I spent the weekend of 17th to 19th August at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Weekend in Oxford. This is the third time I have attended – my report on the 2006 weekend can be found below and includes a general introduction. The following report is wholly subjective – in no way am I attempting a conscientious ‘report’ on the various lectures; and all conclusions, inferences and speculations are mine alone.
Overall I have to admit that I did not enjoy this weekend as much as the two previous ones I attended – this may have been to do with the fact that some of the people I most enjoyed talking to were not present this year, the fact that a number of the lectures were not especially interesting to me, the fact that my mood was deteriorating, or even the fact that the weather was mostly miserable. These factors may of course have interwoven and fed off each other!
The weekend kicked off with dinner on Friday night and an after-dinner speech by Simon Brett. Brett, a writer of mainly comic mysteries (among many other things), is always very good value,and his various parodies are almost designed for this sort of occasion. Re-writing Under Milkwood as a mystery for instance; very, very funny. It seems effortless but must be enormously difficult. Other highlights included Agatha Christie’s will and a letter written by T.S. Eliot when he was working in a bank.
The weekend proper began, as usual, on Saturday morning. The Conference was chaired by Andrew Taylor and the theme was ‘Strong Poison’ – as always at St Hilda’s the theme is just a starting-point, and each speaker can expatiate upon it in whatever way they see fit. Obviously here there was a reference to Sayers’ novel of the same name, and the final session was indeed dedicated to Dorothy L.
The first speaker was Anne Perry who’s subject was ‘The Worm in The Mind’. Perry talked about the brilliance of Iago as a criminal, the way in which doubt poisons the mind, sows fear and suspicion. She talked of the way in which the mystery has moved on from the whodunit, to finding out how and why a person has become so damaged as to be capable of evil. She was followed by Frances Fyfieldwho’s title was ‘Blood is Thicker’ – is blood thicker than water? is mother love instinctive? Fyfield claimed that this is a myth which has been invented to support the family – ‘everything is blamed on mothers and that is profoundly unfair’ (an issue which has been raised in a few on-list discussions recently and can of course be seen profoundly embedded in our culture). Why should you love your children? is mother-love natural? If you do love your blood-relations may you not also hate them? Myths about sibling love. Fyfield pointed out that those most vulnerable to homicide are children under the age of 2 – when one considers the nature of the task surprising that there are not more. The myth that brothers and sisters ‘naturally’ love each other is clearly rubbish – we have no real figures for these homicides but probably many are sibling crimes which parents cover-up. (Many of the issues raised here were fascinating but the talk didn’t seem to really go anywhere and remained at a very generalised level). Fyfield analysed her own influences and came to the conclusion that the biggest was place – the house and surrounding landscape in the Peak District where she grew up. Blood in the stones.
The general discussion which followed was, as might have been expected given the disparate and varied ground covered in the talks, wide-ranging. It was pointed out that the concept that blood is thicker than water is enshrined and protected by law in Britain by inheritance law – except, first, that as far as inheritance tax is concerned this is not true (in fact the opposite pertains – only spouses are exempt), and secondly as someone else pointed out, in fact in Britain there are very few, if any, legal constraints on inheritance, whereas in Europe there are (children have a claim). So actually the opposite is true! We then moved on to the subject of how DNA testing has made consanguinity verifiable – this has had a considerable effect on mystery fiction and society – more paternity testing. Against this is there a counter-trend where we are moving from the biological to the logical family (sadly this line of thought – and I have not heard the term ‘logical family’ before – was not developed). Andrew Taylor commented that a conference on this subject 30 years ago would have been devoted to cyanide and arsenic, now we talk of doubt, blood, families which shows the change in mystery fiction. To which someone responded that people still want to know when, where, why, who etc. both in real-life (the Litvinenko case) and in their mysteries.
