by Marcia Talley
In the late summer of 1994, a new mystery conference made its quiet debut at St Hilda's College in Oxford, England. The brainchild of mystery author Kate Charles and the college's former alumni officer, Eileen Roberts, the St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend has for almost twenty years, drawn mystery lovers from all over the world to the tranquil banks of the River Cherwell.
The inaugural conference, “Queens of Crime,” focused on women mystery authors with Oxford connections, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, an entirely appropriate topic for St. Hilda's which until recently was the only all women's college remaining in England. Indeed, Val McDermid is an “old girl” of the college and Margaret York was its librarian and a speaker at first conference. At the end of that first weekend, response was so overwhelming that Charles and Roberts decided to continue the conference the following year with “The Golden Age, Then and Now.” Topics in subsequent years have included “Murder in Academia,” “Men and Women in Blue,” “Partners in Crime,” “Mind Games, Psychology, Crime and Mystery,” and this year’s theme, “Stop, You’re Killing Me: Humor in Crime Fiction,” to name but a few. This year I was honored to share the stage with Alan Bradley, author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, first in a series featuring the enchanting 11-year-old sleuth, Flavia deLuce. Later in the morning, Len Tyler spoke about Colin Watson, Barry Forshaw’s talk featured Alfred Hitchcock and his writers and the following day, after guest of honor Peter Lovesey’s hysterical talk, “Amazed Enquiry Sat on Her Face, And Other Embarrassments in Crime Fiction,” Gillian Linscott and Ann Cleeves wrapped up the conference with talks on the comic side-kick and the fine art of translating humor, respectively.
It is this themed approach which sets St. Hilda's apart from other mystery conferences. There's none of the usual panels of writers sitting around making thinly disguised sales pitches for their books. Speakers come by invitation only and deliver thought-provoking papers on aspects of the mystery genre relevant to the topic that year. For “The Historical Mystery,” for example, panelists were programmed chronologically: pre-medieval (Lindsey Davis); Medieval (Ellis Peters, Edward Marsden); Regency (the late Kate Ross, Molly Brown) up to Laurie King and Gillian Linscott who write the Mary Russell and Nell Bray suffragette series respectively. It is the skilled moderator/chair (Edward Marsden, Andrew Taylor, Robert Barnard and Natasha Cooper have been tapped for this several times) who ties the papers together and ably guides the question and answer session.
Papers are delivered in the acoustically perfect surroundings of the Jacqueline duPre Music Building, and there's no overlap between sessions so no one has to miss anything. It's this aspect of learning, I think, that keeps bringing people back to St. Hilda's: We hear Julia Wallace Martin talk about the relationship between manic depression and the creative process; Val McDermid's historical overview of gays and lesbians in crime fiction; Chris Ewan’s take on the comic caper novel; or Michelle Spring the afternoon she first shared with the world her real-life nightmare as the target of a stalker. It's a tribute to the quality of the conference that authors who have attended St. Hilda's as participants continue to do so even if they haven't been invited to give a paper. This year, the conference’s organizers were presented with the prestigious George N. Dove Award by the Popular Culture Association, in recognition of their unique contribution to the study of crime fiction. It’s elite company. Last year's winner was P.D. James.
The conference opens Friday night with a champagne party on the college lawn which slopes gently down to the river. Just beyond are the playing fields of Magdalen College and beyond that, the towering spires of Oxford. Andrew Taylor marvels that there is no distinction between authors and non authors at St. Hilda’s, none of the 'them and us' quality that distinguishes many conferences—fans on one side, and performing authors on the other. Perhaps because of its size—roughly 125 attendees —newcomers are made to feel welcome and find it a good place for conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than at the post-dinner Saturday night wine party in the Senior Common Room. Attendees have been known to stay up until the wee hours, chatting away about crime fiction or anything else that strikes their fancy.
Programs are punctuated by breaks for tea, coffee and cookies, and a civilized drinks hour invariably precedes the Saturday night dinner which has featured speakers like P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Bob Barnard. I'm still laughing over the evening Simon Brett performed all twelve roles for the world premier of Lines of Enquiry, a radio play “starring Osbert Mint, Betti Morns and Bren O'Smitt.” (You work it out!) This year, Brett’s clever parodies of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Agatha Christie had the audience in stitches. I should mention that the food is excellent, served family-style in the elegant, wood-paneled dining room and, as a vegetarian, I appreciate the tasty vegetarian options.
Where else but St. Hilda's can you: —Dine at Somerville College and hear P.D. James talk about fellow alumna Dorothy L Sayers? —Sip sherry with Colin Dexter? —Take a walk along the High and stumble into a taping of Lewis? —Join in a Sunday morning punt race St. Hilda’s on the Cherwell, with Len Tyler, Val McDermid or Andrew Taylor manning the pole? —Pay your respects to tiny St. Cross, a medieval church tucked away in a nearly forgotten corner of Oxford, the church where Lord Peter married Harriet Vane?
The return rate is high. American academic, Kathy Ackley, makes St. Hilda's a semi-regular stop on her annual British Mystery and Crime Writers tour and other folks, like me, use the conference as a hook upon which to hang an annual vacation to England. Anne Perry said it best: “The atmosphere at St. Hilda’s is civilized, physically beautiful … a gathering of old friends to discuss the things we are all interested in. It is effortlessly 'academic', one leaves feeling entertained, enriched, educated, and renewed to begin again on the art and the career we all love.”
Next year's theme is “From Here to Eternity: The Changing Face of Crime Fiction.”
The Conference will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Come help us celebrate!