Category Archives: Crime

A kind of Bernard, but one level down

One day I will know not to say to people I’ve just met that I’m pleased they are so old. I mean it in the most positive way, but realised – belatedly – that it might not sound too good.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about Lindsey Davis, and when her publicist mentioned her to me, I visualised a twenty-something with long blonde hair. (It’s something about the name, that sounds so blonde and so young.) Hence my relief on discovering Lindsey is 66 and wears black socks. Like Jeremy Corbyn. (Her words, not mine.) She was ‘terribly sorry, but it’s just the way things are.’

Lindsey used to be a civil servant, rather like Bernard in Yes Minister. Now a bestselling author of historical Roman crime novels, Lindsey could take up sitdown comedy if she ever wants to, with no need to go civil servanting again. And at 66 she has her pension. I do hope her sense of humour will help her forget my bad manners. As I said, I meant well. (And as Lindsey said, ‘no I’m not going to stop [writing]. I don’t think female authors give up, do they? How old was P D James? 93.’)

We had tea, and coffee (which was not so frothy it gave her the moustache she craved), before her Bloody Scotland event. I’m grateful for the opportunity not only of meeting Lindsey, but being able to switch events to go to hers. It was one of the best ever, and I’d happily go again tomorrow. She had started her day by lying down on the carpet in her hotel room, until she remembered that in CSI they always point out how much ‘stuff’ will be lurking in a small square of hotel carpet. But since she was down there, she decided to make use of it.

When she was a civil servant during Thatcher’s reign, Lindsey used to do many strange things, and I especially approve of building toilets in – already – ancient monuments. And that’s with only O-level Maths, and English from Oxford. Lindsey decided to leave the civil service when she had to write draft letters on behalf of someone, and then had to write draft replies back to herself.

Lindsey Davis

To cheer herself up Lindsey wrote a novel, set in her favourite period, the English Civil War. She was runner up in a writing competition, so decided to give writing a go. In the 1980s the Civil War was the wrong period. ‘I chose the Romans because nobody else was doing it, which now seems rather funny. I like to tell myself they wouldn’t be there [in the bookshops] if I hadn’t.’ She had a leaking roof that needed money spending on it, and she’d already done some research on the period, and could ‘bluff well.’

Her Marcus Didius Falco books are in effect the Roman Archers; with her adding family details as the series grew. When writing about the Emperor Domitian, Lindsey discovered she quite likes ‘evil paranoid tyrants,’ reckoning she is one of them.

The new Albia series about Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia is set when Albia has reached adulthood, so she has a certain standing in society, despite being a mere woman. Lindsey also feels that both authors and their characters need maturity and life experience, in order to avoid that young, blonde feeling.

(I kept mentioning the Roman Mysteries, and the fact that the female detective in those books is also a Flavia. Apparently you would be named for the Emperor, which explains the staggering number of Flavias. And then I mentioned the RM a bit more still… Lindsey reckons girls didn’t marry as early as we are made to believe. ‘I’m not convinced that that really happened. I think it was something that was practised in the aristocracy.’)

The most recent Albia book, Deadly Election, wasn’t planned to coincide with the elections either here or in the US. It mainly happened because of some stolen Rugby tickets for the Five Nations in Rome, which Lindsey had thought she could use for some kind of Colosseum background. And anyway, in Rome it was the Emperor who decided, with no elections necessary. (She told me she had always wanted to write about a Roman election, and how in the series this was a good moment. ‘And I found a book on it as well, so it just happened, and then I realised just how exciting it was going to be.)

Lindsey Davis

During the Q&A we discovered that the hall was full of retired civil servants. One man wanted her to come and live next door. I think that was a sensible request. We got an explanation to the background of the turbot gift, which featured an editor burning his hands on a hot tray of recently cooked fish. A very large fish, but no turbot.

Lindsey is a sneaky woman. I like her. She wanted to write a series of seven books, set on the seven hills of Rome. Two editors said no. Instead she’s writing about Albia. Each book is set on one of the hills of Rome. A new hill every book. There will be seven books.

She doesn’t plan much. (Except perhaps for the seven hills thing.) She has a vague idea of who will die and who did it, but wouldn’t want a long synopsis to ‘colour in’ when writing the book. And no need to suggest potential plots to her. ‘I don’t want people to give me ideas. I have plenty of ideas myself!’

