The Mystery and Crime Weekend at St Hilda’s College in Oxford had its twentieth meeting this August, making it the longest running crime conference in the UK. This year’s theme was: “From Here to Eternity: The Present and Future of Crime Fiction.”
The brainchild of author Kate Charles and St Hilda’s own Eileen Roberts, the two women work all year long to bring about a comprehensive and enjoyable program with talented speakers and delicious meals. Despite not advertising or having a website, word-of-mouth from attendees has kept the program running each summer, and this year I was fortunate to travel back to Oxford, a place I love so dearly I set my first mystery amidst its glowing golden spires and ancient buildings.
St Hilda’s (that’s not a typo; the Brits don’t use a period after the “saint” abbreviation) was a women’s college until 2008, one of the smaller colleges that make up the federation that comprises Oxford University. Situated on the River Cherwell, the tower of Magdalen College is visible through the trees and rings the hours, accompanying punters on the river, their long poles pushing the flat punts quietly through the water.
Events kicked off Friday night with a champagne reception on the lawn, where I found I was one of thirty Americans out of the one-hundred-and-thirteen participants. Eighteen of us were authors, with twelve alumni, including Past Principal Lady English attending, but most were mystery readers and enthusiasts, with many repeaters. My Massachusetts flatmate, Dorothy Halmsted, had flown over for the fifteenth time.
An elegant three-course dinner was served in the main dining hall, watched over by paintings of former St Hilda’s Principals. Our after-dinner speaker, the jovial Dr. Bernard Knight, served as Wales’ Chief Home Office Pathologist and is also a lawyer, but known by this audience best for his Crowner John series, set in medieval times, and the 1950’s Richard Pryer forensic series. Dr. Knight’s talk, “A Pathologist’s View of his Fictional Colleagues” had us laughing and started the weekend off on a humorous bent, as he described what authors write in crime novels and what audiences see on television is often far from the reality in a pathology lab.
Saturday was the full day of talks, with the format of two speakers and a question and answer period to both, followed by tea or lunch, all very civilized and very accessible, as the balconied Jacqueline du Pre Music Building is small and creates a feeling of intimacy. Natasha Cooper, author of three different crime series, served as conference moderator and aptly kept questions and pacing flowing between those cups of tea in the Senior Common Room.
The day saw presentations from such crime luminaries as Frances Fyfield, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Martin Edwards, Andrew Taylor, Tom Harper and Penelope Evans, all well presented and enjoyed. Topics ranged from crime and philosophy, and what Aristotle would think of modern crime novels, to the relationship between the Golden Age mysteries and today’s crime novels. The talk by P D James received rousing applause and a standing ovation, a tribute to the 93-yr old Baroness and Queen of Mystery, frail in body but robust and engaging in mind. James spoke of the way crime novels have evolved from the days of Dorothy Sayer, Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie to the models in practice now, and how they are richer for this evolution. We met in 2000 when I interviewed her and have maintained an email correspondence in the ensuing years. This reunion was much anticipated but bittersweet due to her age.
A planned signing session for the authors before that night’s dinner had left me in a quandary. I already owned books by most of these authors, some in multiples, yet I couldn’t bring those across the pond for signing. It was the Baroness herself who gave me the solution in one of our emails before my trip: she suggested I make up labels for autographs that I could simply paste into the front of my books when I returned home. I found myself giving sheets of these to other Americans in the same position.
Saturday’s dinner was equally lavish with the speakers sitting amongst us at our tables. The after-dinner speaker this night was Priscilla Masters, author of two series with female protagonists, who described the crime-based cast of the show Strictly Come Dancing, the UK version of Dancing With the Stars. Populated by dancers such as Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s characters, she speculated on partners and the dances they would perform. The image of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot doing a fiery tango provided a lively counterpoint to our final dinner together.
Sunday’s session gave participants free time to browse the town or the bookshop in the lobby of the du Pre building, which featured new and used books as well as hardcovers and paperbacks of the speaker’s books. The conference lecture by Guest of Honour Jill Paton Walsh was titled “From Daniel to Dr Who via Aristotle,” an engrossing look at themes in crime novels. Walsh spoke passionately about writing and the reasons authors feel compelled to pursue what is often not a monetary success. Despite being a highly regarded children’s novelist and literary author, she is perhaps most recognized for finishing the last work of Sayer’s Wimsey/Vane novels and writing two subsequent volumes. My favorite part of her talk described “the novel she was meant to write,” Knowledge of Angels. Unable to find a publisher in the UK in spite of her history, she brought the novel out herself. It was subsequently shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
After our final luncheon meal, a panel discussion on the future of crime fiction closed the conference, moderated by crime reviewer Ayo Onatade and attended by bookseller Richard Reynolds, agent Broo Doherty and editor Ruth Tross. And of course, the real final event: that last cup of tea.
Due to its small size, a comfortable feeling between participants easily springs up. New friendships are made and continuing ones renewed. The sense of history in Oxford pervades the entire conference, and the accessibility to the authors is unparalleled. This may have been my first time at St Hilda’s but I sincerely hope it won’t be my last.
Marni Graff is the author of the Nora Tierney Mysteries, set in England and featuring an American writer. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford; The Green Remains in Cumbria. The Scarlet Wench will be published in Spring 2014. She also writes crime book reviews at Auntie M Writes, www.auntiemwrites.com.