Category Archives: Crime

Into the unknown

The day had its ups and downs. Twice, in fact. I’d carefully chosen my morning event at Bloody Scotland to be down at the Albert Halls, so you can work out what had to happen. Had to collect my ticket at the Stirling Highland Hotel first, way up where I was on Thursday. The Resident IT Consultant drove me there, and while I got the tickets and hobbled down the hill again, he drove home, parked the car and walked back to the Albert Halls. (Because, yes, I had given him permission to join me.)

Sharon Bolton, Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch

Apart from venue, I had chosen events with people I don’t know. Leaving your comfort zone and all that. The day began with Domestic Noir as written by Sharon Bolton, Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch. They each read a short piece, and that was pretty chilling stuff. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to read the whole book, by any of them.

All three believe in starting with a punchy first sentence, because you can’t afford not to. The reader should be able to tell it’s not chick lit, but hard-hitting crime. It’s the editor’s job to tell them when there is too much housework in a book. Well-ordered tins of food is very scary, and so is an unreliable narrator. Sharon even has an unreliable main character.

Helen Fitzgerald

None of them reckon they need to write about feminism. It’s obvious from their books. Helen spoke of Australian radio announcements when there are bushfires. If you can see flames, don’t leave your house. It’s too late. Sharon talked about snakes in Midsomer country, and Julia has a past travelling in Greece that involved drunken, unseemly behaviour. (She looked so nice, too.)

Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch

They find their children useful as sources of information and style, and while Julia had borrowed a friend’s Cath Kidston type house for a book, Sharon went out of her way to find a ‘skanky’ riverside setting.

Helen works part time, having gone crazy, alone in her attic. Sharon said she’s an unsociable creature who works best alone, with the dog to tell her it’s time for lunch. Although Twitter is good to check when things aren’t going so well.

Sharon Bolton

Both Sharon and Julia know how their books should end, but will often change as they go along. Helen knows where she is going, and even has a last line that she aims for. Humour is necessary and contact with readers is good. They all listen to their editors, and writing can be ‘sheer hell to go through, but worth it in the end.’

Afterwards we repaired to the bookshop for signings, and I enjoyed a mug of tea and cake, and a good read. As I left, I found Peter Robinson, whose event came next, sitting incognito-ish in the foyer. I think that meant he wasn’t really there, but his fans recognised him and came up to chat.

I climbed up the hill, having sent the Resident IT Consultant home, wondering why the Back Walk gave me vertigo going up, when down had been OK. My afternoon event was about Glasgow Gangsters with Andrew Davies and Bryan McLaughlin, chaired by Douglas Skelton. Andrew is a crime historian, specialising in street gangs,  and Bryan is a retired Glasgow detective, who has written a book about his work.

Andrew Davies

Street gangs happen because of poverty, over-crowding and unemployment. Andrew compared the smaller number of gang members in places like Coronation Street, small streets of terraced housing, with the Glasgow tenements, where you could literally be on the wrong side of the street, on someone else’s turf, and be killed for it.

Bryan, who hails from Easterhouse, reckoned the 1960s weren’t as dangerous as the 1920s or 30s, and that it was mainly territorial fights rather than other crimes. Andrew has scoured newspaper libraries for everything on crime and gangs in Glasgow, including moving there for six months to learn more. Chicago crime featured heavily in the papers, and both authors reckoned newspapers could have been partly to blame for the reputation of gangs and individual criminals.

Bryan McLaughlin

According to Bryan, Manchester’s Moss Side is worse than Glasgow is now. There is less violence, now that it is mainly drugs, because you’d be stupid to attack a potential customer. Questions from the audience covered things like human trafficking and what gangsters did in the war.

Then there was more signing, in yet another bookshop, with people doing literary chairs to fit in behind the available tables. I did that thing I rarely do, which is buy a book. (For tomorrow. James Oswald. Thought I’d better be prepared. As I exited the bookshop I found myself face to face with James. As you do.)

