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Reviews / Shetland Noir – wonderful storytelling with a dark undertone

IT WAS strange being in the building I am so familiar with at a local event and literally hardly recognising any of the faces, writes Carol Jamieson.

So many people from far and wide, testament to the success of the marketing and organisation done by Ann Cleeves and Marsali Taylor (partners in crime they call themselves), in tandem with Shetland Arts.

The hum in the building was not like any I had heard before.  It had a serious and cultured overtone; the very sound of the crowd was different from the usual music events I am accustomed to.

Val McDermid

Author Val McDermid: ‘It takes ten years to become an overnight success’. Photo: Dave Donaldson

I was there to see Val McDermid interviewed by Stewart Bain and enjoyed it immensely.  Val was warmly forthcoming with her responses to Stewart’s questions which were delivered with humour and an obvious profound knowledge of her work.

He took her chronologically through her writing career starting at the beginning as a reporter for the Daily Record.  She talked about having to sit in a local glass house in Glasgow as her flat was freezing and her fingers wouldn’t work.  She amusingly pointed out “it takes ten years to become an overnight success”.

As a reporter, she found herself among some of the first on the scene at upsetting and difficult crimes.  She used this knowledge as a springboard for her inspiration into the world of Noir, or ‘Tartan Noir’ as the band of Scottish writers are called.

Val has many literary awards which she was modest about and has sold around 18 million books. She is the most successful crime writer to come out of Scotland.  She is probably best known for the television adaptation of her work Wire in the Blood starring Robson Green.  Her first published book was the start of the Lyndsey Gordon series.  Happily, she pointed out, she admitted to creating the first outed lesbian detective.

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Her working approach is to write about people first and foremost.  She enjoys taking from life and creating believable characters who she feels she knows with an open approach to sexuality.  McDermid talks openly about being exposed to prejudice herself and is a champion for women’s rights.

Bain referenced the humour as a thread running through the books and, of course, being Glaswegian, is comfortable with black humour which works well in subjects with dark issues.

Her latest run of stories has two novels as yet, 1979 and 1989.  We were led to believe there will be more to come.

The interviewer pointed out there always seems to be a dog featured in the books.  She laughingly made the point that she can kill whomever she likes in her world … even children, but if she killed a dog her career would be over!

And what an illustrious career it is with over 54 books written and she will not be stopping any time soon.

Richard Osman

Richard osman – appearing via Zoom after British Airways cancelled his morning flight from London. Photo: Dave Donaldson

I was excited to see Richard Osman live (via Zoom) if not in the flesh.  Such a shame his plane from London was cancelled (not Loganair this time). Osman was interviewed with skill and warmth by Martin Edwards, an established author himself.

Osman, well known behind and in front of the camera, we have all come to know and respect as an intellect and now as an extremely successful writer.  If Edwards felt any nerves at interviewing such a celebrity, they were soon dispelled as Osman’s warmth, wit and affability came through from the start.

He pointed out interestingly that although crime writing has been looked down on in the past, we all will surely agree that our conception of the 1920’s largely comes from the books of Agatha Christie. When asked which writers inspired him at the start, he was genuine in his love of Enid Blyton and The Famous Five when he was a child.

Oddly enough, he has found that very format of two men, two women and a dog working very well for him in his The Thursday Murder Club books.  They have shot off the shelves selling over a million so far.  He has sold over three million fiction books to date which is astonishing considering he only started writing in earnest in 2020.

When probed about what makes him tick as a writer, he talked of being interested in human beings first and foremost and the Thursday Club is an example.  Set in quintessential England in a sleepy retirement village, these four characters are deep and colourful and typically, eccentrically, English.

He talked about, as a watcher/reader, our love of ‘gangs’ like The A Team and Famous Five.  There was always one gang member who would know what to do in a particular situation to get everyone out of trouble.

When asked if he knew his books were good, the answer was no.  He did comment that all writers feel that way.  If one sentence on the page is good, you can congratulate yourself on that but on the whole, you tend to think it’s rubbish.

He explained how he removes his ego from the process completely.  The characters take on a life of their own even to the point that you thought you knew who murdered who and what happens in the end, but the plot can take a sideways path and you change outcomes with a process of reverse engineering.

Osman’s warmth and humour was delightful, no celeb ego, just relaxed, wonderful storytelling.

In a way, the event itself was the real star as the crowd is testament to.  Many travelling very far, at great expense, to this relatively inaccessible rock to be here to enjoy a well organised and prestigious event.

As one visitor said: “I’ve been to lots of crime festivals big and small and have never enjoyed it as much as the Shetland one. Everything was so wonderfully thought through.  The programme, the speakers, the organisation, the format all so well put together.”

I asked my friend Marsali Taylor, who co-organised the event with Ann Cleeves, how she felt it went. She couldn’t have been more delighted.

“Absolutely fantastic, everyone enjoyed themselves. The visitors were waxing lyrical, not just about the event, but on how helpful the Mareel staff were and the Mareel staff were so delighted with the behaviour of the visitors.”

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