Book Reviews

Virtual Noir at the Bar

Virtual Noir at the Bar

Even during this crazy year – at worst terrifying, at best weird – there have been positives. One highlight for me has been Virtual Noir at the Bar, a weekly dose of top-class crime fiction readings brought into my home on my laptop screen.

The organisers of the Newcastle Chapter of Noir at the Bar decided to go virtual in April to give crime fiction fans something to enjoy in the lonely days of Lockdown. It’s a simple but entertaining premise: crime writers at various stages of their careers – from those at pre-publication to big-name bestsellers – read an extract of their work live to an online audience on Wednesday nights.

I’ve tuned in every week, sometimes live and sometimes catching up on the recording afterwards, so I was thrilled when Victoria Watson got in touch to invite me to give a reading from one of my books.

My turn came around last night at Virtual Noir at the Bar No. 16 and this is how the evening went:

Vic opened the show by explaining to the viewers how the evening would run and which buttons to press to ask questions and share comments in a group chat. The running order every week is decided when Vic draws the names out of a hat. I think I speak for all the participating authors when I say that straw hat became an instrument of torture. Those still waiting to read were on the edge of our swivel chairs, not knowing if our name would be drawn next.

Rachel Abbott

First out of the hat was Rachel Abbott, who started writing as a hobby ten years ago and has now sold four million copies of her books. Rachel read two extracts from her latest title The Murder Game. It’s a book I read a couple of months ago so it was nice to spend time again with this modern thriller that has a delicious nod to Agatha Christie. A question from the audience asked whether Rachel would consider writing a story that featured both of her sleuths Tom Douglas and Stephanie King. Rachel said: “Never say never.” A hopeful answer for fans of both series.

Egan Hughes

Egan Hughes read from her debut The One That Got Away. We knew we were in for a treat when Vic told us it was shortlisted for the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition. Egan gave us a great scene about a woman getting bad news that might not actually have been bad for her. And it might not have even been news at all …

Jane Roberts-Morpeth

Jane Roberts-Morpeth is the 2019 North Tyneside Libraries Story Tyne Winner. She read her winning story, The Punishment Principle. Her terrific opening line: “Betsy was finding infamy quite intolerable” set the tone and the fun of this great piece. More of Jane’s stories can be found in her published collection The Repository of Lost Souls.

Bar Break 

During the five-minute break we were treated to wonderful jazz by Newcastle-based singer Jason Isaacs. We also had a go at the Guess the Cover quiz. Images were lowered onto the screen, revealing the picture before the author and title. I got one right. Note to self: read more crime classics.

Tammy Cohen

Prolific author and a Richard and Judy Pick (as her historical fiction alter ego Rachel Rhys), Tammy Cohen kicked off part two with a reading from her latest title Stop At Nothing. A mother takes the law into her own hands when her teenage daughter is attacked. Tammy jumped straight into the action of her opening chapter, powerfully conveying the primeval protectiveness of her mother character.

Elle Croft

Elle Croft is the Kindle Top-Ten bestselling author of three psychological thrillers. She read two extracts from her latest book Like Mother Like Daughter. She gave us clever little clues as to what the title might, or might not, mean for her characters. I have my suspicions and I intend to read the book very soon to find out more about this intriguing story.

Rachel Sargeant

Next was me. Vic told everyone about my latest psychological thriller, The Roommates, and how the setting was inspired by my recent return to university (although I’m happy to report that the first few weeks of my studies were far less sinister than those experienced by my characters.) I read the opening chapter in which three of the future flatmates arrive at university for the start of freshers’ week. It was nerve-wracking talking into a computer screen. I read a line where my main character’s hands are described as trembling. It wasn’t method acting when the book shook in my hands at the same time.

Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey has published three psychological thrillers with Bookouture. Beamed to our screens from her home in Amsterdam, Jennifer read from Someone Else’s Daughter. In the prologue, Katie conducts a fruitless, desolate search of the shoreline for Isa. “The girl we all wanted to be … My best friend and worst enemy…” Another one I’ll be reading very soon.

Quiz and Music

Time for a second break. While enjoying more fabulous Jason Isaacs music, we puzzled over another quiz. Famous song titles were depicted as vintage noir book covers, designed by screen writer and graphic artist Todd Alcott. I was hopeless at guessing even though one turned out to be Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello, a favourite of mine.

Sharon Bolton

Sunday Times Bestseller, Sharon Bolton, explained that her latest book The Split is set on the island of South Georgia, one of the remotest places on earth. The setting, beautifully displayed to us on her virtual background, proved too good to waste on just one book so Sharon also set her short story The Snow Bride there. It was this atmospheric story that she treated us to last night.

During a rare technical glitch when Vic’s Zoom connection was temporarily lost, Simon stepped in to pose an insightful question from the audience. (Not to worry, Vic, I didn’t see the join!) In response, Sharon explained the difficulties of setting a murder story in a place with fewer than 40 inhabitants and a lack of infrastructure. One solution was to set half of the story in Cambridge. Good plan!

Noir from the Bar Short Story Anthology

Sharon is one of the contributors to the Noir from the Bar Short Story Anthology, sales of which enable the organisers to fund the hosting platform for Virtual Noir at the Bar. Any remaining profits go to the NHS. I’ve bought my copy and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Chris McGeorge

Chris McGeorge, described by his publisher Orion as King of the Locked Room Mystery, read from his second novel Now you See Me. In a neat Virtual Noir coincidence, he told us he studied a novel of the same title during his MA course. The novel was by none other than Sharon Bolton. Chris’s novel takes place in the Standedge canal tunnel, the longest canal tunnel in England. Six young people go in one end in a canal boat and only one comes out the other side. Chris gave a dramatic reading of an extract in which author Robin is at a book signing when he gets an alarming phone call from desperate prison inmate Matthew.

Amanda Jennings

Amanda Jennings, a WHSmith Fresh Talent Pick, rounded off the evening with an extract from The Storm which comes out next week. Nathan controls every aspect of wife Hannah’s life. But why does she let him? Answers lie in one stormy night in the fishing community of Newlyn in the 1990s. A notable line: “like a marionette with snapped strings”. Another one I’ll be reading soon.

By my reckoning I’ve added at least another nine to my must-read list after last night.

Victoria Watson and Simon Bewick – Organisers

I’ve always enjoyed watching Virtual Noir at the Bar, but until I took part as an author, I hadn’t appreciated just how much work goes into each event. This week I received many explanatory emails from the organisers and we had a rehearsal on Sunday. I was just one of ten authors they were dealing with and I was involved for one week only. Victoria Watson and Simon Bewick deal with at least ten authors every week prior to each Virtual Noir at the Bar. They also run a Twitter account, organise book raffles and arrange two quizzes with music every week, not to mention making sure the technology is up and running. This means huge amounts of admin that take hours of their free time. They give their professionalism and enthusiasm week in week out for free. I congratulate and thank them for what they do.

By Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant is a British author. Her latest thriller, The Roommates, is a Closer Magazine "Must Read". Her other titles are The Good Teacher, The Perfect Neighbours and Gallipoli: Year of Love and Duty. Rachel won Writing Magazine’s Crime Short Story competition and has been shortlisted in various competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize. She was born in Lincolnshire and is a graduate of Aberystwyth University. She now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and children.

Comments (2)

  1. Katy Johnson 16th July 2020 at 9:34 pm

    Sounds a great event – I love The Roommates and have The Murder Game on my TBR. Looking forward to reading others

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