Came across Bloody Scotland’s Lin Anderson, who had been collared by someone outside the Ladies (which might not be the best of places to waylay people). After which it was time for me to make my second descent of the day. I won’t be able to keep this up…

The Sun Is God

The end of Adrian McKinty’s The Sun Is God is unlike most crime novels. I won’t say how, but it’s hardly surprising that an unusual crime story ends in a somewhat unorthodox way.

Adrian McKinty, The Sun Is God

It wasn’t at all as I had imagined, even when I did visualise something the complete opposite of Adrian’s Northern Irish crime. Set in German Neu Guinea in 1906 it is very different, but at the same time quite normal, while also rather insane. I hope that describes it?

Will Prior is a most Duffy-like character, and you will feel right at home with him. I found it harder to feel at home in this South Pacific German setting from before WWI, because it’s unlike anything I’ve come across. Much rougher than other exotic crime novels, and probably much truer for it.

There is an island near Herbertshöhe where Will lives, where a group of – frankly lunatic – German nudists have settled. They live off coconuts and bananas, and they act pretty bananas too. One of them has died in mysterious circumstances and Will’s past as a military policeman means the Germans ask him to go and investigate.

Adrian has mixed a few fictional characters like Will, with the crazy Cocovores and with real people from Herbertshöhe, and written a story based on deaths that actually occurred in real life.

Full of nudity, this is a story that I can’t see being made into a film (as the movie-minded Resident IT Consultant reluctantly decided once he’d got some way through the book). But it’s different; I’ll grant you that. And the end is, well, thrilling.

(Today they’d all die of skin cancer…)

Finding Critical Mass

It must have been towards the end of our holiday, shortly before the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was going over in my head the things I needed to do and remember before getting to Charlotte Square. Especially knowing I’d have less time once I returned to the new house.

And there’s the crux, dear readers. New house. What do new houses have? Or more accurately, not have?

Precisely. No well-ordered rows of books on shelves. And one of my ‘must remembers’ was that I wanted to take Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass to have her sign it. I’ve got a lot more relaxed about this, and can actually contemplate seeing people in the flesh without arriving equipped with scores of books to have signed.

But this was Sara and it was Critical Mass. And where was the book? Packed in a box, along with the other 80 or so metres of books. Where was this box? On the floor in the living room piled against the wall with no more than another forty boxes. (The other boxes are/were in other rooms.)

That was enough to make me not get back to sleep. OK, I could buy another copy. But this was the one I wanted signed.

I waited until the Resident IT Consultant seemed to be in a relaxed mood and asked him how likely he thought it would be that the book could be found, in the week we had available. Without either of us going crazy.

Once he realised what I was saying, and could get his head round my description of where the book used to be and how the box was likely to be labelled, he reckoned it was doable.

And it was. It only took him about five ‘wrong’ boxes (plus a lot of heavy lifting), and there it was!

Phew.

Bookwitch bites #126

If you didn’t read Hilary McKay’s Binny for Short when it came out last year (and why didn’t you?), I can tell you it has just been issued in paperback, and it is still as good. The singing ought to bring out the goosepimples on any but the hardest of my readers.

Cathy Cassidy

In the exciting run-up to whether or not Scotland will drift off into the North Sea next week, I have two book festivals on home ground to look forward to. First it’s Stirling Book Festival Off The Page. It has all sorts of events in libraries and schools and theatres. For fans of children’s lit there is the dystopian Teri Terry, the amusing Chae Strathie, sweet Cathy Cassidy, illustrator Kate Leiper, and the magical Linda Chapman.

Off The Page runs seamlessly into Bloody Scotland, where much murderous stuff will happen. They are even putting forensics into Stirling Castle, to find out who killed the Earl of Douglas back in the 1400s. Good luck to them.

And if you too want to be able to write like the authors who are coming here to talk about their books, then you could do worse than to have a go at the Connell Guides essay prize. If you are lucky, Philip Pullman might read what you wrote. You do need to be of an age to attend sixth form, but we are all young at heart here. You can submit from September 15th until January 15th.

Good luck!

And read Binny.

