There is always a warm welcome at a gathering of crime fiction writers and devotees, and CrimeFest in Bristol is no exception. In its fourth year in 2011, to say CrimeFest is in full swing is not to do it justice, for it runs as you’d expect a piece of precision engineering to run. I hadn’t been for a couple of years and this year’s weekend had to be curtailed due to last minute work commitments, but I am so glad I went. Many congratulations to everyone who participated, those who organised and those who supported from Heffers/Blackwell’s with their dedicated bookselling, to the various sponsors of the event.
Surveying the programme alone, one thing is clear: CrimeFest has a commitment to presenting you with a broader range of authors than the Harrogate Theakstons Crime Writing Festival for which I am a regular and devoted attendee. There were author names with which I was not familiar; familiar names I had not read; and new names that both you and I will find beeping on our personal radars in years to come. So, let’s start with the new, and the point at which I joined proceedings, at Saturday morning’s first panel of the day for debut authors. This is a grouping close to my heart as one of the judges for the CWA’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award and I was familiar with the work of the majority of the authors on this panel.
Quentin Bates (Constable & Robinson) is British but has spent quite some time of life living in Iceland, the setting for his debut novel, Frozen Out. He has a female protagonist, an Icelandic copper, and one who is not playing to the Hollywood standards of how women should present themselves. (She’s not slim as a rake and does eat normal food. She’s dedicated to her job.) When asked about the accuracy of his character, given the writer-protagonist chromosome mismatch, Bates cited his family for early feedback. And daughters can be heavily into detail…
Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury) could well be the next generation’s Michael Dibdin. An Irishman who has lived in the States and who now resides in Italy, his Italian copper protagonist is an American settled in Italy, Rome to be precise for his first novel, The Dogs of Rome. At such events we may be only one audience question away from a beautiful quote and it came with Fitzgerald when asked about his writing habits. Having spent a few years as a house-husband (and father of young children), Fitzgerald was up at 05:30 to put in a couple of hours writing. He has loved that time and noted its rewards where a year in the life of his children is a long time for them and thus expanded his own experiences of time. How can you not fall in love with an author with such insight?
Danny Miller (Constable & Robinson), who has worked as a screenwriter, hits the decks with Kiss Me Quick, a novel set in 1960s Brighton as the Mods and Rockers fight it out for supremacy above the pebbles of the beach. Given the period setting, the biggest surprise with Miller was his age – he’s simply too young to have recollections of it, let alone experience. This is clearly an author for whom interest became a passion. Miller used the word ‘noir’ to describe his novel and this is apt for Kiss Me Quick covers the dirty and the seedy of that period, with people simply trying to live in the shadow of endemic crime.
Adrian Dawson (Last Passage) went through many hoops to see his debut Codex in print. He was accused of being a Dan Brown impersonator/band wagon jumper due to the use of codes in his plot. (So, for every I/BWJ that made it into print – groan – we now have evidence that some were set to one side, or tossed off a cliff.) Dawson’s success came with the digital ebook version, and where a publisher had promised to print if so, he made the call to make it happen. Tenacity is one of the necessary traits to make a published author. Dawson doesn’t have it in spades; he has it in industrial digger-sized properties.
Howard Linskey (No-Exit Press) debuts with thriller The Drop. Within the rules of the New Blood Dagger, he’s not a debut as he’s had previous works published by a now defunct imprint of MIRA Books in the UK. But this was a man who vocalised his novel to the extent that ‘you have to buy it’. So, join me in the queue. Just remember that I got there first.
The only woman on the panel? Lynn Shepherd (Beautiful Books) debuted with Murder at Mansfield Park last year. She has the Austenites on board for not only did she take on an Austen novel but she also remained true to the author’s style of writing when she purloined and developed Mansfield Park for her criminal purposes. With her second novel, Shepherd moves to a new publisher, Constable & Robinson. But that’s not all. Shepherd is not embedded in Austen. Indeed, she is carving her own unique niche in the crime fiction world by taking literary and/or classic works and adding in the crime angle. The next novel will be Dickens’s Bleak House with murder most foul. What next? Could we see Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure with a serial killer in the future? Or a Miss Read novel with spooks to show the local village gossips how to do it professionally?
