All Our Yesterdays:
Historical Crime Fiction
Report by Radmila May
The annual crime and mystery conference which takes place every August in Oxford at St Hilda’s College is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, such conference in Britain. Writers well-known and not so well-known come together to discuss with each other and with members of the highly attentive audience aspects of the nation’s best-loved fiction genre – crime fiction – and to take the opportunity to emphasise that the genre can stand alongside any other literary canon. And everybody enjoys the chance to talk informally with attendees during coffee breaks, and over the
excellent meals provided by the staff of St Hilda’s. Also to wander across the wide lawns and by the river Cherwell, knowing all the while that we are in one of the oldest universities in Europe.
But the 2020 Conference was very different. Owing to the coronavirus pandemic we could not attend the conference in person, so it was held online on the 14th-15th August 2020, with participation via Zoom,
skilfully set up by Triona Adams, St Hilda’s Alumnae Events Manager, and her colleagues. So, we watched on our laptops, and after each speaker had finished there was the opportunity to post questions online by some of the hundreds of online participants.
She introduced to us the
Guest of Honour,
present-day settings to various historical periods. Andrew was introduced when a boy to historical crime fiction by the book The Devil in Velvet by the Golden Age crime writer John Dickson Carr. Andrew’s firsthistorical books were the Lydmouth series set in the 1950s, and from there he went on to write The American Boy about Edgar Allan Poe which achieved great commercial success. As it happened, there was an upsurge in historical fiction (Hilary Mantel and others) at the time and in historical crime fiction which now forms 10-15% of historical fiction. There are many advantages to writing historical crime fiction – little or no technology – but the danger is, Andrew told us, that the necessary research to provide a realistic background can overwhelm the story.
Another problem is the differing attitudes of people in the past and today to various issues such as race and slavery. A writer, Andrew said, can mediate between past and present, leaving the reader to make his or her own judgment.
In their following discussion, Andrew and Val suggested various sources for research such as local newspapers, diaries, letters, and court transcripts, and emphasised the importance of the sense of location. Val commented that Andrew had given women a pivotal role in his novels and he agreed that at the time widows and some others, like the playwright Aphra Behn, had quite a degree of agency. As for what triggers a novel, Andrew said that for him it could be just a little germ which sets the whole thing off. And did we know that the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys kept a lion?
The next item on the agenda was the annual Who-Dunnit, this time a ‘chillingly implausible tale set in an Oxford college and titled The Murder of Lucy Ackroyd’ written by Andrew himself and featuring the murder of a college Fellow. There were five suspects each of whom was interrogated by the police (Andrew, wearing a rather fetching policeman’s cap); apparently a book titled ‘The Secret Sex Life of Sherlock Holmes’ plays an important role. The perpetrator was revealed at the close of the proceedings.
100 Years of Christie: A Celebration of all Things Agatha by the journalist Andrew Wilson who has written for various newspapers and now has embarked on a series of novels set in the Golden Age and featuring Agatha herself as not only a best-selling novelist but also a part-time sleuth. Andrew described the effect that reading Christie at a young age on him, as it did on a number of the other writers taking part in the conference. He said how much he admired the propulsive nature of the plots, often leading to the Big Reveal (but not always, such was the adept way she led the reader on) and the clarity and simplicity of her prose style which dates so much less than other writers of her time. If her characters appeared flat, it was because they were often wearing masks and were not what they appeared to be (I myself remember in a production of The Mousetrap a few years ago one character saying, ‘We only know about each other what we choose to tell each other’ and I thought that could all too easily be true in life.) Nor was her narrative structure always as simple as some have said: Five Little Pigs has five separate narrators describing events which happened years before. Which accounts can be believed and which not?
Andrew Wilson’s latest novel in his Agatha Christie series, I Saw Him Die, is set in a hotel on the Isle of Skye.
We began the next morning with two authors discussing writers now dead. Mary Paulson-Ellis, The Cold Finger of Time: Daphne Du Maurier and Barbara Vine and Sara Sgeridan Not So Cosy: Christie’s 1950s under the chairmanship of Alison Joseph herself an acclaimed crime writer including the Sister Agnes series.