The discussion then spiralled off into considering what poisons were easily available to the murderer today, before someone came up with one of the more interesting suggestions of the whole conference – had the same movement taken place in mystery fiction as has taken place in pop music and other areas of contemporary culture – bifurcation, specialisation etc.? So just as in pop you have a pop chart, an rnb chart, a country chart etc. etc. and these areas are increasingly separate, so you have historical mysteries, cosies, noirs etc. etc.. No-one developed this point unfortunately, but I want to consider it for a moment. It is of course related to the ‘long tail’ theory and the ever-increasing number of books published, niche marketing etc.. The argument about pop music is generally applied to alterations in technology (downloading) which do not necessarily apply to books. And there have been separate charts for many years (since charts began?). On the other hand we do have the bifurcation of television, the growth of multi-channels, the decline of widely watched programme. The division between various schools of mystery has been around for some time; but not perhaps to the extent that it exists today? And one might add in the question of the ill-feeling which exists between the devotees (and one would include a number of writers in that category) of various sub-genres. The sparring for the high-ground as the true guardians of the mystery ‘flame’ (I meet this on lists from time to time). Well I’m not sure about this theory – whether it is true, if so when it happened, how it relates to other cultural developments and so on? But it was certainly a very stimulating suggestion.
The session however ended on a comic and consensual note when someone wondered what would have happened if Christie had trained as, for example, a Girl Guide leader rather than a pharmacist – would we be discussing murder by tent pegs instead of poison.
The first speaker was Rosemary Rowe who spoke on ‘Poison and Punishment in Roman Britain: A Crime Writers Guide’. Rowe observed that writing historical mysteries was much simpler in that the writer did not have to worry about forensics. In real life Rome, poison was the preferred weapon of the murderer, and in 2ndC Roman Britain, where her books are set, it was illegal to carry any weapon -thereby limiting the methods of murder. Poison was so popular that some plants were illegal in Roman gardens. But even poison had its problems because eating was usually communal – in fact rich Romans actually poisoned themselves, because they believed water was better if stored for 7 years and the storage containers were lead. In terms of punishment poison was more of an escape from punishment than a punishment in itself, given the various other grisly fates allotted to criminals.
The second speaker was Danuta Reahwho’s subject was ‘Toxic Language’. This was, for me, the most interesting talk of the whole weekend, raising a raft of complicated issues; it is also, therefore, one where my notes are most inadequate due to a lack of shorthand! Reah has written a book on The Language of Newspapers and said she would have liked to pursue the issue of how newspaper articles resemble fiction. She started from the position that language is a primary part of our humanity, but is shaped by others; quoting Derrida’s ‘there is nothing outside of the text’ she said she wanted to look at how our attitudes are shaped by language. What is the process which goes on when a character is named? Our very forms of addressing each other is so significant – Christian name, Sir, Miss, Mr Smith – and Sir carries a different connotation in different situations – from the classroom to ‘would you mind blowing in this bag Sir?’ – where does the balance of power lie?
Reah said she would focus on the reporting of two ‘true’ stories – those of the Bolger killing and that of Louise Woodward. She took the Bolger story at the point when Robert Thompson and John Venables (the killers) were being considered for release – they were called the ‘Bolger killers’ or ‘Thomson and Venables’ (the use of family names to express contempt, to make them anonymous, non-people). Louise Woodward on the other hand was ‘Louise’, ‘the British nanny’, ‘the teenager’ – a whole person. Venables and Thompson coming out on parole were portrayed as anonymous, secret, pampered, ‘evil, : Louise was ‘calm’, ‘innocent’.
Reah then moved on to compare how language worked in fiction and took the example of Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) and Red Dragon (the first book in the Lector series). She showed how by very small linguistic changes Harris alters the reader’s perceptions, so that the characters of Dr Frederick Chiltern and Hannibal Lector himself metamorphose between the two books.
Reah then switched her focus to the power of utterance, the dual meanings of language, how you can say so much with very little. And how things can be sneaked past your guard by the language of presupposition, which newspapers do all the time. So in the case of Thompson and Venables an editorial wrote ‘they are reformed characters, we are told’ , ‘they are pleasant and co-operative outside their so-called cells’ – implication – both that they are evil within their cells (secret, hidden) and that they are being pampered (‘so-called cells’). Conversely in the Louise Woodward case, here is a sentence about the parents of the dead child – ‘the parents spoke about their loss sentimentally, citing even Winnie-the-Pooh, but they said nothing about Louise who’s life as free woman is vanishing’ – so the genuineness of the parents emotion is questioned, and by inference their guilt is questioned.
