Category Archives: Crime

Pitch Black Humour

Of course we wouldn’t go to see Val McDermid instead! Here were three funny crime writers, being chaired quite unexpectedly by publisher Karen Sullivan, who has form for not necessarily keeping control of proceedings like these. She did. And she didn’t.

Karen was a bit taken aback by Barry Hutchison. She had to make sure he wasn’t an old boyfriend of hers by the same name. He was there as J D Kirk, which is quite different. There was Doug Johnstone, who wore shorts. Shorts, I tell you! Barry dressed like the gentleman he is. I was proud of him. And between them was Antti Tuomainen, who is that impossible creature, a funny Finn. He writes about mushrooms, and actuaries. Very funny. He’s got the same wife as Barry. She doesn’t find him/them in the slightest bit funny. If he’s also gone out with Karen is a different question again.

By the way, I didn’t take notes. I was wanting to enjoy my evening out on the town, so just skulked quietly in my corner at the Golden Lion.

I keep forgetting what a well educated man Doug is. Despite the shorts. PhD in nuclear physics. Drummer. Plays football for the Scottish crime writers. His latest humorous books feature a funeral parlour, so he balances nicely with Barry, whose biggest laugh was with his father and sister at his mother’s funeral (which reminds me a little of Catriona McPherson in that same room a couple of years ago..), in the best of ways.

All three talked about some of the general stuff that authors get asked about when it comes to books and writing. And they answered in a humorous manner, arguing with each other as though they were long time friends. Karen was good at getting them started, if not always able to stop them. But that’s humour for you.

Asked about their favourite, humorous crime writer, Antti mentioned Chris Brookmyre. Karen pointed out Chris was sitting ‘over there.’ As Barry said, it got a bit embarrassing, as he was also going to choose Chris. At which point Doug asked if he wasn’t allowed to pick Chris as well. (Chris had obviously paid them handsomely.)

And speaking of Chris, he sat next to Mark Billingham, and I’m willing to stake my reputation on the ‘teenager’ next to them being James Oswald. It’s amazing what jeans and a t-shirt and long hair and a facemask does to one’s favourite crime writer coo farmer. In fact, lots of people [still] had Covid hair, including Bloody Scotland director Bob McDevitt. Recognised a few other people there, but had they been unmasked I’m sure I’d have ‘known’ even more.

Antti and Doug haven’t written that many books. I mean, in comparison. Barry’s 140 children’s books might have got a mention as did some of his other ‘adult’ books before the DCI Logan books, of which there are 12, with the 13th coming in December. Plus the new series starting in October. All this speedy writing is facilitated by him being unable to see a blue spot when he closes his eyes!

They were asked what books they read, that are funny. Chris Brookmyre, apparently, is funny. As was Iain Banks. Douglas Adams. Barry mentioned Terry Pratchett, who he avoided for a long time because the books were recommended to him by his mother’s friend. Quite beyond the pale. Until he picked one up and discovered what the rest of us already knew.

At this point I was struck by what I am about to do, which is to recommend one of Barry’s children’s books to a boy whose mother I know. It’s, well, I don’t know. But us older women know what’s what.

At the end I dashed out to stand first in line for the signing, cornering J D quite nicely, getting the signature and the requisite doodle, along with bits of news. And then I abandoned him for some macaroni cheese I had waiting for me.

A criminal song and dance

Isn’t it funny how we seem to be so fond of people doing something other than what they normally do, or are famous for? When my intended Bloody Scotland date with James Oswald et al last night turned out not be available online yet, I turned to the music.

Yes, the music. It’s the obvious thing for six professional killers to engage in on a crimefest weekend. I had actually considered going down to the Albert Halls to see the concert in person, but shied away because it was a bit late. And all those happy people in the audience might be, you know, a little too happy.

As Daughter commented when Val McDermid entered the stage singing, ‘is there nothing Val can’t do?’ I brought to her attention the fact that ladies of a certain age are Very Good At Everything. Cough.

It was very enjoyable. I’d also decided not to take notes, because I was just going to have fun, albeit in my own living room. Anyway, it’s not as if the six – Val, Stuart Neville, Doug Johnstone, Luca Veste, Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre – were talking about their writing. They really do seem to be Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, and they’d been apart for far too long.

