Published: 13/10/2014 17:45 - Updated: 13/10/2014 18:19

Bloody Scotland net another successful year of literary crime

The third Bloody Scotland Festival attracted record numbers. Photo: Eoin Carey.
The third Bloody Scotland Festival attracted record numbers. Photo: Eoin Carey.

THERE was no escaping a certain vote at this year’s Bloody Scotland.

In fact, one of the major events of the weekend was a well attended and passionate debate on the fall out of the referendum result.

Still, there were lots of others events to provide a distraction from the heated debates of the last few months, and an opportunity to salvage some battered Scottish pride.

The festival proper kicked off on Friday evening, just hours after confirmation that the voters of Scotland had rejected independence by a 10 per cent margin, with two of Scotland’s most politically minded authors and ones who happened to be on either side of the debate. Christopher Brookmyre was a vocal Yes voter, while Denise Mina had declared herself for No although that division was far from evident in their easy rapport.

As writers with a bit of an international profile, they had both found themselves called on to explain the Scottish situation to foreign viewers.

In Germany to promote Bedlam, the video game he has scripted and even (along with his son) done some voice work for, Brookmyre found the only thing TV network ZDF wanted to ask him about was the referendum.

"I had Al-Jazeera," Mina piped up cheerfully, revealing that she had turned down BBC2’s Newsnight to appear at Bloody Scotland and that she was working on a book set in the two weeks leading up to the referendum.

"Remember that crazy time?" she asked, impishly.

"We were having a conversation about ourselves and the whole world was paying attention. And we didn’t have to blow anything up!"

Despondent Yes voting fans of Brookmyre might have at least been cheered up to learn that his maverick reporter Jack Parlabane is returning after a long absence to find his place in a post-Levenson Inquiry newspaper industry.

"When I first wrote about him, I thought: let’s have this character who will do anything to get the story. He’ll hack things, he’ll beak into places," Brookmyre said.

"I thought it was fantasy. Since then I’ve realised it was standard industry practice."

Mark Billingham joins the ranks of the walking dead in his Friday in his co-event with Stuart MacBride. Photo Eoin Carey.
Mark Billingham joins the ranks of the walking dead in his Friday in his co-event with Stuart MacBride. Photo Eoin Carey.

There were more laughs, and lots of them, to follow from Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride as they answered questions posed by fictitious fans .

This saw Billingham and the audience pretending to be zombies as MacBride read from a children’s tale that even outdid his adult books for body count with its "pile of dead kids by the swings", Billingham being introduced to the Scottish delicacy that is stovies (of which MacBride is the World Champion maker) and MacBride revealing why it is dangerous to write Scots dialect dedications in books for Afrikaans speakers.

In turn Billingham read from music writing spoof Great Lost Albums, co-written with Martyn Waites (also present at Bloody Scotland), Stav Sherez and David Quantick, confessing to abusing blind fans and musing on crime readers’ odd sensitivity to bad language.

"Oh look! This book has got all the things I love. Murder, kidnapping, rape, torture, child abuse — what? Swearing. Oh no, no. no."

Saturday presented a choice of panels, but for would-be writers the discussion between Ed James and Allan Guthrie on the changing environment of publishing should have been a must attend event.

Guthrie reckoned he had something like 400 rejections from publishers and agents before a US deal and awards for debut Two Way Split caught the attention of publishers in the UK.

Ed James went down the route of self-publishing online and, helped by a phenomenal work rate that can see him write a book in 10 days, has made such a success of it that he has been able to give up the day job and attract a conventional publisher.

What helps is that he is the fastest writer Guthrie has ever met, James admitting to completing a 110,000 word novel, plus some revision, in just 10 days.

So the good news for those of us who think it has been far too long since Guthrie’s last novel, Slammer, is that the self-admittedly slow Orcadian is teaming up with James to collaborate on a serial-killer thriller.

Bloody Scotland is far from exclusively Scottish and late morning on Saturday brought a choice of German crime superstar Nele Neuhaus, ’50s crime from Scotland’s Sara Sheridan and England’s James Runcie, whose Grantchester Mysteries are now showing on ITV, and two big hitters from south of the border in David Hewson and Peter Robinson.

In introducing the latter, Bloody Scotland co-founder Lin Anderson summed up the appeal of the weekend as a celebration of literary crime.

"It never fails to amaze me, the sheer variety of crime writing," Anderson said.

"The breadth of different types of writing is just astonishing."

While Hewson has taken a television series, Danish hit The Killing, and turned it into a trio of novesl, Robinson’s DCI Banks series has reversed the process.

However, he hinted that he was unhappy with how the programme makers had presented his character, changing him from the easy-going and reasonable character of the 23 books to something of a bully.

"And they completely ruined Piece of My Heat by making it about ’80s music rather than ’60s music," he added.

Yet even after 23 books, there are no guarantees for any of his characters.

"I don’t think I’ll kill him — but I don’t know for sure," Robinson warned ominously.

"If I did, it would have to be in an interesting way, but I don’t know. I didn’t even know his wife was going to leave him."

If Robinson tends to stick to Yorkshire and DCI Banks, with an occasional foray to his adopted country of Canada, Hewson prefers to hop around Europe with his books, beginning with a series of standalones followed by the Nic Costa series set in Rome, the Copenhagen of The Killing and now the first of a new series set in Amsterdam.

"What a job. You wander round beautiful cities and kill people," he said.

"The first Nic Costa book came about because I wandered into a church in Rome and saw these pictures of martyrs. They were incredibly gory. I thought: I could work with that!"

From the bloody iconography of religion to the state of Scottish politics just hours after the referendum result.

Sponsored by the Sunday Herald, the one national newspaper that declared itself in favour of a yes vote, the panel assembled to discuss the debate was rather one sided.

