Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Crime Night at the Festival

On Sunday, in the run-up to Halloween a large crowd filled the main sanctuary of Knox Presbyterian Church, a gloomy (weather-wise) evening that fit the theme: Crime Night. Indeed, the event’s host, CBC’s Sandra Abma, made reference to the impending “Frankenstorm” that is scheduled to batter the region, making for evenings well suited for curling up with a spine-tingling mystery. Three internationally renowned authors shared the stage and spoke to a rapt audience: Mark Billingham, Maureen Jennings and Peter Robinson.


Billingham, best known for his Detective Inspector Tom Thorne books, jokingly explained that he felt it necessary to tap into cultural zeitgeists and give the world “more of it” before energetically launching into a reading of his “latest” Thorne novel, 50 Shades of Thorne. Donning a yellow carnival mask, he read from this spoof, naturally filled with “chiseled jaws,” “cold grey eyes,” and a submissive protagonist who found that “her blood was on fire as were her lady bits.” The whole bit was met with great laughs from the audience and the laughs continued as he then discussed how according to a UK woman’s magazine survey “reading crime fiction is better than sex,” a finding that he questioned before promising that his novels would, in the very least, definitely last longer. He also shared amusing anecdotes about receiving feedback from readers.


Rather than read from his real latest Thorne novel, The Demands , Billingham chose to share an excerpt from a standalone thriller Rush of Blood , the premise of which centres on a vacation that sours. The chilling selection focused on the inner ruminations of an abductor who muses on the idea of “triggers,” something oft debated by psychologists trying to piece together motivation for a crime, in this case something as benign as a smile, “wet-lipped, wide, and a little crooked.”


The next author, Jennings, was slightly more staid in her delivery, though drily referred back to the idea of “triggers,” commenting that someone knocking at her hotel door at 3:45 AM that morning could have been a justifiable trigger for “total homicide.” Jennings is well known for her Detective Murdoch books, which have inspired the television series Murdoch Mysteries , as well as the Christine Morris series. Her new novel, however, Beware This Boy , centres on saboteurs in a munitions factory in Birmingham, England, during the Second World War. Before sharing a selection from her new work, she first gave insight into the novel’s title, sharing with the audience a quote from A Christmas Carol, in which the “boy” in question represents ignorance.


She noted that “one of the delights of crime fiction – any fiction – is that it lets you slip in your issues,” in this instance allowing her to wrestle with the idea of closed-mindedness.  The selection that she chose to read focused on female munitions workers being delayed by an uncharacteristically locked change room, and in the dialogue Jennings was able to distinguish with her tone the different characters, giving the audience insight into these women’s personalities and a feel for the easy banter among the workers, before ending with a cliff hanger.


The last author to read was Robinson, whose new bestseller Watching the Dark continues his well-received Inspector Banks series. In this latest installment Banks finds himself working with Inspector Joanna Passero from Professional Standards. Robinson noted that the introduction of this new character gave him insight into aspects of Banks’ character that he hadn’t known before, like an inclination for practical jokes. Indeed, the selection that Robinson read, most of which takes place in a mortuary in the basement of a Victorian infirmary, has the classic give-and-take of a veteran running a newbie through their paces. In this case, though, Joanna, a cool Nordic blonde that “Albert Hitchcock would’ve loved,” doesn’t quail from anything Banks throws at her, later revealing that while it may have been her first post-mortem, she grew up watching her mother perform open-heart surgery. The scene was peppered with subtle humour and Robinson was able to amplify this in his delivery, especially when revealing the cause of death “barring any strange reports from toxicology, he died of a crossbow to the heart.”


During the Q&A session, the authors chatted with each other while also answering questions from Abma and the audience, ranging from the role of research, writing for recurring versus original characters, and the writing process itself. Robinson admitted that while he tries to keep distance some of the research he conducts can cause some sleepless nights, notably when he once was reading nurses’ journals from the Second World War. Jennings similarly noted that it is hard not to be affected by the research, an aspect of writing she does enjoy, but suggested that writing in and of itself is “a great way to get revenge” and help purge one of the emotions that can bubble up during the research process. Billingham commented that since he wanted to avoid complaints from readers (such as those that he shared with the audience earlier in the evening), he conducts quite a bit of research but commented that there’s “a difference between truth and fact,” a remark that resonated with Jennings. While Billingham and Robinson both discussed the usefulness of the internet, with the latter admitting the downside of it being a complete time suck, Jennings revealed that she still conducts much of her research using books – books that seem to “copulate in the night” and take over her office.


As all three authors have written series following a recurring character, they fielded questions about the difference about writing for an established character compared to that of writing for new characters in standalone novels. Robinson, whose character Banks is also aging throughout the series, commented to laughs that as a writer he can change the rate of aging, so that when Banks hits 59, if the inspector still has a case a month, he will be able to get 12 more novels out of the character before thoughts of retirement. Generally though he tries to ensure that Banks follows a sort of natural progression, and as the character ages, Robinson noted that the “closer I get to death, the more I think about it, the more Banks thinks about it,” and quipping that “now he’s becoming like one of these Swedish detectives.”


Billingham noted that there are two approaches a writer can take; one can either start out with a large dossier of character traits or grow along with them, as he is more inclined to do (and which, he admitted, can occasionally get one into trouble in terms of trying to remember things, like “how old is he again?”). When writing standalone texts, he said that while it is “scary” he thought it necessary, sharing that writers he admire also try new things and that there is a general fear of growing stale.


Jennings discussed the interesting perspective of having developed characters in novel form and seeing television “writers and actors claim ownership” over the same characters. She explained that while a strange feeling, it’s a largely positive position to be in, sharing how she felt creatively inspired by the performance of the actors on Murdoch Mysteries.


As many such events are filled with would-be authors, there were questions about each writer’s creative process. Each turned out to be quite different than the other, with Billingham commenting that while he goes in knowing the opening and the end, he “generally has no idea what happens in the middle.” He quashed the airy idea of one’s character “taking over” the writing, exclaiming “who was doing the typing?”


Similarly Jennings admitted the middle is a “marsh land,” but indicated that she makes use of outlining to save time. Robinson dubbed himself “probably even less of an outliner than either Mark or Maureen,” saying that what he really needs is an opening scene, without which he gets stuck. That being said, regardless of outlines or not, all discussed the reality of the writing life, with Billingham commenting that “it’s a great job but it is a job.” Indeed, he noted that the “book is being written in your head all the time,” while Robinson glibly remarked that “even when I’m lying in bed at night I’m working.”