Day 2 Saturday 4 November 2017
Coffee, cake and crime, an excellent start to the day. Our writers this morning were Michael J Malone and Daniel Shand and in the chair, Marjory Wallace of The Bookmark bookshop.
Both authors started by reading a piece from their most recent books – Michael from his House of Spines and Daniel from his book Fallow which won the Betty Trask Award this year. The Betty Trask Prize and Awards are for first novels written by authors under the age of 35, who live in a Commonwealth nation. Each year the awards total £20,000, with one author – in this case, Daniel,receiving a larger prize amount, called the “Prize”, and the remainder given to one or more other writers, called the “Awards”.
Fallow is the story of two brothers, Paul and Mike, on the run in the Scottish Highlands. Daniel talked about the initial idea which came from having 2 characters set in a tent, inextricably tied together, living in that narrow gap in society which is completely outside of societal norms.
What really intrigued Daniel was the idea of a classic double act and the relationship dynamics that produces, with the added complication of an unreliable narrator.
Michael pretty much wrote his whole book in a month after finding a paragraph in an old notebook which he had absolutely no recollection of writing. That in itself is quite spooky and sets the tone nicely for his cracking book. But if that were not spooky enough, House of Spines has characters named Rebecca and Mrs Winter, yet Michael has never read Daphne Du Maurier’s classic tale….spooky or what?!
Both Daniel and Michael’s books have similarities; both deal with mental illness both are psychological thrillers, both have unreliable narrators.
Michael’s narrator is bi-polar. Does Randall see a ghost in the mirror, or is it his illness asserting itself? It’s up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Daniel’s protagonist is never specifically diagnosed, but he enjoys the situation of putting two people together to spark the folie a deux action.
Both authors have chosen to place their characters in non-urban locations. Daniel because he wanted to emphasise the unfamiliar and place his characters outside their comfort zone in a place where they don’t quite understand how things work. Michael placed his character just outside the suburb of Bearsden because he wanted to increase the sense of isolation that his character Ranald is experiencing.
Neither writer plots nor plans, preferring to see where their writing will lead them.
A fascinating session.
UnearthlyCrime with Yrsa Sigurdardottir and James Oswald.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir instantly became my favourite writer when she produced a well-chilled bottle of aquavit and proceeded to dispense it to the audience – her gift from an Icelander to the Scots. How generous was that thought? Just brilliant for a cold autumnal November.
Yrsa read from her new novel, The Legacy which is the start of a new series involving The Children’s House. Yrsa explained that The Children’s House exists in Iceland. It is a place which specialises in traumatised children, especially those who have been subjected to sexual abuse, and it deals with all aspects of a case relating to those children including medical, police and any court cases. They have developed an expertise is in being able to interview children and to gently get the truth from them, rather than a child telling a figure of authority what that child thinks the adult wants to hear.
The model has been so successful that it has begun to be replicated in other countries. This then, is the centre of Yrsa’s new series involving a child psychiatrist Freyja and a Police Detective, Huldar.
In the Legacy, the murder was meant as a punishment – but what sin could justify the method?
The only person who might have answers is the victim’s seven-year-old daughter, found hiding in the room where her mother died. And she’s not talking.
Newly promoted, out of his depth, detective Huldar turns to Freyja and the Children’s House for their expertise with traumatised young people. Freyja, who distrusts the police in general and Huldar in particular, isn’t best pleased. But she’s determined to keep little Margret safe.
James Oswald’s latest book, Written in Bones is the 7th in the Inspector McLean series. When a body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.
The dead man had led quite a life: a disgraced former D.S.who had been injured in the line of duty but whose injuries had led him down the path of addiction. This had led him into crime but latterly he had reinvented himself by setting up a well-known rehabilitation charity in the city. James explained that having the dead man as a former policeman was an excellent opportunity to mine the past and to re-examine police involvement in a number of cold cases.
In conversation, Yrsa said that she was pleased to be starting a new series. Her previous series, about a lawyer, ran to 6 books and she felt there was a limit to how much she could evolve her characters. She does, though, also enjoy writing stand-alone novels as she finds that there is something liberating in having characters that are completely disposable, she can kill off whoever she wants!
