Tuesday, June 7, 2011

It's a Crime--in Oxford

DEB: Want to know the best kept secret in the crime-writing conference world?

It's the St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference. It's been held every August since 1994 in St. Hilda's College, Oxford--and that's England, not Mississippi.

There's no web page. St Hilda's doesn't advertise--it doesn't need to. Because those in the know come back every year if they can, and they tell their friends . . . and now I'm telling you.

Want to have a glorious English summer weekend taking in the dreaming spires of Oxford, staying in an Oxford college, mingling with brilliant writers and speakers? A drinks reception in the college senior common room? Champagne on the lawn overlooking the River Cherwell? And the punting--well, we'll get to that.

Writer Kate Charles gives us the scoop.

KATE: The first St Hilda’s conference was organized in 1994 by Eileen Roberts, then the Alumni Affairs Officer of the college, as an activity for the college’s graduates. Eileen was (is) a great lover of mysteries/crime fiction, and the possessor of a huge collection of books in her office. The number of times they were borrowed was a clue to her that many others shared her passion, and she decided that a weekend event featuring speakers about women crime writers with Oxford connections would be well attended.

It was! Speakers at that first conference included Lindsey Davis, Margaret Yorke (once the librarian of St. Hilda’s), Kate Charles, and Sarah Caudwell. At the end of that first conference, Kate conducted a survey to see whether people would be interested in coming back another year. The response was an overwhelming yes; Kate offered to help organize it, and she and Eileen have been doing it ever since. This year will be the 18th conference.

It differs from other conferences in having a more academic tone - speakers present papers rather than participate in panel discussions. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, as well as stimulating!

It’s also a themed conference. Each year a different theme is selected and addressed by speakers (mostly working writers, with a few academics added in) who are invited to focus on that particular theme. Themes have included historical mysteries, academic mysteries, the police (‘Men and Women in Blue’), and other such intriguing topics as ‘Strong Poison’, ‘All in the Family’, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, and ‘Behind the Mask’. This year’s theme is ‘The Anatomy of Justice’.

Last year the conference paid tribute to P.D. James during the week of her 90th birthday with a gala birthday lunch. Baroness James has been in attendance a number of times over the years, as has Oxford favourite Colin Dexter. There have been far too many excellent speakers to mention!

The Sunday morning punting competition has been a feature most years, ably organized by Gillian Linscott. The champagne reception on the lawn, held the first evening (on the lawn if the weather is fine!) is always memorable. Mystery Women host a reception after dinner on the Saturday night. There is always a well-equipped book room and a group signing.

At this conference, writers (speakers and others) and readers mingle without any distinction made between them. It has the atmosphere of a large country house party - very friendly, and in the most beautiful of settings, by the river, tucked away from the tourist-ridden centre of Oxford.

Speakers this year are: Natasha Cooper (Chair), Triona Adams (on Sarah Caudwell), Martin Edwards, Penelope Evans, Jane Finnis, Frances Fyfield, Ann Granger, Bernard Knight (Guest of Honour), Val McDermid, Edward Marston, Ayo Onatade, Cath Staincliffe, and Andrew Taylor. The programme will be released in the next few days.

DEB: Although I haven't made it to St. Hilda's nearly as often as I'd like, I have some precious memories. My first year was (I think!) 1995. I was invited as a speaker, and PD James was the guest of honor. This meant that at the Saturday night dinner (which that year was held at Somerville College) I got to sit at the high table with PD James in Dorothy Sayer's college. It seemed an unimaginable honor, then and now.

(In the photo of Baroness James speaking at last year's dinner in honor of her birthday, that's Andrew Taylor on the left and Peter Lovesey on the right. Lovely guys and two of my favorite writers. I'm so sorry I missed that one.)

And the punting? I'll never forget skimming along the Cherwell, propelled by Laurie King, a veritable Valkyrie at the pole.
Here, Laurie elegantly punts Marcia Talley and Kate Charles.

If you think a weekend in Oxford with terrific crime writers might be your cup of tea, you can contact Eileen Roberts at


And one more picture. Who is that impossibly young writer with the glamorous Kate Charles and Marcia Talley?


  1. that sounds fabulous Deb! I've never made it but I always drool when I see the announcements. What an honor to meet PD James...

  2. I SWOON. Oh, it sounds amazing...thanks, you two, for making me lust after a conference...

    (Laurie King is indeed incredible. We'll be hosting her this fall for her hilarious new novel!)

  3. I can not say it better than Roberta and Hank.
    Drool? Swoon? Aah, yes!

  4. I'm not going this year. Wish I was was! Maybe next. It really is a magical weekend, and I'm just as happy going as a guest. All the fun and none of the work of presenting a paper, lazy sod that I am.

  5. This will be my 17th year at St Hilda's and I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world! A fascinating conference in a magical setting. Another thing I love about it -- in addition to the scholarly papers -- is that the sessions are "no conflict" so you don't have to miss a single thing. I wrote an article about the conference for the MWA newsletter in 2005; you can find it at http://www.marciatalley.com/StHildas.html if you want to know more!

  6. I went back in 2004? 2005? and loved, loved, loved it. My mother came along with me and we piggybacked a week in London around the conference itself.

    The highlight for me was getting my fanny pinched by Colin Dexter at one of the parties. I felt I had really arrived in the mystery world.

  7. And I was tactfully leaving out the Colin bottom-pinching. Surely one of the highlights of the weekend :-)

  8. Oh, I love Oxford -- have visited twice as a tourist and looked for all the places mentioned in Sayers's novels as well as for C.S. Lewis's haunts. I am green with envy -- the weekend sounds absolutely wonderful.

  9. Some year. This is one I always mean to make...

  10. Colin only held my hand. I wonder what was wrong with my bottom. :0)