Confessions from CrimeFest: Part Three

Mark Billingham interviewed by Martyn Waites

Mark Billingham interviewed by Martyn Waites

And so onto Saturday!

First up, I headed to the 9am panel Name Your Price: The Hired Gun. Moderated by Meg Gardiner, with panellists Mason Cross, Hanna Jameson, John Gordon Sinclair, and Mark Allen Smith, the panel discussed the attraction of the ‘hired gun’ as protagonist, the mystery surrounding the character that rides into town, sorts out the problem, then disappears again, and the joys (and challenges) of writing them.

Next, I headed to the lounge to interview Mason Cross, author of The Killing Season and creator of the rather mysterious Carter Blake. It was a fun interview to do – watch this blog for the write-up coming soon.

After a leisurely lunch with friends, I headed to one of the main events of the weekend – Featured Guest of Honour: Mark Billingham interviewed by Martyn Waites. Both wearing fabulous western shirts that I’m sure Mark Billingham’s series character, Tom Thorne, would have been proud of, they took to the stage for a lively and entertaining interview covering everything from Mark’s books, the future of police procedurals, Thorne’s taste in music (it changed quite dramatically between the first book and the second) and even dachshund detectives!

Then it was on to the Arcadia Books Reception complete with tasty wine in beautiful Bristol Blue Glass glasses, followed by the Gala Awards Dinner. It was a fabulous evening with the merriment continuing way into the early hours of Sunday morning.

On Sunday I had a hangover, and it was a big one, which meant I didn’t get up very early! But I did make it along to the last event of the festival, Criminal Mastermind with Quiz Master Maxim Jakubowski interrogating contestants: Mason Cross (specialist subject Lee Child), Kate Ellis (specialist subject Josephine Tey), Paul Johnston (specialist subject Dashiell Hammett) and Susan Moody (specialist subject Raymond Chandler). It was great fun playing along in the audience, but the general crime fiction questions in the second round were seriously hard! In the end Paul Johnston was victorious.

And then the weekend was over.

As ever I was determined to resist the festival book shop – my ever multiplying ‘to be read’ pile already stretches across several rooms of the house! But, as usual, I was unable to resist the papery lure of the all those fabulous looking books, and over the weekend bought several bags full.

Authors whose books I’ve added to my mountainous ‘to be read’ pile are: Simon Kernick, Helen Giltrow, Nev Fountain, Tom Wood, Kevin Wignall, Tanya Carver, and Kate Griffin. Along with the latest books of a few of my favourite authors including Mark Billingham (The Bones Beneath), Meg Gardiner (The Shadow Tracer), and a signed copy of The Killing Season by Mason Cross.

All in all, it was a fabulously fun weekend.

Now I’m off to book my ticket for next year!

Dead Good Fiction Festival #dgfictionfest #FFF

Quick, it’s here, the brand new online fiction festival put together by those fabulous people over at Dead Good Books.

Check out the flyer (below) to join in with the fun: there’s conversations with featured authors Nicci French, Sharon Bolton, and Karin Slaughter, and a monster prize to be won by the winner of the Who ‘Dunnit game.

Festival Flyer

Festival Flyer

Confessions from CrimeFest: Part Two

L-R: Kevin Wignall, AK Benedict, James Oswald, Anne Zouroudi, Ben Aaronovitch

L-R: Kevin Wignall, AK Benedict, James Oswald, Anne Zouroudi, Ben Aaronovitch

I did indeed get up in time to make it to the first panel of the day, but I didn’t manage breakfast. Still, it was worth it. The Debut Authors: An Infusion of Fresh Blood panel was great fun and all the panel members were surprisingly perky for a nine o’clock start. Moderator Jake Kerridge talked to panellists MJ Arlidge, Mason Cross, Jake Woodhouse, Kate Griffin and Colette McBeth about their debut novels and the route they’d taken to publication.

Next up, was the Death in High Heels: Women as Victims panel. MR Hall, Jessica Mann, Jessie Keane, and Martyn Waites (who also writes as Tanya Carver) debated the issue of how women are portrayed in crime fiction, especially when the victim of the crime is female. It was an interesting and thought provoking discussion covering everything from at what point violence becomes ‘torture porn’ through to the use of female images on book covers.

