Yesterday I went to the third Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library and it was another great day full of interesting talks and even a Poirot lookalike. It was also great meeting up with a number of my blogging friends. One such friend, the Puzzle Doctor, being much more of a morning person than I am, has already shared his thoughts on the day – so I shall try my best to not parrot him too much.
The first panel of the day, comprising of Martin Edwards, L. C. Tyler, Seona Ford and Jake Kerridge, was on the continuing popularity of the Golden Age and in many ways it was a panel which raised more questions than answers: Why did Christie and Sayers do so well? Why was there a loss of popularity in golden age detective fiction after WW2? Can we read such novels as historical mysteries, telling us something of the times they were written in? Why did female writers from the period survive better? Whilst I didn’t always agree with the answers given to these fairly weighty questions, they all definitely gave food for thought.
Next up was a talk on John Rhode by Tony Medawar and Medawar’s talks are always one of the highlights of the conference for me. It was great to get some more background information on Rhode, such as the fact he fell down a lift shaft in the 1920s (- did this influence his role in the novel Fatal Descent?). He also apparently had a talking parrot and was a pewter tankard collector. The best fact though from this talk has to be that Rhode used a hedgehog as a murder weapon in one of his books. The mind boggles!
The next talk would have appealed to fans of Jane Austen as Professor Kirsten Saxton looked at Lois Austen-Leigh’s (Austen’s great-great-niece) novel The Incredible Crime, which she apparently wrote on Austen’s own writing desk. Considering the mixed reviews I have heard about this book it was interesting to listen to a fan of it. It might not be the best read for a puzzle focused reader, but if you like madcap thrillers and/or academic satire it might well work for you. I also loved hearing about Austen-Leigh as a person, as she seems a colourful character and it was amusing to hear that she wrote to keep herself in champagne.
Following on from this was John Curran’s talk on crosswords and detective fiction. Curran looked at the connections between the two and it is tantalising that the year E. C. Bentley published Trent’s Last Case (1913), also saw the publication of the first crossword. Curran also mentioned a number of golden age reads which use crossword puzzles. Some I was familiar with but others were definitely new. Two which grabbed my attention were Edward Mathers Cain’s Jawbone (1934). Mathers was a crossword writer (I think) and what surprised me was that his novel had all the pages deliberately out of order. The reader had to figure out what the order was. There was also Vincent Fuller’s The Long Green Gaze: A Crossword Puzzle Mystery (1925), which had sealed solutions and asterisks marked key words.
Before we broke for lunch there was just time for one more talk and its focus was Martin Edwards’ much longed for publication: The Story of the Classic Crime in 100 Books. I’ve been really excited to get a hold of this and now that I finally have a copy I am even more eager to get started on reading it (so watch this space for the review). Although 100 key novels are mentioned, there are also references to 600 more books (well we all know how hard it is to limit ourselves). It was interesting to see how the book developed during the writing process and the fact that it is not a 100 best or personal favourites type of book. Fans of E. C. Lorac and Richard Hull will also be pleased to hear that reprints by these two authors will be forthcoming in the British Library series next year.
Post lunchtime we listened to an old radio play named The Fountain, whose entertainment factor came primarily from its cringe worthy sound effects and mode of speech.
A talk I was particularly looking forward to this year was Christine Poulston’s and Sarah Ward’s talk on Ethel Lina White and Elizabeth Daly respectively. Although they both started their writing careers very late in life, their writing styles were complete contrasts. As a fan of White’s work this talk left me keen to go back online and find more of her books to read and as a lukewarm reader of Daly it was useful to get some recommendations as to which novels are her best. If you are a fan of Daly’s work you might be interested to know that her niece wrote four continuation novels in the 80s/90s featuring Henry Gamadge’s wife as the sleuth.
Dr David Whittle’s talk on the musical side of Edmund Crispin’s work and life came next and I never realised the extent of Crispin’s career as a film score writer, working on pictures such as the Carry On films and The Brides of Fu Manchu. Although the inclusion of musical clips was novel, I felt I didn’t really know enough about music to get all of the jokes.
The last writer to be discussed was Ronald Knox. Dolores Gordon-Smith gave this final talk and as always she was wonderfully entertaining and informative. As well as looking at his mystery writing (Still Dead, being her top recommendation), she also looked at his Decalogue and also his work in Sherlock Holmes studies. I hadn’t realised before that his tongue in cheek Holmes’ essays were meant to be a skit on 19th century German biblical studies.
To round off the event there was a final panel called Desert Island Golden Age Books. In the main the choices given were familiar titles: Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Brand’s Green for Danger, Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!, Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral. But (and we really shouldn’t expect any less), Martin Edwards did come out with a rather obscure title: Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson – a book you feel you ought to buy purely for the weird title. I think a Harper Collins reprint may be coming at some point in the future for this book. Whilst I didn’t agree with all of these choices (I think I would only take the Tey and Bentley novels if I was going to use them as kindling on the desert island), but it’s always intriguing to see people’s choices. Can’t make up my mind yet what novel I would take but if you are more decisive than I am let me know your choice…
Unlike the Puzzle Doctor I had a quieter train journey home and although completely exhausted (as I did get back home at midnight), it was nice to be enthusiastically greeted by my relatively new cat, named Agatha (of course). So overall it was another brilliant day and I can’t wait until next year’s conference. If you haven’t been before and you are a fan of golden age detective fiction, I’d definitely recommend you come along next year.