Sunday, June 22, 2008

CrimeFest Hits Bristol, Part IV

(Editor’s note: This is the final installment--whew!--of Ali Karim’s four-part report from the recent CrimeFest convention, held in Southwest England. Part I is here, Part II can be found here, and to read Part III, just click here.)

Ruth Dudley Edwards going to receive her Last Laugh Award.

Day Three, June 7 (continued). In our best bib and tucker, Shots editor Mike Stotter and I strode off toward the CrimeFest bar at the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel. What’s a gala dinner, after all, without an apéritif and some pre-celebration discussion about the crime novels and authors we’d recently been enjoying?

Our first encounters were with Jason Pinter (The Mark) and Catherine Burke from Mira Books. I like the folks at Mira, as they’re very enthusiastic about crime fiction and publish some of my favorite U.S. writers, including Alex Kava and M.J. Rose--and now Pinter, for whom Mira did a big promo in Shots. Mira has also been supportive of the International Thriller Writers’ objectives. Burke told me that Brit Paul Johnston had just submitted the manuscript of his follow-up to the Barry Award-nominated The Death List, and she said it was “rocking.” She added that she is very excited about Mira’s brand-new imprint (from Mills & Boon/Harlequin), Black Star Crime, which will be launching this summer, as The Bookseller reported:
“Since 2001, crime and thriller sales have increased by 70%,” said M&B marketing manager Oliver Rhodes. “There were two ways for us to go. We could either do what everyone else is doing, and do it better, or carve out our own niche and try to create a unique proposition. The idea is that if people find something they like they can go back and find something similar. It is a brand promise.”

Black Star Crime will include a range of genres, from cosy mysteries to hard-core thrillers, with authors to include new names as well as more established writers. M&B has liaised with Working Partners to generate some of the concepts, as well as acquiring titles itself, and is adamant the quality of the ­stories is paramount. Launch titles include Runaway Minister by Nick Curtis, Streetwise by Chris Freeman, A Narrow Escape by Faith Martin and Murder Plot by Lance Elliott.

“This brings the best of our experience together,” Rhodes said. “We have been very successful with Mira crime authors such as Alex Kava and Paul Johnston. Also we are the only publishers with the know-how to make a fiction series work. We think this has massive potential.”

M&B will spend around £100,000 on its launch marketing campaign, and is due to start presenting the series to retailers this month. The company is keen that the brand is not tarred with the M&B brush, and that it is kept as far as possible from its romance publishing.
After a bit more chatting and the informal knocking back of libations, we all headed off to dinner.

There was a little confusion as we entered the ballroom, because the table-seating arrangement wasn’t clear. We finally discovered that Stotter was to dine with Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey at the CrimeFest organizers’ table, while I--thanks to my encounter earlier in the day with Norwegian novelist and featured guest author Karin Fossum--was a guest of Random House. To my surprise, I found I was also sitting in company with critic, author, and general man about town Barry Forshaw and his wife, Judith.

Our meals turned out to be delightful, but the real treat for me was dining with Ms. Fossum. Despite her international acclaim, she was incredibly modest and told us how hard it is to write her tough and emotionally charged novels (including the new suspenser Broken). She explained that when she finishes a new book, she has to lock her office door tightly behind her, as the effort of exploring the darker side of the human condition drains her completely. Latching that office door at night apparently keeps the dark thoughts from crawling out and into her non-writing life.

Before the coffee arrived, I managed a quick chat with Irish novelist and radio film reviewer Declan Burke, who’d come over to CrimeFest from Dublin. I am often in his hometown, but our diaries had never seemed to allow for our meeting before this. I told him how much I enjoying reading his blog, but admitted that I haven’t yet gotten round to reading his last novel, The Big O (which Rap Sheet and January Magazine editor J. Kingston Pierce chose as one of his favorite books of 2007). I did congratulate him on winning an American publishing deal and, more importantly, on entering the challenging field of fatherhood. We mutually agreed that it is a great joy when you have children, but the downside is the vulnerability it creates in your soul.

Our conversation was interrupted as Muller took to the stage to welcome everyone to CrimeFest. He also announced that, due to this event’s success, he and Allfrey had decided to hold the Bristol event annually. For next year’s convention, he said, Meg Gardiner has been confirmed as toastrix, and Simon Brett will be among the guests of honor. Then, without further ado, he beckoned this year’s toastrix, Natasha Cooper (A Poisoned Mind), to the stage. Her first task was to present Lizzie Hayes of Mystery Women (above) with a bouquet of flowers for her tireless support of the crime-fiction genre. Hayes was obviously touched but quietly flustered.

