St Hilda’s College Crime Fiction Weekend

I am always envious when I see my blogging chums posting about their trips and travels to the various vintage crime festivals and conferences around Britain. Summertime travel would be near impossible for me under normal circumstances, let alone the current conditions.

Last weekend was the 27th St. Hilda’s College Crime Fiction Weekend which given current conditions went entirely online. While I am sure this was disappointing for some, I was delighted because that made it possible for me to attend – something made even easier when they announced that panels would be recorded and remain available until mid-September. Thankfully that meant that I would not need to be getting up at 5am!

Since the conference has ended, the organizers have created a discounted ticket rate that allows you to access those recordings. While that means that you are not able to engage in the chat options yourself, you can at least read what people were writing in real time and how they were reacting to the speakers – this was one of the best bits of the event in my opinion. I was delighted to see the speakers staying to listen to and interact with each other during different talks and enjoyed the positivity and excitement that everyone seemed to share.

The proceedings opened with a welcome from Val McDermid who introduced the guest of honor Andrew Taylor who spoke on The Invention of Yesterday. After a few opening technical difficulties, Taylor began by talking about John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet (showing us a rather gorgeous Penguin edition). He talks about how the book has lingered with him and how it brings a historical setting to life. These discussions of the impact of great books on the speaker was one of the highlights of many presentations and it certainly left me keen to rush off and pick up my copy (particularly as it seems like ages since I read a Carr!).

There are some really interesting thoughts here about how to incorporate research and when to leave that research out (in one of my favorite phrases from any of the videos, he describes research as “thickening the broth” of a novel, even if you do not place it on the page itself). He also discusses the problem of handling past attitudes and events – a problem that every writer setting their story in the past has to address in some fashion. I felt that I learned some interesting things here too – not least that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven was originally planned to be a parrot! He then answered questions from Val McDermid and some of the viewers.

This was followed by a whodunnit game The Murder of Lucy Ackroyd where authors and guests played suspects giving interviews. Attendees watched these and then voted on who they thought was guilty to win a signed PD James novel. I will admit to skipping on this since the deadline had already passed when I could have found time to watch it! The culprit was revealed at the end of the following night.

Novelist Andrew Wilson presented 100 Years of Christie: A Celebration of All Things Agatha. This session (a little over twenty minutes long) discussed Christie’s enduring appeal and incorporated the views of several other participants in the conference. Not every view can be described as a love letter to her work and if it disappointed it was only because the word ‘celebration’ is rather suggestive of unbridled positivity, but I found it enjoyable – particularly when we get to the memories of their first Christie experiences. It is hard to imagine that there is anyone who would pay to stream panels from a vintage crime conference without having read some of the core texts but just in case, be warned that this spoils the endings of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express while referencing critical clues from The Murder is Announced and Sparkling Cyanide.

The second day of the conference opened with a double-bill with Mary Paulson-Ellis discussing The Cold Finger of Time: with du Maurier and Vine and Sara Sheridan returning to Agatha with Not So Cosy: Christie’s 1950s – both topics of interest to me!

Mary Paulson-Ellis gave a brilliant presentation that managed to feel detailed yet conversational and natural – a really difficult thing to do, particularly over the medium of a Zoom call! She discusses two books in detail – Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand and Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye – drawing comparisons and making connections between them. It was a fascinating conversation about these two psychological suspense stories, touching on idea of the interaction between past and present. Having read neither I certainly am much more interested in doing so, as well as Paulson-Ellis’ own work which sounds really interesting.

Sara Sheridan talks about the 1950s as a decade and how Christie’s work reflects the social changes that were going on in that time. As with the previous speaker, Sheridan is enthusiastic and speaks with superb clarity and emphasis making her points easy to follow. While I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion of specific works, the view Sheridan expresses of Christie’s work is quite compelling. She also forcefully refutes the idea that Christie is a twee or cosy writer, pointing out some of the taboo topics she addresses in her work. I found this most interesting though in her discussion of her own research into the era for her novels and her discussion of how cultural attitudes have changed.

