Captivating Criminality 4 Crime Fiction: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present Review No.2
Captivating Criminality is a three-day experience and is notably one of the few academic conferences devoted entirely to crime fiction. It is currently in its fourth incarnation, Crime Fiction: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present. Corsham Court is the perfect venue for the conference as it lends an air of the elegant country house so integral in cozy mysteries as well as a sense of contrast to the seedier vein of the hard-boiled genre. The conference has something for everyone and covers the crime novel from its embryonic form embedded within other genres to contemporary work. Whether one wants to explore the cozy mystery or the hard-boiled, there is a panel covering it.
This year’s keynotes were given by best-selling writer Sophie Hannah, Professor Gill Plain (St. Andrews), and Professor Mary Evans (London School of Economics). Each keynote highlighted a different aspect of public and private, past and present. Sophie Hannah was the first keynote speaker and offered a fascinating glimpse of the writer’s experience and the inner workings of the publishing industry. Hannah shared her personal story of what being chosen as the official continuation author for Agatha Christie was like. Hannah detailed her early attempts at the genre and the rejections from publishers who did not believe she had suffered enough. Hannah littered her speech with musings on her literary agent, who according to her, is a genius at his job while being completely unaware of social conventions. Hannah, perhaps unintentionally, highlighted the role chance plays in all writing and perhaps most important was Hannah’s definition of Agatha Christie as an attainable hero.
On the second day, Gill Plain’s keynote on masculinity in crime fiction in the 1950’ s addressed both the questions posed by the conference in that it explored the challenges of reintegrating masculinity into a post-war society. Plain’s discussion of James Bond in Ian Fleming’s third novel Moonraker where Bond is given a domestic assignment offered a unique look at a Bond filing paperwork rather than being a masculine action figure.
On the third day, Mary Evans summed up the conference in a captivating exploration of loneliness and the loner in crime fiction. Evans referenced the Clinton campaign and the perception of loners and people in power. Evans did not fully explore the gendered aspect of the loner highlighted by her reference to the Clinton campaign, but she did illuminate the question of what social constructions placed on the figure of the loner. Evans further questioned what crime fiction is repairing in the social network and what function restorative justice has.
The conference began with the eternal debate over the generic boundaries of crime fiction with Ruth Heholt (Falmouth University) proposing a female progenitor for the detective novel in Catherine Crowe’s first novel Susan Hopley: The Adventures of a Maid Servant. The Q and A session highlighted the divide within the field on the boundaries of detective fiction and the limitations of beginning the genre with Poe’s Dupin mysteries. The definition of the boundaries of crime fiction will doubtless continue to be a contentious issue in further work on crime fiction. The first day was further enlivened by the presentation of the most politically incorrect paper of the conference by Kirsten T. Saxton (Mills College) titled ‘Pussybitesback: A Prehistory of Female Revenge Fiction.’ Saxton made a case for psychological satisfaction in the awareness of fictionality and the use of absurd excesses in fantastical murder plots.
Throughout the conference, the question of Americanization in crime fiction was an issue. This Americanization was directly addressed in a panel called Red, White, and Blue: American Influences comprised of Stewart King (Monash University), Jacqui Miller (Liverpool Hope University), and Tom O’Brien (University of Lincoln). Stewart King gave an inspiring paper on reading crime fiction as world literature and O’Brien presented a paper on American exceptionalism and racial binaries in Patricia Highsmith’s collection of short stories set in Mexico. Miller contributed to the discussion with a comparative evaluation of the American and British film adaptations of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home. In the Q and A most questions were based on a regional understanding of the crime genre with particular consideration being given to the deployment of stereotypes in Patricia Highsmith’s work. The discussion of the Mexican border being of particular political interest. The Americanization of crime fiction was on display throughout the conference with other papers covering American stereotyping, such as Veronica Watson (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) on Black Crime Fiction in the age of Black Lives Matter, further highlighting the role current political and social concerns play in the reception of crime fiction. Further evidence of Americanization was the appropriation of American slogans found in Eric Sandberg’s (University of Oulu) paper ‘Make Britain Great Again: Nostalgia in Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels’ where there is a clear association between nostalgia and the easily recognizable re-wording of Trump’s 2016 slogan.
