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 much.
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…
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.