Heading to the final day of the Theakston Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, I met a man walking with his young son, wobbling along on a trike. “What’s going on at the Old Swan?” he asked. “If I told you, I might have to kill you,” I replied, before relenting and letting him into the secret. His response was a nod of approval.
Some people in the Yorkshire spa town may have been oblivious about the four-day event – trumpeted as the biggest and best so far – but inside the boundaries of the hotel were the cognoscenti, a reported 17,000 of them between Thursday 21 and Saturday 24 July. And what a treat was in store for everyone!
This year’s chair was Scottish crime fiction author Denise Mina, and she and her committee gathered together a joyous and eclectic selection to suit fans of every crime fiction sub genre. She popped up regularly, chairing some of the panels, introducing the star turns, a one woman whirlwind attired in bright colours and running it like a boss – you’d catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of your eye, like an elusive , gem hued butterfly.
While all the organising was going on behind the scenes, panels were happening like clockwork. This was a packed schedule and nothing was allowed to get things off course – even a medical emergency when an audience member collapsed was handled efficiently. The lady in question was seen by the medics and later declared to be on the mend.
Eyes on the prizes – Novel of the Year revealed
It all kicked off on the Thursday evening with the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel Awards, Mick Herron winning at his fifth attempt, with Slough House taking the plaudits. His prize? A ceremonial keg of Old Peculier beer – bet that would go down well with Jackson Lamb! Joseph Knox was highly commended for True Crime Story. A keg was also awarded to Michael Connelly as winner of the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award, with the Bosch creator musing on stage as to how this unusual piece of carry on luggage would be greeted on his flight back to the US.
Connelly returned on the Friday evening, when a packed house saw him in conversation with Mark Billingham. It was a relaxed chat, filled with anecdotes and revelations and proved to be one of the highlights of this year’s event. Other great one-to-ones were The Girl on the Train creator Paula Hawkins interviewed by NJ Cooper, CL Taylor and Lucy Foley, Fast Show creator-turned-author Charlie Higson chatting with Steph McGovern and – in one of the most humorous encounters of the festival — Irish author and creator of the Charlie Parker series John Connolly in conversation with Mark Lawson.
Established authors reveal plenty to laugh about
Laughter was also the order of the day in the It’s a Long Walk, Not a Short Hop panel, where long-established authors Martin Edwards, Mick Herron, Adele Parks and Andrew Taylor revealed the highs and lows, pleasures and pitfalls of their writing careers, with Denise Mina taking the chair. All five contributed to the hilarity of what was my favourite multiple panel of the whole weekend.
In contrast to the old hands, Val McDermid’s New Blood choices of 2022 are in the early days of their crime writing careers. Nevertheless their panel was really interesting. Sadly, Bella Mackie, author of How to Kill Your Family was ill and couldn’t attend but we were hugely entertained by Australian noir writer Emma Styles, whose debut No Country for Girls is out this month, New Zealander Michael Bennett whose Better The Blood follows a Māori detective on the hunt for the country’s first serial killer and American author Stacy Willingham, whose tense psychological thriller A Flicker in the Dark has been optioned by movie star Emma Stone.
Cheers to Mr Osman for a Harrogate surprise
Celebrity authors have been a hot topic recently and there were several in Harrogate, including the Rev Richard Coles, Charlie Higson, and Rosemary Shrager. Missing was Frankie Boyle, who pulled out at the last minute. Another absentee was Richard Osman, who is a big Harrogate fan and attended even before he became an author — but he cheered up the festival goers with a tweet on Friday night offering a free drink to anyone who went to the Old Swan bar and told the bar staff “Elizabeth sent me”. “This is not an elaborate prank, Joyce recommends the rosé”, tweeted The Thursday Murder Club creator. Cheers Richard!
Another generous author was John Connolly and there was much excitement in the Big Tent where all of the panels were held when a leaflet was handed out, bearing the news that there was a silver 20 charm – in honour of the 20th Charlie Parker novel – hidden under one of the seats. The lucky winner received an autographed copy of The Furies and the chance to meet Connolly.
Finding your tribe is such a pleasure
This was my first taste of the full Harrogate weekend experience and I’m confident that it won’t be my last. I can only describe it as addictive, that feeling of having found your tribe, getting caught up in a shared sense of excitement as the panels and special guest interviews just keep on coming. You don’t have to go to the panels of course, there’s also the huge beer tent – packed every evening with authors, publicists, bloggers and just plain old readers all mixing together in one huge crime fiction melting pot.
It is a pricy experience but there’s a Harrogate for everyone – I even heard it whispered that some people never even attend a panel. To me that sounds daft, like turning over the corner of a page to mark your place in a book. But that’s the great thing about the genre we all love, it’s happy to welcome in all sorts of folk.