Best-selling crime author Val McDermid, whose novels have had fans gripped for decades, is now judging our short story competition.
So whether you’re looking to be inspired or just entertained, this exclusive, gripping tale by Val is just what you need.
It started in the bar. Well, of course it did, it was a crime-writing festival and the bar was inevitably its beating telltale heart.
We’d been on a panel together that afternoon, improbably titled -Provincial Noir: Because It’s Not Just London That Has Mean Streets.
But the bar is where it started, not the stage.
We write very different kinds of book, Daniel and me. I write dark suspense thrillers where my -characters spend most of their four-hundred page existence in a state of visceral terror and anxiety.
Daniel writes police procedurals set in Manchester where the grimness is leavened with surprising shafts of humour and romance.
Even though we share a publisher, we don’t often share a platform because festival programmers perceive us as having little in common.
When our paths had crossed -previously, it had always been in - -clusters of other crime writers.
Because of course crime writers are the party animals of the literary world.
It’s a historical thing. Back in the days before our work was taken seriously, we huddled together in defiant solidarity against the dismissiveness of literary editors and academics.
But it’s a habit that lingered. Now it sometimes feels we’re competing to see who will close the bar.
Daniel and I had always been friendly, praising each other’s work and enjoying the camaraderie.
It had never felt like a connection that was going any further. But that night in the Victorian spa town that has become the home of crime-writing festivals, a stoked-up Mancunian, chippy as only the unsuccessful writer can be, ripped into Daniel.
He accused him of being a middle-class tourist expropriating the lives of those condemned to exist on the dark side of the tracks.
Daniel has always been very private about his personal life. But I’d gleaned enough over the years to realise just how far off the mark his attacker was.
I could see Daniel wasn’t going to defend himself because that would have meant exposing things he’d always kept close to his chest.
So I weighed in on his behalf. Without providing any of the details he still guards so carefully, I gave him both barrels.
“When it comes to being a tourist, look in the mirror. You’re the tourist right here, right now. In any group of half-decent writers, you will always be a tourist.
You know nothing about the man you’ve chosen to attack, which isn’t surprising, because your general lack of knowledge is one of the few things that comes alive in your books.
Now go away and find some other third-division hack to annoy.” I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t have to. He slunk away while my fellow-drinkers stared at me with open mouths.
“Wow,” Daniel said. “That was harsh.”
“Wee fud was asking for it,” Chris Brookmyre offered.
“And you didn’t hold back,” Mark Billingham added, crossing his legs and looking faintly anxious. “Well said. I think.”
I grinned and moved the conversation on. But later, as the evening slipped into the small hours, Daniel and I were somehow the last ones standing, “Thanks for sticking up for me,” he said as we waited together for the lift.
“You’d do the same for me.”
He gave a wry smile. “Maybe not quite so directly.”
“You’re a man, you’d have threatened to take it outside. Women resort to more devious means. It’s why we’re better at complicated plotting than you men.”
‘Are you suggesting I’m simple?’
Out of nowhere, the crackle of flirtation had burst into flame. We stepped into the lift, the doors sliding shut behind us.
“Not simple. Just more linear.” He turned to face me, one hand on the wall, and kissed me on the lips.
Soft, lingering, exploratory. He stepped away as the lift shuddered to a halt at our floor.
“On the other hand, linear does have much to commend it,” I said, slightly breathless.
“I have whisky if you’d like a nightcap?”
I nodded and we walked down the corridor, a careful distance between us. Discretion was already clearly our watchword.
On the threshold of his room, the door open invitingly, I said, “I do know you’re married.” “With two kids,” he acknowledged.
“And I know you live with someone. And I really don’t make a habit of this kind of thing.”
“Whatever this kind of thing is.”
I followed him inside and quietly closed the door behind me.
And that was how it started. We spent all three nights of the festival in each other’s beds.
The sex was buoyant, exceptional and surprising. I say surprising, because I’m not accustomed to laughing quite so raucously in the throes of passion.
Most men, in my experience, have a tendency to become huffy when their partners giggle, guffaw and weep with laughter between the sheets. But heaven help me, it was fun.
On Sunday lunchtime, we said goodbye among a scrum of departing writers in the hotel foyer.
He left for Manchester, I left for the cottage in Wester Ross where I spend the summers writing, sometimes in the company of the man I was living with at the time.
Peter was clever and challenging and I had thought I loved him but even before my nights with Daniel, the shine had come off.
We spent enough time apart to disguise that fact from both of us, because we still enjoyed each other’s company.
Daniel and I were both clear that what had happened was an adventure. We knew how in fiction such events would -invariably be the trigger for murder, -malevolence and mayhem. But we were -determined that wouldn’t happen to us.
We stayed in occasional contact via email, narrowly missed each other at book festivals and once crossed paths in a radio studio.
There was, thankfully, neither awkwardness nor embarrassment.
And when the spa town festival rolled round again, we were both participants.
How to enter
We have launched a short story competition for budding crime writers.
Send your best work – up to 2,500 unpublished words – to possibly win a ￡1,000 prize, a signed copy of head judge Val McDermid’s latest book and your story in the paper.
And with ￡250 available to two runners-up, this could be the time to put pen to paper on the idea you’ve had for a while.
To enter, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Short story competition’ in the subject line before the closing date of May 30.