Reah’s powerful peroration was that as readers we should be happy for fiction writers to create monsters for us, or create our own, but we should not let newspapers create them.
The discussion which followed this dense talk was a little disappointing. Someone asked about translation and the loss of linguistic subtleties – Reah said this was quite true and she sometimes felt guilty about taking the royalties on translations; the subtleties are culturally and linguistically specific. I asked what was, in retrospect, an absurdly general question about the way in which gender effects language in terms of both writer and subject (Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and her strictures on the male nature of language was much on my mind) – Reah replied that the effect was massive but she had of course not time to develop this theme (well it was a daft question!). Val McDermid said someone had pointed out that Chandler gave all his positive verbs to male characters and his negative ones to female characters.
Researching Reah a little further I find that she actually has two articles pursuing aspects of this fascinating subject on her web-site at.. http://www.danutareah.co.uk/academic/index.html. I have not read these yet but am sure they will be enlightening.
Margaret Maron andDorothy Cannell gave a dual talk on ‘Family: A Most Corrosive Poison’. They said that they wrote on the cosier side, out of their own experiences. But family secrets can be dark and corrosive – examples would be discovering a family member had been a Nazi collaborator or a Klansman. They said they wanted to write optimistic books and pointed out how much crime there is in the Bible. In the discussion that followed someone asked about the fact that both writers have married couples as their detectives and does this make it more difficult? Dorothy Cannell said it did, it cut out the soap opera element (I couldn’t follow this argument – surely life’s problems don’t cease upon marriage?), but Margaret Maron said it made it more difficult by cutting out sexual tension which is a good stand-by for the writer (again I don’t see why marriage should cut out sexual tension!). There was some inconclusive discussion of the opening of Anna Karenina (‘all happy families’ etc.).
I missed the fourth session which featured P.D.James and William Dolman (I find I always need one ‘time-out’ session at St Hilda’s). The after dinner speaker was Colin Dexter. Dexter spoke about TV and books and the Morse adaptations. He said how lucky he was with timing, and above all with John Thaw (he has stipulated in his will that no-one else should be allowed to play Morse). I felt, as I have before with Dexter, that he is somewhat egotistical. This emerged when he compared the ‘perfect’ casting of Thaw as Morse with that of Suchet as Poirot! Now Morse was wonderfully fine television drama, but to compare him as a character with Poirot does rather beggar the imagination. I am not in the least convinced that anyone will ever want to re-make Morse, but I am perfectly certain that there will be other Poirots (fantastic as I think Suchet is). For a mystery writer to compare themselves, or their characters, with Christie does rather invite accusations of delusions of grandeur. Still the rest of the talk, on the strengths and weaknesses of TV as against books was intriguing – Dexter said that one shot of Oxford’s ‘honey-coloured’ stone was worth any amount of description. But on the other hand Bleak House, which he regards as the greatest adaptation of a novel (another peculiar judgement in my view but we will let that go), entirely failed to capture Dickens’ prose when dealing with the death of Jo (I did think to myself that would have been simply-solved by using voice-over!). Dexter was very encouraging to new writers urging them to persist – there is a considerable tendency among some speakers at St Hilda’s to talk as if their entire audience is composed of writers, new writers, aspiring writers, any sort of writer – actually this seemed even less true this year than hitherto. But he would have been encouraging to new writers.
