I recently had the opportunity to meet Craig Robertson when he visited one of my local libraries. I had so many questions that evening (one being – why did they bring out the biscuits just as everyone was pulling on their jackets to go home?)
As I was being on best behaviour and not hogging the Q&A session I asked Craig if he would mind joining me for a Q&A here at Grab This Book. This is how our chat went:
Hi Craig, thanks for agreeing to join me. I have done a few Q&A’s now and I have realised that I am not great at writing an introduction for my guests. What if I miss out the fact they are a legendary football hero or that they are incredibly proud of their bronze swimming certificate?
To combat this dilemma my first question is never actually a question. This is where I ask you to introduce yourself and give you the opportunity to plug your books.
I’m Craig Robertson and I’m the author of six, soon to be seven, crime novels. All but one of them are set on the mean streets of Glasgow and the odd one out is set in the not-so-mean streets of Torshavn on the Faroe Islands.
My debut novel Random was shortlisted for the CWA Creasey Dagger and was a Sunday Times bestseller. It was followed by five novels featuring DS (now DI) Rachel Narey and scenes of crime photographer Tony Winter.
I was a journalist for 20 years before becoming a full-time author. My news reporting days took me to places as diverse as 10 Downing Street, Death Row and the world black pudding championships. All good practice for writing crime novels.
I live in Stirling with the American crime writer Alexandra Sokoloff and a cat named Clooney. I am the goalkeeper for the Scottish crime writers football team, following in a fine tradition of literary goalkeepers led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Camus and Vladmir Nabokov. I’m not as good as them though.
I like to think that my vocabulary is reasonably broad but reading your books has taught me new words. Not “those” words (I grew up in Lanarkshire, had those nailed from an early age). First can you explain what Urbexing is?
Urbexing is a contraction of “urban exploration” and it’s a term coined for the pursuit of exploring abandoned buildings and man-made structures. It’s a shadowy world, often done under the cover of darkness, and well away from the prying – and protective – eyes of the authorities. So people go into ruined hospitals, climb cranes and towers, explore little-known tunnels and generally go to places they shouldn’t. No one knows they’re there and that inevitably puts them in a danger that’s pretty useful to a crime writer.
Glasgow is full of prime urbexing sites and I immediately knew I wanted to use them in a book. The sites – I used places like the Molendinar Burn, the old Odeon cinema, the ruined Gartnavel hospital and the abandoned St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross – are spooky enough to be incredibly atmospheric. They form the backdrop of In Place of Death and the book looks at how they come to be abandoned and how we’re equally guilty of putting people aside when we’re done with them too. If that sounds a bit heavy, don’t worry there’s a good few murders in there too.
The other new word that I have learned from you is Murderabilia. What is Murderabilia?
It’s the title of my new book, thanks for asking! It’s also the hobby of collecting items connected to serial killers. It’s surprisingly big business and I’ve learned a lot more about it than is good for me.
Basically, people buy and sell anything to do with murderers. Yes, it’s pretty gross and morally questionable but there are specialist sites on the internet that are dedicated to this kind of thing. I find the psychology of it fascinating and couldn’t resist writing about it.
So if you had a mind to, you could buy letters by Dennis Nilsen, art by Charles Manson, clothes worn by John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. You can buy courtroom confessions, shoes, guns, underwear. I had to wonder about the motives about some of the people who buy this stuff – and about how some of it is acquired from crime scenes. I knew it was the basis of a book, particularly the way that this is a hobby that can become obsessive and how it so often neglects the most important people in any murder, the victims.
Is it easy to research what kind of “dark” items have been bought and sold down the years?
It’s easy enough to trace most of it if you know where to look. For example, I can tell you that an autograph by the American serial killer and cannibal Albert Fish once sold for £30,000. Or that the gun used to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald was bought for over $2million. A Christmas card sent by Ted Bundy went for $4000.
However, there are even darker items that have been sold that are much more difficult, maybe impossible, to trace. Things have been known to disappear from crime scenes and are then sold to the highest bidder, sometimes years later. For example a shawl said to be taken from the scene of Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim Catherine Eddowes, by a policeman, Sergeant Amos Simpson, turned up decades later and its owner demanded three million dollars for it. These murky transactions have always happened but these days they are taking place in the deepest recesses of the internet, the so-called dark web, where they cannot be overseen. What are they selling? Your guess is as good as mine but it’s not going to pretty.
When you were writing Murderabilia did you acquire any collectable items?
I did but I can’t talk about it. Seriously, I can’t. Not yet anyway.
I can say that I acquired a few select objects connected to three very high-profile killers. I know that seems weird but I felt I had to, both to understand the buying and selling procedures and to know what it actually felt like to receive and hold items belonging to murderers. It was an odd sensation opening the packaging, unwrapping the objects and holding them. It gave me an insight that I couldn’t have had otherwise and I was able to put that into the book.
I’m not sure that my partner is entirely happy having them in the house so they might have to go eventually. But they are just things, right? Or are they?
Murderabilia sees a return for Rachel Narey, was it always the plan to write an ongoing series or was there some publisher encouragement to keep Narey (and Tony Winter) coming back for more?
It was probably a bit of both. Rachel had appeared in Random, my first book, but that was a standalone and there was no intention of anyone to reappear. Then, when I came up with the idea for Snapshot which was to feature Tony Winter as a police photographer, I wanted a female police officer for him to be in a secret relationship with. Rachel was there, standing around with nothing to do and I’d liked her in Random, so she was it. Even then, I’m not sure I envisaged a series but Snapshot led to Cold Grave which led to Witness the Dead and sure enough I had a series on my hands.