Mary Paulson-Ellis did not discuss her own two novels (see below) but instead described her childhood passion for time-slip novels such as Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time and how she became aware that the present and the past are irretrievably entwined and how that is ably demonstrated by the two books she had chosen to discuss. In du Maurier’s House on the Strand the protagonist Dick, having been administered a powerful and highly addictive drug, goes back from the 1960s to 14th century Cornwall in a series of visits where he is drawn into the lives of the people then living there but cannot influence events. In classic postmodernist style the plot has an unresolved ending. The second book that Mary discusses is Barbara Vine’s first book under that name (she also wrote the Wexford novels as Ruth Rendell), A Dark-Adapted Eye which tells the story of how Vera Hillyard was hanged for the murder of her sister. The plot was based on a structure new at the time of publication (1968) in which we know at the outset who the murderer is but why the murder was committed is only revealed to us slowly in a plot of enormous complexity with many time frames revealed to us by a narrator herself flawed by envy and bitterness. The book has been justly
described as beginning the new genre of psychological crime fiction.
Mary has written two novels with historical elements, The Other Mrs Walker and The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, each set in Edinburgh where Mary lives.
Sara Sheridan also lives in Edinburgh although her Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries (now numbering 7 titles) are firmly set in the 1950s in diverse locations. Sara has always been fascinated by the idea of a woman’s history and won acclaim for her non-fiction Where Are the Women? An Imagined Female Atlas of Scotland. In her Mirabelle Bevan stories, Mirabelle is an ex-Secret Service agent, now living in Brighton, who time and again finds she must use the skills she acquired in her wartime service to solve a variety of mysteries. Her novels have been categorized as ‘cosies’ in the same way that Agatha Christie has been but she would like to refute the term, only applied after Christie’s death, to the latter’s works. To approximate the 1950s background to her own writing Sara views old Pathe newsreels finding the contrast between the black and white depiction of reality and present-day vivid colour enhances the contrast between then and now. She referred to differences in attitudes when it came to the ‘stiff upper lip’, for instance, and to matters such as race and homosexuality, which Christie simply either glossed over or bypassed. Sara has asked her own parents about life in the fifties, and for them it seems to have been all tennis parties and frilly dresses, very much the life that Christie depicts. The War was rarely if ever talked about, and the class divide was still pretty great. Sara pointed out how great the effect of forensic science in real life detection had been, a resource that would have been unavailable to Poirot or Miss Marple.
The next speakers were Abir Mukherjee, Out of Time: the protagonist and the point of historical fiction and Vaseem Khan, Killing Gandhi, Bombay Jazz, post-independence . . . India’s first female detective. The talk was chaired by Jake Kerridge, the well-known theatre critic.
Abir Mukherjee is the author of several novels set in Calcutta in India in the 1920s featuring police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee. Growing up in Glasgow, Abir trained to be an accountant and only turned to writing fiction some years later. Quoting from various other writers such as Sebastian Barry, he described historical novels as a weaving together of fact and fiction in a way that allows us to evaluate the events of the past and their effect on the present and to take up issues previously glossed over or omitted altogether. What for him lit the writing spark was anger at the relegation to the historical sidelines of the Bengal Famine in 1943 in which 3 million people died.
However, that is a subject he has not yet tackled; instead he has concentrated on creating series characters whom readers find attractive whose values are not so different from our own but not so much so as to risk authenticity. Abir’s latest book is Death in the East set among the tea plantations of Assam.
Vaseem Khan is best-known for his series featuring Inspector Chopra and his baby elephant Ganesh set in present-day Mumbai. (For a review of one of his titles in the series see Mystery People, Reviews.) However, his latest book, Midnight at Malabar House, is a new departure in many ways in that it is set in the 1950s, has as protagonist India’s first female detective, and is grounded in the political and social bloody tumult that was the result of Partition following the departure of India and Pakistan from the British Empire. Vaseem is too young to have been involved in this but his father had to flee from India to Pakistan where he met and married Vaseem’s mother. Vaseem himself was born in London; although he had always wanted to be a writer it was only after a ten-year spell in India that the idea of a detective with a pet elephant came to him, allowing him to introduce the humorous elements that add so much to the series’ appeal. He has turned now to historical crime fiction because he likes historical fiction such as the novels of Hilary Mantel and to the 1950s because it was a period not tackled by other crime writers. His protagonist, Persis Wadia, has to deal with the prejudice and paternalism that was then endemic; Vaseem also wanted to make her a Parsee, a particular religious sect which, among other customs, excarnates the dead; he had researched the subject for his latest Baby Ganesh novel and wished to pursue the subject further.
