Harrogate Happenings

Yesterday afternoon, I returned from my annual trip to Harrogate for the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival, the event where 100s of crime writers, bloggers, authors, industry professionals and many, many readers converge at The Old Swan hotel (of Agatha Christie disappearance fame…) for a weekend of talks, parties, drinks, books, scandals and hangovers. As usual, the festival was excellent fun – and even the rain didn’t stop play 🙂

Great things…

  • The Pimms-in-A-Tin tent… genius
  • Promoting my new book The Deaths of December at the Hodder drinks party, which included pulling crackers and saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to a lot of bemused faces (and keeping my reindeer antlers on all night afterwards)
  • Reading my short story ‘The Chair’ while my fellow Slice Girls A.K. Benedict and Steph Broadribb duct taped author Neil White to a chair at The Blues Bar (thanks to Zoe Sharp for the torch!)
  • The Slice Girls performance afterwards (as part of fringe event Noir At The Bar)
  • The Dark Side panel on Friday, featuring Clare Donoghue, Elly Griffiths (this year’s fab festival chair), Simon Toyne, Lesley Thomson & James Oswald – chatting about supernatural elements in crime and why we should all read it
  • Chocolate cake and Prosecco at the Bonnier drinks party
  • Hanging out with lots of really cool people and laughing very much at lots of unrepeatable and ridiculous thing (…laughing at Katerina Diamond telling me to stop laughing so much)
  • Ed’s highanus
  • Danny not being dead

Annoying things…

  • Not getting a burger because it started to piss down with rain and they had to close it down before everything blew away
  • Not spending enough time with some people (and not seeing others at all…)
  • My agent not being there
  • Rain
  • Forgetting to buy Farrah’s fudge
  • Rod Reynolds*

Sad things…

  • Thinking about the beautiful Helen Cadbury, who had planned to be there and will always be missed 💔

Some pics below, mostly stolen from others. Thanks to the organisers for a fantastic event, my publishers for spoiling me with a lovely meal and showering me with praise, the cleaner at The Cairn for giving me extra biscuits, and all the lovely people who kept me entertained. Roll on 2018!!

*Not really 🙂

The Killer Hook

Being very disciplined (for once), I only bought ONE book at Harrogate this year. It was The Final Silence by Stuart Neville. It’s the first of Stuart’s books that I’ve read, and I was very pleased to be introduced to him by Steve Cavanagh, and get my book signed with a lovely message, wishing me luck with my own book, Black Wood.

So why did I choose to buy this book? Simple: The killer hook.

Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew. It doesn’t take her long to clear out the dead man’s remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked. When Rea finally forces it open she discovers inside a chair, a table – and a leather-bound book. Inside its pages are locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.

A catalogue of victims. Brilliant, just bloody brilliant.

I read this book in two sittings. The Belfast setting was dark and stunning. The writing is beautiful, the effect is cinematic. Old secrets come back to haunt everyone in this book, and it is tragic and fascinating and I didn’t want it to end.

I did get another book at Harrogate (it was a free review copy) – and it was another one with one of those annoyingly brilliant hooks:

From The Bookseller: “The novel is a commuter’s story, involving glimpses into what is happening in the houses the train speeds past.”

That was it… that was enough for me. Another strikingly simple hook that you wish you’d thought of first… It’s a fantastic book too. The voice of Rachel, the main character, is captivating. The whole thing is a mystery that unravels so slowly, yet so perfectly that it is almost impossible to stop reading.

It’s out in January, and here’s the full, tantalising blurb…

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.

Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…

Coming up with that hook is the key to getting your book noticed. if you can describe it succinctly and leave the potential reader begging to know more, then you’ve nailed it. Then you just have to hope you don’t disappoint in the execution…

Bloody Scotland… Bloody Brilliant

This year was the year that I attempted four… yes, four, different crime festivals: Dark and Stormy (Brighton, May), CrimeFest (Bristol, June), Theakston’s Crime (Harrogate, July) and the last one for me this year – Bloody Scotland, in Stirling.

