The Golden Age of Crime: A Glorious Conference in Bournemouth

Having a day job outside academia, I have to ration my holiday leave very carefully. Not for me the luxury mini-breaks my colleagues enjoy, but I think I have it better. Because I’m always doing something exciting with my ‘time off’. This last week, I used my leave to get stuck into not one but two absolutely glorious conferences about Golden Age crime fiction.

Artwork by Rich Obrien

The first was Bodies from the Library, which is hosted annually at the British Library, London. It is always wonderful for catching up with the growing community of Golden Age enthusiasts, and for picking up the latest mammoth offering from the inimitable Martin Edwards. This year, he has published The Life of Crime, standing proud at a majestic 724 pages.

The second conference I attended last week was one I enjoyed even more – because I was lucky enough to co-organise it. Back in 2019, Sarah Martin, Stefano Serafini, and I developed an idea over coffee in Bath: a two-day conference devoted to this often-maligned subgenre of crime fiction! We wasted no time setting up a call for papers and got a brilliant response. We were all set to host it in the final week of March 2020. And you can guess how that went.

Due to COVID-19, we had to put that and the next Agatha Christie conference on hold – although we combined the two for a unique virtual event in 2021. You can still access some of the presentations from Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Crime on YouTube. One happy thing that came from this was that we got Mia Dormer, my exceptional colleague in the Christie conferences, aboard the Golden Age committee too. The online event went smashingly, and we set to work quickly, planning for a real-life event in 2022.

As early career academics, we know how uncomfortable academic spaces can be. We also know that academia needs to be more open, more welcoming and accessible, and less exclusionary. And we know that COVID-19 has changed how we meet and communicate, fundamentally. So, we had some clear ‘musts’ for this event, including the need to make it a hybrid one; that is, one people could attend – meaningfully – online or in person, and we needed to make it a community.

One thing I’m endlessly proud of about the conferences we put together is the community aspect. We work hard to make sure everyone can talk to each other. We put people in panels across disciplines and backgrounds, and we do not discriminate based on academic status or name recognition. We provide spaces for writers, academics, professionals, and enthusiasts, acknowledging that each and every one of those voices has its own authority. For this reason, we don’t include academic titles on conference badges. Oh, and no parallel panels. I believe we were virtually unique in these measures when we started, but happily it is becoming more frequent.

We found a host in the form of Bournemouth University, where Sarah holds a teaching position. Bournemouth, which I’d never seen before, is a beautiful seaside town with golden sands, swirling skies, and, for some reason, goats. Seizing my destiny as a retired general in a detective story, I embraced the coast for 6AM constitutionals, and it was a very pleasant experience.

Bournemouth is so bracing

It’s fair to say we faced a few challenges pulling this off – from illness to technical gremlins, via a rail strike and a fire alarm halfway through the first day! But the conference happened and it happened gloriously. This is partly down to our hard work and enthusiasm putting it together, moreso down to the very supportive network of helpers (see below), but it is also and more significantly down to the wonderful collection of people attending, united by an enthusiasm for the books, films, and writers we were discussing. It is rare to attend a conference where everyone present actually wants to be there, but The Golden Age of Crime: A Re-Evaluation was unquestionably just that.

Our keynote speakers both joined us via Zoom. Alistair Rolls of Newcastle University, Australia gave possibly the most unique and convincing reading of Agatha Christie I’ve ever heard. Discussing time and language in Murder is Easy, he left me thinking it’s impossible to read that old favourite in any way other than his. Our second keynote, which closed the conference, was also on Christie: Caroline Crampton, host of the excellent Shedunnit podcast, treated us to what felt like an exclusive interactive episode, titled ‘Christie’s Competent Women’.

One thing that warmed by cynical heart was a conversation in Caroline’s Q&A, in which it became clear that the majority of the room loves Tuppence Beresford, on half of Christie’s ‘Partners in Crime’, Tommy and Tuppence, who age through the decades, and who are generally ignored or even – gasp! – criticised as twee or uninteresting. All readings are valid, of course, but any reading that puts Tuppence anywhere but at the pinnacle of fictional detectivism is wrong.

Keynote Caroline Crampton zoomed in

Much as I love and adore Agatha Christie (this should not be a shock), it was brilliant to hear talks on other writers, too. Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell, Georgette Heyer, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Christiana Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout, and even someone called Arthur Conan Doyle (who apparently created a detective of his own) were discussed with fresh and fascinating insights.

Delegates shared their wisdom from three continents, across and beyond academia. We took care with how panels were arranged, so that, for example, instead of having all the panellists talk about similar things, Q&As could draw out more subtle, thematic links between the presentations. This generates new conversations and angles. Which other conference would put a Derridian analysis of animals next to a history of Italian horror movies? Trust me, it worked.

Our speakers and their topics included: Carol Westron on psychology and domestic abuse, Ayo Onatade on the ageing Albert Campion, Sophie Smith on constructions of the ‘feeble-minded’ criminal, Benedict Morrison’s ‘Golden Age bestiary’, Tom Ue on the many lenses in and into Sherlock Holmes, Huzan Bharucha on the second generation New Woman, Sam Hirst on Georgette Heyer’s gothic intertextuality, Chrissie Poulter reading Christie as kintsugi, healing from war, Rich Obrien on Christie’s legacy in horror movies, Gray Robert Brown on those neglected ‘final’ Marple and Poirot novels, Tina Hodgkinson highlighting tube travel, train travel, and the London underground, Anna Kirsch introducing a queer ecological reading, Renata Zsamba on the figure of the female gentleman, Mark Aldridge sharing exciting insights into the small screen, Sarah Martin’s psychogeographic reading of fashion, Charlotte Beyer on Cornish crime scenes, Mary C. Rawlinson examining Sayers as a moral philosopher, Jason Whittle with an anti-capitalist reading of Murder Must Advertise, Jordan Welsh on murderous coasts and shorelines, Brittain Bright on the Americanness of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Marie Vozdova’s insights into the chaos behind the collaborative novel The Floating Admiral, Šárka Dvoráková examining islands and therapy in Josephine Tey, and Sarah Raven with a reading of her own creative work.

We are hugely grateful to the British Library for kindly donating books from their Crime Classics series, which were hugely enjoyed (and I know a few people sneakily took more than one!). And Rich Obrien at Devilish Creative supplied our glorious artwork. The event couldn’t have gone ahead without the team at Bournemouth University, but I’d especially like to acknowledge the student volunteers. Back when I volunteered for conferences as a student, it was a way to get free food and a line on my CV. But these wonderful students were really, properly involved and helped everything run so much more smoothly than it could have.

Books! Thank you, British Library

It was fun, then. It was illuminating. There is nothing to match the feeling of getting new conversations out of much-loved texts, or seeing your own reading lists or those of others grow. But what really stood out for me at this conference was the number of people who had never attended a conference before.  Many, possibly most, of our delegates had not done anything like this for three years, but there were also several people attending – and some both attending and speaking – for the very first time. And I am delighted that we were able to offer a welcoming, supportive, and stimulating environment for these newcomers.

Everyone remembers their first conference, and it means a lot that we are able to make our conferences friendly, inspiring, and just enjoyable. In my other life, I attend very different conferences which are, chiefly, about making money and being seen to attend. For us, networking is about building a community. This is so much easier to achieve when sheer passion unites us.

Thank you to everyone who has attended, followed, and supported The Golden Age of Crime.

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