BLOODY SCOTLAND 2018
Is it always sunny in Stirling? I expect the locals would be quick to tell me that it’s not. My infrequent visits to the historic city always seem to produce good weather, although there is no suggestion that the residents want me to be there more often.
It’s a beautiful place and a fine setting for Bloody Scotland, the Scottish International Crime Writing Festival, which is into its seventh year.
Established in 2012 by authors Lin Anderson and Alex Gray, crime authors from all over the world appear at in the former Scottish capital, although the core is still very much homegrown.
With 14 countries represented this year, the programme included Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Irvine Welsh, Ann Cleeves, Chris Brookmyre, Mark Billingham and Peter James. If you like crime writing, one of your favourites would more than likely be on the bill. It isn’t just authors talking about their books though. There’s a quiz, a musical, a play, the annual Scotland v England football match and the legendary ‘Crime at the Coo’, which features a bunch of writers performing songs and poetry in the Curly Coo bar.
The three-day event takes place from Friday-Sunday, although we were heading through on the Saturday for a two-day trip.
We hadn’t been through to the festival for a while, with this being our third time.
Saturday 22 September
We arrived at the train station to glorious sunshine (see!) and got in a taxi for the short trip up to the Hotel Colessio. The hotel is up a hill and we didn’t fancy the walk with our bags. (Or without to be fair). It should have been a short trip, but I expect the driver having seen our bags thought he could take the scenic route, as it took a bit longer than expected.
Due to some unusual circumstances (I made an arse of it) we were staying in two different hotels for the two nights. We were another 200 yards up the hill the next night, to the Stirling Highland Hotel.
As we were far too early to check in, we left our bags at reception and headed back out, getting a bite to eat before heading back to the train station for a journey to Camelon. Despite our trip being for the book festival, we weren’t going to miss out on some football watching.
We returned from Camelon and braved the hill to the hotel. The receptionist asked if we were celebrating something as we checked in. “Making it up the hill” I replied.
It was soon time for our first event.
MC Beaton with Ashley Jensen, interviewed by Theresa Talbot at the Albert Halls, 19.00.
Marion Gibbons has made a career of penning romance and mystery novels since 1979. She has written romance under several pseudonyms, although is most well known for writing under Marion Chesney. Under MC Beaton, she wrote the popular Hamish Macbeth books and Agatha Raisin series, both adapted for TV. Today she is talking about the latter of these, along with the show’s lead, Ashley Jensen.
Ashley Jensen is a Scottish actress most well known for her roles in Extras alongside Ricky Gervais and in the ABC show Ugly Betty. She has appeared in Eastenders, The Bill, Casualty, Catastrophe and many others.
Interviewer Theresa Talbot is a BBC Radio Scotland presenter, best known as the voice of Traffic & Travel and as the former presenter of The Beechgrove Potting Shed. She released a memoir before writing her first crime novel The Lost Children.
There have been 28 Agatha Raisin novels, about the PR guru turned amateur sleuth and the 81-year-old author is showing no sign of letting up. She proved in the hour that she is still as sharp as a tack and had the audience in stitches several times.
She seems very happy with the casting of Jensen – although she admits that she looks nothing like the character, she captures her perfectly. This is a very different feeling from the one she has about Hamish Macbeth. “Hamish Macbeth the TV show was so different from the books. I had a rotten time with the TV company. When they went bankrupt three years ago, I thought ‘There is a God’.”
Her admiration for Jensen is clear. “She knows the name of everyone on that TV crew and bonds them together like a family.”
Gibbons has always been a reader, growing up before TV and spent many hours in the local library.
Jensen clearly enjoys the role, and tells the audience to “forget noir, this is ‘Cotswold Technicolor’”.
When we move on to audience questions, Gibbons tells budding authors to ‘take rejection & believe in yourself’.
There was more laughter when the pair were asked what 3 things Agatha Raisin would take to a desert island. These included a boat, a man and her lipstick.
Gibbons has a wonderfully dry-wit and it’s hard not to like Jensen, who seems to get on with everyone.
Special mention of Talbot’s chairing skills in what was at times a difficult session to manage!
An entertaining hour.
Crime at the Coo at the Curly Coo, 21.00
A sell out every year, this is the night of the festival where crime writers take over the Curly Coo bar and perform, often in an inebriated state, to the assembled throng.
Best known as being a whisky bar, with a huge selection available, the Curly Coo is a cosy wee bar, and the ideal setting for an event such as this.
Craig Robertson is the host and he isn’t happy because there’s a lack of authors who have turned up for the beginning, although there are a few who have been performing at other events which didn’t finish until later on.
First up is Mexican author Oscar de Muriel who treats us to some fiddle playing. Oscar writes historical crime thrillers based in Edinburgh. I can’t confirm if any violins feature in these novels, but violence is guaranteed.
There was a bit of a delay before the next performers, with the guitar amp failing to work, but it was soon sorted. (This was to be an issue several times during the evening and praise must go to the sound woman Kirsty, who had several people shouting across the bar to her that it wasn’t working – I’m looking at you, Doug Johnstone).