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As with all the others, the whole weekend whizzed by in a blur of book-talk, meeting old friends and making new ones, drinking, exploring the town, and the obligatory hangovers – although for me, this was one of the least liver-damaging festivals I’ve attended (despite the late nights in the bar). I must be getting old…

Here are just a few of the many highlights:

  • Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride doing a Points of View style, readers letters event. Highlights include: audience participation of Skeleton Bob ‘not suitable for children’ reading by Stuart, Mark’s tales of upsetting various audience members and digging himself into very deep holes, and of course, Stuart’s International Stovie Champion award.
  • Haggis and Tattie Scones for breakfast. As a Scot living in London, I don’t get to stuff myself with my home-foods as often as I would like… so I made up for it there. This was followed up on Saturday morning with a hilarious chat with authors Neil White and US-based Scot, Dirk Robertson, who once received a review headlined ‘I can’t believe this shit got published’ and has been mistaken for his ‘adult entertainment’ namesake on more than one occasion.
  • Interviewing Kati Hiekkapelto who was launching her debut novel The Hummingbird at the weekend. This was my first face-to-face author interview, as I usually do them via email. Luckily I was able to enlist the services of CrimeThrillerGirl as my trusty scribe (I recorded it too. Interview will be live as soon as I’ve been able to bear listening to my own voice).
  • The Scotland vs England football match – which took place on a bowling green in the grounds of an old hospital… I tried to live tweet a commentary, but it was such a fast-paced game that it was a bit of a challenge. Not as challenging as it seemed for the England team though, who lost 13-1 despite the distractions of Arcadia’s Karen Sullivan in a football strip and Dirk Robertson’s impressive barnet.
  • Women in Crime Fiction (Lin Anderson, Catriona MacPherson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, chaired by Donna Moore). The key message I took from this was a simple one – factual crime is always much, much worse that anything that a crime writer could come up with. It IS brutal, why try to dress it up any other way?
  • Luca Veste, Michael J. Malone and Martyn Waites (chaired by Mark Billingham) – funny, a bit sweary and the revelation that not only does Luca desperately miss Brookside, Mark’s wife has actually lived there. Sort of.
  • Ian Rankin and Kathy Reichs. A fantastic chat between two top authors. Kathy’s life is fascinating and the rapport between the two made for an entertaining hour in the beautiful Albert Halls. I don’t recommend the very steep ‘short cut’ down from the Stirling Highland though, unless you’re wearing Spiderman’s sticky shoes. This was followed by a interesting conversation with CrimeThrillerGirl, Mason Cross and Katy Loftus from Avon… there’s talk of a new genre-crossing crime novel featuring a christian cat detective (on a train). I really hope someone decides to write it.
  • Pitch Perfect. The event where aspiring crime writers are invited to pitch their novel ideas to a panel of editors. I had two friends pitching in this, so I will avoid bias by saying that all seven made a brilliant effort. Interesting to see that all were women (as were the panel) when there is so much talk about the lack of female writers/publishers… The winning pitch featuring a Forensic Geologist was a worthy champion. I’m not too sure about the last one though… which seemed to be an X-Files, Geo-Warrior, Sci-Fi Comedy. But I’m sure there’s a market for that somewhere…

It was great to mingle with the authors, bloggers, publishers, reviewers and event organisers in the bar. Well done to the whole team for a fabulous event. Can’t wait for next year.

Sam Alexander is… Paul Johnston!

After weeks of torture from Arcadia Books and the #WhoIsSamAlexander campaign, the author was finally revealed yesterday on the Bloody Scotland website – cue much ‘ah, I should’ve guessed’ shouts from the crime writing readers and writers who failed to get it right 🙂

Sam Alexander is none other than CWA Dagger Award winner Paul Johnston, author of three bestselling series of crime novels, including Greek detective Mavros.

Bloody Scotland will be hosting Sam Alexander aka Paul Johnston at an exclusive event during Book Week Scotland 2014 in November. You can read the full press release here.

Sam… Paul… (Pam?!) has kindly supplied some further info on some of his cryptic answers from last week’s interview below:


Other authors I was pleased to be identified with include: William McIlvanney, Sophie Hannah, Laura Wilson, Laura Lippman, Mo Hayder, Mark Billingham, Martyn Waites, Stav Sherez (the last three kept shtum, but Stav forgot and almost blew it…), John Connolly, Denise Mina, Helen Fielding, Irvine Welsh, Lee Child, Colin Dexter and AL Kennedy. Not so keen on Agatha Christie (didn’t you know? She’s living in a grace and favour apartment in Buckingham Palace). Or Stephanie Meyer, though to be fair I’m hardly her target audience. Arthur Conan Doyle’s my hero and, being a spiritualist/ spirit, he did nudge my elbow a few times, but he was revolted by the sex and violence (this from an author who cut off an engineer’s thumb and sent a snake through a hole into a young lady’s bedroom…)

– It was also pleasing that there was a pretty much equal split between female and male authors. I was paranoid that my female characters weren’t convincing.

