Literary FestivalsThe Colophon

In-person literary events return to Toronto’s Harbourfront with TIFA’s genre-focused Motive Crime & Mystery Festival

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid contributes vocals to the supergroup Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, as well as speaking about the importance of Agatha Christie, at the Motive Crime & Mystery Festival

Between 1992 and 2012, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and an alternating roster of other writers and entertainers played charity gigs as the Rock Bottom Remainders. According to Vanity Fair, by the time they broke up, they had learned to play “almost four chords.” It’s unclear how many chords mystery writers Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre have in their repertoire, but anyone interested in finding out can head over to Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on Saturday, June 4, to catch the two as part of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a supergroup that also features Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste, and Val McDermid on vocals.

The band is performing as part of the Motive Crime & Mystery Festival, an adjunct to the Toronto International Festival of Authors set to take place June 3 through June 5 at Harbourfront. “They play songs that have criminal themes,” says Roland Gulliver, director of TIFA and Motive, who names “Psycho Killer” and “Watching the Detectives” as typical band fare. “Most people have been quite incredulous when I’ve presented this to them,” Gulliver says.

In addition to contributing vocals for the Saturday evening concert, McDarmid will be speaking about the legacy of mystery writing’s Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie; Billingham will do likewise for the importance of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon.

The idea for a crime and mystery writers festival had been kicking around since Gulliver arrived in Toronto in what he refers to as “that fateful February 2020” – less than one month before Covid-19 would result in shutdowns and closures across the province and the country. Gulliver made a point of inquiring what people’s favourite books were, who their favourite authors were. And as he broadened his sample pool, one thing kept asserting itself. “What came through was the real enthusiasm for crime writing and mystery writing,” he says.

The former director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Gulliver is no stranger to overseas versions of what Motive is meant to be. “Coming from the U.K., with Bloody Scotland and Harrogate and Noirwich, the concept of the crime festival is quite strong,” Gulliver says. “Also, it seemed like a really exciting way to open out a different kind of audience.”

The three-day festival includes forty in-person events at Harbourfront Centre, along with a series of digital appearances by A-list authors such as Harlen Coben, Walter Mosely, Peter Robinson, Linwood Barclay, Denise Mina, and Liam McIlvanney. “There are events in Italian and Japanese and Javier Ceras talking about his new crime novel in Spanish,” says Gulliver. “It’ll be interesting to see the relationship between international audiences watching those events and Canadian audiences watching those digital events.”

Run in conjunction with Harbourfront’s year-long Nordic Spotlight festival, Motive will feature a series of events with Nordic noir writers, including Thomas Enger and Helene Flood from Norway, Lilja Siguroardóttir from Iceland, Mads Peder Nordbo from Denmark, and Max Seeck from Finland.

One of the most intriguing events on the program is an interactive experience called The Hidden, which takes place off-site, at the Cinguacousy Branch of the Brampton Library. “It’s part mystery puzzle, part scavenger hunt,” says Gulliver. “It’s created by Visible Fictions in the U.K. and Janet Smyth, who is our TIFA Kids program consultant, has brought this here. It’s designed for young people but all people can attend.”

The narrative of The Hidden involves a hunt through the branch for a series of books that have been tagged with “clues” or information about a librarian who has gone missing. There are multiple paths a participant can take through the interactive narrative, making it a kind of choose-your-own adventure experience. “I went to it when I was back in Edinburgh,” Gulliver says. “There were some competitive parents in the group.”

Gulliver has been cheered by what he calls a “high return” on international authors who expressed a willingness to travel to an in-person festival after more than two years of Covid restrictions. “With the Nordic focus, those countries are perhaps in a different space compared to where we are,” he says. “And I think there is that desire to get back to being in person. We almost need to refresh the in-person experience to then work out what we want from our digital experience alongside that.”

Audience response has also been enthusiastic, according to Gulliver. Following the official launch on April 29, ticket sales have been brisk, including sales for the $210 All-Access Pass that provides unlimited entry to festival events except for the three creative writing masterclass sessions featuring Marissa Stapley, Doug Johnstone, and Karen Sullivan. “People are buying tickets for a whole range of different events, from the masterclasses to the critical conversations that we’re doing in partnership with Provocation Ideas Festival, which are looking at things about policing and the ethics of crime writing,” Gulliver says. “So, you’ve got the entertainment of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, and then you’ve got the serious conversation, which I think is a really important element to have.”

Share this post