James shared with us that his move into crime from fantasy was at the suggestion of Stuart McBride. Stuart, who is a talented artist had been illustrating some of James fantasy graphic novels and had suggested to James that he should make the move into crime writing. Inspector McLean had started life as a support character in one of James’ comic stories where a ghost was wandering the streets. He sees ghosts and demons as a reflection of the evil in society and enjoys the challenge of writing about where logic meets the irrational and then working out how to deal with that.
Yrsa has no ghosts in her new series, but points out that 60-80% of Icelanders do believe in ghosts. Interesting both writers have publishers who are not at all happy about their authors mentioning either the word ghost or supernatural – presumably because it is crime that sells and these terms are too niche for a broad appeal.
Each talked about how they got into writing. Yrsa, who is a consulting engineer, noticed that her son was not much of a reader and wanted to encourage him. But she found that Scandinavian children’s books were, on the whole, a bit depressing, so made her first foray into writing by writing a series of humorous children’s books.
James grew up reading 2000AD and wanted to write comics, which was how he met Stuart McBride, who used to draw his words. But the comics industry is very hard to break into (great news for us) and so he slid into writing prose.
There was some discussion of similarities between tartan and scandi noir , with the thought that perhaps there are some traits in dark nights and landscapes that the genres share, but that generally these are just marketing labels.
The biggest gasp of the session came from a discussion on how the writers work. While James doesn’t really plot, but prefers to write and see what happens, Yrsa has the plot, idea and layout in her head when she starts and she submits to her publisher chapter by chapter. This leads to the extraordinary situation where she can submit the final chapter at the end of a week and have the book ready to publish in the following week. Now that’s organised and disciplined!
Session 3 – Places to Die with Caro Ramsay and Lin Anderson, chaired by Douglas Skelton
Caro Ramsay was 9 years old when she wrote her first story. It was a story where the teddies bears were not so much on a picnic as a killing spree and turned on the children at their picnic. Her first line began “4 year old Emily was the first to die.” You can’t help but wonder how she’s managed to stay on the right side of the law all these years.
Caro’s latest novel, due out at the end of this month, is The Suffering of Strangers: a new Anderson and Costello Mystery. When a six-week-old baby is stolen from outside a village shop, Detective Inspector Costello quickly realises there’s more to this case than meets the eye. As she questions those involved, she uncovers evidence that this was no impulsive act, but something cold, logical, meticulously planned. Who has taken Baby Sholto? And why?
I really like when writer’s research throws up facts that you would just never have imagined. Take sperm banks, for example. Did you know that about a third of the sperm that’s being donated in the UK is coming from outside our national borders, much of it from Scandinavia? One of the reasons why is due to a change in the law. Previously guaranteed anonymity has gone. This means that, once a child conceived using your sperm turns 18, they’re entitled to find out who you are. Caro’s book, which I’m hoping to review soon, deals with childlessness, surrogacy and a range of issues and sounds fascinating and emotionally engaging.
Lin Anderson’s dad was a D.I. in Greenock. Her character, Rhonda McLeod was inspired by a pupil she once had who had gone on to study forensic science, which she talked about as an ever changing and ever challenging science. She has family in the Cairngorms and her book, Follow The Dead, is set there. On holiday in the Scottish Highlands, forensic scientist Dr Rhona MacLeod joins a mountain rescue team on Cairngorm summit, where a mysterious plane has crash-landed on the frozen Loch A’an. Added to that, a nearby climbing expedition has left three young people dead, with a fourth still missing.
For this book, Lin spent some time with Willie Carr, Head of the Mountain Rescue team. I had not realised that every death in the Cairngorms needs to be treated as a crime scene by the Mountain Rescue team who are usually the first responders. They have to deal with recording everything on arrival and deal with forensics on site. Lin says (in case you ever need to know this) that if you do ever want to kill someone, probably the best way to do it is to push them off a cliff.
Douglas asked how much like their protagonists each author really is? Caro suggested that Abbot is pretty much like Caro as she is now but Costello is much as she would like to be. Lin was a bit more circumspect, pointing out that she never really describes Rhona, though there is a pointer in the first book as to her appearance.