Next, Cooper formally introduced Karin Fossum, who had come with a prepared speech. Even though English is not her first language, Fossum’s articulate and passionate rendering was most moving. The crux of her address was the conviction that even though we are crime-fictionists, we must always consider the reality of crime around us. She detailed an event that still haunts her--and to which she had eluded during an interview earlier in the day. Many years ago, it seems, before she embarked on her writing career, her young daughter had a 5-year-old friend who went missing. As Fossum detailed the anxiety of the time, I couldn’t but help but be reminded of her 2007 novel, Black Seconds, which details a similarly awful event. The child was eventually found--but dead, to the horror of everyone in town. She had been strangled. The perpetrator of this atrocity was never discovered, so people in the town remained nervous and a level of paranoia prevailed. The hotel ballroom was silent as Fossum detailed this incident, her voice still raw with old emotion. She concluded by saying that as crime writers we hold great responsibility, for our fiction mirrors (though often with distortions) what happens in real life, and can influence people in the same way that real crime does. I hate to resort to a cliché, but as she walked off the stage, you could have heard a pin drop.

Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dexter by Design) faced the daunting responsibility of following Fossum on stage. I needn’t have feared for his reception, however, as Lindsay (né Jeffry P. Freundlich) put in some time as a stand-up comic before becoming a writer. He managed to lift the mood again with a series of jokes about crime novelists, the best of the bunch being, “How many crime writers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two, one to put the bulb in and the second to give it a final twist.”

The final speech of that evening was left to Ian Rankin. The gentle Scotsman spoke at length about how happy he is to be working in the crime-fiction genre and how wonderful the writers, editors, reviewers, and fans have been. This enthusiasm, he added, is reflected in the genre’s current popularity. As was the case with Fossum and Lindsay, Rankin was applauded at length for his address.

So, with the speeches done, Cooper announced the prize winners for this evening. Ruth Dudley Edwards was summoned to receive the Last Laugh Award for her novel Murdering Americans. Then Cooper pulled a name out of a hat by way of choosing the winner of a raffle sponsored by A stunned Adrian Magson (No Tears for the Lost) was called to the stage to receive an MP3 player loaded with a selection of recent audio books. Finally, the 2008 Audible Sounds of Crime Awards (for audio books) were given to an abridged version of Exit Music, by Ian Rankin, and to the unabridged version of The Seventh Sacrament, by David Hewson.

After the dinner and presentations, writers and other conference attendees retired to the bar to toast the winners and runners-up. Stotter and I were proved wise to have gotten some rest earlier in the day, because we ended up (predictably) being the last men standing, along with Michael Marshall (Smith) and the hollow-legged Simon Kernick. It was a most pleasant end to a very interesting evening, and it would be self-indulgent (as well as dull) for me to mention everyone we talked to, because we talked to a lot of people.

One special highlight during that late-night carousal was being asked by Jeff Lindsay to join him and Orion’s Angela McMahon at their table, where we talked for several hours about Dexter, the Showtime series based on Lindsay’s novels. As with many other novelists, Lindsay was amazingly humble about his accomplishments, but also very funny. I asked him at one point how he was coping with the success of Dexter. He smiled and told me that he found it quite surreal. It seems he’d long been living in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway, as he’s married to Papa’s niece, Hilary Hemingway; but Dexter has finally put him in the spotlight. He went on to tell about having been in a taxi recently that was taking him through Manhattan’s Times Square. As he gazed around at the area’s huge billboards, he spotted a gigantic cut-out of his protagonist, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), holding a kitchen knife. “Man,” he told me, “it was such a huge billboard, that I asked the cab driver to stop for a minute while I took it in. Then I got out of the cab and screamed at the top of my lungs on Times Square, as I still couldn’t believe that a character I created was now adorning a skyscraper in Times Square.”

For the next hour, we listened to Lindsay talk about his early life and his Hemingway connections. I could have listened to him all night--and almost did. I finally left by saying how happy I was that such an intellectual guy had found mainstream success.

After more socializing and a few more beers (plus a few more on top of those), the bar population started to thin out. I glanced at my watch and realized it was close to 4 a.m., at which point Stotter, Marshall, Kernick, and I decided to call it a night. Besides, the conversation between us was by that point bordering on the incoherent. Kernick reckoned that Stotter was speaking a different language, while Mike Marshall appeared as confused as I was when Stotter started to sing.

Day Four, June 8. Due to the lateness of our bedtime, coupled with our not having to worry on this Sunday about any early morning panel moderation, e-mail checks, or work problems, both Stotter and I treated ourselves to a lie-in. We skipped breakfast but did attend the last panel of this year’s CrimeFest, titled “When the Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Are Over: Great Closing Lines.” Appropriate for the conference’s end. It featured the very funny likes of Simon Brett, Natasha Cooper, Ian Rankin and Jeff Lindsay, and was moderated by Laurie R. King (Touchstone).

After thanking all the conference organizers, Stotter and I set off for our last lunch in Bristol. We recounted over the meal our recent exploits, discussed the future of CrimeFest (I hope that more readers will participate next time), and then, with stomachs full, we gathered our luggage. From there, it was off to the Karim-mobile and home.

If you’d like to attend CrimeFest next year, keep May 14-17 open on your calendars. Meanwhile, if you want to see a slide show of images from this year’s convention, click here.

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