The panel on Place and Space with Jennifer Schnabel (Ohio State University), Annemarie Lopez (Macquarie University), and Eoin McCarney (Dublin City University) were key in contextualizing the roles place and space play within the genre. Of particular note was Lopez’s survey of the Psychogeography of cities and McCarney’s illuminating on investigation of environmental borderlands. McCarney discussed the role of the bog in Irish crime fiction and the desert in Mexican fiction as places where history is preserved, in the case of the bog, or erased in the case of the desert.
The conference, perhaps in continuation of the question of loneliness and the loner posed by Mary Evans, will return in its fifth reincarnation as Insiders and Outsiders which promises to be a further exploration of the role all boundaries, be they material or immaterial, play in the construction of crime fiction.
Anna Kirsch is currently completing her English Studies MA at Durham University. Her thesis is on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction, and she presented a paper on public justice and private revenge in Hiaasen’s fiction at Captivating Criminality 4. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, Satire, and American Studies. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch.
The international crime conference ‘Captivating Criminality 4’, did just what it promised, it was criminally captivating. Held in the magnificent Corsham Court, the Capability Brown landscape along with the ancient trees, lawns, and hedgerows created an ambience that would feel right at home in a Golden Age novel. This along with our guardians, the strutting peacocks, would prove to be the perfect backdrop to the three days. With over 100 scholars in attendance and a raft of areas being discussed within the crime and detection genres the hardest part was choosing which panels to watch.
The first panel I attended was ‘Questions of Domestic Subversions: The Evil in the House.’ This proved to be a bookend between Victorian crime fiction and a contemporary American detective TV show. Ruth Heholt delivered her recent findings from the archives of Catherine Crowe with an upbeat and passionate candour. Crowe, was unknown to me before the paper but Ruth’s passion surrounding the pre Dickensian novels was infectious and I now am planning on reading The Adventures of Susan Hopley and exploring it with the Newgate Novels in mind. We then switched to Lucy Andrew, who was presenting ‘Neptune, Nostalgia and New Media: Reviving Veronica Mars.’ Lucy presented us with a discourse on how the Noir, Hard Boiled angle in the second series managed to kill off the ‘teen show’. The paper was interesting as although I had not watched the series Lucy explored the tensions between artist, TV channel and audience. Going straight into the second panel where we were ‘Revisiting the Golden Age’ provided another three excellent papers. Themes such as gas lighting were explored and extraordinary women detectives. The three papers covered a large time frame and also both the media of books and TV. Isabell Grosse was engaging as she talked about Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries TV show and how they reformulated the series of books into the show. I have a fascination with the 1920’s and all things art deco and Phryne Fisher has created a little sparkle for me to explore.
After lunch it was time for the first keynote speech of the conference and we were in for a treat. Sophie Hannah was incredibly witty and engaging as she delivered her speech. We heard post labour tales where she had the audience laughing at her concept of all babies being of the same genre and how this inspired her to write Little Face, her psychological thriller. The comedic speech continued where we learnt about her bizarre agent who dared to suggest her to the Christie family to write continuation novels. So far Sophie has written two amazing Poirot novels (check them out if you haven’t already read them) and has two more out over the next two years. She is an agent of destiny for Christie fans and they have accepted her work as being truly Agarthaish.
Two further sessions ran in the afternoon and a wonderful flash fiction workshop was hosted by Hector Duarte Jr, which proved to be quite entertaining from the attendee’s giggles.
Hector Duarte Jr: Flash Fiction Workshop
Day two and another great early morning panel exploring ‘Art and Music.’ Normally I stay away from art, not being very creative and thought that this would be a fantastic opportunity for me to learn and engage with an area I don’t usually research in. Rachael Durkin kicked us off by talking about Victorian forgery in relation to Stradivari and Sherlock. I absolutely loved this paper; I found it interesting and engaged with the ideas quickly. Rachael was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject as she introduced her new research. Christopher Pittard followed with his paper on Paget and Sherlock. Both of the papers worked really well together as they both explored aspects of Doyle’s interaction with both culture of the day and an artist’s (Paget) interaction with the text. Christopher presented some incredible ways in which Paget used the text and how he added his own aspect to it. The visualisation of Adler with a vanishing point of where she actually leaves the tale was genius, although it came with a caveat of potentially this was due to a brilliant printer, I like to believe that it was part of Paget’s plan. Susan Poznar then delivered her paper on Louise Penny, the Canadian author, and her protagonist Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. While this paper interacted less with art than the first two it was still interesting to learn about how Gamache is ‘placed’ within the narratives of Penny.
