NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival, Belfast 2019

IMG_1547-28th to 10th March 2019, Europa Hotel, Belfast

The NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival doesn’t have to worry about distinguishing itself from other literary festivals in Ireland because it takes place in Belfast, a city known for its dark past. In addition, the festival took place in the Europa Hotel, the perfect location for a crime fiction festival from a historical perspective. Although a bustling cosmopolitan city today, the tension between the Belfast of the past and the present came up in several panels as writers sought to leave the Troubles behind and focus on more straightforward crime fiction. At the moment, crime writing is flourishing in Northern Ireland and writers agreed that it was born out of what they experienced growing up in the North but that it can only really thrive and be fully expressed in peaceful times. Co-organised by David Torrans, owner of No Alibis in Belfast, the North’s only crime fiction bookshop, and Angela McMahon, the festival perfectly celebrated this creativity both in Northern Ireland and internationally and the ongoing fascination we have with the darker side of human nature.

I went to the festival from the perspective of an aspiring writer within the genre and I was delighted to find myself in the company of the superstars of crime fiction as well as up-and-coming writers but everyone was equally happy to chat about their experiences and writing processes. Every panel I attended delivered a wealth of knowledge on general topics including the writing process and research as well as more specific topics including the overarching characters and social themes that are central to the genre today.

The first panel of the weekend was ‘An Englishwoman, an Irishwoman, and a Scotswoman Walk into the Noir.’ The women in question were Belinda Bauer, Jo Spain, and Denise Mina respectively and together the three writers provided the perfect introduction to the festival as they discussed issues including the figure of the detective and policing in general with a fantastic sense of humour. With its genuine sense of camaraderie, the panel perfectly set the tone for the rest of the festival as the closeness of the crime writing community was evident both onstage and off.

The first night of the festival also featured Anthony Horowitz in conversation with Brian McGilloway and the topics covered ranged from the popularity of Horowitz’s Young Adult fiction to the worldwide success of his crime writing. He recounted his memories of childhood and what prompted him to start writing in the first place as well as his writing process and his influences. His enthusiasm and love of writing really came across as well as his good humour.

Several panels addressed the important character tropes of the genre. Andrea Carter discussed the role and importance of the victim with Elodie Harper, Dervla McTiernan, and M.J. Arlidge. The writers discussed how the victim has changed in recent years in the genre from simply being a cadaver at the crime scene to becoming a more central character. Importantly, the panel mentioned how the role of the victim is still gendered within contemporary crime fiction with women still usually being victimised. However, the writers discussed how this is changing and the implications of these changes on the genre.  The panel also addressed the nuances and benefits of writing from the perspective of the victim.

IMG_1546-2In contrast, Gerard Brennan discussed the role of the villain with Steve Cavanagh, Karen Hamilton, and Elly Griffiths. What really came across on this panel was how much fun the authors had when writing their villains. Interestingly, they also touched on who they think are real-life villains and how important it is to fully consider whose perspective the story is told from. The panel also discussed important evolutionary reasons for our fascination with the genre and with the figure of the villain.

In addition, Adrian McKinty talked to Will Dean, Alex Reeve, and Renee Knight about the figure of the outsider within the genre in all its guises including in figures that don’t initially appear to be outsiders. They discussed the benefits of writing from the perspective of the outsider figure as well as some of the important benefits of writing in the first person.

The ‘Mum’s the Word’ panel looked at the role that the mother (and father) has to play in the genre, both positively and negatively. Claire McGowan discussed issues of parenthood with Haylen Beck (Stuart Neville), Claire Allan, and Nuala Ellwood. This was undoubtedly the most sensitive panel I attended as the issues of stillbirth and grief came up but the topics were handled incredibly sensitively. The panel also discussed the real-life issues that female writers who are also mothers face as the issues of guilt and working from home were tackled. Overall, the panel revealed that the image of the bad mother or bad woman is still taboo and is still a central trope of the genre today.

Several panels discussed important contemporary social issues including political villainy and the impact and potential impact of Brexit on writing in general and on the genre. In fact, these themes were discussed in several panels throughout the weekend, not just in the panels specifically dedicated to the topics. Sarah Vaughan and D.B. John talked to Alex Kane about the figure of the politician and how they are portrayed in the genre as well as the process of writing them. Both authors’ books show the corrupt nature of politicians but they did hint at the possibility that not all politicians may be dishonest.

