Is the real world getting you down?
Did all four wheels just fall off your car and get crushed by a steamroller? Has your boss just announced a corporate restructuring of exactly one employee – and that employee is you?
Or are you simply one of the many people for whom turning on the news these past months has felt like playing Russian Roulette with your will to live?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be time you turned to crime. Fiction, that is. Crime Fiction. And without making any more glib remarks on the state of things at the moment, there is a lot to be said for literary escapism in times of trial.
A literary festival can be an even better getaway-from-it-all than a book, and crime was the genre of choice for attendees of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate on the weekend of 22nd July. Authors, reviewers and readers congregated in this renowned Victorian spa town in North Yorkshire to steep themselves in the dark underbelly of society we cope with the best: the kind that’s made up.
Festival highlights included one-on-one interviews and panel discussions featuring Val McDermid – described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the festival, and who kept everyone laughing from start to finish – along with Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen, Martina Cole, Jeffery Deaver, Peter James, Gerald Seymour, Paula Hawkins, and Clare Mackintosh, who won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year on opening night for her debut I Let You Go. New and established authors alike discussed their inspirations, routes to publication, and what makes people so fascinated with crime fiction in the first place.
From the ballroom of the Old Swan Hotel (where Agatha Christie famously went missing for 11 days in the 1920s) which hosted panels of internationally renowned authors, to the tents outside serving food, drink and books, to the lively conversations buzzing all over the grounds, to the readers dotted all over the sun-lit lawn, hunched over their ill-gotten gains as though any interruption might be rewarded with a death stare – it was all about the books.
Every good festival has sideshows, and Harrogate was awash with publisher parties and book signings, reader competitions, forensic investigations, and even a table quiz worthy of a criminal mastermind. In the Secret Garden (or at least it was secret until writing.ie got there) publisher Bonnier’s new fiction imprints Zaffre and Twenty7 were celebrating several Sunday Times bestsellers including Maestra, Stasi Child, Nomad and Sam Blake’s Little Bones in less than one year of operation, while Pan MacMillan, with authors such as Peter James and David Baldacci, were to be found in the Library, with the candlestick. Or was that the canapés?
It’s hard to imagine anything better than hundreds of people coming together for the weekend to form a temporary yet cohesive village of crime lovers, hell-bent on discovering new talent, connecting with established authors, and hanging tough with other like-minded folk who love nothing more than stories about killing, maiming, psychological abuse, and the renegade heroes and anti-heroes who set the world to rights in weird and wonderful ways.
So why do we love crime fiction so much?
It may be because it contains a kind of universal human experience – a dark side of humanity which is apolitical, and to which everyone on the planet can relate. It’s genderless, too. Crime is a genre where people don’t seem to care about whether or not the writer or protagonist has a Y chromosome. Possession of this same chromosome doesn’t appear to have much to do with how these books are critiqued, packaged, or shelved, either. In short, there is no greater leveller than the evil guy or gal who is creeping through the dark shadows behind you. Whether they’re lurking down a dark alley, or under our own roof, we don’t seem to be able to get enough of that delicious fear we can put down whenever we want.
As was pointed out by more than one author over the course of the festival, we are all by nature voyeurs, with an insatiable curiosity for other human beings. In real life, true stories have the power to do harm; but great fiction takes us back, as close as we can bear, to the monsters under the beds of our childhoods. We like to be frightened, but only within our control.
It’s no wonder that regardless of blockbuster trends, crime fiction is consistently one of the two most popular fiction genres on the planet (the other one being romance). Because when we need to mentally get away from it all, there’s nothing that can transport us like a made-up murder, or a fictional felony. It deserves to be celebrated, and boy, do they do it in style in Harrogate.
(c) Tara Sparling
Tara Sparling writes novels and screenplays. Her blog www.tarasparlingwrites.com, winner of Best Newcomer at the Irish Blog Awards in 2014, looks at bestselling book statistics, the realities of traditional and self-publishing, genre trends, writing follies, book marketing, author success stories and spectacular failures. She can also be found lurking @TaraSparling on Twitter.