Real politics replaced fiction crime at the Bloody Scotland independence debate. Photo Eoin Carey.
Real politics replaced fiction crime at the Bloody Scotland independence debate. Photo Eoin Carey.

Only academic and broadcaster Mona Siddiqui was a self declared No voter up while representing the Yesers were chairman and political commentator Iain MacWhirter, singer-songwrter Karine Polwart, historian Sir Tom Devine and novelist William McIlvanney — despite the occasion and the number of crime writers who had been vocal about the independence issue, the only crime writer to feature in this segment of Bloody Scotland.

And a slightly depressed crime writer he was, the godfather of Tartan Noir admitting to holding a one-man wake despite not being a nationalist.

"I always voted Labour, but I can’t find the Labour Party I voted for any more," he said.

His fellow Yes voters tried to cheer him up.

For Karine Polwart, reasons to be cheerful included the number of women who had been politicised by the process and were not going away, or the hundreds who had flocked to join the Scottish Green Party, the party she herself supports, in the 24 hours after the vote was announced.

For Devine, it was pride in the way Scots had engaged in the debate and his prediction that the Union state was finished with the options either another independence referendum, which would be successful, or a confederation "bringing back the glory days of Mercia, Wessex and Cornwall" with central issues of defence and welfare decided by a "parliament" in Carlisle.

"The Palace of Westminister could be left as an outsize monument to ambition and a suitable venue for the Mayor of London," he suggested.

It was back to murder for more lighthearted entertainment later in the evening when two of the biggest stars of the weekend joined forces on stage, US visiting megaseller Kathy Reichs and Scotland’s own Ian Rankin, here taking the role of interviewer.

A meeting of crime writing super stars from both sides of the Atlantic as Ian Rankin interviews Kathy Reichs. Photo: Eoin Carey.
A meeting of crime writing super stars from both sides of the Atlantic as Ian Rankin interviews Kathy Reichs. Photo: Eoin Carey.

A rare instance of a real life crime professional, in her case a forensic anthropologist, who now writes crime fiction, Reichs’s career has included the search for remains at the Twin Towers, innumerable murder cases and mass graves in Guatemala.

"One woman came down to us and said that her four daughters and nine grandchildren were in that pit," she said.

With such a potentially harrowing day job, Reichs revealed that she found writing therapeutic.

"When I don’t write for a while I just want to get back to the keyboard because when you’re writing you don’t think about anything else," she said.

Reichs’s Temperance "Tempe" Brennan books have made the jump to TV in the series Bones, although major changes from the books, including a much younger Tempe (Emily Deschanel) than the protagonist of the book series, lead Reichs to think of the show as a prequel set "before her marriage was messed up by alcohol", although in a metafictional twist, TV Tempe writes bestselling thrillers about a forensic anthropologist called Kathy Reichs.

Like Rankin, she has also made a cameo appearance in the television adaptation of her books. Unlike Rankin, she actually had some lines.

"I was ‘heroic bystander’," he protested.

"Isn’t that more of an extra?" Reichs asked innocently.

Saturday finished with the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award, with Peter May’s Entry Island proving a popular winner, while Sunday, in now traditional manner, looked to future talent with would-be authors seeking to impress an industry panel with their book proposals in Pitch Perfect, an ordeal perhaps made even more challenging by having the great William McIlvanney in the audience.

There was a look north with a panel comprising Malcolm MacKay, who writes about Glasgow but lives in Lewis, Craig Robertson who lives in Glasgow but set his latest novel in the Faroe Islands, and Finnish visitor Kati Hiekkapelto, and another panel devoted to Iceland with Ragnar Jonasson, Quentin Bates and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

Robertson, whose previous books had all been set in his native Glasgow, had taken on the challenge of writing about the region with the lowest crime rate in the world.

"I thought: I could change that," he said.

"Their last murder was 26 years ago and they actually had another one while I was writing the book and I felt really guilty about that."

A murder every 26 years is a positive crime wave compared with MacKay’s native island of Lewis, which is why he sets his books in Glasgow.

"With every book, you want to explore new territory," he said.

"People tell you to write about what you know, but I think you should write about what you are interested in. Having said that, I’m writing on the assumption that the people reading it aren’t hitmen themselves, so they don’t know what I get wrong."

It was British literature’s best known sanctioned hitman who led to former punk music critic and author of the million selling Man and Boy, Tony Parsons, to re-invent himself as a crime writer.

Bumping into director Sam Mendes as he was about to make Skyfall led Parsons back to the Bond books he had loved in his youth.

"It’s an incredible achievement for a writer to create a character who can be re-invented every generation," he said.

Max Wolfe, the policeman hero of The Murder Bag, is Parsons’s attempt to create such a character.

Writing the book without a contract and literally cashing in his pension to finance the writing of The Murder Bag, his gamble was justified when the book was sold to a publisher in just 24 hours.

"That was a relief more than anything," he said.

Also following the path from journalism to crime fiction were the four strong panel of Douglas Skelton, Robert Ryan, Doug Johnstone and Tony Black, all of them agreeing that while, in Black’s words, writing fiction might occupy different sides of the brain, journalism did teach the discipline of writing.

"I don’t believe in writer’s block," Johnstone put it bluntly.

"That’s just an excuse for lazy bastards."

Johnstone certainly proved not to be lazy on the football pitch as the star striker of a Scottish crime writers select, which included Rankin, Brookmyre and Robertson, that comprehensively defeated their English counterparts 13-1.

Admittedly there was some dubiety over that scoreline — but they decided to let that suspect English goal stand.

It was a reflection not so much on the opposition, but the strength of Scottish crime writing and a festival that is growing in numbers and its place on the Scottish literary calendar.

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