How to – not – write ten books

Arne Dahl and John Harvey, who appeared together at Charlotte Square on Tuesday evening, have something in common, apart from being crime writers. They both intended to write a crime series of ten books, rather like Sjöwall & Wahlöö. Both failed, by writing too many. John also failed spectacularly at pronouncing the names of his heroes, but Arne pointed out that it is hard, so he might as well carry on saying it wrong.

They were talking with Russel McLean who began by talking so fast that I suspected we might be done after twenty minutes. The rest of the time he laughed so much that he nearly cried. The two authors were reasonably amusing, but they weren’t that funny…

Although, I did find John quite interesting, with a nice sense of humour. He started by trying to hang his coat on some invisible hook and ended up throwing it on the floor, sending his cap after it with a flourish.

Arne Dahl

On the basis that guests go first, Arne began by reading an extract from his most recently translated book, To the Top of the Mountain. (I’d have been interested in knowing who translated it.) One fervent fan in the audience wanted to know how soon she could have all his novels in translation. She has all 23 in Swedish and reads them with the help of a dictionary (that’s what I call determination), but felt that translations would be helpful. I should say so!

John read from his Darkness Darkness, Resnick’s last case, which is partly set during the miners’ strike, and the part he read was definitely an ‘ouch’ kind of extract. He said this would be the last book about Charlie Resnick, but apparently he has said that before. The difference being that he lied on previous occasions. Well, we’ll see about that.

Both Arne and John praised each other’s books so much, that compliments were flying across the stage. Arne plots with the help of post-its and arrows which he puts on the floor. But as he pointed out, when he had small children, anything could happen. John has tried listening to young people in secret, to learn how they speak, but he couldn’t understand a word they said. But he has learned to tweet.

And who’d have thought that this man spent several years writing pulp fiction and teen romances? Writing a book every month for four years helped teach him the craft of writing.

At this point Russel’s phone made itself known, which was a little embarrassing for a man who had told the rest of us to switch ours off.

Talking of translations, Arne’s novels have been translated into 30 languages, and whereas he can read some of them, he has no idea what has happened when the Estonian version comes back and only half of it seems to be there.

The crime in crime novels is not what’s important. It is mainly there to facilitate the story. And because it’s what publishers want.

The long day

You can’t get into Charlotte Square before 9.30. I’d do well to remember that, and I could – and should – stay in bed for longer. But a witch can always read, so on Tuesday morning time was killed with Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier.

Thanks to Theresa’s generosity I was able to be her husband for the morning. Not as nice a one as her regular Mr B, but I did my best. And I can confirm that while I was in the authors’ events prep area, I didn’t hear anything. At all.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

Then I went along to Theresa’s school event with Mary Hooper, and afterwards in the bookshop I listened in amazement as Theresa asked a female fan (obviously in her upper teens) if she was the school librarian  – from one of the visiting schools. It was quite clear that she was a mature upper secondary school student. No. Apparently she was the head teacher. (The librarian was the greyhaired ponytailed gent next to her.)

Eating a sandwich very fast before my next event, I ended up letting four Swedes share my table. I didn’t share my Swedish-ness with them, however. I listened as they speculated on the nature of Charlotte Square. Apparently it’s a bookfair of some kind. ‘But where are the books?’ one of them asked. Quite. The book festival as a mere coffeeshop for tourists.

Ran into Keith Charters, who was clutching 60 copies of  David MacPhail’s Yeti On the Loose. Did some heavy hinting, which resulted in Keith handing over 59 copies to the bookshop. I mean, he had promised me one ages ago.

After school event no.2 I chatted a little with Linda Newbery, Tony Bradman and Paul Dowswell, getting my anthology signed by all three, each in the right places. Then went in search of Cathy MacPhail’s son David, and found him where I thought he’d be but not where Keith had said, along with his mother and a lovely baby. I’d been told he’d be a slightly taller version of his mum, which as Cathy drily pointed out wasn’t hard to achieve. I forgot to take a picture, but got my Yeti signed with an extra generous RAAAAAR! Then I admired the baby.