They sent us off on a drinking interval, the better to appreciate them in the second half.

The thing is, though, having imbibed the special Bloody Scotland non-alcoholic gin, I was nowhere drunk enough not to mind what happened next. I completely lost my pioneering spirit when part two went soundless. I’m guessing someone switched off the sound for the interval, and then didn’t flick the switch back. The online audience engaged in some frantic chat, and Daughter wondered whether she should actually drive over to the Albert Halls and alert them.

You’ll be relieved to hear that the music came back after 20 minutes, in time for Delilah. It took me until Whiskey in the Jar to thaw, however, so my thanks to Stuart for that. They went out on a high, with I’m gonna be 500 miles – which is a long enough distance for anyone – and my parting words will be that in future they allow [little] Luca to Britney on to his heart’s content. It’s what he wants.

The Dying Day

Persis Wadia is still as awkward as she was in Vaseem Khan’s first book about this pioneering female detective in 1950s Bombay. She shoots people (villains) and she solves the crime[s] put in front of her, despite ‘just being a woman’ in this man’s world. But Persis is also a little bit inept at romance. Which of course makes it all the more fun. Will they get there in the end, or is it going to be such slow going that they never do?

This time someone has stolen a book. But not just any book; Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which was being translated by a specialist, who has also disappeared. Possibly with the book, or it could be a coincidence.

Time is of the essence, and then Persis is handed another crime to solve. This one is a supposed suicide, which quickly becomes a murder case.

As in the first book, it’s fun to see Bombay as it was, shortly after independence, and to do so not through the eyes of a man, or a white person. We learn more about Persis, her past, her friends, even her lover. And her colleagues are growing, becoming more interesting, promising more books with more depth.

Bloody funny

You know what I mean. It’s time for Bloody Scotland. This coming weekend, and you should be able to attend a fair few events in person, and if you can’t, it’s all online. Get your digital pass now!

I’ve just done my little selection process where I have tried to decide what I want to see live and what I can watch at home. All of it, and all of it, obviously. But I suspect a witch has to be realistic and only pick a couple of live events, in case she tires, or mixes too much with people. They are promising ‘very safe seating’. I’ll hold them to that, albeit not literally, as there should be no touching.

It’s hard, this deciding business. I began with Pitch Black Humour, and that wasn’t funny at all. Turns out I have the wrong browser to pay. Luckily I’m computer literate enough to find another browser, but how dare they turn Apple away? (Only joking.)

I had to start with that one, because of J D Kirk, aka as Barry. I’d like to see him. And hear him. I even went so far as to ask him what the J D stands for. He doesn’t know, but guessed (!) it might be John Doe…

After that it was a toss-up between several events, some of which will be on at the same time. Which is not good. I [almost] closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

And I’ll watch the others at home. Or as the publicist pointed out, I can watch myself attending the live events.

I’ll wave!

Where are all the turkeys?

I get it wrong Every Single Time. I put a turkey, or two, in there, somewhere.

OK, so I’ve not yet read Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, but it is lying in wait for me. I veer between looking forward to it, because some people have loved it, and fearing I’ll regret it, because some have not. Was heartened to discover that Susanna Clarke and her husband got one for each other for Christmas. Not, I assume, because they habitually buy two of everything, but when you know that the other one would love this…

Still no turkey, despite it being Christmas for them.

Then I read the Guardian interview with Richard, and was heartened – again – when he said he’d been afraid of being seen just as a celebrity success, until people in countries where they don’t know him from television, seemed to like his first crime novel too.

So that was reasonably modest of him.

And then, the Guardian Review yesterday happened to mention that Agatha Christie’s The Tuesday Club Murders is being reissued.

No turkey there either.

No, the reason I keep wanting there to be turkeys is Craig Rice’s The Thursday Turkey Murders. Which I read half a decade ago (it’s from 1946), and it has clearly formed a beaten path through my brain, and I simply cannot separate turkeys from Thursdays. Especially when there is also a murder.

Although I note Craig Rice also wrote The Sunday Pigeon Murders… Can’t stand pigeons.

