Crime Pays – Bloody Scotland Literary Festival
Last month at the inaugural Bloody Scotland literary festival, the cream of Scottish and international crime fiction writers descended on Stirling for a weekend of debates, signings and discussions. The Skinny was there to investigate...
“Crime writing in Scotland really does punch above its weight,” said Ian Rankin in his opening remarks at Scotland's first ever literary festival dedicated to crime fiction, Bloody Scotland, which took place in Stirling in September. He was referring, in part, to sales – writers like Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Christopher Brookmyre (all in attendance) and Rankin himself reside in the higher echelons of the earnings spectrum for crime writers, and are translated widely, not to mention regularly troubling the best-seller lists in the rest of the English-speaking world. But Rankin wasn't just talking about sales.
Arguably, modern crime fiction's first and most beloved author is Scottish – 2012 marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of A Study In Scarlet, the first novel by Scottish author Arthur Conan-Doyle – although Sherlock Holmes' adventures are based in London. It is also exactly 35 years since William McIlvanney kick-started the genre of 'tartan noir' with his gritty, socially realistic take on crime fiction, Laidlaw, due to be re-published soon by Canongate Press. 25 years have passed since the publication of the first of Rankin's enormously popular Rebus novels. These days Scotland's crime fiction tradition is firmly established; thronged with talented, successful writers experimenting with a whole host of techniques, styles and themes – and most of them were in attendance at Bloody Scotland.
The festival was designed first and foremost to appeal to fans of crime fiction, with every talk followed by an intimate Q&A and a book signing with the authors, and attendance at some of the events more than filling Stirling's 300-capacity Albert Halls. Convincing efforts were made to engage with up-and-coming writers and ambitious beginners, with the first day of the festival given over to workshops run in Stirling University's prestigious Creative Writing department.
The morning session was guided by best-selling author Laura Marney (Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby, No Wonder I Take A Drink), with a focus on character development. Breaking down the essence of what makes a good protagonist, and giving participants the chance to try out her techniques with their own creations, Marney's workshop was an intriguing, practical demystification of the process of creating a fictional character. The afternoon session was led by author and literary agent Allan Guthrie (Slammer, Two Way Split, Bad Men), and focused on plot – specifically the difference between suspense and tension. Suspense is the anticipation of the inevitable – the reader knows what is coming, but not when. Tension is different – the reader knows something is going to happen, but does not necessarily know what that something will be. Both Marney and Guthrie are supremely confident storytellers, so the chance to learn from them and ask them questions about process was a unique and valuable opportunity for the budding authors in attendance.
Day one finished with a panel of agents and publishers – including Guthrie, wearing his agent hat – which contained essential advice about how to approach the literary world after constructing your magnum opus. The most surprising aspect of this discussion was Guthrie's passionate advocacy of self-publishing and digital publishing. Guthrie works for one of Scotland's premier literary agencies, Jenny Brown Associates, so he is entrenched in traditional publishing. But he is also the founder of Blasted Heath, Scotland's first digital-only imprint. It was encouraging to hear examples from him of writers who have gone their own way, self-published and made a success of it – proving that there is more than one way into the creative industries.
The second and third days of the festival were all about author panels, and Bloody Scotland certainly wasn't short of literary talent, or burning issues for the talent to discuss. In a much-touted debate, Ian Rankin and Peter James took on the issue of The Man Booker Prize, asking whether it was time for a crime fiction writer to be recognised by the Booker jury. Stuart Kelly, literary editor of the Scotland on Sunday, and Willy Maley, founder of Glasgow University's Creative Writing program, defended the Booker, arguing that several winning novels have included a murder, and could therefore be classified as crime fiction. Rankin made the point that if a crime novel was nominated, it would be “elevated” above the status of crime fiction, to the status of literature, making a convincing point for the elitism inherent in definitions of what is and is not literary. Despite Kelly's acerbic speech in defence of the Booker, and Peter James' eloquent attack on it, the debate felt somewhat toothless, with the opposing sides agreeing to disagree in the final analysis.
