European crime fiction in the crosshairs

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Old Peculier* crime writing festival
Harrogate July 19 – 22, 2007

Sue Neale


For a long weekend in July the Crown Hotel, Harrogate, was crowded with crime fiction enthusiasts for this major event – the only UK festival dedicated just to crime. Since its inauguration in 2003 it has developed into a significant date in the literary calendar.

On Thursday budding novelists were given hints and tips from published authors about plot (Simon Kernick), setting (Greg Mosse), inventing characters (Laura Wilson) and writing (Natasha Cooper). The speakers all gave helpful advice which they illustrated by reading passages or demonstrated with PowerPoint presentations. Practical information about topics like structure and plot analysis was interspersed with examples of possible pitfalls and how to avoid them. All the speakers were enthusiasts of the genre and very knowledgeable about the work of other writers. Natasha Cooper illustrated how the elements of a very simple idea involving a cat and a family could be written very differently as a village mystery, a serial killer story or a psychological thriller.

On a more practical level, the final session of the day featured a publisher (Hilary Hale) and a literary agent (Jane Gregory) discussing important matters like how to attract an editor's attention and how to have your novel assessed professionally. Although the market is hard to break into and very few manuscripts sent direct to publishers or agents are published, they indicated that a well-researched and written novel that has that ‘something' is likely to catch their eye.

Allan Guthrie and his book
©Sam Atkins

Thurdsay evening saw the announcement of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, the only crime award chosen by readers – Two Way Split by Allan Guthrie (Polygon). Set in Scotland, this noir thriller owes more to American influences than British, and interestingly was published in the US before the UK.

From Friday to Sunday there was a packed programme running from 9am until late at night. All you needed was stamina and I am afraid that by late Saturday I was flagging! One particular highlight was the opening interview with Val McDermid who won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2006. Her writing is often shocking perhaps because she concentrates on the victims of crime, who are frequently women. Some male writers have criticised her work but she maintains that it is important to reflect the world we live in and the nature of violence within it.

On Friday various panels of authors discussed topics such as Country Matters (rural crimes in beautiful locations – more shocking than in the inner city?) and New Blood (newly published authors discussing the genesis of their novels). With Snobbery with Violence there was a heated discussion about whether the best crime fiction is set in the mean streets or in the drawing room. However it disintegrated into an argument about social class and additionally about what type of crime women should write about (if at all).

Plumbing the Depths explored the psychological reasons for killing and highlighted the influence of Freud in our interpretation of the motives of murderers. All the authors used their particular specialisms, whether as a psychologist, comedian, journalist or a Mafia investigator to inform their writing.

Lee Child ©Sam Atkins

In the evening the highlight was an interview with Lee Child whose character Jack Reacher has now featured in 11 novels. Child who suggested that being a good storyteller is the most important part of his writing, described his character as a knight errant and loner who aids a community to deal with a threat and then rides off into the sunset, rather like a cowboy in the old westerns. Reacher is what Child would be if he could get away with it! A master storyteller and speaker, Child exudes and enthusiasm for the genre and his character in particular.

Saturday started with Here Come the Cops a panel discussion chaired by Marcel Berlins considered fictional policemen and women and the reality of police work. The challenge of creating interesting and believable fictional policemen (or women) led these authors to variously feature a happily married normal investigator, one interested in the paranormal/supernatural, one involved in how the team functions and one with a modern single mother with 3 children and a baby to support. All agreed that they had to twist reality, such as the length of time it takes to obtain a DNA profile, to make the fiction work. The influence of TV crime drama and the way reality is bent for these was also significant.

UK vs USA Val McDermid and Mark Billingham
©Sam Atkins

Historical crime fiction was discussed in Getting it right. These authors set their investigations in periods ranging from pre-Roman Britain and Rome to 19 th century Istanbul and finally 1930s Britain. Although everyone agreed that it was important to try and ensure that their settings seem historically accurate, sometimes there was no evidence to use and therefore using your imagination was acceptable. Dialogue that reflects the language and style of the period was particularly important.

Crime in the City contrasted with the earlier discussion on crime in rural settings. All the authors had given careful consideration to the role of the location they chose from Venice, Portsmouth, London and Cambridge to London , Athens and Edinburgh. Making readers see these places through different eyes was their most important task.

Crime fiction also includes thrillers and in Secrets, Spies and Foreign.

Affairs the panel discussed the important elements in their novels. Often seen as a male genre, these narratives deal with deception and betrayal and highlight the lonely individual who is tackling with problems with courage.

This festival was a fantastic opportunity for crime fiction aficionados to meet not only authors, publishers and agents but also other enthusiasts. Here you can gain insight into their work as well as discover the type of novels that are being published. A large number of attendees seemed to be involved not only in reading crime fiction but also producing short stories or novels, or writing websites.

To find out more about the authors.

* a specific type of dark beer.

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