Forget the Olympics, forget the Euros and forget Glastonbury: for crime fiction fans, the main event of the summer is (to give it its full title) the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. For the last ten summers, writers, publishers, agents, editors, bloggers and fans (the most important group of all, I’m led to believe) have converged on the picturesque North Yorkshire town of Harrogate in what has become the world’s premier crime writing festival. It’s an annual pilgrimage that, after months of fevered anticipation, I made, for the first time, in late July. And now, with all the zeal of the come-lately convert, I wholeheartedly implore our readers to join me next year.
With our own Simon Appleby out of action the weekend of the festival, and my wife more of a Cecilia Ahern fan, I made the decision to fly solo for the duration of the festival. Such luminaries as Books and Writers’ own Keith B Walters (@keithbwalters), and eBook sensation Mel Sherratt (@writermels) had assured me on beforehand on Twitter that the atmosphere at Harrogate is friendly and inclusive, and it now brings me great joy to confirm they were absolutely correct.
Still, being the new kid at school is a nerve-racking experience at the best of times, and even more so when the “school” is actually a festival crammed with gifted individuals – many of whom, after all, I have spent years fawning over on this very page. I threw out an open plea on Twitter for a chaperone for the Thursday evening, and to my delight, it was responded to by renowned blogger Rhian Davies (whom Twitterati will know as @crimeficreader). With her flawless attendance record and extensive knowledge of the festival, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to the wonderful world of Harrogate.
I met Rhian in the Foyer of the Old Swan, together with Martin J Frankson (@martinfrankson), author of forthcoming eBook Black Champagne, a slice of Thompson-esque Americana (Jim Thompson, not Hunter – this is crime writing we’re talking about) I look forward to reading enormously. From there, it was straight to the bar, then onto the curtain-raising event: the presentation of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and of Morse creator Colin Dexter’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Dosed up with Old Peculier, I pulled up a seat in the historic ballroom of the Old Swan (Dame Agatha’s mysterious disappearance came to an end in that very place, when she was spotted by a banjo player), amidst a horde of fellow crime lovers. Reading is by definition a solitary pastime, and the life of the bookworm can be an isolated one at times. And so, when MC for the evening Mark Lawson received unanimous laughter for a relatively esoteric joke about Inspector Morse, I knew I was home.
Having soon learned that, much like university, Harrogate is as much about skipping seminars as attending them, I missed John Connolly’s 9am start, and caught the bloke-ish hilarity that was “Crime in Another Dimension.” With crime writing being increasingly syncretic, taking in elements such as the supernatural and the science-fictional, a panel chaired by David Quantick explored this new territory. Well, that was their remit. While I certainly recall several erudite points being made, and fascinating facts being revealed (the Met police, for example, can legally accept payment in exchange for a candid interview with a serving officer), the overall experience was akin to eavesdropping on the crème-de-la-crème of bar-room back and forths.
One of the main talking points of the weekend was the great eBook debate, provocatively titled “Wanted for Murder: The eBook.” The programme promised a highly charged discussion, and the reality did not disappoint. Sharing a stage with agent Phil Patterson, traditional bookseller Patrick Neale, and VP of the Publisher’s Association Ursula Mackenzie, writer Stephen Leather was combative in his support for the march of the eBook. Friendly though Harrogate is, it appears even this amiable crowd can turn mean if their livelihoods are threatened, and Leather’s advocacy of piracy as a marketing tool was met with open hostility.
After that, sharing a room with a high-priced Boston attorney (David Hosp), a pair of former intelligence operatives (Boris Starling and Chris Morgan Jones), and a staggeringly courageous investigative journalist (Tony Thompson) was something of a relief. In “Writing for Your Life,” the above names did in person what they have successfully done in print, and shed light on the murkiest areas of society. Tony Thompson was particularly eye-opening, recounting the story of when he was effectively held hostage by bare-knuckle brawler Lennie MacLean and twenty of his associates. At this point I commenced the shameless fanboy-ing I’d promised myself, and saluted Tony’s testicular fortitude as he signed a copy of his book Outlaws.
In my more pretentious moments I’ve considered myself a student of crime fiction, and the rest of the day was spent in that vein – missing several talks as I returned to bed to sleep off yesterday’s hangover, before rising anew hours later ready to resume drinking. The rain held off for a pleasant evening of quaffing Theakstons amid the grandeur of the Old Swan’s gardens.
By Saturday, I’d been well and truly bitten by the crime talk bug, and piled into three sessions on the spin – an spell-binding interview with the delightful Peter James, a bookish but brilliant discourse on detective fiction’s Golden Age, and the highlight of the day, the New Blood panel. Interspersed by convivial meals and drinks with new friends at Harrogate’s charming eateries (Betty’s is top of the crop, but even the Wetherspoon’s in Harrogate has class), I ploughed into still more discussions, including a spirited defence of crime writing against the criticism of the navel-gazers from the world of literary fiction, and a special event with selected cast and crew from BBC’s crime smash Luther.
Of course, the actual events are but one part of the whole Harrogate experience. As a Harrogate virgin, I spent much of my weekend gleefully feeling for the first time like, in some modest way, I was actually part of something. Watching faces easily recognisable from the book jackets of their best-sellers mingling with us mortals, all very approachable, all less than seven feet tall (with the possible exception of Harlan Coben), I felt what Denise Mina referred to as the “collegiate” atmosphere. Crime fiction may often be misunderstood or even derided, but those of us who love it, professionally or personally, are ever-ready to get a round in, extend a friendly greeting, or make an introduction for a new author trying to get their voice heard. To us, “clique” is just the sound a revolver makes when the chamber is empty. Thought it may set cliché alarms sounding, strangers are often friends you have not yet met, and never have I been anywhere where that tired old adage holds more true. So to any crime lovers yet to make the pilgrimage, I say “book it, book it now!” and to everyone else, I can only say – “see you next year!”