Will Gore

How a mysterious Harrogate hotel became a Mecca for crime fiction fans

How a mysterious Harrogate hotel became a Mecca for crime fiction fans
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The Old Swan Hotel, a grand old establishment in the centre of Harrogate, was once at the centre of crime writing’s greatest mysteries. This was the place that Agatha Christie chose to escape to when she went missing for 11 days in December 1926.

After her husband allegedly revealed that he was in love with another woman, Christie left him and their young daughter in their family home in Berkshire without a word. Her abandoned Morris-Cowley car was soon found in nearby Guildford, but there was no other trace of her. Home secretary William Joynson-Hicks pressured the police to find the renowned author, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even tried to help, albeit in his own odd way. He took one Christie’s gloves to a medium, hoping this might uncover some clues.

Finally, after 11 days, Christie was identified as being a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, the former name of the Old Swan, registered there as Mrs Teresa Neele from Cape Town, and the spirit of Christie lives on in the hotel thanks to the brilliant Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

Stav Sherez, who won the festival’s prestigious Crime of Novel of the Year award for his magnificently creepy book The Intrusions in 2018, sums up its appeal succinctly. 'It’s the best and most relaxed festival I've ever been to,' he tells me. 'It feels like a holiday with all your favourite crime writers. There's nothing else quite like it.'

The Old Swan, Harrogate (Image: Harrogate International Festival)

Trevor Wood, who is hoping to follow in Stav’s footsteps having been nominated for this year’s Crime of Novel of the Year for his debut The Man on the Street, concurs about Harrogate’s welcoming atmosphere.

'The festival is one of the most wonderfully inclusive and welcoming events imaginable, with readers, writers and industry professionals mingling happily throughout. I’ve loved every second of my previous visits,' he says.

This year’s festival, which runs from July 22-25, is curated by crime writing heavyweight Ian Rankin, and the programme’s star billing goes to Richard Osman, who hit the top of the bestsellers lists with The Thursday Murder Club, and has its follow up on the way later in the year. Osman will be interviewed by Mark Billingham, author of the Thorne series, for his appearance on the Sunday.

Other highlights of the programme, include appearances by Mick Herron, CL Taylor and Anne Cleeves, and there are plenty of intriguing panel discussions to pick from, including ones on the enduring allure of Agatha Christie, the pleasures and pitfalls of the short story and on the politics of crime fiction, which includes MP-turned-crime author Alan Johnson on the panel. Other notable writers appearing across the weekend are Val McDermid, Erin Kelly, Luca Veste, Laura Shepherd-Robinson and CJ Tudor.

The winner of this year’s Crime Novel of the Year award will be revealed on the festival’s opening night. As ever the shortlist is a superb one. The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths and Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee are excellent inclusions (and both authors will be appearing at the festival). We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker is a strong contender, as is the aforementioned The Man on the Street, a thrilling Newcastle-set story about a homeless former serviceman on the trail of a killer.

Wood says he is 'overjoyed' that The Man on the Street has made the shortlist. 'It’s genuinely beyond my wildest dreams,' he says. 'And my dreams are right at the wild end of the spectrum normally.'

And, if that's whetted your appetite, here are five crime thrillers to add to your reading pile this summer…

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

My top recommendation in this list of new crime novels is, in fact, an old book. A Rage in Harlem is one of a series of Chester Himes’ books that have been given the Penguin Modern Classics treatment this year, and it’s very well deserved. First published in 1957, A Rage in Harlem introduces us to Himes’ regular detective duo, Coffin Ed Jonhson and Gravedigger Jones. Really, though, this is the story of a chump called Jackson, who spends a desperate few days hightailing it around Harlem in search of both the money he has been conned out of and his sweetheart who has disappeared with it. With a stolen hearse stuffed with gold and a petty criminal disguised as a nun both making prominent appearances, at times the narrative is the stuff of absurd comedy, but there is both eye-watering violence and a jolting anger underscoring the caper.

The rage of the title is palpable in both the characters trapped in Harlem and the writer surveying it. ‘Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea,’ Himes writes. ‘Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub. That is Harlem.’ The book is packed with this kind of piercing, pyrotechnic prose. Crime writing at its very best.

