There is a ‘no spoilers’ rule at CrimeFest. I would say it’s unwritten, as you won’t find it in any of the convention’s literature. However, during a panel she was moderating, crime writer Caro Ramsay displayed a ‘no spoilers’ paddle – held up to prevent any panellist giving away the ending to their book.
A CrimeFest newbie, I didn’t know how well this ‘no spoilers’ rule was policed. So I was amused when one author began a sentence ‘at the end of my book, my character—’ and was immediately silenced by protests from the assembled – and clearly spoiler-averse – crime-reading public.
So how do nearly one hundred and fifty crime authors talk about their books over four days without discussing the mechanics of their plots? This question was of particular interest to me, as I was attending CrimeFest primarily in my role as Editor at Orenda Books – a new, small press focussing on literary crime, much of it in translation, which had seventeen authors speaking at the convention. Did I need to fashion my own ‘no spoilers’ paddle and brandish it if one of our authors threatened to let slip a plot twist?
The answer was, in fact simple. Whether the panel’s topic was ‘What’s My Sub-Genre?’, ‘Iceland’s Queens of Crime’ or ‘Crime Fiction in a Post-Truth World’, the writers focussed on process, on the functions of genre writing, and on writing in a business-oriented industry that favours marketable categories.
The panel ‘Happy Endings: Do We Need Them’ presented a particular difficulty, as the panellists were expected to examine denouements without giving anything away. It did, however, turn into a fruitful discussion: Kjell Ola Dahl, a writer of series with recurring characters, stated that, for him, his characters and his readers, the endings of his novels are also beginnings. Importantly, though, as his books are police procedurals, and because he sees crime fiction as a ‘moralistic’ genre, the killer needs to be punished – although not necessarily caught.
This theme was taken up in the ‘Power Corrupts: Who Can You Turn To?’ panel. Moderator and author Peter Gutteridge suggested that, in crime fiction, order is brought to a chaotic world through the actions of the protagonist. Stanley Trollip (one half of the Michael Stanley author duo), agreed: both his protagonist, Detective Kubu of the Botswana police, and Kubu’s boss, Mabaku, see their crime-fighting role as moving their country forward in the world. Peter Morfoot, whose Paul Darac novels are set in Nice, reflected that in France, for good or bad, the odds are always stacked against the accused, as lawyers cannot intervene in criminal interrogations in the way they can in the UK or the US. Order depends on the ethics of the investigating police officer – on ‘natural justice’ rather than the law.
The literary nub of this discussion was addressed in the panel ‘Where Fact Ends and Fiction Starts’. Paul E. Hardisty, whose books fictionalise disturbing, real-life events in countries as varied as Yemen, Cyprus and South Africa, stated that, in his other career as an engineer and environmental scientist, he has written text books full of facts; however, he has realised that fact doesn’t necessarily translate into a bigger truth. For that – to write truthfully about the atrocities of the South African apartheid regime, for example – he had to write fiction.
Writing truthfully was touched on in a discussion about representations of violence in crime fiction. In the ‘Happy Endings’ panel, Kevin Wignall said he found a particularly violent scene written by fellow panellist Steve Mosby extremely difficult to read. Mosby retorted that he had, in fact ‘cut away’ from the violent act: using the Hitchcockian, Psycho effect, in which the audience believes they’ve seen the violence when in fact they’ve imagined it. Kati Hiekkappelto then observed that, as authors, readers and viewers, we all say we don’t like violence, but write, read and view it – or at least about it – all the time.
Malin Persson Giolito’s breakthrough novel seems to prove Hiekkappelto’s observation. Having being made redundant from her job as a lawyer when she was pregnant, she began her writing career with a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman in a similar position. However, it was her fourth novel, Quicksand – which deals with a school shooting, told from the point of view of the shooter – that brought her to the fore: the translation was sold at auction at the London Book Fair – a life-changing event for the author.
Giolito’s fellow panellist, Matt Wesolowski had what seems the opposite experience. Originally a horror writer, the crime genre was ‘a chasm he fell into’. His novel Six Stories, is based on a series of podcast transcripts, drawing strong inspiration from the hugely successful US real-crime podcast Serial. This innovative form has drawn much attention, to the point where Audible UK has used its highest-ever number of actors – seventeen – to convert Six Stories into an audio book.
Like Wesolowski, G.X Todd saw herself as a horror writer; it was only when her publisher accepted her novel that she was told she was a crime writer. She even confessed in her panel to feeling a bit of a fraud appearing at CrimeFest, and raised the suggestion that the crime genre’s current popularity has led publishers to guide authors into the category and market traditionally non-crime books as crime. Wesolowski added that he was lucky in his publisher (my boss – Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books), who didn’t constrict what he writes.
The discussion about labels was at its most prominent at the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ panel – dealing with a new genre: domestic noir. The moderator of this panel was Julia Crouch, who coined the term ‘domestic noir’ to describe her own work and distinguish it from the wider ‘psychological thriller’ category. Panellist Mary Torjussen found the term appealing, as she felt it perfectly described her own work, where the threat and peril is at home. Lisa Hall added that domestic noir’s attraction, and current popularity, was because people like reading about something that could happen to them. Crouch mentioned that the University of East Anglia – home to one of the UK’s most prominent Literature and Creative Writing departments – will be publishing a paper on domestic noir later this year.
Gratifyingly for all the members of ‘Team Orenda’ at the convention, it was another type of noir – Nordic – that took prominence at CrimeFest’s Gala dinner. The Petrona Award for the best crime book from Scandinavia translated into English was won by Don Bartlett’s translation of Gunnar Staalesen’s Where Roses Never Die, published by Orenda Books. The pairing of Staalesen – considered a ‘father’ of Nordic Noir – and Bartlett, who has translated Jo Nesbo and Karl Ove Knausgaard, brought the first gong to the small new press to which I’ve hitched my editorial cart; a publishing house that has allowed me – not least by taking me to CrimeFest – to gain deep insight into a diverse, active and exciting section of the publishing world.
By West Camel