Category Archives: Crime

Shetland Noir – the stories

They really went to town with their misused kitchen utensils. I’d say, never encourage a professional killer. They have enough horror to offer as it is.

I would like to say I enjoyed the little leaflet with the top three stories from the Shetland Noir writing competition. But enjoy isn’t quite the word I’d use.

Runners-up Matthew Wright and Marina Marinopoulos went for very bloody scenarios indeed. Kitchen utensils make you think kitchens, and from there it’s not far to food, and… Well, you get the picture.

Whereas winner Helen Grant was more restrained, if only by comparison. She has a gory corpse. She has made ‘good’ use of her kitchen utensil. I’ll say that for her. And I could sort of see where this story must go, which isn’t a bad thing. It built up the suspense quite nicely.

The Beach House, as her story is called, is all about death in a beautiful place. That makes it worse. I can visualise where the house is, and I can see the corpse, even though I’m trying not to. I’ll have to work on unseeing this at some point.


If Helen were to change paths and kill in the adult world from now on, I reckon she’d do it well.

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith

Hopefully not ditched

This is the Shetland Noir weekend. It could have picked better weather. Storm Abigail is upon us, and my own Ice Cube is bad enough, for being battered by winds and heavy rain.

I’m very grateful not to have been travelling to Shetland with Abigail. As far as I know, the authors who had to get there in time for the crime festival did manage to travel. Brave people who think nothing of throwing up in small planes or on choppy ferries in the service of literature.

But as I was thinking of these poor souls, in my relatively warm and cosy home, I could visualise the scenario of these people being stranded together. Either in some airport, with no planes taking off, or, well, in some rather more dire situation. You know, a whole plane load of professional killers.

Just imagine what they could get up to.

(Feel free to use this idea for a book, or a short story. I’ll settle for 10%.)

Light on Dumyat

Light on Dumyat is an old book, but not as old as I’d believed. First published in 1982, Rennie McOwan doesn’t say when it is set, but I’m guessing the 1950s. There are sheep in the middle of Stirling, and that rather determines the period. As the Resident IT Consultant said, there were just about sheep in his time, so I’m thinking this is a little before then.

Rennie McOwan, Light on Dumyat

Rennie McOwan lives very locally. Maybe I see him out and don’t know it. The Resident IT Consultant once went walking with him, when he was a teenager. That’s the Resident IT Consultant, not Rennie, who as an adult was a good companion because he had a car and could offer a walk somewhere more interesting.

Not that Stirling isn’t interesting, and Dumyat, which is a hill in the nearby Ochils, is as worthy as anywhere. You can tell that Rennie knows about walking and living wild. Light on Dumyat is basically the Famous Five in the Scottish countryside, and by now a wonderful period piece as well.

The book features 12-year-old Gavin who comes to stay for the holidays with his aunt and uncle near Stirling, and this young Englishman really takes to the hills. He meets three local children who seem to have adventures all the time and they set him a challenge to see if he can join their gang.

Gavin is stronger and more cunning than they thought, but the whole adventure is sidetracked when thieves try to steal his uncle’s valuable silver. That’s when his new friends really come into their own.

Very nice and innocent, and the kind of thing I’d have lapped up at the right age. Now, I’m too unfit to attempt Dumyat [that’s dum-eye-at], so will have to gaze at it from afar instead.

(I see there are a few more books about these children.)

Grate news

Helen Grant brought the cream. Two kinds, actually, as she wasn’t sure what kind I needed. (The kind that will make naughty cake naughtier still!! Obviously.) After a busy October for both of us, with much travelling, we wanted to meet up, and I said I would supply the cake if she got the cream.

Because Helen has had some great news. She has taken her killing to my neck of woods (i.e. Sweden) and done it so well that she won the Shetland Noir writing competition. Not that I am surprised. That woman can kill with considerable skill anywhere, although I’m not sure if I really want her to to do so in places I know, as opposed to the safely distant Germany and Belgium.

It had to involve some misuse of a kitchen utensil, and I’m thinking it wasn’t a jug of cream. On Facebook someone suggested a cheese grater. Which would be great. But I reckon that with a cheese slicer you could do so much more…

The prize is a trip to Shetland (I know, I know. There’s a lot about Shetland here) which would be good at any time, as long as ditches are avoided. But it should be especially good in November, when so many crime writers will be there for the (shared with Iceland Noir) Shetland Noir weekend. The things they will be able to discuss when they all get together.