Panel two, day two and I happily attended ‘Threads and Fragments in Victorian Crime Fiction.’ Katherine Gordon was first up with her paper on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Katherine approached the text from a crime perspective, which I found interesting as I’ve always approached it from a Gothic perspective. The crossover tropes of crime and Gothic are intermingled in the text, alongside Sensation fiction and since the paper I have been thinking whether this can only be the case in a handful of novels of the time. Does this stretch into contemporary Gothic and Crime Fiction? Next up was Neil McCaw with ‘Science-Fiction Sherlock Holmes?’ Neil delivered an argument on The Adventures of The Creeping Man and whether or not it fit into Crime or Sci-Fi. We were asked to engage with the implied hierarchy of genres, where Crime is seen above Sci-Fi and whether it matters to the reader. I found this stimulating after Katherine’s paper as it cemented the idea of cross genre narratives and how we approach them. Alyson Hunt closed the panel with a string theory in Baroness Orczy. The concept of the narrative somehow becoming a physical interweaving of layers of string all combined to create the final piece, all while one of the characters was playing with a ball of string, was fascinating.
Our second keynote was delivered by Gill Plain and tackled the subject of ‘Crime and Rehabilitation? Masculinity, risk and generic reinvention in the 1950s.’ Gill introduced the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration of men into society after the war. She talked about James Bond being a product built on national damage and how other thrillers were rejuvenated in the post-war period. This flowed into how police were going through a change not only in society but in fiction too and started to be seen as citizens in uniform. Gill was engaging throughout and the speech was incredibly detailed at times.
The third panel of the day brought ‘Criminality in Victorian Fiction’ into discussion. Rebecca Lloyd kicked it off with a paper on Wilkie Collins and counterfeiting in A Rogues Life. This is one of Collins’ works that I am unfamiliar with and so I was surprised when Rebecca highlighted the humour in it, which is unlike Collins. This has definitely been put on my, to read list, which increased significantly as I progressed through the conference. Sean Sloan then took us through his paper on Vidocq, the true father of detective fiction. Sean’s argument was that Vidocq must be the inspiration for the first detective as he took us through a whistle-stop tour of works from Hugo, Balzac, Poe and Doyle. I found his argument very convincing. Jackie Shead finished the panel with ‘You Know My Methods’ in which she discussed deduction and abduction in Sherlock. All three of these papers were delivered with quite some Wit and the audience were laughing at highlighted points and as both Sean and Jackie were delivering their first ever papers this was quite some achievement.
Sean Sloan and Rebecca Lloyd
A further session was run before a much needed conference dinner in the evening at the historic Methuen Arms.
The final day of the conference kicked off with Anna Kirsch delivering her paper on Carl Hiaasen. Anna did exceptionally well as she was the only member of the panel due to illness. Hiaasen is not someone who I had come across before and it was interesting to learn about his ideas of object orientated ontology and moral valuations. I have since done some research of my own on Hiaasen and his work as a satirist and commentator. A very interesting chap!
The penultimate panel and I chose ‘Golden Age Women,’ (I realise I might be stuck in my own time warp). Three very different papers were delivered by the panellists. Sarah Martin introduced some of her thoughts from her PhD research on Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d in relation to space and place. This included the development of New Towns and how Christie was inspired to evolve St Mary Mead to incorporate the new ideas. Laura Vorachek went on to talk about ‘The Colonial Other in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death.’ Laura’s paper was interesting as it dealt with demob riots and interracial issues. Imperialism, Empire and colonisation are areas that I am keen to learn more about and I found it really beneficial to learn about issues and marginalisation in Sayers’ work. Carla Portilho talked about everyday praxis in two crime novelists works, Barbara Neely and Lucha Corpi. Carla introduced the theory that everyday practise conceals actions so it is the perfect disguise for detectives. You do not notice the old lady sat next to you drinking coffee, or the house keeper who is watering the plants. Carla also highlighted how both these authors use nonstandard voice, black vernacular and Spanglish to bring another dimension and realism to their texts.
