Saturday, 25 July 2009

Harrogate, Hugs and Monkey Pleasure

I arrived in Harrogate yesterday to attend one day of the crime fiction festival, to see old friends, meet up with new ones (hi Alison, hi Michael - nice to meet you both!) and get my supply of hugs to keep me stocked up for the next few months. The monkey pleasure is an irrelevance relating to a discussion over dinner in Wagamamas (yes, we did have a most salubrious conversation) but I thought it might amuse John Rickards, as such things seem to do. I also signed a contract (without reading it - was I so wrong to trust Allan Guthrie? Al - I'm sure that the words 'soul' and 'devil' that I spotted at the top of the page before you whipped it away were of no relevance were they?)

I also spoke to Johnny Depp's brother, marvelled at Laura Lippman's ability to do press ups whilst reciting the titles of Marx Brothers' films, admired David Simon's yummy shoes, thrilled at Steve Mosby and Kevin Wignall wearing matching flowered shirts, and decided that since my surrogate son Chris Ewan is the only crime fiction writer on the Isle of Man, I am claiming the Isle as part of Scotland and including Chris in my list of links and news items as it doesn't look as though anyone will be starting a blog for Isle of Man crime fiction any time soon. You see, son, there is a benefit to having me as your mother after all. Grandma and Granddad send their love by the way. Your Grandma has knitted you some long underwear now that you are officially part of Scotland. You only need to get drunk on Buckfast once a year to qualify.

Anyway, on arriving in Harrogate I
hopped into a taxi to my cheap hotel. I’d been worried on the train on the way down that my hotel was so cheap it must be a brothel. My worries were not assuaged by the taxi driver who, when I told him which hotel I was going to, said “Oh dear, you can’t win them all.” But it was fine. And the room service sandwiches at 2.30am this morning were the most delicious sandwiches I have ever had.

Anyway, yesterday I went to one panel, and the cabaret in the evening courtesy of the lovely Lord Kevin Wignall, who gave me his pass. The panel was excellent – Music To Murder By with Martyn Waites, Dreda Say Mitchell, John Harvey and Cathi Unsworth. It was extremely well moderated by Andrew Male from Mojo music magazine.

Each of the panellists had chosen a track that represented them, their taste in music, or was important to them in some way.

Martyn Waites – Isaac Hayes (I’ve forgotten the title- I was so shocked he hadn’t chosen a Nick Cave track that it didn’t register.

Dreda Say Mitchell – Soft Cell – Tainted Love

John Harvey – Billie Holliday – These Foolish Things

Cathi Unsworth – The Damned – New Rose (I immediately decided I was going to buy one of her books after the panel).

For all of them, the music of their youth was important, hearing a certain track would spark off memories and they used this to bring a rhythm to the narrative and to bring an inner life to their characters. John Harvey said that he tries to use what the character gets out of the music to underscore what a character is feeling at the time. Cathi Unsworth related this back to going into a pub in London a few years ago and seeing the lead singer of the 1980s one-hit wonders Splodgenessabounds (you remember their seminal hit ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please, of course? They are, in fact, still going to this day, apparently) She said that there are pubs all over with musicians who had minor hits way back when, surrounded by their ageing roadies, and all of them are still 18 in their heads.

The panellists were asked whether they listened to music while they wrote. Cathi said that she couldn’t write without a good soundtrack. Martyn said that he had only once been able to listen to music while writing and that was the Tom Waits track Ruby’s Arms. He had invented a pub with that name and he listened to the track over and over because of the melancholy in it that he wanted to reflect in the conversation his characters were having in that pub. He said that you can reflect emotion in the music the character is listening to.

John Harvey was asked why he chose Billie Holliday as his particular piece of music. He said that her voice has so much life and story in it. I like the way he said that. He also said that even from the early days jazz was associated with crime – speakeasies, drugs, and Billie Holliday’s own drug abuse and spousal abuse – you know from listening to her voice that there is a crime story there.

