Monday 19 August 2013

St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference - Saturday 17 August 2013

(L-R) Natasha Cooper, Tom Harper & Penelope Evans © Ayo Onatade
St Hilda’s started properly after breakfast and after a welcome by Kate Charles.  As Kate explained, as the theme was “From Here to Eternity: The Present and Future of Crime Fiction” all those present giving a talk over the weekend had over the last 19 years given a talk at St Hilda’s.  Tom Harper and Penelope Evans were first up.  Tom’s talk had a lot to do with Plato, Aristotle, and philosophy and also Raymond Chandler. It was also slightly disconcerting to hear my self being referenced barely three minutes into his talk in relation to the interview that I did with Margaret Doody whose historical crime series features Aristotle as a detective.  It was extremely interesting.  Penelope Evans held us spellbound when she spoke about two different incidents that tied into her talk.  The first being when she answered her phone to someone that she thought that she knew only to hear a gentleman at the end of the phone claiming that he had been watching and following her.  The second revolved around a teacher who claimed to be ill and soaked up all the support that was erroneously given to the said teacher not only by fellow teachers but also students.  When it became clear that there was nothing wrong with the said teacher the ensuring repercussions had a rippling effect on all concerned.  It was incredibly chilling and telling even more so as one could easily see how the lies being told were effective and disturbing.

After a short break the next two authors that we heard from were PD James and Frances Fyfield.  The title of the talk by PD James was Goodbye to Mayhem Parva whilst the one by Frances Fyfield was entitled Comparative Values.  Listening to both authors was amazing.  St Hilda’s always has the most interesting speakers.  P D James in her talk spoke about what the Golden Age of crime fiction had bequeathed to us.  She indicated that there were certain characteristics of the Golden Age mysteries and this included a strong storyline, locked room situations and also the ability to tell a good yarn.  Furthermore the detective was always a man, romantic and upper class. Golden Age writers were also very careful about their writing.  The criticism was that in relation to Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham that they were snobbish.  PD James said that she agreed with that
(L-R) PD James, Frances Fyfield & Natasha Cooper© Ayo Onatade
point of view.  She also felt that Ngaio Marsh was snobbish in her books as well.  They were however good writers, not careless and good with dialogue.  Agatha Christie in particular was very workman like in her writing.  She did not worry too much about description.  All the Golden Age writers had secrets that they did not want to have exposed.  For example, Dorothy Sayers had an illegitimate son but did not tell anyone.  This did not however stop her from writing within the convention and also from obeying the rules of writing.  Dorothy Sayers was an old girl of Somerville College in Oxford.  PD James felt that it was difficult to set a novel in a large institution but Sayers had managed to do it with Gaudy Nights.  According to PD James, this was a very clever thing to do.  Still referencing the element of snobbery in Golden Age novels, PD James reiterated the element of snobbery to be found in these novels by pointing out the fact that Lord Peter Wimsey proposed to Harriet Vane in Latin!  Ronald Knox’s 10 rules of crime writing were also discussed.

Frances Fyfield at the start of her talk stated that she wished that she could write funny crime fiction.  She also said that the future of our crime novels depends on what is going on around us and that crime writers need shocking activities.  Frances Fyfield is a former lawyer and she pointed out that that libel had to be published to ruin someone and that a man’s reputation is worth a lot.  This was part of the storyline in her book The Nature of The Beast.  She also pointed out that one of the greatest changes in crime novels came with the removal of the death penalty.  She also felt that crime novels were about morality and that they (i.e. crime novels) would be around for ages.  Frances also explained that she used to resent the fact that some people considered crime novels to be lowbrow but that crime novels do make people uncomfortable and that crime writers are the best novelists of our age.  She also did not agree with the behaviour of literary writers e.g. John Banville who decided that they should “slum” it by writing a crime novel.

Both Francs Fyfield and PD James answered questions and they included whether or not PD James was conscious of the fact that she changed the face of crime fiction with the introduction of realism.  In her response she indicated that she felt that she contributed towards it. A question was asked about Patricia Highsmith’s contribution.  PD James also stated that whilst the Booker Prize would not nominate a crime novel as they appeared to have a great prejudice against genre fiction that crime writers need not worry about this fact.  She felt that crime writers would survive not being nominated for the Booker Prize.  This then led on to the question as to whether or not a best known Booker Prize winner would be able to write a good crime novel?  It was felt that they might be able to write a good crime novel but not a good detective novel.

PD James also indicated that she disliked any television programme that had too much violence and especially violence against women.  It also led on to the question as to whether or not public morality was becoming the reason for murder.  It was also agreed that writers could get people to re-evaluate their views via their writing and that it said a lot about society by the crimes that were being committed. PD James was asked who would she kill if she had the opportunity and her response to the delight of the audience was those who were selfish to others along with politicians whom she felt would not last very long and dictators.