Mary Evans delivered the final keynote of the conference with ‘You are never alone as a criminal: anomie and Crime.’ Mary highlighted the loner and how society sees them as ‘other’ but that Crime Fiction uses this for both detective and criminal. It is possible to be alone but not be lonely, to rely on your own company and interests and not need others. It was a fascinating address on contradictions that occur within society and place.
The final panel ‘Victorian Nightmares’ concluded the conference which included papers on varied detectives and criminals. The conference was a huge success and I felt that the papers included showed a huge range of subjects within the Crime Fiction and Detective genre. I did not know what to expect before I went along and am so glad that I did as I have been inspired by the scholars in attendance. I have more than a few sparks that I want to ignite and explore through my studies, although with my huge to read list, this could take some time.
(If you want to view some of the fun we had look at the twitter hashtag #Crime17)
Sarah Sloan is a second year undergraduate student at Bath Spa University. Likes include: Crime fiction, Comedy and Creative writing. Dislikes include: spiders, squirrels and lolly sticks (and any combinations of these - squirrels armed with lolly sticks). Her Twitter is @Witchitythings
By Kate Jackson
Mystery novels which have a comic style or component have always been a big draw for me. Modern day writers such as L C Tyler and Ian Sansom are two good examples of comic crime fiction done today, but in some ways, especially the Elsie and Ethelred series by Tyler, these works are indebted to an earlier era of mystery fiction between the 1930s and 1950s. So in this post I decided to share some of my favourite comic crime writers from this period and hopefully also shine a light on some unfairly less well known writers.
‘Q: Does that mean that he did it?
A: Judging from the standards of the average mystery novel, yes. Going by the ordinary standards of detection, no.’
[Inspector Minto using a Q & A format to clear his thoughts in Death at Anton]
“Grapefruit […] or Porridge?”
“What’s the name of the chef?”
“Bernstein sir.” “In that case, grapefruit […] If it had been McKenzie or McDonald, we might have risked the porridge. Being Bernstein, we’ll have the grapefruit.”
[Minto deciding what to have for breakfast]
‘Positively a walking Woolworth’s aren’t you?’
[Inspector Wilson in Quick Curtain responding to stage manager’s ability to give him whatever he requires from one of his pockets.]
Yet although these are predominately light hearted novels, Death in Anton has a fascinating blend of light and dark moments, with this complexity making it my favourite novel of the two.
Alice Tilton is my second choice and Tilton is the penname American mystery writer Phoebe Atwood Taylor used for writing eight novels featuring her amateur sleuth Leonidas Witherall, who starts out as a teacher and then becomes a mystery writer. I have only read one from this series, The Iron Clew (1947), but I loved every minute reading it. In this book, which I think is reflective of the series as a whole, is a screwball caper, where the action comes thick and fast, as Witherall gets into a bigger and bigger mess and the story does comically incorporate the innocent fugitive plot trope. Metafictional humour is a strong point in the novel as the events Witherall goes through in real life, mirror those he discusses overhand with his housekeeper in the opening chapter for his next book. The Iron Clew also gives us the brilliantly bizarre funny line of: ‘That old octopus of fate… had obviously slithered out from his printed words and into his own personal and private life.’
My next choice of author, Pamela Branch, although English was actually born in India and contributed four novels to the mystery genre. At her best, as she is in her first novel, The Wooden Overcoat (1951), Branch creates a superbly comic world with its own sense of subverted morality and the drive of the plot is less about seeing justice done and more about not getting caught. After all in this story there is a club established for killers who have got acquitted of their crimes. Branch is also often fond of placing her characters in bizarrely challenging situations, such as in this novel where some friends, house sharing, face the unenviable task of disposing of a body they believe the club members have dumped on them; (the club members are of course thinking house sharers are responsible) and you can be sure that nothing goes to plan. Branch’s second novel, The Lion in the Cellar (1951) is also worth a read, where again priority is given to personal safety over truth and justice. Yet unusually the reader themselves is not repelled by the principles Branch’s fictional worlds run on, but then again she does write it so amusingly:
“I don't believe for one moment that I killed him [...] But if I didn't, somebody else did. I must appoint myself Investigator. I must catch this malefactor, this pig. And if at any time it looks as if I am going to catch myself, I can always accept my resignation.”
