What comes to mind when you think about Harrogate? Bettys Tea Room, genteel shops and the Turkish baths? Oh yeah, and there’s that thing about Agatha Christie... Shortly after discovering her husband’s adultery in December 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire. Following a major manhunt, during which the police were aided by notable crime writers including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she was discovered after 11 days in a spa hotel in Harrogate. Fittingly, The Old Swan Hotel now hosts one of the country’s most popular crime writing festivals. Taking place between 21–24 July, it’s a highlight of the summer festival season.
‘The existing Harrogate Festival had been around for quite a while,’ Val explains, ‘but in 2003 they were looking for a literary dimension to sit alongside the music and dance. It was suggested that a crime writing festival might be a good idea, so they approached a few of us to try and get the thing off the ground. That first year was difficult because we didn’t have sponsorship in place or support from publishers, so I had to go round twisting people’s arms up their back. “Harrogate? That’s a long way north isn’t it?” they said. But we put together a pretty amazing programme and the second year was a whole lot easier because everyone enjoyed the first. By the third we were beating people off with a stick.’
It’s no exaggeration. The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival hasn’t been around as long as some of the other strands of the Harrogate International Festivals, but what it lacks in longevity it more than makes up for in quality. Anybody who’s anybody has appeared on the bill... Lee Childs? Check. Ann Cleeves? Check. JK Rowling? Check. Like the stench of a rotting corpse pervading the lungs of a police sniffer dog, these writers can’t get enough. Year after year writers return to showcase their latest works and catch up with old friends.
‘It’s a festival where everybody comes together,’ Val muses. ‘A lot of festivals shut the authors away in a green room and there’s no mingling with the public, but at Harrogate everybody hangs out together. Writers, readers or publishers, we’re all standing out on a lawn with a pint in our hands. People feel the love because readers can get up close and personal, and it’s really nice for authors to be told how much their work means to people – that’s what keeps us going on those dark and gloomy days when we’re trying to hammer out another paragraph.’
But while it’s the big names that you’ll find plastered across the advertising posters (Peter James in conversation with Martina Cole – erm, yes please!), this is only a very small part of what the festival hopes to achieve. ‘We’ve always had a principle of balance throughout the programme,’ Val brags, and rightly so. As well as regularly changing the Programming Chair (‘so the festival doesn’t just become a mirror of their taste and their friendships,’ Val explains), they welcome international authors, writers in translation and have a panel dedicated to showcasing new crime fiction; aptly named New Blood.
‘It’s the best job in crime fiction,’ Val boasts. ‘I get to read a whole slew of debut novels, between 50 and 70 books every year, and find new voices that excite me. That’s a real privilege. I’m exposed to a whole raft of new writing and it’s interesting to see the directions people are taking the genre.’
The four chosen writers are invited to join Val on stage at the festival to talk about their work, surround themselves with the best literary figures, publishers and agents in the biz and (with a bit of luck) meet their future readers. It’s an unbelievable opportunity. The books on this year’s panel are the latest Scandinavian sensation, Clinch by Martin Holmén; a murder on board a submarine, Tenacity by JS Law; an apocalyptic thriller, The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis; and the Telegraph Harvill Secker crime writing competition winner, A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. Surely there’s something in there to shoot your pistol?
‘As people develop successful careers, they learn about Harrogate and think, “I really want to go there”,’ Val summarises. ‘We’re very lucky, we do have pretty much the pick of the crop, but we want to showcase the best of crime fiction, which isn’t necessarily the bestselling of crime fiction. We choose writers who we think are producing work of real quality that we want to introduce our audience.’
Gone are the days of twisting people’s arms, the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is now the place to be seen if you want to make a name for yourself in the world of all things bloody, depraved and criminal – Agatha would be proud.
So if you’re among the thousands heading to Harrogate this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of these remarkable festivals, make sure to pay a visit to Val and her New Blood writers. It’s got to be worth a stab in the dark.
For more information about the Harrogate International Festivals or to book tickets visit
Read more from our interview with Val McDermid at www.livingnorth.com