Dreda Say Mitchell said that there is a strong parallel between music and crime fiction in that crime writers can tell a good story – you can’t tell a good story unless you understand rhythm. The whole of life is about rhythm.

The panellists talked about whether you can have too many cultural references in a book, or whether they might actually put a reader off, rather than add to the story. Martyn said that you have to make peoples’ other senses work while they are reading a book. It can sometimes be a problem when you don’t know the music. The skill of the writer is to make that connection between the character and the reader even when the reader doesn’t actually know the piece of music, or, in fact, dislikes it. John Harvey said that he used to have that problem with George Pelecanos' books which he loves otherwise. He doesn’t have that problem any more and didn’t know whether this is because he is now used to it or whether there are fewer musical references.

Cathi's next book is called BAD PENNY BLUES. It's set in the 1960s and focuses on a real life serial killer. As part of her research and to get into the mood, she immersed herself in the music of the time and found out what was Number 1 in the charts on the day each of the serial killer’s victims died. She said that the songs became so much more sinister when put into that context – ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’, and, particularly, ‘She’s Not There’. The tracks take on a different dimension and provide a mocking context to the action.

The panellists were asked whether they thought that many fictional detectives seem to need their music, almost as an emotional crutch. Martyn said that this is because it’s what people do, and this is also the same for books – it is a time to rebalance and recover your equilibrium. John said that it also helps with the mood and links between scenes., and Cathi said that it can also spark off an idea – both in the reader’s head and also the detective’s head.

Martyn said that he tries to use music sparingly, and only when it will add something. In his book THE MERCY SEAT the character is listening to that very track (by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) while he is contemplating suicide. Cathi said that Nelson Algren has a book called WALK ON THE WILDSIDE and Nick Cave has a whole album based on that. As Nick Cave is a favourite of mine, I’m going to hunt that book down. Has anyone read it? It looks good, and Nelson Algren's three rules of life made me smile - "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

It was an excellent panel. I’d already read and enjoyed all the panellists’ books other than Cathi, with Martyn Waites being a particular favourite. Cathi Unsworth’s books really appealed to me after seeing her on the panel so I bought her book THE SINGER which is set in the punk era of the late 70s – right up my street.

So, dear reader, what songs would be part of the soundtrack of your life, or which make you think of crime fiction? I would be interested to hear your comments on this. I've already mentioned Tom Waits and Nick Cave but here, for what it’s worth, are a few of my favourite crime fiction related songs or artists:

THE FLAMING STARS (not to be confused with The Flaming Lips). The lead singer, Max Decharne who wrote the non-fiction book HARDBOILED HOLLYWOOD. He's a big fan of crime fiction (as seen by the titles of some of the band's songs - You Don't Always Want What You Get, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Face On The Barroom Floor, A Hell of A Woman, New Shade of Black, Downhill Without Brakes...songs from the bottom of a beer glass.

THE RAMONES - 53rd and 3rd is about a male prostitute who kills his customer with a razor blade (written by Dee Dee Ramone who was, apparently, a male prostitute at one point to feed his heroin addiction). The KKK Took My Baby Away was written by Joey Ramone allegedy after ultra-conservative Johnny Ramone nicked his girlfriend. Blitzkrieg Bop with its line "Shoot 'em in the back now", Beat On The Brat which was written by Joey Ramone after she saw a mother beating her child with a baseball bat, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue...loads of dark and twisted lyrics in their songs.

VIOLENT FEMMES - Country Death Song - about a man who pushes his daugther into a well. "Well, I'm a thinking and thinking, til there's nothing I ain't thunk, Breathing in the stink, till finally I stunk. It was at that time I swear I lost my mind, And started making plans to kill my own kind." brrrrrrrrrr.

THE CRAMPS - with their wonderful brand of psycho noir.

THE HANDSOME FAMILY'S Beautiful William "Was he given a package by a man on the train? We found his car by the roadside later that day...He left his lights burning. He left his perfect lawn, His automatic sprinklers about to switch on."

