Monday, 23 April 2018

Tartan Noir: no laughing matter?

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a brief stint as a stand up comedian.  I’d always loved comedy but never considered it was something that you could just get up and do, until I started a new job and met a colleague who had a regular gig at a local club.

An advert for a Comedy Workshop at the Leith Festival finally persuaded me to take the plunge, and I spent a couple of years trying, and sometimes succeeding, to make people laugh.

When I started my first novel, A Fine House in Trinity, I was very keen to take the humour with me.  In fact, as a novice writer that was just about all that I took with me, and my first draft was a loosely connected series of jokes and set pieces.  Naturally, the jokes were hilarious and the set pieces benefitted from the trained observational eye of a comedian (IMHO).  But plot?  Non-existent.  Characterisation? Wafer thin.

In stand up I didn’t have time to develop an idea at length.  Lots of comedians do this really well; both Stewart Lee and Eddie Izzard excel in developing the simplest of issues in hilarious depth.  But they are at the top of their games, with their own shows.  They get an hour.  I was bottom of the bill and got ten minutes.

Ten minutes.  Ten minutes to get the audience on side, tell my jokes, and in the case of Glasgow get off the stage and into my car before anyone twigged that I was from Edinburgh (old rivalries die hard.)  Time wasn’t on my side, and while reaching for the occasional stereotype or cliché will get you through a comedy gig, it won’t cut the mustard in a novel.

With my second draft I had to put my ‘stand up’ head aside, and think like a writer.  The finished book had both humour and some resembling a plot, and it must have been OK, as it was long-listed for the William McIlvanney Award in 2016 (she noted modestly.)

When I moved on to writing my Virus series, I had the luxury of developing character quirks across more than one novel.   In The Health of Strangers, we meet the Health Enforcement Team members, who are fighting crime against the background of a deadly virus.  We have the Team Leader, Paterson (scary, old school cop), Mona (bossy), Bernard (confused, mainly), Carole (motherly), and Maitland (fancies himself as a ladies man).

Now, with the second book in the series, Songs by Dead Girls, I find myself with an opportunity to develop the humour that comes from knowing the characters really well.  And I’ve noticed that, however dark the situation gets, the HET team have got a quip for it.   And they are always pithy, relevant, and cutting.  It’s almost like someone is putting them in their mouths.  Some frustrated comedian, perhaps? 

I don’t do stand up any more.  A job, two kids, and the desire to write novels all got in the way.  I miss it, though.  I miss the immediate feedback that you get from a crowd.  It’s the worst feeling in the world when a joke falls flat, but better that than spending two years on a novel only to find out no-one likes it.

So, Songs by Dead Girls, it’s your time to fly and find your audience.  I hope they like you.  I hope they laugh in all the right places. 

Just remember, though, that you are set in Edinburgh.  If you play Glasgow, keep the motor running.

Lesley Kelly’s third novel, Songs By Dead Girls, is published by Sandstone Press in April.  Her Health of Strangers series is set in a virus- ravaged Edinburgh of the near future.   

Songs by Dead Girls by Lesley Kelly (Published by Sandstone Press)
Nobody likes the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, least of all the people who work for it.  An uneasy mix of seconded Police and health service staff, Mona, Bernard and their colleagues stem the spread of the Virus, a mutant strain of influenza, by tracking down people who have missed their monthly health check.

When Scotland’s leading virologist goes missing, Mona and Paterson from the Health Enforcement Team are dispatched to London to find him. In a hot and unwelcoming city, Mona has to deal with a boss who isn’t speaking to her, placate the professor’s over-bearing assistant, and outwit the people who will stop at nothing to make sure the academic stays lost.

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Bernard is searching for a missing prostitute, while Maitland is trying to keep the chair of the Parliamentary Virus Committee from finding out quite how untidy the HET office is.

More information about  the author and her work can be found on her website.  You can follow her on Twitter - @lkauthor and on Facebook.

Sunday, 22 April 2018


So with Denise Mina’s The Long Drop winning the award last year, Shots received the final call for entries for 2018, as the panel of judges is announced.
As the finishing touches are put to the 2018 programme Bloody Scotland are putting out a final call for entries to the 2018 McIlvanney Prize, for Scottish Crime Book of the Year - in memory of William McIlvanney.

Eligible books must have been first published in the UK between 1 August 2017 and 31 July 2018 and written by a writer who is born in Scotland or domiciled in Scotland or set in Scotland. Books previously published in other countries will not be eligible. Novels, collections of short stories and non-fiction crime titles are eligible for submission.

Entries (PDFs of the book sent by email to Director, Bob McDevitt with McIlvanney Prize Entry 2018 plus the book title in the header) should be submitted by 5pm on Friday 27 April 2018.

