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Friday, 7 September 2018

‘St Hilda’s 25th Crime Fiction Weekend

Report by Radmila May
The weekend conference held at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, from Friday 15th August to Sunday 17th August 2018 was the 25th such conference. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of such festivals in Britain and, by a happy coincidence, 2018 is also the 125th anniversary of the founding of St Hilda’s College, until comparatively recently a college for women only. There are now numerous festivals all over Britain celebrating crime fiction. Where St Hilda’s differs from all the others is that the talks delivered by the speakers are on a particular theme which varies from year to year.

This year’s theme,
Sharks Circling – Politics and Crime – which derives from this well-known remark by the late Alan Clark M.P., son of the cultural guru Kenneth Clark, a.k.a. Lord Clark of Civilisation: ‘There are no friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water.’ Anyone who doubts this has only to regard what is currently happening in government, a spectacle of horror or sardonic amusement according to one’s viewpoint. The proceedings were chaired by one of Britain’s most prestigious crime authors Andrew Taylor who has written both present-day crime and historical crime and won many awards.

 A War of Just The Right Size’ was the title of the first talk delivered by Lindsey Davies as the after-dinner speech on the Friday night. Asbefits the award-winning author of numerous  novels set in Ancient Rome featuring as detective, first Falco, and then his daughter, she referred extensively to classical sources. A ruler, said the Roman source from which Lindsey quoted, needs to have a triumph celebrating his victory in a war but the war must be neither too small so that no-one has ever heard of it nor too big so that it appears to be never-ending. She quoted from many historical personages ranging from classical times such asAristotle and Cicero’s brother through historical times including Napoleon, Churchill and Groucho Marx! Politics, she observed, is everywhere, not just in the public arena but in such contexts as the family and the office. The shark is more than a menacing real-life monster, it is also a metaphor.

On Saturday morning after breakfast the Conference Manager, Triona Adams, introduced the committee
members. This was followed by the first talk.

Humour And Politics In Crime Fiction.  
Judith Flanders spoke on ‘The Absence of Presence: the Missing World of the Office in Amateur Detection’. Judith has written four humorous crime novels set in a fictitious publishing house. As regards the setting, she quoted from W.H. Auden (a great fan of crime fiction): A secondary world must have its own rules as much as the primary world. 

The second speaker was Chris Brookmyre, author of 20 novels, mostly crime,distinguished by their broad humour. He quoted Voltaire who had prayed to the Lord to make his enemies ridiculous – and He granted the prayer. Chris’s own writing was much influenced by Rabelais who liked to exaggerate the ridiculous. Sometimes a grotesque Rabelaisian character can become a sort of hero, as with Jackson Lamb in Mick Herron’s Spook Street series. For reviews of titles by both authors, see the Mystery People website with authors listed alphabetically by surname under Reviews.

Adrian McKinty
Irish Crime Fiction
Brian McGilloway
Followed after the coffee break. The speakers were Adrian McKinty and Brian McGilloway. Not surprisingly, given that both speakers were from Northern Ireland, that province’s troubled recent history and uneasy present features in the novels of both. Adrian’s police series are set in the 1980’s in the height of the Troubles and feature Inspector Sean Duffy. Adrian read law at university and was particularly struck by the more sensational criminal cases, such as R v Dudley and Stevens (where two sailors adrift at sea had killed and eaten their companion the cabin boy and pleaded necessity as a defence) and R v (Brides in the Bath) Smith. His writing had originally been influenced by such poets as Louis MacNeice and his earliest reading had included lots of poetry and no politics but found that publishers and readers alike preferred less poetry and more action. Brian has published two series, one featuring Inspector Benedict Devlin of the Garda (the Irish police) set in the Irish Republic and another featuring Lucy Black of the Northern Irish Police Force and set in Londonderry. He spoke of the merging of politics and religion and referred to the recent increase in violence during the ‘marching season’ when Protestant parades celebrating events in the seventeenth century take place. For reviews of titles by both authors see the Mystery People website with authors listed under Reviews alphabetically by name.

Dystopian Politics And Crime
Louise Welsh
was the title of the topic discussed at the first Saturday afternoon session by two writers, Louise Welsh and Manda Scott. Louise, who is Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, writes in a genre which has been described as ‘cosy calamity’ novels set in the near future characterized by a nostalgia for an ordered society with law,
Manda Scott
justice and the sanctity of life. In her Plague Trilogy much of mankind has been wiped out by a sickness described as ‘The Sweats’ and those who remain are trying to re-establish normality. Manda has written both historical novels, particularly one about Boudicca, the Iron Age woman warrior who fought the Romans in 1st century Britain, and modern thrillers her most recent being A Treachery of Spies. She describes herself as a left-wing political activist and said that dystopian fiction enquires into a bad place, examining human misery and squalor in a setting of suffering and injustice. Even today we waste our time on pointless activity while the earth is dying, she said, and every action we take is political.

