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 Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now.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 closely entwined
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 things.
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 foolish choice?
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.