Article published on June 1, 2013.
Crimefest – day one was good, but day two upped the ante right from the start. The sun was shining and the birds were singing in Bristol, and at 9am, proceedings kicked off with Crime in the Country, a look at rural crime writing. Chaired by Len Tyler (Last laugh award winner for ‘The Herring in the Library’), the panel spoke up in favour of crime in rural settings. Is it fair for country crime to be steeped in images of cream cakes and cyanide? Not for these writers. Martin Walker (former Guardian foreign correspondent and creator of the Bruno Courreges series) made a convincing case for the country being a far more natural setting for crime fiction than the city. In the country, there is no light pollution, and night brings true darkness. The array of weapons available to killers is enormous, thanks to agricultural living; rich and poor rub shoulders in a way which is far more obvious than in the city, and what’s more, rural crime also enjoys a charming setting. Jeffery Deaver (if he needs introducing, I would question how you’ve ended up on a crime blog) referenced Capote’s In Cold Blood, the film adaptation of which managed to capture the primal horror of fields of wheat, of the isolation they create. Hopping back across the Atlantic, Elly Griffiths (author of the Ruth Galloway forensic archaeologist series) flew the flag for Norfolk, drawing on its rich archaeological history. There are thousands of bodies in the area, dating back thousands of years, preserved by the land. Michael Stanley (or Stanley Trollip, one half thereof) told a captivating tale of Botswana’s crime credentials. Aside from its porous borders being inviting for criminals, Botswana has the Sangomas, or witch doctors. They kill people not for any personal reasons, but out of a desire to harvest body parts and take on the properties of the victim. Not only does the lack of connection make detection hard, but the connection of the Sangomas to the higher echelons of Botswanan society makes the police unwilling to fully pursue them. The panel certainly convinced me – I’ve been a devotee of urban crime for some time now, but I’ll be incorporating more countryside into my reading diet as soon as possible.
Next up was A Policeman Calls, a look at the traditional police procedural. Accuracy is key in procedurals, but chair Ann Cleeves (creator of Vera Stanhope, a name you’ll recognise if you like love crime writing and happen to own a television set) argued that in reality, faithful accuracy is neither possible nor desirable. So how did the panel do their research? In good news for budding writers without a body of work behind them, and who don’t feel comfortable hunting down professionals, Kate Ellis (now on her 17th Wesley Peterson novel) finds information in CWA talks, and through other authors. JC Martin (Malaysian writer, debuting with Oracle, and also a self-defence teacher) is somewhat blessed in the contacts department – her husband’s friend heads up a murder squad. Having a professional cop on speed dial must come in handy! Similary, Pauline Rowson (writer of the DI Horton series set in Portsmouth) has a husband who can provide a great deal of forensic information – as can forensic blogs. There’s hope for us all! Kerry Wilkinson (ludicrously prolific, and a self-publishing sensation thanks to the Jessica Daniel series) is similarly fortunate, having a background in journalism and numerous friends in the police force, allowing him to draw upon not just technical information but on their real life experience. Intriguingly, it turns out not all police officers are heavy-drinking, serially-divorced screw ups (I think we all knew really, didn’t we?). When the floor was thrown open to audience questions, a former police officer suggested Wilkinson may have hit upon a new line of procedural, in which cops are no longer dedicated, slavish mavericks, but real, recognisable people. Time will tell…
As a Yorkshireman by birth who has led a Nomadic existence thus far, the cultural war of North versus South is a subject close to my heart, and thankfully Crimefest was able to indulge me even in that little joy. Representing the North were Caro Ramsay (one of the dark rising stars of Scottish crime) and Mari Hannah (hugely popular former probation officer now writing Geordie crime), and representing those southern nancies (ahem – sorry, our southern brethren) were Adam Creed (Inspector Staffe’s creator, a Mancunian but with a foot in Almeria and in London) and Alison Bruce (treading Colin Dexterish territory with her Cambridge-based DC Gary Goodhew series). I’m pleased to say that even the southerners conceded that the north is harder, albeit Alison Bruce defended the south for its deviousness. Across the board, the panel was strictly pro-accuracy. Mari Hannah has honed it so finely that her books are now recommended for visitors to Newcastle looking to get under the skin of the city, and Alison Bruce received a complimentary call from the son of a former publican, saying how proud her father would have been that a fictional murder had been written in his father’s old pub. Caro Ramsay, still working as an osteopath, actually has the joy of working with some real life criminals (remarkably, it turns out they’re actually rather nice people).
From British crime to global crime, the next panel was Native & Outside Perspectives, featuring an embarrassment of crime writing riches, both interlopers and natives. MJ McGrath (an Essex girl writing Arctic based crime) and Dana Stabenow (Alaskan Native writing atmospheric crime about her homeland) represented the Arctic, and they sat opposite Adrian Magson (frequent flyer on CrimeFest panels, you’ll note) and Pierre Lemaitre (a bona fide Frenchman, writer of five novels translated into thirteen languages) represented France. I was fortunate enough to interview Dana shortly after the panel – stay tuned for that one…
So what makes their respective settings so appealing? In the Arctic, there are political themes aplenty to be played with. Villages are dying due to encroaching modernity, and over the next few years the situation will only worsen, due to a scramble for the fossil fuels and even diamonds found in the area. The ice is melting, not metaphorically, but genuinely, and right now. For Magson, the France of the 1960s was – much like the Britain of the 1960s – a fascinating place, where social change was rampant. The situations in Algeria and Indochina provided dramatic tension, and the physical scars of WWI and WWII were still evident (he spoke of two men in the village of his childhood without right hands, having lost them while recycling unexploded ordnance).
