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.
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.