I’ve been reflecting on book festivals. My experience during the last couple of years has had highs and lows. A high of festivals being conducted online meant that I discovered my teenage son quite enjoyed some of the events and would concentrate on listening/watching them with me in the living room. A surprise as he is a child whose reading habits are an enigma to me. He doesn’t read much at home anymore, but often talks about what he is reading in English at school. Another high was hearing from authors who may otherwise not have been able to attend festivals in the flesh and thus widening the pool of interesting stories and books to read. Low points for me were definitely a sense of missing my bookish community in the flesh, seeing fewer physical books, and less travel. These points were all huge deal for me as a sociable person who loves to travel, meet new people and explore new places. I found myself booking tickets for online book events and then not bothering to attend them. Why was I doing that? Slowly however things are returning back to some kind of normal. I was determined to go to my local festival, Bloody Scotland in 2022 and I shall be going to Newcastle Noir in a couple of weeks too.
The Death as the Day Job panel kicked off my Bloody Scotland this year. Sounds suitably dark enough for me, right? The panel was hosted by Douglas Skelton and featured Mary Paulson Ellis , AK Turner and Doug Johnston. Threading these three authors together were the topics of death, funerals and autopsy and within the first few minutes of the panel starting they had agreed grief was another topic they all wrote about.
The panel started with a short ‘Crime in the Spotlight’ reading by Graham Bartlett beamed in from Sussex. His Book Bad for Good centres around the ideas of police cuts and vigilantism. Once the main panel got started I learned of AK Turner’s goth girl mortuary technician Cassie Raven (Life Sentence) who sounds intriguing. Cassie is interested in the body as a map to be explored or a puzzle to be solved. Mary Paulson Ellis (Emily Noble’s Disgrace) explained to us the role of a cleaner – someone who takes care of people who die with no next of kin. They help the deceased on their final journey taking on the role that a family member might usually have. Her most recent book is set in Portobello and features a body found in a hoarder’s house 2 years after death. The house holds secrets and is interwoven with the tale of the cleaner. Doug’s latest book Black Hearts is the 4th in a darkly comedic series about the Skelfs, a family who run a funeral home and private investigation business.
The authors had all done extensive research and much of the discussion centred around their experiences in the field. We heard about how we live in a society in which we are quite far removed from death and its processes compared to the 19th century when death was very much part of life. Families would host the body of a loved one in the house and viewing the body was normal practice. Mary told us about cleaners in Japan where it is a growing role due to a wave of single men who have become estranged from their families and who are now all reaching their old age and passing away with no one to deal with their final journey. There were a few things all the authors agreed on; you will be well cared for after death, it is healthy to deal with and think about death and they all felt it is important that death is debunked. All of the authors also agreed that suicide is one of the last taboo topics surrounding death. This panel dealt with a serious and emotive topic but the audience enjoyed it and there were laughs along the way.
Whilst perusing the Bloody Scotland brochure I pondered the appearances of Nordic crime writers at book festivals in general this year. Is it fair to say that that the initial wave of of Nordic book love has been absorbed into festival programming now with perhaps fewer authors appearing than in previous years when the trend was peaking and we had an array of events to attend? Or are there just fewer Nordic authors able to travel to events at the moment? Personally my own fandom of this genre has not wavered. I’m still hungry to read and hear from new (to me) and established authors from the Nordic countries, watch new Nordic television shows and experience Nordic films. This year at Bloody Scotland we had options to see Alex Dahl from Norway (After She’d Gone) and Iceland’s Oskar Gudmunsson (The Commandments). Also from Sweden was David Lagerkrantz (Dark Music) and Lilja Sigurdardottir from Iceland (Red as Blood). Of course we are all still getting used to these post covid times and I and others felt that there was still some sense of lingering strangeness about the place but with full hopes that our book events return to how they felt pre covid. It will be interesting to compare my Bloody Scotland experience to my Newcastle Noir experience in a couple of weeks. I shall be joined by the teenage son in Newcastle who is volunteering at the event. Every cloud has a silver lining after all!
(…with thanks to T. Pistilli for sharing her photos)