Thursday, August 28, 2014

Marcia Talley--St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend

DEBORAH CROMBIE: St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend is the hidden gem of mystery conferences. If Marcia Talley weren't my friend, I'd be very tempted to commit some heinous crime born of jealousy, because she got to attend this year, and I, having been in England in May, couldn't manage another trip as soon as August. To make it up to me, Marcia is going to give us some highlights along with photos from this year and previous conferences.

(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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow, this sounds like an amazing conference and the pictures are so inviting . . . how can anyone not want to go???
    And a new Hannah Ives book, too? It's like icing on the cake . . . .

  3. Deb, I would go back to Oxford anytime. And for a crime and mystery weekend? Beats theology any day. That mystery is too big. I don't even understand my own theology, and I wrote it…

  4. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share the delights of St Hilda's and Oxford, Debs! Oxford is my favorite English city -- and I can't believe that Kate Charles and I are going back this weekend to attend the Barbara Pym conference. Dinner on Friday night at Chutneys, where the curries and lemon rice are to die for. TIP: Lemon rice isn't on the menu -- you have to ask for it.

  5. Sounds like heaven on earth. And the perfect setting for a murder. On paper, I mean.

  6. Thanks so much for this recap of St. Hilda's, Marcia.

    As a huge fan of Kate Charles and her books, I have long wanted to attend this conference. One of these days!

    I also wish there was a way to start a similar type event here in the states. I love that the topic is focused (changing each year) and that the presentations are more scholarly in nature.

    If I win the lottery, I'll get on that. ;)

  7. Hi Marcia--welcome to JR! Now you've made us all sick with jealousy--we all want to come next year:)

    Congrats on the new book too. So interesting to set this in a memory unit...where I bet some of the possible witnesses might not recall the details!

  8. All my favorite authors in such a beautiful place? I'm in!

  9. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my trips to Ohio (really, actually I do!) but jeepers St. Hilda's, WOW!

    And I LOVE Barbara Pym. Marcia can I be you? Just for a few days?

  10. Looks fantastic. Being a huge "Lewis" fan, I love Oxford, it looks so beautiful and relaxing. I can only imagine a writing conference there is divine. So if someone wants to give me a scholarship, I'm there.

    Just as long as the conference doesn't unravel like a "Lewis" or "Morse" episode, that is. =)

  11. Marcia, you have such a fun life. Living on an island, hanging out with British crime writers in Oxford. I'd be there in a heartbeat, if I could, just to see you, and to hear such interesting topics written by incredibly talented authors.

    Plus, Val McDermid, one of the funniest human beings on the planet.

  12. Lucy, you must read Marcia's new book! I could have written the PW review myself (and I am seldom in total agreement with PW:-)) Such an interesting setting, and so sensitively done. And with Marcia's Hannah books you feel you are along for the ride from page one, and you really care about the characters as well as the solution.

  13. Oh, Oxford! Barbara Pym! Lemon rice at Chutney's! Marcia and Kate, you finks! I expect pictures, and Kate should give us a report on the Pym conference!

    Karen in Ohio, the first time I attended St. Hilda's, Val McDermid kept us all up giggling until the wee hours of the morning, regaling us with stories of the Chalet Girls. And Val is not only funny, she's one of the nicest people on the planet as well.

  14. One year when my husband came with me to Oxford, he decided to spend the day wandering around town. When he got to the High, he was caught up in a huge street demonstration -- lots of people, yelling, placards. He'd walked right into a taping for "Lewis." LOL.

  15. Sounds lovely. If only money weren't an issue.

  16. Mark, airfare to the UK in August is always an issue. But the weekend at St. Hilda's is very reasonable, including the room and board. It really is a great experience.

  17. I'm in awe.

    Jungle Red road trip? Marcia, can we tag along after you???

  18. Lemon rice is not on the menu--you have to ask for it.

    Ah, Marcia. You are so amazing. xoo

  19. This sounds amazing! Do you have to be invited or can anyone attend? I love Frances Brody's books, so her topic has to have been entertaining.

  20. Oxford is my favorite English city as well, Marcia. I've been there many times, and I took a summer course, History of Oxfordshire, at Oriel College a number of years ago but the memories feel like it was yesterday. I even had reading rights at the Bod! Our college liaison, Claire, had recently graduated from St. Hilda's. I would love to attend the St. Hilda's week-end! Love Oxford, the town and gown. Say "Hallo" to it for me please.

  21. St. Hilda's sounds like the perfect spot of heaven in which to relax, talk books/writing, and listen to the Masters speak. Being able to attend every speech and not having to choose between favorites is such a uniquely wonderful element of the event. Lodging in the college rooms would be a thrill for me, too. And, I am a theme-minded person, so the thematic approach sounds especially appealing. I want to go shake that stingy money tree out back and book a spot at St. Hilda's.

    Marcia, thanks for the great pictures and the enticing information about this amazing mystery weekend. Your new book,Tomorrow's Vengeance, is definitely one I want to read, and my next visit online will be to Amazon to put it on my wish list. The setting of a continuing care retirement community addresses an important issue and one that can be so sad. You are such an interesting person that I look forward to meeting you in the future.

  22. I want to go! But only if Marcia is there, too.

    Also, huzzah for a new Hannah Ives book! I love this series, and recommend it to anyone who likes their cozies with wit and teeth.

  23. Pat D, the authors are invited to speak, but anyone can attend. I've gone a couple of times as an attendee rather than a speaker. Great fun, less work:-)

  24. All are welcome at St Hilda's Crime & Mystery Conference! And everyone who comes always wants to come back.

    The Barbara Pym Society weekend is also at St Hilda's College, so it's another bite of the cherry. The college is a lovely oasis of tranquility when the hordes of foreign language students and tourists are swarming all over Oxford.

  25. Anyone can attend! And Julia, I'm going to steal your quote. I love that you said "with wit and teeth!"

  26. And Oxford is such a walkable city! I have my usual route now. The High Street shops, the Oxford Covered Market, the Bodleian Library -- which always has a fascinating exhibit as well as a wonderful book/gift shop.

  27. Marcia, I loved the covered market… prawn sandwich on baguette… walking down St. Adates to Tom Gate eating it from a paper bag… such a different way for me. I loved all the new and different about it there.

  28. Marcia, I love "with wit and teeth" for your books, too. What a perfect description! That Julia has a way with words:-)

  29. I have *always* wanted to go to this conference! Now I'm even more eager to make it some day -- and that I should bend Marcia's ear about it!

  30. I'm reading The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness, and this afternoon I came across St. Hilda being mentioned as a college one of the witches attended.