Bad Dog

It will be some time before I relax when we go to the park again. All those dogs running around.

Bad Dog is Alex Smith’s second book featuring DCI Kett, and he is no more sensible this time round. He risks his life, while his three young daughters are at home, missing their mum, but thankfully being looked after by someone who is good at it.

This one, as you might have gathered, is about dogs. And I’m sure you can work out what a bad dog might do. (Don’t read this with a meal!) But I like Robbie Kett and his fellow detectives, and even the boss, Clare, when I can remember that he’s not a girl, and that Clare is his surname.

There are dog attacks in the woods. There are some quite unsavoury characters living nearby. In fact, there are a number of neighbours, and you need to take your pick as to which way to direct your suspicions. (I was mostly right. But that only makes you even more worried about how things will develop.)

The girls are lovely, if somewhat wild and noisy. They, and I, would like DCI Kett to stay at home in a calm and orderly fashion for a little while, but that will never happen. Especially not after that cliffhanger.

My Name Is Jensen

Today you get to do the reading. Heidi Amsinck is a UK Dane, who’s written a Nordic noir novel – My Name Is Jensen. The cover alone is enough to convince me. (Although, I do believe that red stuff is blood, not snow. Still, a gorgeous, snowy cover.)

Here is chapter three from the book, where we see the main female character, and her – also female – boss. I’d say things are not going well.