Next came Abir Mukherjee and Vaseem Khan discussing Out Of Time: The Protagonist and the Point of Historical Fiction and Killing Gandhi, Bombay jazz, post-Independence blues… and India’s first female police detective respectively.

Mukherjee (the author of the Sam Wyndham series which I love and have disgracefully fallen behind in reading!) discusses not only the reasons why historical fiction interests us as readers but also why it interests writers. He shares an incident from his teenaged years that inspired him to want to write that kind of fiction and I think he does a really interesting job of explaining both the appeal but also the structure of many stories of that type. It is a really rich and thoughtful discussion, illustrated well with a Powerpoint presentation.

Vaseem Khan’s talk discusses his own journey as a writer, beginning with his Baby Ganesh series which is set in modern day India before going on to talk about how he came to write a historical crime novel. It was an interesting talk with some really interesting things discussed that I knew nothing about. I came away feeling that I want to go off and read some of his novels – always a sign of a good talk!

Next came Jill Dawson’s Plotting in lockdown: Patricia Highsmith and ‘A Suspension of Mercy and Tom Wood’s You couldn’t make it up – Bloody Murder and Brilliant Science in the golden age of Crime Fiction. This pair of talks moved us a little further away from crime fiction to focus on slightly different topics – in the first case, Highsmith’s experiences during her three years living in England, and in the second the Ruxton killings which Wood cites as the first modern murder. Wood’s presentation is somewhat beset by technical issues which is a shame and it does feel quite rushed but the question and answers session is superb.

After that came Anna Mazzola and Laura Shepherd-Robinson talking about Justice and Revenge in Historical Crime Fiction and Experimenting with structure: Device and design in ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’, and ‘The Quincunx. The first focuses on ideas of justice and how that can exist without formal structures. Mazzola delivers the talk at a blistering pace, cramming it with lots of information to the point where I feel like I will need to listen to it again to take it all in – thank goodness for those recorded sessions! Be aware that once again the endings of Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None are spoiled.

Shepherd-Robinson’s talk was similarly fascinating although it unfolds at a somewhat slower pace. It is full of interesting book recommendations, many of which I knew nothing about, each of which plays with structure in different ways. The two books that are focused on however are The Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears and The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Both sounded absolutely fascinating to me and while I will fess up to being completely intimidated to read anything more than 350 pages for the blog (not because I mind longer books – just it means I can read fewer titles in a week), I feel I would like to give the latter a try. If you’ve read either, I’d love to know your thoughts!

The final session of the weekend featured William Shaw, the author of one of my favorite recent crime novels The Birdwatcher and the superb Breen and Tozer series set in the 60s (not reviewed here), presenting Shardlake is Doctor Who and Elly Griffiths spoke to The Motive and the Cue for Passion: Actors and Acting in Crime Fiction.

Shaw begins by describing how he was present for the reading of the very first chapter of the first Shardlake story at a small writing group he was a member of. It is an absolutely incredible talk, feeling very fluid with much of it seemingly improvised drawing on ideas mentioned in previous presentations. He discusses Samson’s series (which I’ve not read but you can bet your bottom dollar I will now!) before going on to talk about the devising of his own historical series set in 1968. There are some fantastic anecdotes here and some really clever insights into the process of writing. If nothing else, this talk has given me what surely is my favorite piece of writing advice – “Get your sheep right and the rest will follow”.

Elly Griffiths discusses the reasons why crime writers are drawn to theatrical settings and characters. I loved the material about the linguistic references to crime associated with the stage and can understand the fascination of theatrical murders turning out to be real. She discusses the origins of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris mysteries, a favorite series which I have reviewed here, and the works of Nancy Spain. Her energy and enthusiasm are really infectious so this (and the short Q&A afterwards) ended the weekend on a real high.

