The “Bodies From The Library” Conference

And so the day finally arrived – the Bodies From The Library Conference at the British Library, a conference focusing of Golden Age detective fiction. You can probably tell from the fact that over two-thirds of recent reviews on the blog have been for Golden Age books that I was excited about the day – in part as I’ve never been to such an event before. I’ve thought about it, but the problem with such events is that the focus is usually very broad (i.e. crime fiction) and there are parts of the genre that don’t really interest me that muchcropped-bftl3.

But the Golden Age? That’s my cup of tea. My ticket was bought as soon as I heard about. But then, after a bit of thought, I began to get a little nervous – just how well did I know the Golden Age? Christie, yes. Carr, yes. Queen (who got barely a mention – probably due to being a bit too American), yes. Marsh, a little bit. Anyone else, I’d read at most two books, but for the majority, including Allingham and Sayers, I’d read almost none. Hence my splurge recently. Did it do any good?

By the way, if you want a blow by blow account of the conference, do pop over to Past Offences, where Rich clearly took better notes than I did. It was great to meet Rich and Sarah Ward (who blogs at Crimepieces and has actually done what the rest of us just dream about and has written her own crime novel, In Bitter Chill – out very soon from Faber & Faber), as well as Julia Silk from The Murder Room (who helped me fill in a gap with the copy of The Viaduct Murder recently).

Anyway, after a two hour train ride on London Midland which presented me with the first mystery of the day – which idiot thought you could fit five seats in a row in a train carriage and still make them big enough for people to sit in? Answer: someone with no elbows – I arrived and was pleasantly surprised to see how packed the event was. People of all ages were there, some of whom seemed to have flown in for the event from overseas (or who were in London anyway – I’m not that good at saying hello to complete strangers).

I picked up my goodie bag, containing handsome looking copies of The Mayfair Mystery by Frank Richardson (reprint not out until mid-August), Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin and Death Of An Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg (which combined would almost cover the entry fee in a bookshop) and then took my seat.

First off – as I mentioned, Rich made much better notes that I did. There’s an inverse correlation between how much I enjoyed a talk and how much I noted down. So apologies if I’ve misquoted anyone.

Martin Edwards & Jake Kerridege kicked off, talking about defining the Golden Age, a subject of one of my recent rambles. He considered that it kicks off with Trent’s Last Case by E C Bentley and continues until the end of the war (although the end of the Golden Age oscillated in some of the talks from 1939 to 1945). Crucially, the opinion was that it was then that the innovation in the books stopped, rather than people writing in the style.

Then Barry Pike, the chairman of the Margery Allingham Society, spoke on the two Queens of Crime that I’ve barely touched on. In fact, Sayers and Allingham were a constant theme of the day, possible even more that Dame Agatha at times. There was an unfortunate comment about the book that I was in the middle of (Death Of A Ghost) which did confirm something for me about the plot, but it was a fascinating talk. Although seriously? A S Byatt thought Traitor’s Purse “The best detective novel ever written”? Had she not read any others?

Then it was the double act of the outgoing President of the Detection Club, Simon Brett, and the incoming one, Martin Edwards, talking about the club itself. My notes for this are three words – The Sinking Admiral. They spoke, amongst other things, about the collaborative books, the most famous of which is probably The Floating Admiral, and the fact that sixty years later, the Club are doing it again, with a book called The Sinking Admiral. Looking forward to that one.

After coffee, where I managed to have a brief chat with Simon Brett and Martin Edwards – lovely people, but then crime writers always are – Richard Reynolds spoke about mysteries set in Oxford and Cambridge (which a surprising number of the audience had a clear opinion as to which was better – those who said Cambridge were wrong, obviously…). I’ve come away with a couple of pages of recommendations from that one, but hopefully they’ll all be up on the website soon. Then David Brawn and Rob Davies, of Harper Collins and The British Library respectively, spoke about the nature of re-publishing the Golden Age mystery novel. One word in my notes this time – covers. Apparently the cover matters! Some people, it seems, will not buy a book with a dodgy cover, even if they already like the author. But more importantly, the handsome looking books from both publishers are very common impulse buys – collectors will buy regardless or will already have them. And tie-in covers don’t make a difference to sales.

