I adore the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The sheer volume of authors and ideas is so inspiring and every session sparks something in me that provokes a thought or makes me want to read something new.
This being a crime blog, it will come as no surprise to you that I will mostly be attending crime authors’ events. Yet although I have so far only attended three events, already my mind is buzzing and my book purchases are seriously weighing down my tote bag.
All photos courtesy of the Edinburgh International Book Festival
I started with a delightful visit to Alexander McCall Smith, interviewed by Jamie Jauncey. Resplendent in a striped jacket, which he said was his attempt to be less fussy, Dudu (his granddaughter once described his dress sense as ‘tragic’) McCall Smith was on ebullient form speaking to a packed house. With excellent fiddling by Ian Laing to play us in and to inject a musical interlude into the proceedings, this was a session for the McCall Smith faithful.
You always get the sense with him that he enjoys life to the full and that he can derive amusement from every situation; that sense of benevolent wickedness goes everywhere with him, as does his inherent belief that the world needs more kindness.
A great raconteur, Sandy, as he is known, began by chatting about his character, Bertie Pollock, resident of the bit of the world that is 44 Scotland Street. Seven-year-old Bertie is a universally popular child prodigy incapable of lying, but capable of so much else. Bertie is trapped in his mother’s regime of yoga, Italian lessons, saxophone exams and the politics of a Steiner education. He is the unwilling subject of the ‘Bertie Project’. A child whose life is blighted by his mother, says McCall Smith..
Mma Ramotswe from the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is kind and very much a maternal figure of a different sort from Bertie’s mother. There are now 20 volumes of Ma Ramotswe and the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. These are books about friendship. As McCall Smith has Ramotswe say “You can go through life and make new friends every year – every month practically – but there was never any substitute for those friendships of childhood that survive into adult years. Those are the ones in which we are bound to one another with hoops of steel.”
Asked by Jauncey if his fictional,worlds would ever collide, McCall Smith says that it has occurred to him that Isabel Dalhousie, his female sleuth who tackles murder, mayhem, and the mysteries of life among the cobblestones of Edinburgh, might well come across Bertie Pollock, but that bringing fictional worlds together does feel a bridge too far.
McCall Smith enjoys injuring his characters in creative ways. In 44 Scotland Street, Bruce is run over by a steamroller and Bertie’s mother, Irene has a flotarium accident. That doesn’t see her off, but McCall Smith has sent her to Aberdeen to study for a PhD with [or under??] Bertie’s psychiatrist, Hugo Fairbairn, leaving Bertie to be looked after by his granny.
Granny’s Portuguese wine merchant husband ran off and left her , but she is now sole owner of a small company which used to be called ‘Pies for Protestants’ and is now entitled ‘Inclusive Pies’. These pies contain extra grease and are marketed as ‘Pure Dead Brilliant Scotch Pies – nae messing’. Bertie is in heaven; no more yoga, no more psychotherapy and now extra greasy mutton pies!
McCall Smith says that the Bertie books are especially popular in India, where mothers are ambitious for their sons.
He also talked about his new ‘Scandi blanc’ series with Swedish protagonist Ulf Varg. Ulf in Danish means Wolf, as does Varg in Swedish. Ulf Varg works in the Dept of Sensitive Crimes, where there is no body Ulf is called upon to investigate cases which are considered especially strange and difficult.He also talked about his new ‘Scandi blanc’ series with Swedish protagonist Ulf Varg. Ulf in Danish means Wolf, as does Varg in Swedish. Ulf Varg works in the Dept of Sensitive Crimes, where there is no body Ulf is called upon to investigate.
Ulf has a dog named Martin who is deaf and suffers from depression, but can lip-read. I would love to put Alexander McCall Smith together with Gunnar Staalesen, to we what they make of each other’s protagonists
McCall Smith has a prodigious output. He writes 4 books a year as well as adapting his books into radio plays. He writes 6 adult series as well as 3 children’s series and has a huge stand-alone output.
Sandy gets up as early as 3.30 am to write, though goodness knows where that energy comes from. I think it must be all that emphasis on kindness!
Val McDermid interviewed by Craig Sisterson
It must be both very easy and quite difficult interviewing The Queen of Crime. Easy because Val McDermid is such a good storyteller and that carries into her interviews where she is funny, erudite and serious when it matters. Difficult, because what can an interviewer possibly ask that hasn’t been asked before?
Sensibly, Craig Sisterson decided to treat his session as more of a conversation between crime loving colleagues, which proved for a fluid and easy hours chat.
Craig introduced Val by referring to her 30 crime novels; her association with Raith Rovers and her association with the University of Dundee’s Val McDermid mortuary. The Val McDermid Mortuary followed a campaign from the university to raise £1m to build a new morgue, which the crime author backed, asking members of the public to vote for the writer for whom they would like the morgue to be named, and donate movney. McDermid came in first. (There is also the Stuart MacBride dissecting room).
Craig and Val started by talking about the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novels, of which the latest, How the Dead Speak, is the 11th in the series. Val didn’t have an overall story arc for this series. When she started it with The Mermaids Singing, she thought that would be a stand-alone book and thereafter the series just evolved on a book by book basis as the characters there up new ideas for Val to explore. Val talked a bit about the audience expectation that through a series characters will grow and develop with a sense of self-reflection and forward movement and yet each book still has to stand on its own for new readers joining along the journey.
Stop reading now if you have not read Val’s last book and want to before you read the newest one.
Each chapter in Time for the Dead has a quote from the book that Tony Hill is writing in prison, ‘Reading Crime‘. For in the new book, Tony is in prison and. Carol is no longer with the cops following the cataclysmic ending of the last book, Insidious Intent.
McDermid says her publisher is keen to see Tony’s book coming out as a Christmas special, but judging from Val’s publisher at the thought, I would not hold my breath waiting.
So when, asks Craig, does Val decide which book she is going to write next? Val replies that she gets bored and the characters stop speaking to her. The Karen Pirie character started as a minor player in A Distant Echo then when she had an idea for a cold case story, she realised that she had already created a character who could investigate it, and so the Karen Pirie series was born.
With all the ideas in her head clamouring to be heard, how does Val choose which most excites her? Val says she has to be patient, to let an idea germinate until it’s ready-and then trust that it will develop. The shape of the story will then dictate whose series it belongs in, or whether it is a stand-alone. Val writes about the world as she sees it; about what plagues society and also what gives us hope
Talking about her early novels, she said she had never never described Lindsay Gordon, her first protagonist. Gordon is a ‘cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ the Gordon series has never been out of print and its success was driven says Val, entirely through word of mouth. Val describes it as a classic Agatha Christie style mystery with lesbians, though the TV company looking at making the series, considers it period drama!’cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ Talking about her early novels, she said she had never never described Lindsay Gordon, her first protagonist. A the Gordon series has never been out of print and its success was driven says Val, entirely through word of mouth. Val describes it as a classic Agatha Christie style mystery with lesbians, though the TV company looking at making the series, considers it period drama!
oking forward, Val is off to spend a few months every year for the next three years at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ as a visiting Professor. She has written a play for the Lyceum about the death of Christopher Marlowe and she has also written a new series, ‘Traces‘ about forensic science which is set in Dundee and will be on the Alibi Channel this November.
With all that and a cracking book every year, it’s clear to see that Val McDermid will be in demand for a long time to come!