New Roads: Crimefest Writers, and Camilleri’s Sicily

Montalbano 10Ragus 2013 003After three days of an excellent crime fiction convention, what’s the next move? Go to Sicily and the province of Ragusa to visit the setting for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels and home to the TV series, of course.
Um, how did this happen?
After a lifetime of research and a string of non-fiction books, I’m writing a crime novel. Crime fiction has long been my default reading away from professional demands, with “crime and place” set in distinctive locations high in the priorities. I swear I knew my way around Venice before I first went there, by reading Donna Leon and walking with Inspector Brunetti (who these days is a touch tired, almost tiresome). Following the rule that says write what you know, my novel is set in 1920s Madras in India, and is now in heavily edited second draft.
Thinking I needed pressure to produce the thing, I entered the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger competition. That meant producing the first three thousand words plus synopsis, which was all sent off.
Given I would be in the UK anyway, it seemed logical to go to Crimefest 2013 ( ) where the Debut Dagger shortlist would be announced. In late May, then, Sandi and I turned up in Bristol for what, it occurred to me, was my first non-academic, non-professional meeting in a very long time. .
For three days, we enjoyed an exhausting schedule of panels and interviews across all aspects of the genre, meeting writers already prized and discovering new talent.
One great moment was meeting William (Willie) McIlvanney whose three Laidlaw books (I now have a signed copy of the first) sparked the Tartan Noir movement made famous by Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre, Kate Atkinson, Alan Guthrie, Stuart McBride, Lyn Anderson and many others, including the articulate Denise Mina whose joint session with Willie was sparkling. McIlvanney eschews the Tartan Noir tag, thinking it a marketer’s rather than writer’s tag and, rightly, considers his books as social novels that just happen to have a cop and crim storyline. Speaking as wonderfully as he writes, he delivered everything with his self-deprecating, deadpan Scottish humour. ( ).
Three things stood out at this convention.
First, the atmosphere was far more collegial than most academic conferences I ever attended. Bar the very exceptional ego, published writers were more than happy to meet aspiring ones and be extremely encouraging.
Second, there were a lot of writers there, at times outnumbering readers. This was a chance to speak with fellow writers, sharing the industry’s production agonies and pains. One night, Sandi and I found a tiny, out of the way Italian restaurant. We left after a great meal, to spy off in another corner a gaggle of European authors, mainly Scandinavian, come to Bristol, as it were, to talk to each other. Most nights, and even afternoons, a gathering of stars could be seen in and about the bar.
Many “readers” were veterans of the now-regular crime fiction festivals in the UK and the USA, especially, with declaring Crimefest to be the one they enjoy most. So do the writers.
Third, the writers say breaking in and through is tough, but keeping up the pace almost more so, especially as publishing and reading undergoes massive technical and social change. For that reason, most have dark humoured stories about getting a break or publishers wanting them to write something different in order to meet mainstream markets. That was insightful for the many aspiring writers in the audience.
The friendly atmosphere made it easy to speak with writers. I mentioned to Jeff Siger that I liked his Chief of Police Kaldis series set in Mykonos. ( ). Jeff was open and friendly, kindly introducing us to several people throughout the conference, including all those who run the Murder Is Everywhere blog. ( ). It was not so much meeting a writer as making a new friend.
William (Bill) Ryan I had already met at the London launch of his new Korolev novel set in Stalinist Russia. For anyone writing historical fiction set in the twentieth century, he is an excellent role model: solid research, good feel for the period, strong characters, believable plots, and good pace. ( ). That launch, incidentally, was at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, a rich source for signed editions of crime books. ( . The bookshop is owned by David Headley, of whom more later.
Then there was Stav Sherez. ( . A Dark Redemption, set in London, is excellent, and the recently appeared Eleven Days looks as good. A brilliant moderator for an early panel, he was very approachable and we had a few good discussions over the days. He is definitely worth a “Follow” on Twitter. His hairstyle is distinctive, and a recent tweet reported a woman in a bank telling him he appeared to be from outer space. His only response was “have you ever been to Alpha Centauri?”
