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Tuesday 4 October 2016

St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Weekend 2016

‘The question of genre: what is crime fiction?’
by Marsali Taylor

St Hilda’s College, Oxford, organised by Dr Eileen Roberts and Kate Charles, hosted another wonderful conference from 19th – 21st August, with interesting papers presented by a variety of speakers, a good mix of writers and readers, and excellent food!

The weekend began with drinks on the lawn in front of the college, with flower beds sloping down to the river, followed by the Conference Dinner. The speaker for this was Ted Childs, the man responsible for bringing Inspector Morse to our TV screens, and his talk was illustrated by clips of the shows, including some of the late Colin Dexter’s cameo appearances. 

The Conference proper began with a welcome from Kate Charles on Saturday after breakfast, followed by the first double-act, with Elly Griffiths and Jane Finnis looking at the origins of crime stories. Griffiths’ paper, A Gimlet bored in a Chair Leg: how Crowded Rooms led to Murder demonstrated her thesis that crime is an indoors thing, with crime and clues all within a room. Slides illustrated how ‘classical’, uncluttered Regency decor changed to brightly-covered rooms filled with furniture and objects with a story behind them in the Victorian era, just at the time detecive fiction began, and reminded us of early cases: Poe’s The Purloined Letter, with the first bumbling policeman, The Moonstone, where paint on a nightdress became as important as blood (both Collins and Dickens were obsessed with the Kent case, which involved a blood-stained nightdress) and brought us up to date with Ann Cleeves’ The Glass Room and Lesley Thomson’s The house with no rooms.

Jane Finnis took us further back, to the ‘kind of crime story’ of fairy tales, with Once Upon a Crime. She reminded us of the attempted murders in Snow White, the child-killing witch in Handsel and Gretel, the serial murder, Bluebeard, and of course Granny being eaten in Little Red Riding Hood. Researchers now reckon some of those stories go back to the Bronze Age, though they really spread through literacy with Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Fairy-tale creators Hans Christian Anderson, Beatrix Potter, and Gilbert and Sullivan brought us up to the age of film, TV and computer games. She pointed out the similarities to crime stories: the victim, the hero often young, the centre of the story often female, the mixture of real and fantastic, and the satisfying ending with the bad getting their just deserts, like the wicked queen in Snow White (in the original, she was made to dance in shoes of red hot iron until she dropped down dead). Bowdlerised in the late Victorian age, these stories are reaching a new audience through gorier adaptations like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes’.

As always at St Hilda’s, the audience was ready to wade in with questions befitting the academic venue. The conclusion summed up by chair Natasha Cooper at the end of a lively session was that crime and fairytales were linked in their dealing with archetypes – and it was time for coffee.

The Conference Lecture was delivered by Guest of Honour Lee Child. Seven Million Years of Thriller Fiction took us right back to the days of homo sapiens vs Neanderthal man, where our ability to talk to each other gave us the advantage. Childs reckoned storytelling came before music, with factual interaction first (‘The mammoths are over there’), followed by cautionary tales of encounters with a sabre-toothed tiger, which perhaps were embellished in the telling ... and so were born action and combat thrillers which encouraged individuals to believe they could survive – in fact, he concluded triumphantly, literary stuff was the barnacles on our boat!  In his talk, he’d mentioned a 63,000 year old Neanderthal ‘flute’ – only to be quickly picked up by his academic audience pointing out that it was in fact a hoax. To finish, Child talked of the functions of contemporary crime fiction, both a puzzle and a record of how we live and what we do that can sometimes be more accurate than a more literary re-telling.

After an excellent lunch, we headed back for Martin Edwards with Trending: why is Golden Age fashionable again? After defining the Golden Age as the period between the two world wars, he went on to look at the game-playing aspect, the interest in psychology, the altruistic murders, and how styles changed after the war, with Highsmith and Symons. Edwards analysed why changes in publishing, with POD, small runs and digital, have encouraged reissues (‘You can get seven novels by Ethel Lina White for 49p, that sounds like a bargain!’). The British Library reissues, with their nostalgic railway poster covers, have also proved popular, with Mystery in White being a surprise Christmas best-seller. The GA plot, settings and characters all cast light on their day – a long list of politicians being murdered raised a laugh – but the theme of ruinous financiers hasn’t yet become outdated. Edwardsended by picking out exceptions to the general sum-ups of GA crime as ‘cosy’, ‘conventional’ and ‘conservative.

