St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference 2011

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I have a fondness for the crime conference held annually at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, as I have mentioned before. Somewhat more academic than other conferences I attend, the St Hilda’s Conference always has a theme, with speakers interpreting that theme in various ways and presenting relevant papers. The delegates at St Hilda’s are generally highly educated and extremely well read in crime fiction, and are mostly women. I always end up going to bed far later than planned, not wanting to wrench myself away from the conversation.

This year’s theme was “The Anatomy of Justice”. The talks, as always, were varied and interesting. For the sake of brevity I am going to highlight some of the ones I found particularly stimulating. Cath Staincliffe’s talk on Assisted Dying and the Law raised some interesting questions, not least of which was the point that if euthanasia were legal, would the elderly feel obliged to act on this, under pressure from offspring keen to cash in on their inheritance? This is far too deep a topic for me to go into here, but suffice to say Cath has a much more charitable view of human nature than I do.

The conference lecture by coroner Bernard Knight covered 800 years of the coroner in history, and was highly educational, especially for anyone aspiring to write crime. I had no idea coroners had been around for so long.

I also want to mention Penny Evans, lawyer turned writer, who talked about the legalities involved when one is accused of murdering one’s spouse. Up until recently, the law stated that if one could prove that the victim was behaving in a way that might cause an otherwise reasonable person to snap, they might be acquitted of murder on the grounds of uncharacteristic behaviour. However, the ‘snap’ has to be instantaneous. If you stop to pick up a weapon, it becomes far more difficult to prove the ‘snap’ because time has passed. Hence, with this law it was far easier for men to get away with murder for strangling their wives, than it was for a woman to kill her husband, as most women are not physically strong enough to kill a man with their bare hands. And if she stops to pick up a weapon – well, that suddenly becomes premeditated and is a different story altogether.

The talk certainly offered food for thought, even if it highlighted one more inequality between the sexes, though Penny did seem to imply that the law has now changed to address this.

As always, the Oxford conference included drinks reception and dinner on both Friday and Saturday night, which always offers opportunity to mingle and socialise. For dinner on Saturday night, I found myself at Val McDermid’s table. Val is a regular guest at the St Hilda’s conference, being an alumni, and the conference is small enough that it becomes much easier to chat to authors than it may be at larger conferences. But still, I admit to having a ‘fan girl moment’ when I realised I would be sharing her table.

Me with Val McDermid


The book of Val’s that I bought (and got her to sign) at the Conference, TRICK OF THE DARK, is set in Oxford and has the protagonist returning to her Oxford college. Val told me it was inspired by St Hilda’s. I look forward to reading it, to see if I recognise anything (or even anyone…).

Sadly, the conference was over all too soon and it was time to head back to London and real life. I’ve been to St Hilda’s so often it now feels like visiting an old friend, and I look forward to returning every year.

The date and the theme for next year’s conference have already been set. Next year will be looking at humour in crime. I’m already looking forward to it.

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