In addition, Declan Hughes discussed Brexit with Martin Waites, Brian McGilloway, and Aidan Conway. In the panel, the writers discussed how social issues are rarely incorporated into fiction contemporaneously with its occurrence and how satire might be the first mode of writing about Brexit.

Another ongoing theme throughout the weekend was the role that technology plays in the genre, how it is changing society in general, how it has changed how authors research, and how it is reflected in the books themselves. In the ‘Crime and (Anti) Social Media’ panel, Gerard Brennan discussed the positive and negative effects of social media on society and the genre with Claire Allan, Adam Hamdy, and Thomas Enger. This was undoubtedly the most terrifying panel I attended as Hamdy shared his findings about what social media is doing to society today and about how our addiction is literally changing our physiology. Hamdy also touched on the dangers of social media from a social perspective and how hate groups are using social media platforms.

Linked with this was a panel on the rise of true crime, where Eoin McNamee discussed the recent resurgence of the popularity of true crime with Matt Wesolowski and Olivia Kiernan. The authors discussed their research of true murder cases as well as how they use documentary methods within their own work. The writers stressed the importance of remembering that killers aren’t simply monsters and that they have a backstory like the rest of us that must be explored.

One particular panel discussed gothic elements in crime fiction, which prompted a wider discussion of subgenre and the inclusivity of the crime fiction genre. In this panel, Elly Griffiths discussed the gothic with Laura Purcell, Caroline Lea, and William Ryan and looked at how more historical narratives with supernatural elements can still be considered crime fiction.

IMG_1543Last, but certainly not least, the Jack-a-noir-y event on the Saturday night of the festival included a reading from John Connolly’s upcoming book A Bag of Bones. It was read by Adrian Dunbar, the perfect storyteller from a genre perspective. The reading itself was introduced by Brian Cliff, David Torrans, and Stuart Neville and was perfect pre-publicity for the book.

Like all festivals, I inevitably couldn’t go to every panel and I missed a few events that I really wanted to see. Unfortunately, I also didn’t have time to do the Belfast Noir walking tour operated by Belfast Hidden Tours but that’s for my next visit.

Overall, the festival was perfect for any fan of, or anyone interested in writing in, the genre and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I look forward to the next festival already. Now I’m off to work on my own book!

The Faithful by Matt Hayward

41irr5knu9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At the Mountains of Madness meets They Live! in a new novel from Matt Hayward, the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of What Do Monsters Fear? After comedian Leo Cartwright performs his farewell comedy show in New York City, a young man ailed by cerebral palsy confides in him about odd dreams and a place he calls No Man’s Land. Leo thinks nothing of it until the man, Christopher Tate, winds up dead, along with a cryptic note taped to the comedian’s RV window: See you soon, Funnyman. Leo sets out to find the truth about Christopher’s dreams to an odd town named Elswich. Shown to Leo in a dream by a mysterious man named Jarrad Prescott, the town prays to an Otherworldly god named Aypep and give their bodies to host his children in return for eternal life in the Otherworld. It’s a wish granted through sacrifice…

There’s a strong tradition in American horror of the backwards rural town where strange, ungodly things happen. It’s a sad, rundown place seen in films including Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes that confuses and threatens the modern urban dweller. This book sits perfectly within this subgenre as the town of Elswich, North Carolina is full of violent inhabitants who not only threaten the city folk that pass through their town but the whole of humanity.

The book begins with an outsider infiltrating this closed community. Jonesy Morris is a retired musician who is looking for his young son Caleb, an innocent child who doesn’t belong in such a backwards place and who doesn’t know that Jonesy is his father. Although Jonesy is suspicious of the town from the beginning, he soon realises that there’s something really not right there.

Jonesy and Caleb bump into Leo Cartwright, a retired comedian who has just performed his final show in New York. On the night of the show, Leo met a young fan, Christopher, who told him of a place on another plain of existence called No Man’s Land which is linked with Elswich. When Christopher dies, Leo is convinced that he owes it to Christopher to go to Elswich and figure out what’s going on. He borrows an RV and heads to the town, picking up Jonesy and Caleb on the way. Although Jonesy and Leo are going to Elswich for very different reasons, they soon realise what is really going on there and that they make a good team. Along with Kate, an old friend of Leo’s and a part-time actor, they are determined to save the world. The result is a magnificently creepy and grotesque story of cultish horror.