After lunch it was time for Martin Edwards and Peter Robinson.  Martin was talking about whether or not there was much to care about in the Golden Age and what did the future hold for the Golden Age.  Martin stated that British Golden Age authors were a lot better known than foreign authors of Golden Age stories.  He also felt that unlike what people thought that Golden Age authors were not conservative this was not the case.  In fact, in Golden Age novels bankers and politicians were killed off a lot more than people believed.  Also the view that the novels lacked psychological depth was not in fact true.  An example he mentioned was DL Sayers The Documents in the Case.  However, Martin did believe that whilst Golden Age writers were deeply conventional and were occupied in bringing people to justice it was not always the case.  He felt that readers and commentators should have a less simplistic view of Golden Age writers.

Peter Robinson © Ayo Onatade
Peter Robinson in his talk felt that the popularity of cold cases had grown.  Peter also confessed that prior to 1985 he only used to write poetry. He also wondered how many Golden Age writers also actually wrote about the past?  Peter stated that writing about the recent past was not actually new as the recent past has held a fascination throughout the ages.  He also felt that a lot of crime novels depended on keeping secrets.  One of the other things that was discussed was why we have only remembered some Golden Age authors and forgotten some?  It was felt that a consideration might be due to the quality and number of books written.  Peter stated that he would like to write a book set in World War II.  Martin Edwards pointed out that he had in fact written an historical book about Dr Crippen from his point of view.  Peter Robinson was asked if he would write a futuristic crime novel but his response was he was not interested in doing so.  However, he did enjoy reading Paul Johnston’s Quintillian Dalrymple series.  One of the other points that was raised was that if justice was the theme of the Golden Age what did we think the theme of the future would be?

The last two authors that were giving papers on Saturday afternoon were Andrew Taylor and Val McDermid.  Andrew’s talk was on Grandpa Noir: The Crime Fiction of CS Forester.  Andrew stated that the term “Noir” was now elastic but still not that easy to define.  It was however agreed that one of the things that Noir did well was to show how life falls between the cracks.  Andrew also pointed out that Forester’s crime was imperfect and that his characters were ordinary.  All his three crime novels were still readable.

The title of Val McDermid’s talk was Haggis and Haruspications.  She pointed out that
Val McDermid © Ayo Onatade

there was no such thing as Tartan Noir when she first started writing.  She also spoke about Laidlaw and Bloody Scotland, which is now in its second year.  Val also discussed and dismantled Ronald Knox’s 10 rules of crime writing.  She felt that nowadays readers and sleuths are expected to be smart.  She also considered herself to be an ambitious writer and that she sees the next book that she is writing as a challenge.  She also confirmed that she enjoys reading new authors and books for the New Blood Panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival.  Val McDermid also said that in the light of the recent issues surrounding privacy that she anticipated a slew of conspiracy novels being published.  Val also spoke about a number of authors whose novels she had enjoyed and these included SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Paula Daly’s What Kind of Mother Are You, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.  She also stated that she enjoyed Anne Cleeves series for its sense of place and David Mark’s debut novel, which she felt, had a great sense of place as well. 

Both Andrew and Val like the rest also answered questions after their talk.  Val stated that it was often easier to tell the truth via a novel than in journalism.  With regard to trips to the past readers were clearly more knowledgeable than before.  It was felt that it was hard to think of an historical period that had not been covered.  The rise of Nordic crime writers was also discussed.  It was felt that in fact the number of first class Nordic crime writers were in fact limited. However, Val McDermid felt that we would see more international crime novels on our shelves.  She also stated that the political thrillers were not dead and she mentioned Charles Cumming as being an author that certainly should be read.  One of the issues that that was also discussed was the lack of black and Asian crime writers.  Both Val and Andrew were asked whom would they like to see an undiscovered crime novel by.  Andrew chose Josephine Tey while Val decided that for her it would be Reginald Hill.  Both Val and Andrew were also extolling the virtues of reading crime novels.

Ayo and Peter Robinson © Ayo Onatade
After the final talks given on Saturday afternoon, there was also time for people to get their books signed before drinks in the South Building and then dinner.

The after dinner speech was given by Priscilla Masters which was hilariously funny and she used the reality television programme Come Dance With Me as the basis. In a hilarious take on the different types of dances that the participants undertook she tried (and in my opinion) succeeded in matching a various number of crime fiction characters to the different dances.

After dinner once again we all made our way to the SCR where once again many of us stayed up very late chatting and drinking.  I think I managed to make it to bed after 1:00am on Sunday morning.

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