Carol Westron’s Why Servants need not Apply’ took us through the lists of rules coined by R Austin Freeman, Dorothy L Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Ronald Knox T S Eliot, A A Milne and SS Van Dine – including ‘A servant must not be the culprit’. All these rules were, of course, cheerfully broken by their exponents and other writers. The over-arching idea of ‘fair play’ was introduced early, and here Weston cited several writers of the ‘Silver Age’, the Edwardian era. Questions after these sessions found that the GA revival was in the US, Japan and France but not Germany, and there was an interesting discussion on the re-iteration of clues, from the over-emphatic footnotes with page references, through solving half of the mystery before the final wind-up, to gathering the suspects in the library. Edwards talked about the problems he had writing his award-winning The Golden Age of Detection, and how it ended using the techniques of a novel. However, he concluded, the term ‘Golden Age’ is now being used as a branding for a ‘safe’ book where good will defeat evil without too much blood. GA will keep coming back!

The final session of the day was on historical crime, and Andrew Taylor led off with Pistols at Dawn: how Crime Fiction Waylaid the Historical Novel. He looked first at when this sub-genre appeared, with no mention of it in the crime fiction studies of the 1980s, but numerous authors cited in a 1997 ‘Crime History’. Forerunners included Christie’s Death comes as the End, the Dickson Carr ‘eccentric historical crime novels’ and Eco’s 1980 The Name of the Rose. By 1980, Ellis Peters had written her first three Brother Cadfael novels, and these were a success after new covers branded them as a more-readable version of The Nmae of the Rose. He pointed out that historical fiction is also thriving, with Mantell and Waters among best-sellers. In terms of amount, various calculations give historical crime about 12-15% of the crime market. Popular periods are mid C20th, Tudor / Stuart (linked to the Tudor TV series and Mantell), Romans, and Medieval (WWII attracts male readers). He defined historical crime as mainly fictitious characters with real life people in minor roles (though there is a sub-genre with real people as detectives), with settings familiar from writers like Dickens. Plots are fast-moving and highly-coloured, and writers like Sansom can be richly textured, seeing the past through the eyes of those who lived there. Although critics can look down on them, he concluded, the best historical crime novels are very good indeed.
Shona MacLean followed with You couldn’t make it up: Rules and Cmpromises in Historical Crime Fiction. She began by posing the historical novelist’s key question: are you going to use real people, either revolving around them, like Mantell, or as actors with your fictional characters. She felt using real people was morally ambiguous, that you needed to respect their reputations, and recounted her initial difficulty in using Oliver Cromwell. She feels it’s important not to judge historical people by C21 standards, so where she has put criticism of them in, it’s through the mouths of characters, using comments that were made at the time. The novel’s function is to entertain, so she avoids trying to use the past to make present-day political comment, or to ‘teach’ about the period – avoid inserting that fascinating fact unless it adds to the book! She has been asked, on panels, whether she feels ‘fiction gives a more accurate representation of historical truth’; for fact, no, but for immersion in that world, yes. The audience asked how she felt about fictionalised versions of crime, like Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to see the Peepshow or the recent drama on the Wests; MacLean said she was uncomfortable with both of these. A final word of advice: history books are informed more by the decade in which they’re written; to test their accuracy, check their footnotes!

After these papers, there was an author signing session in the elegant Senior Common Room, then it was time for our next meal, another excellent formal dinner, rounded off by a witty speech from Val McDermid, in which she went through the genres of her career of crime.

