I’ll admit, I was a little concerned about this year’s Bodies From The Library conference. Not just because in a change from my usual plan, I’d bought tickets for a train journey that involved a change (the options are a slow stopping train or a faster train with a change). Now to me at least, a change of trains with a ten minute window counts as a risk – I like security – but that went perfectly well. No, it’s just that the talks this year were generally, when author specific, on authors that I didn’t know much about. And in the past, one or two such talks (H C Bailey springs to mind) I found that I didn’t get a lot out of the talk. But I needn’t have worried – this was another triumph for the conference. Four triumphs out of four, in fact.
After meeting up with my fellow bloggers and internet chums, old and new, and, most importantly, playing swapsies with the content of the goodie-bags – well, giving away my British Library book to a good cause, thanks to the generous review copies that come my way – the conference kicked off.
The opening session was Martin Edwards and Tony Medawar, moderated by Christine Poulson, talking on anthologies and how to find the stories for them. Tony has just collated Bodies From The Library (where did her get that title?) with a stunning array of lost stories that he has found in various places, including a Georgette Heyer tale that he found since her publishers released the unfortunately titled complete short stories of Georgette Heyer collection… There were mentions for Sherlock Holmes (obviously), Anthony Berkeley, Vincent Cornier (new to me) and a discussion as to some authors being better at novels than short stories (such as Christie, despite the number she wrote). There was also an interesting musing on what to do if a long lost short story was rediscovered only for it to be discovered to be rubbish. Should it be republished? Tony suggested that Christie’s While The Light Lasts was such a story, and yes, it did need to be seen.
The panel finished with Desert Island Anthologies – the one anthology you would have if you could only choose one. The books in question were Dorothy L Sayers’ “Tales Of Detection” and “Fifty Famous Detectives Of Fiction” – must get my hands on copies of those. They are readily available from the usual online sellers.
John Curran spoke next on the Crime Files, solve-along murder mysteries, lovingly handmade with little physical bits of evidence stuck in – photos, notes and even a poisoned pill (which has been made harmless) – and a sealed solution. Dennis Wheatley was involved in the first few, followed by Helen Reilly and then Q Patrick. Needless to say, these will go for a small fortune, especially if the solution hasn’t been opened.
Next came Rachel Reeve, MP, on the life and work of Ellen Wilkinson MP. It was a fascinating talk on one of the first female cabinet ministers and Rachel certainly has me intrigued to read the upcoming The Division Bell Mystery, Wilkinson’s sole foray into detective fiction, written when she lost her seat but needed some income. It’s not clear if that worked…
Following coffee and the chance for a quick chat with Len Tyler, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Stephen Durbridge (son), David Brawn (publisher) and Melvyn Barnes (biographer) spoke on Francis Durbridge, creator of Paul Temple who has made through radio and television a massive impression on most of the audience. Which is probably why they didn’t really talk about what Paul Temple was about, a slight oversight for me as I was in the minority who had no idea who, say, Steve was – Paul Temple’s wife, I now gather. But they spoke with such passion about the material, I really must have a listen. My favourite bit of this one was that in Germany, the plays were referred to as “Street Sweepers” as when Paul Temple was on the radio, nobody was out on the streets, they were all at home listening.
Martin Edwards finished the morning session on Richard Hull, taking us through the life and works of this author who was basically known, if known at all, for one book, The Murder Of My Aunt, inspired somewhat by Malice Aforethought, but wrote fourteen others. I disagree with Martin’s love for Excellent Intentions – it’s fine, but I don’t think the structure adds anything to the narrative. Murder Isn’t Easy is by far the best of the three that I’ve read so far. But I’m looking forward to reading more and soon.
Lunch followed, with the now usual trip across the road to Pret A Manger, and then it was the radio play. This time it was Ellery Queen, a play called Armchair Detective, starting with an announcement to watch out for crimes of intolerance, bigotry, bad citizenship and discrimination – namely, crimes against America. Ah, how times haven’t changed… Anyway, the play was fun, although the audio was a bit muffled at times, the killer’s plot made no sense and it sounded like a rival station’s organist was trying to destroy the programme with incessant ear-drum bursting musical stings. Check the sound levels in advance next time…
Tony Medawar opened the afternoon session on Christianna Brand, a writer that I’ve read too little on. Didn’t get the chance to ask him about the general unavailability of her work, but I will be taking another look at her soon. The story of her life was a fascinating one, and I must try and dig out more of her work.
And then we had the highlight of the day,
The Chuckle Brothers, sorry, Simon Brett and Len (L C) Tyler, two of the wittiest speakers of the past few conferences. Put them together on the stage, and we had a wonderful half hour on criticisms of the Golden Age, from Howard Haycraft’s Murder For Pleasure, Edmund Wilson’s Who Cared Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder and Colin Wilson’s Snobbery With Violence, amongst others. It was a cracking talk, but I was laughing so much, I forgot to make any notes. Sorry.
Then Jake Kerridge spoke on Michael Innes and John Appleby. I was under the impression that the general consensus on Innes was “some great books, a lot of crap” so when Jake started with The Daffodil Affair and its telepathic horse (and not being rude about it), I was intrigued to see that he seems to like all of Innes’ work. I can’t see myself ever agreeing with that, but I must take a look at some of the better mysteries. Eventually.
Dr Jennifer Palmer then spoke on the library as a setting for murder, citing plenty of examples from the Golden Age and beyond – I must admit to being intrigued by the US Cozy “Cat In The Stacks” mysteries, but probably for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really a conclusion as to what started the idea – The Body In The Library gives the impression that Dolly Bantry has heard of such a thing, treating it almost as a cliché, but I’m guessing she really meant just finding a body in her house was the sort of thing that she reads in fiction, as there don’t seem to be many pre-Christie tales that have the same specific locale. I stand to be corrected though.
After acquiring my new nest-egg – Kate signed her upcoming Pocket Detective British Library puzzle book to me, kindly agreeing to write that it was her first ever book signing in it – kerching! (possibly, one day) – Dolores Gordon-Smith spoke on Agatha Christie’s travels and how it influenced her life. There were no real ground-breaking revelations here, but Dolores is a fantastic speaker, and the pictures of Christie’s early life were fascinating as well.
Then we got on to Desert Island Detectives – which Golden Age detective would the panel like to be stranded with on an island?
The responses consisted of the more mature Albert Campion, Ambrose Chitterwick, Sergeant Cuff, Eustace Hailey (Anthony Wynne’s sleuth who manages to change from fat to thin in a single book), Inspector French, either of Heyer’s sleuths, Hannacyde or Hemmingway and Nigel Strangeways’ wife, Georgia. I’ll leave it to you to guess who picked who…
And so the conference due to a close. After a quick drink with some of the panellists and fellow attendees – when I discovered two people who had also heard of Brian Flynn and was referred to be John Curran as “the person with the Brian Flynn website” – fame at last! – it was off to fight Virgin Trains in an attempt to get back home. Much harder work getting back than getting there, but The Case Of The Bonfire Body made it a bit easier – more on that next post.
Anyway, another cracking event, and there will be another one next year. Thanks to all the organisers and speakers. And if the organisers want a talk on a writer of 54 Golden Age detective books that no-one’s heard of, you know where I am…