Bloody Scotland review: "Where other festivals might have shrunk, this one grew in ambition"

The organisers of Scotland’s annual crime writing festival refused to let the small matter of a global pandemic get in their way, writes David Robinson, upping the ante with some truly international online events

Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, 10:45 am
Val McDermid
Val McDermid

OK, so it didn’t start with the usual torchlight procession. The annual football match with English crime writers never took place. No festival umbrellas were unfurled by people queuing outside Stirling’s Albert Halls. Inside, no internationally famous crime writers took to the stage. But anyone who thought that this year’s Bloody Scotland had been laid low by the pandemic missed a treat.

Where other festivals might have shrunk, this one grew in ambition. Formats were rethought, panels rejigged. Try this: 26 authors, one after the other, over four hours yesterday. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked with an old-fashioned audience – one that sat down and shut up, didn’t chat electronically to each other or didn’t feel free to take a half-hour break to wash up or walk the dog. But online it just about worked.

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Or how about this? On Saturday, from her Highland home, chair Lin Anderson chatted to Okinyan Braithwaite in Lagos about the serial-killing sibling in her Man Booker shortlisted novel My Sister, the Serial Killer and Attica Locke in LA about US racial tensions (it was 7am and she was fighting back sleeplessness after a magnitude 4.6 earthquake). Also on the panel were JP (Josh) Pomaro in Melbourne, talking about the cult that hooked in Julian Assange’s father, and Shamini Flint in Singapore, explaining how she tries to tackle western tropes about Asian culture with humour. Five Continents of Crime, the programme billed the event, with justified pride.

Inevitably writers were asked how they’d coped with lockdown or whether they’d ever set stories during the pandemic. Most said they wouldn’t, joining Linwood Barclay in thinking no-one could top Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand, although some said the longer it went on the more likely they would be to write about it. Two writers on the bill – Tess Gerritsen and Peter May – already have done, although in Gravity (1999) Gerritsen confined her virus to a space station, while May’s Lockdown, about a world hit by a deadly flu-like pandemic was rejected as being implausible in 2005 before it finally roared into relevance – and print – in March.

Not everything worked. Jeffrey Deaver’s talk about writing sounded too much like a trawl through a dictionary of quotations. The sound failed epically in the Ann Cleeves-Peter May event, and flutteringly in the following event with Steven Cavanagh, Adrian McKinty and a somewhat disengaged Simon Mayo, while for this reviewer at least a power cut blanked out the screen for part of the next event. I’d have made more of all of these things except the rest of the fest – free, remember – more than made up for it: Dame Sue Black just for being herself, Luca Veste and Abir Mukherjee chairing so affably, and Ian Rankin for a superlative interview with veteran US crime writer Lawrence Block among the highlights.

One of Deaver’s quotes that did stick in my brain was Mickey Spillane’s dictum “People don’t read to get to the middle”. Exactly: they read to get to the end. And by the time the people watching got to last night’s event with Lee Child and Val McDermid, they knew for sure that the people plotting the weekend’s festival had indeed put together a bloody good Bloody Scotland.

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