There is nothing quite as awe inspiring as an autumn drive up the A9. The variety of trees and colours is simply spectacular and though the day was a little dreich it was still a pleasant journey.
Grantown on Spey is a splendid little Highland town in the centre of the Scottish Highland on the northern edge of the Cairngorms National Park. The town’s Square and High Street are lined with unique, independent and interesting shops and businesses selling everything from children’s clothes to whisky, fishing line to pottery.
Most importantly, the town has a terrific bookshop owned and run by an amazing woman called Marjory Marshall. She has owned The Bookmark since 2007 and personally selects every title and the astonishing range of stock squeezed into limited shelf space is testimony to her own eclectic and very varied reading.
It felt a bit strange this year, travelling up to the 7th Grantown on Spey Wee Crime festival, knowing that neither of my fellow ‘fairies’ Sharon Bairden or Louise Fairbairn were (for different reasons) able to be present. Still, I knew there would be other friendly faces, so despite the horrid mist and rain, I girded my loins and got underway.
Roadworks on the A9 slowed me down a tad, but I was still able to make it to my, by now, regular first stop for lunch at Muckrack House Hotel. Sadly, their head chef has moved on so there is no longer a pie of the day, but I’m delighted to report that the new chef produced a splendid lunch and Muckrack will remain in my excellent places to lunch repertoire.
Then, nicely fuelled, it was off to Grantown and to check in to my hotel ready for the evening’s entertainment. Arriving, I bumped into Marjory Marshall, the Festival Supemo, who was ensuring that Fiona and Denzil Meyrick were settling in well. Denzil was scheduled to appear in several guises over the weekend – as interviewee, interviewer and in that evening’s entertainment.
There was, of course, a packed house in the Pagoda for the latest Skelton extravaganza. Sadly Caro Ramsay was unavailable, so there was no Carry on Sleuthing, but Douglas had put together a varied selection of entertainment, nay, a cabaret even, for our delectation.
The identical TimTom twins made an inevitable appearance, there was an excellent Sherlock sketch, Lesley Kelly, with her stand-up comedy experience, entertained us royally on the subject of Amazon reviews and Denzil Meyrick brought just the right amount of dry, comedic disdain (as befits an author who has sold 2 million books) to the proceedings.
Highlight of the evening though has to go to Douglas Skelton for his rendition of the ageing hippy singing the Crime Writer Blues. Reader, we were in tears. (and that was just the singing).
Then it was back to the hotel for a wee nightcap before bed.
Remains of the Day
Was the first session of the morning with Margaret Kirk and Hania Allen being interviewed by Lesley Kelly. The authors read from their work and then discussed the evolution of their characters. Margaret’s Detective, Lukas Mahler, sprang pretty much fully formed into a short story she was writing and she then used him as the central character in her police procedural series.
Hania Allen’s lead character is Sergeant Dania Gorska, a Polish Detective living in Dundee where her brother is an investigative journalist. Like Lukas Mahler, Dania has left the Met to come to Scotland and both detectives have interesting back stories that are revealed as their series develop.
Hania talked about how the spectre of Brexit has been hanging over all her novels and that she has addressed that as she has been writing over the last few years, but the difficulty of predicting what might happen when books are published around 2 years after they are first submitted is a real headache. Crime writers, these authors suggested, are the real victims of Brexit!
Lesley Kelly wanted to know how the writers managed to keep their books so dark, and Margaret thought that being Scots really made that not difficult at all. Though of course there is light and shade in all of her books, – in Margaret’s case it is Fergie’s ridiculously smelly car which she describes as a mobile dustbin.
Hania’s Dania plays classical piano, mainly Chopin and loves her vodka, while Lukas Mahler is more of a Runrig and Julie Fowlis fan and as a non-drinker, coffee is his stimulant of choice.
Margaret started her crime fiction writing after attending a course at Moniack Mhor , which, she says, injected her with so much confidence that she felt able to carry on writing and eventually submit the beginning of her book to the Good Housekeeping competition, which she then won – and that gave her an agent and a publishing contract.
Hania, who holds a physics doctorate, wanted to be the first British female astronaut, but was pipped at the post by Helen Sharman. Her inspiration came from two sources; the first was a visit to an Ice Hotel in Lapland and the second was attending an Arvon Foundation writing course with Alan Guthrie and Louise Welsh.
