Despite a very busy week at work (this is going to be my refrain over the next month or so), I managed to cram in a few extracurricular activities. I took my older son (or should that be: he took me?) to the Manga exhibition at the British Museum and this time it was not quite as busy as when I went with the younger one, so I managed to take some pictures.
With more than 5000 manga artists active in Japan today, and with hundreds if not thousands of series appearing in weekly or monthly formats, it was impossible to cover all of my children’s favourites, so they were inevitably somewhat disappointed. However, as an exhibition exploring the origins of the manga (in the Heian scrolls, for instance) and showing the breadth of manga topics (from sports to adventure to love to classic novels or non-fiction), it was an excellent introduction to a Japanese art and literary form that has conquered the world.
After a short stop in Portsmouth for a conference…
… I warmed up for my birthday weekend with a trip to the theatre, to watch the charismatic Andrew Scott (aka Sexy Priest in Fleabag) in a Noel Coward play Present Laughter at the Old Vic. This was actually a preview performance, but the cast seemed to slip effortlessly into that blend of physical farce and caustic wit which is signature Coward. It is about an ageing matinee idol who seems unable to let go of his selfish ways and giant-sized ego. A stylish and very funny production, with one significant change to the original: a gender inversion, so that the main character Garry Essendine’s business partner is a woman and he finds himself having a one-night stand with her husband (in the original play the business partner is a man and he slips up with the wife). It felt quite natural and perhaps closer to what we know of Noel Coward and his entourage.
The play was written in 1939 and meant to provide a little light relief from the sombre storm clouds gathering over Europe. It went into rehearsals but the war broke out, so it wasn’t performed until 1942. At a time of not quite as severe uncertainty and gloom, it still provides a wonderful evening of escapist entertainment and belly laughs.
In terms of reading this week, I’ve been cracking on with my selection of American authors: David Vann’s Aquarium very nearly broke me (I just cannot cope with sad children). Cara Black’s Murder in Bel Air was suitably entertaining, although I think of it as more French than American. I am also currently reading Sam Shepard’s miniature pieces in Cruising Paradise, which is very Dakota -American Midwest. By way of contrast, I had a craving to reread Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley – where American penchant for action and the self-made man meet European lifestyle and indolence.
Another very busy week, both at work and at home. I’ve decided to take things one week at a time, while still planning a little ahead, because otherwise I might get overwhelmed. However, it’s been a week full of pleasant events.
I managed to see two fun films: The Favourite, on DVD from the library, because I’d missed in cinemas (it was only very briefly on, despite the Oscar win of Olivia Colman), and Always Be My Maybe on Netflix. The latter cheered me up no end: a rom com with a difference; hugely believable and charming cast (and I don’t mean just that hilarious Keanu Reeves cameo); plus, it made me realise that Asian families are more relatable to Romanian families (especially when they are immigrants) than American ones (like The Ice Storm or The Royal Tenenbaums).
The Favourite is an over-the-top All About Eve in period costume but written for a modern audience. It manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, as is Olivia Colman herself as a sickly, fearful Queen Anne, never quite sure that anyone loves her for herself rather than for her power. Rachel Weisz was majestic, imperious and domineering (but also vulnerable) as Sarah Churchill, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Emma Stone, although perhaps her blank look was deliberate, to convey both initial innocence and subsequent manipulation.
What is really important about both these films is that they are educational while being entertaining: they show Asian stories and women without men stories can be just as powerful, exciting, witty and nuanced as the more monotone mainstream stories we have become accustomed to. And with shows like Fleabag, Killing Eve and Gentleman Jack on TV, I’m delighted that it’s becoming more visible. Is it just a niche fashion, while in real life racism and homophobia run rampant? Well, let me at least try to believe that is not so for a short period while I watch these.
Reading updates: I’ve embarked on my American authors binge. I’ve read Laura Kasischke’s disquieting slow-burning psychological thriller Be Mine, Jane Bowle’s wacky misfit of a novel Two Serious Ladies and Kent Haruf’s plainly-written but powerful Plainsong. Reviews will be coming up shortly.