For me, one of the highlights came next: Underbelly – the gritty side of the street. Questioned by Craig Robertson (a writer of dark Glaswegian crime) in ascending order of their city’s real life crime statistics, writers William McIlvanney (genuine legend and granddaddy of Tartan noir), Michael Stanley (or the other half thereof, one Michael Sears, representing Botswana), Antonin Varenne (a Parisian, writer of the decorated Bed of Nails) and Tim Weaver (living in Bath, but setting his David Raker series in London) discussed the grimy business of writing socially powerful crime that takes a look at the underside of urban living. Despite what the morning panel on rural crime would suggest, it turns out the individual cities are not homogenous, but do have their own identity. Crime writing god William McIlvanney brought a recent convert’s enthusiasm to the discussion of Glasgow. He spoke softly, and maybe I’m being fanciful, but I sensed a hush descend over the audience – as I said yesterday, the Crimefest crowd are razor sharp on crime writing knowledge, and they surely knew they were in the presence of greatness. Glasgow is not a hard city, but extremely confrontational. He told a tale of a trip back from the Edinburgh festival, taking the train back to Glasgow. Disappointed with the snobbery on show in Edinburgh, a pair of women set up an impromptu concert on the train armed only with a violin. It was the story of a democratic city, a theme to which McIlvanney returned throughout the panel. Fascinating as Glasgow may be though, Paris, Johannesburg and London are no slouches on the crime front. In Johannesburg, Sears pointed out, there may not be as much crime, but when crime does occur, it is extremely violent in nature. Touching on a common theme, this violence has a very real social basis, possibly a reaction to apartheid, and to a change in the style of policing post-apartheid. Weaver contemplated, as he does in his books, how anyone can go missing in a city like London, with CCTV on every corner, and with its denizens armed to the teeth with social media. For Weaver, there is an unnerving explanation – when a city grows above a certain size, apathy sets in.
And who says crime writing isn’t intellectual? Next up came a philosophy seminar, cunningly disguised as a panel discussion on moral hypocrisy. Has crime writing changed in its attitude to good and evil, Sophie Hannah (psychological thriller writer and award winning poet to boot) asked? For Stav Sherez (author of blistering thriller with an African twist, A Dark Redemption), it has, but only as much as general discourse has. Good and evil have become less helpful concepts in understanding human behaviour. Indeed, as Steve Mosby (Leeds based psychological thriller writer) said, “I don’t know what good and evil are.” Crude labels aren’t useful to Mosby, there are only damaged people doing things that stem from the damage that has been inflicted upon them. In modern crime writing, despite the relatively conservative conceit (bad guy does something bad, is punished), we seek to understand criminality, how people come to do such despicable things. Drawing upon professional expertise, Penny Hancock (debutante of 2012 with Tideline) listed four core factors in the lives of serial killers – drug abuse, childhood adversity, mental illness, and a certain unknown quantity. Although the panel were keen to establish a firm difference between seeking to understand and seeking to excuse. Still, Felix Francis (son of Dick, very much keeping it in the family) wasn’t letting criminals off the hook lightly. For him, society would be in an extremely perilous position if it started excusing criminals for their behaviour on the grounds of mere psychological proclivities, or worse still, convicting them in advance of the crime.
From the psychologically profound to the light-hearted, I rounded off the day with a jovial panel consisting of some of the leading lights of comic crime, Chair Lindsey Davis (creator of Roman detective Marcus Falco), Declan Burke (co-editor of Books to Die For, and writer of several successful comic crime novels), Dorothy Cannell (to my knowledge, the only crime writer whose protagonist is an interior decorator), Ruth Dudley Edwards (rapier-witted satirist, historian and journalist) and Colin Cotterill (managing to get laughs out of the most unlikely and horrific circumstances in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos). It was the perfect way to finish the day, a solid fifty minutes of laughter, in which Ruth Dudley Ellis admitted to having set out to write straight crime – until realising, on page three of the text, that she’d had a character beaten to death with a statue called “Reconciliation.” From there, satire was the obvious way forward. She wasn’t the only one with a funny story, of course. Dorothy Cannell had her own true crime tale – in her home with two young daughters, she came downstairs to find two young men in the house. Initially she was livid, explaining to them the house rules about the girls having visitors. It was only when her husband pointed it out to her that she became aware they were being robbed. They fled shortly after, leaving behind the memory of their obvious vanity registration number. Later that evening, she received a call – “Mrs Cannell… it’s Cedric, your burglar!” Comedy isn’t just for a giggle though; as Colin Cotterill pointed out, it’s incredibly powerful. He told of sitting around the fire with friends in Laos, as they told the stories of murdered families and forced work camps – laughing all along. Humour is deeply cathartic, a coping mechanism, but as we all know can also be extremely subversive. Declan Burke spoke of his enormous respect for Colin Bateman, who at the height of The Troubles, used crime writing to lampoon paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide. It was a brave move, puncturing vicious pomposity, and brought some light to the darkest of times.
That’s the power of crime writing, you see. It can amuse, inform, provoke and entertain. At Crimefest, all facets of its power are analysed, by stellar writers and for what must surely be one of the smartest audience in the business. In two days, I don’t think I’ve yet met anyone who isn’t writing a crime novel; the level of expertise on show is striking, and I for one can’t wait for tomorrow.