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Murder on the Harrogate Express

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

I guess like most Londoners of my generation, it’s impossible for me to set forth to Victoria Coach Station without being assailed by memories of trips past; those formative teenage escapes to coast and countryside. Perhaps evoking the smell of wet cagoules and hiking boots from days of youth-hostelling around Cornwall, the Lake District or North Wales. Or maybe the static-charged embrace of nylon sleeping bags during chilly nights under canvas at festivals, warmed through by a little too much cider and cheap wine and… “what was their name again?”

The building itself had hardly changed at all in the intervening decades, the digital departure boards are just as confusing as their mechanical ancestors. With seconds to spare, I finally found my coach and stowed my bags away. Leeds here I come! A mere five bum-numbing hours away, followed by another hour in Leeds Bus Station, the Xanadu of the North (‘these toilets are out of order’) to await my connection to Harrogate. I had bought a rail ticket for the journey. Two in fact, but that’s another story. The coach was my ‘back hand’ in case my number came up in the national rail strike lottery. On no account was I going to miss this opportunity to indulge in this quintessentially English vice which had acquired billions of adherents, nay, addicts all over the world. A chance to mingle with my fellow junkies and indulge our Class A habit; armed robbery, assault, arms-dealing, and assassination. And of course, to mainline on murder. In short, I would be joining seventeen thousand other tormented souls for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. And no power on Earth, short of kidnappers, serial-killers or The Flying Squad could stop me

In the end it was global warming rather than industrial action that necessitated Victoria Coach Station over Kings Cross. London had just recorded its hottest temperature on record, greatly exceeding the tolerance of the steel in the rail-tracks, but not my resolve to head North. So time to burn rubber instead. But my journey had begun even further away, both in time and space. As a young teenager in the 1970s I had happened upon ‘A Clubbable Woman,’ the first of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels, in the public library in Weston Super Mare (another National Express trip, this time to visit my grandparents). Reginald Hill was a great writer, who just so happened to write in the crime genre, just as John Le Carré would still be a great writer if he’d chosen Sci-Fi instead of spies. For the avoidance of doubt, the ‘greats’ herein referred to are that rare breed of authors who really care passionately about the characters they create, and want us to share deeply in that engagement. Because that’s what gets them up in the morning/afternoon/evening (DELETE AS APPROPRIATE). Reg Hill’s ability to bring to life the Yorkshire landscape, and the emotional landscapes of the characters who populated it, went far beyond the needs of plot and pay-offs. And now I was off to his beloved Yorkshire to meet his heirs.

The first thing you notice about Harrogate is -someone has killed all the cab drivers. It is an Uber-free zone. And quite a hilly one to negotiate when you’re carrying your own weight in clobber. And the temperature is in the mid-twenties. And it’s only 8am in the morning. We were greeted at The Old Swan by this year’s festival chair, Denise Mina (award-winning author of Garnethill, Field of Blood, The End of the Wasp Seasonand many more classics of the genre). Denise is not only one of the ’greats’ referred to above, she is one of the foremost standard bearers for the power of the written (and spoken) word; her total commitment to the quality of her writing shines through every sentence she writes. We had gathered, myself and fifty-plus aspiring Crime Writers, for a full day event called ‘Creative Thursday,’ which was the traditional prequel to the Festival proper. A very full day as it turned out. But whilst I’m fair busting to give you verse and chapter on this remarkable experience, please be aware that the observations that I’d like to share with you are in the manner of being general impressions, recollected in tranquillity, and Gordon’s, rather than a verbatim account informed by copious notes; so apologies aforehand for any errors or omissions.

First up was a panel of ‘Creative Thursday Alumni’, hugely successful authors whose life-of crime-writing had begun at the Harrogate Festival, and, to my amazement, this included Lesley Thomson, best-selling author of the brilliant ‘The Detective’s Daughter,’ series. It’s one thing for crime writers to frogmarch their creations through the mean streets of LA’s South Side or Glasgow’s East End, but Lesley has turned to the sedate suburbs of West London (Hammersmith and Chiswick, Acton and Shepherds Bush) for her killing fields, and they are all the more unsettling for the contrast.

Next up was a session on ‘The Other Side and How To Write Outside Your Own Cultural Background’ led by Vaseem Khan, the muti-award-winning author of the Baby Ganesh Agency series, and the Malabar House historical crime novels. Vaseem had been commissioned by the Arts Council to make an extensive study of Diversity in UK Publishing, and the general theme of the session asked whether it was it okay for a writer to adopt/appropriate the perspectives of a different culture (or gender/sexual orientation come to that). Vaseem, along with vast majority of those surveyed I suspect, believed that any author should be free to write in any ‘skin’ they chose, but with the important caveat that they should first take time to fully understand the other culture, and, most importantly, be aware of any sensitive issues that may inflame criticism from members of that community. Which made perfect sense to me. But I couldn’t help wondering if, with economic forces melding cultural differences into a single, globalised, story (nods to Yuval Noah Harari) future generations might look back enviously on a time when there were still distinct cultural differences to appropriate?

