Category Archives: Crime

Revenge of the Andes

‘Someone in Chile is holding Rosetta Girl’s parcel hostage’, Daughter announced last week. While not exactly the last thing I’d ever expected to hear, it was low on my list.

She had sent her friend Rosetta a parcel, containing nothing terribly exciting. A small item for Rosetta’s – by now – past birthday, and something for Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, and all that, and the shipping costs probably outran anything Daughter had spent on the gifts. She sent it FedEx, and we’d both been pleasantly surprised by the speed with which it took off from Scotland to Chile. Before we knew it, the parcel had got to Rosetta Girl’s apartment block.

Except then, it turned out to be like something from a thriller; ‘pay the ransom or the socks get it’ kind of situation. They tried to call it a fee, or even import duty, and it had to be paid in cash. Which Rosetta didn’t have.

It was clear that someone in the delivery chain, someone in the town, well past customs, was hoping to make a bit of money. Because most people are so excited by parcels arriving that they will do anything, even quite unreasonable things, to discover what they have been sent. Daughter tried to insist to her shipping company, that the fee was unreasonable, but if it was to be paid, she would pay it, thank you very much, and she’d do it cash free, with a receipt.

It’s a shame that some countries, and some companies, have this kind of bad reputation. And it’s probably not even the neediest people who are attempting to make some money on the side, which would have been almost all right. And I was under the impression FedEx was a proper company.

We can all be wrong.

Another of the items being held to ransom is Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. The paperback version. It’s set in the Himalayas, but as Michelle said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, she had intended to write about the mountains next to where Rosetta lives. I suspect this to be a case of Revenge of the Andes.

I’m hoping the parcel-napper understands quite how modest the contents are. You’d never pay that much for anything like this. But you might pay because getting the parcel means something to you.

Murder in Midwinter

I do like a good anthology of themed short stories. Especially Christmas themed. There is no murder so lovely as a Christmas one… Hang on, that doesn’t sound right. But you know what I mean.

I hung on to this Murder in Midwinter collection, edited by Cecily Gayford, until I felt Christmassy enough. The stories weren’t all absolutely set at Christmas, but at least in the colder, snowier part of the year. Some are quite old, others a little more recent.

We have some nice blackmail in the family, cunningly devious husbands, as well as the problem with dustbins and strikes. There is the rather sweet – and exciting – story about a boy in care, and then there was the Margery Allingham that made me forget everything and which, while I could sort of guess the direction the mystery was going, I didn’t quite see the last bit coming. That woman was a master of funny, caring, intelligent crime stories, be they long or short.

And give me a snowy, retro kind of cover picture, and I’m yours.

Book Week Scotland 2020

I just had a little look at the programme for Book Week Scotland. What with there not being masses and masses of physical events, it can be easy to forget about it. But the advantage of Book Week Scotland in this so very different year, is that we can all go to all of the events. Or most of them.

Where I would so often find an absolutely irresistible event and then discover it was taking place in Orkney, or even in Helensburgh, I can now plan for a few from the comfort of my own Bookwitch Towers.

I have my eye on the bibliotherapy on Friday, plus various enticing crime events. And who could resist a reading by Agatha Christie..? Or poetry with Jackie Kay. It could easily be a full week.

Admittedly, I might be busy with something else this week, which would curtail my available time, but I still have plans for something bookish. Maybe I will see you there [even if you are in Madagascar]?

The Turning Tide

Having fallen in love with Catriona McPherson’s 13th Dandy Gilver crime novel, I’ve moved on to the 14th, The Turning Tide. I am enjoying taking up a new [to me] crime series, allowing myself to read instalments as they come, even if I might struggle to catch up with the earlier books.

Cramond Island has a ring of mystery to it, although I’ve never been. It’s where Dandy and her partner in crime, Alec, go to work out why the ferry woman has stopped ferrying people, and possibly also to escape from newborn baby grandchildren.

There are potatoes involved, some unexpected nudity for 1936, and much skulduggery from the locals, and how did the young man Dandy’s family have always known come to die?