This week was also my younger son’s birthday – he’s turned an amazingly mature 14 and all the usual ‘when did that happen’ squeals apply here. So, as a birthday treat, while older brother was revising for his final GCSE week, I took the no-longer-quite-so-little-one to London for the Manga Exhibition at the British Museum. I will write more about the Manga Exhibition on another occasion, because I will go back to see it a second time with the other son. But then we followed it up with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Fitzrovia. The hotel is a very non-descript 1960s type block, but they’ve been very clever at creating a little oasis in the courtyard and serving an expensive but utterly delicious and spectacular afternoon tea inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
This play at the Royal Court Theatre, written, directed and produced by women and featuring a virtually all-women cast, has been receiving mixed reviews, so I was not quite sure what to expect. Timeout and The Guardian thought it was a ‘bracing’ (seems to be their favourite word) satire, while blogger Victoria Sadler (whose opinions I usually trust) was angered by it. I went – let me be perfectly transparent – because the son of a good friend of mine was in it, and I was prepared to like him even if I hated the play. But actually I thought the play had its merits, even though it doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitions. I am analysing it below as a social anthropologist and intercultural facilitator who studied Japanese and worked with multinationals in China and Japan (which often included Thai, Korean, Filipino and Indonesian colleagues).
Written by Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King and directed by Thai-American director Nana Dakin, with a colourful, sparky set and lighting that perfectly encapsulates the artificial corporate world of Singapore, it was refreshing to see women talking about things other than men and relationships (definitely passing the Bechdel test). Yes, there is one manipulative stalker ex-boyfriend on the scene (played with cringingly-suitable aplomb by Arty Froushan, whom I’d come to see), but as a Frenchman with a Thai girlfriend, he also represents a former colonial power. I liked the fact that he never became the main focus of the show, and that in the end he is shown as a pathetic figure who gets his come-uppance, rather than the suave artist he would like to be. The Empire strikes back, in a sense.
The premise of the show is quite an interesting one, although some of the motivations are thin or implausible. Clear Day is a Singapore-based cosmetics start-up selling whitening creams to the Asian market. One of their ads – not yet authorised – is leaked online and slammed for being outrageously racist. As social media goes into a baying frenzy, heads must roll and the women turn on each other in an effort to preserve their own careers.
One of the criticisms of the show is that it becomes a bitch fight, but I think this is a little too simplistic. It certainly replicates the competitiveness and ‘blame the other at all costs’ mentality of the corporate world, regardless of whether the characters were men or women. Perhaps in a longer play more male characters could have been introduced and more made of the interplay between them and the power dominance in organisations. But what I thought it also depicted really well was the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality of multinationals when they expand into new markets (Asia or Eastern Europe): pit the locals against each other, while setting up the Western model as the one to aspire to. The speech of the Mumbai-born but UCL-educated director about lateral thinking shows her disdain for the other Asians. The reticence of the Chinese and Japanese workers to engage with each other because of their countries’ historical hostility was another example. The fact that the Japanese woman is ironically the most junior and bullied member of staff (to set this in the European context: imagine Czechs, Poles and Dutch bossing a German around). And of course the shockingly casual racism of some of these women towards black women, whom they don’t even bother to think about because they have never encountered any – an uncomfortable but accurate reminder that it’s not just white people who are racist.
Another criticism of the show is that it is a little too hyper or shrieky – and at some point I had to agree that the shrill voices arguing over each other made it difficult to catch what they were all saying. But from personal experience, I can see two sides of the coin to this shrillness: a) the idea of calm, low, measured tones is more of a Western construct and we need to become more comfortable with a non Euro-centric view of the world and what is acceptable; b) it is very common in all women groups in East Asian countries, where high-pitched tones are perceived as feminine and desirable, so it reinforces the idea that these women are caught up in the cycle of ‘selling unrealistic beauty ideals’.
