The whodunnit festival

What happens when you lock up some of the world’s best crime writers – plus a few of their fans – in an old-fashioned British hotel for the weekend? Karin Brynard visits the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in Yorkshire, England to find out.

I walk into The Old Swan hotel with a paper cup of hot coffee and six new crime books under my arm. And there’s Lee Child. He’s just inside the hotel’s entrance, standing with a group of ‘ordinary’ people who are also registering for the 2013 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. That Lee Child. The one who writes the Jack Reacher books. The most popular crime writer in the whole world.

I’m staring so much, I bump into a small, chubby British woman and spill hot coffee on my foot. She clucks, ‘Watch out, pet.’ I hop around in pain, but my eyes are still on Lee Child. He’s blonde, like his famous character Jack Reacher, and he’s queuing with other festival-goers as if it’s no big deal. He’s even holding a similar takeaway cup.

But where are the 15 bodyguards and the helicopter pilots? And the sunglasses? After all, if he were a rock star, he would be Mick Jagger! Elvis Presley!

He nods a friendly greeting in my direction. I breathe in sharply and wonder if a curtsy would be overkill. We are, after all, in the land of Queen Elizabeth.

To be more precise – we’re in Harrogate, a beautiful spa town in the pretty Yorkshire area of Britain.

This is where one of the world’s most famous and best-loved crime writers’ festivals has been held for the past 10 years. And this year I’m here too, at The Old Swan hotel, as one of the 14 000 visitors who’ve travelled from all over the world to listen to our thriller writers talk in the hotel’s huge ballroom.

Crime readers turn out to be just as nice as crime writers. Everyone talks to each other while queuing: full of energy, enthusiasm and humour. And everyone nurses tea in takeaway cups.

A young British woman with purple lipstick stands in front of me in the queue. ‘Every 14 seconds of every day,’ she says, ‘a Lee Child is sold somewhere in the world.’ I know he’s sold more than 70 million books, so that figure sounds believable.

Ms Purple Lips reveals that she’s a professional crime blogger who travels from France every year for the festival. She tells me that last year she saw Jo Nesbø, the award-winning Norwegian writer, and injured her ribs laughing at Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin.

Together with her friend, a blogger from New York, we start talking about the hottest news of the moment – JK Rowling’s foray into crime writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Before long we’re swapping email addresses and writing down names of favourite writers and new books.

This year’s festival kicked off with Ruth Rendell (otherwise known as Barbara Vine), who’s still writing best-selling crime at 83 and still holds razor sharp and entertaining talks about her work.

The ballroom is packed with fans – from pimple-faced teens to grey-haired devotees. The other big names on the list include Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, Charlaine Harris, Kate Atkinson, Michael Robotham and Ian Rankin, who will be at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town this week.

Then, of course, there’s Lee Child, who’s being interviewed by a well-known British comedian and writer, Sarah Millican. The two have tons of fun – she keeps calling him ‘pet’ or ‘sugar’ and he casually mentions the large amount of women’s underwear he gets sent, from women who are in love with his character Jack Reacher.

He also receives an alarming number of foldable toothbrushes (because Jack is a nomad who carries only a toothbrush). He tells us of the two boxes in his flat in New York. In one he throws the underwear, in the other the toothbrushes. At the end of every week, the caretaker of his block of flats empties the two boxes.

Lee has a minimalist life. He doesn’t have possessions, doesn’t like bits and bobs. He doesn’t have furniture in his flat. No paintings, nothing. Not even pots or pans. He doesn’t like ‘things’.

That evening there’s a dinner with the theme Licence to Thrill – to honour James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming. And there’s a quiz, won by Val McDermid and her team of ordinary people, readers. Because at Harrogate the idea is to spoil fans and readers – and to encourage them to write.

One afternoon workshop deals with how to craft a crime novel. ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is an average story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is the beginning of a thriller, the facilitator tells us.

Back home, I consider my recent holiday. It couldn’t have been better, I conclude. What more can you ask for than beautiful surroundings and smart, funny, stimulating people that send you home with new faith and enthusiasm: long live crime writing festivals!


This year South African sci-fi crime writer Lauren Beukes spoke at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

• Karin Brynard is the author of Plaasmoord, which will be published in English next year as Weeping Waters (Penguin).

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