Who says that crime doesn't pay?
Sunday April 16, 2006
Forget Dan Brown. Sure, he's known the world over and The Da Vinci Code probably sells even more copies a day than Harry Potter. But hear the gasps when a 300-strong audience of crime readers and writers hear Russian author Boris Akunin, little known to most of them, mention in passing that the first print run of his books in Russia is usually half-a-million copies. Actually, the writers in the audience, most of them mid list, don't so much gasp as groan.
Akunin is the European guest of honour at a very American event that is taking place for the first time in the UK. In America, crime fiction is even more popular than it is here and there are a number of annual conventions to celebrate the genre. Left Coast Crime has taken place each year since 1991 in a different city along America's western seaboard. One year, the organisers stretched a point and held it in Anchorage, Alaska. (In February, some authors will do anything to shift a few books.) This year, the redoubtable Adrian Muller, a fixture on the crime scene in Britain for some years, went the whole hog and brought it to Bristol.
Around 500 people from the US and Britain signed up for the convention, including 150 or so writers and publishing people. There are some 15 panels a day for four days. The broad church of mystery fiction is represented here, from cosies to cop series, thrillers to historicals.
One of the great things is that a lot of writers are being entertainingly cast against type. So, for instance, kick-ass thriller writer Gail Lynds, Barry Eisler, former CIA covert operative and the creator of assassin John Rain, and Brit Zoe Sharp spend an hour trapped in the plot of a cosy crime novel, trying to figure out whether it was the housekeeper or the floozie, Belle le Blanche, who, in 1924, murdered a wealthy businessman in the locked study of a creepy old house. Frankly, they haven't a clue, but it makes for good entertainment.
There are thriller writers aplenty here because they have founded their own organisation—the International Thriller Writers Association—and are sponsoring some events. The ITWA co-chair is David Morrell, a writer I've always felt has got a bum deal. An unassuming-looking academic, he wrote a fine novel called First Blood which made a pretty decent movie, but then Sylvester Stallone turned Rambo into a franchise. Morrell next moved into writing thrillers about the Knights Templar, but presumably hadn't read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail so didn't get the Dan Brown formula for turning dross into gold.
Outside of the events, there is much schmoozing. Two of the main crime publishing houses—Orion and Viking Penguin—are here in force. The crime sorority/fraternity (the gender split is about equal) is famously friendly and convivial; the saying goes that for blood on the carpets, you go to the romantic novelists.
There is a lot of movie talk. Lee Child, creator of the multi-million-selling Jack Reacher series, mentions at his event that Tom Cruise has bought the rights to the Reacher series, which brings more groans.
Child also mentions that he usually likes to come over to Britain from one of his homes—he has houses in St Tropez and America—when the Granada TV annual report comes out. He began writing when Granada abruptly made him redundant in the early Nineties and now he likes to check that he's making much more money than anyone in the company.
With Akunin, whose humour goes down well with the audience, the other guests of honour are American Jeffery Deaver and a writer of Victorian mysteries, Anne Perry.
Deaver has, perhaps, an appropriate appearance for a man who writes grisly serial killer novels. He dresses in black and he's cadaverous and pale. He looks pretty sinister but is witty and charming. His speech at the dinner took the form of a rhyme about the death of reading. He got a big laugh with:
"No, I feel that reading's demise must be
Like George Bush's proof of WMDs
Or James Frey's memoirs on Oprah of late.
One word comes to mind—and it's "overinflate".'
Perry, in an after-dinner speech, expressed pleasurable surprise at being made UK guest of honour. And it's true that she is often overlooked in Britain, though she is a huge bestseller in the US. Here, her writing seems to be overshadowed by her past. As a teenage girl, she was involved in a murder in New Zealand that many years later formed the basis for the Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures.
However, she does write exceptionally popular Victorian mysteries. She sometimes produces three novels a year, with around 50 in print now and sales of more than 10 million copies around the world.
Akunin, however, seems to be the current benchmark for book production. The writers in his audience resort to wailing and gnashing of teeth when he drops into the public conversation that it takes him only six weeks to write his well-constructed mysteries. A couple of years ago, he went on a three-month world cruise and finished three novels. Now that's prolific.
Peter Guttridge's Cast Adrift (Allison & Busby) won the Lefty at Left Coast Crime for best humorous novel of 2005.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006