I then had time for a swift coffee (black, no sugar) before heading into The Modern Thriller panel. As thrillers are my absolute favourite of the genre, this was one of the panels I’d been most eager to see. Moderated by Doug Johnstone, the panel of Belinda Bauer, Helen Fitzgerald, Chris Ewan and Simon Kernick talked about what constitutes the modern thriller, and how it differs from a crime novel. Defining characteristics seemed to be agreed on as pace, and a sense of urgency. They spoke of their own favourite modern thrillers, with Harlan Coben’s Tell No One coming out as a popular choice.

I didn’t stop for lunch, instead going straight on to watch the Things That Go Bump In the Night: Magic, Paranormal & All Things Supernatural panel. Moderated by Kevin Wignall, with Ben Aaronovitch, AK Benedict, James Oswald, and Anne Zouroudi, this was a lively panel with some great discussion about mixing crime with the paranormal. I particularly enjoyed some of the more random questions poised by Kevin Wignall to the panel (which were questions he had been asked by children when doing author events) – these included: ‘Can you tell me a story about a hamster?’ And ‘What would be your X-Man name and superpower?’ Fabulous.

By that point in the day I was rather panelled-out, but managed to find the energy to head along to the drinks reception that evening to watch 2014 CWA Diamond Dagger Recipient Simon Brett in performance. Then it was off for a fabulous curry with the Icelandic crime writers before heading to the bar for a few last orders drinks (and beyond!).

The Killing Club Blog Tour: Guest Post by Paul Finch

KC blog tour poster

KC blog tour poster

I’m delighted to welcome Paul Finch to the CTG blog. His latest novel, The Killing Club, is published this week, and today Paul is taking over the reins (or rather the keyboard) to guest blog about the books he has read that have been most influential on his career.

Over to Paul …

It would be very easy, I suppose, to respond to the question which books have you read that were most influential on your career, and, given that my own most successful novels are intense murder investigations, simply reel off all the great thriller writers.

It would of course be untrue to say that I haven’t been influenced by other thriller novelists. Stuart MacBride, Mark Billingham, Peter James, Kathy Reichs and Katia Lief are all staggeringly high in my estimation. But I don’t just read within my own genre, and I think it would be an interesting exercise to perhaps consider those other types of books that have blown me away, set me on my current career path, whatever you want to call it.

It’s no secret that, before I began writing my DS Heckenburg thrillers, I dabbled widely in the fields of horror and fantasy. And this wasn’t just during my formative years as a writer, my kindergarten if you like; I wrote lots of this kind of stuff, and still do. I also read in this field enormously. But it’s fascinating now, on reflection, how much these apparently unrelated interests have influenced my DS Heckenburg novels.

For example, THE WOLFEN by Whitley Strieber (pub. 1978) presents us with two tired New York detectives, a man and a woman, investigating the murder and apparent cannibalisation of hobos in the city’s underbelly, and soon reaching the conclusion the perpetrators are not humans, but a highly intelligent werewolf pack.

Now, I suppose there are obvious links here with ‘Heck’: a gang of vicious and relentless killers, a lovelorn boy and girl cop team, and so on. But I think it’s the seamy side of the average detective’s working day that most caught my eye about this striking novel. Strieber really takes us to the backside of New York, the subways and ghettos and derelict lots, and peoples them with hookers, winos and druggies. My own experience as a real life cop taught me these are the places you need to go if you want to catch some bad guys, but here we go way beyond the everyday grim, delving into the world of the true urban gothic: it’s a nightmare landscape, beautifully and poetically described, and yet at the same time filled with such palpable menace that even hardboiled detectives are unnerved.

I make a point of never taking my own crime thrillers into such realms of overt fantasy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to invoke similar feelings of dread and weirdness in the dark heart of the city.