[Taken from The Lion in the Cellar]
However, with my next choice of comic crime author, justice is always achieved, even if Joan Coggin’s serial amateur sleuth and vicar’s wife, Lady Lupin, is forever muddling up her domestic affairs and getting the wrong end of the stick. Though like Branch, Coggin only wrote four novels and one of the interesting features of this series is how the comedy develops as Lady Lupin matures. Furthermore, as well as comedy stemming out of Lady Lupin’s misunderstandings there is also social comedy, such as in Why Did She Die? (1946), when Lady Lupin in conversation is internally battling between her desire to be a good vicar’s wife and her own natural instincts:
‘“I am glad your husband is with him.”
Lupin was not sure that she was so glad. If Dick really had turned into a homicidal maniac she would have preferred him to choose someone else’s husband as his walking partner but she thought it might sound selfish to say so, so she sank down into a chair and lit a cigarette in silence’.
Moreover, Lady Lupin’s character engages in metafictional comedy, commenting on her own role as a sleuth:
‘They do if I am anywhere about […] I don’t know why it is, exactly, but there must be something queer about me, like those people in Greek tragedies, you know. The minute I appear upon the scene everyone cries, ‘Let’s have a murder!’
It is hard to not find Lady Lupin a loveable sleuth and it is a shame so few mysteries were written featuring her.
If you are a big fan of crime fiction pastiches and parodies then Leo Bruce is an author you must try, as his mystery novel Case for Three Detectives (1936), (the first in the Sergeant Beef series), in many ways is the ultimate golden age mystery fiction pastiche and parody novel. It features a country house murder, upon which three famous sleuths are called in to investigate. It doesn’t take Miss Marple to figure out which three sleuths are being parodied. There is Lord Simon Plimsoll, who ‘stepped out of the foremost of three Rolls-Royces, the second of which contained his man servant […] Butterfield.’ The second sleuth is M. Amer Picon, whose ‘physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg shaped that [the narrator Townsend is...] surprised to find a nose and mouth in it all, but half expect[ing] its white surface to break and release a
chick.’ The final detective is ‘a small human pudding’ named Monsignor Smith, who is described as having ‘a number of parcels and […] a green parasol.’ This story is an excellent send up of the genre, which also manages to contain a very clever puzzle and throughout the Sergeant Beef series, Bruce in a variety of ways plays with the conventions of the genre and also uses humour to undermine his characters’ self-importance and social snobbery.
My final choice of writer is Delano Ames, who is the only author on my list with a serial sleuthing couple. Ames wrote 12 novels featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, whose unconventional careers lead to cases taking place around the world. The comedy in these books is not as overt and intense as it is in Pamela Branch and Leo Bruce’s novels, but is more understated and centred on the dialogue which takes place between Jane and Dagobert. With Dagobert’s maverick and unpredictable nature, a lot of the series’ comedy lies in how Jane has to deal with the unexpected events which occur due to being married to him. In Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950) she says that ‘I have been married to Dagobert for nearly two years, and I have never had a dull moment. I could do with a dull moment.’ The power balance between the two of them also creates marital comedy as although Dagobert can act dominantly, Jane is the narrator of the stories and therefore how her husband and herself is presented is in her control and I think the dialogue between them also shows her humorously bringing Dagobert down to earth during his wilder moments of fancy:
Dagobert: ‘I might try that trick of ‘reconstructing the crime’.’
Jane: ‘I’ll play the part of the person who shoves you off the cliff…’
Whilst I primarily read comic crime novels for their entertainment value, the more I read them, the more I often find that such works can also have something to say on a range of other topics from gender roles, the state of the nation after world events, relationships and morality to the mystery genre itself. Therefore it is a shame that the work of writers such as these are far from easy to get a hold of (with some of the Ames’ novels being sold for over £150!), when they provide stories which will make you laugh out loud and also make you pause for thought when you least expect it.
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.