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.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

The Birdwatcher
William Shaw
Originally Published 2016
DS Alexandra Cupidi #0
Followed by Salt Lane

Police Sergeant William South lives in a remote part of the Kentish coast and has spent his professional career avoiding getting involved in anything approaching a murder investigation. When his friend and neighbor, a fellow birdwatcher, is found dead however he is not only roped into the efforts, the department ends up using his home as a base of operations.

Soon South realizes that he may not have known his friend quite as well as he had thought and he finds his own past, which he has kept secret, may be connected to the case.

The author, William Shaw, had previously penned one of my favorite crime novels of a few years ago – She’s Leaving Home. One of the things I liked most about that title was the way it managed to evoke a sense of time and place through character attitudes, dialogue and elements of the locations. The Birdwatcher is similarly impressive, conveying a strong sense of what it would be like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in addition to being a brilliant piece of character study and a really gripping murder investigation.

Shaw has structured his book quite magnificently both thematically and in the development of its plot. Each chapter has two strands – a part told in the present day and a part which takes place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This allows Shaw to slowly reveal the events which have made South the man he is at the start of the story and allows us to draw some connections between events in the past and present.

This is a really smart approach and it means that we have several mysteries we can delve into. The most traditional of these is the question of who is responsible for the death of his friend and it is an interesting case in its own right. There are plenty of contradictions in his friend’s life that have to be sorted through and I enjoyed learning how the evidence we are given is stitched together later in the novel to explain what happened.

The second level of mystery is the question of precisely what William did in his past. Here things are arguably more straightforward as we are told pretty directly at the end of the first chapter the secret he is hiding. Still, we may question how that point was reached and I feel we learn a lot about how the adult South was formed in these passages.

The third mystery relates to the adult South’s interpersonal relationship with a character he encounters early in the novel, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She is a new arrival from the city and comes with her own emotional and professional baggage.

At this point I should mention that while The Birdwatcher is intended to be a standalone novel, Shaw is penning a new series in which she will be the main character. While she is a hugely important part of this book, this is not her story. At key junctions in the narrative we always follow South’s story and he remains in the dark about what Cupidi is thinking. She is a striking creation in her own right and I am really looking forward to getting to read Salt Lane next year.

There are of course plenty of other little mysteries scattered throughout the text but the reason I highlight these three main ones is that I appreciate that Shaw really integrates his characters into his narrative. We can enjoy the novel as a straightforward detective procedural but each new development either reveals something about our main characters, causes shifts in their relationships or enhances the broader themes of the work.

The result is one of my favorite books in years from a writer who has fast become a favorite author. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next but, in the meantime, The Birdwatcher is highly recommended.

Update: I selected The Birdwatcher as my Book of the Month for October 2017.