The Bodies From The Library 2019 – Conference Report

Every June, one Saturday morning, so the tradition says, a collection of lovers of Golden Age crime fiction will turn their faces towards London and make their way to the British Library to gather to hear from the experts about find out things they never knew about authors that they know and to find out about authors they never knew about in the first place. Yes, yesterday was the fifth Bodies In The Library event, and it was a cracker.

The train journey to London was more uneventful than usual for me – the return journey was an absolute nightmare to make up for it – so I was there in plenty of time. After making some new acquaintances, specifically Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery and John from Countdown John’s Christie Journal, who’d come to London specially from the US, and many old ones, and grabbing a copy of Tony Medawar’s Bodies From The Library 2 collection (review soon), it was time for proceedings to begin.

It started with what I thought was an odd question – Is The Golden Age Humdrum? – with Jake Kerridge talking to Moira (Clothes In Books) Redmond and Richard Reynolds (the manager of Heffers). Based on the phrase popularised by Julian (Insert Insulting Nickname Here) Symons, although first used by Freeman Wills Crofts, Symons used it to target a section of the crime writing populace, including Crofts himself. As the first real academic-esque study of the genre, the opinion caught on, but nobody has really applied the term to the entire Golden Age. A fascinating discussion followed, with some interesting ideas – while someone might test a Carr solution, would anyone (apart from JJ) test a Crofts one? But in my opinion, Symons was just making potshots at people in order to popularise his own work (the little of which I’ve read makes me think that it needed as much publicity as possible). Fascinating fact: the most popular Crime Classics title at Heffers is The Incredible Crime. Wow.

Next was Tony Medawar with “The Puppet Master – John Dickson Carr”, a meticulously researched piece on the life of Carr, full of fascinating facts. Most notable for fans of the blog are probably a) Crippen and Landru will be releasing a number of radio scripts soon, b) there will be an previously unreleased novella in the Bodies From The Library Volume 3 collection (Grand Guignol) and finally c) there might be another pseudonym he wrote under, Fenton Carter, although nothing has yet been found under that name.

Finishing off the first section was friend-of-the-blog Sarah Ward, on City and Countryside in E C R Lorac’s novels. The British Library range has something of a thing for Lorac at the moment, but with so many books unavailable, she did an excellent job with a relatively small sample of her work. The focus was on the settings, namely London, Devon and the Lakes, and how she used her own experiences in the stories. It was perhaps a pity that the Carnac novels were not brought up, but as these are even rarer than the Lorac titles, it is understandable.

After a quick cup of tea, John Curran introduced two forgotten Crime Club authors, Nigel Fitzgerald and D Devine. Both wrote twelve novels and one short story, and John made both of them sound absolutely fascinating. I’ll let you know, as some of their titles are winging their way to me (thank you Abebooks).

Dolores Gordon-Smith then proceeded to extol the virtues of Max Carrados, as written by Ernest Bramah. Dolores gave a fascinating talk, but I’ve not been impressed by the Carrados tales that I’ve read to date, with the examples she gave of the unlikely things that the blind detective being able to do unfortunately convincing me that there are other authors I want to try first. Sorry, Dolores!

After lunch, we had a new iteration on the radio play. After the disaster of last year, Tony Medawar introduced a live performance of Sweet Death by Christianna Brand, and funny and entertaining inverted mystery, beautifully performed. Well done to everyone involved (including Tony for presumably choosing it).

The afternoon talks kicked off with Christine Poulson talking on Helen McCloy. I think Christine seemed to overstate the forgotton-ness of McCloy as she certainly belongs in the realm of crime writers that you might have heard of. That’s the third tier, by the way, out of four. I’ll explain the tiering system at some point in the future. I’ve read a bit of McCloy, although starting with The Goblin Market was clearly a mistake. I’ve one or two more lined up, and I’m keen to take a look at them now.

Next was one of the most informative talks of the day, from John Curran and Julius Green, a director of many Christie plays. Julius has written a book about Christie’s stage plays and it sound fascinating. I’m not well-versed in Christie’s plays, but stories of her own plays as opposed to other adaptations, the changes made to the plot… Did you know that Ten Little Ni*&^%s was a popular morale booster during World War II, partly due to the changed ending insisted on by the producers? And in the book of twentieth century female playwrights by CUP, she doesn’t merit a mention despite being, um, the most successful?