Sunday – Conference Lecture
The 2007 Conference Lecture was given by Val McDermid on the subject of ‘Imperfect Murders’. Val McDermid is an interesting and amusing speaker and this was no exception, though as it focused on her own work, of which I am not a great fan, it was perhaps less gripping for me than when I heard her before. She started by commenting that Andrew Taylor’s generous introduction had trashed her reputation as a ‘bloodthirsty lesbian’ – a reference to the press brouhaha about reported remarks by Ian Rankin (I thought this story had also run in 2006 but maybe I misremembered). McDermid said that she changes her style because of boredom. Her latest book ‘Beneath the Bleeding’ deals with poisoning which might be thought an unusual subject for her. The perfect murder is one which goes undetected and this is of no use to the mystery writer; what they need is a ‘nearly perfect’ murder, one which fails because of one vital error. But mystery writers have to deal with an audience which is mystery savvy and therefore keep their readers interested even if they guess the outcome on page 4. McDermid said she retained a great affection for the shock/surprise in the last pages, for the whodunit. She knows who will die early on in the creative process, and works backward from the crime to identify the imperfection in the murder. As a writer she works backwards rather than forwards, just as her psychological profiler Tony Hill works backwards from the murder to find who committed it. McDermid pointed out that her first Lindsay Gordon book was actually a locked room mystery, and once Gordon discovered the ‘how’ she knew the ‘who’. In Starstuck she followed the old motivation of money/greed – cui bono – Kate Brannigan (another series character) has to find out who really benefits, follow the money (another ‘classical’ mystery trick). Writers today have to have series characters who develop rather than being like Miss Marple who doesn’t (although Robert Barnard in his classic work on Christie says Miss M. does develop).
In the discussion most interesting was Val McDermid’s account of her time at St Hilda’s – she said it opened up her world, had a range of social types (must have been very different from Magdalene College, Cambridge in the 1970’s where the gamut of social types ran from A to B!). She loved her time at Oxford and freely admitted to having used the Old Girl’s Network.
This final session was devoted to the work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Both the talks were interesting, intelligent disquisitions, but there was a serious problem with the session, one which one frequently encounters when dealing with Sayers, the tendency to the hagiographic. There is no other mystery writer who attracts this sort of hagiography; I do not mean that other writers do not have devoted fans but, by and large, they are both smaller in number and less devoted – willing to laugh at their idols, or at least admit their weaknesses. The literary equivalent would I guess be Austen. Well Sayers is the mystery world’s Austen. Now one reason for this may be that Sayers also attracts avid detractors. Indeed Natasha Cooper who gave the first lecture (on ‘Love and the fight for autonomy in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers’) introduced this motif right at the start when she said that ‘placet, magistra’ (from the ending of – Gaudy Night – GN) divides mystery fans into two camps – those who think it is the acme of pretension and excess, and those who think it is glorious. The problem was that there were no representatives of the latter camp – had there been the session would have been more interesting (not to mention lively). This, I should emphasise, is not a fault to be laid at the door of either of the speakers. Cooper said that she belonged to the glorious category, generously explaining that this was partly due to a family background where Latin was common. The defence rested on the fact that Wimsey(PW) is pleading – he rejects all notions of possession which were still common at the time. In Busman’s Honeymoon (BH) Harriet Vane (HV) has to learn that she mustn’t crowd PW or impinge on his detective instincts. Affection must not be allowed to corrupt judgement (this is a very DLS idea and is of course the most complete nonsense – our judgement not only is always, but should always, be affected by our emotions – to be other, which is impossible, would to be less than human in every sense, the problem is knowing how our reason is affected by our emotions – a very pertinent one for depressives! – but whatever the quality of her mystery fiction Sayers’ ‘philosophical’ ideas are – well barmy) – GN is a further development of this theme – Mrs Robinson’s judgement has been affected by affection (this is why I always take the part of Mr Robinson and chose that as a ‘nom’ during my fairly short-lived membership of the Sayers list). Cooper pointed out that the notion of affection corrupting judgement can also be found in men in Sayers. In Strong Poison (SP) HV faced death – her relationship with Boyes was based on her own surrender; suspending affection for judgement. Idea of giving-in to something wrong which you know to be wrong fascinated DLS – in real-life it played out in her relation with John Cornos (?) – murdering Philip Boyes was a fictional revenge on Cornos. Sayers’ own relationships were notoriously miserable, and if she eventually tired of PW he is idealised by her in the HV books. Both PW and HV have to give up some armour so that there can be a marriage of equals from the start; BH develops this. But DLS often shows opposites – horribly distorted relationships and marriages – the brutalised and beaten farmer’s wife in Clouds of Witness is one such. But the most blatant example, Cooper argued, is in the short story The Elopement of Peter Wimsey in the collection Hangman’s Holiday. This utterly nightmarish tale shows Sayers’ horror at the possibilities of bad relationships. Sayers was terrified of losing autonomy. As I hope I have shown this was a fascinating, persuasive lecture.
