I spent last weekend at CrimeFest in Bristol – a convention for crime and mystery writers and readers, “where the pen is bloodier than the sword”, to quote their tagline.

I’ve been going there ever since it started, and I always love it. Mixing with mystery writers and readers from all over the world, entertained by a varied programme of panels and author interviews, catching up with old friends and making new ones, and talking about books and writing till the cows came home…what better way to spend a long weekend?

For starters, it’s just the right size. I’d be very uncomfortable at one of these huge American conventions where thousands of people congregate, with six streams of panels running simultaneously. I like a conference small enough to give plenty of variety where you don’t feel dwarfed into anonymity. Around 400 people attended at Bristol, and we could choose from more than 40 panels and author interviews, two or at most three simultaneously, plus a dozen 15-minute “In The Spotlight” slots where writers could talk about any topic they liked.

There was truly something for everyone: discussion of all genres of crime fiction from cosy to noir, international crime writers, historicals, thrillers, adapting books for other media, authors who’ve been forgotten but shouldn’t be, and…well I couldn’t possibly get to them all, nobody could.

There were five Head of Zeus authors strutting our stuff. Dana Stabenow had come over from her home in Alaska; Michael Ridpath, Hanna Jameson, Lesley Thomson, and Yours Truly hadn’t such long journeys to make. It was a real pleasure to meet them and hear about their books, all of which I wanted to buy instantly at the convention bookshop, but as I was travelling by train I had to restrain the urge to make my suitcase even heavier. My To Be Read list has increased exponentially, but that’s one of the delights of a weekend like CrimeFest. Four of the HoZ team were there too: Becci, Vicki, Laura and Mathilda. They organised a convivial dinner one night, which gave us authors a chance to get to know them, and each other. Thanks, guys!

I was on two panels. One focused on historical crime, in which as it happened the classical world was well represented: Ruth Downie and I write about Ancient Rome, Jeffrey Siger’s books are set in modern Greece but with links to the ancient past; Anthony Hays writes about King Arthur; William Sutton’s Victorian London mysteries are (relatively) modern. As always it’s interesting to find out how and why other writers choose their periods, and how they bring them to life.

My second panel was a discussion, a debate, really, about which sort of character makes the best detective…police officer (represented by Sheila Quigley’s Lorraine Hunt and Mike Yorke,) private eye, (Nick Quantrill’s Joe Geraghty,) bad guy (Howard Linskey’s Newcastle gangster,) or amateur…my Roman innkeeper Aurelia Marcella. It was fun and also illuminating, as we each tried to pinpoint the merits of our protagonists. I reckon Aurelia won…but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?   

One of the best things about CrimeFest is that it has always had a friendly atmosphere, as welcoming to first-timers as to regulars. Nobody needs to feel lonely even if they know nobody when they arrive. Everyone enjoys getting into conversation with people they’ve never met before, and there’s plenty of opportunity, over coffee between the panels, or in the bar. There were a couple of drinks receptions in the evenings, plus a pub quiz one night, and a gala dinner on the Saturday. All work and no play it certainly was not…though of course I told my family I’m working hard. I don’t think they believed me.

I’m already looking forward to next year Roll on CrimeFest 2014!

Visit Jane Finnis' website to discover more about the Aurelia Marcella Mysteries.