Granite Noir – a festival of firsts

Last weekend I flew up to Aberdeen to participate in Granite Noir. Held annually in the ‘granite city’ of Aberdeen, this relatively new festival has quickly become a fixture on the crime writing calendar, and for good reason.

I arrived at Heathrow airport early on the Friday morning to find fellow crime writers Mark Billingham (of Tom Thorne police procedurals fame) and Renee Knight (author of hit psychological thriller Disclaimer) on the same flight, a flight that ended up delayed for two hours. Apparently our plane didn’t have the necessary low visibility tech to take off in early morning fog. What we were flying on, I wondered, a cart with wings?

In the event the flight went off without a hitch and an hour and a half later we were in sunny Scotland. And, yes, it really was sunny. One of the warmest days in Aberdeen on record, apparently. I’d like to think we brought the sun with us, but quite possibly the credit goes to global warming.

Our chatty cab driver pointed out the highlights of Aberdeenshire’s capital: the new exhibition centre, the beautiful granite-faced buildings, the gorgeous central library, the Brewdog pub. He dropped us to our hotel, a luxuriously-appointed Residence Inn Marriot, and a few hours later I wandered along Union Street to the Music Hall to see my great friend Abir Mukherjee (who writes the brilliant Sam Wyndham novels set in 1920s Calcutta) in conversation with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The event was a great way to end the first day of the festival and a masterstroke of PR by the festival’s organisers. (The First Minister is a great lover of crime fiction and was an eloquent and very humorous chair, in case you were wondering.) To celebrate, I offered to buy Abir dinner at any of the many terrific restaurants that Aberdeen now boasts. Anywhere, I says. The world is your oyster.

Abir chose KFC. The man is pure class.

On the Saturday I rocked up to the author’s room at The Lemon Tree, the picturesque venue for many of the events, and chatted to the chair of my first panel, TV and radio presenter James Naughtie. James and I had actually met before, a couple of years earlier out in the desert at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai, where we’d somehow ended up on camels together. Don’t ask.

My first event was a panel with Scottish author Doug Skelton and the Queen of Icelandic Crime, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, whose work I have enjoyed for a while now. We chatted about characters, how they change over time, and how they sometimes take control of the narrative. For me it’s never been much of an issue, as Chopra is just a reflection of my own experiences and feelings about the social fabric of modern India, where my books are set and where I lived for a decade during my twenties.

After signing books and chatting to knowledgeable local readers (and many from further afield) I was rushed off to my second event of the day, a session entitled “How Murder is Detected” with Dr Kathryn Harkup. We spent an enjoyable hour in Aberdeen’s vast Central Library (it reminds me of the maze from Dungeons and Dragons) chatting to another full house about the scientific aspects of murder. Kathryn is an expert on poisons, especially those used in Agatha Christie novels, and happily explained which poisons one should seek out if intent on murdering a loved one without fear of being detected…

For my part I spoke about some of the research by my colleagues at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. For instance, we are currently looking at the truly terrifying ways in which Artificial Intelligence is being harnessed by organised criminal gangs to commit high tech crime. I also spoke about crime scene basics, such as the use of forensic entomology, that is, the study of how insects colonise dead bodies. Did you know, for instance, that the first insect to arrive on your corpse will be a blowfly? By examining the type of insects on a corpse and at what stage of development they are, we can determine time since death and even location of death.

As well as speaking, I attended a number of talks, bought books, and saw some terrific authors in action, learning about new ones (such as Jørn Lier Horst and his Nordic Inspector William Wisting series) and listening to old favourites such as Kevin Anderson, the American SF author who carried on Frank Herbert’s DUNE series with Herbert’s son Brian Herbert. (I’m a huge fan of SF and DUNE remains the very best SF novel I have ever read.) In a first for crime festivals in this country Anderson was beamed into the festival onto a giant screen via an online connection. The magic of modern technology! Another coup for the organisers of Granite Noir.

All in all, a wonderful event, and I returned on Sunday morning with a store of fond memories of both the granite city and an occasion that more than did justice to the crime fiction genre.

(NOTE: Granite Noir is produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts in partnership with Aberdeen City Libraries, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives and The Belmont Filmhouse.)

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