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Crime returns to Cromarty for its annual celebration of literary murder.

By Calum MacLeod

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Not many literary festivals would get off to a start by executing their star guest, but then Cromarty Crime and Thrillers Weekend is not like most literary festivals.

If, as publisher and agent Jon Wood noted at Sunday’s final panel, the crime writing community is already open and welcoming, then the intimate setting of Cromarty Stables – and the village itself – adds to the friendliness of the occasion. Some panels felt more like a chat with some mates than a formal literary event.

Certainly it is very much a home gig from the festival’s biggest name. Having been a constant presence at the mini-crime fest from the beginning, Ian Rankin is probably as much host as guest in the Black Isle village where he has a house and does much of his writing, and contrasted his relaxed Cromarty appearances with the far from glamorous punishing publicity tours he has to endure.

“It’s lovely to be able to get in the car and come to a festival like Cromarty once a year,” he said.

And refusing to stand on ceremony, he is always happy to chip in with whatever the Black Islers have planned for him, hence the aforementioned execution scene. Not that he is a stranger to meeting a sudden end in Cromarty, having previously played the corpse in Cromarty Crime and Thrillers Weekend’s very own home produced howdunnit.

With this year’s festival offering a showcase to local authors ahead of the main guests, Vee Walker enlisted the audience to act as a make believe firing-squad to enact a scene from her World War I set book, Major Tom’s War, with a blindfolded Ian pressed into service as victim.

The other support acts were equally entertaining, young adult and children’s author Barbara Henderson putting her experience as a drama teacher to use with a lively reading from her Inverness set book Punch, while debut author Neil Lancaster raised laughs and eyebrows with his insider’s revelations of life as an undercover cop.

There were plenty of laughs too at Lesley Kelly’s session despite the grim subject matter of her Edinburgh-set trilogy, a modern Spanish flu pandemic, but then she did have the advantage of a background as a stand-up comedian, with some enforced audience participation that included “volunteers” modelling chimp and plague doctor masks.

Lesley, who has a Highland link through her Dingwall based publisher Sandstone, even managed to get a laugh out of the dreaded B-word, comparing the crisis in her novel with Brexit, and commenting: “The politicians in my book are quite frankly coping much better than their real life counterparts.”

Historical writer Shona MacLean, who, coming from Conan Bridge, had the second shortest author’s commute after Ian, also raised some smiles revealing that her writing had taken a different path after her London-based publisher told her to bring her series character, Alexander Seaton, to London. In turn “Alexander made it equally clear he didn’t want to go”, clearing the way for her award-winning new series featuring Cromwellian secret policeman

Lin Anderson, co-founder of the considerably larger Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, talked inspiration and Harley Davidsons on Sunday morning, before joining Jon Wood and her fellow authors on the final panel.

There Ian revealed that he had picked his agent because of the “funky name”: “Curtis Brown – Curtis Mayfield, James Brown – but it really wasn’t.”

Shona’s agent, on the other hand, was described as “a sweary Joyce Grenfell – she must have been a terror on the hockey pitch” and thus perfectly equipped for the agent’s essential role of preventing the writer and publisher from falling out.

And Lin Anderson had two useful bits of advice for would be writers in the audience. One: try entering Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect session, where over the last seven years at least one person pitching their book each year has been published.

The other: “Don’t give up. If you write something you believe in, other people will believe in it too.”

The main part of the weekend, which as always included workshops and film screenings as well as the author events, concluded with two new writers – one very new – the winners of the first Cromarty Crime and Thrillers Weekend short story competition.

Over 40 entries from as far away as Mumbai, Switzerland and the Baltic provided judges Vee Walker and Neil Lancaster with the hard task of judging the winners in what turned out to be a high quality field.

But though the competition attracted international entries, the winners came from much closer to home. Junior winner Sorley Rochford made chilling use of the competition’s “100 steps” theme, while his adult counterpart Neil Hepburn brought proceedings to an end with a darkly humorous tale of a bird watching trip turned lethal.

Its combination of laughter and slaughter was a pretty good reflection of the weekend as a whole where, no matter the dark deeds under discussion, a laugh was never far away.

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