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Crime and punishment is a thrilling way to spend the weekend

By Barbara Henderson

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Darkness gathers in my Inverness street. Looking over my shoulder, I clip the dog leash on my Schnauzer’s collar and sneak into the street.

Truth be told, I’m bricking it. Is that the sound of steps behind me? Is that a shadow lurking in the lane? Beside me, Porterfield Prison’s walls loom large, only magnified by the diminishing light.

With the man away for a few days, the late-night dog-walking duties have fallen to me. I’ve always been cursed with an overactive imagination, I concede. Maybe I should NOT have read all those crime stories just before stepping out into the night.

But reading crime stories is what I have to do! I am one of three competition judges for the Cromarty Crime and Thriller Weekend running from May 3-5 – and excitingly, I am also one of its 'Spotlight Authors', appearing alongside one of the main acts. I can’t wait.

Barbara with NessBookFest's Pauline and Katey Boal of the National Trust for Scotland at Abertarff House in Inverness, one of the new venues for the city festival.
Barbara with NessBookFest's Pauline and Katey Boal of the National Trust for Scotland at Abertarff House in Inverness, one of the new venues for the city festival.

Of course, I am not really a crime author. I leave that to the professionals – and especially to the professional-in-chief Ian Rankin, whose brainchild this fabulous wee festival is.

With his connections, the crème-de-la-crème of Scottish crime writing has appeared at Cromarty over the years. This year’s programme features Rankin himself, but also Lin Anderson, Jon Wood, Shona MacLean and Lesley Kelly.

For the very first time, they have also introduced a writing competition – entrants are to create a crime story with the theme of ‘100 Steps’, inspired by Cromarty’s beautiful South Sutor walk. Who knew there could be so many original and skilful interpretations? I thought I’d find the judging a little repetitive but it appears that all Spotlight Authors (Neil Lancaster and Vee Walker are my fellow judges) are in agreement – there is no shortage of twisted and dark imaginations out there.

For those of us with more delicate constitutions, may it be best to leave the light on tonight? Asking for a friend…

Joking aside, Cromarty is not the only small Highland village punching well above its weight this spring. Less than a week later, I will be heading north-west, where another wonderful wee book festival will take place on the opposite coast. This time as a punter and a reviewer, I wouldn’t miss my traditional Ullapool Saturday for the world!

Ullapool Book Festival has long prided itself on a wide range of literary, historical and intellectual events. I look forward to all of it: the seaside location, the crammed village hall, the inquisitive buzz, the Fairtrade coffee tent, the announcement of the Highland Book Prize winner – all of it excites me! I love the way their team creates a bubble, where audiences have such unique access to writers, poets and thinkers of exceptional quality.

Of course, I am no dispassionate observer of book festivals. I attend as many as I can. Because I enjoy them, yes, but also because we can learn so much from each other.

When I first raised the possibility of resurrecting a book festival for Inverness, the volunteers behind Ullapool were my first port of call. Yes, sure, here is our constitution – go ahead and amend it for your own use. Here is what not to do. These are the people you want to contact… Without their sage advice and their generosity with time and resources, NessBookFest may never have got off the ground.

Now it is going from strength to strength. By the time you read this column, our new website will have gone live (www.nessbookfest.co.uk) and we will have also hosted our World Book Night Quiz at the Market Bar.

I can’t tell you anything about October’s programme yet, but we are introducing new venues, including the iconic Abertarff House, and are planning collaborations with so many different bodies and organisations, I can barely keep up – and I am the chairperson!

We may not have the UK’s most successful crime writer, or a Fairtrade cake tent, but we do have something unique and worth celebrating too.

Look out for:

Death at the Plague Museum Lesley Kelly
Death at the Plague Museum Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly’s third instalment in her Health of Strangers trilogy: Death at the Plague Museum. Lesley will feature at the Cromarty Crime and Thriller Weekend and she does satire exceptionally well. I’m looking forward to reading this one!

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