Another relevant horror novel is surely LEGION by William Peter Blatty (pub. 1983). This is a totally different kind of police story. Again, it follows a time-served detective investigating a series of sadistic murders, though in this case he’s dealing with Satanic ritual. It’s a much subtler tale, ripe with a sense of ancient mystery and slow-burning evil (and that would be real evil, of the distinctly inhuman variety). Yet for all this, the point where LEGION really kicks in is the deep assessment the hero, Lt. Kinderman, constantly makes of himself, examining his own beliefs or unbeliefs, puzzling as to why he exposes himself to this depravity time and again, bleeding inside for the victims. Not exactly Heck, who’s never been much of a philosopher, but the longer you work as a homicide cop, the more you’re going to confront yourself with these issues. There is some really deep character work here by Blatty, which you can’t help but admire.

Moving from horror into science fiction and fantasy, there are two other titles I’d like to mention. The first of these contains the most obvious link to those matters I’ve mentioned previously. It is Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi masterwork, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP (pub. 1968). Most folk will know this as the movie, BLADE RUNNER, but though there are some similarities, the book goes way beyond the limited scope of a Hollywood adaptation. In Rick Deckard, another dogged man-hunter and, thanks to his wife’s depression, a sad loner, working his way through a world gone mad and yet adding to it with his own role, which conflicts him deeply, there is genuine pathos. The movie, of course, had a strong noirish feel – it was almost Chandleresque – which is not prevalent in the book, but the strong central character is still a great blueprint for the fictional lone-wolf detective. For me, heroes always need to be vulnerable: stricken by self-doubt, and with enemies on all sides, some of whom they thought were friends. I’ve never had much time for men of steel, undefeatable icons of hunky machismo, like Superman or Batman. If I took anything from DO ANDROIDS DREAM … it had to be that deep introspection, that guilt, that conscience. It makes our heroes so much more interesting.

On that same subject, the fantasy novel I’d like to nominate is GRENDEL by John Gardner (pub. 1971). I guess we’re all familiar with the tale of Beowulf, the Viking warrior, and his defence of the hall of Heorot against the ravages of the faceless devil, Grendel, who for no reason other than twisted pleasure, came nightly to slaughter the innocent.

As I say, I’m not big on superhero stories. I loved BEOWULF as a kid – it was probably the first spooky tale my late father told me – but as I grew up, I found the monster more interesting. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, Grendel is the prototype serial killer. So in many ways, GRENDEL the novel takes us to the other end of the crime thriller spectrum, Gardner depicting his antihero first as an abused and lonely child, later showing him suffer rejection by those he sought to befriend, and finally having him retaliate with homicidal fury, which at last introduces him to a lifestyle of his liking – if he can’t have everyone’s love, he’ll have their terror. There isn’t as much Norse myth woven into this novel as you might expect. Instead Gardner gives us philosophy, social commentary and, a decade before the FBI commenced offender profiling, the psychology of the reviled. Talk about streets ahead of the game. Of course, we all know what happens at the end of BEOWULF, and it’s the same in GRENDEL, so don’t expect any surprises – apart from the dark joy this narrative will elicit as it works its way through the tormented mind and hideous satisfactions of a creature driven solely to hate.

It’s a strange thing that we think we know ourselves so well, our thoughts, interests and aspirations. And yet clearly there are many subliminal strata to our thinking. Even as I wrote this blog, it became more apparent to me how relevant to my current writing so many of these themes explored by earlier authors actually are. I won’t go over them again, because I think they speak for themselves – they certainly will, I hope, if you get the chance to read any of my DS Heckenburg thrillers, STALKERS, SACRIFICE or, most recently, THE KILLING CLUB. On which note, I suspect it’s a good time to end this monologue. Whichever way you go, please enjoy your reading and writing. There are no finer pleasures.

Paul Finch

A huge thank you to Paul for spending time here at the CTG blog today and telling us about the books that have most influenced his career.

To find out more about Paul and his books, including his latest book – The Killing Club – hop on over to his website at http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.co.uk/

And don’t forget to follow him on Twitter @paulfinchauthor

 

Confessions from CrimeFest: Part One

The Iceland Noir panel

The Iceland Noir panel

On a surprisingly hot Thursday last week I packed my weekend bag and headed to CrimeFest. Held in Bristol, from the 15 – 18 May the Royal Marriott Hotel on College Green played host to hundreds of crime writers and readers for a long weekend of panels and interviews celebrating and debating crime fiction.

