But booze aside, I can certainly attest that, as a rule, crime writers are a very decent bunch of men and women. There are certainly fewer crime writers who subscribe to the ‘in order for me to do well, you have to do badly’ approach than some I have encountered in other areas I know reasonably well: TV, the comedy industry and, dare I say it, other areas of the wider literary community.
Someone once described crime-writers as a ‘gang’ and that’s not a bad word to use, though admittedly we don’t have much in the way of initiation ceremonies. Well, there is the ancient and much revered Detection Club in the UK, but fear of reprisals forbids me going into that. OK, so there are skulls and candles…I’ve said too much already. But in the sense of camaraderie and of existing at what might be described as the periphery of the literary community, ‘gang’ is a word that will do well enough. I heard an even better description while attending the Ned Kelly awards in Australia a year or two back, when someone described crime writers as the ‘smokers of the literary community’. Now, whatever you think about smoking, this seemed and still seems to me to be utterly wonderful.
There are certainly those who view the business of writing crime fiction as somewhat…disreputable. But at the same time, I often sense from such people a sneaking suspicion that actually we’re the ones having all the fun. We’re wicked, of course we are, and we won’t come to any good, but hey kids…we’re cool! It also seems to me an apt and evocative description in other ways. Rather in the same way that smokers will acknowledge one another with a wry nod of recognition or a raised eyebrow, or fall into easy conversation while getting rained on outside a restaurant or bar, crime writers will recognise something in one another wherever they happen to find themselves. There is an affinity. Whether they are Norwegian writers of cosy mysteries or Egyptian noir-merchants, at some level they are kindred spirits.
On more than one occasion, I have found myself mooching around at some far-flung literary festival, feeling a little intimidated or perhaps lonely, or simply a long way from home. At such times, if I ever should ever find myself snubbed by the historians or baffled by the poets, or simply ignored by those who hear the words ‘crime fiction’ and wrinkle their noses in distaste, I know that I can always hunt out the other crime writers present and will invariably find someone to get along with. I remember once cornering an Icelandic crime writer, whose English was no better than my Icelandic, and after some initial confusion and inept miming (writing/strangling/stabbing etc), we got along famously. Usually, the first thing I do on receiving any festival programme is to look at which other crime writers are in attendance. Even if I can’t find them straight away, I know I’ll catch up with them later on in the bar.
Having said all that, I think this sense of belonging and camaraderie, of being slightly ‘on the outside’, must surely apply to writers in other genres. I’m sure that science-fiction writers must be prone to that same sense of existing on the periphery of the literary world. Plus they get people coming to events dressed as Klingons! Although I understand that there used to be a writer who showed up at the World Mystery Convention and would only talk to people through a hand-puppet of a dog dressed as Sherlock Holmes, so I shouldn’t be too smug.
So, if there is fun to be had hanging out with a crime writer at a literary festival, imagine a festival FULL of them! The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is the biggest and best there is and this coming weekend will see the beautiful town of Harrogate taken over by some of the finest crime writers in the world. The Old Swan Hotel is itself part of crime fiction history, as it is the place where Agatha Christie was found after her mysterious disappearance in 1926, but for one weekend every July it is home to a celebration of literature’s most popular genre. This year promises to be the best ever, with the likes of Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Arnaldur Indridason. M.C. Beaton and Ann Cleeves in attendance. There will also be something of a crime and comedy theme, with Rory Bremner interviewing Lee Child, while I will be in conversation with the fabulous Eddie Izzard. There will be some amazing events and fascinating discussions but, above all, there will be a huge amount of fun to be had. I’m not sure what the collective noun for crime writers is, especially as crows have already claimed ‘murder’. A ‘suspicion’ perhaps? A ‘plot’?? Feel free to invent your own, but I can guarantee that, whatever they’re called, wherever crime writers gather in large numbers is a good place to be, for readers as well as other writers.
Whatever kind of crime novel you’re writing, it’s nice to feel as though you belong to a larger and broadly like-minded community. It does not mean there won’t occasionally be squabbles and fallings out, that there won’t be books and writers you dislike, but it does mean there will usually be someone to ‘share a cigarette’ with, when you find yourself sitting there like Billy No-Mates at the Reykjavik Literary Festival. Unless the only other crime writer there is wearing a hand-puppet dressed as Sherlock Holmes. In that case, I would advise setting fire to the puppet, then going back inside to talk to a poet.
For more information about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival where Mark Billingham will be appearing on stage with Eddie Izzard this year, you can visit the official website here.