This weekend, I went undercover. Officially, I was hosting one of the tables at the ‘Kill Me Quick’ author dinner as part of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, one of the biggest events dedicated to crime and thriller writing in the world.
That was my alibi for being at the Old Swan Hotel, the handsome hostelry where, in 1926, murder mystery queen Agatha Christie was discovered hiding out after she disappeared for 10 days, sparking a massive search. However, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate, I had ulterior motives for lurking at the scene of the crime: with the schedule promising events involving some of the leading genre writers from around the world, I was eager to do a spot of literary spying.
And so it was that I caught an earlier train up to Yorkshire than I needed and, flashing my author pass and a smile, slipped into two Saturday sessions dedicated to crime writing from beyond the Anglo-American world.
The first was ‘Murder Out of Africa’, a discussion bringing together several writers of novels set in the continent. Something of a mystery emerged when the panel, chaired by prolific British novelist NJ Cooper, walked in, however: with the exception of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle, everyone else taking seats on the stage was white. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of Margie Orford, whom Adenle had replaced at short notice, the participants would all have been Caucasian.
This, Cape Town-set thriller author Paul Mendelson explained when an audience member raised the question towards the end of the session, was to do with what London-based publishers selected for release. Nevertheless, Adenle was quick to point out that a number of black African authors are making names for themselves and that the African crime fiction becoming available to Western audiences is increasingly diverse.
The representation problem aside, the discussion was fascinating and wide-ranging, taking in a number of issues specific to writing murder mysteries in the continent, as well as challenges that all novelists face. Afrikaans author Deon Meyer spoke about his sense of the perception among many Western readers that African crime writing cannot be entertaining because the setting has so much darkness and violence. This was not true, he said: he and his peers did everything to make their books as thrilling and suspenseful as any comparable work (and judging by Meyer’s sales figures and the fact that his books have been translated into 28 languages, he is certainly doing something right).
Indeed, if anything, Meyer felt readers should be a little wary of the much-vaunted craze for Nordic noir. ‘Just ask yourself how much credibility do crime writers have from countries that have no murders,’ he quipped.
The question of misogyny came up (barring NJ Cooper, the panel was all male, although this would not have been the case had Orford been there). Cooper challenged Mendelson to speak about the extreme violence against women in The Serpentine Road and opened the question up to consider whether misogyny was a common theme in African crime writing.
Adenle was quick to counter this. Such misogyny as does exist in African writing and cultures, he said, was the result of the introduction of Christianity, with its teaching that the man is the head of the household. Prior to this, many African cultures were matriarchal. Polyandry was practised in some tribes and there are historical accounts of powerful queens, such as the Hausa Muslim warrior Amina. One of the many consequences of colonialism had been the swapping of one set of myths for another, with the attendant blind spots and prejudices.
A question on process brought a fascinating insight into the working methods of writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, aka Michael Stanley. Having started out as academics, the pair were used to writing collaboratively with other colleagues and so, when they came up with the idea for a crime novel, it seemed only natural to work in that way, with one drafting a section for the other to edit and visa versa. Now living on different continents, they find the time difference particularly useful: ‘We can write 24 hours a day,’ said Sears.
Next up, came ‘France Noir – Le Roman Policier’, another panel discussion bringing together thriller heavyweight Pierre Lemaitre, award-winning translator Frank Wynne (who interpreted where necessary), prize-winner Bernard Minier and SJ Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt), whose Conspiracy is set in 16th-century Paris. Funnily enough, Merritt’s memoir The Devil Within, was one of the books I drew on during my research into bipolar disorder for my novel, Beside Myself, so it was fascinating to see her speaking on quite another topic.
As with the previous event, the discussion covered a lot of ground. An interesting revelation came when Frank Wynne observed that he had been largely responsible for the English-language titles of Lemaitre’s works, several of which diverge from the French originals. I wanted to ask him about his reasons for settling on Blood Wedding for the most recently published book. While it’s no doubt arresting, the phrase has strong associations with the Lorca play of the same name and I wondered whether this was deliberate.
The forest of hands that went up at the end meant I didn’t get the opportunity to find out at the time, but this morning on Twitter Wynne gave me this explanation: ‘yes, very cheeky but deliberate. Not that it refers to anything in the text – the French title couldn’t easily be translated. In Robe de marié the missing final E means it’s not wedding dress but bridegroom’s dress – the 1st is subtle, the 2nd clunky.’
Lemaitre provided a powerful insight into the importance of anglophone publishing deals. His international success took off when he signed his English-language contract, with numerous other foreign-rights sales following. ‘For any French writer, the most important translation is English,’ he said. ‘Even if you never sell a single book to an English reader. Much better to have failure in English than a roaring success in another language.’
Countering the suggestion that French noir books are particularly gruesome, Minier, whose 2011 novel The Frozen Dead starts with the grotesque murder of a horse, pointed out that nothing could be more violent than some of the things found in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a question of degree,’ agreed Lemaitre. ‘My wife has been asked how she could have married a man who could write such horrible things. The response is: how can you buy a book by a man who can write such horrible things.’
The discussion also brought up a contrast in the way that crime fiction is perceived in the anglophone and francophone worlds. In France, it seems, there is a less sharp divide between literary and genre fiction, with authors of crime books often scooping prestigious awards. Indeed, Lemaitre himself has won the Prix Goncourt. This, the writers agreed, was due to the legacy of authors such as the Belgian creator of the detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. His simple style was praised by André Gide, who claimed Simenon had raised crime writing to the status of great literature and, in so doing, had revealed something missing in French literary works.
I could have stayed listening to the discussion for hours, but time was marching on and as the dinner hour approached, I was obliged to slip away to my room and wriggle into my thriller-writer disguise for the evening. Forty-five minutes later, I slunk into the green room and stood looking round at the cluster of well-known authors – Christobel Kent, MJ Carter, Joanne Harris and James Runcie to name but a few. I hoped none of them would finger me for a spy.