After a lunch talking all things mystery (most agreeing about some terrible books) with Julia Silk from The Murder Room, we settled into the lecture theatre for an episode of Cabin B-13, a radio play from John Dickson Carr, The Bride Vanishes. I’m sure I’ve read the story before, but it was an entertaining if dated tale, with some great dog acting and some dodgy dialogue in the finale, the highlight being some asking if someone in the boat has a gun – because a gun-shot had just been heard…

Tony Medawar then spoke on the Locked Room genre, taking us all the way to the modern day. It was nice to see some of my favourite TV shows get a mention, although I’m not convinced that Psych has that many locked rooms and Monk has fewer than you think – it’s more about unbreakable alibis (the murderer was in a coma, the murderer was orbiting the earth, etc). But people should watch it anyway.

Dolores Gordon-Smith then spoke about Freeman Wills Croft, a writer that I’ve never touched. She was such an engaging speaker, possibly the highlight of the day, that not only will I be looking at Croft soon, but I’ve bought one of her books as well.

After another break, where I had a chat with the delightful L C Tyler and his wife Anne, John Curran talked about Agatha Christie’s influences – primarily on the authors that she references in her work and elsewhere, pointing out a number of things that I’d read and completely missed in her work.

Then L C Tyler, a writer whose work I looked at only because he was talking at this conference – you can see how much I enjoyed his books here and here – spoke about taking the Golden Age into the 21st Century. He seemed to have the opposite opinion to others and says that the Golden Age is still going, simply because there are still great mystery novels being written. In a different form, maybe, but still going strong.

And then there was the final panel, where I asked a question that managed to annoy a fair proportion of the crowd: Why is Ngaio Marsh the fourth Queen of Crime? I think it was the description of her as a sub-Christie writer that caused a very loud inhaling of breath from the Marsh-ites (Marsh-people?) in the audience. Admittedly, my suggestion of Gladys Mitchell as a replacement is pretty stupid, but it really should just be three Queens…

Bodies

But despite that, it was a wonderful day, full of like-minded people (apart from the Marsh issue). Thanks to the organisers and the panel for a wealth of new books to hunt out. I was genuinely going to give the Golden Age a break for a while, so that I could check back in with my favourite modern authors, but I think for the foreseeable future, both ages will be sitting side by side. There’s so much out there in the genre that I haven’t sampled that I’ll be busy until next year, when, hopefully, it’s be Bodies In The Library 2! I’ve got a list of names to try and get through before then – Francise Iles, Freeman Wills Croft, Michael Innes, H C Bailey, Philip MacDonald, Elizabeth Daly, Sarah Caudwell, Shelley Smith, F J Whaley, Richard Hull, Raymond Postgate… and, of course, more Sayers, Allingham and Mitchell. And many, many more

And finally, thanks to J A Lang, author of Chef Maurice and A Spot Of Truffle (which is certainly written in the… hang on, still haven’t sorted the “Golden Age Style” thing. Well, it’s a properly constructed classic whodunit that is an absolute treat to read. She gave me some copies of the book to give to like-minded people and it encouraged me to have quick chats with authors whose work I love and one that I’m convinced I’ll love too, while giving them a book.

And thanks to London Midland for using a train with more sensible seating for the trip home.

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42 comments

  1. The radio play The Bride Vanishes appears in the collection The Door To Doom edited by Douglas Greene. The solution of the impossible crime is similar to that of a Father Brown story. (I will not mention which for that will be a spoiler !)

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  2. Sounds like a fun day. And you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself – why is it “pretty stupid” to suggest Gladys Mitchell as a fourth queen of crime? She’s not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but no-one can deny she was always trying interesting things with the form. That seems especially appropriate if we’re defining the Golden Age as a period of innovation rather than one of style.

    Did the panel have an answer to your Marsh question? I maybe wouldn’t have phrased it quite so aggressively if I was asking from the audience, but “sub-Christie” seems an appropriate description rather than just a mean one. I’ve not read a Marsh that didn’t have a better analogue somewhere in Christie, and the styles are very similar, even down to a technical level. Whereas it would be hard to draw anything but the most superficial comparisons between Christie, Allingham and Sayers (and Mitchell if we’re adding her), in terms of either writing style or mystery construction.

    (By the way, you seem to have missed off the links for the L.C. Tyler books)

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    • There was a clear implicationn that she was the fourth of the four, and a definite feeling that as Mitchell is such an acquired taste, it would be hard to make a case for it. At least one panelist, and I forget who, was horrified at the thought of praising Mitchell.