MARK LANEGAN - Methamphetamine Blues

LOU REED, THE CLASH, THE SISTERS OF MERCY...I shall stop there :o)

UPDATE: Oh, and PS - thank you National Express trains for the faulty toilet door which inconveniently opened while I was mid-wee.


  1. Algren is great. A walk on the wild side, the man with the golden arm and the neon wilderness are well worth a look. ..I've named a few stories after songs(the fall, the birthday party, subway sect and shakin stevens)

  2. Thanks Paul - I shall definitely check out Algren. Fall, Birthday Party, Subway Sect...yep, yep, yep. But...Shakin Stevens????

  3. Quite thought provoking - I generally will have music at least vaguely in the background while reading, but particular artists/songs that go with crime fiction? That's a hard one - in terms of number it's probably something fairly off-beat like Explosions in the Sky - simply because they invariably end up being played while I'm on a plane - and I do a lot of reading there, but that doesn't really make an association with crime.

    Less one to read to, and much more one to listen to, is Bob Dylan's "Joey" - which for me is definitely a desert island disc, simply because in about 6 minutes it sums up every mafia gangster story you've ever come across. Absolutely brilliant.

  4. Donna, check out Townes van Zandt for noir lyrics ... Waiting Round to Die is a movie-in-waiting. Cheers, Dec

  5. The best crime-fiction song ever is from Brazil, "Ocultei," as recorded by the great Elizeth Cardoso. Its last verse, rendered roughly into English for blogging purposes, runs tremulously thus:

    "And my most ardent desire
    – May God pardon me the sin! –
    Is that another woman by your side
    Kill you in the hour of a kiss."

    But you really need to hear her, the way she builds from relaxed nostalgia for lost love to the crushing emotion of that last verse. And you need to see the photo of her on the album cover, her eyes closed as she sings, a bead of sweat (or a tear) dripping down her cheek.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. Ian, Dec, Peter - thank you for the recommendations! I will check all those out.

  7. Totally off topic, but about thirty years ago I did a comic strip based on 'Two Pints of Lager..." which won an award for "Best unpublished cartoon from the Cartoonists Club of Greeat Britain. Thirty years on, I'm still trying to get published... :)

  8. Donna

    I'm chuffed that you're willing to induct me, but maybe we should keep the mother-son thing just between us - wouldn't want to be accused of nepotism. Mind you, I am a little bit Scottish, since my grandad was born and grew up just outside Glasgow, so maybe that helps to give me some legitimacy.

    I handed out copious hugs after you'd gone, though most people gave me a strange look when I was doing it. Is this usual?

  9. Donna, good to meet you too. And to read your thoughts on the weekend. If you have a spare 5 minutes see mine on

  10. Jim - and your cartoons are brilliant - do you still have the Two Pints one?

    Chris - that is plenty good enough a connection. And yes, strange looks when I hug people are usual. Sometimes even accompanied by fast running.

    Michael - great to meet you too - sorry we didn't get to chat for longer (you, on the other hand, are probably relieved). I'm off to check out your blog post right now.

  11. Great post, Donna - and it was lovely to meet you in person, however briefly. Hope to catch you again very soon!

  12. OH, now I can see that if I had just taken the time to read your post properly (and remember it all), I could have won crimeficreader´s book. But I recognized your lovely face, of course.

  13. Alison - likewise - hope our paths cross again soon!

    Dorte - you must be feverish :o)

  14. Donna, When i wrote this story it just HAD to be called This Old House:

  15. What a great story! Cheers Paul

  16. Hi There,
    Thank you for sharing the knowledgeable blog with us I hope that you will post many more blog with us:-
    Buy Corex T Cough Syrup Online At the Best Price On securepharmaceutical. Know The Uses, Price, Side Effects, Composition and Precautions.
    Phone: +1(971) 236 8429
    Click here for more information:- more info