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Friday 5 August 2022

The Golden Age of Crime

A Reappraisial took place on
22 and 23 July

at Bournmouth University.
Report by Carol Westron and Dot Marshall-Gent

These biennial Golden Age conferences are organised by four dynamic young academics: J.C. (Jamie) Bernthal, Sarah Martin, Mia Emilie Dormer and Stefano Serafini. The Golden Age conferences alternate with the Agatha Christie conferences, which are run by the same organisers.

The two-day conference was packed full of twenty minute long papers, arranged in panels, with three papers per panel followed by a joint question time for the three speakers. There was also a keynote speaker on each day. This year the organisers had originally planned a few online papers because some speakers were in other countries, but this had to be extended because of the train strike, which made it necessary for several more speakers to deliver their papers virtually.

As if the train strike wasn’t enough to deal with, just after the first panel there was a fire alarm. Fortunately, this was an electrical fault rather than an actual fire and was dealt with by the organisers and university staff with
efficiency and good humour.

On the evening of the first day there was a conference dinner, during which glasses were raised in memory of Mystery People reviewer Jennifer Palmer, who had been a regular speaker at the Golden Age and Agatha Christie conferences.

The conference was distinguished by a wide range of papers, delivered in a variety of styles, although each panel was linked by a common author or theme. To start the day off well, on both mornings the delegates were greeted by coffee and delicious pastries, and the conference ‘goody bag’ included the choice of a free British Library paperback book.  The atmosphere at this conference was (as it has always been) consistently warm and inclusive and the organisers go out of their way to make sure all the delegates feel valued and supported. The academic
content was wide-ranging and varied, offering the listener fascinating new nuggets of information and different ways of considering familiar books.

This is a description of some of the papers and a keynote speech:  

The conference opened with Mystery People’s very own Carol Westron and her paper, All in the Family – Psychological Crime Fiction and Domestic Abuse in the Golden Age of Detection. Golden Age novels have long been accused of being “lightweight” however, we were provided with evidence of an alarming number of “inconvenient wives” who were murdered within their pages, which challenges this generalisation. Indeed, marital obsession and greed provided the plots for many of Agatha Christie’s most well-known mysteries. By the end of the paper, there was no doubt that familial dysfunction abounds in works of the period, from a short story by Dorothy L. Sayers to Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries. The paper ended with the speaker’s appreciation of E. M. Channon whose plots, in books like The Chimney Murder, address head on the inequalities that can exist within the confines of family life.

Ayo Onatade gave a virtual paper considering What to do with an ageing detective: The Long Life of Albert Campion. The speaker explained why she believes Mike Ripley’s revival of Margery Allingham’s Albert
Campion, has been a welcome success. Campion, initially a minor character in Allingham’s second novel,
The Crime at Black Dudley, went on to appear in seventeen novels and over twenty short stories. After her untimely death in 1966, husband, Philip Youngman Carter, completed an unfinished work and penned two further Albert Campion mysteries before he too died leaving another incomplete novel! Over forty years later Mike Ripley, chanced upon the part-finished work and was challenged to complete it. The result is that this year saw the publication of Mr Campion’s Mosaic, the tenth in Ripley’s series, and evidence that this revival has been
enthusiastically received.

Sophie Smith explored Constructions of the Feeble-Minded Criminal in Golden Age Fiction. Her paper began with an overview of how criminality and “mental deficiency” were generally understood during the 1920s and 1930s. Smith then went on to consider how, despite a more nuanced academic and public debate that looked at the effects of social deprivation in relation to criminality during the period, there was still a belief that criminals were “born not made.” G K Chesterton was one notable Golden Age writer who opposed the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, nevertheless the Act was passed and remained in force until 1959. Smith cited several works by a variety of authors from the period whose works document the prevailing attitude.

Benedict Morrison in A Golden Age Bestiary: The Place of the Animal in Classic Detective Fiction, suggested that the problem of “troublesome bodies” in 1920s and 1930s detective novels is solved by the superior mind of the detective. He related this idea to “mind body duality” in which mind and the body are seen as distinct and separable entities. The medieval bestiaries referred to in the paper’s title reflect an anthropocentric view of the world as proposed by Descartes, and his followers, who assert that human beings transcend their “bestial” nature through their intellect. Dr Morrison pointed to crime fiction novels, beginning with Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders on the Rue Morgue as reflecting the belief that humans alone can think rationally. In a paper that was as humorous as it was academic, Dr Morrison praised G.K. Chesterton for being an unusual example of a writer who avoids this anthropocentric reduction of animals, as was evident in his Father Brown story The Oracle of the Dog.