      And I would have been subtler is there had been any clear Marsh support earlier in the day. But when the microphone gets put under your nose, all your carefully planned words get a little blunter…

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  3. So sorry to have missed it – and I would completely have backed you up on the marsh stance! If they do ti again, I will try very hard to be there (and not simultaneously preparing to leave for Italy and have the busiest time at work I have ever had).

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  4. Out of interest, was there any mention of Michael Innes throughout the day? He’s an acquired taste like Mitchell, but he was also genuinely innovative, especially when it comes to handling motive in a Golden Age Mystery.

    “Hamlet, Revenge!” is just sublime. It must be the winner in the best book with the worst title stakes!

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    • His name came up a few times, always favourably, and Hamlet, Revenge was mentioned a couple of times, for both its quality and for a setting that would only work in the Golden Age. Oddly, I picked up a copy in a charity shop a while ago and that title had been putting me off. It’s high on the TBR list after yesterday (and your recommendation)

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      • I’m glad to hear that. I think he’s the only truly great writer from that period, and it’s a shame he’s not more famous, even if he did waste his talents by writing too many books. His entire middle period just feels like he sat down a couple of weekends a month and bashed out a weird (sometimes very weird – far weirder than Mitchell) mystery, which is an impressive feat of improvisation, but also disappointing when it was clear what he was capable of when he really structured a mystery novel.

        There was a Chandler quote you didn’t much like a few posts ago, but I think Hamlet, Revenge is the kind of mystery it applies to. If the last chapter was ripped out it would still be worth reading. It’s a very clever mystery with a very clever solution, but it’s also a very intelligent novel about acting and performance. I really hope you enjoy it.

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  5. I’m glad you enjoyed it, PD, and I wish I could have been there. I do enjoy Marsh more than you seem to do, but I’d agree that she was certainly no Christie. As for Innes, another of my favorites, Hamlet Revenge is very good, but I think Lament for a Maker is his masterpiece – a fine impossible crime with characters who will haunt your memory, with some fine touches of both comedy and tragedy – and then, of course, there are the “learned rats”… Very very highly recommended.

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    • That may be true, although I think The Last Tresillians is his masterpiece if I’m allowed to include books Innes wrote under his own name.

      My admiration for Hamlet, Revenge is heightened by the sheer skill of it. Having so many well-realised characters in such a short book is just extraordinary. But Lament for a Maker has a far more ambitious range.

      I’d advise reading Hamlet Revenge first though, Doc, as there’s a major continuity point which would affect the mystery if you read Lament for a Maker first. Not enough to ruin things (Hamlet Revenge has more than enough suspects that having a few crossed off the list doesn’t affect things much!) but I know that kind of thing irks you a bit.

      Actually my favourite of the first four is Stop Press, for vague and unsupportable reasons. I recognise that it’s nonsensical, enormously long and full of plot holes, but I just love the chutzpah of it. I think I’m almost certainly alone in this though!

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  6. Good to meet you at the BL! And thanks for the excellent summary of the day. I thought your question about Marsh was very relevant. I certainly don’t think she ranks with Christie. We ran out of time a bit during the ensuing discussion or I would have chipped in that I personally would add Josephine Tey to the ‘Queens of Crime’ list. Others may disagree of course ….

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    • Thanks for the support. It baffles me the following that Marsh has – Surfeit of Lampreys is almost unreadable imho but gets a lot of praise elsewhere. Generally the books have an interesting set-up but go downhill once the murder is committed.

      There were a few authors that didn’t get much discussion on the day (there was only so much time) such as Marsh, Nicholas Blake and Tey. I’ve only read The Daughter Of Time – wasn’t that impressed, but that’s in part due to nonsensical set up of assuming innocence from an idealised portrait. I’ve not read any of her more traditional novel, but they’re going on the list. Any particular recommendations?

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      • My two cents on Tey: my favorites are To Love and Be Wise and a non-series one, Miss Pym Disposes. I can recommend either one very strongly. I suspect the only reason Tey is not included as one of the queens is that she only completed a handful of fine novels before her untimely death.

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      • I recently read Tey’s “A Shilling for Candles”, which was the basis for Hitchcock’s little known movie “Young and Innocent”–which should be better known. I enjoyed the Tey, but it’s more of a thriller than a mystery.

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  7. I must admit I haven’t read all of Tey’s books. I really liked Daughter of Time, but then I’ll read anything on Richard III. You are right that the conclusion is a bit lame. I would certainly recommend The Franchise Affair.

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