Cumming (Typhoon) across the chessboard one more time.

* * *

Day One, June 5. I arrived midday Thursday in the blazing sun, depositing my car in the basement car park of the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel and then trundling up in the lift. Thankfully, a porter came to assist me with my luggage. If he was surprised by the weight of my baggage, he gave no indication. The problem is that I collect books, and I like to have my first-edition advanced reader copies signed by their authors; hence, I rarely travel light to these events.

Checking in at the same time was my editor at Shots, Mike Stotter, with whom I would be rooming for the next few days (to save expenses, and despite the issue of my snoring--and Stotter’s tendency to belt out Mary Poppins songs in his sleep). He’d come over from London on the train and packed less ponderously than I had. After depositing all the bags upstairs in our room, we went down again to register. There in the queue we found Charles Cumming, who was grinning damned near ear-to-ear and waving his chess board in my direction as if it were a weapon. Beaming back, I whispered between gritted teeth, “Wait until I’ve had a drink, then we’ll see who’s boss of the board.” Cummings looked nonplussed, which was rather worrisome. Fortunately, Stotter’s stomach took that moment to begin rumbling, so we trotted off for some lunch.

Over a leisurely Italian meal washed down with cold beer, we discussed the persistent guilt book reviewers may feel while attending events such as CrimeFest. You know you’re destined to bump into writers whose work you admire, but whose latest book you ... well, just haven’t had time to read. That happens more and more these days. The public at large might not comprehend the scale of present crime-fiction publishing, or the pressures it places on writers to turn out new novels every year. This genre is one of the few book-selling sectors that is booming, probably because readers are attracted to its explorations of the darker aspects of human nature. Stotter and I agreed that such delvings might in fact represent the oldest form of fictional storytelling. Even sections of the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah can be seen as crime stories of a sort, though I’ll leave it to others to debate how much of those works are factual, fictional, or a combination of the two.

Returning to our hotel, we passed Cumming again, who was sitting in the bar reading a book on chess, and went up to the first floor, where Stotter was supposed to moderate a panel. Along the way, we bumped into Simon Kernick, who’d just arrived and was clutching a beer. Goaded by our inquiries, he explained that after penning Relentless (2006), Severed (2007), and the forthcoming Deadline, he thinks it would be hard for him to return to writing the sort of police procedurals that got him started in this business. He said he prefers the pacing of thrillers. And with that pronouncement, he tipped back the last of his beer, tossed the bottle into a nearby bin, and wandered off to grab another, belching heavily as he walked.

The discussion Stotter was moderating focused on how Britain’s National Archives have become a useful tool for crime writers. Panelists were Peter Guttridge, Victoria Blake, and Alanna Knight, all of whom have been involved in writing the non-fiction Crime Archives Series. Edward Marston was also scheduled to attend, but personal matters finally prevented him from making CrimeFest this year. Stotter kept the panel lively as each writer described the surreal experience of working in the dusty cellars that make up the National Archives, researching the criminal cases to which they’d been assigned, be it Ruth Ellis, the Burke and Hare murders, or the Great Train Robbery. It seems the National Archives chose crime writers to detail these historical cases, hoping the results would be fast paced as well as factual. One problem all of the panelists cited was how to condense the case notes and capture the drama of the crimes within books of less than 130 pages long. Guttridge, who was asked to write about the Great Train Robbery, recounted his experience of doing research in the National Archives, at the same time as others were there tracing their family trees. It seems the first pile of information he collected collapsed at his table, spilling out several rather graphic mortuary photographs. He quickly snapped the file shut, lest the others around him thought him some sort of weirdo. As is typically the case with critic and author Guttridge, this tale won him a laugh.

Among the most welcome innovations at CrimeFest: the panel discussion audience members who asked the most intriguing questions received free books. In the case of Stotter’s panel, the winner was awarded a full set of the National Archives Crime Series. A great prize, indeed.

With that panel event completed, Stotter and I headed off to the bar, where we spent time talking--and then talking some more--with attending writers. We also bumped into a few of the Harrogate festival organizers, who were very excited to tell us more about what Kernick, the current chair of that festival, has planned for this year’s convention in mid-July.

With evening approaching, a number of us headed off to participate in the CrimeFest Quiz, which was being held in a pub opposite the Marriott. Authors Guttridge and Laura Wilson were to serve as quiz masters. Competing team sizes were limited to four people. Stotter and I decided to join forces with Rik Shepherd and his partner, Carol, from the rec.arts.mystery newsgroup. We’ve know Shepherd and Carol for many years, and it was good to spend more time with them.

One of the problems with events such as CrimeFest, ThrillerFest, Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon, Mayhem in the Midlands, Crimescene, Magna Cum Murder, Love Is Murder, and other conventions is that you never get enough time to connect with everyone. So joining in a competition of this sort is an excellent excuse to get together. The only thing better, of course, is to win--which we did in style! Shepherd, especially, was terrific on historical matters, while we all seemed adept as answering questions about Patricia Highsmith. (Not to thump my drum too loudly, but this is the second team with which I’ve triumphed over one of these quizzes. The previous time was at Harrogate last summer.) Being the generous sort, we congratulated the second-place finishers, who included Lefty Award-winner Donna Moore, Steve Mosby, and Ken Isaacson. If memory serves me correctly, third-place honors went to Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke’s EuroCrime team. And the prize for our winning? Books of course!

After a bit of celebrating with everyone, and lots of babbling about the subject we all had in common--crime and thriller fiction--Stotter and I headed back to the Marriott, where we ordered more drinks at the bar. We chatted up some of the folks who had arrived earlier, and as we did so, Charles Cumming suddenly appeared with his chess set. It seemed the time had come for a game.

As we arranged the board, I ordered some more beer and then settled in to play black. It was a bit difficult to concentrate, as we attracted more than a bit of attention from the other conventioneers. And the drinks I’d been enjoying were taking their toll on me. As he’d done the last time we faced off like this, Cumming again commented on the aggressive nature of my game. But when I moved my queen to attack I made a fatal mistake. I was looking for an exchange situation with Cumming’s queen, but due to the beer fuzzing my head, I miscalculated and Cumming took my queen. I realized I couldn’t reciprocate. Judging my chances of survival low, I reluctantly resigned, telling Cumming that the next time we met over the board, I wouldn’t be so inebriated. He just laughed, pleased to have won.

Stotter and I carried on drinking with Simon Kernick until close to 4 a.m.--not exactly a good way to pace ourselves at the start of the convention. And then we decided to go to bed. As difficult as it had been to win the CrimeFest quiz, the task of locating our room in the early hours of the morning was no less an interesting challenge.

(Part II can be found here.)


Keith Raffel said...

Terrific, Ali. Thanks to you I could be "green." You transported me to Bristol without use of a single litre of aviation fuel.

Anonymous said...

But the carbon footprint left in the bar was massive.