The event is is part of the eighth Mord am Hellweg (Murder on the Hellweg, the latter an old salt-trading route crossing central Germany). MaH claims to be Europe’s largest international crime fiction festival. Held biennially, and this year starting with an event in Dusseldorf on September 2, by its conclusion on 16 December, it will have involved 150 writers in 138 separate events across 23 Ruhr valley communities from Ahlen (population 50,000+) to the university city of Witten (population around 100, 000). Each year’s festival publishes a commemorative anthology and awards its own international prize for crime fiction, the Ripper prize.
Top of the bill in Schwerte is the best-selling ‘Jean Bagnol’, in fact the husband and wife team of Nina George and Jo Kramer, the former with a recent international hit, The Little Paris Bookshop. There are also writers Sabina Naber (Austria), Charles den Tex (Dutch best-seller, long-listed this year for the CWA’s New Blood Award) and there should have been John Connell (USA). But he’s ill and can’t attend. A late substitute is found in German bibliographer (and author) Thomas Pryzbilka. Music is provided by string/ flute combo Wildes Holz (Wild Wood); there is even a host in Stefan Keim, from regional media company WDR who in addition to sponsoring events like this also support a concert orchestra and rather good jazz big band (Rupert Murdoch, are you listening?). It all adds up to what the Germans call a reading. But I had never imagined an event quite like this.
Sabina wows us all (it turns out she has some dramatic training), in spite of her Austrian text, strange to many of the audience (and to me); Charles reads in Dutch, and a section of John Connell’s book is read in English (a translator into German is available in all cases). Later Thomas assures our host (always at hand with a brief Q&A) that membership of AIEP, founded in Cuba in 1986, was never acquired by Fidel Castro, whilst Nina and Jo round off the evening with a dose of the necessary star quality.
The evening is a resounding success, perhaps the high point of this year’s AIEP conference, this year taking place in Unna  (population 67,000), a close neighbour of Schwerte , and using the town’s Hotel Katharinenhof for its base. By Friday 7 October delegates from Austria, Colombia (via Madrid), Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, UK and USA, have assembled, along with President Emanuel Ikonomov from Bulgaria.
Almost single-handedly, Jutta Motz had assembled a fascinating programme. Over the next three days, delegates will meet to discuss the pressing issues confronting a somewhat depleted organisation. Most importantly, against a backdrop of recent political change, globalisation for example (leading to greater availability of translated fiction in most countries) but also those movements encouraging xenophobia, shouldn’t AIEP be working to re-define its objectives, perhaps its organisation and extend its membership? And, never incidentally, where would our next annual meeting be held?
First however came generally positive reports from countries such as the UK (a revival in print publishing, CWA membership at record levels), from Austria (new small publishers, new festivals), whilst our Japanese delegates are delighted at the recent international take-up of Japanese novels and (in EQMM at least) short stories from some of their classic writers. In the USA 14% of MWA members also support AIEP (as IACW, its US manifestation); they publish a newsletter, Border Patrol (!).
The Jeremiah Healey Award, a key recent AIEP president, established in his memory in 2015 after Jerry’s death, was awarded for the second time at the Key West festival. In Switzerland they have established a novel writer’s event. Called Writers on Board and occurring monthly, writers are reserved a place to write on a ship touring Lake Zurich; on the return journey they meet and discuss ideas. (Similar out-of-hours facilities are offered in the restaurant in Zurich’s main railway station!). Struggling Bulgaria, on the other hand, is over-saturated by books from the UK and USA. So much so that it is not known whether a recent crime writers event in Sofia will be repeated. Book sales in the Netherlands now show some signs of recovery; not so author’s income as new developments in publishing (streaming, subscription ereading) offer negligible income. To end on a lighter note: Germany’s Syndikat now boasts up to 800 members, and supports up to 15 festivals a year. It also claims to be the only crime writers association with its own football team (including a cheerleader group). Perhaps other teams from the various national associations, perhaps even an international side, might challenge the Germans at some appropriate venue?
Supplementing the on-going debates outlined earlier, key speakers highlight themes of the moment. Nina George, not only a best-seller but also a leading activist for author’s rights in Europe, presents some profoundly disturbing new research on the extent of internet piracy across Europe (and elsewhere), estimating, for instance, that "every second ebook on an e-reader in the world is illegal". With up to 3000 active piracy platforms and an ever more speedy digital world, what more can be done to protect writer’s income? Later forensic psychologist (and author) Lydia Beneke draws on her everyday experience dealing with some of Germany’s imprisoned violent and sexual offenders and gives us a crash course in identifying a psychopath. And Swiss zoologist and journalist Eva Waiblinger takes us through some new developments in toxicology, microbiology and immunology, with particular emphasis on those that might be of benefit to ingenious modern crime writers!
Somehow we also manage to fit in a guided tour of Unna, a local restaurant or two, and an enlightening visit to the huge Zollverein colliery, now a World Heritage site. On Monday we move by coach on to Hillesheim , a small town in the delightful Eifel district, now firmly on the tourist route with its Sherlock Cafe (four and a half stars on Trip Advisor!), and its associated crime fiction bookshop. Our host in Hillesheim is Ralf Kramp, author and editor with the German publishing house KBV, whose initiative, building on the success of his wife’s bookshop, lead to the establishment of what is now known as the Kriminalhaus. Upstairs it houses a collection of 30,000 volumes of German crime fiction, once the personal collection of Thomas Przybilka.
Another part of that same initiative is the town’s Krimi-Hotel, its rooms shrines to such deities as Sherlock Holmes , Miss Marple , James Bond , Inspector Barnaby and Derrick, star of Germany’s long-running TV series (281 episodes!) of the same name. I have a smaller (cheaper) room with a grubby mac hanging outside its wardrobe. Where else but the Colombo room?
Fortified (perhaps) by the Sherlock Café’s Croque Monsieur Nestor Burma and a local Eifeler Landbier, delegates take the guided tour of the archive, then to the highly informal lecture room for the final guest speaker, East German journalist Alexander Krüzfeldt, a recognised authority on the workings of the Deep Web, that portion of the worldwide web not normally accessible to you and I. Whilst emphasising its role in supporting political dissidence (the anonymising Tor search engine was funded under US government auspices), Alexander also explores the smaller portion of this world, the so-called Dark Web and its role in criminal activity (drugs, arms, pornography for example), normally available only by invitation and not via Tor.
Welcome light relief came later that evening in this year’s final event: a candle-lit dinner in the Krimi-Hotel’s private dining room for the remaining delegates (one or two departed on Sunday evening). The debates have continued, a working party has been set up to report at the next meeting, and Sabina Naber has volunteered Vienna as our next venue. I’m already looking forward to it. Perhaps you will join us?
Left to right: Jim Weikart (USA) President Emmanuel Okonomov (Bulgaria) Bob Cornwell (UK) Heidi M. Holzer (USA) Rubén Varona (Colombia) Jürgen Ehlers (Germany) Almuth Heuner (Germany) Maxi Lehmer- Kerkloh (Germany) Uta Ehlers (Germany) Gisela Lehmer-Kerkloh (Germany) Harue Matsuzaka (Japan) Jo Kramer (Germany) Sabina Naber (Austria) Tatjana Kruse (Germany) Charles den Tex (Netherlands) Tadashi Oyama (Japan) Nina George (Germany), Ken Matsuzaka (Japan), Ingrid Pryzbilka (Germany), Thomas Pryzbilka (Germany)