In conclusion, I thought that the play does a good job in terms of beginning to show Western audiences the differences between ‘Asians’, whom we tend to lump altogether in one big pot, as well as revealing to Asian theatre-goers some of the tensions and contradictions in their own cultures between aspiring to be Occidental but accusing those who do so of losing their authenticity. While it could have done with more well-rounded characters and subtler motivations, I found it thought-provoking. I think this is just the beginning and I hope this playwright will go on to write more nuanced and longer pieces, perhaps TV scripts.
May was quite a busy and happy month culturally speaking, and thus marked a return to blogging. I attended two crime fiction festivals and wrote copiously about them. I saw one art exhibition, one film in cinemas and one play. And I read lots of books.
The exhibition was the Spanish crowd-pleasing artist Sorolla, who seemed to enjoy a charmed life back in the early 1900s: his paintings were selling well, he was commissioned to do interesting work, he was married to the love of his life who modelled for him regularly, he had three children he adored. No tortured artist’s existence for him. He also had a remarkable facility for painting in different styles (from social realism to impressionism to Velasquez like portraits). In my youth I might have been a little sniffy and dismissive of such an obviously bourgeois painter, but I actually enjoyed his work a lot. Nothing wrong with being ‘pretty’. His use of colour (especially the different nuances of white) and light is spectacular.
The play I saw was part of the RADA showcases as their third-year acting students finish their degree. I saw Love and Money, written by Dennis Kelly in 2006 but very prescient about the financial crisis of 2008 and bad debts. It was, like all the best plays are, both funny and rather dark, the story of a marriage floundering in a sea of trying to keep up with the Joneses and getting out of consumer debt. All of the performers were good, but Stacy Abalogun and Bea Svistunenko stood out for me. It was the second time I’d seen Bea after her riveting performance in Linda: we are going to hear great things about her, mark my words.
Now that I no longer have books to review regularly, I am reading with more of a theme. In May the theme was the Paris Commune, because it was in May that it came to a very bloody end in 1871. I was wise enough to read two historical accounts about the Commune back in April, because the novel by Emile Zola The Debacle ended up taking most of the month. Not just because it was long (and in French, which always means slightly slower reading for me), but because it was also emotionally quite a challenge to read. I’ve written two blog posts about it, here and here.
Sadly, this meant that I didn’t manage to read another book in French about the Commune, Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, but I think I will persevere with it over the summer, as I continue to be fascinated with this period in French history. I’ve managed to talk Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings into buying an English translation of this book, so we might engage in a joint read during the holidays.
I took a break from this very serious topic with a lot of crime fiction and one true crime, The Five, the very moving accounts of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper. Not perhaps the most obvious choices for ‘lighter’ subject matter, but a change of pace from Zola anyway. But what could I do? I turned to Martin Suter’s Elefant for a nice cosy read and instead it featured homeless people and ruthless experimentation on animals. But yes, also an adorable pint-sized, pink glow-in-the-dark baby elephant.
So I felt entirely justified in picking up Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, because no matter how serious and shocking the subject matter is, Moss also manages to be witty about it. Her description of teenage grumpiness and rebellious undercurrent are spot on. Of course, this is a dig at those who are overly nostalgic about the past, as well as a study in how easy it is to get caught up in mass hysteria.
Finally, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal is beautifully evocative of 1950s Vienna, with the different occupied forces still very much present in the city. Although it has a bit of a rushed and violent ending, it is also a superb meditation on whether it is ever possible to return and reintegrate after you’ve been exiled from the place you once considered home. Is it possible to forgive and forget?
14 books read, 6 by women, 8 by men. Only two books in foreign languages this month (probably because it took me so long to read one of them).
Plans for the upcoming months?