– The person who suggested Jeffrey Archer also guessed who I was. Her reward is to be killed in the sequel to Carnal Acts. [*evil laughter* – SJIH]

Although there have been cops in all three of my previous series, Quint Dalrymple, Alex Mavros and Matt Wells are basically private eyes (Wells is a crime novelist, for pity’s sake…). So tackling the police procedural was a big issue. It was why I invented Corham and the new force – so I could set up a world that isn’t quite ours. That didn’t stop a particularly bilious critic attacking me for getting dog licences wrong. I’m sorry, in my fictional world they still exist. (Neat get-out clause, non?)

Cancer – I’ve had surgery and other therapy three times, so Heck’s a wimp.

Rugby – I was a keen player when I was young and have mentioned the sport in other novels.

Albanians – having spent much of my time in Greece, I’ve met plenty of Albanian immigrants and have educated myself about their country. Of course, only very few Albanians are gangsters – just as well, as the Albanian clan-based mob is seen as more vicious than the Italian equivalent. Matt Wells, crime novelist hero of my third series (The Death List etc), wrote a series starring an Albanian detective called Zog Hadzhi. Amazingly, it wasn’t a success.

Scotland – mentioned since I’m from Edinburgh (in England, according to Glaswegians). Some people spotted the Scottish link and went through every Scottish writer they could think of. Except moi. (Apart from a couple of bright sparks, including the doomed individual mentioned above.) Until earlier this year we had a family house in the Scottish borders, so visiting Northumbria was easy.

People trafficking – it’s a major contemporary social problem, but I think I was also drawn to it because I’ve spent so much time abroad. Clue – ‘Do they miss home?’ When you’re away from your place of birth, you automatically start to think about your ties to it.

I do share some qualities with Joni and Heck, though probably more with the latter. I enjoyed writing Joni – apart from the paranoia mentioned above – because I was able to combine my experience of women I’ve known plus use my imagination. Oh, and nick stuff from female cops in other people’s novels. Actually, I didn’t do much of the latter – I wanted to go my own way. And then there’s the wish fulfilment. I wish I’d been as good a rugby player as Heck (I was a fly boy out on the wing, carefully avoiding the hard-man stuff), I wish I’d won an athletics blue (I didn’t have the nerve to go for a trial, even though I’d been a reasonable long jumper and sprinter at school); and I wish I had their integrity. For good reason, readers like cops in leading roles to have a coherent system of ethics. Those of us who only write about them can be much less ‘good’.

More people were involved in the writing process – this refers to the fact that I recently finished a PhD in creative writing at St Andrews University, and Carnal Acts was the novel that I submitted. Well, a third of it – the rest of the thesis consisted of me arguing myself in circles about the main issues in the book; the so-called critical section. So I went into great detail about the issues of pseudonym, plot, character, genre, gender, the body, race and class. Hope that isn’t too obvious in the novel… The book’s dedicated to my professor Gill Plain. She kept me right, especially on issues of gender, the body and race. I learned a huge amount from her and her colleagues and think I’m a much better writer since doing the PhD.

The main structural difference between Carnal Acts and all the other novels I’ve written is the short chapters. That didn’t happen till the second draft. I – and my agent and my prof – felt the story wasn’t moving quickly enough and brief, filmic scenes seemed to do the trick. Let’s hope a producer picks the book up… [I hope so too! – SJIH]

The lawnmower quote – it’s from the old, good Genesis (with Peter Gabriel), a song called ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ – I mentioned it as a tip of the hat to my pal Mark Billingham, who’s an even bigger fan than I am. The lyrics are barking, which is what we want…

The sequel to Carnal Acts has now been commissioned by Arcadia Books – see what a good publicity campaign can do! It’ll be out next July (if I manage to write it in time…)

Actually, I don’t mind Swedish meatballs. [Glad to hear it – SJIH]

Yes! I’m Paul Johnston. ‘No, I’m Paul Johnston and so’s my wife.’ Actually, I like having two writing personas. Hang on, why stop there? Stand by for persona number 3 – I’ve always wanted to write full blown science fiction. As Margaret Wells (got to let my daughter Maggie have a crack of the pseudonym whip – ow – since my son’s name is Alexander.) Hello? Arcadia Books? Can you hear me?


