Bodies in the Bookshop – the review

17 July 2012

Henry Kissinger and Patrick Stewart are on the walls in low-key monochrome. This place has seen speakers from the heavyweight to the celebrated. Churchill, Attlee, Nehru and Roosvelt have all spoken under the oak beams, not to mention Clint Eastwood and Tony Robinson.

 And now me – not that this was any kind of a ‘This house believes…‘ kind of event. Far from it, in spite of the promise by one speaker that he would wrestle his interlocutor in mud to provide a little extra frisson of excitement, Bodies in the Bookshop offers no spectacular clashes. Under these high ceilings is a wonderful place to have a mini-crime fiction festival and for the first time this annual get-together has moved from Heffers Bookshop a few minutes away into the Cambridge Union.
I was more than pleased to get a call to take part, not least for the opportunity for Barry Forshaw and myself to quiz each other on the niceties of Nordic crime fiction. This is Barry’s particular field of expertise, although every time I speak to him I discover some other facet to the man’s vast fund of knowledge. Is there a book he hasn’t read or a film he hasn’t seen? I’m not sure there is, but he probably hasn’t slept since 2003.
Arriving in the afternoon, I missed out on the opening speakers, but caught Roger Morris, Edward Wilson and Adrian Magson on their brands of international intrigue, as well as how to deal with cold callers (‘Are you a member of a union? Why not?’) when you’re working, and some thoughts on plotting and synopses. Most relieved that I’m not the only one who doesn’t work rigidly to a pre-planned, detailed plot outline.
Jim Kelly, Elly Griffiths and Alison Bruce were adamant that while you can slaughter as many people between the pages as you like, cats and dogs are best kept off limits, although Alison did admit that she had bumped off a bowlful of fictional goldfish.
Len (LC) Tyler and Suzette Hill took on the subject of the comic element in crime fiction, commenting that it’s not so much the crime that has the comic potential, it’s the aftermath. A few words on their influences, and as Suzette said, everyone has a few writers who entered them, normally in their teens, and stay there. That struck a chord and I know just who mine are.
Then they failed to lower the tone of the discussion by moving on to sex in crime fiction, just before it was time for the closing act, that last rousing finale before the wine, so overrunning wasn’t going to be an option.
It had already been mentioned that we sound like a new investigative duo: Forshaw and Bates. Fortunately Mr Forshaw has done a bit more of this stuff than I have and bowled some fine questions with no stings in any tails, more about Iceland than the books themselves. Is Iceland different to the rest of the Nordic region? Absolutely. It has a brash, fiercely independent frontier mentality that comes of being on the edge of the habitable world, a volcanic island surrounded by fish that has its cultural leanings more to America than the other Nordic countries do. Iceland isn’t shy and reserved in any way. It’s loud and doesn’t do anything by halves – and these days it’s suddenly swarming with crimewriters. Until recently, crime was seen as something that wasn’t quite respectable in Iceland. Foreign writers wrote crime, and the few locals who did were patted condescendingly on the head. But the success of Arnaldur Indridason and the mighty Yrsa Sigurdardóttir changed all that and the place is awash with up-and-coming crimewriters, some of them producing some real eye-opening stuff. Some have made it into translation, but not into English, as German and French publishers seem to be far less nervous of translated work than their British counterparts.
Then my turn to quiz Mr Crime. This was smoother and Barry needs only a nudge of a question to speak at erudite length. He’s seen everything and read everything – and he manages s to remember it all. How’s that done? I had trouble remembering the plot of the book I finished writing this time last year when he asked me about it.
Barry Forshaw’s book ‘Death in a Cold Climate’ is a remarkable piece of work and brings together all kinds of strands that make it the single reference for this branch of crime fiction. It’s an excellent read. I should know, as he was gracious enough to mention me in it.
We raised a laugh or two. There were intelligent questions. There were as many people sitting there at the finish as there were at the start, and some of them came up with more interesting questions and comments over the wine and nibbles afterwards.
An excellent day. The low point? Having to drive home afterwards, so orange juice instead of a glass of wine to wind down with.
The best bits? Mingling with these crimewriting types again – although we write about slaughtering people under some of the grimmest circumstances, crimewriters tend to be a thoroughly happy, down-to-earth crowd and I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t have a respectable sense of humour.
The laugh out loud moment? Len Tyler asking: ‘Suzette, what’s your favoured position on sex?’

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