Category Archives: Crime

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

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Putting people in their place

Black or fat. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be put in that special group. The one that shows that white people – or thin people – are feeling inclusive. They will let you have what they have ‘always’ had, but only because the winds are such that it appears best to allow ‘minorities’ to do what everyone should have the right to do, be it write books and have them published, or buy and wear clothes that look nice and actually fit.

Thank you. It is most kind.

The Guardian Review on Saturday had a long article about how things have almost got a little better [fairer] for dark people in the publishing business.

I was struck by two things. First is that authors who are somehow different get their own imprint, as witnessed by the hiring of Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher of Dialogue Books, a new ‘inclusive’ imprint at Little, Brown. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

As the Guardian says, ‘but why does inclusivity have to have its own ring-fenced imprint? Shouldn’t it be part of every imprint rather than becoming its own distinctive brand?’

This, incidentally, reminded me of what I wrote earlier this year, “there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.”

I know someone who ended up being put there after a publishing house reshuffle. He/she was both offended and pleased. Offended because colour of skin suddenly made this the right place for him/her. Pleased because Tamarind have really keen publicists, which ought to be good for sales.

And second, a comment by Abir Mukherjee, part of a ‘dynamic new circle of British Asian crime novelists.’ Abir* has been told ‘his work is not “authentically Asian enough” because his debut A Rising Man is about a white, British detective in India.

So, the whites get to tell the ‘minority’ writers what to write. We’re back to the situation where you can only ever write about what you are; i.e. for my part a novel about a short, fat girl in southwest Sweden.

Which brings me to one of my fondest gripes, clothes for fat people. Don’t design especially ugly and different clothes ranges for us. It’s enough – well, preferable, actually – if you make larger sizes of the same as everyone else gets. This should have several benefits. No need to design twice. The fat customers will be happier. Happy customers buy more, thus providing more income.

And let’s face it; if you don’t make it, we won’t buy. We can’t suddenly use smaller clothes, just because you think that’s the best. So that’s a loss of revenue to you.

Something similar must surely happen in the book trade. Publish good books about anything at all, and we will buy. Doesn’t matter what colour skin the author is, or their accent, or if they were born in a different place than where they live now.

Yes, unlike the jeans that are too tight, if one book has not been written or published, a keen reader can buy another book. But there must still be a certain loss of potential income. To some extent publishers can and will tell someone what ought to be in a book [for it to sell], and sometimes they will even be right. But to limit Asian writers to write about Asians, or for that matter, to prevent a Muggle author from writing about wizards, is just silly.

In fact, I recently read a crime novel by Vaseem Khan, featuring his Mumbai detective as usual. Lovely book. But what makes that different from, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s lovely books about a female detective in Botswana? Is he female? Is he black? Is he a detective?

Neither Vaseem nor Alexander have been ring-fenced into an imprint suitable for their colour. Why should anyone else?


*When xenophobia is at its worst, immigrants are often told they need to adopt the same values and behaviour as the British. While I happen to think that this is wrong, I feel that it is precisely what someone like Abir has done. He has assimilated, which, considering he was born here, is fairly natural. And also what the real natives want. Except when they want their foreigners to be a little more authentically foreign.

It’s not easy.

They’re all women!

They all seemed to be women. Or perhaps I merely happened to choose Book Week Scotland events that featured women. I picked what interested me, and what was nearby enough to be doable, and at times convenient to me.

Four events, though, and a total of nine women speaking at them. Only the last one, about gender violence, had a subject that determined who was likely to be taking part.

The audiences were slightly different. For Mary Queen of Scots there were three men. The gender violence had one man in the audience for part of it, one man to operate Skype (!) and one man who seemed to be working in the room where we sat. Several men for both Lin Anderson and the autism discussion, while still being in a minority.

Three events were during daytime, but that doesn’t explain the lack of men, when the women were mostly well past 70.

Do they read less, or are they not interested in events? Or do they go to the ones with men talking? (I’d have been happy to see Chris Brookmyre, but he didn’t come this way, or James Oswald, but he was sold out.)

Anyway, whatever the answer to that is, over on Swedish Bookwitch we have women today. My interview with Maria Turtschaninoff is live, and it’s mostly – just about entirely, actually – about women. And it’s in Swedish. Sorry about that. (Translation will follow.)

Writing Gender Violence

Oscars. Pathfoot Building, University of Stirling. Looks simple, doesn’t it? But by clicking the map link in my Eventbrite email for my fourth event of Book Week Scotland I was taken to the Kilted Kangaroo. That’s a bar. In town. I think. So I Googled Oscars and looked at countless maps of the university. No Oscars.

The Resident IT Consultant dropped me off at the top of Pathfoot – to save me all those stairs, what with the building sitting on a slope – and went for a walk up on Sheriffmuir. So did I. Walk, I mean. I laboured down all those stairs until I got to the reception, where I asked about the event, which the receptionist had never heard of. But she squinted at a discreet A4 sheet on the door, and asked if that was it. It was. So I walked back up the stairs to where I’d started. Oscars is the dining room, except this is not mentioned on any map.