I love the friendship and banter between Dandy and Alec, even if they are rather well off and occasionally unaware of how the other half – more like 95%, perhaps? – lives. And then there is the war. The old one was dreadful, but now there is the threat of a second war looming and Dandy’s sons are just the right age…

This is lovely. And fun. And they do go back home, because ‘there are babies to dandle’. And if I could have Dandy’s maid Grant, I’d be most grateful.

Bookwitch bites #147

Sigh. It’s time to stay at home again. I mean, more so than the last two (?) months. We didn’t exactly go to town during this time, but went out a little bit. Even considered going out for a meal, but on careful consideration couldn’t really face it. We can cook. Or we can order delivery of either pizza or Indian. Not much else the three of us agree on, foodwise.

So we will heed this t-shirt advice again. We started back in March or April, but haven’t got to the end yet. And there is more Mandalorian to look forward to, with the baby Yoda.

This post will be full of borrowings and stealings.

Having said that, I am obviously heading straight to the Lowry theatre. Not really, but for someone who no longer pays too much attention to theatre news from the place I no longer live near, my eye was caught by the press release about the Nightingale Court, so I read on a bit. The Lowry is to host several court rooms so that trials that have lagged behind for too long this year, can start taking place. This means the theatre receives some welcome revenue, and the jury members get to sit in comfort in theatre boxes; one each. (I could almost be tempted…)

Temptation can go both ways. I’ve heard from a reliable (cough) source that Camilla Läckberg’s recent novel has a lot of sex in it. Don’t know if this is good or bad. But according to e-newsletter Boktugg, lots of people dislike Camilla. It can be hard feeling happy about someone else’s immense success. Suffering from the green monster isn’t much fun. One day I might read one of Camilla’s books, if only to irritate the person who told me so many bad and, I suspect untruthful, things about her.

So what do you know about volcanoes? Do you have a gut feeling for where you might find them? That is if you don’t actually know about eruptions or remember where some of them took place. I was intrigued when reading in the Observer that someone had been stranded by an ash cloud after a Finnish volcano stopped flights. I tried to imagine those pine trees going flying as the volcano volcanoed. I know the Nordic countries are ‘all the same’. But doesn’t Iceland stand out at least a little bit if we’re going volcanic?

And finally some nice normality. This week, the day before the renewed lockdown, Theresa Breslin came to town. She was here to sign books at the Tinkerbell Emporium, which is where we last saw her, just over a year ago. (Theresa is the one on the right!)

It would have been even lovelier if I’d been able to pop over to say hello…

The greats on a Sunday

Sunday nights are generally for some of the best, kept until last. The pattern seemed to hold, with Mark Billingham talking to John Connolly, followed by Val McDermid with Lee Child, and I settled in for some fun.

The first two talked football, at Bloody Scotland and elsewhere. John wants to play for Scotland if he ever makes it to Stirling. Mark thought he’d be made welcome. They moved on to fashion and women’s tights, dwarfs, Snow White, and acting.

I like Mark and adore John, but really, they sounded like – almost – any pair of men, getting together talking about stuff that is no more interesting for having been uttered by a famous crime writer. I switched off.

Once dinner was over, I turned my attention to Val and Lee. It was Wyoming vs New York, 10 miles to the mailbox, long winters, Stetson hats and four-wheel drives. Lee has opinions on these vehicles, but also pointed out he has a different one ‘at his English place’.

There’s a problem with Tom Cruise, but not when he gives you a ride to the football in his helicopter. Other actors have the wrong accent, are too thin, too good looking, and so on. ‘The Reacher Guy’ hasn’t got it easy.

They most likely will not be writing about the virus, although Val had written a drama about plague when Covid started. One of those weird coincidences. Mrs Child had read a novel written in the past, set in 2060, and something viral having happened forty years earlier. The Spanish flu was not very visible in fiction, or so they said.

Lee admires Angela Merkel, and Bill Clinton. When Val had the temerity to mention Barack Obama, we learned that he hasn’t read Lee’s books. If that was me, I’d be reasonably proud to have met the man for long enough to be told he hadn’t read anything I’d written. In fact, I’d prefer for him not to be frittering away his time on my words, when there is a world to look after.

I like Val, and previously when I’ve seen her talking to women, she’s not needed to be quite so much ‘one of the boys’. Lee was pretty much the way he was 15 years ago. Authors only need to write great books. It’s a bonus if they are fun and witty and intelligent, but there is absolutely no need for them to be important, rich or cool.