The cosmopolitan theme continued as a Catalonian song was performed by Spaniard Teresa Solana, Johana Gustawsson (French) and Dr Jacky Collins (English). They were supported by Will Carver on guitar.
Solana has had 5 of her 8 crime novels translated into English, Gustawsson has published two books in her Roy and Castells series (which have just been picked up by TV) and Dr Collins (or ‘Dr Noir’) is responsible for creating and organising the Newcastle Noir festival.
Will Carver stayed on to perform a couple of funny songs, including ‘Two Dogs in Heat’. Carver has written 3 crime thrillers, featuring Detective Inspector January David.
Authors continued to arrive and next we had Stuart Neville on guitar for Icelandic author Lilja Sigurdardottir, who sang ‘Whisky in the Jar’. In Icelandic. Fellow Icelander Ragnar Jonasson held up the lyrics, thoughtfully written out phonetically, for people to join in.
Neville, from Northern Ireland, has published 8 novels. More on the Icelanders on the Sunday.
Next up was German Simone Buchholz with Doug Johnstone on guitar. Buchholz sang a song in German, about a heartbroken pirate. That girl could sing!
Buchholz has written the Chas Riley series, one of which, ‘Blue Night’, has been translated into English.
Johnstone stayed on to play Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder on the Dance Floor’, advising that although it had taken him four years, he realised playing all the “obscure indie shite” wasn’t the way to go. For me, I’ve enjoyed him playing early Teenage Fan club at some of his events, but maybe it’s just me and him that like it.
Johnstone’s ninth novel ‘Fault Lines’ was published earlier this year.
Then came a double from Chris Brookmyre – Warren Zevon’s ‘Mr Bad Example’, followed by the Fountains of Wayne song ‘The Girl I Can’t Forget’.
Chris Brookmyre (the author formerly known as Christopher) has published 21 novels.
Poetry was up next, with Steve Cavanagh performing some funny stuff, then Judith Williams performing some bloody stuff.
Northern Irishman Cavanagh has written the Eddie Flynn series, about an ex con-man and hustler turned lawyer. Apologies to Judith, she was new to me!
Simone Buchholz returned, with her hair down, to sing a German sea shanty. It really doesn’t sound it, but this was easily the sexiest performance of the night, with all the men in the room transfixed. There may even have been some tongues hanging out at this point, although that may have been just those waiting to get served at the bar.
Englishman Mark Billingham made his first appearance, singing ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, the song by The Charlie Daniels Band, accompanied by Stuart Neville, Oscar de Muriel and Doug Johnstone.
Billingham has written 18 crime novels, 15 of which are the Tom Thorne series.
As the time pushed on and the drinks were properly flowing, Will Carver came back on to perform ‘Joanie, the Jehovah’s Witness Stripper’ and then an incredible rap medley which began with ‘Ice Ice Baby’.
Doug then continued his new direction, playing Abba’s ‘SOS’ and then Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’, with at least four authors doing backing vocals. Everyone in the bar seemed to be singing along to these two. I guess Doug was right about his playlist.
The night ended with Stuart Neville on guitar as Abir Muhkerjee sang the Perry Como classic ‘And I Love You So’.
Muhkerjee is three books into his Sam Wyndham series.
Craig Robertson wrapped things up with a brief rendition of Baby Shark. Yes really.
Others in the bar included authors Gordon Brown, Neil Broadfoot and Alexandra Sokoloff; and Orenda Books publisher Karen Sullivan.
As Lilja Sigurdardottir left, I reminded her about the virtues of coffee before her event the next day. I doubt she will remember the conversation.
There were likely to be a few sore heads in the morning. A good night.
Sunday 23 September
Hungover? Me?? A bit, yes. After lugging the bags up the hill to hotel number 2 and then getting some coffee, it was off to the first show of the day.
The Reykjavik Connections: Ragnar Jonasson, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Simon Cox interviewed by Dr Jacky Collins, at Allan Park Church, 12.45.
We ran into a remarkably bright looking Johana Gustawsson with Michael J Malone outside the church. Turns out that Johana had been clubbing until 4 in the morning. If she wasn’t so likeable, I’d hate her.
Icelandic crime writing is in rude health at the moment. Established writers like Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir have been flying the flag for many years, while Ragnar Jonasson has become an International best seller since we saw him at Bloody Scotland in 2014. His Dark Iceland and Hidden Iceland series have proved to be big hits.
Lilja Sigurdardottir has written 6 books, with the second of her Reykjavík Noir trilogy translated into English due out later in October.
Simon Cox is from London, although has travelled extensively as a reporter for the BBC. He has investigated tennis match fixing, ISIS financing and jihadis in Britain. He has also written ‘The Reykjavik Confessions: The Incredible True Story of Iceland’s Most Notorious Murder Case’, which is why he is a part of today’s event.
Malone and Gustawsson sat in the couch just to the side of where we sat, and they were joined by Orenda Books’ Karen Sullivan.