A fascinating session on forensic science provided one of the most engaging discussions of the festival, as a professor of forensic science and a detective inspector analysed the realism of scenes from novels by Stuart MacBride and Christopher Brookmyre. Given that Brookmyre's hilarious chosen scene (from his debut novel Quite Ugly One Morning) involved the murderer apparently having taken the mother of all dumps on the victim's mantelpiece, the analysis given by Professor Dave Barclay was light-hearted, if based on hard scientific fact. DI Donna Bryans' crime scene analysis was undoubtedly more harrowing, featuring graphic images of a murdered woman's injuries, but for the aspiring writers in the room, the detailed account of forensic procedures and crime scene analysis was utterly transfixing.
The highlight of the second day was a Q&A and reading from William McIlvanney. A writer whose stated ambition was to produce a “genealogy of the working class” of Scotland, he showed deftly and convincingly why crime fiction is the ideal place for closely-observed social realism, painting a vivid portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1970s in the extracts from his three novels, all featuring Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw.
One extract described the discovery of a body in a Victorian townhouse converted into shabby, single-occupancy bedsits. As a contrast, McIlvanney read a scene almost exactly matching the fictional murder, from his memoirs. As a recently-divorced, unemployed writer, McIlvanney had lived in a place like the one in his novel, and had indeed discovered a dead body, wires extending from the electrical outlet and wrapped around his wrist. McIlvanney's terse, Chandleresque prose and ear for the rich vernacular of working-class Glasgow were an inspiration to a generation of Scottish crime writers, so it is no surprise that when McIlvanney announced the possibility of a new Laidlaw novel, the room erupted into rapturous applause and cheers.
In another debate, Denise Mina (author of the Garnethill trilogy, and winner of this year's prestigious Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, for The End of the Wasp Season) and Peter James debated an old and always controversial topic – whether or not 'evil' exists. Citing examples from his own research, James described some particularly brutal serial murders, while Mina expertly dissected societal notions of good and evil with reference to politicians, the mentally ill, and even other crime writers. The extract from her new novel, Gods and Beasts, featured a tantalising glimpse of Mina's fictional take on a certain Scottish political figure's orgy-filled, amoral existence – arguably winning the debate with her thesis that wilful abuse of power and public station is morally worse than even the most grisly of premeditated murders. It's the Leveson enquiry, and the ethics of corporate monsters like James Murdoch, which leads Mina to believe that “we live in sinister times.”
Elsewhere, author, journalist and musician Doug Johnstone (Smokeheads, Hit and Run) joined lawyer-slash-author Gary Moffat (Daisychain), and journalist-slash-author Craig Robertson (Cold Grave, Snapshot) on a panel dubbing them the 'Bad Boys' of Scottish crime fiction. Reading from their latest novels, each writer chose a passage that allowed the audience to identify with a killer, rather than a detective; this led on to a robust debate about “sympathetic” protagonists, the literary limits of the police procedural, and the three authors' track records of fictionalised animal cruelty. “I cut a dog in half with a Samurai sword,” offered Moffat. “I eviscerated a dog,” countered Johnstone, “although technically he was the hero.” Well, that's why they call them bad boys, after all.
There were dozens more high-profile authors in attendance, from old hands such as Val McDermid, whose most recent novel is a kidnapping thriller with a wickedly modern premise, and Karin Fossum, the Norwegian 'Queen of Crime,' to relative newcomers like Caro Ramsay and Frank Muir. With special events such as a live reading of winning entries to the Glengoyne Short Story Competition, the announcement of the Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the Year, which went to Charles Cumming for A Foreign Country, and a pop-up cinema in a secret location showing classic Sherlock Holmes movies, this was a hugely rewarding, thrillingly diverse weekend of literary entertainment.
There were scandals – the recent controversy over crime writer RJ Ellory's use of 'sock puppets' (fake online personas, created specifically to deliver glowing reviews of his own fiction, and negative reviews of his peers); a seemingly universal dislike among the panellists for Martin Amis; and of course the current literary bete noir, Fifty Shades of Grey. There were gala dinners, with high-profile writers as toastmasters. Finally, there were ample opportunities and lushly-appointed venues for meeting and greeting one's favourite authors, or for attempting to impress the legions of agents, publishers and journalists who attended the festival. For fans of crime fiction and aspiring writers, Bloody Scotland is an extremely welcome addition to the Scottish festival calendar.