The Bodies From The Libraries 2017 – Conference Report

Well, it was that time of year again, when like-minded individuals brave both sweltering heat and public transport to wend their merry way to London for the Bodies From The Library conference, where the Golden Age of detective fiction is placed on the pedestal it mostly deserves. Well, it deserves that pedestal overall, just that there are little parts of it that don’t quite make it.

Anyway, thanks to London Midland for a peaceful and efficient train journey up to London. Needless to say, I spent most of the journey reading – expect a review of Carter Dickson’s (Death And The) Gilded Man very soon – but soon I was at the library itself. Soon meeting up with blogging friends old and new – don’t forget to check out Cross Examining Crime, The Invisible EventThe Reader Is Warned and Howdunit? – and a quick chat with L C Tyler – the latest Ethelred and Elsie book is out very soon – and the nice folks behind the scenes at the British Library imprint – it was time for things to kick off.

As ever, we kicked off with a panel concerning the Golden Age itself, with Martin Edwards, L C Tyler, Seona Ford and moderated by Jake Kerridge. There were some interesting ideas put forward as to how it kicked off after the first World War – the most intriguing being the theory that after so much tragic arbitrary death in the Great War meant there was an attraction to read about death where there was a clear resolution and everything had a reason. There was also a recurring theme about the longevity and relative popularity of female writers against male ones. It seems that as the Age progressed, inspired, I expect, by Christie’s success, the female writers began to out-perform the male ones, but at the start, Crofts for example was certainly doing better than Christie. The current popularity, as well, was suggested in part due to it being read as historical fiction, something that I’ve often picked up on when reading Rhode. Oh, and apparently the source of the dreaded word “cosy” is J B Priestley in an essay in 1951 titled “Reading Detective Stories In Bed”.

Then up stepped Tony Medawar to give us a fascinating talk on John Street/Rhode/Miles Burton. There was much detail into Street’s life along with his writing career, especially his early non-Priestley/Merrion tales. The final conclusion was that Tony Medawar sees Rhode books as the paper equivalent of Midsomer Murders – you re-read them because they’re enjoyable reads and you can’t remember what happened last time you read it! I think that’s a little harsh, but I do see where he’s coming from. Oh, and there are a few Rhode reprints coming out soonish, from, I think, the Collins Crime Club range, including The Paddington Mystery and Invisible Weapons – can’t remember the other two – maybe Mystery At Olympia?

Then came Lois-Austen Leigh’s The Incredible Crime as rediscovered and championed by Professor Kirsten Saxon. It was a highly entertaining talk, but there’s a slight problem with championing this book – I’ve read it. And it’s pretty awful. Great talk though…

John Curran then spoke on the links between Crosswords and Detective Stories. It was an absolutely fascinating talk, dealing with the links between the two forms of puzzle and also the examples of crosswords in detective fiction – did he mention Crossword Mystery by E R Punshon? Don’t recall.

Martin Edwards then returned to talk about The Story Of Classic Crime in 100 Books – there’ll be more on that on the blog very soon, but there was news that E C R Lorac and Richard Hull will soon be joining the British Library Crime Classics range.

After lunch, we were “treated” to a classic US radio serial of “Suspense!” from Dorothy L Sayers called The Fountain – it didn’t come close to Carr play from two years ago, apart from in the crap-acting stakes. A slice of nostalgia, but, to be honest, it was rubbish. You can tell by looking at my notebook and the two pages of algebra therein.

Then Christine Poulson championed Ethel Lina White – good talk, but it just confirmed to me that White is not the author for me, especially if Some Must Watch is the place to start – and Sarah Ward spoke on Elizabeth Daly, convincing me to give Daly another shot. Apparently And Dangerous To Know might be the book to convince me…

Then came another two great talks – Dr David Whittle on the Murder and Music of Edmund Crispin, the only Golden Age writer to produce music for the Carry On films, and Dolores Gordon-Smith on Ronald Knox. You can see that I enjoyed these talks, as I made hardly notes on them. Apparently the best place to start with Knox is Still Dead, and a short story, Solved By Inspection.

Then it was on to Desert Island Books – the Golden Age book that you’d be marooned with. They were: Hamlet, Revenge!, Murder Must Advertise, Green For Danger, Mr Bowling Buys A Newspaper by Donald Henderson (thanks, Martin), Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Miss Pym Disposes, Trent’s Last Case, Police At The Funeral and Malice Aforethought. So, with one exception, no surprises there. But we did get the odd claim from Jake Kerridge that “If you like Crispin, you’ll love Michael Innes”… So if you like fun, light-hearted mysteries, you’ll like overwritten tosh. IMHO, obviously – see A Night Of Errors.

The day finished with the awarding of the Dagger In The Library to Mari Hannah – congratulations – and the free wine provided at this point was much appreciated too.

And many thanks to the London Midland guard who calmly and efficiently dealt with the person who was shouting at me on the train home because I’d asked them to turn their music down. Much appreciated.

So, how long until next year? Well, a year, obviously, but stick around here for a bundle of Golden Age reviews, along with some of the more mystery-led modern titles. Next on the blog, Death And The Gilded Man by Carter Dickson, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie and the rather harder to find Dead On The Track by John Rhode [UPDATE: as the book references an earlier case, Tragedy On The Line, I’m going to read that instead], along with a look at Martin Edwards’ The History Of Crime Fiction in 100 Books and Taking Detective Stories Seriously –  the collected crime reviews of Dorothy L Sayers. Enjoy!

Here are the reports from the previous events – 2015 and 2016. Maybe see you there next year?

Here’s Kate from Cross Examing Crime on the conference – she made better notes than me – and here’s Sarah Ward’s write-up of her talk. If you like Golden Age crime fiction, I highly recommend Kate’s blog, by the way, and if you like outstanding crime fiction from any era (with a clever mystery running through it) then read Sarah Ward’s books, In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw.

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16 comments

      • Actually I was not talking about the conference. I saw the name of Tony Medawar in your post and I remembered he had said a few months back that he would give ” a definitive answer to the Meredith question.”

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  1. Ha, yeah, when Jake Kerridge said that Crispin and Innes are comparable in that way I more or less had your reaction; maybe he’s only read the later Crispns, where the quality goes dangerously downhill and makes them more akin to peers…

    A great event, great to catch up with everyone — I’d like it recorded here for posterity that I did some networking for the first time in my life — see you all next June!

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  2. It seems like the first John Rhode title to be re-published by Collins Crime Club would be ‘Death at Breakfast’ – complete with the cover you commented on in your review. A pity that they haven’t picked a better title. 😦

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  3. Thanks for the shout out (I presume the invoice will be in the post). I may have written more notes but half of them were unintelligible as for some bizarre reason I make abbreviations which I then can’t decipher. Also I agree that Innes is nowhere near as good as Crispin.

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  4. Great write up PD and thanks for the plug, it was great to meet you! And yes E.R.Punshon’s Crossword Mystery was mentioned in the Crossword talk, or at least I remember a picture of it coming up on a slide during it.

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