Having checked into the rather gorgeous conference hotel, I hurried along to my first panel of the afternoon: Locked Rooms & Closed Locations: Writing Yourself into a Corner. Here, the panellists Nev Fountain, Thomas Mogford, Anotonia Hodgson, LC Tyler, and moderator, Charles (Caroline) Todd discussed the settings that inspired their own novels, how they’ve used elements of locked room or closed location settings in their writing, and the difficulties that can be encountered when writing a traditional locked room mystery with an entirely plausible ending.

Next, I trotted along to the Iceland Noir panel. Iceland Noir authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Quentin Bates, and Michael Ridpath, along with publisher Petur Mar Olafsson and moderator Barry Forshaw, talked about the rise of Icelandic crime fiction, the cold but beautiful landscape of Iceland, and the dreadfulness of the traditional Icelandic food! Each member of the audience was given a raffle ticket, and at the end of the panel one lucky person won an all-expenses paid trip to this years’ Iceland Noir crime writing festival in Reykjavik in November. Sadly that person was not me.

Then it was off to the bar, to catch up with friends, and on to the Crimefest Pub Quiz, hosted by crimewriter, critic, and quiz master, Peter Guttridge. Despite the amount of wine drunk, we were still able to do much better this year – rising one place from last to second from last! We didn’t mind though, it was still a lot of fun.

As I fell into bed in the early hours of Friday morning, I set my alarm for 7.30am and promised myself I’d get up in a few hours time to see the first panel.

Check out Confessions from CrimeFest: Part 2 to see if I managed it …

CTG Interviews: AK Benedict, author of The Beauty of Murder

AK Benedict

AK Benedict

Today I’m delighted to welcome the fabulous AK Benedict to the CTG blog. Her spellbinding debut, The Beauty of Murder, was one of my favorite books of 2013, and was shortlisted for this years’ eDunnit Award.

So, to the questions ...

Your fabulous debut novel, THE BEAUTY OF MURDER, comes out in paperback this month. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The Beauty of Murder is a crime thriller with a fantastical twist set in Cambridge in both the 21st and 17th centuries. My main character, Stephen Killigan, is a philosophy lecturer at Sepulchre College and stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen and a mystery that changes the way he views the world. The novel includes many of the things that fascinate me: philosophy, music, tattoos, time travel and cake.

In your novel the setting, Cambridge, plays a big part. What was it about that particular city that inspired to you to write about it?

I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and spent a lot of time wandering its streets. I love the austere beauty of its ancient buildings and how some streets make me wonder which century I am in. It is a city of elemental extremes: in summer the old stone shines, trees are big with blossom and people sunbathe by the river but in winter it is cold and forbidding. It feels to me like a place of magic and possibility, the ideal starting point for a mystery. I first thought of a time travelling serial killer while I was at Cambridge and both Jackamore Grass and the city have haunted me since.

Could you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?

It varies: sometimes the words fly right out, other times I sit with stories for a long time, letting ideas and characters wander about before settling down and talking to me. I like to know the beginning, middle and end before I start writing, leaving lots of room to be surprised by what develops. If I know exactly what happens and who has committed all of the crimes, then I feel no need to write! I write by hand and transfer it onto my computer to start with then work straight onto the keyboard when the story gathers momentum. Towards the end of the first draft, I don’t eat, sleep or get out of my onesie. I’m a real catch.

The Beauty of Murder paperback cover image

The Beauty of Murder paperback cover image

THE BEAUTY OF MURDER is your debut novel. What was your route to publication?

