I only spent a day at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (half of which was spent trying to overcome the technical problems preventing me from posting to this site - which reminds me, thanks again Stan). The most fascinating panel wasn't the discussion of Agatha Christia, though that was easily the most popular. The queue stretched out the door and halfway across the car park, and it was confined to ticket only. Queue jumping was frowned upon - there were many ladies of a certain age in that line with elbows armed and ready to be used. One minute earlier they're telling you they love your book. Moments later it's a bony dig in the ribs to let you know the love is conditional.
No, the most entertaining panel was entitled Forensics: Murders, Mysteries and Microscopes. Bad title but good panel. It involved writers Mark Billingham and Ann Cleeves reading extracts of their work, to be appraised by three 'world-renowned' forensic experts. Each of these experts had worked on numerous murder cases, as well as advising on various TV shows. It worked well because the experts were extremely entertaining, as well as illuminating. A couple of them showed slides of various real life crime scenes, some of which were pretty gory. At one, a burned body, there was a shudder of revulsion across the hall. A gleam appeared in the expert's eyes. 'Ha,' he seemed to be thinking, 'you lot read about this stuff, and you write about it, but I have to deal with the reality daily.' And he's right. We really shouldn't be so lily-livered.
Another expert pulled a lady from the crowd, as part of his way of illustrating the idea of 'every contact leaves a trace.' 'If I forced you to have oral sex,' he said, 'and then killed you...' He then grabbed the woman by the hair. 'I would have to grab hold here to force you to do it.' A few knitting needles went down at the front. A rather ample gentleman beside me went redder in the face than was necessary. The expert continued: the scrunchie in her hair would retain DNA evidence for years afterwards, he added, long after the contents of the mouth had perished. The lady sat down. Presumably thinking something like that might not have happened at the Agatha Christie panel, or the discussion of 'cosies' earlier on (Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Forced Oral Sex - there you go M.C Beaton - payment to the usual address.)
Billingham and Cleeves read out passages from their books for scrutiny. That was interesting in itself. Billingham, an ex-stand up comic, read his stuff with drama and panache - it sounded superb. Cleeves, an excellent writer, was understandably more stilted in comparison, and her stuff had less impact. I'm not sure that would be the same on the page. I have given one reading of my work and it was an uncomfortable experience. I couldn't find the right voice, my emphasis was all wrong. I suppose it's something you improve at with experience. But those with a thespian bent, like Mark Billingham, will always have an advantage.
Despite his passage sounding terrific, it came off far worse with the experts than Cleeves. It involved a man being burned alive in some kind of professional hit. The expert who analysed the extract said it would be more than easy to find the killers given the amount of evidence they left at the scene. He also dismissed the use of petrol as the choice of immolate in such cases. Paraffin is better, apparently. We got to see why. He showed a video of a fire officer dousing a boat with petrol, being diverted for a few seconds, and then being blown metres into the air when he lit the fuse. Apparently petrol evaporates quickly into the air. The expert said he had come across countless shopkeepers who had tried to burn down their shop in some kind of insurance scam and found themselves blown 30 feet into the air after soaking it in petrol, which slightly defeated the object.
Billingham took it in good heart. He didn't seem that bothered with his lack of veracity. And why should he? The extract was well written and gripping, for my money more important than the fact it did not stand up to forensic scrutiny. Few layman readers will have the knowledge to pick such holes. Though I bet he's a bit more careful in his research next time. As will I.