(I am so cross. I found a fabulous photo the other day when was straightening my office. St. Hilda's, 1996, with Kate Charles and Marcia Talley being punted on the Cherwell by Laurie King. I meant to put it in this post but now can't find it. Apologies!!! But Marcia has plenty to share.)
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 alumni officer, Eileen Roberts, the St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend has for over 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 was, until recently, the only remaining all women's college 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,” “ Scene of the Crime,” and “Mind Games, Psychology, Crime and Mystery,” to name but a few. This year, as England commemorates the centennial of the beginning of World War I, St Hilda’s remembered, too, with “Crimes of the Past: War and Other Evils.”
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. It is the skilled moderator/chair (Edward Marsden, Andrew Taylor, the late 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; or Alan Bradley’s poignant tale about the day his father ran away from home – for good. And who could resist a talk entitled “Lord Roberts Has a Full Crate of Whisky: Stories of the Anglo-Boer War” with which Frances Brody closed out this year’s session.
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.
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 on Saturday night when attendees gather after dinner for a wine party in the Senior Common Room. Some 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 sherry hour invariably precedes the Saturday night dinner which has featured speakers like P.D. James, Colin Dexter, and Val McDermid. 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!) I should mention that the food is excellent, served in the elegant, wood-paneled dining room and, as a vegetarian, I appreciate the tasty vegetarian options.
Everyone lodges at the college in clean comfortable rooms where “scouts” make up your bed each morning and electric kettles and the wherewithal for making tea sit on your desk.
The return rate is high. Anne Perry said it best: “The atmosphere 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.”
DEBS: Here are some of Marcia's photos, captioned as best I can (while I take a break to dig through more boxes looking for my own...)
The beautiful view of the River Cherwell from the college lawns.
Marcia, Alan Bradley, and Kate Charles, 2014
Kate Charles presides over dinner at the college high table, 2011
PD James chats with an attendee as a former college principle looks on, 2011
Kate Charles and Keith Miles, 2011
Val McDermid and Ayo Onatade share a joke, 2011
Sigh. As you can see, the weather, the setting, the company, and the crime are divine. I'm setting my sights on next year.
One more snippet--Marcia has failed to mention that she has a brand new Hannah Ives novel, TOMORROW'S VENGANCE, so I'm going to do it for her. I got to read it early, when I was in London, and it's wonderful.
Hannah Ives is introduced to Calvert Colony, a continuing care retirement community in Maryland, by her friend, Naddie Gray, and soon meets a colourful cast of characters: Colonel Greene, the spritely war veteran, Safa Abaza, an over-zealous religious convert, Ysabelle Milanesi, who fled the Nazis when she was a girl, handsome chef Raniero and his sister, Filomena.
When Hannah signs on as a volunteer in the Memory Unit, she becomes more even more involved in the lives of the Calvert Colony residents. But events take a dark turn when one of them is found murdered. Hannah is drawn into the investigation, and soon finds herself uncovering old crimes and reigniting quarrels that know no boundaries of place or time.
Publisher's Weekly says, "Talley deals sensitively with such aging issues as consensual sex among residents, vulnerability to scam artists, declining cognitive abilities, autocratic relatives, and the importance of touch and music in providing comfort."
Reading a Hannah novel is, as always, like spending time with one of your best friends, and getting a cracking good mystery to boot.
So who's up for Oxford and St. Hilda's next year? I'm sure Marcia will be there.