Thank you, Paul – I hope Carnal Acts continues to fly off the shelves 🙂

Find out more about Paul at his website: www.paul-johnston.co.uk. He can also be found on twitter.

10 things I learned at Harrogate

People who follow me on Twitter will no doubt have noticed the recent tweets about the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Festival, which was held this weekend at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate (where Agatha Christie was discovered after famously going missing in 1926) . I attended it once before in 2009, but this time was very different for me as I approached it in a slightly different way, this time knowing a bit more about what to expect. I still can’t believe how many fabulous people I met – authors, readers, reviewers, agents, publishers – all of whom were amazingly nice people, and who firmly confirmed my belief that crime writers are just *the best* gang to be a part of. My hope is that one day I’ll be able to reply to the standard question ‘So, are you a writer?’ with ‘Yes, my first book has just been published, actually.’ One day…

In the meantime, here are 10 random things that I learned:

  1. You will never manage to talk to everyone and do everything and you will come back and read others’ accounts and wonder if you attended the same festival. This is normal.
  2. You will regret not talking to people that you wanted to as much as you are pleased to have met the ones you did. The people you follow and enjoy chatting to on twitter really are as much (if not more) fun in real life.  Don’t be scared of your idols. They will be more than happy to chat.
  3. Do the Saturday night quiz. It’s a great laugh and you will not be as bad as you think (it is hard though!)
  4. Don’t try to attend all the talks and panel sessions. You just won’t. Your brain can’t cope and it’s very hot in there. Plus you will mainly be outside in the garden chatting and drinking.
  5. However, you must also take time out from the drinking. Go to the Turkish Baths. Very good for a hangover. Or go to Betty’s Tea Rooms. Preferably do both.
  6. Back to the drinking though – book early and stay in the Old Swan if your mission is to stay very, very late at the bar. Also pop down to The Old Bell for a pint if you get sick of all the book talk 😉
  7. Listen to advice from those who’ve been where you are now. John Connolly said that a bigger and better idea will always come to you as you write, but never stop writing your current piece – if you don’t finish, and you keep doing this, you will *never* finish anything. Antonio Hill told me to write every day but have the weekends off – you need discipline but you also need a break. The consensus amongst most authors is: just write it. The first draft is meant to be shit. It’s the re-writing that will turn it into a novel. Don’t rush. There will be plenty of time for deadlines when you find a publisher.
  8. Make sure you attend the most talked about panel of the weekend (ok, you need the benefit of hindsight for this, but I am very glad to have been at the eBook talk, now affectionately known as ‘Tossergate’. You can read about it here and here). All I can describe it as is ‘cringe-worthy’.
  9. Go to the book signings. I was delighted when after the Luther panel, I bought Neil Cross’ ‘Holloway Falls’ (as I already had ‘The Calling’) and he told me that this is his favourite of his own books and that the main character was the pre-cursor to Luther. It was also a massive highlight to meet Michael Smiley and ask him what the hell the ending of Kill List was all about (he just laughed and said ‘everyone asks that’  and signed my book from ‘Benny & Gal’.  I am still none the wiser.)
  10. Take a massive suitcase. You will come back with more books and Harrogate souvenirs than ever thought possible.

And finally (Ok, this is #11 but it needs it’s own section…) – make sure you buy a raffle ticket at the box office… I bought a strip of 5, and to my extreme disbelief, I won a terrific prize… Imagine the surreal moment as I had my number called out, then had to make my way to the stage (from the back of the room) past hundreds of people at tightly squashed tables, all of whom were staring at me and clapping excitedly as my face glowed like a belisha beacon, while Val McDermid and Mark Billingham ‘gently’ harassed me from the stage to ‘hurry up’… and when I got there I found out that I will be featured as a character in a Peter James novel! Oh. My. God! I also won a huge box of books and a gorgeous hamper from Theakstons… and as a result of all this, one of my favourite crime authors, Peter James – the first person I followed on twitter – is now following me back and has tweeted me several times. I am still in shock.

So now it’s time to up my game and get my novel finished. This weekend really made me realise that all authors have been where I am, and the reason they are published now is that they never gave up. It also made me realise more than ever that I want to be part of their gang 🙂

Roll on Theakstons Crime 2013.