Bloody Scotland crime writing festival sets out to champion new writers

(L-R) Authors Craig Sisterson, Val McDermid, Liam McIlvanney and Denise Mina lead the torchlight procession to The Albert Halls at Bloody Scotland, Scotland's International Crime Writing Festival in Stirling on 21 September 2018 PIC:'''Paul Reich
(L-R) Authors Craig Sisterson, Val McDermid, Liam McIlvanney and Denise Mina lead the torchlight procession to The Albert Halls at Bloody Scotland, Scotland's International Crime Writing Festival in Stirling on 21 September 2018 PIC:'''Paul Reich
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Scotland has so many book festivals readers are spoiled for choice. But for crime fiction fans, this weekend is particularly special, as Bloody Scotland arrives in Stirling for the eighth time to bring authors and book lovers together at around 40 events over three days.

On Friday night, the winner of the 2019 McIlvanney Prize for Crime Novel of the Year will be announced (see panel, right, for The Scotsman’s reviews of the shortlisted titles). There is also a new prize for debut authors. Bob McDevitt, director of Bloody Scotland, said: “The festival is always looking for new ways to discover and promote new writers… Publishing is a tough old world these days and anything that gives a bit of profile to a new writer is a good thing.”

That dedication to nurturing new voices has grown over the years, with festival co-founder Alex Gray’s New Crimes panel now being complemented by a Debut Prize finalists event. There are also writing masterclasses, and the nail-biting Pitch Perfect where newcomers present their ideas to industry experts. Elsewhere, Crime In The Spotlight sees newer writers read from their work as a “support act” to an established author, so if you see a nervous figure walk on stage as you take your seat, listen up as they might be the next big thing.

Last year Bloody Scotland also ran an award in conjunction with publisher Harvill Secker to find a new BAME crime writer. The winner, Ajay Chowdhury, joins Abir Mukherjee, the award-winning creator of the Sam Wyndham series, and Trisha Sakhlecha, whose debut was published this year, for The India Connection panel.

Chowdhury – a crime fiction reader since his teens when he discovered Agatha Christie – says: “The core idea of a disgraced Indian policeman now working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in East London is one which I’ve carried around in my mental dossier of ideas for years. When I saw the competition it gave me the extra push to really map out the finer details of the plot. It was a real honour and a total shock when I won and I walked around in a daze for a week. Then was a realisation that I now had to finish the book. So the daze turned to a sort of terror, but when I got down to writing, it just flowed… I would love to write full time at some point and it all depends on whether the readers fall in love with Kamil.”

Abir Mukherjee says: “I think any effort made to broaden the range of voices published, whether in terms of class, sexuality or ethnicity, is a good thing. This is one of several initiatives being run by the wider Penguin group to publish more working-class and minority voices. Reading, like travel, broadens the mind… It’s important we publish and read the experiences of people who may be different to ourselves. It’s only by understanding different people that we can empathise with them. Books help us see the other side, they help bring us together, and they entertain us.”

Another writer new to the genre is Richard Osman – yes, the tall chap from TV quiz show Pointless. Set in a luxury retirement village, his novel The Thursday Murder Club sees a group of residents who meet weekly to discuss cold cases become involved in a live investigation. The life-long crime fiction fan will talk about his path to publication with Mark Billingham. If you prefer more established names, David Baldacci will be discussing his latest novel, One Good Deed, and Alexander McCall Smith will be charming the crowd. Or you could watch Denise Mina and Louise Welsh in conversation, or see Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham share a stage… The list goes on.

One event not to miss is Ian Rankin being grilled by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. McDevitt says: “We’ve been keen to have the First Minister to take part in the festival for a few years now and this year our diaries aligned. I’m certainly happy that the leader of our government is such a bold supporter of books and reading and wish a few more politicians would follow her example.”

Those keen to learn about the realities behind the fiction can see former Metropolitan Police officer Alice Vinten and prison teacher Mim Skinner discuss the two sides of the law; ex-prison governor Dr David Wilson in conversation with festival co-founder Lin Anderson, and hear about the realities of forensic science from Professor Angela Gallop, whose 40 years’ experience include working on the Stephen Lawrence case.

Bloody Scotland is also well known for events with a more relaxed atmosphere, including the Scotland Writers v England Writers football match, a live episode of the Two Crime Writers And A Microphone podcast, and the late-night musical hilarity that is Crime at the Coo. New this year are a Killer Ceilidh, a series of classic crime/horror films, and a play, You The Jury. McDevitt said: “A ceilidh had been talked about in the past and so we thought we’d try it this year. The films came out of a chat with the new programmer at the Tolbooth who was keen to have some complementary programming. The play was an idea brought to us by the Faculty of Advocates, one of our key sponsors, and it has proved a real hit – we had to add an extra performance.”

Douglas Skelton – who has true crime books, several novels and a series of deft stage pastiches under his writing belt – joined forces with the FoA with funding from the Clark Foundation for Legal Education to create a short play based on a real case, with the aim of dispelling myths created by some presentations of the justice system in print and on screen. He says: “We stick fairly closely to the basics of the original case, which is from the 1930s, although all names have been changed and certain evidence has been updated to include advances in forensic science.”

Stirling Sheriff Court will host the performances, which will include real court staff, lawyers and scientists thanks to the FoA getting the James Hutton Institute, the court service and the Scottish Sentencing Council involved. And as the title suggests, spectators will form a jury to decide the verdict. Skelton says: “Each member of the audience will receive an individually numbered copy of the indictment and the numbers will be drawn by the Clerk… At the end of the evidence, they will be asked to deliver a verdict by a show of hands.” There are three performances of the play over the weekend – but will all three juries come to the same conclusion?

Bloody Scotland’s programme always showcases Scottish talent while bringing in great authors from overseas, and the team are skilled at teasing out themes. Visitors this year can delve into Myth and History, eavesdrop on the Spy Sisters (including McIlvanney Prize shortlisted Manda Scott), take a look at Gothic Institutions, and discuss dysfunctional families with a panel including McIlvanney contender Doug Johnstone. There’s even a four-for-the-price-of-two event featuring the husband-and-wife teams behind the Nicci French and Ambrose Parry books.

If crime from chillier climes is your thing, try the New Nordic Horizons panel, or the “Queen of Icelandic Noir”, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Meanwhile, Europe: Still Here, Still Game features authors who cross borders, and the Emerald Guile team brings together writers from across the island of Ireland. As McDevitt says: “If you like crime writing in all its forms then there’s bound to be something for you – it’s a diverse, friendly, welcoming and usually hilarious weekend.” Louise Fairbairn

Bloody Scotland runs Friday to Sunday, 20-22 September, in Stirling. For information and tickets, visit www.bloodyscotland.com