I haven’t read all these authors, but I have sampled four of them. The quality of their work is wonderfully high. Do take note of their names and seek them out for I believe we will see much more from them, and you do want to be one of the first to make the discoveries don’t you?
After a natter to the debut authors in the signing room, I joined Lynn Shepherd in the quiet bar downstairs for a coffee. Here was the second opportunity to chat to someone in the flesh where previously the acquaintance had been made through twitter. (The delightful Sarah Hilary had been the first, on arrival.) In this ever-changing world what we lose in first impressions on meeting someone face to face we gain in 140 characters on twitter.
Back on the main CrimeFest floor I found myself recommending some books and authors to Lynn Shepherd as well as correcting the Blackwell’s book display where someone, a true pest, had hidden the John Lawtons with their untidy book abandonment routines. With order restored, Lawton came into view, so the time for our later meeting was confirmed and it was off to the panel on ‘How Not to Get Published’. With plenty of agents in attendance, and the possibility of pitching a novel, it’s not surprising that this event was packed to the door. It was all a bit of fun, with some key messages to impart and the authors with stories to tell were Belinda Bauer, Adrian Dawson, Charlie Charters and Tom Harper.
After more nattering near the bookshop, it was time for fresh air and lunch and an appointment with Zoë Sharp to discuss all things digital following her recent trip to the US. (I like to keep up and she’s a wealth of information.) So, Zoë, her husband Andy, Kate Kinchin and I piled on a bench on the green with our sandwiches. (Was this responsible for my facial sunburn? More on that later.) Perfectly timed, once the sandwiches were eaten, an ice cream van rolled up alongside leading to the purchase of a Mr Whippy type 99 and a big red lolly. You see, even crime writers are children at heart.
Kicking off the afternoon session was South African author Deon Meyer interviewed by Natasha Cooper. One highlight for me was the comment that he writes openly of the weaknesses and stresses of men. And after a few whispers of endorsement from Sarah Hilary, telling me just how well he does it, I am now persuaded to pick up his recent novel at the earliest opportunity.
Moving on, it was time for the appointment with John Lawton. We sat on the balcony of The Waterside where I squinted a bit. (Could this have responsible for my facial sunburn? On Sunday I woke up to find a red stripe across my nose and under my eyes. It was less than the whole red face that accompanied me home the previous evening, but it reminded me of when I played cowboys and Indians as a kid.) Lawton was chatty, pleased to sign the books I presented and told me what’s coming up next but you'll have wait for that one, sorry... I also heard about how seriously he takes his crops: this time the potatoes he’s just sewn and the need to monitor the weather. I don’t think he does anything in halves.
Back at the Marriott for the festival proper, the Mulholland Books imprint was launched. It was a packed room and many were moving on sharply for the gala dinner when it was done. When I saw that Donna Moore had her parents with her I thought it was a clue that she might have won the Last Laugh Award, about to be announced at the dinner. I spotted Will Atkins, editor of L C Tyler, but didn’t see this as a clue. After all, there were plenty of agents and editors milling about. Len subsequently told me that when he saw Colin Batemen was there, he thought he’d spotted the winner. But in the end it was Len who was victorious! I am so pleased for him. Len recently told me of one the comparisons made for his Elsie and Ethelred series. It was spurious to say the least. I told him I thought it was inappropriate adding, ‘You’re unique’. He is. Elsie and Ethelred are. So if you fancy trying out Agatha Christie meets satire, do take a look.
So, when all had joined in for the gala dinner, I wended my way to the last park’n’ride bus out to Portway. It was a great day and I wish I could have been there for more of the weekend. I am sorry I didn’t have time to chat to more people and to those I did at more length (although some may feel they got away). I should also say thanks to Shots Mag and CrimeFest as I won tickets in a competition. My spare went to a good home with Sarah Hilary who had a fab time.
If you fancy a broader exposure to the work of crime fiction, then CrimeFest is for you. It’s a friendly weekend and it doesn’t suffer from cliques and elitism.