As previously mentioned, the stalwarts of this subgenre are replete with inbreeding and crazed lunatics. In a variation here, this story has a supernatural element as the town’s inhabitants have become hosts for monstrous creatures. The inhabitants worship their God Aypep and make their sacrifices in the church. As an apocalyptic and cultish religious horror story, the church is at the heart of the town and is the location of much of the action and horror. This religious element of the book is interesting; religious elements don’t usually interest me but they are integrated well with the subgenre in this case. Religious elements are also intertwined with body horror as the ghastly grotesqueness of the hosts and the monsters within them echo the Alien films and the films of David Cronenberg.

It’s wholly intentional that I’ve compared the book to several films and film franchises. Hayward’s writing is incredibly sophisticated and it’s also very cinematic. Although Hayward uses tropes that have been used time and time again, they are made utterly refreshing by his writing. From the very beginning, The Faithful reads like the very best of Stephen King and what really stands out is Hayward’s gift with compelling and witty but very realistic dialogue. In addition, even the secondary characters are colourfully and expertly written, far from the clichés they usually are in the horror genre. And the heroes are also realistic, relatable, and sympathetic through their various flaws. My only slight quibble from a character perspective is that Kate could have been a little more developed. Leo and Jonesy are extremely well-developed so it would have been nice for a female character to be similarly developed.

The pacing is also perfect throughout. I often find that horror can either drown in description for the sake of suspense or can be overly wrought with action and gore but there’s the perfect mix between the two here. The climax could have been drawn out a bit more but it is still exciting and satisfying and expertly written.

With The Faithful, Hayward, the most exciting writer in the horror genre continues to deliver. The result is a highly entertaining and very skilfully written book that is a mix of body horror and cult-based horror. I first read Hayward’s work in horror anthology Welcome to the Show Curated by Matt Hayward and Doug Murano published by Crystal Lake Publishing. His short story, ‘Dark Stage’, is similarly well written and invokes the demons that accompany mortality. Now I need to go and read the rest of his work.

Thanks to Matt Hayward and Sinister Grin Press for providing a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

About the author

7243628Matt Hayward is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author and musician from Wicklow, Ireland. His books include BRAIN DEAD BLUES, WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR?, PRACTITIONERS (with Patrick Lacey), and the upcoming THE FAITHFUL. He compiled the anthology WELCOME TO THE SHOW, and is currently writing a novel with Bryan Smith. Matt wrote the comic book THIS IS HOW IT ENDS (now a music video) for the band WALKING PAPERS, and received a nomination for Irish short story of the year from Penguin Books in 2017.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.

Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.

And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth? Continue reading

The Last by Hanna Jameson

40048961BREAKING: Nuclear weapon detonates over Washington

Historian Jon Keller is on a trip to Switzerland when the world ends. As the lights go out on civilisation, he wishes he had a way of knowing whether his wife, Nadia, and their two daughters are still alive. More than anything, Jon wishes he hadn’t ignored Nadia’s last message.

Twenty people remain in Jon’s hotel. Far from the nearest city and walled in by towering trees, they wait, they survive.

Then one day, the body of a young girl is found. It’s clear she has been murdered. Which means that someone in the hotel is a killer.

As paranoia descends, Jon decides to investigate. But how far is he willing to go in pursuit of justice? And what kind of justice can he hope for, when society as he knows it no longer exists? Continue reading

Her Name Was Rose by Claire Allan

51j8LsNnK3LWhen Emily lets a stranger step out in front of her, she never imagines that split second will change her life. But after Emily watches a car plough into the young mother – killing her instantly – she finds herself unable to move on.

And then she makes a decision she can never take back.

Because Rose had everything Emily had ever dreamed of. A beautiful, loving family, a great job and a stunning home. And now Rose’s husband misses his wife, and their son needs a mother. Why couldn’t Emily fill that space?

But as Emily is about to discover, no one’s life is perfect … and not everything is as it seems. Continue reading

It Was Her by Mark Hill

51xUoO6Ye-LDo you want a thriller where nothing is as it seems?

Twenty years ago, Tatia was adopted into a well-off home where she seemed happy, settled. Then the youngest boy in the family dies in an accident, and she gets the blame.

Did she do it?

Tatia is cast out, away from her remaining adopted siblings Joel and Poppy. Now she yearns for a home to call her own. So when she see families going on holiday, leaving their beautiful homes empty, there seems no harm in living their lives while they are gone. But somehow, people keep ending up dead.

Did she kill them?

As bodies start to appear in supposedly safe neighbourhoods, DI Ray Drake and DS Flick Crowley race to find the thinnest of links between the victims. But Drake’s secret past is threatening to destroy everything. Continue reading