So that was the 2020 Bloody Scotland. It was convenient to be able to ‘meet’ people at home, but it was nowhere near as much fun as in real life. For me personally, the main gain was not having to fight for the seat I want; the one at the back, nearest the door.

The never-ending panel

I was going to dip in and out. Not miss Barry Hutchison. Nor Catriona McPherson. But in the end, there I was, taking in every minute of the four hours of crime writers coming and going. Possibly attending less diligently when slurping the soup Daughter so kindly carried to my desk, but continuing all the same.

So one advantage of Bloody Scotland going online was that you can have a couple of dozen authors from anywhere in the world pop into your Sunday panel to chat to their friends for a bit, before going off, leaving their chair to someone else.

To start, Lin Anderson looked after the first hour, discussing pets with Stuart MacBride, moving on to stovies (apparently everyone in Scotland knows what they are, but I am only hazy about them, except that I don’t want any on my plate) and from there seamlessly to vodka, with the help of Hania Allen, and how one can speak fluent Polish after drinking some.

Then, James Oswald with the hair. It was long, but mostly because he is antisocial, and not so much lockdown. The question there was how to tell his calves apart. (Coos, not lower legs.) Easy with Daphne, otherwise hairy ears make for problems. Andrew James Greig, former Bloody Scotland crew, added rotary dryers, and I’m not sure if you can kill with those or not. He didn’t recognise Hugh McIlvanney when they met – ‘which one of you is …?’ It’s not what you say to big names.

James – with the coos – spoke about the Bloody Scotland family. He was joined by Neil Broadfoot, who murders in Stirling, and who almost left when Lin handed over to Morgan Cry, aka Gordon Brown, non-PM. Some people plot, others don’t. Let’s leave it at that. But it can be so boring knowing what is about to happen that the writer might not want to go on.

The incoming authors kept coming, ringing the doorbell and being visible on screen to the world. Just not to the hosts. Might need to work on that. Sara Sheridan spoke of 1950s fashions, and appearing inappropriately dressed on her husband’s Zoom meetings, because it’s how she writes books.

Finally it was time for Barry, who was addressed as Barry despite being there as JD Kirk. I think he wins the book count. 140, of which most are children’s books, but the adult crime has grown by around 40 books in four years. He explained his quantity over quality theory, and spending 06.30 to 11.30 writing, before doing admin and then playing with the children.

His school librarian had lured him into the library with piles of The Beano until he entered voluntarily, with offers like ‘come with me to the monster section’. When the library failed to have ninja books, he was told to write one himself, which he did, aged nine, and it was duly entered into the library catalogue.

Mary Paulson-Ellis, who likes paperwork, and is a top LGBTQ writer according to Val McDermid, was next, along with Caro Ramsay who knows everyone hates her, but ‘that’s fine’. SJI [Susi] Holliday was accused of having jinxed Covid into being. (This was the soup episode, so I didn’t note everything down.)

Doug Johnstone was back, even after all that singing on Saturday, and the host changed into Craig Robertson. He had done no prep so told the group to talk as much as possible. Both parts of Ambrose Parry were present, and we learned that Chris Brookmyre is now letting wife Marisa ‘do a bit more’ in their shared writing. She sounded so useful that Susi said she wanted a Marisa as well.

Where Doug goes for walks to get ideas, Susi gets them in the car, where she can’t jot them down. Ambrose Parry enjoyed getting ideas after Covid-walks on the local golf course. Caro’s dog knows more than she does. They all said to trust your instincts.

Jackie Baldwin might have upped the body count in Portobello, having moved crime from Dumfries, and Susi pedestrianised somewhere that badly needed it. Chloroform belongs in Edinburgh, just so you know. Radio’s Theresa Talbot arrived with wine glass in hand and explained that with no traffic to talk about on the radio, she was now a garden expert.

Jackie is used to being in prison, due to being a criminal lawyer (which I hope is more innocent than it sounds). Theresa is a Glaswegian by heart, and when she sent her detective to Loch Lomond to please the fans, she couldn’t think of anything for her to do, so she returned to the city again.