Delegates were up bright and early on Sunday morning. Andrew Taylor had token over as chair, and introduced the first speaker, co-organiser Kate Charles, to talk on From Father Brown to Sidney Chambers: the Clerical Detective. She starting by taking us through a quite immense list of priestly detectives, starting with Father Brown, then moved on to monks – Brother Cadfael and kin – then nuns, led by the American Sister Mary Helen – (at this point pens were scribbling frantically at the rush of new names to look out for) - Nonconformist clergy, including Quakers, Amish and Shakers – a Jewish Rabbi – and finally, Anglicans, both male and female. Attractions of this genre were, Charles felt, the retro underlying framework of morality in a simpler world of village, church, vicar; the tempering of mercy and justice; the tension between the ‘unworldly’ priest who still has a day-to-day acquaintance with the dark side of life, and access to people’s deepest secrets; and the gap between the Church’s ideals and the all-too-human behaviour of the people who belong to it.

Chris Ewan then spoke on What’s so Funny? Humour in Crime Fiction. Readers, he said, were unsettled by the idea, as if ‘comedy’ was inappropriate, but although crime and comedy do clash, light is needed, and the humour in the books can often come from particular characters, especially in series. A better comparison, he reckoned, was with crime movies like The Thomas Crowne Affair.Humorous crime often pushes limits of the genre; Chandler’s world-weary Marlowe, for example, isn’t being funny, but using humour as a defence mechanism to keep the world at bay. The humour is often through a narrative voice. The novelist isn’t making light of corruption, but is holding it up to ridicule. In passing he demonstrated how to pick a padlock – frighteningly easy, with two small pieces of metal readily available on the internet. Questions for this session agreed that even with our increasingly secular society, clerical detectives are still popular – for example the recent Granchester TV series – and that these often lighten a possible ‘preachy’ tone with humour.

The final session was kicked off by Sarah Weinman, with The Originators of Domestic Suspense. This, she felt was a relatively recent phenomenom, although she cited The Death Wish from 1943 as an early example. However her main examples were from after 2010. She felt the attractions were the ability to home in on what makes a marriage fall apart from inside, even though it looks fine on the outside, and the ‘What would I do?’ way the reader is involved in a situation that turns quickly from normal to terrifying. Questions later raised the name of Margaret Yorke, a very fine writer in the domestic suspense tradition, who, Andrew Taylor reckoned, suffered from being at the tail end of the alphabetically arranged shelves. 

Finally, Marcia Tally rose to speak on Murder Least Foul: Teapots and Craft Shops and Cats. Oh My. She reckoned that true ‘cosy’ began in the early 1970s, and was distinguished by no excessive sex, profanity discouraged, and deaths quick and off-stage. At that time thrillers dominated the best-seller charts. In 1966, Lilian Jackson Braun wrote her first The Cat who ... novel; she gave up after three, then, in the mid 1980s, there was an explosion in the genre, and they were re-published, followed by more. Braun was writing her 30th The Cat who... when she died in her nineties. Seen now as a fun read that engages the mind, cosies often boast a protagonist who is a professional woman with specific knowledge the police don’t have, or a personal stake in solving the crime. She’s bright, intuitive, with education and life experience, and she gets people talking. She may have a best friend who’s a police officer, or forensic scientist. Local police dismiss her, but she still lurks around to solve the mystery. Cosies can take place anywhere (like at a Bigfoot convention), but they tend to be in a small setting with a limited number of suspects, and make little use of forensics. They lend themselves to series with punning titles ... and here the audience’s collective jaws dropped as we learned of the teddy bear museum series, the cheese shop series (To Brie or Not to Brie), ones with recipes (Death by Darjeeling), the ‘pet noir’ series, investigators Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and Elvis: Blue Suede Clues and Kill me Tender. The ‘high-end consignment store’ series raised a question: it’s apparently where trophy wives sell their once-worn designer gowns for 60% of the original price, to get the pin-money their husbands don’t give them. Now you know!  There’s even a cosies website, where you can look up titles by occupation of the protagonist, setting, or even by weather!

And that was it ... the end of another fantastic conference. The theme for next year’s is still under discussion, but Kate Charles gave us the dates: 18 – 20th August 2017. A final lunch and chat with friends, Dr Eileen Roberts led a round of appplause for the caterers, and we headed off home, with a lot to think about and a huge number of new authors to look out for. Roll on next year!

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

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