I have longed to be a professional writer since I was three so it has been a route taking thirty odd years! I wrote several partial novels, a full one, stories and poems before The Beauty of Murder was published in 2013. Rejection letters sighed through the letterbox with the occasional encouraging remark, small publication or competition win along the way. I enrolled on a creative writing course at the University of Sussex and toned up my dialogue, plotting and pacing while learning how to receive and make use of criticism. I started writing The Beauty of Murder during my second term and worked on it for the next couple of years while working as a musician and composer. I met my agent, Rupert Heath, at a Meet the Agents Day organised by New Writing South and he saw the novel’s potential and encouraged me every step along the way. When it was ready, he sent it out to editors and I was amazed when it went to auction. It was a very surreal time. The three year old me who wanted ‘to be a writer and have lots of pens’ was very happy; thirty-three year old me ran across a hilltop in Hastings with champagne and a grin.

What advice would you give to new writers aspiring to publication?

Write hard, write soft, write about what makes you smile, write about what you want to know and what lies beneath the stones but, most of all, write. When you have a slew of stories, scripts or poems, throw them out into the world and see which ones find land. The pile of rejection letters is something to stand on while you reach for your goal.

And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?

I am in the middle of editing my second novel, due out in November, while starting the sequel to The Beauty Of Murder and researching other ideas. There are also some exciting TV opportunities and visits to crime and fantasy festivals and conventions.

Sounds like 2014 is going to be a busy one!

A huge thank you to AK Benedict for popping by the CTG blog for a chat.

To find out more about AK Benedict hop on over to http://akbenedict.com/

The Beauty of Murder is published by Orion and out in paperback now. You can find it in all good bookstores, and online at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Beauty-Murder-A-Benedict/dp/1409144518

And, read our review of The Beauty of Murder here 

CTG Interviews: Edward Wilson about his new book The Whitehall Mandarin

The Whitehall Mandarin cover image

The Whitehall Mandarin cover image

Today I’m pleased to welcome Edward Wilson to the CTG Blog to tell us about his new book – The Whitehall Mandarin – and about his writing process.

So, let’s dive into the interview …

 Firstly, your new book, The Whitehall Mandarin, is coming out in June. Can you tell us a bit about it?

All of my books are literary novels disguised as spy fiction. I try to explore the questions of identity, perception and truth. Can we really know who anyone really is? How can we find truth when it is papered over with lies? My starting point is the party slogan from Orwell’s 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ The Whitehall Mandarin is an ‘insider novel’ that unpeels layers of deception to reveal the most closely guarded state secret of modern times: the China enigma. What is the secret behind China’s rapid rise to become a nuclear armed superpower? And when we think we have found that secret, there is yet another twist.

Lady Penelope Somers, the first woman to head up the Ministry of Defence, seems to have it all: power, beauty and wealth. The superglue that binds together the ruling class is secrecy – but Lady Somers has a dark secret that is unknown to even the inner circle of the Whitehall elite. Catesby’s job is to find that secret and bury it forever.

All of the book’s characters are complex and conflicted. Catesby, an MI6 officer who ironically bears the name of the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, never resolves his working class origins with his OBE and his status as a senior intelligence officer. Cauldwell, a wealthy American reeking of refinement and‘old money’, repudiates his background to become a Communist spy. Henry Bone, Catesby’s boss and mentor, has a closet full of skeletons including a past relationship with Sir Anthony Blunt.

Before writing the Catesby spy series you served as a Special Forces Officer in the US Army, how easy do you find using your real-world experience to inform your fiction?

War is not a good thing for writers or anyone else. I despise writers who become macho war bores and celebrate ‘the cult of the warrior’. Being a Special Forces officer in Vietnam was a lot more than ‘combat’. It was about going native, running intelligence networks and dealing with double agents – experiences which are invaluable for a writer of spy fiction. I was an SF advisor to the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), a border screening force that patrolled from remote camps the length of South Vietnam. The CIDG soldiers were mostly Vietnamese or Montagnards, although there were also Khmers and Chinese Nungs. My own CIDG were all Vietnamese; brave fighters certainly, but also heavily infiltrated with sleeper agents. It was estimated that at least 10% of our CIDG were undercover Viet Cong. None of our operational plans were ever secure, none!

