Tag Archives: Sue Black


Pippi was in town. Well, she’s been in Scotland for a week, dividing her time between Glasgow (The Prom) and Edinburgh, where I arranged to meet her for another afternoon tea. But never mind the tea, although we were seated on a very comfortable sofa, which is what I like in my old age.

Pippi wanted to know where I sit to read. Seems there’s some programme in Sweden where people are asked this question. She asked twice. Well, at our ages we forget.

On her last visit Pippi bought Sue Black’s All That Remains, about her life and dead bodies and all that. It’s one of the best books she’s read for some time. I’m not surprised. I like Sue, who’s always interesting. Although, when Pippi tried to interest her friends in the book, it seems pathology isn’t high on people’s TBR lists.

When we were fully stuffed with afternoon tea, we took ourselves off to Son’s, who doesn’t live that far away. He was also asked where he sits to read (after Pippi had had the guided tour of his home, which Swedes insist on).

On the way back to Waverley we had to wait 25 minutes for the 25 bus, and by the time it arrived I was so stiff from standing, it was all my body could do to get itself onto the bus and fold my limbs into a sitting position.

At Waverley we said goodbye and agreed that if we are both still alive next year, there can be more tea.

Then I had a nice read of my new book on the train home. It’s about [dead] bodies, but has such a colourful cover that Pippi mistook it for a children’s book.


Getting rid of the bodies – Bloody Scotland

Yes, I am aware I made this year’s Bloody Scotland the beginners’ festival, but James Oswald is my new crime writer. When he turned up four years ago to take the place of Eoin Colfer, I was disappointed, but only for about three minutes. And anyone who can, if not exactly replace our favourite Irishman, be just as good but in a different way is, well, good. Yes, I know I just said that. Besides James was given the extra handicap of having to read after Colin Bateman.

And he survived! After a few years of coming back to Stirling, and being part of panels of three or four, here he was, practically on his own, and in a full Albert Halls at that. Yes, I know he appeared with Sue Black, the famous forensic anthropologist dame, but I usually think of her as being paired with Val McDermid, so this was definitely a step up, or two [for James]. And Lin Anderson was there to keep order as they talked corpses and what to do with them.

Lin actually insinuated that we in the audience were somewhat suspect, as though we all had dead bodies we needed advice on disposing of.

James Oswald books

They spoke mostly about James’s latest Tony McLean novel, Written in Bones, and where he put his corpse and what could be done with it after. That’s up a tree in the Meadows (just outside Lin’s flat, I gather), and the trick is how you remove a body without it deteriorating or ending up all over people and roads and that kind of thing.

Sue told us about different injuries to bodies, ante mortem, peri mortem, and post mortem. James apparently got the idea for using a cherry picker from a friend, but when asked if she’d like to go up in one to look at a dead body, Sue replied ‘God no!’

James admitted that Tony McLean is a bit him. He has given Tony most of his own hang-ups. And he does actually own three Alfa Romeos, albeit only one that works and lives in the garage. The other two are in the cowshed. Despite making Tony’s grandmother such an integral part of the books, James never knew either of his; only his maternal grandfather.

James Oswald

Sue said that her grandmother was her best friend, and talked about how tough it was for her teenage self to discover that her grandmother’s sixty-a-day habit was about to kill her. ‘Oh, she was a wicked woman!’ Sue said about her best friend. It seems her grandmother consoled her by explaining that she’d never leave her; that she would be sitting on her left shoulder, where ‘that bloody woman’ has witnessed all that Sue has done. If you’re wondering, the right shoulder’s for the angel.

Sue Black

Sue didn’t enjoy counting dead fruit flies at university, so switched courses at some point. She also had a gruesome tale about a barbecue where you first had to choose your meat, while it was still a living animal… It could be that Sue really doesn’t know what to do when she grows up, but meanwhile she is Professor at the University of Dundee, where she raised half of the two million pounds needed for a new, bigger and better mortuary.

That’s where Val McDermid came in, bringing her crime writing friends in to raise money, for what is now the McDermid Mortuary, after its largest donor. The various tanks in the mortuary were named after other authors, but Lee Child said they couldn’t have a Child tank, so it’s now named after Jack Reacher. Somewhere in the tale of raising money, there is a cookbook, which Sue said was perhaps not the best thing for when you’re involved in disposing of bodies. And beware Sue’s husband’s margaritas. Have one, or possibly two, but after the third you’ll ‘never walk again.’

Talking about the bodies donated for research, they have an annual memorial service for these people, because it’s important to remember who they were . On the other hand, Sue doesn’t approve of ‘body farms’ and after hearing what they do, neither do I. And because we are all experts now, after watching CSI, people like Sue can never hope to compete in court, so juries are less impressed.

James said that on one occasion he made Tony travel outside Edinburgh, to victims discovered near James’s own farm, and when Tony needs to clear his head by going for a walk, he is chased by James’s highland cows. As for himself, he’s so shy he has never asked the police about procedure, afraid he’d be arrested if he did. For him the touchstone is whether what he’s writing is plausible, and he will rewrite if worried. His first bit of fan mail came from a retired policeman who was so impressed he wanted to know who his source was, because he could almost guess.

James Oswald

On the subject of fan input, the most James has had is about Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. ‘Is it all right?’ ‘Don’t hurt it!’ Someone wanted a book about the cat, and James reckons he might manage a short story about Mrs McCutcheon’s cat.

There wasn’t much time for questions, but a member of the audience said they’d done a tour of the mortuary, and it was wonderful. Sue said ‘there is no fear in death,’ but James pointed out he’s really sqeamish and has never actually been to a mortuary…

Missed events and a reunion

Alexander McCall Smith

The Alexander McCall Smith avoidance continued to rule. We might have some photos of the man, but through various oversights on Tuesday, we ended up having to give his children’s event a miss. We had a shorter working day, but somehow the whole day was short.

Sue Black and Val McDermid

Got to Charlotte Square just in time for photographs with Val McDermid and Sue Black. I know it’s the writing that counts, and the event, but I have to make a remark about Val’s rather nice top. Sue looked far too nice a person to be into morgues and such things. But she is.

Omitted taking pictures of David Bellos, because we didn’t know who he was at the time. I realised as he walked away that he was the one responsible for the book on translation I mentioned some time ago, and which I had failed to get a copy of. Refrained from running after him to ask if he had a spare copy on him.

Then as we were waiting for Sven Lindqvist, Daughter spied her Rector, Alistair Moffat, and got very excited. Unfortunately we had missed his photocall as well… And she was too shy to chat to him.

Sven never turned up. Eventually he was found in his tent, by which I mean the venue for his talk. He was comfortable there, and wanted to remain seated, which is fine. I like someone with unconventional ideas. And we caught up with him at his signing, where he was faced with my totally ancient copy of his recently translated Myten om Wu Tao-tzu. It made him smile.

Sven Lindqvist - Myten om Wu Tao-tzu

In the queue I recognised a rucksack. It belonged to the lady in front. I remembered it – and her – from two years ago. This time I struck up a conversation with her, Swede-to-Swede, as we were queueing for our fellow countryman to sign our books.

Sven Lindqvist

And afterwards I had warmed up enough to go over to chat briefly with Sven’s wife, who was waiting on the sidelines. But we missed Hilary Mantel. Obviously.

The internet graced us with its presence for a while, so we sat in the sunshine outside the yurt and did our online stuff.

(I must mention the way festival staff dealt with the emergency halfway through Sven Lindqvist’s talk. Someone collapsed and staff quickly and efficiently took care of the woman and got her out, allowing the event to continue. Impressive.)