Harrogate And All That

Well, off I toddled last Thursday, full of the joys of potential wealth, to join the other five prospective winners at Harrogate.

For those who've (very sensibly) forgotten, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival holds an annual competition for the best crime story of the previous year. Yes, I know, there are too many prizes already. There's no need for this new-fangled idea.

Except funnily enough, there aren't that many. For me, anyway. There's the Orange Prize - except that's only open to women. No nasty sexism allowed in prizes, clearly. There's the Duncan Lawrie CWA Gold Dagger, but that's a huge prize, and with the best will in the world, I can't see it going to a medieval writer. Sadly, medieval writers don't tend to earn the advances, so they don't get the recognition and don't win the big rewards. Why? Mainly because all these prizes are run by the 'great and the good'. And no, I'm not whingeing. I am one of them, after all. I organised the Debut Dagger for a couple of years, I was in charge of the CWA Dagger ceremonies a few years ago, and now I'm serving my third year on the panel of the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of the year. So I'm not complaining about the way that competitions are organised.

No. But realism kicks in. Medieval stories don't sell as well as, say, contemporary crime fiction. Perhaps largely because people associate medieval stories with simple plots, not very credible characterisation and lots of mud and pooh. Well, it's true about the last two, isn't it?

And that is why I like the Theakston's Old Peculier (sic) Crime Book of the Year. You see, this is the only prize where the short list is compiled by those who really do matter - readers.

The idea is, Waterstone's produce a list of books which have been enormously popular. They check on reports from readers and whittle the potentials down to twenty, which is put out as the long list.

After that, those nice people at Waterstone's ask loads of people (you know this, don't you? You all had an email or seven from me about the prize) to vote for the book which they think was the best in the year. That's when things get interesting, of course. Because from that there's a short list. And the short listed writers are invited up to Harrogate.

The short-listed authors on stage

The shortlisted authors on stage. Left to right: Natacha Cooper (moderator), Stephen Booth, Christopher Brookmyre, Allan Guthrie, Graham Hurley, Michael Jecks and Stuart MacBride

So there we are. And soon one winner was to be selected. And how? Well, this is where the prize gets a bit confusing. You see, they work on the basis of five or so voting groups, and each group has one vote. As far as I can see, there's a single vote for the book which won the most votes from readers; a second goes (I think) to Mr Theakston himself; a third goes to some reading groups in the Harrogate area, and so on. Not sure who else gets a vote, but it doesn't matter too much. These worthies meet on the Thursday afternoon and discuss the entries and make their choice. Which is rather good, because it means no one knows who the hell has won. Not until the last minute, anyway. It really is a surprise to the winner.

Michael Jecks on stage at the awards ceremony

So we all arrived there, to learn that we had to be on a stage at six. Which rather threw things - because I was supposed to be eating supper with my editor at that hour. Sadly, I had to miss supper and wander off to have a short run-through of how the evening was planned. I stood, sat, stood, fried in the lights, and was enormously glad to be allowed off the stage to go and get outside a cool pint of Old Peculier. Or two.

So I missed my supper - the editor was gone - and all I could do was wander aimlessly around the bar area. Luckily I met up with the marvellous Jane Conway-Gordon, my agent, as well as Aline Templeton, Broo Doherty, CJ Carver and many others, so my time wasn't entirely wasted. And then it was suddenly time to return to the stage. And, no doubt, literary greatness!

Well. No. Sadly, my assumption was proved all too accurate. I was robbed, guv'nor, by a young Scot called Guthrie, who'd written a brilliant book about the underworld in Glasgow. Really excellent story. And oddly enough, it was partly (well, I have to try to take some credit) because of me. He was a writer because six or so years before I'd written to him and given him some confidence. You see, he had entered a piece for the Debut Dagger Award, and was short listed. That meant the Organiser (me) had written a critique of his work and given some pointers about how to make it more marketable.

Clearly he ignored my advice. But go and get a copy of Two-Way Split. It is really fast, witty and impossible to put down. And Allan's a great guy.

Allan Guthrie signing his winning book for Michael Jecks

Many thanks to the nice folks at Harrogate for making my public torture so much fun, and especially big hugs for my agent. Because she saved me.

Thank God for agents is all I can say, because mine saw I was flagging badly at about nine-o'clock, and grabbed me to take me over the road for a spot of supper, where we were joined by the delightful Philip Gooden and his wife.

But one festival doesn't mean the end of work. Oh, no. I'm sitting here at eleven thirty on the following Thursday because I've a 20,000 word novella to write for the next book in the Medieval Murderers series. It's all based on the Black Book of Brân, you see, who was a dark ages monk living in Ireland, who wrote a series of nasty prophecies about what was going to happen after his death. Very Nostradamus-like.

I can't give the game away, naturally, but I will say that I had an enormous amount of fun checking into the different conspiracy theories of that period, from the Joachists and the Spirituals in the Fransiscan order (thanks to Nigel Guthrie, Rector of Crediton Church), to the actual prophecy of the Six Kings of England. If you haven't read about that, I recommend the very excellent book, The Perfect King - The Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer.

For those who keep up with my bibliographies, Ian is the writer of The Greatest Traitor, which was the biography of Lord Mortimer of Wigmore. A fabulous book that influenced a lot of my books more recently. However, the early chapters of The Perfect King are having the same impact on present projects. Ian has such a fluency about his writing that his histories read more like thrillers than enormously well-researched historical works.

Ian is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a renowned researcher and historian, and it's with some astonishment that I can tell you he's agreed to come out with me occasionally to give talks. I think it's because he's as keen on his beer as I am, but you never know. All I do know is, I'm delighted to think that I'll be working more with him in the future - and petrified that he'll spot various typographical inconsistencies... which means errors where I've got my facts wrong!

As well as that, I'm also planning and plotting the next in the Templar series. To my great relief, Headline have signed me up for another four books, which means there will be stories all the way through to book 29. But don't ask what that'll be about. I haven't the faintest idea yet, except it'll likely be around the time that the queen and her lover, Mortimer, had taken over the realm.

That's the great thing about my period. There was always so much going on.


There is one last thing I have to mention, of course. There is a little puppy who is no longer little. The Ridgie is fine. She has commandeered my chaise longue whenever I turn away; she petrifies guests and children; she is a dreadful thief... and she is adorable, intelligent, challenging, yes, but a wonderful companion.

No longer a little puppy

That's about it for now. Some of you will know that I have a photo diary now on the website. Do please go and take a look at it - and let me know if there are other aspects of the site which would improve it, too. Usually the diary should have photos of walks on Dartmoor - when the weather is a little bit drier and doesn't threaten to wreck my camera - but for now you'll have to cope with the standard pictures of people and objects which take my fancy until the blasted rain clears a bit. And if you like them and want more of the same, go and look at my flickr account at www.flickr.com/photos/michael_jecks. It's regularly updated with new photos of whatever is going on in this head. Scary, I know.

So there we are. A novella to write, a book to write, and several events to attend. I have my life planned out for me.

There are one or two more things I have to say, of course.

First is, a huge thank you to all those who spent their time logging on to their computers to vote for me at the Theakston's prize. I am enormously grateful to all of you. It has made a tough sales year seem much less painful. So thanks to you all for that.

The other is, of course to thank all those who gave their hard-earned money to the British Heart Foundation. I know I mentioned it in the last newsletter, but I have to thank you all again because at the final tally, you sponsored me to the tune of about £1,500. And that really is fabulous.

Many thanks to you all. Good reading, and good luck!
Mike Jecks

Northern Dartmoor
August 2007