The next two talks, Jill Dawson Plotting in Lockdown: Patricia Highsmith and ‘A Suspension of Mercy, and Tom Wood You couldn’t make it up: Bloody Murder and Brilliant Science in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, were also chaired by Jake Kerridge
Jill Dawson, speaking from Cambridgeshire, talked about Patricia Highsmith’s novel, A Suspension of Mercy, published in 1965. Highsmith, a U.S. citizen, was staying in a cottage in a remote village in Suffolk, to which she had retreated in order to concentrate on her writing, to pursue a secret love affair with a married woman, and to escape the notoriety arising from her success as a novelist after another of her novels, Strangers on a Train, had been filmed by Hitchcock and the commercial success of her Ripley novels. In the isolated Suffolk cottage, in conditions rather like lockdown today, Highsmith apparently had no problem writing and A Suspension of Mercy was the result. It is essentially a novel about a writer (A) planning to write a novel about a writer (B) who murders his wife as a way of resolving his own marital problems (novels about writers writing about writers are quite a well-known avant-garde literary device). Unfortunately it all goes wrong in a way that both was and was not the outcome desired by writer A. Novels about writers writing about writers have been described as post-modern; in A Suspension of Mercy Highsmith takes the idea one step further by writing about a writer writing about a writer.
It is this situation that Jill Dawson has taken and bent to her own writing in The Crime Writer in a way that has been described as fascinating and skilfully constructed. In her story Highsmith is ensconced in the Suffolk cottage as she was in real life and brooding on her problems and recreating her much exercised fantasies of murder, madness and revenge to which those who actually knew her have testified. Into this psychological cauldron comes a pushy young woman journalist, intent on extracting as much as she can from the famous reclusive author, with the inevitable explosive result. In effect what Jill Dawson is writing about a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer. Post-modernism gone mad, some might say, but much applauded by critics. Jill Dawson has written a number of novels about real life people in which she mingles fact with fiction.
Tom Wood talked about the famous real-life Buck Ruxton murders in Lancaster in 1935 when Dr Buck Ruxton killed his wife and the housemaid who looked after his children and dismembered their bodies in a bathtub, cutting the corpses into 70 different pieces, and disfiguring and mutilating the heads in a way that made them almost impossible to identify, then wrapped the pieces in 4 separate packages which he took up to Scotland and dropped into a river, later discovered in a decomposed condition. Modern methods of forensic pathology such as DNA and blood typing were far in the future and at first it was impossible to be sure that these were the remains of the two missing women but painstaking detective work and the then new methods of forensic analysis, such as dental evidence, basic fingerprinting and a great deal of evidence relating to what the women had been wrapped in helped to establish their identity and Dr Ruxton’s guilt. Tom Wood is one of Scotland’s most senior and experienced police officers with a long and distinguished career culminating in becoming Deputy Chief Constable of the Lothian and Borders Police. He has received various awards including the Queen’s Police Medal.
Jill Dawson and Tom Wood were followed by Anna Mazzola, Justice and Revenge in Historical Crime Fiction and Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Experimenting with Structure: Device and Design – An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Quincunx. Alison Joseph was in the chair.
read English at Pembroke College, Oxford, and then became a human rights and criminal justice solicitor. She has published two novels, The Unseeing (which was based on a real life 19th century case and is largely based in the infamous Newgate prison) and The Story Keeper (reviewed in Mystery People, see home page for link). While her day job brings her to confront the quest for justice for the people with whom she deals (abused women etc), she told us that it is often difficult to achieve in practice and the criminal justice system is immensely complex. Often it does not achieve a result in the way that people, accustomed to crime in books and on TV with its logical plotlines and its tidy endings, expect, and to them it seems inconclusive and unsatisfactory and does not deliver what they expect – justice. In fiction, where the criminal may be guilty but the reader feels that he is morally right, the author may well allow him to get away with it. Similarly, where a particular character has behaved badly but is not likely to face his just deserts in the criminal system, an author can make some other disposition. Thus, in The Story Keeper, one character is protected by his high social standing from prosecution, but it may be that he there will be some other recourse. Two of Agatha Christie’s best known books, And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, feature extra-legal justice in a way that lets readers feel that this alternative route to justice is as satisfactory as the more traditional route. Anna included in The Unseeing with each chapter beginning with extracts from newspapers of the time, anatomical textbooks, nursery rhymes, and so forth, which increase the feeling of authenticity.