Tuesday 11:49

From the corner office of Dagbladet’s editor-in-chief, Copenhagen’s City Hall Square looked like an abstract painting, a damp mess of white pavements, yellow buses, red tail lights and people rushing to get out of the sleety weather. Jensen watched a group of pedestrians waiting patiently at the kerb for the lights to go green, though they could easily have crossed the road between the cars. In London, you never saw this respect for the rules, this reluctance to stand out from the crowd.
‘Sorry, I’m late,’ said Margrethe, barging into the room carrying a leather shoulder bag and a takeaway coffee.
She settled her tall, broad-shouldered form into the swivel chair behind her desk with a grunt. ‘Had to go and see the prime minister,’ she said.
‘Oh?’
‘Bloody waste of time, before you ask,’ she said, taking off her steamed-up glasses and wiping them on her jumper.
Jensen was about to open her mouth, grateful for the opportunity to delay the conversation she knew was coming, but Margrethe held up a hand to stop her. ‘Save it,’ she said, putting her glasses back on and reaching for her coffee.
Jensen shrank in her chair. Margrethe was one of the few people whose opinion she respected. It was Margrethe who had plucked her from the local paper as an eighteen-year-old without as much as a school leaver’s certificate and given her a job at Dagbladet. Two years later she had sent Jensen to London as the newspaper’s correspondent. There had been plenty of dissenting voices, but Margrethe had ignored them all.
She was taking her time, adding three sachets of sugar to her coffee. The wall behind her was lined with photographs of her all-male predecessors, going back to Dagbladet’s nineteenth-century origins. Compared to Margrethe, with her long grey hair, fleshy face and penetrating gaze behind thick lenses, they looked like a bunch of friendly uncles.
‘I can’t work you out, Jensen,’ said Margrethe, stirring her coffee with a pencil. ‘I fought to keep you when we closed London. They told me not to do it, that you were a pain in the arse, but I ignored them because I always thought you were a great reporter. I sacked someone, an old colleague with five years to retirement, so you could get a job back here. I protected you, took you off the daily beat to give you time for your so-called research, and this is how you repay me?’
She paused, sipping from her cup without taking her eyes off Jensen, who knew better than to interrupt her boss mid-flow.
‘You’ve been back, what, three months? And tell me, how many articles have you written?’
Jensen wriggled her hands under her thighs and looked out of the window at the square below. As she watched, a man standing too close to the kerb got sprayed with dirty slush by a passing taxi.
‘I don’t know exactly. Ten?’ she offered.
‘Four.’Margrethe rifled through a pile of papers on her desk and pulled out a slim file. ‘Let’s see, ah yes, your reportage on Denmark’s marginal communities.’
‘Took me ages to write.’
‘It’s horseshit. No heart,’ said Margrethe, tossing it to one side. ‘Next, your feature on that dramatic plane crash in Sweden before Christmas.’
‘I received a lot of nice emails afterwards.’
‘Bollocks. I’ve read more engaging articles by sixteen-year-olds on work experience. Want to look at the other two?’
‘No,’ said Jensen.
‘Right, so talk to me. What’s going on?’
‘I need time to settle in.’
Margrethe pretended to consult a printout on her desk. ‘You’ve had three months, and while you’ve got yourself nice and cosy, we’ve lost . . . let me see . . . two thousand, eight hundred and seventy subscribers. Any more staff cutbacks, and we may as well switch off the lights.’
Jensen nodded. She had seen the figures. Despite ever-more desperate forays into digital, the 120-year-old newspaper was dying on its feet. Bar a couple of overworked proofreaders, the subs had all gone, and the section editors had to lay out their own pages. The few tired journalists who remained barely had time for more than holding up a microphone to a succession of so-called experts, let alone going digging for stories. You could no longer read Dagbladet confident of finding out what had happened in the world in the previous twenty-four hours, in order of importance. The newspaper was now a personalised ‘experience’ with stories churned out online at regular intervals through the day, clickbait first. Plenty of online readers, but you needed a handful of those to earn as much as you did from one paper subscriber. The traditional business model was irreparably broken, and Dagbladet was yet to find a new one that worked.
‘Give me a chance to—’
‘I have,’ Margrethe snapped. ‘Trust me, if you’d been anyone else, I’d have kicked you out months ago.’
Jensen hung her head.
‘So, whatever is going on with you, fix it.’
‘Yes.’
‘Now leave,’ said Margrethe. ‘I am busy. There’s been another murder. It’s all over Twitter.’
The bells in the tower of City Hall struck twelve noon in the familiar sing-song chime that reminded Jensen of the midday news on the radio in her late grandmother’s kitchen. That was the problem. The bells, Magstræde, City Hall Square, Dagbladet: on the surface they were the same as always, but Copenhagen had changed while she had been away. She felt like a stranger in her own city. Not that she would ever be able to explain that to Margrethe. Her boss had no patience with feeble emotions.
Only one thing impressed Margrethe: a good story.‘ Still here?’ she said, looking irritably at Jensen.
‘Wait. I have something,’ Jensen said, making a swift decision.
‘It better be good.’
‘It was me who found the guy. This morning, in Magstræde.’
‘You did what?’
She told Margrethe everything, leaving only Henrik out of it. Margrethe’s body language softened gradually until she was leaning forward on her elbows, the coffee growing cold by her side.
‘It’s a great story,’ she said when Jensen had finished. ‘“Second homeless man found dead on Copenhagen street. Dagbladet’s reporter discovers the body.”’
‘It might be. I just—’
Margrethe’s voice hardened. ‘I said it’s a great story. This joke of a government has finally gone too far. Now beggars are being killed in the street. Its cruel, heartless, bankrupt policies are bringing shame on the country. Denmark is better than this.’
She waved Jensen off. ‘Write a feature. Eyewitness account.

Flash Forward

His inhaler, a bag of helium, and a games console were the single luxuries Wednesday morning’s three time travelling fantasy writers chose from life today. They should have thought this through more, shouldn’t they?

The indefatigable Ann Landmann was at the book festival to chat to Jonathan Stroud – who played it safe by remaining in Hertfordshire – and who’s written three gazillion books (Ann has read every one of them), and to relative newcomer Ben Oliver and debut author Femi Fadugba. This was, not surprisingly, another really good event.

They all had to start by describing themselves, so now I understand better what’s been happening at earlier events. It’s so people with impaired vision knows who’s who. Ben regretted getting his hair wet on the way, and Femi seemed to wish he’d picked a different t-shirt (I liked it).

We were promised a spoiler-free conversation, and I’m grateful, having read just Jonathan’s Scarlett & Browne, but not the other two books. I want to.

Ben is a teacher from Glasgow, who writes about a character on death row, in a world maybe 150 to 200 years in the future. It’s very dark.

For Femi Physics comes first. His book is two narratives of 4D space time, in Peckham. No, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either, but it’s how I heard it. (The short excerpt in the Guardian is Very Promising.) And as time travel goes, Femi moves only 15 years into the future. He wanted it to be somewhere well known.

