Ninian Dunnett reports on events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival featuring Thomas Enger, Mason Cross, Kevin Williamson, Douglas Dunn and Jenni Fagan
“Do any of you have kids? Have you ever fallen asleep on the couch late at night, when you’re exhausted?” This is Thomas Enger, the Norwegian novelist. “Now imagine that you wake up to the sound of your child screaming.”
Enger’s books about the crime journalist Henning Juul are published in 24 countries. “You see a wall of flames around their bedroom door,” he continues, his accent giving the words a clinical precision. As a Scandinavian crime writer, he benefits and suffers from comparison with his local competitors. People are always calling him the new Jo Nesbo, when actually he is nothing like Nesbo.
“You panic: you run through the flames. Your hair catches fire. Your skin starts to melt.”
Enger is a thorough researcher. His protagonist works for an online newspaper, like Enger; he plays the piano, watches football and walks the same Oslo streets as the writer. “There is a lot of pain. Your eyes are quite quickly beginning to be glued together…” For his third novel, Scarred (which features a female government minister), Enger had fruitful consultations with a female government minister. But few writers can have had their Book Festival audiences so gripped. (Discretion constrains me from saying more than that the burned father makes it to an outside balcony.)
Research features too in the debut novel by a writer with the solid Midwestern name of Mason Cross. The Killing Season follows FBI agents and people-finder Carter Blake on the trail of a serial killer across the USA. And it’s only when the writer introduces his work in the sing-song tones of John Gordon Sinclair that it becomes clear this transatlantic pedigree is by proxy. “Throw a brick in Sauchiehall Street and you’ll hit five crime writers – and I wanted to be different,” explains the Glaswegian. “I did a lot of Googling.”
Native culture was rampant, though, in a celebration of the first publication from Neu! Reekie!, whose nights of poetry, music and film have been a feature in the capital since 2011. Kevin Williamson is a legendary impresario for this sort of stuff – he first published Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner back in the early 90s – and a bravura delivery of his personal eulogy to Edinburgh (“F***ing castle, F***ing rock/F***ing floral f***ing clock”) set the tone for a session whose low-key setting belied the effervescence of its contributors. A sense of Scotland was in the air, and even the éminence grise of the panel, Douglas Dunn, found his wily twinings of theme and metaphor stopping dead at the issues: “God bless democracy, dissent, and the NHS, which underpins our civic decency.”
The rising star here was Jenni Fagan, whose much-praised debut novel The Panopticon is to be filmed. Recalling the inspiration she took “in a little bedsit” twenty years ago from Williamson’s Rebel Inc. publications, Fagan opened her reading with a love poem to Scotland. “It seems to be needed now,” she explained, bemoaning the vitriolic naysayers of the referendum campaign.
Originally published in The Scotsman
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