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Friday 10 August 2018

The Fourth Bodies from the Library Day

British Library, Euston Road, London
16 June 2018
Report by Radmila May

This was the fourth Bodies from the Library Day, celebrating crime fiction from 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of what is now known as the Golden Age of the genre. The British Library has seized on the chance to republish many of the Golden Age titles (and there are still a great many more to come) and these are now widely available. The number of those attending these Days has also grown considerably – evidence of the interest by crime fiction addict in the history of what is now the most popular genre of fiction.

The Day opened with a welcome from Rebecca Nuotio of the British Library and Martin Edwards.
Christine Poulson, Martin Edwards and Tony Medawar
Photo by Mike Linane

Unearthing ‘Bodies from the Library’: anthologies of Golden Age short stories.
The first panel of the Day was a discussion between Christine Poulson, Martin Edwards and Tony Medawar of the short stories of the period. Then as now the short story form is not one which of itself will provide a writer with sufficient income on which to make a living although short stories did (and do) draw a writer’s name to the attention of the crime reading public. Nowadays many short stories by Golden Age writers of which have recently been collected in anthologies often linked by theme or location. Martin has been responsible for many of those published by the British Library such as Blood on the Tracks (railway mysteries); Murder at the Manor (country house mysteries); Capital Crimes (London settings); Serpents in Eden (countryside crimes) as well as anthologies for the Crime Writers Association etc. Among Tony’s discoveries are short stories by Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer now anthologised in Lost Classic Crimes. Christine viewed the short stories from the Golden Age partly from an academic viewpoint and partly from their value as entertainment. There have in fact been many collections of short stories with a variety of themes, the season of goodwill being particularly attractive to murderers, and ranging over many centuries from the Ancient Egyptians through the Romans up to the present day.

The 1930s Crime Files were discussed by Dr John Curran. These were real oddball productions conceived by
Dr John Curran
Photo by Radmila May

Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links in which the purchaser was provided with a dossier in which the reader was provided with a murder and all the clues that a real-life team of detectives would utilise or discard as leading to the solution. The actual solution was provided in a sealed envelope towards the end of the contents. The idea was the reader would be fully engaged in working out the solution for himself or herself; it would be a game played between the compiler of the dossier and the purchaser as well as being a story. There is an analysis of the dossier phenomenon at They were enormously popular when published but failed to establish a long-lasting trend.

Rachel Reeves
Photo by Mile Linane

Ellen Wilkinson M.P. and detective novelist. Rachel Reeves M.P. described the life and times of this Labour politician. Ellen was born into poverty in Lancashire and as result of childhood malnutrition was always small. Due to that, her red hair and her outspoken Socialist and feminist principles she became known as ‘The Fiery Particle’. She was first elected to Parliament in 1924 and was one of the very first women members of Parliament life for whom was difficult. When another woman M.P. suggested she dress discreetly she did the opposite, wearing bright colours and on one occasion an emerald-green evening dress. It was when she lost her seat in 1931 that she turned to crime writing – she was in fact an avid detective fiction fan and called her kettle Agatha after – Guess Who! However, when she returned to Parliament in 1935 she was too busy to continue writing. For all her left-wing views she was known as an excellent organiser (having organised the Jarrow March of the unemployed from the north-east to London) and during World War II was in the wartime government. She was then briefly Minister of Education in the post-war Attlee government and began implementing educational reforms. But she died in 1946. Rachel spoke enthusiastically about Ellen and signed copies of her book, The Division Bell Mystery

Stephen Durbridge, David Brawn,
Melvyn Barns, Dolores Gordon-Smith

Photo by Mike Linane

Francis Durbridge Presents this was the title of a discussion about this prolific writer, best known for the Paul Temple radio series, between Stephen Durbridge, David Brawn and Melvyn Barnes moderated by Dolores Gordon-Smith. A number of his Paul Temple books have recently been republished by Collins Crime Club. Stephen Durbridge is the son of Francis Durbridge and works in film and as a film agent. David Brawn works for the publisher HarperCollins and looks after the Tolkien estate and now has his own agency representing film writers. Melvyn Barnes has always worked in public libraries. He is a long-time crime fiction addict,

Photo by Radmila May

The Excellent Richard Hull was presented to us by Martin Edwards. His real name was Richard Anthony Sampson (1896-1973) and, after serving in World War I, worked as an accountant. Francis Iles’s Malice Aforethought was a considerable influence on his writing.  He was an innovative and inventive writer who delighted in playing tricks with readers (touch of post-modernism here?) in some of his books such as Last First in which the story actually opens with the last chapter, and in A Matter of Nerves the story is told by the murderer without revealing who he is. None of his novels, however, was a successful as his first novel, The Murder of My Aunt. He varied his narrative techniques, sometimes using multiple narrators as in Murder Isn’t Easy. He could also be witty and sometimes used his accountancy knowledge in his novels such as My Own Murderer while Excellent Intentions has a good legal twist. Four of his novels are or will be published by the British Library. After his talk Martin described how he had always liked Golden Age writers and enjoyed searching for them with the aid of the ever-useful internet.