A Twitter exchange with Barcodezebra about Brazilian fiction led to an impromptu spending spree (so much for my book buying ban, but I am trying to contain it all in the merry month of May and then go back to austerity). It’s been a long time since my last obsession with Brazilian literature, back when I was doing my Ph.D. right next to (or above) the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. I would saunter in and explore all the writers I’d never heard of before: Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many more. So I thought it was high time I caught up with some of their more contemporary authors and ordered a whole bunch from Abe Books. I will certainly read some during the Women in Translation Month in August (Patricia Melo, Socorro Acioli and Clarice Lispector’s short stories), but I’m tempted to soak up some Latin American atmosphere before then. However, I also plan to keep going with my #EU27Project. I am very close to finishing it!
I also intend to read a lot more poetry over the summer, as I try to regain my poetry writing groove. This will be mostly random rummaging through my rather hefty poetry bookshelves, just seeing what appeals to me in the moment, although I may have ordered Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic online, as I couldn’t wait anymore for it to come out in the UK. There is as much buzz around it as there was around Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few years ago, so I hope I will love it as much as I loved that one. (Poetry book buzz seems to be more reliable than bestseller book buzz.)
Hmmm, sounds like quite a lot of plans. Have I bitten off more than I can chew, as usual?
Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.
Newcastle Noir 2019
The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).
The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.
There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the
authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling
over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests.
Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings.
A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the
festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had
to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead
for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable
talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least,
a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best
(Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.
But what about the panels themselves?
They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed
to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane
of literary festivals.
I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh,
emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with
big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey,
or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in
England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances
to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including
Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel
Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as
Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June
Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and
GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham,
GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the
opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big
international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New
Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are
not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers
who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are
loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such
as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and
William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir),
historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and
Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for
murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).
From BalkanNoir to
Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!
I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.
Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.
Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…
Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary
crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into
English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring
journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to
the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.
Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.
Love and crime are
One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.
Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for
love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to
talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says,
boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a
crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid
Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those
split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that:
they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the
same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a
Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.
One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.
Seen one festival,
seen them all?
Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the
UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week
all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children
and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors –
there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t
know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters
of the year touring from one event to the next.
Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular.
Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and
widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event
stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising
committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an
eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers,
with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t
forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it
up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in
having its very own distinct, informal feel.
The final day was supposedly a short one, since it finished at 1 o’clock, allowing us plenty of time to catch our trains or even have a nice lunch (yes, it’s all about the food with me!). However, it was packed full of goodies.
The first panel was on the Domestic Noir, and I am not the only reader who has grown somewhat weary of this label and also of the steady output of psychological thrillers conforming to this type, which can end up all sounding very samey. Luckily the authors on the panel not only didn’t conform to the stereotype, but they were also expertly moderated by the hilarious Michael J Malone, who knows how to ask those audacious questions to which you really want to hear the answer! Plus, no one can say ‘Murrderrr’ in a more Taggart like fashion.
Elizabeth Mundy’s amateur detective is a cleaner, because cleaners know so much about the most intimate household details. She is also Hungarian, because it allowed the author to use some of her grandmother’s stories, swear words and cooking recipes. Vanessa Savage’s latest book The Woman in the Dark nearly veers into horror territory as a couple move into a very creepy Victorian seaside home (the original title of the book was going to be The Murder House, but then James Patterson published a book with that title, how inconsiderate!). Will Carver mined his own experience of marriage breakdown to write his disturbing story of a dysfunctional couple and the consequences of their deadly boredom. Louise Beech also used her personal childhood experience of feeling abandoned by her mother to create the central character in Call Me Star Girl.
I liked the conclusion of the panel that if you are going to base any of your characters on real-life people, put in their very worst traits, because they will be reluctant to recognise themselves in that (or may not be self-aware enough to do so).