At this point someone felt called upon to let us know that Lindsey’s ‘twin’ Jeremy Corbyn had won, so black socks are clearly ‘it.’ She grew up as much on radio drama crime as on books, liking Chandler and Hammett. Lindsey does read, but ‘when I stop work I tend to do something completely different, like gardening.’

No ‘street Latin’ for her in the books, either. ‘I hate books where they break into foreign languages.’  What she’s got is mainly 1940s style wise cracks. Lindsey finished by reading the first page from her next novel in the Albia series. This is a woman who knows what she’s doing.

Lindsey Davis

At the end of the day I discovered I was also wearing black socks. Admittedly, I’m not 66, but it’s a good witchy number. Long live old age.

And then it was Sunday

Rubbing shoulders with all these crime writers has made me see the potential for murder everywhere. For instance, the fresh blood spatters in the ladies toilet? The possibilities are endless. The man with the shoulderbag strap? I saw him twice. Just because you see someone a lot, doesn’t mean you know them and that they are safe. (You from them, or they from you…)

Neil Broadfoot and James Oswald

I went to see three more noir boys before lunch. This time they were Edinburgh Noir. They may have been sold out. James Oswald reckoned ‘that was fun’ when I caught up with him in the corridor after the event.

You may remember I had running to do. So after I’d made sure the three noirs sat down to sign at the table laid for three, rather than four, it was all downhill for me again. But at least it was dry.

Outside the Albert Halls

It was so dry I was able to sit in the small park area in front of the Albert Halls to have my lunch. I even had a wasp trying to enter my sandwich bag. It made me realise two things; that we’ve not seen many wasps at all this cold summer, and that here is where I always attract wasps. Between one Bloody September and the next, I forget. I watched two men wielding a mallet and a saw (because that’s not dangerous at all). From their sign it seems they build cabinets. Don’t know why they did it in the park, though.

Queue for Sophie Hannah

Missed Lin Anderson’s signing due to my outdoor picnic. And then I went in for my two Albert Halls events, not meeting a single unexpected person and having a generally uneventful afternoon. If I could have Sophie Hannah’s trousers I’d be happy, but I daresay she needs them herself.

Ian Rankin

If Ian Rankin looks happy it’s because he and his fellow Scots in the Scottish football team drew with England. Naturally this was when it rained. 5-5, which apparently means the local team keeps the cup because they won last year…

It wasn’t so dry that it didn’t rain at all, but it mostly did this while I was indoors and the rain was not. On my way home I could have made it all the way in the dry, had I not stopped to help a lady in a car find her way to the street next to Bookwitch Towers. It struck me I could have offered to show her the way if she gave me a lift, but it also struck me that we’d both be safer not sharing a car with a stranger, however nice we both seemed.

That’s murder for you.

The Nordic Noir boys

It was a toss-up between my pasts; Nordic Noir or Brighton Rocks? I went with the Nordic boys, but didn’t admit to having been to Öland when Johan Theorin asked. It was a long time ago and I prefer to remember it as a summer paradise, and not one of Johan’s bleak crime settings.

Johan Theorin

Chair Miriam Owen did a good job, only slightly dishing out criticism at men who eat yoghurt with cinnamon, which apparently no Scottish male in his right mind would do. Well, maybe not.

They are all bleak, in their own way. Apart from Johan’s Öland, we have Gunnar Staalesen’s Bergen and Ragnar Jonasson’s northernmost town in Iceland, where the sun never appears in winter, and the tunnel in might become blocked by an avalanche. Although, he professed to being an Agatha Christie fan – as well as being her translator – so he’s probably all sweetness, really.

It seems that 50 years ago there were no murders in Iceland. They only arrived with the crime novels, so we know who to blame. Johan is hoping there will be a trend that brings new Nordic crime from recent immigrants, and he mentioned how humorous they’ve become in Sweden… (That’s not why people like you, you know!)

Apart from Gunnar’s Spanish translator who felt he had so little food in his novels that he added some for him, there is food in them books. Ragnar does pizza a lot, both for himself and his characters, but his UK editor required more Icelandic fare, so he had to edit his food. Johan tried to explain kroppkakor, but I think we do well to stop at slaughtering the right pig.