Hania draws on her parents Polish heritage for her novels as well as their experience of the war and the warmth that the Scots showed towards Polish soldiers, especially, she says, at Hogmanay. She talked movingly of finding, amongst her parents photographs of their travels, a whole host of silver tokens (from Christmas pudding) that they had collected from their time in Scotland.
All at Sea
Then it was time for coffee before we moved on to a session Douglas Skelton chatting to Denzil Meyrick in a session titled All at Sea.
Now, as Douglas was quick to point out, Denzil has sold over two million copies of his D(C)I Daley books, of which Whisky from Small Glasses was the first. Denzil credits the title with being something that helped the book stand out and the humour and the warmth of Campbeltown, where the series is set, are reflected in his books. Denzil is a great supporter of Campbeltown charities and was incensed when he heard that jobs could be lost at a local wind turbine factory there – up to three quarters of the workforce, more than 70 people, could lose their jobs. That would, he said, be a huge blow to Campbeltown especially following on from the failure of the Campbeltown Creamery despite the best efforts of a crowd funding campaign. Campbeltown is an area he feels has been neglected by the Scottish Government.
It’s clear when you listen to him talking that he has a huge passion for both the area and the people, though he says not all his characters are based on real people, even if the residents think otherwise!
The series rings the changes as some are more horror based and one or two are more historically centred, keeping the series fresh for both the author and his readers.
Douglas asked Denzil about the importance of accuracy in police procedurals, especially given that Denzil used to be a copper, but Denzil’s view is that there can be too much emphasis on that as people want to read books to enjoy them, not to pore over the detail of forensic analysis.
What does he read? He enjoys Zola, Patrick O’Brien, historical writing and he says, Scandi noir, because the scandi writers are ‘as dark as I am.’ Does he enjoy writing, Douglas asked? ‘It’s great when you’re doing it, he responds, but thinking about doing it is just terrible.’
A Netflix series of the Daley and Scott books is under discussion and Meyrick has his sights set on Rory McCann for Jim Daley and Brian McCardie for Brian Scott. That’s a casting that garnered huge approval from the Grantown audience and I’d very much hope it comes to fruition.
Meyrick isn’t resting on his laurels though. He has a new series in the pipeline focusing on Paisley, which he describes as a gangster series and he is writing a black satire set on a private housing estate.
Meanwhile the next book (he’s not saying if it will be the last) in the Daley and Scott series, Jeremiah’s Bell, will be out next May.
After lunch we convened for a session called Corruption and Lies, with Theresa Talbot and Gillian Galbraith, chaired by Michael J Malone.
Gillian, who I had not seen before has had an excellent career trajectory. She started in DC Thomson’s, doing the stars column where, she told me later, Capricorns always got the best predictions as that is her birth sign. She moved on to become an agony aunt on teenage magazines, where she both wrote and then solved the problems, before retraining and ending up as a leading Q.C. specialising in medical negligence cases and agricultural law where, inter alia, she worked on the Penrose Enquiry into the contaminated blood scandal. She has also been the legal correspondent for the Scottish Farmer and has written on legal matters for The Times.
Theresa Talbot has written about the contaminated blood scandal in her book Keep Her Silent and her new book, The Quiet Ones, is about an abuse scandal in a boys’ football club, which she calls the Caledonian Club.
Gillian’s latest book, The End of the Line is a bit of a departure for her. This time it is not police procedural but is written in the first person from the perspective of Undertaker and antiquarian bookseller Anthony Sparrow. After the death of leading haematologist Professor Anstruther, antiquarian book dealer Anthony Sparrow is tasked with clearing out his mansion of its books and papers. He soon begins to question the real circumstances of the old man’s death: was he in fact murdered, and if so, who was responsible? The answer might be found in the personal diaries and letters which Sparrow unearths. But as he closes in on the answer, the perspective suddenly shifts and everything which he was sure about dissolves into darkness and shadows.
Gillian took her inspiration from reading Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project, where the case was laid out in documents and from Notes on a Scandal and she then added an unreliable narrator in the form of Sparrow, a bit of an oddball who clears houses. She is at pains to stress that her fiction is entirely different to anything that happened in the Penrose enquiry.
Theresa Talbot is fascinated by major crimes that go unpunished. She sees the contaminated blood scandal as something truly criminal where the victims were wholly innocent and yet the problem had been known about since the 1940’s. There was, she told us, lots of evidence that this was a problem out in the public domain but it was never highlighted as a major scandal. Theresa read interviews and examined the evidence that was given, recognising that the Scottish story was slightly different, as most of the blood in our case was given by Scots rather than bought in. In the US she told us, blood can be sold and drug users will queue up to do that for $7 a pint.