History, Politics And Crime.

S J Parris
Unfortunately. I was not able to go to this discussion between the two historical novelists S. J. Parris and S. G. (Shona) Maclean. The former has written four historical novels (Sacrilege, Treachery, Prophecy, Conspiracy and a novella, The Secret Dead) while a fifth full-length novel is forthcoming next year) in which the protagonist, the real-life Giordano Bruno, travels all over Europe in the late 16th century. The theme she chose to discuss was Forbidden Books and the famous novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. She is also the journalist Stephanie Merritt and under that name has written modern thrillers. Shona Maclean’s name
Shona Maclean
will be familiar to Mystery People readers as her three novels set in mid-17th century England during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate and featuring Damian Seeker (Seeker, The Black Friar and Destroying Angel) are all accessible via the Mystery People website (see the Reviews page) while her earlier four novels, The Alexander Seaton Quartet, which take place in Scotland in the run-up to the Civil War, can be found on the Mystery People blog for April 2015. Her topic for discussion was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and the manipulation of history.

Politics And Crime U.S. Style.
The St Hilda’s Guest of Honour 2018 was the famous U.S. novelist Sara Paretsky whose 19th V.I Warshawski novel, Shell Game, will shortly be published. Yet again V.I will be trying to sort out who has been killed, and why, and who else is involved. Sara told us about the evolution of V.I as a series character from her very first novel, Indemnity Only, up to the present day. But as a very much politically involved individual Sara also expressed strong views about the ‘current inhabitant of the White House’; while the rest of the world can only look on amazed at Trump’s cavortings and speculate whether Vladimir Putin is pulling the strings, for U.S. citizens it is all much nearer home. Do all the midnight tweets, with their never-ending inconsistencies and changes of tack, their accusations of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and so on really show us someone so inconsistent as would appear, or is there some plan behind all this, the aim of is to confuse the rest of us so Trump can achieve whatever it is he wants to achieve? Is Trump just a creature of impulse or is he a super-shark, out-sharking all the other sharks?
Spies, Politics and Crime Fiction.
Mick Herron
This was the final discussion of the St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Fiction conference in which the writers Mick Herron and Adam Brookes discussed this particular branch of crime fiction. Mick’s Spook Street series have become highly successful, and deservedly so with its collection of weird misfits who have been parked by the stuffed shirts who populate the pages of novels by the likes of John le Carre in an office near the Barbican. It’s not that they’re stupid or potentially treacherous; they’re very clever and good at what they do; it’s more that they are the sort of people whom no-one would like to share an office with. I’m sure that we have all come across one or two fellow-workers like that, or indeed in some other context. Here they have all been hived off together. Indeed, their boss, the famous, or infamous, Rabelaisian Jackson Lamb of the disgusting personal habits, has now become a favourite anti-hero. However, his latest novel, This is What Happens, seems to have moved away from Spook Street. Adam Brookes’s three novels all have a Chinese theme and feature Philip Mangan. Reviews of two of his novels, Night Heron and Spy Games are on the Mystery People website. Adam discussed how electronic systems are now accessing even greater parts of our personal lives, making ever-growing amounts of information about us as individuals available to anyone who cares to look. But I did wonder, when one thinks of current failures by the prosecuting authorities (the police, the CPS) to disclose information currently available via personal computers and mobile phones as they are legally obliged to do but fail to, pleading insufficient funding, whether yet more information will just pile up in some electronic dump. Of course, no doubt there are methods, or will be, to access relevant information but that will cost money. And there isn’t any.

This 2018 conference was interesting and of a high intellectual level. I did feel that it would have been improved if there had been some sort of general introduction discussing why, given that politics in some form or other, is a part of all aspects of life, certain areas of politics were chosen and not others. I have acquired a copy of the former M.P. Ellen Wilkinson’s 1930’s crime novel, The Division Bell Mystery, set in the House of Commons and republished in the British Library’s Golden Age Crime Classics series; I am looking forward to reading and perhaps reviewing it.

Next year’s conference will have as its subject Game Changers - Writers who have Transformed the Genre.
It will be interesting to receive more information as to what, and who, this means.

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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