The standard of papers given at the St Hilda’s Mystery Weekend just seems to get higher year by year. This was the 17th St Hilda’s and the fifth I have attended, and was distinguished not only by the quality of the papers, but also by the extent to which, in general, they spoke to the theme.

Often this latter is something of a clothes-horse onto which all kinds of discussions are hung, but on this occasion there was a real concentration on masks and their place in mystery fiction. There was also a real engagement with the way in which masks are not only a literary device, but play varying essential roles in our own lives: there was an engagement with the personal. Both these directions were marked out in the Friday night after-dinner talk by Anne Perry. I do not have any notes on this (as one does not take a notebook to the dinner-table!), but her comments were highly pertinent to the theme rather than being, as is more usual for the after-dinner talks, a more generalised entertainment. Perry spoke about how mystery writing is concerned with peeling away masks, masks which everyone wears – both social and psychological: this process can be painful but also joyous.

Before proceeding to the meat of the weekend it is worth recording that one notable event which enlivened proceedings was the Birthday Celebration for P.D. James, who attended Saturday lunch and was presented with flowers and a gift, as well as receiving a standing ovation. These events were filmed for American television by CBS but I do not know if the results will ever be shown in the UK.

The weekend was expertly chaired by Andrew Taylor. My usual caveat about the following being personal notes not accurate reporting applies.

Saturday AM


Natasha Cooper – Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Everyone enjoys enemies to hate – ‘we’ are the good’, ‘they’ the bad. But is this a way of projecting the parts of our own psyche which we dislike onto other people? And when this hate projection is deep-rooted does it explain the graphic violence in some recent mystery fiction? Mysteries are a good vehicle for this. Not in GA because then, as Innes observed, there characters must be sketchy because one must be capable of suspecting everyone: this now no longer true and the villain can be obvious from the start. There are three basic kinds of such villain…

  1. the out-and-out monster – Hannibal Lector
  2. the seemingly innocent – often treated with less sympathy than 1 as though it is better to advertise! – in looking for villains of this kind Cooper turned to the, somewhat unlikely, source of Dick Francis who she said was a more subtle writer than he is given credit for. In Bonecrack the first obvious villain is supplemented and to some extent replaced by the hero’s father.
  3. the domestic version – the villain turns out to be a friend of the family. Here Cooper went to Minette Walters (who she said was everything she liked in mystery fiction). In The Dark Room Jinx starts book as amnesiac and suspect – is she the villain? Suspected by everyone. But halfway through the book she turns into heroine. Villain is Simon, a sexually disturbed psychopath, who poses as her friend – true wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some writers spoil villain by over-explaining – when Lector’s behaviour is explained, his function as an ‘avatar of absolute evil’ diminishes. Cooper said she did not believe in absolute evil but we may need it as a concept – not space to pursue.

Books where we identify with villain are particularly chilling classically Highsmith’s Ripley. These books do not provide satisfaction of the villain unmasked and defeated.

Walters quotes R.D.Lang at the end of The Dark Room but Cooper prefers Jungian explanation – concept of ‘infantile omnipotence’ – wholeness coming from balance of light and dark sides. Dibdin’s first book was Holmes pastiche in which it turns out (I think I got this right!) that Holmes is Moriarty – greatest investigator/greatest detective united.

[as is usual with Cooper this was a fascinating talk in which ideas and concepts spilled out too fast for my pen to keep up].

Kate Ellis – The Mask of Innocence

Kate Ellis started by considering physical masks and how in the Western tradition these are generally (though not always – surgeons mask, masked ball) sinister – associated with criminals/torturer/executioner – is this what makes us uneasy about Burkas?

She then moved to non-physical masks. Hamlet says devil hath power to assume pleasing shape. Internet offers many opportunities for identity fraud/ adopting masks – we can be different very easily on net – no wonder grooming so easy.

Ellis said she was particularly interested in murderers who present innocent face – association of beauty and goodness is deep and of course completely untrue – but still deep in psyche. Have to face fact that when attractive or motherly woman commits crime more harshly judged than male counter-part. Ellis gave a couple of examples of Victorian female killers.

