Friday, July 22, 2016

Feeling Old & Peculier in Harrogate

Greetings from the lovely town of Harrogate in the north of England, a terrific place historically famous for its mineral spas (people travelled here from all around since the 16th century to 'take the waters').

Harrogate is a town full of history: 100 years ago it was a popular destination for the British elite and European nobility; during the Second World War its large hotels were used by  government officials evacuated from London during the Blitz (laying the groundwork for its modern-day success as a conference/events hub); and most famously - for mystery fans - it is the place where Agatha Christie was found in 1926 after the world's most popular author went missing 11 days beforehand from her estate in Sunningdale near London, more than 200 miles to the south.

Why am I here? Well, to attend the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, of course.

Just like in days gone by, the little town of Harrogate attracts visitors from all over the world - only now one of the main drawcards is a sparkling festival established soon after the turn of the millennium. What began as a small gathering of crime fiction lovers has grown over 14 editions into arguably the biggest and best crime writing festival in the world, renowned for its relaxed atmosphere where authors, readers, publishers, agents, media, and others all mix and mingle together.

For years, authors I met and interviewed raved to me about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, and how I "absolutely must" attend sometime. I did so for the first time in 2012, and was not disappointed - and I'm very glad to finally be back here again.

This year's festival line-up includes special guests Jeffrey Deaver, Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen, Martina Cole, Val McDermid, Gerald Seymour, and Peter Robinson (replacing Neil Cross), along with dozens of other terrific crime writers ranging from debutants to long-established stalwarts.

One of the things I love most about 'Harrogate' is that in addition to the authors onstage, many other crime writers come to town for the festival too. It's like an unofficial annual retreat for the crime writing community. Hanging out in the grounds of the Old Swan Hotel (where Dame Agatha reappeared, all those years ago), glancing across the crowds mixing and mingling is like the crime bookshelves from your favourite bookstore come to life. Everyone having a great time catching up with old friends and making new ones. Collegiality abounds. New stories made.

Laura Lippman in book form and real life on the train
This year, I had another 'crazy Harrogate story' even before I got off the train from London. Choosing to read rather than write during my journey up, I was powering through WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman, fully engrossed.

As I got up to switch trains in Leeds, I glanced behind me at the line of other passengers, wondering how many were also going to Harrogate. A blonde lady right behind me looked familiar. She smiled, "Hi, I'm Laura Lippman". I don't know who was more surprised and chuffed - Laura to spot someone reading her book in public or me, who'd been so caught up in the terrific tale I hadn't noticed the author was sitting a few seats behind me!

Only at Harrogate.

Simon Theakston with Clare MacKintosh,
winner of the Best Crime Novel award
The opening night kicked off unofficially with a packed instalment of the famed Noir at the Bar, down the street a little at Hale's pub. Hosted by Luca Veste it included readings from a variety of cool crime writers established and new: Helen Fitzgerald, Brook Magnanti, AA Dhand, Graham Smith, Col Bury, Craig Robertson, Russell D. McLean, Lucy Cameron, Vic Watson and Jay Stringer.

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival officially opened later on with the presentation of the Crime Novel of the Year Award. It was a stellar shortlist of six books, highlighted to a full-house audience of several hundred by Mark Lawson, who invited each of the finalists in attendance onstage for a brief Q&A: Mark Billingham (TIME OF DEATH); Eva Dolan (TELL NO TALES); Renee Knight (DISCLAIMER); Clare MacKintosh (I LET YOU GO), and Adrian McKinty (RAIN DOGS).

Lots of fun stories were shared, but a particular stand-out for me was when McKinty recounted meeting Muhammad Ali in a bookstore years before, and how he'd been too nervous to do a 'gloves up' picture with the champ, but his buddy - our own Liam McIlvanney - did. I'll have to try to source that photo!

After plenty of pauses for suspense, former policewoman Clare MacKintosh was announced as the winner, a popular choice if the reaction of the audience was anything to go by! "I can't speak now, I'm just going to stand here and cry for a bit," said MacKintosh as she took the stage. She went on to thank the other writers in the crime community, noting how collegial it is, and how it was with their support and encouragement that she broke through over the past 18 months - everything from cover quotes to giving her aspirin after a big night at Harrogate!

Living legend: Val McDermid with her award
At the same ceremony, Val McDermid was honored with a 'lifetime achievement' style prize, for her Outstanding Contribution to Crime Writing. I'm a big fan of Val's, both as a writer and a person, so it was pretty special getting to see her feted in this way in front of several hundred people.

Mark Billingham gave a terrific speech, touching and humorous, celebrating Val's verve for life and what she has meant to the crime writing community. From her early days as the first person from a Scottish state school to get into St Hilda's College at Oxford (at 16 years old) to her time as a reporter where she had the nickname 'Killer' because of her doggedness, to the way she's been so forthright in every aspect of her life, how she was a driving force behind the establishment of this crime writing festival all those years ago, and her ongoing support of Raith Rovers FC.

In her acceptance speech, Val had a lot of heartfelt things to say, including advice for young writers to write what you care about, not what you think will be popular. "I've always written the books I wanted to write," she said. "The books that sang in my heart". She went on to stress the special relationship between authors and readers. "Without an audience a writer is nothing, and you are the people who've made me the writer I am today. So thank you for everything."

It was a terrific moment, getting to pause and celebrate one of the all-time greats. Another Harrogate memory created. Following the official opening the crowds drank and told tales outside the Old Swan into the wee small hours. I caught up with New Zealand author Paul Cleave, met his very enthusiastic Danish publishers, German thriller writer Wulf Dorn, and many others.

A great start to what will be a great weekend. More reports to follow.


  1. Great to hear this, Craig. Harrogate is so much fun, if I lived in the UK I would be attending every year.


  2. How much fun! I read and enjoy all these writers so I really hope that maybe one day I'll be able to attend and meet them and Ali at Harrogate :)

  3. Great report Craig! I'm going to differ with you though and claim Liam McIlvanney as a Scot - although I know he lives and works in NZ!

  4. Thanks for this detailed report, Craig.

  5. Wow, the chances of meeting an author while reading her book on a train, what an amazing coincidence and connection! And great that you got a picture of the moment. Sounds like a brilliant festival, lots of bookish inspiration and the legend Val McDermid.