Do they work closely with their translators? Well, Ragnar was sure he knew how to translate a book, so helpfully corrected a friend’s work, all in red. Johan’s translator corrects his mistakes, not vice versa. Gunnar has the excellent Don Bartlett, so finds he has to go back to his Norwegian original and alter things he’s got wrong.

And there’s an explanation to the cinnamony yoghurt. It’s not yoghurt at all, but filmjölk, in which case the cinnamon makes sense, and any man should be proud to eat it.

Gunnar Staalesen

Gunnar had been incensed by ‘his’ films. They put an actor speaking in an Oslo accent to play Warg, who has a very strong Bergen accent, and believe me, even a foreigner like me can tell the difference. Johan feels it’s like sending your child out into the world. You just want to go along and hold their hand.

The Norwegian Easter crime trend was explained. Everyone goes to their second home for ten days at Easter. Everyone wants to read crime when they do. So, lots of published crime, easy to carry up that mountain to your cabin. In Iceland you get your books for Christmas instead. Everyone has to read a book on Christmas Eve. Gunnar said it’s those dark night which make Nordic readers such prolific readers.

Asked if they have anything like Bloody Scotland, they said of course they do. And of course they do. There is Crime Time Gotland, and Iceland Noir and there might even be a Bloody Bergen one day.

Gunnar likes red herrings, and in case his readers see them coming, he then adds a green herring for good measure. Johan had been in danger of making his books into tourist brochures, but his translator pointed out they were not. And Ragnar feels it’s best to write for the Icelanders, and offer no explanations. The reason Nordic crime on television has been so successful is that they are very well written.

Ragnar Jonasson

Who would they themselves go and listen to this weekend? Gunnar likes Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Philip Kerr. Ragnar goes for Peter May, while Johan extolled the writing of James Oswald.

And I simply cannot explain the bloodstain which appeared on the last page of my notebook during the last few minutes…

Saturday’s people

I had a pot of builder’s tea with Roman crime writer Lindsey Davis first thing on Saturday morning. Well, Lindsey had coffee, but her publicist Kerry and I had Very Strong Tea. It was Kerry who suggested I’d love to meet Lindsey, and how right she was! (Kerry usually is.) I’ll tell you more about our chat in a later post, but I have to mention what a beautiful purple coat Lindsey wore. (Apparently she owns matching colour boots. My kind of woman.)

There was some talk about the Nordic authors who had been offered pickled herring for breakfast (obviously to make them really feel at home), when all they wanted was a good old British cooked breakfast. Rollmops, anyone?

We also talked about Kerry’s lovely dog, which I met last year, and this led nicely to the serious matter of shopping. After our tea, and coffee, we hobbled separately down the hill to the Albert Halls for Lindsey’s event.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Allan Guthrie

Since there is no sense in not photographing signing authors when they’re available, I grabbed pictures of Alexandra Sokoloff, Allan Guthrie, Lin Anderson and Val McDermid, all of whom worked the early morning shift.

Lin Anderson

Val McDermid

Then it was on to Lindsey’s event with all the civil servants. I’ll tell you more later. To my great surprise I found Blackwell’s allrounder Ann Landmann safely outside the onsite Waterstones, wearing a Bloody Scotland t-shirt. Seems she can’t get enough of book events and festivals.

Lindsey Davis

As I was going about my business taking photos of Lindsey, while discreetly ignoring the fact that Ian Rankin was sitting in the café, I encountered a surprisingly soberly dressed Kirkland Ciccone, who’d brought a friend there as a birthday present. For her, not for him.

Kirkland Ciccone

It was still raining so I ate my sandwiches in the bookshop, as discreetly as I could. I checked out Lindsey’s books and decided they look very nice indeed.

Still in the rain, I walked back up to the Stirling Highland Hotel, passing the man with the interesting shoulderbag strap. I recognised the strap first, and the rest of him second. Caught a glimpse of James Oswald on his way down, as I puffed uphill.

Had plenty of time after that so went and sat in the bar, reading and looking at people. Ann Cleeves came in, and I spied publisher Clare Cain – she who drives Plague Doctors around Edinburgh. Went to my afternoon event on Nordic Noir, before starting on my last downhill trip for the day, conveniently finding James Oswald in the car park, so I stopped and chatted. Good thing, as I’ll be running again after his Sunday event.

