Bloody Scotland returns with the best of both worlds
Welcome to Stirling…
It would be rude not to!
After the pandemic pushed Bloody Scotland online in 2020, it was a relief to hear that it was going ahead this year as a hybrid event, with writers and fans returning in person to Stirling – albeit in smaller numbers than previously, and mindful of Covid measures – plus capitalising on the digital knowledge gleaned last year and recognising that for some authors and audiences that however much they would like to, they could not make the trip but wanted to join the fun. This willingness to go digital has expanded the festival’s audience geographically, enabled them to introduce high-profile guests from across the world (connections willing), and has led to the high-wire act of the A-Z Of Crime panel on Sunday afternoon, in which 26 authors pop in to chat about their books, writing and anything else they can think of, then pop off again as the panel rolls on for four hours which the audience can dip in and out of as they wish.
As ever, the festival attracted some big-name authors from Scotland and further afield. Ian Rankin spoke about the “act of ventriloquism” he performed in turning 100 or so pages of notes left behind by William McIlvanney into a new Laidlaw novel, the trepidation he felt in taking on the task and the enjoyment he found diving into 1972 Glasgow while we couldn’t travel in real life – and in the simplicity of life and crime in those days with no mobile phones, no DNA evidence and obvious bad guys. He was in conversation with Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore (who said that in Laidlaw, McIlvanney “broke the mould of what a novel could do”) and chaired by Jenny Brown, McIlvanney’s agent in his latter years, and the three gave a wonderful picture of both the writer and the man. But the greatest praise for The Dark Remains as far as Rankin is concerned came from William’s widow, Siobhan, who wrote to him and said: “I couldn’t see the join… you gave him back to me while I was reading the book.”
Val McDermid’s latest novel, 1979, is the start of a new series featuring Allie Burns, a reporter for a Glasgow tabloid, with what Val told Abir Mukherjee were “superficial” similarities to the Fife-born writer’s life – though the episode in the novel involving a nudist beach in Ayrshire is based on a story Val wrote while a reporter in Glasgow… McDermid also spoke movingly about her early life, her parents’ determination that she should have the education they could not, and the massive impact on working-class communities when the jobs disappeared, meaning people had fewer opportunities. The self-proclaimed “Debbie Harry of crime fiction” also discussed the importance of Robert Burns’ songs and poems on her early life, how impressed she is by the expansion of crime fiction into new territory, both geographically and thematically, and that she looks to PD James and Ruth Rendell as models for how long she wants to keep writing for.
Kathy Reichs’ event was cut short thanks to timezone errors and technical difficulties, but her conversation with Alex Gray was fascinating all the same, covering how she keeps up with the science she uses in her Temperance Brennan series, being a pantster rather than a plotter, writing the Bones TV series – and an introduction to a huge fluffy cat called Skinny who lounged behind Reichs throughout her video chat.
Lee and Andrew Child spoke of how Lee came to decide Andrew was the perfect person to take over the series and keep it fresh for the readers -though Lee admitted “my secret fear is that he is going to do it better than me”. The process of co-writing The Sentinel began with the idea that Reacher’s luddite tendencies were getting somewhat “grotesque”, so they pushed him slightly into the modern world via Andrew’s cybercrime idea. For Better Off Dead, due to be published next month, Andrew secretly wrote the first chapter and sent it to Lee, who thought it was “just fantastic”, and it gave them a jump into the book. During the pandemic they emailed sections, rather than getting together to discuss it, so experienced the words as the readers would, making the process more robust, according to Andrew. And for those awaiting news on the Reacher TV series, Lee has been sent the first three episodes, which he says are “fabulous”. Based on Killing Floor, it should arrive early next year.
The opening and closing events with Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo and Karin Slaughter respectively bookended the festival. Harry Hole creator Nesbo’s latest release is a collection of short stories, which he says he had fun with, in a change from writing a novel, which he describes as “driving a supertanker” which needs planning and is hard to change course with, unlike the short form. He talked to Jenny Brown about where some of the ideas came from, how the story’s needs dictate whether to write in first person and third person, and the horrors of the science fiction elements of some of the stories.
Slaughter, a hugely engaging interviewee, was interviewed by Louise Welsh. She talked about balancing a long-term relationship between characters with the need to keep the tension going (“happy people are boring” being the nutshell), and that researching police procedural elements is vital – immersing yourself in the details so the reader can trust and believe rather than being flung back into reality by something that is incorrect. She was especially passionate about writing about violence against women, describing getting pushback in the early years of her career as the issue was now being seen through the lens of a woman which made some men unhappy – but as she said, discussing a personal encounter with the issue as a child, “silence never helps”. Elsewhere, talking about “atmosphere should be another character” she gave a big shout-out to Denise Mina, whose novel Garnethill coloured Slaughter’s idea of Glasgow before she ever came to Scotland, and sparked laughter when she said the reality wasn’t quite what she’d expected.