As with the college in Alloa, I reckon the event was really for university staff and students, and they’d know Oscar, whoever he may be. But I got there, and the view was lovely. The campus loch and the Wallace Monument in the background, and the famous Scottish sunshine on the grassy slopes. Beautiful.

Pathfoot, University of Stirling

Now, you know me. Gender violence is not the first thing you think of for a Bookwitch. But the discussion sounded interesting, it was local, and it was to feature Alexandra Sokoloff, among others. Alex had to join us via Skype in the end, as she appears to be stuck in California for various reasons, and where it was very early in the morning.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Chaired by professor Karen Boyle, we also had psychotherapist Madeleine Black, Lydia House from Zero Tolerance and Lorna Hill, who’d just submitted her PhD (Bloody Women: The Role of Women in Scottish and Scandinavian Crime Fiction) that morning. This was to be part of 16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence, which will culminate in an event at the Scottish Parliament next Thursday.

Lydia House

Lydia House started by telling us about the stock images Zero Tolerance have put together, which are free to use, and more suitable for portraying violence against women than what the media usually go for. She also mentioned an award for good writing.

Madeleine Black, who’s written the book Unbroken (about when she was repeatedly raped as a teenager), talks a lot at events, and feels she’s finally getting across what rape means, citing her [male] editor who eventually grasped what the experience had been like.

Lorna Hill is a former journalist who tired of gender violence being considered a taboo subject. As part of her PhD she has written a crime novel, about human trafficking and domestic abuse.

Alexandra Sokoloff’s novel Huntress Moon is about a female serial killer. In Hollywood serial killers are ‘just part of our classic language.’ Alex wanted to reach a large audience, which is why she chose this topic for her novel, and she points out that violence against women is so common, that even though her serial killer has killed a lot of men (slitting throats is apparently quick), she still needs to look out for her own safety when out.

It’s important to point out that this kind of violence makes for a ‘series of surviving’ and it’s not something you only do once. It happens all the time. Over and over again.

Karen Boyle

Madeleine finally realised that date sex can also be rape, and she set out to write her book to tell the world what had happened. Many readers of her book have decided that despite the warning about the violence, they ‘owed it to [Madeleine’s] 13-year-old self’ to read the chapter. Karen Boyle admitted that she wanted Alex’s killer to come after Madeleine’s rapists.

Lorna talked about cultural appropriation, and how she felt she was allowed to write about an African girl who had been trafficked, despite not being either African or abused. Lydia mentioned that it’s important to have survivor-led action. And one of the best interviews Madeleine had ever done was with Trevor McDonald, which she later heard had made an 81-year-old woman open up about what had happened to her many years earlier.

Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Alex said that with television screenwriting, they are looking for edgier and edgier subjects, which now means they want something with women. She also pointed out that it’s vital to call the crimes ‘male violence against women’; that you must mention who did it, rather than against whom.

Lydia said that with their new stock images, it becomes easier to show that much abuse is emotional, rather than ‘a black eye.’ Some women believe they can’t ask for help because they have not been hit and have no bruises to show. They also believe it’s their fault.

Media has not helped by first deciding what they want to write about, and then asking for a victim of a specific kind of crime [rape in a taxi], instead of looking at the whole problem. According to Alex there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits handed in to the police, that have not been processed, because the police don’t know what to do with them.

Alex reckons that after Weinstein, and with Trump in power, women have nothing to lose. It’s time to do something. Madeleine feels you must share, because ‘the shame belongs to the perpetrators.’

Madeleine Black, Lydia House, Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Karen asked the women for their take-home points, and Madeleine said ‘do it!’ Lorna agreed, ‘just do it, have confidence in yourself.’ Alex said there are many ways of being active; journalism, writing fiction, activism, and she mentioned her own writing classes in Stirling (for when she’s allowed back in…).

Lydia reminded us of the writing award next week, and the event on Thursday at Parliament. And Karen said there is also a march from Stirling Castle Esplanade on Thursday December 7th at 6.30pm, for anyone who wants to take part.

Lin Anderson – ‘It’s difficult to murder people at home’

Dumyat

The steps up to the entrance of Forth Valley College in Alloa were murder. It wasn’t quite Follow the Dead – which is Lin Anderson’s most recent crime novel – but nearly. On a brighter note, the view was spectacular. Once you arrived. I could almost enrol for the view alone.

We’d parked in the Asda car park, and the upside of this was that we could see the car during Lin’s Book Week Scotland event, knowing that it was all right and happy.

Lin Anderson

The event seemed to attract mostly staff and students from the college, and it must have been great to have someone of Lin’s stature come and visit ‘at home.’ I’d not thought of her height until Lin pointed it out, mentioning how she and her sisters used to stand out among the short people of Glasgow, known as ‘big Willie Mitchell’s daughters.’