Wrote yesterday’s onsite blog post, before learning that Son and Dodo were coming over to entertain me, and to have coffee. It had got unexpectedly warm and sunny, and Son complained. We chatted, saw Ian Rankin arrive, noticed the longbearded gent from earlier years, and came to the conclusion that the scones which used to be of almost home made quality, were just dry and boring.

Son and Dodo went off to search for more Maisie books, and I had my Dyslexia event to go to. Glimpsed Nicola Morgan and Val McDermid (not together) and then it rained and got unexpectedly cold. I repaired to the yurt for a restorative sandwich and an even more restorative sip of cola to keep me awake, as well as find that cardigan I suddenly needed.

Arne Dahl

Anne Cassidy

Waited for Arne Dahl to turn up for his photocall, and did the best I could when he did, considering how dark and wet it was. He seemed bemused by the attention. While waiting for Arne’s event with John Harvey (whom I’d have snapped too, had I known who he was…) I walked over to the children’s bookshop and caught Anne Cassidy and Emma Haughton (who does not have long brown hair, after all) signing post-event.

Emma Haughton

And after a much longer day than someone my age should attempt, I limped along Princes Street for my late train home. Someone at Waverley told me to smile. He’s lucky I’m a peaceful sort of witch.

How to keep thrillers thrilling

Sara Paretsky

They were so colour co-ordinated that they might almost have agreed in advance what to wear. Sara Paretsky was striking in fuchsia and part of Tom Rob Smith’s jumper was the same hue. Or perhaps vivid pink is the current big thing among crime writers.

Their chair, Jackie McGlone, introduced them as briefly as she could, in order to save some of the evening for the actual event. Sara’s books about V I Warshawski have sold ten million copies, and Tom’s novel about a mother going crazy on a Swedish farm, was based on his own Swedish mother who went a little crazy (understandable) on a farm in Sweden.

Sara started by reading the beginning of Critical Mass; the gory part where V I finds the body. Tom read from The Farm, but I’m afraid I don’t remember which bit. I was too interested in Swedes going crazy on farms in the Swedish countryside, which isn’t as nice as it looks.

Jackie wondered how much of their writing is based on true events and people. Lotty is almost Sara’s grandmother, and Tom’s story is a little true, in that his father did actually phone him to say his mother had gone crazy, and then she called to say her husband was conspiring against her. Except it wasn’t quite like that. He’s had to change things in the book.

Sara was interested in whether or not Tom’s mother had read The Farm, seeing how instrumental she was in its conception. She has, and she came to the conclusion he’d made it up…

At nine o’clock the shooting began. It might be part of the Edinburgh Tattoo, but it makes hearing people speak almost impossible in the rest of town. But Sara and Tom soldiered on as best they could. Sara said that V I does what she herself is too chicken to do, with a ‘certain lack of impulse control.’ She discussed V I’s age and that of the dogs and Mr Contreras, not to mention Lotty, who really shouldn’t be in the operating theatre at 85. She’s letting her characters hover where they are, just so she can let them continue. At Sara’s age when people around her are ill or dying, she likes to be in control of her characters, letting those she wants to stay alive do just that.

Tom’s earlier novel Child 44 is about to be released as a film. He has just seen it and reckons it’s very good. Sara, on the other hand, said that the one film made about V I was as far away from her book as it could possibly be. The only good thing about it was that she was allowed to run on Wrigley Field for one evening, when Disney hired it. The men from Hollywood had been surprised to discover that ‘feminism might be commercially viable’ after all.

Sara Paretsky

Neither author believes in writing about mass murderers, and prefer to stay away from real evil. Asked if V I’s controversial ways of working has had an effect on her sales, Sara replied that they have. She gets a lot of mail and she answers all letters except the very worst ones, for which she has a file labelled ‘weirdos, cranks and idiots.’

V I will never be rich, doing pro bono work as she does. But Sara won’t let the dogs starve. Nor was she able to ruin V I’s beautiful new Italian boots in the next book.