One way of dealing with this lack of security was to change plans at the last minute. I tried this on an ambush patrol with a small team of CIDG . We crept into a village after dark and began, covertly, to ask for information about the Viet Cong. An old man took me aside and led me away from the others. He asked to see my map so he could show me where to find the enemy. I refused because there was classified information grease-pencilled all over it, but I finally let him see a little corner and he pointed to a trail where we should set our ambush. It seemed a much better site than the one we had already chosen. I then rejoined the others and put the plan to the Vietnamese in charge of the CIDG, who responded with a resounding ‘khong’ – which is non, no, nein and nyet rolled into one. I couldn’t order him to move his men; I was only an ‘advisor’. So we set our ambush on the site previously chosen.

Later that night all hell broke loose, but nowhere near us – or the trail the old man had suggested. We later discovered that a Regional Forces (RF) outpost, less than a kilometre from our ambush position, had been overrun and sixteen of its defenders killed.

I’ll never know what really happened. Had the Viet Cong who attacked the outpost passed along the trail the old man had pointed out? Could we have saved those sixteen RF if we had redeployed and ambushed the attacking force enroute? Or was the old man a Viet Cong agent who had tried to lure us to a place where we would have been killed? Or was our CIDG leader an undercover VC who refused to budge because he wanted to protect his comrades? But I did learn the intelligence officer’s dilemma: you can never be completely certain who anyone is. Every human being is a mystery. I hope I bring this into my novels.

Author Edward Wilson

Author Edward Wilson

Could you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?

I begin by doing a lot of historical research to try to uncover something that no one has used before. The great thing about writing spy fiction rather than spy non-fiction is that most relevant documents have been destroyed, suppressed or never existed. When the historical trail of dots finally disappears, I keep going with a fictional version of what happened.

When I’ve got a plot outline, I go for characters. Characters, and not plot, are what make a novel take off. The same characters appear, disappear and reappear in my novels – and each time they reappear I reveal something new about them. I research actual historical characters by background reading, but I also use Youtube clips of them to try to discover their inner essence and quirks – Che Guevara’s shy boyishness; Kim Philby’s arrogance (just after he denied being ‘the Third Man’, he sticks his tongue in his cheek).

When I’m in full flow I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words a day. I know that things are going well when the characters take over and tell me what to write. They become real people – and don’t always tell me all their secrets. I just have to wait until they are ready. I don’t own them; they own me.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to publication as crime writers?

Character, character, character. We don’t remember Raymond Chandler’s plots; we remember his characters. I once had the privilege of sitting next to a crime writer named Phyllis at the Hatchards Authors of the Year party. The first thing that Phyllis (aka PD James) said to me was: ‘What is more important: character or plot?’ Phew, I gave the right answer. In fact, characters must shape the plot – otherwise, the plot will appear artificial and unbelievable.

Tension is more important than suspense. Everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet are not going to live happily ever after, but we still go to see the play. Sometimes revealing what happens in the first line of a chapter is more effective than springing it later. Begin a story: ‘She had never stabbed a man before.’ – and the reader is going to be on tenterhooks waiting to find out what actually happened.

Your main character must have a foil. Every Holmes needs a Watson. Revealing plot and narrative movement is a lot easier when two characters are talking about it – and tension between the two is also good for suspense and character development.

Find out what everyone else is doing – and then write something completely different. Make it new. Agents and publishers aren’t looking for copycats, they’re looking for originality.

Learn to pitch your story in fifty words or less.

And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?

The next few weeks are devoted to travelling and promoting The Whitehall Mandarin – including the Penzance LitFest on 18 and 19 July. Half the job of a professional writer is marketing her or his books and meeting people. We owe it to our readers and our publishers.

The other half of a writer’s life is actually writing. My next book is provisionally titled A Very British Ending – and I hope to have finished a first draft by December. Once again, it is an ‘insider novel’ with Catesby and Bone struggling against internal and external enemies. The action takes place between 1947 and 1976. I don’t write to understand myself, but I do write to understand the country that has adopted me and naturalised me – a country that I love. I hope that my next book will reveal some of the hidden and secret forces that have made Britain what it is today.

Thank you so much to Edward Wilson for joining us today and telling us about The Whitehall Mandarin.

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is published by Arcadia, and is out now in hardback. To find out more pop over to http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Whitehall-Mandarin-Edward-Wilson/dp/1909807532