Laura worked in politics for twenty years and then undertook a degree in Creative Writing at City University. Her debut novel, Blood and Sugar, published in 2019, was an immediate success, wining prizes and accolades on all sides. It is set in the 18th century and features the slave trade, then at its peak. However, her talk focussed on a subject basic to all writing: the structure of novels particularly those which deal with the past and the present and the distinction between plot and narrative, generally and as illustrated by the two novels in the heading to the talk. Generally, she suggested, crime fiction falls into two categories: thrillers which are narrative-driven so that the reader wants to know what is going to happen in the future; and mysteries, where the significant event has already happened and the reader wants to know what did happen and why?
The two books Laura discussed in detail are of a highly literary quality and have achieved great status as post-modern literary works rather than as straightforward crime novels. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is set in Oxford in 1663 when Charles II had only recently regained his throne and was by no means secure. Many of the characters are real people and many of the events are real events. The story begins with a murder but soon draws in numerous conspiracies. It is told by four people some years after the murder and they are all what is called ‘unreliable narrators’ – we cannot be sure who is telling the truth and who is lying or is simply confused about events in the past. (The ‘unreliable narrator’ narrative device first appears in the famous 19th century novel, The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.) The novel contrasts the more ancient philosophy based on ancient and mediaeval learning with the newer scientific method that was beginning to be applied in physics, chemistry, and medicine. The fingerpost of the title is in fact another word for signpost, indicating the various directions that enquiries can take. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is set in early 19th century England and takes the form of a Dickensian mystery but with the added attributes of an ambiguous plot and several unreliable narrators. It is not possible to summarise it here as it is immensely long (1200 pages approx.) and a summary is available via Wikipedia. The narrative structure is complex and formalistic but for all that it rapidly became a best seller whether in the original one volume hardback or in five separate volumes divided between the five families whose stories it tells.
The final session Featured William Shaw, Shardlake Is Dr Who, And Ellie Griffiths, The Motive And The Cue For Passion, Actors And Acting In Crime Fiction, with Jake Kerridge in the chair.
is both a journalist and a crime writer. His crime writing began with a series in 1960s London featuring Detectives Breen and Tozer; he now has a new series set in Dungeness in Kent featuring Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi. For this talk, however, he mostly discussed the works of C J Sansom in the latter’s Shardlake series. He had first encountered Sansom when they were together on a thriller writing course and been much impressed by his writing skills. Later on William got to know him well and greatly admires his meticulous and exhaustive research. William described Shardlake as an outsider because he is a hunchback, a very useful attribute for a protagonist who is also the sleuth because he/she can observe with detachment and also have views about matters which would not have been normally acceptable among people of the time, such as the extreme violence often meted out under the tyrannical regime of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. Like Dr Who, he can appear on the scene, survey and analyse it dispassionately: ‘in any investigation all circumstances are relevant’. ‘If a man begins with certainty he will end in doubt but if he begins with doubt he will end in certainty’ (the philosopher Francis Bacon). Crime fiction, William told us, is popular because, although based on reality, it deals with fears and nightmarish fantasies: it investigates society.
gave a very lively talk, with lots of brio, as befits one from a family of actors (her grandfather was a well-known actor who often appeared in pantomimes).In addition to her well-known Dr Ruth Galloway forensic archaeologist series, standalone titles, and children’s crime stories, her Brighton Mysteries, set in the theatrical world of the 1950s, feature Detective Inspector Stephens and magician Max Mephisto. The title of her talk was, of course, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and various well-known quotes from Shakespeare plays have been taken as titles of crime novels (By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Christie) and To Fear a Painted Devil (Ruth Rendell) and the play The Mousetrap (Christie)). Many crime writers have been attracted to the theatre as a setting for a murder mystery – Ellie instanced Nancy Spain, Cinderella Goes to the Morgue, Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night – and quite a few actors such as Mark Billingham and Hugh Fraser have themselves become crime writers, and Simon Brett with his well-known and much-loved Charles Paris series, Charles Paris himself being a somewhat unsuccessful actor with a peripatetic life style and so ideally placed to observe what is going on around him in which theatrical production he is involved in a minor role. Indeed, Ellie observed, crime novels are themselves like plays with the reader as audience, bringing his or her own reaction to the story as it unfolds.
All in all, the online conference was both entertaining and a technical success.
Next year’s conference (August 2021) is planned to be held live and will feature Oxford itself
as the setting for a variety of fictional murder mysteries.
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.