Our next session was led by the husband-and-wife team of Greg Mosse (The Coming Darkness) and Kate Mosse (The Burning Chambers and The Languedoc Trilogy). Working in teams of three, us aspiring Agatha Christies were expertly led through the fundamentals of character and plot establishment, short-cuts for successful narrative structure, and a myriad little tricks of the trade to keep spellbound readers expectantly turning pages. By the end of the session we had probably learned more than we’d have acquired from several months of writing classes. Or possibly even an MA in Creative Writing.

The culmination of Creative Thursday was ‘The Dragons’ Pen,’ two hours of gladiatorial combat in which us aspiring Agathas would make a two minute pitch to a panel of agents and publishers, each one of them a potential gate-keeper to the Promised Land of a Book Deal. Unfortunately, there would not be sufficient time for all the Agathas to pitch, so we had to write our names on slips of paper …and pray. Or, in my case, try and persuade the ‘returning officer’ to allow me to steer the odds in my favour by multiple entries. She rejected my entreaties (and offers of bribes) out of hand, so my hopes, my dreams, my destiny were now in the hands of author and former TV actor, Mark Billingham (the Tom Thorne novels: Sleepy Head, Scaredy Cat, Lazy Bones, etc.) who would be making the draw. Mark is a supremely gifted writer, and raconteur, but total shit at pulling names out of a hat. Time and time again he would hold aloft a scrap of paper and announce another Agatha, who were all extremely talented in their own way, by the way, just not me! And each time I would rewrite my fabulous pitch on the hoof/mac powerbock in the hope that I would be next. But it was not to be.

Another failure awaited me. Getting a cab to take me back to my hotel was not theoretically impossible I was assured, just slightly longer odds than securing a Book Deal that evening. I was therefore compelled to join the melee of Agathas, Agents and Crime Writing Superstars neck-working in the Old Swan drinks tent. I may not have entered the Promised Land, but at least I had Paradise (Theakston Paradise Gold Dry Vintage Cider) and the excellent company of Lesley Thomson, West London and Sussex’s worthy successor to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

According to my programme, the main event of the evening was the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Awards…and Party (oh dear, more Paradise) which involved a stately (if slightly wobbly) progression up the hill to the Theakston Stage. The awards were hosted by Mark Lawson, a Harrogate veteran, with an hilarious welcome from Simon ‘Paradise’ Theakston himself. It fell to Lawson to set the tone for the evening. With a trademark mix of gravitas and mirth he announced the evening’s nominees ... “All of whom have killed more people than Tom Tugendhat” (the former ‘special’ services officer then standing for Tory Leader). The award for ‘Crime Novel of the Year’ went to Mick Herron for ‘Slough House,’ who, we learned from Lawson, had been the Oxford contemporary of that other ‘Slow Horse’, Boris Johnson. Worse still, for us Agathas, was the revelation that it had taken the supremely gifted Herron (in whose prose-style and characterization I see similarities with the late lamented Reg Hill) four or five published novels before he could support himself from his writing. So what chance us Old Nagathas? Joseph Knox took the ‘Highly Commended’ accolade for True Crime Story, with the Lifetime Achievement Award going to Michael Connelly (the genius behind the Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series). My respect for Michael can possibly be gleaned from the dedication I dictated when he was signing my book: “To DT, who had to buy a bigger house to fit all my books in...” The tanned brow creased sceptically up at me. “Well it was either that or move one of the kids out, Michael,” I explained, “And they were still quite young at the time.”

Yesterday I belatedly completed my July accounts, which suggest that it is now Simon Theakston who is in Paradise -on account of my expenditure during those long evenings in the Hospitality Tent, surrounded by the names in my bookshelf. Sandwiched in between these sessions were a spine-tingling array of fascinating talks (with Q and As) from figures from the Pantheon of Crime Writers (including Paula Hawkins, Tess Gerritsen, John Conolly, Kathy Reichs, Val McDermid, Lynda La Plante, Charlie Higson). But what struck me most about this who’s-who of whodunnits was the honesty with which spoke about their lives of crime:

DT: “There is a definite progression in the early Bosch books, where Harry’s professional investigations are paralleled with him uncovering his own past; his murdered mother, the father he only met once, his brother, etc. Was this arc, spanning several novels, planned beforehand?”

Michael Connelly: “No. With my first book the aim was just to get it published. I put everything I had in it.”

And later:

DT: “’Bones’ had huge cross-generational appeal. At least in my house. In Temperance we had a lovable sociopath in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Through the seasons she slowly becomes more aware of the feelings of those around her, but part of us yearned for the old ‘bull-in-an-emotional-China-shop.’ Where did that all come from?

Kathy Reichs: “That came from Emily.” (Deschanel)

Saturday’s Late Night Quiz was in honour of Thalia Proctor, a much-loved member of the Crime Writing community. Quizmasters Val McDermid and Mark Billingham had us doubled-up in laughter, even the dedicated anoraks straining to ransack NASA-grade crime-crammed memory banks. The winning ‘Pro’ team included Michael Connelly and Mick Herron, although appropriately there was some controversy over possible rule-breaking. The winning ‘Amateurs,’ even more appropriately, went to a team from the Harrogate Festival itself, the young men and women whose hard work and good humour had made the event so utterly unforgettable.

And most miraculously of all, for four whole days and nights, among seventeen thousand criminal minds, crammed into a tiny booze-fuelled corner of North Yorkshire…no-one was murdered!

Copyright David Thomas 2021


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