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
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.