Agatha Christie Conference at Exeter – Probably the best conference in the world

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In June 2016, academics and enthusiasts from around the world gathered for the third international Agatha Christie conference at the University of Exeter. This conference was made possible through the kind financial support of the Humanities Graduate School, University of Exeter.

The event, co-organised by Mia Dormer and me, was originally planned as a low-key, one-day symposium, in response to demand for a follow-up to the wildly successful conferences of 2014 and 2015. But as high-quality proposals flooded in, and we attracted the interest of three brilliant keynote speakers, we extended it to two days, with action really kicking off the afternoon before.

On the Sunday, the Bill Douglas Centre opened its exclusive exhibition of materials from the Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, and film museum archives. After viewing this, we enjoyed a special screening of the troubled 1979 biopic, Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave and introduced for us by its producer, Gavrik Losey. Gavrik shared endless insights into the trouble dealing with a famous person’s estate, especially later, in the pub, and he wore Dustin Hoffman’s wristwatch throughout.

The conference itself kicked off with engaging papers from new and established scholars and professionals. Panels included: ‘Unknown Christie’, ‘Global Christie’, ‘Adapted Christie’, and ‘Alternative Christie’. Highlights for me included learning from Katharina Hendrickx that Hercule Poirot has become an historical figure with a real birth certificate in Belgium(!) and hearing Merja Makinen on the rewriting of ‘anti-gothic’ elements of Hallowe’en Party for the screen. But every paper was excellent, from Stuart Barnett’s new reading of The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Tina Hodgkinson’s insights into the places Christie lived and worked round England, and Mia Dormer’s examination of Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp. I myself gave a paper on the changing attitudes to tinned food in different versions of And Then There Were None (the topic sounds dry, but I had lots of pictures on my slides and sparked a three-day long discussion about Christie-themed pornography). I was also honoured to co-present, with Michelle M Kazmer, a queer reading of 4.50 From Paddington.

Sophie Hannah provided a stunning keynote address which included an extract from her forthcoming Poirot novel, Closed Casket. Last year, she had told us that she’d been writing something ‘exciting’ on the train to Exeter, but we hadn’t been allowed to know what. Now we know.

 

The second day saw two more excellent keynotes and a hybrid panel, ‘Christie Evolves and Inspires’ about the legacy and aftermath of Christie: changing presentations of socialism, the spectres of Marple in Murder, She Wrote, and the process of writing the woman herself into fiction. We heard very different approaches to this task from Andrew Wilson and keynote Alison Joseph.

Throughout proceedings, several themes, words, and incidents came up again and again. One was Christie’s disappearance in 1926. The event she never talked about, but which came to define her. A transforming event that turned an introvert into a recluse; a real life mystery; whatever other sensational spin you care to put on it. In many ways, this brought us back to the theme of our first conference: Agatha Christie: Crime, Culture, Celebrity. A character who came up again and again was Miss Marple, who has never been popular with filmmakers — or has she? We learnt about several attempts to put Miss Marple on film, but always changed; always younger, or American, or with a trendy backstory. Most of these plans fall through, but many have gone ahead under different names.

A highlight for me was Mark Aldridge’s keynote paper, A Tale of Two Marples: From Margeret Rutherford to Joan Hickson, dealing with the two most notable incarnations of Miss Marple, and the very different relationships between producers and Christie’s family.  We learnt new things about projects that never happened and got tantalising hints about the future.

 

But what’s next for the Agatha Christie research community?

Before the first conference, there was interest in Christie but it hadn’t been concentrated; it was being expressed as single papers in conferences with other themes, or single articles in books or journals. As an author and topic for academic discourse, I’m not sure she’s yet been legitimised, but huge progress has made. The first academic edited collection of essays on Christie, my first book, started life as the first conference.

I organised the first conference in 2014 and was amazed at its success. We sold out well before registration closed and created important ties between the University and broader communities. I got a book deal out of it. I thought I’d leave it at that, but Mia encouraged me to co-organise the second conference which was bigger and an even greater success. Then we thought the chapter was closed but delegates had other ideas. So along came The Ageless Agatha Christie: Adaptations and Afterlives.

It’s been a genuine honour to see the community grow and develop into a vibrant international and interdisciplinary network, from across and beyond the humanities. Over three years, we’ve had a huge number of delegates returning (and speaking) multiple times; several people have added Christie to their CVs; and productive collaborations have been launched. We’ve created ties with artists, museums, theatres, and booksellers. And we’ve demystified academia for practising crime writers and detective fiction enthusiasts, who themselves provide new and vital angles for research. After all, anyone attending an Agatha Christie conference is, on some level, an Agatha Christie fan.

agelessagathachristie

For #Agatha2016, there has been talk of publication and there has been talk of further events. It’s far too early to promise anything, and you must remember that these were, essentially, student-organised conferences. I’m no longer a student and Mia is in the final year of her PhD. Whatever happens may look a bit different, but I can say with confidence that the Agatha Christie research community has a future.

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2 thoughts on “Agatha Christie Conference at Exeter – Probably the best conference in the world

  1. Sounds like a brilliant event and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to attend. I look forward to any future events which come along and hopefully I will be able to attend one of them. Did you go to the Bodies from the Library conference? I think I saw you, but I wasn’t sure.

    1. Yes, I was there! Sorry I missed you. It was a really great event, and fantastic to meet so many people I know by name/reputation or online. Hopefully, there will be a third Bodies From The Library, and we can meet then.

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