And if you want to know what Helen and I talked about, it was mainly vertigo. Like, the best places to suffer. That kind of thing. We both had some excellent ideas as well as personal experience, and during this fruitful exchange I felt more scared than when reading Helen’s books. At least those are fiction. They are, aren’t they?


Liquidator is a rather unpleasant drink. Or rather, it is a drink that makes you want more and more, and that’s what’s unpleasant. In the first place it’s not good for you, and in the second place, forced dependency is bad. But we know about products like these, or at least we suspect they exist. But the nice, [extra]ordinary children in Andy Mulligan’s novel Liquidator want to believe the drink tastes so good because it is good. Or not bad. Not that they are being tricked into drinking bottle after bottle of something harmful.

Andy Mulligan, Liquidator

Liquidator is the kind of book that makes you happy to be alive. Not because of the crooks who make and sell the drink, but because Andy has – yet again – written a story about children who are so resourceful, so brave and determined, that you sort of glow quietly as you read. He has a knack of shaping characters who are kind, and who aren’t always sniping at each other, or any of the other traits so commonly used to carry a plot forward.

I didn’t read Liquidator in one sitting. It deserved it, but things got in the way, and I minded dreadfully because I needed to read this book.

The teenagers in Liquidator are about to go off and do their work experience; some of them doing precisely the kind of job they wanted to, others doing the exact opposite. Vicky ends up making sandwiches for the company responsible for Liquidator, and that’s where she accidentally discovers that not everything is all right.

Andy Mulligan, Liquidator

Her friends are all over the place, doing work experience as a dog walker, cleaning sewers, doing surgery (yes, really), singing with a famous pop star, flower arranging, manning the phones at a 999 call centre, journalism and so on. Varied stuff, but as you read on, you realise these children will all be needed, and so will their respective ‘skills’ or workplaces. What always gets me with Andy’s children is their resourcefulness and the fact that they simply tackle what’s coming and get on with it, all the time being friendly to classmates they might not ordinarily choose to be friends with. War time spirit, perhaps.

The people who made Liquidator are not nice. Not nice at all. They will stop at nothing. Luckily the teenagers won’t stop either. And equally luckily, they are assisted by a small number of unusual adults, who also won’t stop for anything. Sometimes literally. You know that helpless feeling you get when stuck in a motorway jam, not moving an inch? Well here’s inspiration for you!

This is a true feelgood thriller, made possible by real teenagers (I believe Andy borrows characters from life), a serious crime, and solidarity. There’s not enough of that out there. The solidarity, I mean.

Hej då, Henning

By now you probably all know that Henning Mankell died this morning. His death is in the news everywhere, which just goes to show how far crime will get you. Even when you’re a foreigner, as Henning undoubtedly was to most of you.

I never did get that interview, apart from my impromptu four-minute one in the children’s bookshop in Charlotte Square; the place where he wasn’t guarded at all, unlike for his adult events. But we did speak very briefly, several times, including that first meeting when Son startled him by wanting a book signed that Henning didn’t recognise as his. It was his, though, and after some discussion it got sorted out.

Even then, Henning was a grand person, while on Swedish soil; walking round with a bit of an entourage. But that’s how Swedes do their worshipping. His star status in the English speaking world came a little later.

I knew he was ill, and ever the pessimist I expected the worst. But as recently as last week I felt a moment of optimism. I have a Facebook friend, whom I barely know, despite having ‘known’ him for decades (he’s GP Cousin’s very good friend). He’s rich, and he’s a rather radical leftie, and he does unusual things with his time and money. His latest venture is some museum for another well known Swedish radical, which is opening next month. And the encouraging news was that Henning was to do the honours. So I thought, ‘Oh, he’s well enough to do that then?’

Today’s sad news took my radical millionnaire by surprise too, as he was due to have lunch with Henning a few hours ago. Which I suppose was a good sign in itself; that he’d felt able to make such plans.

As for me, I’m glad we met a few times, and I’m even glad I cried at his event in Gothenburg eight years ago. He was a good man who did lots of good to lots of people, and that’s not counting entertaining us with Wallander.

Henning Mankell(I prefer this photo from some years ago, to the one my local Swedish newspaper used, where you can clearly see how unwell he was.)

The Henning Mankell mini-interview