Theakston’s at Harrogate: a criminally good crime writing festival

Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the world’s largest crime fiction fest, returned in full, post-pandemic splendour last week. With a record-breaking heatwave sending the UK into a literal meltdown, I found my train to the northern English spa town of Harrogate (where the festival takes place each year) cancelled. Rather than attempting to brave the heat-crazed crowds beating each other senseless at King’s Cross station to board the one train running that afternoon, I threw my luggage into the boot of my car, and set off on the four-hour journey from London to Harrogate, expecting wildfires, massive tailbacks, and possibly an appearance from the Rock to save us all from Armageddon.

Instead, I enjoyed a very pleasant, traffic-free drive on a tropically warm afternoon. I even had time to stop by a Yorkshire field burnt golden brown by the sun – dazed sheep milling around in sweaty confusion – to contemplate my oneness with nature.

Arriving in Harrogate, I made my way to the Old Swan, perennial venue for the festival and the hotel where Agatha Christie turned up during her infamous eleven day vanishing act back in 1926, an incident that led to a nationwide search operation involving, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and a psychic employed by Doyle who proved about as useful as a chocolate hammer.

The famous grass chairs at the Old Swan

Christie herself would later claim amnesia; others suggest she staged the disappearance to get back at her errant husband, Archibald Christie, who’d decided to leave her for his mistress. Some may feel Archie’s behaviour warrants censure, but I’m from the school of thought that believes that, without his wandering eye, Christie would not have ended up at the Old Swan and thus we probably wouldn’t have the Theakston’s festival today. It’s about time we acknowledged Archie’s heroic contribution to crime fiction.

The next day, Thursday, I ran a workshop at the hotel on how writers can write outside their own lived experience, particularly their own cultural heritage. I firmly believe authors should have the right to write whatever they wish, yet the fear of being accused of cultural appropriation has created a climate of fear in the publishing industry. There’s a lot of red-faced vitriol, but very little in the way of actual advice, something I’ve tried to rectify.

Thursday evening saw the presentation of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. I was shortlisted for Midnight at Malabar House, the first of my historical crime series set in Bombay, 1950, and was invited up on stage to crack a couple of jokes before the eventual winner, a very deserving Mick Herron (of Slow Horses fame), was crowned, with Jo Knox getting a Highly Commended nod.

Here I am with my fellow shortlistees, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Jo Knox, Will Dean, and Elly Griffiths, friends and wonderful writers all. When Mick’s name was announced we all instinctively got up to give him a big, non-sexual group hug. That’s the crime fiction community in a nutshell. (Though I may have tried to steal Mick’s wallet while I had him in a close embrace.)

That same evening my favourite crime writer, American Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch novels, was awarded a lifetime achievement gong. Chatting to him onstage, somewhat awestruck, was a wonderful moment, though I may have started to ramble under the pressure, going on about the correct way to play a forward-defensive stroke in cricket and the sexual proclivities of nematodes. The brain does weird things when you meet your heroes. (But this may explain the restraining order Connelly took out against me the next day.)

On the Friday, I chaired a session in the Orion Incident room, with authors Mari Hannah, Winnie Li, and Robin Morgan-Bentley, discussing authenticity in fiction. An inspiring session for those who attended… and for those of us speaking!

In the evening, I enjoyed a Thai meal in a very loud dining room, bellowing at the top of my lungs into the ears of fellow Hodder & Stoughton authors, including a favourite of mine, the brilliant John Connelly whose The Dirty South I’d just finished reading. I even managed to showcase some origami skills over dessert. (It’s a bloody boat! The number of people who’ve commented that it looks like some sort of deformed hat from the Napoleonic era…)

On Saturday, I played a role in the murder mystery written by Denise Mina for the gala dinner. My character was, apparently, into cricket and so, given that I own a cricket sweater, I decided to wear it – I believe in the Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. (And, yes, I may have hammed it up a little.)

I then spent the evening wearing the sweater to the Val McDermid and Mark Billingham quiz – I think a few people might have got the impression that I’m an eccentric who likes to wander around in sports outfits at author gatherings.

Our team – comprising Craig ‘the Brain’ Sisterson, Jo ‘Heavy Metal’ Knox, Jon ‘Coatsey’ Coates – was assembled like DC’s Suicide Squad following a trawl of local prisons, with fifth member, the urbane Sophia Bennett, press-ganged into joining simply because she found herself standing in the queue behind us. As it turns out, we became greater than the sum of our parts. For one brief hour we soared, touching heights we could never have dreamed of, eventually finishing second out of over forty teams, behind Mick Herron’s gang, a win that courted controversy, with wild accusations of rampant rule-breaking…

On the Sunday, I spoke on a historical crime fiction panel with my great friend and Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast co-host Abir Mukherjee, alongside Chris Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman (the husband and wife couple known as Ambrose Parry), Leonora Nattrass, and Robbie Morrison. The panel was a riot and we stumbled back into the sun afterwards to be led, like lambs to the slaughter, to the book signing room where we were astonished to find queues of readers waiting to meet us – and not to pelt us with fruit. One can only assume they were gathered out of pity or had been forced along at gunpoint…

A highlight of the festival throughout the four days was the big tent where authors and industry professionals congregated all day and well into the night. Conversation flowed – among other things. I met old friends I hadn’t seen in ages, and made new ones. Here’s me with the amazing Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth – I’ve been reading her for years. Meeting your literary heroes: a feeling that never gets old.

The big tent was where much of the real action took place: weepy re-unions, scurrilous gossip, bleary-eyed deckchair duels, drunken vows of eternal friendship. It’s a unique atmosphere and impossible to explain unless you’ve been there, in the thick of it.

Returning home, I find myself already looking forward to next year’s event. The consensus appears to be that this had been a terrific Theakston’s, one of the best ever. Kudos to the programming team and the brilliant onsite Harrogate International Festivals team, in their intimidating black outfits with sexy SWAT-team earpieces, led by the inimitable Sharon Canavar. Here they are before … and after – enjoying a well-deserved rest.

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My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up, with only a series of cryptic riddles left in their wake… Buy from an indie bookshop, a book chain or online, such as here

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