The second session I was unable to take notes, as I was torn between two panels and tried to attend each of them for 20 minutes or so. The first was entitled Down with Patriarchy and featured Anne Coates, Alison Joseph, Christi Daugherty and Jane Shemilt. The second was a bit more free-for-all, entitled Close to the Edge: How Far Would You Push Your Characters?. It featured the near-legend Gunnar Staalesen, Kate Rhodes (one of my personal favourites), Caroline England (whom I admit I’ve never read) and a newcomer to me, working police officer and writer Charlie Gallagher.
The last session of the day I did take notes: it was about crime science vs. crime fiction. It featured Vaseem Khan, who is untroubled by the veracity of the fact that his baby elephant never seems to cause trouble by pooing when his detective is conducting interviews (but is otherwise a bit of a forensic expert, as he works at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science); Dr Georgina Meakin, who is a colleague of Vaseem’s and researches the transfer of trace DNA; Abi Silver, a lawyer turned legal thriller writer; and Robert Thorogood, creator of the anything but realistic Death in Paradise TV series, moderated by Barry Forshaw, who does not shy away from difficult questions.
It was a bit of an eye-opening session, although the panelists started from a well established fact, that you don’t want to let too much accuracy get in the way of a good story. After all, a scientist setting up endless samples and having 6 month’s backlog of evidence to analyse, or a solicitor compiling reams of paperwork do not make for riveting reading (or viewing). At the same time, the scientists were slightly annoyed by the misunderstandings about their profession perpetuated by shows such as CSI. For example, juries nowadays place far too much importance on DNA evidence and expect it to prove things beyond any reasonable doubt, when the truth is far more messy and open to interpretation. I also found out that Death in Paradise was conceived as a deliberate antidote to the scientific sterility of CSI and that you shouldn’t expect to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court, because in fact you will only get the version of the truth presented by the storytelling lawyer. Robert Thorogood demonstrated just how hard it is to squeeze a whole story and investigation into just 54 minutes, which is why he moved all the science bits to be analysed off the island. Last but not least, the predicted boom of cyber-crime and the sophistication it has already reached was frightening to both Vaseem Khan and the audience.
How does it compare?
I haven’t been to a huge amount of crime or even more generic literary festivals, but I have been to a few in France and Switzerland, and I’ve been to Henley, Hay, Newcastle Noir and now CrimeFest here. So what are the similarities and differences between countries and types of festival?
Generic literary festivals of course appeal to a broader audience, but the crime fiction readers are a passionate and knowledgeable lot, always willing to recommend or try new authors and titles. So it feels much more like a tribe, particularly when it’s more concentrated on a particular type of crime fiction, such as Newcastle Noir. (But not too narrow, like Iceland Noir, which is mostly Scandi). Besides, crime writers are very funny and nice people – I think they let all of their darker side out in their writing, so they are really quite pleasant to be around.
Of course Quais du Polar has the beautiful backdrop of Lyon, but Bristol and Newcastle proved quite fun cities as well. However, the festival does not take over the city like it did in France, and there aren’t many additional activities beyond the confines of the venue (although Newcastle Noir did include a guided tour of the town, a bit like the mystery trail organised in Lyon). There aren’t any family-friendly activities either – probably because, unlike in France, the local council cannot afford to become involved. There were more opportunities here to mix informally with the authors beyond the signing tables, which was rather lovely. The panels in France (and Switzerland) tend to be much more serious, with quite a high-level (occasionally pretentious) discussion of themes, social influences, politics and so on. Here in the UK the aim of the panels is to entertain – if you are a natural performer, if you come across as charismatic, at the end of the panel the attendees will make a rush on your books. I felt that I was asked to confront my own prejudices or assumptions far more in Lyon – the writers made me think deeply (perhaps because the moderators were usually journalists and literary reviewers, who’d had time to prepare extensively).
However, I really enjoyed going to both UK crime festivals, probably more than the general literary festivals, and will write about Newcastle Noir soon. I’d sent a report about it to another website the very next day, but they still haven’t published it, so I may have to publish it myself on my blog. Depending on my finances (they are expensive to attend, plus I left Bristol with 11 books, and would probably have got more except that my luggage had severe limitations), maybe Harrogate or Bloody Scotland next year?