Jill Paton Walsh then gave a lecture on ‘The Rebellion of Harriet Vane’. Walsh said that Barbara Reynolds (Sayers’ biographer) quoted DLS as saying that she began SP hoping to get rid of Wimsey (‘commit infanticide’) by marrying him off but she decided that she was unable to do so as HV was in an impossible position of gratitude. Sayers was committed to ‘psychological realism’ ; she wanted to write ‘literary detection’ going back to Collins and Dickens (the latter at least being an odd choice for ‘psychological realism’ I would have thought, but that’s another digression!). DLS is a ‘warm’ writer where Christie is ‘cold’ – not concerned about her characters (Walsh advanced this as a reason for AC’s popularity – that she doesn’t engage the emotions; the books remain an intellectual puzzle – I would contest both the assertion and the conclusion). Walsh wondered why DLS thought that marrying PW would kill him as a detective. In Have His Carcase the love story doesn’t progress very far but HV and PW are a joint intelligence -was this the first time this had been done in mystery fiction?
Walsh then moved on to the question of Q.D. Leavis’s famous review of GN (of which I hadn’t heard I’m afraid). Anyway apparently Leavis makes two substantial points…
1.) That DLS idealised academics – they are as corrupt and self-seeking as any other group of professionals, not some specially pure and lofty group dedicated to truth.
2.) That Wimsey is an absurdly idealised hero, who reminded her of someone from Ouida (I was fascinated to hear another reference to Ouida whom Miriam discovers in Richardson’s Pilgrimage – The Backwater – to her great delight). Leavis also hated DLS’s mention of sex.
This review was first in The Times but then in Scrutiny – I can’t find a copy on-line but I am now determined to seek the article out. Apparently DLS dismissed it.
Walsh thinks PW/HV to some extent escaped from DLS – especially PW. At a previous discussion of GN at St Hilda’s Robert Barnard (whom I know is a hater of the book) presented the opposing case. In writing GN, Walsh argued, DLS was discovering herself, probing her own reactions. There is an undertow of deep sadness in PW/HV story – not for the reader for whom it is a happy story but for the writer – Sayers creates her own ideal partner and thereby proves the impossibilities of her own desires. Disappointed idealism. DLS didn’t finish Thrones Dominations because of the abdication – the theme was to have been inherited responsibility and Sayers thought the Duke of Windsor showed he had none! (guess she probably wouldn’t have been a Di fan :)).
The discussion which followed was very disappointing because no-one really put the opposing point of view. Indeed I have taken no notes at all. I do remember that there was some rather unpleasant gibing at Q.D. Leavis which verged on the misogynist. From what had been reported of her article it seemed to me that she had made serious and valid objections which were worthy of a serious response (coming to think of it Barnard’s takes on academia – in say Death of An Old Goat – would probably have had Queenie’s approbation! ).
It is easy to go wrong with this. I like ‘placet, magistra’; I think GN is a great, if flawed, mystery, I think Sayers is a great mystery writer – not in my top 5 but in the 10. It is the uncritical adulation which I react against – as I always do. And the seriousness. For the session – or certainly the discussion – to have worked someone to put the opposing point of view was needed. Without it the slide to the hagiographic and reverential became all too evident.
Although the whole of this account has been totally personal I have interjected in respect of the last session to a greater degree because it seemed to need it! As I said at the outset this was not my favourite St Hilda’s. The lectures by Danuta Reah, Val McDermid and Natasha Cooper were my own highlights, and as always and more so, meeting some delightful people.