At the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, the smoking ban is beginning to bite

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The Independent Culture

Up until a few years ago, the only things I knew about Harrogate were the purgative powers of its spa waters and the recuperative powers of tea and cake at Betty's tea rooms. Then the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival was launched, which has grown to become the most successful of its kind in the UK. Sponsored by Theakston's Old Peculier, makers of extremely strong ale, this year it was bigger and better than ever. And don't tell me the organisers can't choose their festival dates. Last year it was the hottest weekend on record, and this year the wettest. What will happen next year, I wonder? A swarm of locusts and toads falling out of the skies? But more on the weather later.

In 2006, the festival was held at the Old Swan hotel, where, trivia lovers, Agatha Christie was found to be hiding when she did her famous disappearing act in the 1920s. But unfortunately some guests decided to perform a bit of do-it-yourself in their rooms. On that boiling weekend, discovering that their windows wouldn't open, they popped down to B&Q to purchase the tools needed to bust them open with predictably disastrous results. That and the lack of staff to serve the hungry and thirsty masses forced a move to the Crown hotel where all was well until a wedding party arrived. There was only one bar, and the bizarre sight of wedding guests and crime fans bumping heads was worth the cost of entrance alone.

Each year there's a committee headed by a well-known crime writer, and somehow they manage to lure top authors and dedicated fans from all over the world to this corner of North Yorkshire. This year the chair was Natasha Cooper who brought over Harlan Coben. Big man, big reputation, big seller. Among the other stars were Peter James, Val McDermid, Lee Child, Mark Billingham, and up-and- comers such as Nick Stone and Elena Forbes. Next year the chair is Simon Kernick, who is about to go stratospheric as Relentless, his latest novel, has been chosen for the Richard & Judy book club.

Crime fiction is the largest genre in publishing, and there's a lot of money to be made if you hit the top. I realised that last year when I saw a famous crime writer friend of mine drop two grand in a couple of boutiques in the high street on clothes and accessories, while half an hour earlier I had been debating whether I could afford an Oscar Peterson vinyl album for a fiver in a second-hand shop in a less salubrious part of town. But that's the breaks. And no, I decided I couldn't.

This year the weekend kicked off on the Thursday with an all-day symposium on how to write and market a crime novel, including talks on plot, characterisation and setting by Kernick, Greg Mosse, Laura Wilson and Natasha Cooper. I'm not so sure about writing classes myself. I think if you need to write, you'll write. But others are all for them, and that's what makes horse races. I think the £100 fee for the day would be better off spent on a pile of crime novels. Reading is the best way of teaching yourself writing, I reckon.

In the evening, the award for Crime Novel of the Year was presented, with a big party afterwards. The winner was Two Way Split by Allan Guthrie, published by Polygon, a small Scottish independent press who consistently fail to send me review copies. Everyone I spoke to told me that Guthrie is a big talent, so it looks like a trip to WH Smith's for me as soon as possible.

As a matter of fact, it's a pity they do that presentation and party on the Thursday evening, as most delegates haven't arrived yet. The rest of the weekend is crammed full of panels of writers, publishers, agents, and anyone else with knowledge of the crime scene. The most popular session was about how to make a historical novel accurate, with Lindsay Davis among others. The queue to get in snaked through the hotel foyer and out into the car park, where it mixed with the dedicated smokers banned from enjoying their nicotine fix indoors. I've got to say there are few more ridiculous sights than that of grown men and women (and you can count me in as one) wandering around outside under umbrellas just to smoke a cigarette. Sad too, because what fictional genre has more of a relationship with tobacco than crime? Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart, I'm sure, must be spinning in their graves.

The bad weather did manage to upset the festival slightly, as it meant that the special guest Frederick Forsyth was prevented from arriving. A last-minute replacement show called "US vs UK" was shoehorned in on Saturday evening, which proved to be a great success. Harlan Coburn and Lee Child took on Val McDermid and Mark Billingham to tackle that old chestnut as to which country produces the best crime novels. Naturally the Yanks took the biscuit. No contest.

Other highlights were publishers' parties on Friday and Saturday evening, but possibly the rain did dampen some spirits as, unlike other conventions and festivals I've attended before, there were no loud arguments, drunken brawls or illicit sex. At least, none that I witnessed.

All in all, the Harrogate crime festival 2007 was a great success. Old friends were greeted and old enemies avoided, and I'm pleased to say on what was probably the biggest weekend in the entire history of book publishing, no one mentioned Harry Potter.

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