But it was Stephen King that drew the headlines ahead of the festival, and it was Stephen King – in conversation with Linwood Barclay – who stole the show on Saturday night, resplendent in a Buckie Thistle football shirt and showing off his current read: Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre. Each had made a list of questions to ask the other (Barclays neatly printed out, King’s handwritten on a notepad), and their relaxed conversation was full of interesting nuggets – King doesn’t plot at all where Barclay likes a “big picture” plan (“I wouldn’t build a house if I didn’t have some blueprints first, but the blueprints don’t show me where the furniture is”), but both like the ability to go back and fold in hints. Endings can be tricky, they agreed – King said “sometimes audiences don’t like the ending of a long book or series because they don’t want it to end at all”, and Barclay that “sometimes the fun is the not knowing, the trying to figure it out … once you know, the wonder is gone”. Both are many years into their writing careers, but both still want the next book to be their best ever. And in contrast to a hilarious section sparked by Barclay recalling running a trailer park, there was a sweet moment when they acknowledged their wives who believed in them from the start of their writing careers, King saying: “Tabitha never thought that what I was doing was foolish.”
As well as bringing out the big names, Bloody Scotland has always been a festival that supports writers at the earliest stages of their career, and this year was no different, with masterclass sessions on Friday including a keynote address from Steve Cavanagh, a panel featuring the Debut Prize contenders plus Alex Gray’s New Crimes choices. There was also Crime In The Spotlight – which sees new writers given a few minutes to read from their work before some of the biggest events – and of course the terrifying-but-exhilarating Pitch Perfect, where unpublished writers pitch to a panel of industry experts (alumni include Joseph Knox, Matt Wesolowski, Alison Belsham and Lisa Gray). Congratulations to Kris Haddow for winning, and to Gillian Duff and Stuart McLean who were highly commended. Make a note of those names!
On Friday night, the Albert Halls applauded as the Debut Crime Book of the Year prize went to Robbie Morrison for Edge of the Grave (his immediate reaction on getting on stage: “Ya dancer!”), and the McIlvanney Prize went to Craig Russell for Hyde – making him the first person to win the title twice, after taking it in 2015 for The Ghosts Of Altona (though the two novels could not be more different, another example of the breadth of the genre and the skill on show in the country’s crime fiction).
But while the festival’s awards are centred on Scottish and Scotland-based writers, the rest of the weekend is always much more international, as the organisers aim to bring the best of the world to Stirling, whether in person or virtually, which they once again did with Nordic Noir in person on Saturday night, and two live video link-ups, with four writers from four continents in Around The World In 80 Deaths (chaired by Craig Sisterson, a Kiwi living in London, just for good measure), and A Mexican Stand-Off, chaired by Mexico City native Oscar de Muriel (who has written a series of novels set in Victorian Edinburgh).
While everyone loves to hear authors talk about their work, some of the most memorable events at Bloody Scotland are those which feature writers letting their hair down. There was no Scotland v England football match this year and no torchlight procession, but seeing the Fun Lovin Crime Writers back on stage on Friday was a huge highlight for me (you’ll always find me down at the front, dancing like a loon). The Saturday night quiz, which this year included a flavour of Crime At The Coo – I’m hoping the hilarious Dumb Ways To Die makes it into the main FLCW set – plus the Red Hot Chilli Writers live podcast asking a panel of authors How Woke Are You? were all great fun. Music and laughter are good for the soul, that’s for sure.
Elsewhere, panels covered everything from the breadth of the world of Tartan Noir, an investigation into the police procedural, how the genre uses humour, the modern spy novel, books that choose the slow burn path, non-fiction aspects of crime investigation and giving a voice to those who are rarely heard, and so much more. And best of all? Thanks to the digital pass option, you could watch without coming to Stirling, you could watch panels which clashed with events you were at live, and you can watch almost everything til the end of September. I really hope this hybrid model is continued in future, because as much as you cannot replicate the live experience, the inclusivity of digital is wonderful.
Find out more about the festival, including how to watch online to the end of September, at: bloodyscotland.com and follow the festival on Twitter: @BloodyScotland
The next instalment of the Bloody Scotland Book Club arrives on Wednesday 29 September, live on the Facebook page or catch up later on the festival’s YouTube channel.
A version of this feature is available on the Crime Time website, thanks to Barry Forshaw for the invite and Fiona Brownlee for facilitating
The film shown at the start of the McIlvanney Prize event said it all!