How crime fiction murdered its competition

This month’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival celebrates a genre that is outselling its literary rivals

The sleepy Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate was once renowned for its tea shops, long moorland walks and Conservative Party conferences but, for the past 16 years, it’s more likely to evoke murder and mayhem as the world’s top crime writers gather there for the annual Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 19-22).

Founded by author Val McDermid and agent, Jane Gregory, it’s become the biggest crime fiction festival in Europe, selling 16,500 tickets last year, and has hosted writers as varied as Dan Brown, JK Rowling and Jonathan Aitken.

Crime fiction is currently the most popular genre in the UK and, remarkably, in a time of plummeting book sales, it’s selling more than ever. In 2017, for the first time, crime fiction outsold general and literary fiction garnering 18.7 million sales, up 19% from the previous year. More significantly – and despite a recent dismissal of the genre by Howard Jacobson – crime fiction has finally crept into the genteel halls of literary acceptance with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings winning the 2015 Man Booker Prize and several others making the long-list.

Why are we so drawn to representations of fear, violence and death? In a world full of misery, greed, and horror one would assume readers would be looking for escapism, but they’re not. They’re reading books which dramatise their own fears and anxieties, which deal with social and political turbulence, and which ask difficult and trenchant questions about our times.

These are some of the many topics which will be debated at the upcoming festival, known to its adherents simply as “Harrogate”. It’s a great opportunity to chat about books, share ideas and escape the frenzied spin of the world. It takes place in The Swan, the hotel where Agatha Christie was found hiding after her 11-day disappearance in 1926 and there’s still a hint of mystery and Golden Age splendour to the endless corridors and hushed assembly rooms. But it’s more than mere location that’s made it so popular.

Unlike every other festival I know, there’s no VIP area or authors’ room. Everyone mingles with everyone else. You could be ordering a drink at the bar and turn to find Ian Rankin or Denise Mina engaging you in conversation. The line between author and reader is blurred and this makes for a far more convivial atmosphere. It’s been said so many times it’s in danger of becoming a cliché but crime writers are some of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet. Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, spending their days dismembering fictional bodies, there’s none of the fractiousness you often witness in other literary gatherings.

What also differentiates Harrogate from almost every other festival is that each year a designated author curates the entire programme. This means that no two years are alike and every festival has its own particular theme. This year’s curator is Lee Child and he’s put together a striking line-up, persuading some of the top names from across the pond to make the journey to this tiny Yorkshire town. From international best-seller John Grisham to Laura Lippmann, from Sophie Hannah to Linwood Barclay, the festival showcases the depth, breadth and diversity of current crime fiction.

Top five events at Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2018

Don Winslow, author of The Force, The Cartel and The power of the Dog (Getty)

1. The most exciting event is American author Don Winslow’s first proper UK appearance. Since writing what I consider the best crime novel of the 21st century (2005’s The Power of the Dog) Winslow has become heir apparent to James Ellroy with his pugnacious, socially-charged, incredibly violent and gripping series of novels dissecting America’s shrivelled heart. Since Winslow recently offered $25,000 of his own money on Twitter for any video footage of a child taken inside the immigration holding compounds, we can expect a feisty and fiery discussion as he chats to crime writer NJ Cooper. July 21, 8.30pm 

2. New Blood – this is now a traditional part of the festival and the best place to see next year’s stars today. Each year, Val McDermid picks her most promising debut authors and interrogates them on stage. This is where readers first heard of break-out sensations such as SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and Jane Harper’s The Dry. July 21, 12pm

3. Andrew Taylor, author of the best-selling The Ashes of London and former Spectator crime reviewer, weighs up the pros and cons of writing historical crime fiction. The panel includes BBC radio presenter Simon Mayo whose first novel is an account of the true story of a group of American soldiers imprisoned in Dartmoor in 1815. July 21, 10.30am

4. Val McDermid and forensic anthropologist Dame Professor Sue Black look at how recent technology, especially in the field of forensics, has transformed both crime and policing. Black was awarded an OBE for her International Human Identification work on mass graves and also helped police with evidence that led to the conviction of Scotland’s largest paedophile ring. July 21, 5pm

5. The Quiz. Possibly the best crime quiz in the universe. The questions are certain to make you scratch your head and gnash your teeth as you try to remember the theme tune to a 1970s cop show you half-watched as a kid. Sampler glasses of delicious Theakston’s ale make sure you never get too thirsty (or too coherent). July 21, 10pm

Stav Sherez’s The Intrusions (out now on Faber and Faber) is nominated for the festival’s Crime Novel of the Year award. To vote for The Intrusions to win, go here 


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