If the first day of the CrimeFest in Bristol was more about dipping the toes into the water, the second day was more about excesses! Not of drink, but of meeting favourite authors and bloggers.
Although the conversations are often quite rushed in-between panels, I always enjoy chatting to knowledgeable and opinionated readers and bloggers such as Kat (aka Mrs P), Karen Meek (aka EuroCrime), Jacqui (aka RavenCrimeReads), Karen Cole (blogging at HairPastAFreckle), Ewa Sherman, Mary Picken, Emma Hamilton (blogging at BuriedUnderBooks), Louise Fairbairn. I can only recommend you seek them out and read their reviews. They know their stuff! Needless to say, I forgot to take pictures with most of them (slightly motivated by the fact that I hate appearing in pictures myself).
But you are probably more interested in the panels.
I discovered three new authors in the Tension and Paranoia panel, where I had previously only been aware of Alison Bruce. She is the creator of the Cambridge-based series featuring the endearing Gary Goodhew (I want to be his Mum!), but was here to talk about a standalone psychological thriller entitled I Did It for Us. Every time I think I am over psychological thrillers, I hear authors talking so passionately and relatably about their books and their characters, about the fears that every woman has about stalkers or something bad happening to their children or experiencing gaslighting. I wanted to buy every one of them, but decided to do so on Kindle rather than having to schlep four bags to the railway station. They were: Claire Kendal with a story about a pregnant spy which will be out later this year, real-life Derry Girl Claire Allan’s Apple of My Eye featuring another pregnant main protagonist and Lucy Clarke’s story You Let Me In, which should cure you of any thoughts of renting out your property on Airbnb.
The second panel I attended was on Partners and Sidekicks. Once again, it was about reconnecting with my beloved baby elephant (Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh and Inspector Chopra series), but also about discovering new authors. Lynn Britney writes about a team of both male and female detectives and scientists who investigate crimes in post-WW1 Britain. T.E. Kinsey tackles cosy historical crime fiction with amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her ‘servant’ (actually, friend) Florence, set in Edwardian Britain. Vaseem Khan’s series of course is set in contemporary India and is actually more gritty than cosy, although the baby elephant adds a bit of whimsy to the series (and will have to grow up very, very slowly, as the author admitted, since a grown elephant is not as cute). Meanwhile, M.W. Craven is the creator the curmudgeonly police officer Washington Poe, whom no one else likes, and civilian analyst, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who has three Ph.Ds but doesn’t know how to boil an egg.
As I told you, this was a day of excesses, so no rest for the wicked and I went straight into the third panel about Guilt. Moderated by an Irish writer, Anthony J. Quinn and featuring two further Irish writers (Olivia Kiernan and Jo Spain) plus a lapsed Catholic (Vanda Symon), you can imagine this panel focused quite heavily on feelings of guilt, on being suspicious of other people and on how they feel about writing in a genre that has been called a ‘guilty pleasure’. Sarah Hilary, also on this panel, was let loose on this topic and said: ‘Why are literary authors never asked if they feel guilty about writing yet another story about a white middle-class midlife crisis?’ Olivia Kiernan agreed that genre is nothing more than a label for booksellers or librarians to order things on a shelf, while Jo Spain said that crime is a study of human nature and all great writers address it (Wuthering Heights, for example). Vanda Symon went so far as to say that crime fiction makes us feel safe, because we read about awful things happening to other people, so crime authors are providing a public health service.
The next panel on Secrets that Haunt You had me almost in tears… of laughter. Louise Beech is an absolute wicked riot as a moderator (or, indeed, as a panelist) and she gave her fellow Orenda authors Thomas Enger and Johana Gustawsson a particularly hard time, claiming they worked as a member of the Norwegian Chippendales and as a Tokyo cage-fighter respectively. Also on the panel were: Fran Dorricot, whose debut thriller After the Eclipse about sibling love and guilt was a huge favourite with my Crime Fiction Lover colleagues; and Barnaby (aka BP) Walter, who looks no older than my son, but has in fact written a rather grim psychological thriller A Version of the Truth whose moral is: Don’t ever go looking for things on someone else’s device, you might not like what you find out!
