Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Feeling Bloody wonderful in Scotland

Welcome back! Five continents of crime writing on show in a hybrid event before a live in-person and online audience: Sergei Lebedev, Claudia Pineiro, Femi Kayode, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden beamed in, and I was onstage solo in the Albert Halls. 

Craig every second Tuesday.

"Kia ora and gidday everyone."

Those five words are how I've opened my fortnightly Murder is Everywhere posts this year, but long before that they were how I'd often open book festival author panels I'd had had the pleasure and privilege of being asked to chair over my years based in the UK. A wee nod to my antipodean heritage, wherever I was onstage in various towns or cities in England, Canada, or Scotland (and even occasionally back in New Zealand, pre-pandemic). 

On Saturday afternoon I got to say those words onstage for the first time in two years, and it felt bloody great. And a little surreal. That was all thanks to the marvellous team behind Bloody Scotland, a festival that is deeply entwined with my British life - I attended for the first time mere days after arriving at Heathrow, and every year since. Even last year I chaired a panel, on my birthday from my living room, as part of the online Bloody Scotland. 

Preparations for the return of real-life Bloody Scotland were a little different; books aplenty and also COVID testing (along with vaccination requirements)

Stealing the words of my six-year-old daughter, I was 'nerva-cited' about hopping on the train to Stirling for this year's Bloody Scotland. It had been exactly two years since my last book festival (I usually attend several each year), and 18 months since my last real-life event of any kind, a book launch in London a few weeks before the first lockdown. 

I was looking forward to seeing everyone who'd be there, and being part of the festival, while being a wee bit hesitant about the few hours cooped up with strangers on the train to get up there, the COVID test I needed to take beforehand (an author or two had to pull out in the lead-up to the festival, having tested positive), and how I'd feel being back somewhere I love so much, but would in curtailed form compared to many great 2014-2019 memories. 

Masks inside, social distancing, limited crowds in big venues, a few key events not happening etc. How would it feel? Oh, and it would also be my first festival appearance since my own first book was published during the pandemic. 

Nerva-cited indeed. 

Within a few minutes of checking into my own hotel, I ran into editor
Ben Willis outside the festival hotel, the start of a weekend full of
wonderful catch-ups with friends old and new. 

Within moments of arriving in Stirling, any nervousness had evaporated. It felt like coming home. I ran into editor extraordinaire Ben Willis outside the festival hotel, The Golden Lion, and while we were catching up, several other people we knew wandered past, including crime writer Sarah Hilary. The two years apart evaporated. It felt good to be back. Later on that evening for the McIlvanney Prize announcement then the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers we were masked and audience numbers limited inside the Albert Halls, but those differences were quickly tuned out and it just felt like another fantastic Bloody Scotland festival. So good to see everyone, to be together again. 

Craig Russell makes history, becoming the first two-time winner of the McIlvanney Prize, for HYDE, his gothic tale inspired by Stevenson's classic. 

The Bloody Scotland organisers had created a really wonderful line-up of events for this year's festival, a mix of in-person onstage sessions, and having authors beaming in from other parts of the world. Bloody Scotland had gone fully hybrid, with digital passes to individual sessions or the entire weekend meaning anyone around the world with an internet connection could access some amazing panels. That's something I think many festivals will (hopefully) do in future, allowing them to be more inclusive for authors and readers/audience alike. 

Of course there's a huge cost to doing this in a high-quality manner, which many who've enjoyed free Zoom panels throughout the pandemic - I've participated in several myself - may not grasp. Bloody Scotland had a highly skilled team of professionals involved, creating videos, mixing sound, and managing the livestreams. Kudos to them all. 

My 'return' to in-real-life chairing was suitably hybrid too, after 18 months of online events and chairing Zoom panels. I was stoked to be asked to chair what was effectively a 'five continents of crime writing' panel, with Russian author Sergei Lebedev (UNTRACEABLE), Argentinean crime queen Claudia Pineiro (ELENA KNOWS), Nigerian author Femi Kayode (LIGHTSEEKERS) and Lakota Sicangu author David Heska Wanbli Weiden (WINTER COUNTS). What a line-up! It was momentarily a little strange being onstage alone (see photo at the top of this post) but boy did it feel fantastic to be back in front of an audience, and feel the enthusiasm from everyone there. 