Tom Ue then gave a virtual paper, Sherlock’s Lenses. He invited us to consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s use of imagery associated with eyes and seeing in his Sherlock Holmes novels. Such imagery, he asserted, complements the physical lenses that appear in the detective’s novels. A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles were just two of the texts Dr Ue referred to as he noted Conan Doyle’s reference to the eyes of characters, as well as Dr Watson’s use of eye related imagery in his descriptions of places and buildings. He compared this with Holmes’ use of the magnifying glass at the scene of a crime and a microscope that he uses to examine evidence. This was an unusual approach through which to consider the detective’s ability to see into the scene of a crime and to pick out clues that will lead to his solving the mystery. Noting and reading the eyes of characters also enables Holmes to determine where they fit into the puzzles with which he is presented. Finally, Dr Ue, noted the use of spectacles as a disguise in the Conan Doyle’s stories.

 Huzan Bharucha gave a fascinating paper called, Detecting the Second-Generation New Woman in the works of Agatha Christie. The talk compared Golden Age detective novels with the New Woman’s emergence from the fin de siècle (the end of the century, with its Victorian constraints). She noted C.L. (Catherine Louisa) Pirkis’s stories featuring Loveday Brooke published between 1893 and 1894 in the Ludgate Magazine. Brooke embodied many of the traits that defined the New Woman. She was a professional, she showed no desire to marry, and she is frequently underestimated by male police officers and criminals alike. Mention was also made of the feminist writings of Olive Schreiner and their examination of the anxieties around the appearance of the New Woman during this period. The speaker noted that Christie’s female detectives were not professional detectives (apart from Tuppence Beresford who was employed by the Government alongside her husband, Tommy, in Partners in Crime). Indeed, Christie’s novels reflect the gradual emancipation of women, both politically, professionally and domestically, as the twentieth century progressed.

In An exploration of Gothic Intertextuality in Georgette Heyer’s Footsteps in the Dark (1932)”, Sam Hirst showed how Heyer’s novel is rooted in late eighteenth century Gothic writing. The speaker explained that the book contains all the tropes one would expect of Gothic writers like Eliza Parsons, Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. An odd assortment of family members join their kinsman Peter who has inherited an old manor house just outside London. There they encounter supernatural events in a gothic-like space including labyrinthine passages and ghostly noises. Odd neighbours, the arrival of a stranger and a murder, set the scene for a novel that conflates parody and darkness. I must read it!

Rich Obrien is a YouTuber, Podcaster and Horror Movie aficionado, it is no surprise then, that he spoke about the connections between Christie and Horror. Who would have thought? The speaker pointed out several thematic and structural areas in which Golden Age crime and Horror movies, particularly Italian Giallo films, overlap. The Pale Horse in which Christie explores folk horror and the esoteric was compared with the film The Wicker Man. Similarly, in And Then There Were None elements of horror abound as unseen forces begin to kill the unfortunate, but sinful, ten people marooned on an island from which they cannot escape. The speaker also made interesting comments on how Christie’s work contains elements of morality tales and fairy tales. These genres, he argued, insist on justice and warn of the consequences of crime.

 In Curtain Call: Agatha Christie’s “Famous Last Words” Gray Robert Brown considered the ‘final cases’ of Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple - Curtain and Sleeping Murder. Curtain, which chronicles the end of Hercule Poirot, was not written at the end of Christie’s life but was, in fact, penned between 1940 and 1942. Similarly, Sleeping Murder was written sometime during the Blitz. The speaker explained that this might indicate that Christie was ensuring that she alone would write the last cases of her popular detectives. Alternatively, was the Queen of Crime, like many others living during such troubled times, worried that she might not survive the war and leaving a legacy for her family? Whatever her reasons, these novels deal with darker themes than she explored in her earlier novels. Indeed, Sleeping Murder includes a reference to the Jacobean Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, and a copy of another tragedy, Shakespeare’s Othello is one of the clues in Curtain.