As I suspect you have guessed, I found the Crime Weekend to be a thoroughly worthwhile experience and was really glad that I was able to share in it online. The only thing that disappoints is the idea that this online version is probably a one-off and so next year I will be back to watching enviously from afar. While my preference would be to attend one of these in person, an online option is a welcome alternative for me and I do hope that even when some conferences go back to holding events in physical spaces some will consider creating virtual memberships for those who can’t travel.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

A Necessary Evil
Abir Mukherjee
Originally Published 2017
Sam Wyndham #2
Preceded by A Rising Man
Followed by Smoke and Ashes

Abir Mukherjee’s first mystery novel, A Rising Man, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Because I read it several months before starting this blog though I have never really shared my thoughts about it.

That novel is a superb historical mystery that is set in India in the years immediately following the First World War. There are many reasons to recommend it, not least the author’s ability to convey a strong sense of place and culture and the two remarkable main characters. It is a page-turning read and one I find myself regularly recommending on the staff picks rack at my place of work.

A Necessary Evil is a sequel to that book and I am surprised and happy to be able to say I found it an even stronger read than the first one, though I think readers would be best served by starting at the beginning. Before I explain why, I ought to tell you a little bit about its plot.

The book begins close to a year after the events of the previous novel. The heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore seeks out Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee (who, it turns out, is an old school friend) to consult them about some strange letters he has received that seem to suggest a threat to his life. As they discuss the matter his car is attacked in an ambush and he is killed.

While Wyndham is able to track down the assassin it is clear that further investigation is needed to understand why this has happened and how it was possible for an ambush to take place when the route they were travelling had not been prearranged. Though political considerations make it impossible to formally continue their investigation, Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore in search of answers.

The novel contains an excellent mystery plot but it also reads like a thriller, particularly in the final chapters which have a page-turning, race against time quality. This is not a change of style but rather reflects how the circumstances of the novel manage to amplify the tension at key moments.

In each novel Wyndham is in a position where he is an outsider. In A Rising Man he is a stranger to India, learning to navigate Indian society while trying to solve a murder. Here he finds himself in a country where he has no legal authority and may be given the order to stop and to return home. He is isolated, has few resources he can call on and is treated with suspicion by almost everyone he encounters.

I also appreciated that Mukherjee reduces the amount of discussion of Wyndham’s opium addiction in this second book, though it remains an important part of his character and of the plotting. As a result the calmer, clearer Wyndham is able to show more of his detective skills as he works to understand the complex relationships within the palace and learn about the circumstances of the prince’s death.

His assistant Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, so named because none of his British colleagues can pronounce his actual name, remains a delight and gets a few moments to shine. I appreciate his steadiness as a secondary investigator and I like his relationship with Wyndham which is generally respectful and constructive.

A secondary character makes a return from the first book and she makes an important contribution to the investigation. Her involvement helps to reinforce one of the series’ most potent themes – that social status shifts and can be a matter of perspective.

That idea is crystallized in a wonderful exchange in the very first chapter of the book when the Prince points out to Wyndham that the question of precedence between the Indian prince, the British policeman representing the crown and his Indian sergeant from the priest caste is far from simple. Throughout the novel we see Wyndham confronting his own lack of status within Sambalpore as he is unable to gain access to people he wishes to speak with, impeding his investigation.

Speaking of that investigation, the mystery here is a good one and very well plotted. Mukherjee creates an intriguing cast of characters and while the identity of the villain didn’t surprise me, I felt the resolution was extremely powerful and effective.

The best historical mysteries do not simply entertain but they educate, inform and speak to aspects of our culture and society. A Necessary Evil does this, discussing aspects of British rule in India without becoming polemical and exploring fascinating themes such as of the nature of justice and the transience of social status. Its characters are compelling, as is the case they are investigating. If you haven’t tried the first one, I’d definitely recommend starting there (there are references made to events that take place at the end of the previous novel) and just know that you will be in for a treat when you get to the second. Highly recommended.

A copy of the novel was provided by the publishers through NetGalley for review though I have also purchased my own copy.