Exit by Belinda Bauer

In term of time and place, Exit couldn’t be more different to A Rage in Harlem. It’s set in the present day and the action unfolds in sleepy Devon, but it does have a similar farcical energy to it. Felix Pink is a member of a mysterious group called the Exiteers, who assist terminally ill people in ending their lives, while just about staying on the right side of the law. That is until Felix is involved an exit that goes horribly wrong when he and a first time exiteer help the wrong person to snuff it. On the face of it, not exactly obvious material for a comic misadventure, but Felix, an ageing widower, is an endearing presence and a source of plenty of decent gags (There’s a nice running one about his beige M&S jacket). For all the larking about, we also get glimpses of the grief that has pushed Felix into his bizarre day job. Bauer’s 2018 novel Snap made the Booker Prize long-list, and while I can’t see Exit picking up a similar lofty accolade, it is, nevertheless, a well-crafted and entertaining read.

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

Like Bauer, McGuire is an alumnus of the Booker long-list. His superbly salty 19th century whaling thriller The North Water was nominated in 2016, and this follow up, set in a similar period, is another excellent chunk of historical fiction. In Manchester, the police are struggling to contain the threat of Fenian terrorists. Stephen Doyle, an American civil war veteran with murderous intentions, is recently arrived in the city. So is James O'Connor, a troubled Irish copper sent over from Dublin to stop Doyle and his co-conspirators in their tracks. McGuire does a good job of conjuring a grimy, dangerous Manchester, but it’s when the novel enters the homestretch that The Abstainer really hits the mark. O’Connor crosses the Atlantic in search of a retreating Doyle, and the novel crosses genre, too. The claustrophobic urban crime story makes way for a widescreen western, and the duo’s high noon unfolds in a thoughtful and melancholic fashion.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

A little girl has gone missing in a small American town. It’s a familiar beginning to a thriller, but the story that Ward spins from it is anything but formulaic. In telling her tale, she blends a multitude of forms, including crime, gothic horror and magical realism, constantly leading the reader down strange alleys and into dark corners. Ted is a bearded, obese man-child living in squalor with his cat and occasionally his young daughter. He may or may not be responsible for the abduction and disappearance of a kid called Lulu, or ‘girl with the popsicle’ as she has become known, a few years earlier. Ward continually finds ways of both adding to the mystery and giving the reader glimpses of the truth, and her writing is by turns lyrical and sharp. Animals are a constant, disquieting presence. Rattlesnakes rear their heads in the lake, birds scream and struggle in glue traps and we get a running commentary from Olivia, Ted’s beloved cat. The Last House on Needless Street is an engrossing, idiosyncratic and unsettling piece of work.

Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby

This debut novel has had a huge buzz around it ever since it was published last year, and it’s thoroughly deserving of the hype. The premise is about as classic as you can get. Beauregard ‘Bug’ Montage is a former getaway driver struggling to stay on the straight and narrow to support his family, when some old associates come calling with the promise of one last job. There’s an inevitably to the way Bug prevaricates and then accepts the offer, and the way things fail to go according to plan from there. But this matters little as Cosby’s narrative flows brilliantly, the set-piece car chases are absolutely electrifying and the novel’s core theme of the sins of the father passing down to and through the son is brought home with force. The characters are strong, too. Bug is a flawed, violent protagonist, while his main partner in crime Ronnie Sessions, a man with an arm full of Elvis tattoos and not too much between the ears, is the kind of finely drawn deadbeat you’d catch in a Coen brothers’ picture. Cosby’s next book, Razorblade Tears is out in the UK in July. I can’t wait to discover what he’s come up with next.

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

The horrific killing of a trio of young Nigerian students by necklacing (the placing of burning tyres around a person’s neck and shoulders) has been saved for posterity on social media. The father of one of the victims is dissatisfied with the police investigation that has resulted in a handful of arrests, and so enlists the help of criminal psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo to find out the truth of why his son and the other two boys were murdered. Kayode’s first novel is an intriguing one. It takes a little while to get going and initially relies a little too much on exposition and explanation of the plot machinations, but once the mystery starts to unravel and the pace quickens, Lightseekers exerts an impressive hold on the reader.