St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference:
The Oxford Experience
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 alumni officer, Eileen Roberts, the St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend has for eleven 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 is the only remaining allwomen'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.
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; Danuta Reah discussing the way writers use myth, both consciously and unconsciously; 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.
Kate Charles claims that the last paper on Sunday is intended to send you back into the real world laughing. Those who haven't heard Joyce Holms tell her shaggy dog story or Stephen Booth's take on “Motive? What Motive?” are missing something. (Look on http://www.stephen-booth.com/motive.htm)
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 nonauthors 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 Mystery Women—a Sisters-in-Crime-type organization founded by Kate Charles and Michelle Spring, ably steered by Lizzie Hayes for most of its existence—sponsors a 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 sherry 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!) 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?
—Meet the tall, darkly handsome Phil Gormley, the real inspector Morse?
—Join in a Sunday morning punt race St. Hilda’s on the Cherwell, with Laurie King, Val McDermid or Andrew Taylor manning the pole?
—Attend church at St. Cross, a medieval church tucked away in a nearly forgotten corner of Oxford, the church where Lord Peter married Harriet Vane?
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. American academic, Kathy Ackley, makes St. Hilda's a 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: “St. Hilda's is the only conference I go to every year, unless forcibly prevented. 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.”
Next year's theme is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Character in Crime Fiction.”
Will we see you there?
Marcia Talley is the Agatha and Anthony award-winning author of In Death’s Shadow, fourth in the Hannah Ives mystery series. She is author/editor of two star-studded collaborative serial novels, Naked Came the Phoenix and I’d Kill for That. Her prize-winning short stories appear in numerous collections.
Copyright 2005 Marcia D. Talley. All rights reserved.
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Last updated: 17 April 2005