Alan Parks sticks to the 1970s, which neatly avoids mobile phones and CCTV. Alex Gray had just been on a trip to Ballachulish, because she simply couldn’t cope with not going places. Alan’s fan emails are from bus enthusiasts who know more than he does. And that man in the pub he made up? He’s still alive, you know.

Our last host, Abir Mukherjee arrived from the Green Room, to discover Theresa discussing a question from an event on ‘how hard it had been to find a husband at her age’. Alan had once been coerced into an impromptu lecture in Sweden, where after much hard work, the first question was whether he owns a kilt.

When asked for their weirdest way of killing people, they only had stabbings, poisoned sandwiches, strangulation by harp wire and stabbing someone in the eye with a pencil, to offer. And, erm, elephants. Ben McPherson joined us from Oslo with many thoughts on how hard it can be to fit in, in a nice country, when you don’t really belong. (I know.) But at least his doorbell moment worked.

In Norway they have huts, and warm(-ish) beaches. Abir was 25 when he discovered you could go to the beach and not wear a jacket (in Goa). Both Alex and Alan prefer living in the Hufflepuff that is Scotland. Lisa Gray has experience of writing about a place she doesn’t belong to, and Ben discussed the feeling of living somewhere but not speaking the language, when disaster strikes.

Nicola White, originally from Dublin, writes about that city, as it was in the 1980s when she left. Many of us only know somewhere from a long time ago. The last two panellists, Catriona McPherson and Alex Knight (aka Mason Cross and Gavin…) joined the conversation. I stared at Alex’s familiar face, until I finally placed him as Luke in Gilmore Girls. (Not really, but same face.) If you’re going for a pen name, it’s worth picking one that people everywhere can pronounce, like when Alex went to Starbucks as Mason and turned into Basin.

The most important thing to becoming a novelist is to finish writing what you want to write. Reward yourself with a visit to the toilet after writing some words. Alex believes in a daily 500 words, which he feels is manageable.

To finish, the talk turned to reviews, and you should obviously never read the online ones. Unless three stars for fitting perfectly under that wonky table leg will make you happy.

Crime at the Coo

‘One of those daft ideas that somehow works’, but which Craig Robertson still suggested might be better accompanied by a drink. I had a decaf latte which probably had little influence either way.

It wasn’t quite a ‘you needed to have been there’ event about an event, but it might have helped. The short summary is that Val McDermid sings a lot better than many of the others, so don’t give up the day job, Craig Robertson has a good relationship with his local pub landlady Mandy, who only offered to kill him if he ever wanted to change venue, and I really would find Crime at the Coo a sort of Hell on Earth event, and it’s just as well I never try to buy tickets in the first few seconds, because I’d never get in. Glastonbury would be easier. But I’m glad I’ve heard what it’s like.

By the way, the pub is open. Just not to Bloody Scotland. But if you’re ordinary you can drink at the Coo. My admiration for the audience member who was brave enough to ask what a coo is. I’d have suffered in silence.

Those songs… I’ve never properly heard Maxwell’s Silver Hammer before. Or did they change the lyrics?

I suspect that they showed us just about every crime writer getting up there, singing and playing away, and by ‘up there’ I seem to mean the bit of wall next to the toilets. We got none of the Slice Girls, however, despite them being Craig’s favourites.

Instead there was the hottest moment of all, the sexy sea shanty, sung a capella in German. I didn’t catch her name. Oh, I did. Just looked her up. Simone Buchholz.

I understand we were given the ‘cleaned up highlights’ with the possible exception of allowing Chris Brookmyre to reveal some of his sweariness. And speaking of him, he has quite a nice singing voice, as revealed when he did a number from home, with Christopher Brookmyre and one half of Ambrose Parry (I suspect the upper half, since you ask).

Doug Johnstone appeared several times, both as a blast from the past as well as from his home, where at least he will have been spared being heckled by Martina Cole. Covid has some uses.

I particularly enjoyed the three ladies singing a revolutionary song in Catalan; Johana Gustawsson, Jacky Collins and Teresa Solana. And ‘psycho killer’ Stuart Neville, with no fewer than ten guitars in his room. He’s reasonably good on mouth organ, too.

