The annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Weekend was held from 21st to 23rd August 2009 at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. As usual it was superbly organised and this year was graced by excellent weather. I have attempted to give a general description of the Weekend at https://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/st-hildas-2006/#more-22. This was my fourth St Hilda’s (after 2001, 6 and 7) and I definitely enjoyed it the most. The reasons for this were varied; in the first place my mood was good (probably a crucial factor), the weather, as noted, was excellent so it was possible to really enjoy the setting, I had a rather better room than I have been allocated before, I met especially friendly and interesting people, and the speakers were of an extremely high standard. One thing which is really enjoyable about St Hilda’s is the complete democracy and the range of attendees – from very distinguished writers, through literary agents, those struggling to be published, enthusiastic and knowledgeable readers and enthusiasts (and even the odd reviewer).

The following summation of the various panels and talks are, as always, from a wholly personal perspective and should not be taken as either accurate reporting or a balanced view. I concentrate on those aspects which especially interested me.

The overall topic of the Weekend was The Wages of Sin – though this, as usual, was merely a peg on which varied topics could be hung.

Session One

Jill Paton Walsh – The Attenbury Emeralds: Jewels as an Occasion of Sin 

JPW discussed the Catholic idea of the ‘occasion of sin’. Nuns at her school had advised her not to go to Oxford because it would provide ‘occasions of sin’ including the possibility of losing her faith (which she said she did). In mysteries one great ‘occasion of sin’ is jewellery and in terms of Dorothy Sayers (JPW writes the Wimsey ‘continuation’ books) there are the Attenbury Diamonds or Emeralds, which we are told were Wimsey’s first great case and established him as a famous detective. There are sideways references to this case in Clouds of Witnessas well as in the famous ‘Biographical Note’. The confusion between diamonds and emeralds arises because DLS herself was confused on the subject. Margaret Reynolds, great Sayers expert, proposed that they were diamonds set with emeralds. JPW however makes them emeralds and has done considerable research on them for her book. They were mined by the Spanish in South America, through gross exploitation of the native population. As emeralds are more interesting in JPW’s view than diamonds she made them the Attenbury Emeralds.

Jewels have a long literary history – they are present in Beowulf. They inspire avarice which is a deadly sin; confusing the eternal for the mundane (there was an Aquinas  quote to this point but I failed to get it down). They could result in murder or (pre-1964 in the UK) hanging (although surely one would need to rather further back than that to find hanging for jewel theft?).

From here JPW moved to a discussion of justice and questions of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation as the aims of State judicial systems (I didn’t quite follow this leap). JPW argued that for her only retribution was satisfactory (I won’t get into that here!) but that the idea of the GA detective pursuing retribution could be problematic because of the hanging aspect. Famously Wimsey has many qualms about this. But there are literary as well as moral problems. If the book is on a flat, two-dimensional emotional level then the reader will not be too bothered about the murderer being hanged. However when or if  the murderer becomes three-dimensional then there is the risk of the reader becoming emotionally involved with them.

JPW argued that the abolition of the death penalty (1964) completely changed the landscape of the mystery story as one could then have a fully rounded murderer who could be caught and convicted but not killed. The theological dimensions of the mystery also changed; in the GA most writers were writing either as Christians or for a much more Christian audience; though there are of course still Christian writers eg: P.D. James. Sayers herself was exceptional in being not only a mystery writer but an accomplished theologian; see her book Mind of  A Maker.

Kate Charles –  Tiger in the Smoke : The Theology of Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham clearly expressed her religious views in her letters and was not shy about doing so. Of great importance in her personal theology was what she called ‘the pattern’; a belief that a moving pattern of cause and effect is real and is part of the ‘plan’ of God. She underwent a personal ‘conversion experience’ which convinced her of this pattern. Her theological thought was experiential – she moved from thinking about co-incidence and miracles (which she thought quotidian) to perceiving a pattern in life as a whole. If you are ‘ordinary’ you see this as luck but if you are extraordinary you understand its divine origin – she wrote an extremely patronising letter to her godchild explaining this quite extraordinarily elitist theory. But her conversion experience was in part a reaction to her own deep depressions. Her experience of depression convinced her that her own resources could do nothing for her, there was no power of her own that she could draw on – so she turned to a higher power, in her case God [of course this offers a fascinating explanation of theological belief as rooted in psychological disorder; it is certainly true that the experience of depression, perhaps its most important and bitter experience, is to convince one of the inadequacy of one’s own resources – in my own case while accepting that both medical and psychological assistance can help I do not think that I ever had that much trouble in adjusting to a sense of powerlessness as my various belief systems whether Marxist, Freudian or personal have never allowed unfettered human autonomy. But having said all this I can certainly understand the psychological mechanism involved in the search for a Higher Power engendered by the feeling of helplessness which Depression induces]. From this revelatory moment her thinking was changed and she proceeded to emerge in a religious frame of mind in which everything she saw became part of the pattern and her belief system was reinforced by the way in which she perceived her life and the events around her. Margery Allingham, Charles said, came to God through her heart not her head, but she did find Christ’s teachings ‘entirely reasonable’.

Charles then moved on to the concrete illustration of Allingham’s theology in The Tiger in the Smoke. She sees the confrontation between Havoc and Avril as being between pure evil and pure good. Havoc is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants. His ‘science of luck’ is the opposite of the pattern [?? *see below]. Charles noted the endless recurrence of animal imagery used to describe Havoc. Avril on the other hand is pure good and Luke recognises this. He is not naive and does not discount the possibility of sin. Again and again evil is described as having a smell. At the heart and climax of the novel is the confrontation between Avril and Havoc. Charles read passages from this confrontation which repeatedly returns to the question of pattern.

In the QandA session I asked about the apparently irreconcilable nature of predestination and the mystery novel: if everything is preordained then how can there be any mystery? It was suggested that they were reconcilable because one had to work out what had been predestined. Someone raised Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the slide from Calvinism to antinomianism; also Milton’s quandary and paradox which is at the heart of Paradise Lost – if God can see doom coming then why doesn’t he stop it, and if it is pre-ordained then where is free-will. This therefore became a wonderful free ranging discussion on the eternal problems of predestination and free-will (though I don’t know I have ever heard them discussed in the context of the mystery novel before!). Robert Barnard commented that one source of Allingham’s depression was the leeches with whom she was surrounded.

*I also suggested that Havoc’s ‘science of luck’ is in fact a secular/atheist inversion of Avril’s theological predestination (and Allingham’s divine ‘pattern’). I have already written at length about The Tiger in the Smoke (see https://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/the-tiger-in-the-smoke/ ) but my view is very definitely that Havoc’s ‘science of luck’, while it may be the opposite of Avril’s divine pattern in being seen by Allingham as evil against good, in fact shares many similarities in terms of the fact that they both accept strong elements of predestination – whether secular or theological. It is from this correspondence that their climactic conversation and confrontation gains so much of its extraordinary power.

In many ways this session epitomised the real and unique qualities of St Hildas: I simply cannot imagine that this kind of in-depth, concentrated yet free-wheeling, intellectually inquiring, serious yet also playful discussion taking place at any other mystery event. I will not pretend that every session or talk is of this quality but there is always a chance of it – and a chance which does not exist anywhere else. So if the account you have read here – however inadequate it may be – interests you then you really ought to try and attend to at least give St Hildas a go.

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