Jonathan on the other hand, has placed his characters in a submerged England, maybe 500 years away, and no one much knows what happened. I expect we’ll learn along with the characters. Jonathan likes using humour, because everyone’s mostly like they would be now. Except Scarlett who started life as a middle aged man, but is now a teenage girl.

Asked if their worlds could become reality, Femi feels that maybe his already is. Ben hopes sincerely not, whereas Jonathan is full of optimism, despite the giant otters. Another question was about possible actors for any films they may have given life to. Femi already knows, but can’t tell. Ben would like young, unknown actors. Plus Hugh Grant. Jonathan, too, goes for someone unknown, as long as she has red hair.

This just left me wanting to read. And that’s really what this should all be about. More. Reading.

Not smelling us

Yes, Bernardine Evaristo really did regret not being able to smell us, as well as see us, and hear us, last night at the book festival. The audience was there for her Black Britain, Writing Back event with Judith Bryan, S I Martin and Nicola Williams, but the authors themselves were not.

Bernardine would be my ideal English professor and she can teach me anytime. Although, it seems not how to pronounce incomparable, which she admitted she’d been getting wrong until very recently when her husband pointed it out. She’s the one selecting the ‘black novels’ that are being republished by Hamish Hamilton, after first appearing in the 1990s.

I freely admit to never having heard of the authors she had invited yesterday. All three were interesting and had a lot to say, about themselves and other black authors, why they wrote what they did, and how they got there.

Judith sat in front of a nicely curated bookcase as she talked about her novel Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, and read a short piece from it, about a young couple meeting for the first time after getting to know each other by writing letters (!), after finding each other in a lonely hearts column. The book won her the Saga Prize, and she talked about attending writing classes at City Lit where she met Andrea Levy, among others.

[Steve] S I Martin sticks to writing about black Britain before 1948. He wants to show readers that this country has had black people living here for hundreds of years. His novel Incomparable World is set in the London of 1786, and whereas he’d hoped it would be discovered by black readers, he reckoned it mostly ended up on coffee tables in Hampstead. But that was fine, too. Bernardine said she feels his books would be perfect for becoming films, and Steve said he’s still waiting.

Barrister Nicola Williams wrote her legal thriller Without Prejudice about a black, female barrister, and she did so from midnight to four in the morning every night for nine months. (The audience question was when she slept. Between four and eight, apparently…) Nicola read the bit where her character goes back to her old, failing secondary school to give a talk about her success thanks to the school, but changing it to ‘despite’ her school. This went down well with the students. Nicola’s inspiration was reading John Grisham.

Asked who they grew up reading, the answer was mostly American authors. For closer to home now, two of the authors mentioned Luke Sutherland (from Blairgowrie) as their black Scottish inspiration, and Jackie Kay is much admired. And Judith managed a charmingly muddled senior moment when looking for a name and a place, and finding neither. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

This was another book festival event I most likely wouldn’t have chosen to go to in person in ‘the olden days’. Being able to sit at home and run the mouse down the list of events and picking – almost at random – yields some fantastic experiences. And when reading time becomes plentiful, I know what to look for.

Thicker Than Water

The second DCI Jack Logan thriller, by J D Kirk. This is what I went for last week, abandoning something that wasn’t doing it for me, opting instead for what Kirk’s alter ego Barry Hutchison cheekily describes as ‘quantity before quality.’ (This was ‘my’ second of the Jack Logan books, whereas in real life there are now about ten, unless he’s got to no. twenty without letting me know…)

It is quality. Yes, these are comfortable length, fast paced crime stories, but they are good. I’ll have to buy the next one(s) now.

I worked out, or rather, I sensed, who had done it from very early on. I just didn’t know how, or how the team would work it out and what impact it would have on them. That’s what makes you sit there as they chase after all the other potential suspects, until soon there is only one left. And you wonder how much peril there will be as the police discover their mistake.

Nicely set in and around Loch Ness, I can see how tourists might want to come and sightsee the murder scenes or picnic where the bodies were found. It all rings so true, too. I know very little about murderers and the police, but the books have got a nice Scottish feel to them.