With one exception, the whole thing went downhill from there. We had Oscar and Herr Enger, more Brookmyre, Will Carver singing in French next to his pink boxes, Luca Veste singing Hit me baby one more time (this was worse than you’d think), and they also overran in time, but Craig said not to worry.

The exception, the one person who really stood out to me, was poet Judith Williams. Apparently Craig was too polite and too tipsy to say no when she first asked to perform at the Coo. Thank god he said yes! Here you see her looking a bit worse for lockdown, but what an enjoyable poem! (And you know me, I don’t go for poetry.) Craig allowed her one swearword, well used towards the end.

As they wound up Chris was naughty again, with beeps silencing his worst words, big boss Bob McDevitt taking to the stage at the Albert Halls, singing in the dark, until finally Val walked 500 miles. A worthy ending. And I definitely think the Coo landlady should invest in some merchandise, as suggested by someone in the audience. Coos are cute.

Ian’s choice

I’m guessing the earlier comment about how Ian [Rankin] could choose who he wanted to talk to – when an online festival meant anyone anywhere could be available – resulted in asking Lawrence Block.

No, I didn’t know who Lawrence was, until I saw his photo in the programme and thought, ‘oh, him’. So I recognised him. He seems to be a crime writing’s grand old man, and Ian interviewed him in his New York home. Lawrence was perfectly posed, while Ian was rather blurry.

Although, as I was mostly grilling halloumi for dinner, I wasn’t watching, but listening. To begin with their chat reminded me of some interviews I’ve done, where everything moves like treacle, but it got better.

Much better. I grew quite fond of Lawrence, in fact. He’s a man who no longer has a need to buy green bananas. And he’s hated flying for the last nineteen years, each year worse than the one before. His lockdown has been all right; he doesn’t need to go anywhere.

Ian, on the other hand, has a bus pass, except he’s not been on a bus for ages, and is not likely to start now. He admitted to stealing a character from Lawrence. He also admitted to leaving this character out of one of his books, in order to please a critic, only to realise how wrong that felt.

There’s a difference between American crime writers and Scottish ones, but once they warm up it doesn’t seem to matter.

When my weeks have nine days in them, I will look into reading one of Lawrence’s novels.

The echo of a Saturday afternoon

I arrived halfway through the talk with Ann Cleeves and Peter May, ably chaired by Jenny Brown. It was good to simply hang, letting the conversation flow, seeing the look on Peter’s face when Ann said she doesn’t plot. It seems he plots. Well.

And I know this sounds silly, but I tend to think of these well-known names in crime as doing all right financially. But Ann said that if she wasn’t going to make money from her writing, then she should at least enjoy herself when writing her stories. Sensible woman. I’m hoping more money is coming in by now.

But then I woke up to the fact that I was hearing double, or even triple. I tried the age old switching off and on again. Still I heard voices.

After a fully functioning short reading by an author before the next event (I’m guessing they are letting newer writers be heard as we wait for the next show), it was time for Adrian McKinty, Steve Cavanagh and Simon Mayo to talk High Concept Thrills. And the echo was back.

Looking at people’s live comments, I became sure it wasn’t me. Or them. It just was. I switched off and on a few more times before giving up. Feeling braver, I returned to hear the second half of the event, when I gather the IT people had worked out what to do.

And it was nice to hear the three of them chat, with only my note-taking suffering. Seems I have been wrong about Simon Mayo as a celebrity author (he wrote a children’s book first). Maybe. He sounded nice enough, as did his book. So did Steve Cavanagh, whom I really didn’t know before, but he’s got ‘a few’ books under his belt.

On to Adrian McKinty, and how he’d been wrong writing about Belfast all this time. He was not wrong; the Duffy books are the greatest (as seemed proven by people leaving comments). They just didn’t sell enough to save him from a fate driving Ubers. His new novel The Chain has dealt with that! There might even be a film. There will also be more Duffys.

Asked about the effect of Covid on their writing, Steve is avoiding Covid like the plague 😮, Simon can’t not mention it, and Adrian just faffed around with no idea of what to write next.

The sound stayed on with only one voice per author.

So hopefully the echo is water under the bridge by now.