Next up was Kate (Cross Examining Crime) Jackson on June Wright, an Australian novelist from the fifties, who had a lot of publicity for her superwoman status, raising five kids while writing novels, while not really focussing on the novels themselves, novels that challenged the role of women in the workplace and society in general. So the journalists were somewhat missing the point… Wright’s books are in the process of being re-released, so why not take a look? I will be, soon…

After another tea break, Martin Edwards was interviewed by Christine Poulson on Cyril Hare, an author that I’ve found to be a little over-rated in the past. I’d say that maybe I’ve not read the right book, but I have read Tragedy At Law and found it wanting, partly for one of the reasons that Martin enjoyed it, namely the extremely late murder. Find out what I think of another early Hare, With A Bare Bodkin, in a day or so.

Finally, the heirs to the Chuckle Brothers, namely Jim (The Invisible Event) Noy and Dan (The Reader Is Warned) Curtis gave a highly entertaining talk on the ten types of impossible crimes. Fascinating fact – the same problems (one very specific) that I thought didn’t fit were the reason that there was originally twelve types until Jim found a way to include them. If you want more info on this one, check out the latest post on The Invisible Event.

The “Ask The Experts” panel had a different format this year, with questions submitted in advance by the audience. Despite one expert dodging the panel (you know who you are), it was an interesting session, with questions ranging from “Does Marriage Ruin A Detective?”, “Who Are The Golden Age Writers Of Today?”, “What Was Your Most Exciting Charity Shop Find?” and “Which GA Authors Should Be Translated?”.

After a few drinks with my blogging buddies, it was time for a verrrrrrrry long train ride home. Fingers crossed we’ll be back next year for more of the same. These conferences have gone from strength to strength, perfect for the reader who has just read Christie to those of us who have read far too much (not possible). Oh, and Brian Flynn even got a mention, even it was just Tony Medawar winding me up… Cheers, Tony!

14 comments

  1. Guessing you grabbed some good bargains with the Fitzgeralds on Abebooks, given the prices on there at the moment. Definitely recommend Julius’ book, though I’d suggest reading it in small chunks. It’ll be interesting to see what you make of Wright. Which book are you thinking of starting with?

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    • The Student Body (£6.50) and The Candles Are Out (£11 with DJ) but there’s still a number of affordable ones. And the first Wright would seem to be the place to start. It’s on the the pile…

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  2. Thanks for the summary. I was excited to learn there’s an unpublished Carr novella on the way. Too bad it turned out to be Grand Guignol, which was expanded to a Bencolin novel that I’ve already read (not to sound ungrateful. I appreciate the effort that went into bringing it… I just hoped it was something completely new)

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  3. […] It was, as always, a wonderful day — superbly organised, with a uniformly brilliant standard of presentation on everything from Ernest Bramah to June Wright, and the 2020 conference can’t come soon enough.  If you have an interest in Golden Age detective fiction and can make it to London for the end of June, I honestly can’t recommend this day too highly.   But don’t just take my word for it, also take Kate’s and Puzzle Doctor’s… […]

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  4. Carol and I were discussing re-enacting Sir John Magill’s Last Journey…if, y’know, anyone fancies it…

    Great round-up, Doc, and another wonderful day. Cue everyone scouring their journals, secondhand bookshops, and the bookshelves of others for a Fenton Carter title, eh? See you all next year!

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  5. Glad to hear you enjoyed the day – I wish I were there! Just wondering what answers were given to the question, “who are the golden age writers of today?”

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    • Colin Dexter was mentioned, as was Le Carre. I think the issue is that the crime genre is much more varied today – Golden Age to me is primarily the style, rather than the date and while the style at the time was still pretty varied, nowadays… well, there’s no such thing as a typical crime novel.

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  6. It was a great day wasn’t it? Sorry we didn’t get the chance to chat. I am going to claim that the distinction over whether you would try out a murder method (Carr yes, Crofts no) is my contribution to the literary criticism of the GA – I was very pleased with myself for thinking of it. No doubt to have holes torn in it by others!
    Great roundup – I will be linking to it.

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