The longlist is expected to comprise up to 12 books which will be announced after the organisers meeting in June 2018 at which point finished copies will be sent to each of the three judges.

This year the judges are confirmed as Susan Calman, comedian and self-confessed crime fiction fan, just back from her success in Strictly Come Dancing who first appeared on the judging panel last year; Alison Flood, the Guardian’s books reporter and former news editor of The Bookseller and Craig Sisterson, a journalist and book reviewer from New Zealand ‘with a particular penchant for a well-told crime tale’ who has been promoted to Chair.

It is particularly apt that a Kiwi is chairing the panel as the winner of last year’s McIlvanney Prize, Denise Mina, has been invited to Christchurch Book Festival and as part of the same initiative New Zealand crime writers are being invited back to Bloody Scotland in 2018, including Fiona Sussman, the winner of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Prize.
Top Photo © 2017 Bloody Scotland

Bottom Photo © 2017 A Karim [L – R : writers Chris, Alex, Craig & Steve]

Alice Blanchard on How Her Book Came Together

Before I can sit down and write a 350-page novel, I need three things—a dream, a memory, and a true story that fascinates me.  Only then can the alchemy begin.

1.  The Dream:
Each one of my novels was inspired by a dream.  Before I wrote “A Breath After Drowning,” I had a dream that my husband and I came home and couldn’t get our front door open.  I slid the key into the lock but it wouldn’t turn.  Inside, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I knew in my heart something horrible had happened.  That dream was the seed that grew into my new novel. 

Dreams contain an underlying truth.  What did this one mean?  I was suddenly homeless. I’d lost my identity.  An unknown force was threatening everything I held dear.  I’d been locked out of my own home—this ignited my imagination, and I became obsessed with its literary implications.

2.  The Memory:
My father was admitted to a psych ward after his first suicide attempt.  I remember visiting him there was I was sixteen years old.  The clocks in the waiting room told the wrong time, and the magazines were three years old.  Dad shuffled toward us in his pyjamas and bathrobe.  He looked washed away.  His eyes were faded.  He talked to us as if he’d forgotten who we were.  As if something alien had replaced him.  This memory still haunts me, and it inspired the pivotal scene in “A Breath After Drowning” where, as a young girl, Kate visits her mother in the asylum.

3.  The True Story:
The murder of Jessica Lunsford effected me deeply.  She was a nine-year-old girl from Homosassa, Florida, who was murdered in 2005.  Her body was found 150 yards from her home.  She’d been buried alive.  Her death was so tragic and cruel, it filled me with anger and sadness.  I couldn’t imagine how her parents coped with such a loss, and so I gave their terrible pain to my main character. 

In my novel, “A Breath After Drowning,” child psychiatrist Kate Wolfe’s world comes crashing down when one of her young patients reveals things about Kate’s past that she shouldn’t know—things involving the murder of Kate’s sister sixteen years earlier. In writing this book, I felt a powerful connection to Kate, a connection so strong it propelled the book forward.  She took the dream, the memory, and the true story, and she put it on her shoulders—I followed

A Breath After Drowning by Alice Blanchard (Published by Titan Books)
Sixteen years ago, Kate Wolfe’s young sister Savannah was brutally murdered. Forced to live with the guilt of how her own selfishness put Savannah in harm’s way, Kate was at least comforted by the knowledge that the man responsible was behind bars. But when she meets a retired detective who is certain that Kate’s sister was only one of many victims of a serial killer, Kate must face the possibility that Savannah’s murderer walks free. 
Unearthing disturbing family secrets in her search for the truth, Kate becomes sure that she has discovered the depraved mind responsible for so much death. But as she hunts for a killer, a killer is hunting her…

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Ripley Uncovers

I always enjoy the company of the Talented Mr Ripley, for as a raconteur he is incomparable in the literary end of Crime and Thrillers; and he has a wickedly amusing sense of humour and proportion to boot.

Mike and I found ourselves spending a day together paying our respects to Phil Kerr, who passed away far too early. Mike Ripley was one of the group of new emerging talent in British Crime Writing in the late 1980s / early 1990s, as was Phil Kerr. Mike pays his respects to Philip Kerr in his April 2018 column of Getting Away with Murder – read it HERE

Apart from his own writing, his reviewing, literary commentary, bee-keeping and interest in archaeology, Mike acts as a literary consultant for Ostara Publishing, unearthing classic work from the Thriller genre. He is obviously well qualified for this role, as the writer / editor of the extraordinary Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang CLICK HERE for more information.

At Crimefest 2014 held in Bristol, in-concert with Barry Forshaw and Peter Guttridge, our trio of writer / critics presented an amusing, as well as insightful look at the British Golden Age of Thriller Writing. We have archived the video presentation from the event HERE and I am still giggling from the memory of the that day.