Not exactly running, but you know.

Ian Rankin & Co

Bloody Scotland 2015

Bear with me. There will be more later, about bloody lovely authors and their bloody fantastic books, and this bloody crime festival we now have in Stirling.

My bloody sandwiches have been packed. And so, I hope, is everything else I need, to bring you the best from Bloody Scotland.

I really hope it won’t rain. I know, the events are indoors, but it brightens my soul when it’s warm and sunny, and I’ve got sort of used to that.

See you later,

Bloody Scotland

The Girl Who Broke the Rules

Marnie Riches’ ‘Girl’ really does break rules. A lot. The first novel was exceptionally good. So is this one, as long as I can manage not to dwell on the actual murders in too much detail. They are far more gruesome than those bodies blown to bits in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Proceed with caution. And do keep in mind that George swears a lot, comes from a rough background, and is actually still only 24 years old.

She’s the most fantastic of heroines. I’d like her to be more sensible occasionally, but then she’d not be the George McKenzie we love.

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Broke the Rules

In Amsterdam immigrant women are being murdered in a way I’d rather not describe here. And van den Bergen is unwell, he misses George, and he needs her to come and help solve this case. But she’s busy, and can’t get permission to travel, and she misses him too, and is troubled by her – lack of – feelings for her boyfriend.

As in the first book, aspects of George’s life in England have a bearing on the Amsterdam murders. It’s simply that she has a rich background to draw from, and it’s hard to work out what and who. If there’s a pervert out there, George will know him.

Very cliffhangery sort of cliffhanger at the end. There will be a third book. I’d rather not speculate on how Marnie will kill her victims in that one.

(Buy the ebook here.)

Work Experience

In the end I imagine it was only chair Jane Sandell and me who had read Andy Mulligan’s new novel Liquidator.* And that’s because it’s not out yet, but they did make an exception at the book festival and keen fans could buy a very early copy there on Sunday afternoon.

Andy Mulligan, Liquidator

I was relieved to hear that Jane had had to read the book in one sitting, as I’d had the same feeling myself and wanted to know I wasn’t wrong. (Not that I usually am, obviously, and as you know, Andy writes Very Good Books.)

It’s all about work experience when you’re at secondary school, and how things can go a little wrong. Andy reckons he was lucky to be made redundant in the 1980s, which meant he ended up travelling to India to work, and then to train as a teacher, before starting to write. The man harvests his characters in the schools where he works or has worked. With the right children in the right school you have a lot of fun.

He grew up in south London, had Enid Blyton values, went to a boys’ grammar school, and so on. His father wanted a ‘real boy’ but thanks to a great teacher who encouraged him, Andy always sat in his room writing stories.

Jane reminded us of his shot to fame as the author of the book that was kicked off the Blue Peter book award shortlist for p 65. That little spat gave him more publicity than winning the award would have done.

In case people in the audience didn’t know what work experience is, Andy explained it. I suspect we have all done it, in some form or other, but these days it’s harder than ever to get something worthwhile to do. As a teacher he always hopes that his pupils will come back having been allowed to land the plane or wield the scalpel in the operating theatre, being inspired in what they could do when they are older.

Liquidator took Andy two and a half years to write, and he said his lovely publisher David Fickling was very critical at times, and told Andy to ‘make him cry,’ meaning he hadn’t yet. What Andy wanted to achieve was real jeopardy for his characters, not the Blyton style risk that ten-year-olds want.

Ribblestrop is a mishmash of several schools (which for obvious reasons can’t be named); ones with troubled pupils, and because of them, troubled teachers too.

Andy Mulligan

Asked how he knew what a rubbish dump in the Philippines was like, he explained he’d taken his public school pupils on a school trip to one, so that they would know and understand life better. And he’s very shocked that pupils don’t ever read newspapers these days.

Andy writes books covering lots of genres, but can’t see himself writing fantasy, so had to say no to the child who suggested he put a nice dragon into Trash. You’re allowed to stretch reality and you can break a few rules. But no dragons.

The next book has already reached the first draft stage, and is about a dog that wants to be a cat. (Someone in the audience said she has one like that.) He sees himself only as a children’s books author, and has never dabbled with adult books. Andy is comfortable where he is, and especially so with age group 11 to 16.

*Patience! There will be a review here soon.