Harrogate & The Gender Balance
Every year Harrogate hosts Britain’s biggest gathering of crime writers and their readers at the Old Swan Hotel, and the four-day event, called the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, is usually a sell-out. People in Yorkshire are avid readers (and drinkers of the eponymous beer) but there are also visitors from all over the world.
It’s not surprising; even before you get to the festival there’s the town, one of the greenest and most elegant in the country, with parklands winding through its centre and mature trees, flowerbeds and sturdy Victorian architecture everywhere you look. The cream-coloured stone buildings reflect the components of the rolling landscape.
It’s an appropriate site for a mystery. In December 1926 Agatha Christie, then 36 years old and already a successful writer, left her home in Surrey. Her car was found hanging over the edge of a cliff later the same day.
One of the largest manhunts the country had ever seen was mounted, with over 1000 police constables, civilians and for the first time aeroplanes, all involved in the search for Christie. For 11 days she was the sole topic of conversation across the country: It was just like a plot from one of her own books. On December 14 1926, Agatha Christie was found, safe and well, living in a Harrogate hotel.
She’d travelled to London and boarded a train after having seen an advertisement at the railway station. She checked into the Swan Hydro, now the Old Swan Hotel, with almost no luggage, under the name of Theresa Neele, her husband’s mistress.
We know her mother had recently died and there were difficulties in the marriage; the Christies divorced in 1928 and she had been desperately unhappy. Many wondered if it was all an elaborate publicity stunt. Her husband said she’d suffered a total memory loss as a result of the car crash.
Kathleen Tynan wrote ‘Agatha’, a superb mystery worthy of Christie herself, which cleverly interpolated a murder plot into the facts. It was filmed with Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave. But Christie herself never spoke of what had happened in those 11 days.
Correcting The Balance
So a female crime writer is associated with the Harrogate festival. And it’s appropriate, because in a time-poor world crime is increasingly read by a 35+ female-skewed audience. Men read it too, of course – a great many, judging by my train – but for a while the festival felt dominated by male writers.
Last night it felt as if the writing community truly reflected its readership; the opening speeches were dedicated to Ruth Rendell and PD James, with excellent speeches from Ann Cleeves (this year’s MC) and Val McDermid, and an awards shortlist of four women and two men. I had made the longlist – an honour in itself, and it was won by a debut writer, Sarah Hilary, for ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ (slightly more expensive on Kindle than as a paperback; is this a first?).
For a long while now I’ve been championing the missing female authors of psychological suspense like Constance Strong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar, Hilda Lawrence and Shirley Jackson, many of whom fell from print. Now we’re in a new golden age of powerful British psychological suspense writing.
And inevitably there are a few rumbles of discontent among the blokes; publishing houses are female-dominated and discriminate against them, men aren’t getting published in the numbers they once were, one publisher at the festival was supposedly heard to say that she would never buy a suspense novel written by a man, and so so.
I feel the balance has finally been corrected to reflect the readership, and that we all live or die by the quality of our writing. It was how publishers should judge us, and by no other criteria – this year there are also celebrations of Sara Paretsky and Patricia Highsmith – but truly there’s something for everyone.