Caro suggested that crime writers are all very nice people because all their dark thoughts get put down on the page, freeing them. It’s really the romance writers you want to worry about….
Crime and Dine
What an excellent event this is! It is the only place I know where the audience gets to have dinner with the writers. Beautifully organised, the writers change place with every course so that you are able to chat to each one of them during the course of the meal. It is a very relaxed and informal event and was hugely enjoyable. It made an already quite special event even more special.
Day 3 – Sunday 5th November The Morning After the Crime Before
Mason Cross and Douglas Skelton chaired by Caro Ramsay
This took place at Grantown Golf Club, against a fabulous backdrop.
In keeping with the relaxed theme of this festival, the Sunday morning session was served with coffee and bacon rolls at the civilised hour of 11am.
Brilliantly chaired by Caro Ramsay, this was a discussion that ranged from whether the authors like marmite to Mason Cross – Ava’s dad, through to If Dominic Queste was sent to find Carter Blake, how would he get on?
Mason Cross’s Carter Blake books tell you that the first thing you should know about Carter Blake is that his name is not Carter Blake – and we still don’t know what his name is. Caro thinks of him as the international milk tray man of mystery, an idea that pleased Mason.
By contrast, Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste is altogether a very different character. He’s not a licensed private investigator. He is a former investigative journalist and ex drug addict who was saved by a priest, Father Verne. The Father runs a shelter for homeless and those with addictions along with the somewhat dodgy Sutherland brothers, Duncan and Hamish, as his sidekicks.
We had a great discussion about humour in crime fiction and how Douglas manages to get so much humour into a dark novel. It was generally acknowledged that the British have an issue with that, but Americans much less so.
But as we all know, black humour is more realistic – it is a daily coping mechanism for police, doctors, lawyers etc. Hill Street Blues was based on a great deal of humorous interaction, but British crime drama tends to be a lot more po faced. Was that, Caro asked, all Jane Tennyson’s fault?
Mason Cross revealed that Carter Blake is a secret comic book geek. Every time he checks into a hotel he uses the name of a graphic novelist or artist.
But, asked Caro, who knows how to get down to the real questions bothering readers, would Carter Blake be out of his depth in Glasgow and/or with a black pudding?
And how would Dominic Queste and Carter Blake get on? Well, both have a sense of humour. Queste is a wisecracking Glaswegian and Blake is an American patriot, so he might have a bit of trouble with the old battered pudding supper…but the good guys are the ones that know there are moral lines which should not be crossed.
In Caro’s quickfire questions round we learnt:
That Douglas’s desk has layers of dust, but Mason’s is usually commandeered by one of his daughters.
Pet hates in fiction: Alcoholic protagonists and police characters with problem parents
What is each of the authors specialist subjects – for Douglas it is film music and for Mason – it is what years films came out that he is weirdly good on.
And what would each of their main protagonists keep in their sporran?
Dominic Queste would have a pair of livid gnadgers , freshly scroped
Carter Blake as a lover of a good breakfast would have either a nutrigrain bar or a waffle toaster.
Favourite films? For Skelton – Butch Cassidy for Mason Cross Diehard a classic with a great script.
What true crime would each protagonist want to investigate? For Carter Blake it would be the Zodiac killer – whose crimes suddenly stopped and he was never found. For Dominic Queste, it would be the mystery of what happened to Willie Macrae.
So what’s next for our authors? Douglas Skelton is thinking about a prequel to his Davie McCall series and has just brought out an excellent Christmas stocking filler titled Scotland (Amazing and Extraordinary Facts), available from all good bookshops (especially The Bookmark) and of course here.
Mason Cross has a new Carter Blake book, Presumed Dead, out in April. He is also writing a stand- alone thriller set in the UK – how exciting!
So that was my weekend at the Wee Crime Festival and very special it was too. I have made some friends and listened to some fabulous writers. There is no doubting that I will be back whenever I am able to attend.I’d especially like to thank Marjory Marshall and Avery Mathers for all their help and advice and for making me so welcome. I’ll be chatting with Marjory tomorrow for more bookish information.