The Michael Stanley partnership was instructive. ( ). South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip both had academic careers before writing the Inspector Kudu books based in Botswana. They talked about how they made the transition, and again were open in introducing us to other people, like Annamaria Alfieri who, in her early seventies, is making a new career as a writer. She was very encouraging to aspirant writers.
The blockbuster writers present were Jeffrey Deaver and Robert Goddard, with the interview featuring the latter another convention highlight. It was fascinating to hear Goddard say that the late Michael Dibdin, creator of the Aurelio Zen series, had a strong influence on him. Dibdin remains one of my favourites. ( ).
By sheer chance I sat next to Ruth Downie for the entertaining special session on the making of the TV series, Sherlock. We discussed e-books and industry changes, and that had me downloading to Kindle the first in her Medicus series set in Roman Britain, something I would not have done otherwise. Am I glad I did. It is brilliant. A contemporary-style dialogue applied to back then carries the story and plot in compelling fashion. ( ). Unexpectedly, Ruth says her style guide is Elmore Leonard, so now I must re-read him, rather than simply watching Justified which is based on a couple of his stories.
At the other end of the scale, with me, were people like new friend Rob Darke. After a career in customs and excise and computer systems and several other things he retired, bought a Harley trike, and begun writing full time. ). We shared tales about the struggle for the breakthrough.
The biggest learning curve came in spending ten minutes each with three of the top crime fiction agents: Camilla Bolton, Broo Doherty and David Headley. For a modest fee, they read the opening three thousand words written by each of us who signed up for the session. Waiting outside was daunting, a reminder of interviews past, but the trio were terrific, having read the work and made notes, providing constructive criticism that showed why they are the best. And they were encouraging, even while emphasising high standards and a tough way ahead.
One, at least, of them wants to hear back so I have already rewritten the first four chapters to purge unnecessary characters, tighten the dialogue, heighten the storyline and increase the atmosphere.
As usual, it all made sense when they explained their reactions, the only question being why had I not seen it all earlier? It was no surprise, then, when later that day I did not make the Debut Dagger shortlist. Among those who did, many had published in other fields, been shortlisted before, or written a lot of fiction. There was a touch of disappointment, inevitably, but well offset by the agents’ positive comments from the morning, so going off to Sicily to write seemed a good idea.
But, in all truth, this was no Hemingway/Jack London/Jack Kerouac instant odyssey. The trip was planned in advance and followed an earlier visit, stimulated by Andrea Camilleri’s wonderful novels. After the agent session, it seemed an even more perfect thing to do.
So Bristol cool morphed into the early summer heat of Pozzallo beaches, Agrigento ruins, Modica hill country and various Montalbano sites: the TV house at Ponta Lucca (it’s green, was it not cream in the series?), the seaside walk at Donnalucata, the brickworks at Sampieri, and all the rest. Watching Pozzallo close for three hours every afternoon, then opening in time for the evening promenade was straight out of the novels. The promenade itself requires sipping local wine on the steps of Sapori Doc, a magnificent wine bar, while watching a string of Camilleri characters pass by.
Camilleri’s earlier Montalbano novels, especially, provide a master class in character creation, plot development, cultural contexting, and landscape description. It is usually hot, lunch is long and leisurely, food is a preoccupation along with wine, gossip is rife, there is much noise, the Mafioso provides a permanent backdrop, and people are larger than life. He captures the atmospherics.
So much so that he has created a tourism industry. ( ). Thousands of Italian and international tourists now come to see the Inspector’s territory, and the bookshop owner in Ragusa Ibla tells me Montalbano is now a big part of her sales. Among those is Giovanni Sarto’s Italian/English Montalbano: I Luoghi della Fiction ( ) and the little tourist guide, A Spasso Con Montalbano. Just up the road at La Rusticana Restaurant (where the TV series crew eats regularly and where some scenes have been set) the story is similar: most customers come because of Montalbano, including the German couple with their small dogs whom we saw a couple of days earlier at Villa Romana further across the island.
Now any writer would like that impact.
Can I do the same for Madras, now called Chennai? Probably not, but Bristol and a return trip to Camilleri country have reinforced to desire to try. Stay tuned.