In From Re-Unions, Misdirection to Murder: Tube and Train Travel in Agatha Christie’s London .
Tina Hodgkinson, who is a London travel guide, took us on a tour of Agatha Christie’s London via tube and train. This fascinating talk was illustrated by some excellent black-and-white images of the stations of long ago. It traced many momentous adventures that started at railway stations, including the unplanned reunion of Tommy Beresford and Prudence (Tuppence) Cowley at Dover Street Station (now Green Park) in The Secret Adversary; and Anne Bedingfeld’s call to adventure in The Man in the Brown Suit, when she witnesses a man fall to his death on the live line in Hyde Park Corner Station. Tina traced the beginning of several iconic Christie journeys, such as the 4.50 from Paddington, and admitted that she had spent a lot of effort trying to discover the exact location of Poirot’s residence in Whitehaven Mansions.

 Mark Aldridge allowed us some entertaining glimpses of the early days of Christie’s work being transposed from the stage to television in Agatha Christie: From Stage to Small Screen. Some of the early depictions of Poirot and Miss Marple annoyed Christie so much that she expressed her unwillingness to ever allow her work to be filmed again. Although Christie liked and admired Margaret Rutherford, she very much disliked her portrayal of Miss Marple: Christie had described Miss Marple as small, bird-like and soft-voiced and the Rutherford portrayal was the opposite of this. The images of programmes from these early productions were true trips down memory lane, mentioning several names that later rose to fame in other roles.

 Conference organiser, Sarah Martin, gave a paper entitled Dress Detective: Harriet Vane and the Psychogeographic Nature of Detection, a rather daunting title for a delightful paper that explored the different Golden Age dress codes for different places and situations. The speaker focused on the clothes worn in Oxford in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, with some fascinating observations about the academic dress, which had been designed for men and sometimes proved challenging for females to wear. She spoke of Sayers’ description of the female dons, their shoulders slanted to counteract the weight of their academic gowns and described Harriet Vane’s struggle with the hood of her gown until she remembered the correct twist, which turned the bright silk outwards, almost a metaphor for Harriet’s tentative return to the academic life she had abandoned. The paper was illustrated by some attractive images of fashions of the time.

 In Miss Sayers’ Moral Philosophy Mary C. Rawlinson described the essential roots of the morality that Dorothy L. Sayers upholds in her books, notably the qualities of detachment, honesty and truth telling. Again Gaudy Night is very much to the fore in the exploration of these qualities, as when the wise academic, Miss de Vine, tells Harriet that if she finds a person who admires her for these qualities, she will have found a person whose respect and liking are genuine and will endure. This is again emphasised when Lord Peter Wimsey tells the inhabitants of the Senior Common Room at Shrewsbury College, who are being persecuted by a malicious prankster, that their strength lies in the honesty and hard work of their community, which, allows them to overcome petty personal grievances.

Keynote speech: Caroline Crampton - Christie’s Competent Women

Caroline Crampton began her address by telling us about her popular podcast Shedunnit. People, she said, listen to the podcast whilst they are doing other things like cooking, cleaning, driving, or going for a walk. “I exist in the background of peoples’ lives.” Initially Shedunnit steered clear of Agatha Christie because Caroline believed her listeners would be well versed in the work of the iconic author. To her surprise, though, she noticed that listening figures spiked whenever an episode contained even passing references to The Queen of Crime. Thereafter, Christie became and remains central to the podcast. This provided a suitable moment to shift the focus of the conversation to the “competent women” who appear in the pages of Christie’s novels.

“Competent women” were defined as those longing for adventure whilst at the same time encountering an enormous life change or confronting a sudden danger. This willingness to plunge into an unusual, extreme situation, noted the speaker, reveals their inner strength, often to the surprise of the other characters. With the notable exception of Tuppence Beresford, Christie’s “competent women,” tend to appear in one off stories. For example, in The Man in the Brown Suit Anne Bedingfeld narrates and takes centre stage driving the investigation and the narrative. The speaker then moved on to consider Emily Trefusis in The Sittaford Mystery, who, when her fiancé is accused of murder, throws herself into the task of proving his innocence and securing his release. The speaker then moved on to discuss two competent women from later in Christie’s career. She mentioned Victoria Jones in the 1951 novel, They Came to Baghdad, before concentrating on Lucy Eyelesbarrow from the 1957 publication 4.50 From Paddington. The speaker suggested that Lucy proves to be the complete “competent woman.” She is as adept at running a large country house as she is when hunting for a body and subsequently a killer. The speaker summed up by suggesting that these feisty, fearless characters may have appealed to Christie as a welcome relief from the more famous Poirot and Marple novels. She could allow the women free rein in a single story and then, after their great adventure, they could be married off or move on, with no expectation of continuity.

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 6 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book, clicl on the title
The Curse of the Concrete Griffin

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

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