There have been times that I’ve wanted to go in a different direction and kill either Rachel or Tony off to make that possible but each time there has been an outcry either from my editor or readers and I’ve let them live. Series are very attractive to publishers and to readers so yes there’s been some not so subtle encouragement to keep it going.
It’s not without its benefits for me either though. It helps to have characters I know well and to know how they will react in any given situation. I’ve watched them grow and change and seen their relationship twist in the wind. I like messing with them, basically, and making life difficult for them.
In Murderabila (did you notice how I’ve sneakily managed to mention the titles of all my books apart from The Last Refuge?) things change quite dramatically for Rachel and Tony again and this time there’s no going back.
I met you a few weeks ago and you were working on confirming guests for Bloody Scotland. I will get to that shortly but first I need to ask about something that arrived out of the blue. Bute Noir. For those not familiar with Bute can you explain where they can find the newest crime festival and why Bute was selected?
When I met you in May, Bute Noir didn’t exist at all, even in my head.
I did an event in Rothesay during Book Week Scotland last November. Everyone was very friendly and I had a great time. I hadn’t been to Bute since I was a kid but mentioned to Karen Latto, the owner of the local bookshop that it would be a great place for crime writers to go for a weekend. That quickly became “oh we should have a crime festival”. Nice idea but I thought no more about it. I went down to breakfast the next morning to be told by the hotel receptionist how excited she was about the festival I was going to organise! I still did my best not to think any more about it, trying to ignore Karen’s best efforts to talk me into doing something but in June she tried again and finally smashed my resistance by pretty much bullying me into it. I’m glad she did.
The pair of us put the festival together in a ridiculously short period of time but it’s going to be great. We’re holding it in three venues, all close together, in Rothesay. The isle of Bute is just a short, £6 return Caledonian Macbrayne ferry trip by down the Costa Clyde from Wemyss Bay so it’s very accessible from Glasgow and anywhere else in the central belt.
We’re using Bute Museum, Rothesay Library and the Print Point bookshop and it was because all three were so helpful and enthusiastic about the idea of a crime fiction festival that we were able to pull it all together so quickly. Argyll and Bute Council have also been very supportive. The idea is for this to become an annual event and we’re confident it will be.
Who will the attendees at Bute Noir be able to see over the two days?
I think it’s a terrific line-up given that we had such little time to put the programme together. Basically I asked my pals who didn’t live too far away! So there will be Chris Brookmyre, Alex Gray, Alanna Knight, Caro Ramsay, Michael J Malone, Myra Duffy, GJ Brown, Alexandra Sokoloff and Luca Veste.
Each of them will be on at least twice as one of the great thing about festivals is that you can mix things up and get a completely different response from the author depending whether he or she are on their own or with someone else. They can be quite serious on one panel and then a laugh-a-minute when you put them with another writer.
And after the delights of Bute comes Bloody Scotland. How did you come to be involved in Scotland’s premier crime event?
I’ve been involved from the first year and it came about when I carelessly mentioned to Alex Gray, one of the festival’s co-founders along with Lin Anderson and Gordon Brown, that I lived in Stirling where Bloody Scotland was set to be held. The next thing I knew I was on the festival committee, became a director and was spending most of my waking moments thinking about panels and lanyards and trying to persuade authors to play football and sing. It’s been a lot of work in the past five years but great fun too and definitely all been worthwhile.
Do you find other authors become particularly nice to you when you are populating festival events?
Ha. There might be a bit of truth in that. And here was me thinking they just wanted to buy me a drink because of my sparkling wit and repartee. Seriously though, crime writers are genuinely nice people at any time. They really are a good bunch, very sociable and with very little backstabbing. I’m just back from the ever excellent Theakstons Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate and a nicer group of people – readers, authors and publishers – you’d struggle to meet.
Do you want to highlight some of the panels from both Festivals?
Where to start… At Bute Noir, Chris Brookmyre is being interviewed by Alexandra Sokoloff (aka my better half) and that will be a cracker, Luca Veste and Douglas Skelton are fighting over the merits of Liverpool and Glasgow as crime locations (Glasgow is better obviously), Alex Gray is being grilled over a medium heat by Michael J Malone, and I will be question master at a closing quiz in which the rules have already gone out of the window. Messrs Brookmyre, Veste and Malone will engage in a battle of halfwits with Ramsay, Brown and Skelton.
At Bloody Scotland, we have Ian Rankin and Quintin Jardine together, we have Nicci French who are selling books by the million right now, Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre will be getting all sweary and funny, and then there’s MC Beaton, Martina Cole, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson and Val McDermid. There is the Scotland-England crime writers football match, a couple of cracking forensics events, Alanna Knight’s Inspector Faro play, Crime at the Coo, and much, much more.
I’m appearing alongside two excellent writers and really good guys in Malcolm Mackay and James Oswald and we will be talking about why we like to delve so much into the dark side of human nature. I’m also hosting a panel called Witness the Dead (coincidentally the title of one of my books, ahem) about the science of witness identification in which Professor Graham Pike will lead the audience and some unsuspecting crime writers as they are witnesses to a bank robbery and have to pick the guilty party out of a line-up. It’s bound to be fun.
And what have been some of your personal festival highlights down the years?
Being the goalie in the Scotland team that beat England 13-1 at Bloody Scotland 2014. How can you top that?
I suppose there were some that were a bit more book-related too – being on stage with authors like Willie McIlvanney, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Jeffrey Deaver, Denise Mina and Chris Brookmyre, all of whom I’d read and admired before I was published – but come on, beating England 13-1, that’s the big one really.
Well, there was the book festival in Colorado where I met Alex. Yes, that one too. Obviously. That’s the one I meant to say first. But 13-1, come on…