This was expertly chaired by Dr Collins, keeping all 3 authors involved all the way through and linking questions.
Pretty much everyone from Iceland knows about the case in Cox’s book. Two young men disappeared in the mid-1970s, eleven months apart. Their bodies had never been found but years later six people had been arrested and charged with their murders. There was no forensic evidence – the only “evidence” the police had were the confessions.
One of the most startling things revealed on the day was that people go missing in Iceland every year. It’s accepted as just something that happens. These two were different though and the cases were handled very badly and very bizarrely from the start. It’s a fascinating story and Cox lifts the lid on the corruption, confessions which seem to have been forced, and false memories.
Ragnar Jonasson has probably done hundreds of these events by now, but still comes across as quite a shy man. He has had great success in recent years with the “Dark Iceland” series of novels that featured rookie Detective Ari Thor.
As well as his writing, he is also a lawyer and university professor teaching Copyright Law at the Reykjavik University. He also co-founded “Iceland Noir” the Reykjavik international crime writing festival.
He talked about how he developed a passion at a young age for crime writing and as a teenager, translated several Agatha Christie novels into his native Icelandic.
Ragnar’s ‘Hidden Iceland’ series sees a new lead character with detective Hulda Hermannsdottir taking on the starring role. The first of the series ‘The Darkness’ has just been released in English. The trilogy is told in reverse chronological order.
Lilja Sigurdardottir is an award-winning playwright and has written four crime novels, with “Snare”, the first in the series and the first to be published in English, becoming a bestseller worldwide.
She comes at the crime genre from a different angle to the norm. Her writing is from the perspective of customs officers rather than detectives. This led to Lilja telling a story about when she was trying to “smuggle” some Danish sausage into Iceland. She knew that she wasn’t allowed to bring it in, but her family loved it. The customs officers convinced her that one of their sniffer dogs was a meat sniffer dog and was able to detect the sausage. It was far more likely that the dog was just hungry, but she had believed them. The customs officers have a laugh about it every time she goes home, but she just gets waved through now.
It was impossible not to like Lilja. Her humour and warmth had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand which was only enhanced when she talked about her love for Scotland. “It feels like home, but just a little bit better. The weather is similar to Iceland, but just a little bit better”.
Lilja and Ragnar talked of their translators, with Lilja saying that “they can never travel together”.
Three very entertaining authors and the hour absolutely flew past.
Another break in proceedings for us next as we headed down to Forthbank for another football match. It was another glorious day (see!) but the stand we were in was completely in the shade as we looked onto the sun-soaked pitch and it was good to get back into the warmth outside the stadium after the game.
Carry on Sleuthing: Murder at the Knickerage, at the Golden Lion Hotel, 17.30
The final event of the weekend (along with Irvine Welsh, on at the same time at the Albert Halls).
A murder mystery starring Caro Ramsay, Michael J Malone, Douglas Skelton and Theresa Talbot. (With special guests).
Ramsay writes the popular police procedurals, set in Glasgow, featuring DI Colin Anderson and DS Freddie Costello. Malone is an author and poet and writes about DI Ray McBain and his friend Kenny O’Neill. As well as his crime novels, Skelton has written several true crime books. His crime books include the Davie McCall and Dominic Queste series’. Another sighting of Talbot after her hosting of the MC Beaton event.
Another busy room which included Lilja Sigurdardottir, Johana Gustawsson and Simone Buchholz.
Where to start with this? The premise is that underwear magnate Silas Bouncé is found dead and ace sleuth Letitia Luvibod (Ramsay) must track his killer down. Malone, Skelton and Talbot appear as a variety of characters, in various ludicrous outfits.
This isn’t a play to be taken seriously. Written by Skelton, it’s packed full of one-liners and puns, many of which could have been penned by comedian Tim Vine, and then discarded as not good enough. I think I spent at least half of the show with my head in my hands or shaking my head at the standard of joke. There were audible groans around the room after many of them, but these were drowned out by the laughter.
Guest appearances came from Neil Broadfoot, Alex Gray and Lin Anderson who all joined in the chaos with delight.
Malone stole the show in many different wigs and outfits and accents. A particular highlight was his Yorkshire accent and his appearance with Anderson as ‘twins’.
The cast seemed to enjoy it just as much as the audience did and there were lots of smiling faces at the end.
The most surprising thing was that Skelton’s character wasn’t murdered due to some of the jokes.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the sleuth uncovered what had happened, but not before the audience was asked who they thought had done it. Sadly, it wasn’t the pantomime horse as one suggested, that had appeared early in the play. (Oh no it wasn’t!).
A good way to finish the weekend.
There’s something special about Bloody Scotland. The size of Stirling means that most of the venues are close to each other and walking about, you see a lot of the authors doing the same. It’s pitched in a way that seems to have a relaxed feel about it, and this is embraced by the writers who seem to be happy to chat to everyone.
Contrary to the evil and nastiness in their books, they all come over as universally nice people, although there may be folks out there who would say different.
Next year, I’m going to more events.