Radio Play. This followed the lunch break and was a dramatization of an Ellery Queen story. Unfortunately, the recording was afflicted by a great deal of crackling which made it difficult to follow.

Photo by Mike Linane

The Life and Works of Christianna Brand (1907-1988). Tony Medawar led this discussion, describing the author’s work as a Tour de Force. This author’s real (married) name was Mary Lewis. Her relationship with her father was unhappy and she was mainly brought up by her aunt with cousins, one of whom was the illustrator Edward Ardizzone of whom she was very fond. Her first novel was Death in High Heels and this was followed by Heads You Lose, which was published during World War II and won a prize. One of her best-known novels is Green for Danger set in an operating theatre during an air raid. She lived in Maida Vale and many of her books are set in London. Detective Inspector Cockrill as sleuth features in many of the London stories including Suddenly at his Residence and Tour de Force although she did occasionally set stories elsewhere, like Cat and Mouse which is set in Wales. She also wrote children’s books including the Nurse Matilda series which was filmed as Nanny McPhee. Tony told us that she always structured her novels with great care but she could also display an unexpected sense of humour. In addition to her full-length novels she wrote a number of short stories.

Len Tyler and Simon Brett
Photo by Mike Linane

Golden Age non-fiction studies were discussed by Simon Brett and Len Tyler. The first of these studies was A Treasury of Great Mysteries by the American Howard Haycraft, published 1931. By this time the classic detective story was already well-established while writers were abjured to abide by certain rules laid down by Ronald Knox in his Decalogue or 10 Commandments and the American writer S.S. van Dine laid down Twenty Rules. It was regarded primarily as a puzzle; it was no coincidence that at the same time crossword puzzles had also become extremely popular. Books in the genre were sometimes criticised particularly post-World War II by writers such as Edmund Wilson, ‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd’, Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, Colin Wilson, Snobbery with Violence (actually an attack on writers like Dornford Yates, in my view entirely justified), and Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. But the continuing popularity of Golden Age writers, particularly but by no means only Agatha Christie, the growing interest in events such as Bodies from the Library, and the numbers of present-day authors writing in much the same vein makes it clear that the traditional crime novel is more popular than ever. Incidentally, Colin Watson’s 12 Flaxborough novels, some of which have been televised, would surely be a welcome alternative to TV’s Midsomer Murders which seem  to have gone on forever.

Michael Innes and (his creation) John Appleby
was Jake Kerridge’s chosen author. Innes (real name J.I.M. Stewart, 1906-1994) was one of the most academic and erudite of detective story writers. His detective, John (later Sir) Appleby, is equally intellectually formidable. He rejoiced in outlandish plots (have you ever been pursued by pantechnicons?) and intellectual games mixed with flippant gaiety especially when depicting university life. He was a don at Christchurch College and eventually became a professor. Oxford features in many of his novels. He was formidably wide-read, an attribute which is reflected in his crime novels. Jake described his Hamlet Revenge as high art. He also wrote a number of works of literary criticism under his own name.

Why was the Body in the Library? was the question put by Dr Jennifer Palmer. She referred to W.H.
Photo by Mike Linane

Auden’s diktat that murder should shock and therefore must occur in ‘the great good place’. Libraries should be absolutely silent with a silence that is tangible until the silence is broken by a scream of alarm and fear either at finding a corpse or the fear of becoming one. One of Michael Innes’s best-known novels is
Operation Pax where the climax takes place in the vaults of the Bodleian. Another library murder (actually several) is in a short story in an anthology written by a friend of mine, ‘The Bodleian Murders’, Linora Lawrence, set in the Radcliffe Camera in Bodleian Square. Oxford libraries, although a favourite venue for murder, were certainly not the only favoured venue in English crime fiction, the best-known being of course Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. In U.S. crime fiction libraries are also a favourite venue – libraries were seen as ‘cathedrals of learning’ so it is worth noting that the most frequent victim is the custodian of that learning – the librarian.

The travels of Agatha Christie was the subject of the last talk which was by Dolores Gordon-Smith. Agatha had an adventurous nature and travelled frequently. She had gone to a finishing school in Paris and when that was over she and her parents travelled elsewhere in France. She and her first husband Archie Christie travelled for instance in some discomfort to the Pyrenees. Archie had been a pilot in World War I so was prepared to fly, but Agatha never liked flying and preferred to take the train. She suffered from sea-sickness, as did Poirot, so avoided voyages by sea. She and Archie went on a trip round the world visiting South Africa which provided the setting for her novel The Man in the Brown Suit but sadly, so far as I know, she never made similar use of her visit to Australia and New Zealand and Honolulu. When her first marriage broke up she journeyed on the Orient Express to the ancient city of Ur in what was then called Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and it was there at the excavation of the ancient city of Ur that she met her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. She then worked with him, washing and cleaning up finds and carvings and used those experiences in novels such as Murder in Mesopotamia and Appointment with Death. The head of the excavation, the famed Sir Leonard Woolley, was by all accounts a very difficult character whom she used to advantage in the former.

Desert Island Detective The day finished with suggestions from some of the participating speakers nominating with which fictional detective they would most like to be marooned on a desert island following which the winner of a competition which had taken place earlier that day.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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