I was delighted to hear that The Talented Mr Ripley has uncovered two extraordinary thrillers - that I can still recall from my adolescence, so let Mike tell us more. 

New Titles from Top Notch Thrillers

First published in 1970, Kenneth Royce’s thriller The XYY Man introduced a new anti-hero into the world of spy and crime fiction and despite the rather questionable premise behind the main character, Spider Scott, the book launched a popular television series which spawned not one but two distinct spin-offs.

The unique aspect of XYY Man Spider Scott – said to be based on a professional criminal Kenneth Royce met whilst a prison visitor – is that he is blessed, or cursed, with an extra male ‘Y’ chromosome in his genetic make-up. This predisposes him to a life of crime, which was in fact a common theory in the late 1960s, though there was little – if any – scientific evidence for this.

Whatever his genetics, Scott is a ‘creeper’ or cat burglar and a very good one, so good that his talents come to the notice of British Intelligence when a dangerous piece of house breaking is called for – the ‘house’ in question being the Chinese Legation in London. Unfortunately, Spider is also firmly on the radar of Detective Sergeant Bulman and it was this antagonistic relationship which was not only the mainstay of the 1976 television series The XYY Man but allowed the Bulman character to develop in the spin-off police series Strangers in 1978 and then to star in his own series as a private eye, in Bulman in 1985.

Kenneth Royce (1920 -1997) wrote seven Spider Scott novels and, later, three novels featuring Alf Bulman. Top Notch Thrillers is proud to be able to reissue the first two novels, The XYY Man (which has been out-of-print for more than 20 years) and the immediate sequel, The Concrete Boot from 1971.

When The XYY Man was first published, Dame Ngaio Marsh called it ‘a brilliantly sustained thriller’ and the Manchester Evening News rated it ‘A new dimension in thriller writing’.

Top Notch series editor Mike Ripley, the author of the ‘reader’s history of British thrillers’ Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, said: ‘The Spider Scott books were not big, brash, shoot-em-up spy fantasies, as was very much the norm when they first appeared. They were down-beat tales of betrayal and fear, more Callan than Bond. Quite often Spider Scott – a criminal who is outside the protection of the law – when pursued by the KGB, the CIA, the Chinese secret police and goodness knows who else, has only his underworld contacts and fellow criminals to rely on. The books are highly recommended for their descriptions of Spider’s London, especially by night, in the early 1970s; a cold, hard city which has millions of inhabitants but where Spider is always alone.’

Top Notch Thrillers is an imprint of Ostara Publishing and has so far revived more than 60 British thrillers ‘which do not deserve to be forgotten’. The XYY Man and The Concrete Boot are available as trade paperbacks and eBooks.

Further details:

New Blood Showcase: Criminally Good Class of 2018

Val McDermid has unveiled her four ‘New Blood’ debut crime novelists for 2018.

Val McDermid co-founded the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival with literary agent Jane Gregory and arts charity, Harrogate International Festivals in 2003.

Since 2004, she has hosted her annual New Blood panel at the festival, which has become one of the most anticipated events on the publishing calendar. Just four debut novels are picked out of 50 submissions the ‘Queen of Crime’ receives each year.

Over the years, McDermid has introduced some formidable new talents to the Harrogate audience, and through them to a wider readership.

Val McDermid said: “Choosing the four debut novels for the New Blood panel at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and presenting them to the 700-strong audience is the best job in crime fiction. I get to immerse myself in new voices and fresh ideas. My quartet this year have each produced a provocative and entertaining excursion into their very distinctive worlds. I guarantee each of these books is a riveting read.”

2018 New Blood authors are:

DARK PINES by Will Dean
A deaf journalist investigates the case of an eyeless corpse in this promising debut novel set in rural Sweden.

THE RUIN by Dervla McTiernan
This unsettling crime debut draws us deep into the dark heart of Ireland as the secrets of the past will expose the crimes of the present.

Already a 2018 must-read, this thrilling and suspense-filled debut will have readers glued to every word and guessing until it’s shocking sinister finale.

With time loops, body swaps and a psychopathic footman, Turton’s debut is a dazzling take on the murder mystery.

New Blood authors Val has picked over the years include Jane Harper, SJ Watson, Stuart MacBride, Clare Mackintosh, Belinda Bauer and Dreda Say Mitchell. Dreda said: “Being invited onto the New Blood panel hosted by the amazing and legendary Val McDermid was one of the key springboards that launched my career.”

New Blood takes place during the 2018 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Saturday 21 July, 12 noon, at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate.

Tickets go on sale Monday 23rd April, 10am. Box office: 01423 562303