My book Southern Cross Crime among some very fine company following
the Around the World in 80 Deaths panel at the Albert Halls

Pre-festival, I'd been curious/concerned about how book sales would be affected, with restricted audience numbers and the festival bookseller not having full pop-up bookshops with everyone's books all there at each venue, all the time for regular browsing and buying, like in years past. Instead, a table of the particular panelists books would be there after each event. I was particularly concerned about my own first panel, given none of the authors would be there to sign their books. But I needn't have worried - Sergei, Femi, David, and Claudia were so wonderful and created such a buzz with our conversation, that loads of their books were bought - sold out in a couple of cases! 

I even got to sign a few copies of my own book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, for readers for the first time - some who bought it at the festival, and some who'd brought copies they already had to Stirling for me to sign. Thanks to everyone who stopped me and said nice things. It meant a lot, after a strange old year of everything being online. 

My first-ever reader signing: stopped on the street even before I'd done any panels. Kia ora!

As those of us who've been blessed to attend some great crime writing festivals in the past know, the panels and programmed events can be awesome, but its the things that happen in between that really make festivals special too. The random moments, the meals and conversations and spontaneous hang-outs with various people who are all gathered there together in one place due to a shared love of creativity and storytelling. That's what we haven't had during the pandemic, despite some really terrific online events that are oh-so-valuable too. 

As I was doing my first-ever book signing on the street, a few other authors and booklovers I knew walked past. More catch-ups and great conversation. It turned out Finnish author Antti Tuomainen was going to wander up to Stirling Castle, since it was his first time here (I'd met Antti at several other festivals). I had a couple of hours before my panel, so I offered to show him around historic Stirling - so for the next couple of hours a Finn and a Kiwi explored Scottish history during a crime festival, before heading onstage for our respective panels that afternoon. 

Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen enjoying the view over Stirling Castle

That's the thing I've maybe missed the most about crime festivals, the unplanned moments that happen when you're surrounded by interesting, creative people. There's a buzz at a festival that lingers after you leave. I always love interviewing people who are passionate about what they do - whether authors or sportspeople or lawyers or charity workers etc - because I find it inspires me to delve even more into my own passions and the things I care about.

So I've missed that festival buzz the past couple of years, despite some terrific online events. Looking ahead I hope we can have the best of both worlds: real-life moments on the ground along with lots of amazing onstage panels and events that are made even more accessible to many who can't be there, via streaming and digital passes etc.  

I think Bloody Scotland had a pretty great mix this year, and that's down to the organising team and board -  including the likes of Bob McDevitt, Fiona Brownlee, Lin Anderson, Gordon Brown, Abir Mukherjee, Craig Robertson, Alex Gray, and others - plus the tech staff and dozens of wonderful volunteers. 

They made magic. 

Since we couldn't have our usual 'Crime at the Coo' singalong event on Saturday night, the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers graced us with an acoustic set following the quiz in the Albert Halls, with a video screen nod to friend-of-the-festival Mandy Silver, owner of the Curly Coo

For those who missed it over the weekend, you can still nab a digital pass and watch the likes of Stephen King chatting with Linwood Barclay, Karin Slaughter's superb interview with Louise Welsh which closed the festival on Sunday evening, the Red Hot Chilli Writers fun-filled live podcast event, and so much more (including my Around the World in 80 Deaths panel on Saturday afternoon, and our hilarious Sunday morning event with 'masters of monstrous characters' Liz Nugent and Stuart MacBride) until the end of the month. 

It was a wonderful weekend. Kia ora rawa atu (thanks heaps) to everyone involved. Can't wait for 2022. 

What are some of your favourite book event memories? What festivals would you love to attend one day?

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi
(With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive, ie everybody has something to offer, and by working together we can all flourish.)

A hangi is a traditional Māori feast where people come together to share food that has been cooked on hot stones underground. 


  1. Was great to see you at the weekend, Craig - hopefully it happens again and soon!

    1. Great to see you too David. Looking forward to Cesare Aldo 2!

  2. Barbara and I love Bloody Scotland. We miss the adventure, camaraderie, and setting. Stirling is terrific. After all, it's where we met you!

    1. It's a special festival, for a whole host of reasons - but particularly the people. Looking forward to the days when we can all gather together again Jeffrey.