The Jack-the-Ripper industry much prefers Jack to be a high-born aristo than a proletarian even if evidence suggest latter.

Fascinating how many doctors are villains [very true – see Christie!] – some RL basis – Crippen etc.

A recent RL example of mask and it slipping off Shannon Matthews case.

Christie made much use of masks of innocence – Ackroyd as unreliable narrator – Orient Express all wearing masks. It is duty of mystery writer to create characters who wear masks. In GA one mask was that of servant – egs: Death in the Clouds and Gaudy Night – obvious element of class prejudice – servants not thought intellectually or emotionally capable – not worthy of notice. Tey’s Franchise Affair classic example of fake mask of innocence.


I asked about current mania for villains self-explanation/self-justification: NC said first time she read it very impressed but now it is a ‘cliché’ – law of diminishing returns – and those dreaded italics! Goes together with serial-killers with whom she is really tired but publishers love/insist on them because see as ‘current’.

Does knowing more about villains lessen impact? NC said we are now too psychologically aware for Moriarty – someone asked about new Sherlock Holmes by way of objection [but in fact that shows the ‘new’ Moriarty as very clearly psychologically unbalanced – he is not at all like the original, not some remote criminal mastermind]

[I think it is also worth saying that one does not need to have any deep psychological motive at all. Money is still the most realistic and best motive – as true for Christie – where one should as I often remark always try to ‘follow the money’ – as today. Psychological explanations may be more interesting and in best hands can be superb – but in any but the best often become either boring or ridiculous and lesser writers probably advised to stick with dear old financial gain].

Session 2

Anthea Fraser – The Divided Self

Everyone wears a mask and for all sorts of reasons. Peter Sellars refused to appear on Parkinson unless he could do so in character. Masks crucial mysteries. We adopt personas all the time – think of different ways in which we might convey same news to different people (business/acquaintance/close friend). Some/most masks we can put aside. Extreme cases of being unable to do so form Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – usually the result of severe childhood abuse – child simply ‘leaves’ to avoid/repress horror and creates new personality – pre-19thC such people supposed to be possessed – mid 20thC two famous US cases bought whole phenomenon to light. First the ‘Three Faces of Eve‘ which was filmed 1957  with Joanne Woodward as Eve, and secondly Sybil a 1973 book by the journalist Flora Schreiber, which was filmed in 1976 with Sally Field.

Fraser gave really excellent accounts of both cases, but I have decided against reproducing them here (details can easily be found on Wikipedia or other net sources). She did stress that there has been scepticism about both cases, though her personal view was that she was more sceptical about Eve, because she found it hard to see that the childhood traumas involved (being made to kiss her dead grandmother and sibling jealousy) could have had such a dramatic psychological effect (Sybil on the other hand certainly was the victim of appalling childhood abuse). It is also true that before Sybil there had only been 70 or so recorded cases in the US, whereas after it there have been 40,000. It has been suggested that some therapists can bring on the personalities.

In the other direction the psychologist William MacDougall has suggested that everyone has a number of personalities of whom the ‘I’ is only one [hardly revolutionary I would have thought given Freud’s tripartite division of identity].

Peter Lovesey – Undercover Author

This paper was more of a personal entertainment – which was probably needed after the intellectual weight of the previous three. Lovesey remarked that his name was unfortunate for a mystery writer – would have been better suited for romance or erotica. He observed that research is always an extra for the writer – storytelling is what matters. Luck plays a crucial role in career – a book of his about the Moscow Olympics was made into a film and then never released because of the US boycott.


Someone asked if you could use multiple personalities (to the number of Sybil’s over 20 say) in fiction? Reply was probably not as too fantastic.

A brilliant question was then asked as to whether novels themselves are representative of multi-personality disorder? (AF said she thought not) Are all characters different parts of author? or from another aspect are all characters in any one book a bifurcation of one character? (a theory I have not heard before – PL said he thought there might be some truth to this).

[actually these last questions were the most interesting part of this session – fascinating though Fraser’s paper was. In a sense it is a truism to say that all characters are different parts of the author – all fictional characters come from inside the author by definition. But whether this is an expression of multi-personality disorder is a different issue!].