8 Responses to “New Roads: Crimefest Writers, and Camilleri’s Sicily”
  1. David crawford says:

    Hi Brian,

    Great stuff! I feel I have a book in me from time to time, but that’s as far as it gets, I’m afraid.

    i am just back from a week in N France with a friend of my late mother who is learning french, and doing so very well too I might add.

    Denise’s grandfather died in September 1917, but has no known grave as he was blown up with others at the battle of Pilkem Ridge.. Hisname is on the wall of soldiers with no known grave, indeed no known body, at Tyne Cot cemetery which we visited. His son was three when he died.

    His son was Denise’ s father. In his turn he was killed in Normandy when she was just three, too. So she never really knew her father, who in his turn did not knowingly know his own. Both are commemorated here in Llandudno on the cenotaph.

    When growing up I, like you no doubt, heard Passendaele and The Somme spoken of as synonymous with hell on earth. And yet the former is a lovely little well kept village and the latter a tranquil stream which becomes a river. It passes a few hundred yards from the house of friends of mine in the Oise department in Picardy. Incidentally there are still many ‘roses’ there in the form of poppies as used to be the case here in England when I was young and selective ‘weed’ killers had not been invented.

    We also passed through Amiens (Robespierre, The Treaty of Amiens and where Birdsong was set, at least partially), on our way to Crecy and after Agincourt. Only Poitiers left to do now of the 100 years’ war principal battlefields. The staggering numbers who died in WW1 is just well, just that, staggering. I would like now to sell up and buy a canal boat so that i could go up and down the canals of Europe and just move on when the mood takes me, or the weather. Many people who buy complain that they have explored the whole of their region and would like to move on.

    I could also write that book.. I have a friend, David Armstrong, who writes crime fiction based on the canal system here in U K. Got to be plenty of food for thought and word in the canal and river systems of Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany with all that history and geography, la

    Looking forward to meeting you 2 July. How did Laura get on? JJ and Azzi both have 2:1’s. Very pleased.

    Stock market, and every other market for that matter, in the doldrums. Never mind. Could be a beaten British and Irish Lion..

    All the best.

    David. Le 18 Jun 2013 16:36, Brian Stoddart a crit :

    > >

  2. robdarke says:

    Hi Brian, Thanks for the mention in your blog. One of the things I took away from CrimeFest was that all these well-known writers appear to be just ordinary everyday folk when you meet them and if they can ‘make it’ into print and build a strong readership so can the rest of us. All we’ve got to do is keep at it and respond to feedback – easy!

  3. David crawford says:

    Hi Brian,

    Most crime fiction which I have read, which is in fact very little, concentrates on the detective trying to identify, or track down, or both, the culprit.

    I would have liked to read one where it is the culprit trying to anticipate the moves of the detective and keep one step ahead. The culprit then becomes the ‘hero and the detective the villain.

    I guess that to extrapolate from that one would need an honourable crime such as Bradley Manning or Assange.Is, or rather are, The 39 Steps such a story.

    I also like novels wrapped up in a factual background. Robert Harris does that so well and the background therefore already exists. Imperium was very good and touched on the problems of ruling Sicilly. ardinia, Corsica and Anglesea are similarly ungovernable. Is it their geographical distance from the seat of power, the mentality of an Island race or just their refusing to accept the dominion of a new ruler.

    There’s quite a lot to be said for the feudal system..

    See you on 2 July.


    David. Le 18 Jun 2013 16:36, Brian Stoddart a crit :

    > >

  4. Max Walsh says:

    Such boundless energy Brian.
    What a wonderful interlude – to attend a Crimefest and rub shoulders and minds with the best of the best. You have inspired me to take a crack at some short stories about Manila. Too daunting to contemplate a “big long novel”; well – not yet anyway.
    So pleased to know you have such an interesting project on the go. The Oz v England Test series should not distract you too much.
    Good luck and may your imagination run wild. I will go back to the one Dibdin novel that I had missed previously.

    • Thanks a lot Max and, yes, expat tales from Manila has to be a winner, just storytelling in a different way from the one we are used to. Several former and current academics at Crimefest. The cricket could be interesting with a genuine boofhead back as coach – Warnie and Marshy will come out of retirement!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: