Yesterday was the British Library’s second Bodies from the Library conference which explores and celebrates the Golden Age of detective fiction, sometimes seriously, sometimes irreverently, but always enthusiastically. Here is the low-down on what was discussed at the conference…
Martin Edwards, Simon Brett, Stella Duffy and Janet Laurence on The Detection Club and The Sinking Admiral
The event kicked off with a look at the soon to be released collaborative novel, The Sinking Admiral (2016), which was contributed to by 14 writers of The Detection Club. One idea which came out quite strongly was the feeling that it was a greater challenge doing this collaborative project than it would have been for collaborators of The Floating Admiral (1931), as they didn’t have the time for the round robin approach. This meant everyone had to write their sections at the same time (leading temporarily to one chapter bumping off a character, only for them to be very much alive in the next one!). There was also the suggestion that the writers in the new collaborative project were more diverse in their crime writing styles, whereas the writers for The Floating Admiral wrote Whodunits. This idea interested as I can see what they mean but I still feel like even within Whodunits there can be a range of differences.
An interesting question from the audience lead to a good discussion on why crime fiction lends itself to collaborative pieces. The panel suggested this was because the genre already had a mixtures of styles within and that there was an emphasis on plot and less pressure for full character development. Whilst with other genres there is a greater need for a unifying writing style. Haven’t quite made my mind up yet on how much I agree or disagree with these suggestions, but I would be interested to hear what others make of it. Another good question was which Golden Age Detective author would the panel want to collaborate with. Edwards selected Anthony Berkeley for his plotting and irony, Laurence chose Margery Allingham and Brett picked Agatha Christie. Duffy chose Ngaio Marsh and also revealed that she would be completing an unfinished Marsh novel. It seems Marsh wrote the four opening chapters to a novel set in a hospital in WW2 and there is already a title for the forthcoming publication: Money in the Morgue.
Tony Medawar on Anthony Berkeley
I was intrigued by Medawar’s assertion that Berkeley was the most important Golden Age writer and although this assertion wasn’t fully gone into I did find it interesting to hear more about Berkeley’s work and how within it he attempted new structures in his stories and overturn established tropes. His smuggler ancestry was also interesting as was the fact he wrote an opera and a collection of limericks! He also wrote a mystery named Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927) and part of me did wonder whether there was any intended connection between Berkeley’s Mr Priestley and John Rhode’s Dr Priestley.
Jennifer Morag Henderson on Josephine Tey
Henderson is the biographer of Tey and she argued that Tey was a bridge between Golden Age detective fiction and modern detective fiction with her focus on character and psychology. It interested me that Penguin at the time wondered how best to categorise Tey, being unsure if she was definitively within the crime genre. It was also revealed that Tey had a writing shed in the garden of her Inverness home. Henderson’s talk focused primarily on Brat Farrar (1949) and The Man in the Queue (1929), though she also touched on some of the others such as The Singing Sands (1952), which is Henderson’s favourite (and as in my own review of the novel she noted the inclusion of political topics such as Scottish Nationalism in the text).
Susan Moody and L C Tyler on Georgette Heyer and Philip MacDonald: A Proposal for Election to the Detection Club
The premise for this talk was an exciting one, centring on arguing whether hypothetically Heyer or MacDonald should have been elected to The Detection Club. Tyler advocated for MacDonald, a writer whose work I haven’t read much of. But it was interesting to see Tyler pick up on depictions of gender in The Rasp (1924), as this was something I had also noted when I had read it. It seems also that MacDonald was quite innovative in some of his other novels in terms of typography, language and story structure. In turn Moody argued the case for Heyer though I didn’t find her arguments as convincing. I enjoyed how we the audience got to vote at the end, though I wasn’t that surprised when the votes for Heyer won, considering that her work is easier to get a hold of and more likely to have been read by the audience.
Rob Davies and Martin Edwards on The Golden Age and the British Library
This was an interesting segment of the day for several reasons. Firstly we got to find out about new publications such as the reprinting of Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), to which Edwards has added an additional solution. It also appears that another book by Edwards will be coming out next year as a companion to the GAD publications brought out by the British Library. I think it is called The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books but let me know if I have that incorrect. Edwards and Davies also discussed the John Bude publications from the British Library as well as looking at how the imprint is planning on moving beyond the boundaries of Golden Age detective fiction, such as their reprinting of some of the Sergeant Cluff novels.
Stella Duffy on Theatricality in Ngaio Marsh
Aside from giving us a quick guide on how to pronounce Ngaio’s name, Duffy’s talk focused on Marsh’s New Zealand novels, in particular their use of setting and theatrical motifs. Duffy also got to exercise her theatrical capabilities through several extract readings.
John Curran on the Collins Crime Club
John Curran’s talk was an enlightening and entertaining look at the Collins Crime Club, touching also on The Detective Story Club and the White Circle Novels. He also mentioned that his book on the history of the Collins Crime Club will be coming out next year, so this is another new publication to look forward to. This was also a useful talk as it introduced me to a number of new authors such as John Stephen Strange, A. Fielding and Leslie Ford for example.
Barry Pike on H. C. Bailey
As well as giving an extensive pen portrait of H. C. Bailey’s fictional sleuth Mr Fortune, Pike also considered why Bailey’s work is not so well known and not so well read today, looking at critics such as Julian Symon’s role in this.
Dolores Gordon Smith on G. K. Chesterton
Smith gave a lively talk on Chesterton revealing interesting information about his life as well as his work. Top Tip: If you want your mother in law to like you, don’t draw a picture of her daughter in chalk on her wallpaper! I enjoyed finding out about the ways Chesterton has been referenced in later works, including an Iron Maiden song and it was also interesting to find out about some of the real life influences on the character of Father Brown and the way Smith compared this amateur sleuth with Christie’s Poirot was intriguing.
Panel on Favourite Screen Adaptations of Golden Age Novels
The topic for this final discussion was a good one, as it made me think about my own favourite adaptations and it was interesting to see which ones the panel picked and their reasons for doing so, as a number were quite surprising…
John Curran – Malice Aforethought (1979)
Simon Brett – Joan Hickson adaptations of Miss Marple (1984-1992) (a choice I definitely agreed with)
Stella Duffy – Murder at the Gallop (1963) (A choice which certainly surprised the audience but Duffy’s reason for choosing it centred on Rutherford’s being a bad Miss Marple)
Jennifer Morag Henderson – Brat Farrar (1986)
L. C. Tyler – Death on the Nile (1978), which he actually watched in a cinema only a 100 miles away from the Nile itself.
Barry Pike – 1st episode (Look to the Lady) of Campion (1989-1990) starring Peter Davison (a series I have also enjoyed).
Martin Edwards – Murder Most Foul (1964) (Another perhaps surprising choice but Edwards’ choosing of it was a personal one, having watched it at a village fete as a child, which Rutherford herself attended and he strongly believes it was an important factor in turning his attention towards Golden Age detective fiction).
Janet Laurence – Murder on the Orient Express (1974) (Chosen for its’ characterisation through dialogue rather than its portrayal of Poirot).
Susan Moody – Rebecca (1940)
Tony Medawar – And Then There Were None (1987) – A Russian adaptation which the recent BBC adaptation borrowed from and/or were influenced by. He also mentioned Green for Danger (1946) and The List of Adrian Messenger.
Dolores Gordon Smith – 1st series of ITV’s Poirot (1989) starring David Suchet.
Jake Kerridge – The Beast Must Die (1969) (A French version of the Nicholas Blake novel, which makes the change of having no central detective).
The panel also briefly discussed what they thought were the worst adaptations with Martin Edwards mentioning Hitchcock’s version of Francis Iles’ Before the Fact (1932), Suspicion (1941) and John Curran choosing the BBC’s Partners in Crime (2015), two choices I definitely agree with, especially the latter. Other choices were the Ngaio Marsh series featuring Patrick Malahide (Stella Duffy) and Hitchcock’s adaptation of Tey’s A Shilling for Candles (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) (Jennifer Morag Henderson).
All in all I really enjoyed this day, not only having learnt more about authors I knew of, but also finding out about authors I hadn’t heard of before. It was also really great to finally meet up with some of my fellow bloggers; JJ from The Invisible Event, the Puzzle Doctor and Rich from Past Offences. Definitely looking forward to next year’s conference.