The panelists were divided in terms of plotting. Johana finds plotting one of the most fun parts of writing, like doing a puzzle, but she doesn’t take it quite as far as Barnaby, who does a full cast list and a chapter by chapter outline, otherwise it would unnerve him to start writing. Fran doesn’t plot much, but knows what emotional ending she wants for her characters, and she knows her characters well. Meanwhile, Thomas says he is still struggling to find the perfect methodology, even though he is on his tenth book, because he doesn’t plot and therefore has to do so many rewrites, as many as 18, which takes up far too much time. There were also some emotional moments, when Thomas admitted that his wife is his first and harshest reader. She has a great eye but tears his work apart, so he can only show it to her every 2-3 months, otherwise he would get too depressed. Meanwhile, Johana sends her father a chapter every day and they discuss it on Facetime, it’s a real partnership and she is frightened to think of the day when she will no longer have that support.
I had an indulgent lunch break when I discovered the cake stall in St Nicholas’ Market. Heartily recommended if you ever visit Bristol! The polenta and fruit cake was a dream and I am somewhat of a connoisseur.
After lunch I had a moment of pure hero worship, as John Harvey was being interviewed to mark his 80th birthday. He is in many ways the kind of author I aspire to be: he likes jazz and theatre, he writes poetry and even ran a poetry press for a while (he published Simon Armitage, amongst others). Of course, it would help if I had his work ethic. Before he turned to crime fiction, John used to write Western novellas, publishing as many as 12 a year. I loved what he said about ‘Fiction is a job and pays the mortgage, while poetry is something that gets written in the cracks.’
His Charlie Resnick series is one of my all-time favourites, and it was satisfying to learn that my personal favourite Darkness Darkness is also the author’s favourite. I also had to get his latest book Body and Soul, although I haven’t read any of his Frank Elder series, because John said it was most definitely his last book. He wants to rest, relax, watch afternoon movies in-between Stairlift ads. He still gets plenty of ideas, but he won’t act on them – maybe someone else would like to buy some of his ideas?
I was flagging a little by then but the last panel of the day, about Friends, Family and Convoluted Relationships (moderated by C. L. Taylor) cheered me right up. I know and love all four authors on this panel: the irrepressible Amanda Jennings, Antti Tuomainen of the wicked, wry humour, Mel McGrath (whose Edie Kiglatuk series set in Inuit territory I absolutely love) and Paul Burston, Polari Prize and Polari Salon founder. However, I did not know the story that inspired Paul’s latest novel: he was trolled and stalked online and off for a good few months. It kept escalating, until he had to take it to court. Writing the book The Closer I Get from the point of view of the stalker rather than the victim was quite cathartic, but it was understandably very difficult to find the right voice. Meanwhile, Amanda had no problems finding the voice of her teenage self in her book The Cliff House,which took her straight back to the 1980s.
I have remarked before how much I love Antti’s change of tone in his two most recent novels, but he also said that he now has more affection and empathy for his characters, even the villains. They are all rather inept at their jobs, and make even bigger mistakes when they try to compensate for a mistake, something he can identify with. He also claims that it’s harder to write humour than dark fiction, even though he believes that kind of outlook in life feels more natural to him as a person.
I did not attend the Gala Dinner, and my friends who were the judges refused to give me a quick heads-up, so I had to find out on Twitter… but I was delighted to hear that a Norwegian won the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It was the dapper, very smiley Jørn Lier Horst, who looks so much like a former Norwegian classmate of mine from Year 6, that it’s quite disconcerting. Well done to the Petrona Award Committee for reading all the entries and selecting such a worthy winner! I was nearly right in my predictions!