Lin Anderson

Lin’s dad was a detective, and he used to worry when he got to a crime scene that he’d find one of his girls there, either as the victim or the perpetrator. And it was this thought which formed the basis of Lin’s first Rhona MacLeod novel Driftnet. At the time she didn’t know there were going to be more books about Rhona, but now there are twelve.

Before writing, Lin was a teacher, and she’s keen to point out that a future author does not necessarily teach English. In her case it was Computer Science.

She realised that she needed a better knowledge of forensic science, so – along with Alex Gray – she joined an evening class in forensics. It was primarily aimed at people who through their work need to appear in court at murder trials, but it worked fine for crime writers too. Lin still refers to her course notes. (And the less said about the [real] victim with an axe in his head and his missing pet snake, the better.)

Lin Anderson

Her new book was inspired by a blizzard in the Cairngorms one New Year. It involved learning about what Mountain Rescue teams do, about answering the call of nature during a blizzard, and how to incorporate something Norwegian in her story.

We learned that these days all deaths in the mountains are a crime scene, and that Mountain Rescue take photos of victims. Up there a forensic tent can very easily just blow away. And did you know the temperature in a mortuary is 4 degrees, like a fridge, not a freezer?

Lin is happy with the trend of fans paying money to charity to feature in books. Apparently the latest thing is to be allowed to go to bed with the detective (if you fancy him/her), and she has actually kept someone from her home village on in more than one book, feeling that this way the character gets more rounded. ‘Her’ Mary Grant even does her own PR and signs the books…

And Lin strongly feels we should volunteer at Bloody Scotland. It’s great in every way. In fact, she talked a lot about her baby, Bloody Scotland. And yes, you are allowed to say Bloody. Not everyone knows this.

Finally, the hardest thing about writing a book are the words.

Ochils

We over-ran quite a bit, which proves how interesting it was. I then had to get down all those [bloody] steps again, so we could retrieve the car, but not before engaging in some shopping. After which, the Resident IT Consultant spent the drive back thinking about getting hold of more of Lin’s books.

Noireland

Isn’t it marvellous what you can do with the word noir? All these crime festivals where noir can be slotted in quite effortlessly. Like here, in Noireland, which as any fool can see is short for Northern Ireland.

That’s Belfast, really. It’s where you want to go to spend the weekend of 27th to 29th October. Sorry about the short notice.

Noireland

I’d like to go myself, as it looks both tempting and is a short hop across the water from here. It’s organised by David Torrans, the man famous for running Belfast’s famous crime bookshop. The one who’s actually in some crime novels. It all happens at the Europa hotel, so would be convenient, too. Hotel stay. Shoulder-rubbing with crime writers. Perfect.

Judging by the photos flashing across my computer screen, Stuart Neville will be singing and playing the guitar. Many of the Irish authors I’ve come to know from the Crime Always Pays blog will be appearing. My favourite as ever is Adrian McKinty who’ll be travelling across a rather bigger water than I’d have to do.

They are borrowing a few people from Scotland, like Craig Robertson and Abir Mukherjee. From England Sophie Hannah, and from my own neck of woods Arne Dahl. So, not all Irish, but satisfyingly Irish.

Have a look on their website. This is their first time. I’m guessing it might not be the last. I hope not, because one of these years I will get to Belfast. The Titanic, you know.

Resurrection

Thank god for authors like Derek Landy who change their minds! Resurrection is the tenth – of nine – books about Skulduggery Pleasant (not counting the extra book), and I am really grateful it’s here. I’d not understood how much you can miss a witty, and occasionally unrelieable, skeleton detective.

But you can. I mean, I can.

And here he is, back from where we left him, and well, I don’t know, but I can see more books where this one came from. I can, can’t I? Derek?

Derek Landy, Resurrection

The best thing for people like me who don’t always remember where we left things, by which I mean who lived and who died and who was your friend, or who was your enemy, is that it doesn’t matter. Characters change allegiance faster than they do hats, and when the dead can rise again, death means very little.

Valkyrie isn’t feeling so good. Guilt does that to a person and being responsible for so many deaths – even by proxy – isn’t much fun. But hey, we have Skulduggery and we have a whole host of new young things, good ones and bad ones.

Omen Darkly is one of them. Aged 14, he lives in the shadow of his brother, who is the Chosen One. I reckon Omen is really Derek. And/or really me. I have a lot in common with poor Omen. Brave Omen. Except I wouldn’t be brave. As Valkyrie says, ‘The world is a scary place, and it’s only getting scarier. The American president is a narcissistic psychopath. Fascism, racism, misogyny and homophobia are all on the rise…’ And let’s not mention any more cheerful facts about our world just now.

Resurrection is a fantastic return to the magic Ireland we love. Please let there be more! After all, by reviving people, it’s not as if we are running out of characters. Trust no one.