Preview: Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival

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Just over a decade ago a handful of people set up a crime writing festival in Harrogate. Kevin Bourke finds today it has a peculiar but winning mix of high profile and new writers, a pub quiz and plenty of beer

You might imagine that a crime writing festival would be a dodgy affair, full of suspicious characters lurking and plotting. But the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, celebrating its thirteenth year in Harrogate this month, is friendly, high-spirited and inclusive.

Set in the resort’s Old Swan Hotel where Agatha Christie once hid herself away, one of the most striking features of the festival is the way fans, would-be writers and best-selling authors mix freely, especially in the hotel bar or in the celebrated late-night Saturday quiz drinking the beer of the festival sponsor.

“We don’t hide the writers away – we include them in the rolling party in the bar,” acknowledges Val McDermid, one of the festival’s founders. “And in everything we do we include the readers, because writers without readers are redundant.”

Last year, JK Rowling, noting the friendliness of the event, exclusively chose the festival to break cover as crime writer “Robert Galbraith”, while other internationally famous guests have included Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Dennis Lehane, Jo Nesbo, George Pelecanos, Karin Slaughter, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson and many others.

This year’s line-up includes local Yorkshire boys Lee Child and Peter Robinson, as well as Mark Billingham, who will discuss crime fiction on the screen with David Morrissey, who plays his character Tom Thorne in the popular TV series Thorne. Sara Paretsky will be interviewed by Val McDermid and Lisa Gardner will talk to Ann Cleeves, bestselling author of the Vera Stanhope books, on which the successful TV series Vera is based.

Cleeves, who was the festival’s first writer-in-residence before her books became bestsellers, is currently programming chair of the festival. A point of pride for her is that everyone who attends Theakston’s is a reader first. 
“The festival proves that reading is creative, inspiring and wonderfully social,” she says. “This year we focus on crime fiction’s ability to take us to strange lands and to see familiar places in a new and unsettling way.”

Thus, Nordic Noir star writer Arnaldur Indridason will be interviewed by Barry Forshaw; there’s the exclusive, if controversial, unveiling of a new book in the Millennium series, exactly ten years since The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was first published; and panels discuss how a writer’s imagination can be triggered by extreme environments as well as other topics including Irish noir, forensics, the black art ofcriticism and the morality of murder. The legacy of Patricia Highsmith is celebrated while “New Blood” introduces names you might never have heard of before.

Susi Holliday, whose gripping and accomplished first book Black Wood was published in March, has been attending the festival for several years.

“Every time, I meet more and more new people from the crime fiction world and they are an incredibly friendly and welcoming community, especially for new writers,” she says. “Significantly for me, it’s where I met my agent, and it’s fantastic to attend the festival now not just as a crime fiction fan, but a crime fiction author.”

“More than a decade ago now, a handful of us were cajoled into putting together a crime festival in this sedate Victorian spa town,” recalls McDermid.

Now the festival “is the most vibrant and popular event of its kind anywhere in the world, precisely, I believe, because we’re inclusive.”

The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate is on 16-19 July

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