Gillian Galbraith didn’t plot The End of the Line; she let the story flow through. For her the theme came first. Asked about what advice she would give to aspiring writers she says firmly ‘don’t get it right, get it written (and avoid clichés).
As a journalist Theresa Talbot is used to writing every day. She thinks that there’s a lot of her in her protagonist, journalist Oonagh O’Neil, who is also very much riled up by perceived injustice and understands that bad things can happen when a few people are prepared to turn a blind eye. Hers is crime based on facts but made fictional. Next she will be looking at the awful crime of people trafficking.
Gillian’s next book will take the plague in 18th Century India as its starting point – you can tell she’s looking forward to writing about rats…
Hidden Secrets and Tangled Lives
The final panel of the day was Douglas Skelton and Michael J Malone being out through their paces by interrogator Denzil Meyrick.
Was it hard, he started by asking Douglas, writing from the perspective of a 23 year old female journalist in Thunder Bay? Not so hard, said Douglas, he just treated her as he would any other character. Turning to Michael J Malone (or Malky Maloney as he insists on calling him) he asked Michael about his choice of unusual subject matter in In The Absence of Miracles. Michael explained that In The Absence was actually the first book he ever wrote. He wanted to write about male victims and so he researched and found some taboo subjects that hadn’t been much written about before.
His writing is done with respect for the people whose life experience this is though – that is clearly very important to him. He believes that difficult issues should be discussed and his focus is not to on depicting the violence or the graphic elements of the crime, but on demonstrating the impact of such crimes.
Moving on to Douglas Skelton, whose career has encompassed being a journalist as well as writing tue crime, Denzil wanted to know what Douglas thought about the demise of newspapers and what if any advice he had in the face of that decline?
Douglas’ experience is in weekly newspapers which is a different beast to the daily and so he has never been ‘banged out’, the traditional farewell to a journalist leaving a daily paper. But times in newspapers are hard and yet the need to hold the powerful to account has never been stronger.
Discussing Thunder Bay, Douglas said that he built his fictional island, Stoirm, from the ground up. When he was writing his musical choices were designed to create the atmosphere he desired, so there was lots of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, and masses of Sibelius, too.
Michael talked about the hidden – the crimes in his books are driven by what is hidden and he reminds us that we are more likely to be damaged by those closest to us rather than a stranger and that’s what fascinates him – that journey in people’s lives.
The panel discussed what makes a book successful, with the suggestion that luck plays a huge part and suggested that publishing is a multi-million pound industry being run like a cottage industry.
They also chatted about the importance of research and using that research both lightly – without reams and reams – as well as using it respectfully. Flavouring the narrative and only using that which helps you tell the story rather than lecturing was the concensus.
Douglas talked about settings and using what he called his ‘sense memory’, i.e. his impressions and the sounds, smells and sights that he recalls to build up an atmospheric picture.
Are there places Michael wouldn’t go in his writing? Not, he says, if it is treated sensitively enough. He talked a bit about another hidden statistic – that of same sex domestic violence where he tells us the most affected group are lesbian women. Until these things are explored and talked about, there is always going to be a political subjectivity to the treatment of domestic violence which surely cannot be appropriate?
So what’s next for these two writers, Denzil wanted to know? Douglas has just finished the next book in his new series, with reporter Rebecca Connolly, this time the setting is Inverness. After Thunder Bay, I can’t wait to read the next one.
Michael is writing a book with the provisional title of A Song of Isolation about an actor whose boyfriend is accused of something terrible and who then goes on the run (sounds intriguing!).
Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for a night of mayhem and madness in the Pagoda with Crime and Dine, a murder mystery play.
Lots of fun and laughter as amid the excellent food courses, a troupe of actors committed murder (with both the script and the cast) and the audience was asked to solve the crime. Cue much hilarity, some marvellous accents and a lot of excellent ham to flavour our experience.
And there. Gentle reader, I’m afraid I have to leave it. There was a Sunday session with the marvellous Olga Wojtas, but I had committed to giving some friends a lift back down the road and we were not able to stay, but I have no doubt that, aided by the traditional bacon rolls, everyone would have had a splendid morning!
My thanks to Marjory Marshall of the Bookmark Bookshop and all her team of helpers. Roll on next year!