Dark and stormy weather cast a dark shadow over a night in Manchester that made walking anywhere a gloomy affair, never mind down all the way down Oxford Road to the Whitworth Art Gallery. However, the trudge was worth it since the evening promised an insightful discussion by Val Mcdermid and Sophie Hannah, two of the UK’s most popular and prolific crime writers. In fact given the topic, the weather was perfect. A newcomer to the Whitworth, I admired its architecture as soon as I got close, but couldn’t help thinking it looked a lot like a lunatic asylum. Possibly this was down to an over-active imagination, but it certainly kicked off the evening in appropriate style. Inside the layout was contemporary and fresh, and an internal exhibition of an imitation dark forest couldn’t have set the tone better. We were definitely in for a treat.
Alongside the two authors was crime aficionado Jude Davis, who kept the discussion flowing in the right direction as well as making sure the audience’s questions were answered at the end. The event promised to cover topics regarding the genre in general, both author’s writing style, inspirations, up and coming ventures and answering the real question: ‘Do women make better crime writers?’
Conversation verged straight into the state of the genre itself, both authors considering how agents or publishers always look for ‘the next big thing’ in crime, further agreeing that Patricia Cornwell was somewhat of a pioneer in terms of uniqueness. Given the current popularisation of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl who…’ trilogy the authors also explained this by stating that people enjoy the quirkiness that European fiction brings to the genre, and the fact that Swedish/Norwegian/Scandinavian crime fiction has been around for decades but has simply not been translated. Personally I have only read a bit of Henning Mankell who is the creator of the Wallander series of books that is only just finding recognition on the international stage. The point being that people are drawn to fiction that is unconventional and is not totally linear in practice, but there is still a big demand for crime fiction.
Further to this both authors went on to describe points in fiction that they find the most important in considering a book to be one to remember. Sophie explained that readers like to learn something whilst indulging in fiction, and she values a really gripping story that has been confidently written. Val concurred, as well as adding the need for investment in a story, caring what the outcome is going to be and having complete engagement with the characters and what happens to them. They briefly discussed balance within crime fiction, since when discussing dark topics such as Sophie Hannah’s subject of cot deaths in her next book, there always needs to be moments of light-heartedness in order to bring the reader back from the brink and changes of pace that allow a reader to breath a sigh of relief after particularly tense moments. Val added that as women they write about people that have a more rounded life, and when engaging with the idea of the victim they don’t want them to come across as cardboard cut outs but place them within a realistic setting that people will believe, and getting the balance in the world they create is a big part of that.
Up and coming ventures steered the next portion of discussion, starting with Sophie explaining that her third book (whose title she didn’t mention but I’m sure die hard fans will be screaming this at the screen) is currently being filmed for TV and will be broadcast in March of next year. She humorously observed the truth about actors, describing them as people that ‘prowl round with desperate insecurity all over their faces’.
She described read-through sessions as being in a ‘room of people paid to pretend what I made up’, with Val adding that they are indeed fascinating but is still likened to watching paint dry. With this she considerately advised that if you are ever in that position you should arrive as close to lunchtime as possible.
Val described her latest book as simply being ‘chock full of lesbians’ and that it worked better that way as there weren’t too many sexual identities getting in the way of a triangle of truth, lies and love, that framed the whole story. She got her inspiration from a recent wedding in Oxford and decided instantly that if she had it her way, ‘the bridegroom had to be dead by bedtime’. Who knew sinister crime writers were also hilarious? Must be something to do with the balance; if you write about dark stuff you end up with a dry sense of humour.
Then came time for the question of the night, do men or women make better crime writers? I did already feel the answer to this was going to be biased, but the reasoning was definitely sound. Val explained that men write much more linear crime that is a superb read, especially for men (softening the blow). However, women, being more convoluted and devious (I can agree with that…) end up writing more convincing crime given that they are brought up being taught that you won’t get anything in life with directness and that they are convinced they are the victims who need to be protected by men. This leads to women writing about fear and violence from the inside, such as being haunted by the steps behind them on a dark night and the feelings that emerge within that sense of fear. Sophie added that Male authors tend to involve major organisations such as FBI or characters being on the run from the mob, that end up making a book impersonal and uninteresting. I can definitely see her point although the inclusion of these in fiction adds a dramatic element to a book that heightens the tension so the sacrifice can be justified in some circumstances.
Val finished the question with an anecdote about a story a librarian once told her. She explained that the librarian once noticed a woman getting out 6 crime novels every week for a long time until dramatically changing her selection to 6 romance novels. The librarian asked why she would change her selection so drastically and the woman replied, ‘because my husband has just died I don’t have to fantasise about killing him now’.
After answering intriguing questions on the limits in crime writing, corresponding with criminals, the pressure for Val to write about lesbians and male or female killers within fiction, both authors thanked the audience and provided them with a book signing at the end of the discussion for fans to meet them. One of the volunteers, Sue Battrick, also got her shirt traditionally signed after getting it signed the year before.
After an intriguing evening and a trip back through the dark forest, I was left content with the inner workings of a crime writer and where to find my inspiration within the genre for my own reading. I was still left with the quandary of how writers who come up with such dark material can come out with so many jokes. They must have been either finding ‘the right balance’ or be sick in the head. I hope it was a little of both.
by Rob Bester
Rob is a freelance writer based in Manchester, currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. He spends his time writing short stories, a crime novel based in Manchester, material for a local student magazine, blogging at freshscribble and taking many trains in between.