Sunday AM

Conference Lecture

Simon Brett – The Conman in Crime

Simon Brett, who was also the 2010 Guest of Honour, said the link to the Conference theme was that conmen hide behind the mask of credibility. They thrive on human greed.

Where to start? Well first great conman Satan in Garden of Eve – who adopts a mask (the serpent). But the conman is protean and changes shape with times and modes of living. After Bible the other Desert Island prescribed book – Shakespeare. Lear alone is full of conmen. And 16thC was great age of conmen – books were dedicated to the many cons going the rounds – pretend madmen called themselves ‘poor toms’ – hence Edgar in Lear. Brett gave some highly amusing mini-dramatisations of 16thC cons.

Conmen play on basic human desires – for money, status, sex. Using sex as a weapon in cons is common and takes many forms. Jonson features a whole gallery of conmen and dupes – one amusing example which predates feng-shui!

Many cons involve adopting other personas – identity fraud – classic crime example Highsmith’s Ripley.

Best cons make mark complicit so no possibility of legal comeback.

Among contemporary writers Donald E. Westlake (who wrote screenplay for The Grifters) a master of con based crime.

Brett noted how penis enlargement spam mail direct descendant of alchemy/snake oil: perfect con – home in on an area of anxiety which no-one will ever challenge when product fails because too embarrassing to do so.

Brett finished by reading an excerpt from one of his own books about an incredibly credulous dupe which was very funny.

[There wasn’t much time for questions but I did raise the example of Watson’s Lonelyheart4122 which made brilliant use of having 2 – or 3 – conmen and women conning each other – a brilliant extension of the sub-genre. Brett agreed and said that a problem with the sub-genre was that there were a limited number of cons – demonstrated by the way the television series Hustle had run out of steam. This is quite true. Actually I think further discussion of Hustle would have been interesting because there the conmen are very much the heroes. Indeed thinking about it would it be true that conmen do not tend to be portrayed very negatively? Is there not usually some sort of Robin Hood element? This is mythic – because in fact it is generally the poor and vulnerable who are conned and there is every encouragement to do it – after all what is the Lottery but a giant con? – but still satisfying. Probably it wasn’t to be expected that the more serious sides of the question should be explored, and Brett is so entertaining that one wants him to play to his strengths, but this is an area which could be fruitfully explored at another time]

Sunday PM – Session 5

Joanna Hines – Don’t Take It Off

Hines began by asking us to imagine a world without masks – frightening if people could see us as we really are.

Why are masks so important? du Maurier wrote a story called The Blue Lenses about a woman who is given a pair of lenses which makes her see everyone with an appropriate animal’s head – including husband as vulture and her favourite nurse as snake; when the woman is given normal lenses she sees everyone else as normal but herself as doe : the essential point is that she still prefers the illusion even if she is to be killed.

We want illusion even if we know it be untrue.

The most extreme example of mask as safety-net is in Handel’s Semele and the story of Jupiter and Semele – where Semele demands (at the instigation of the scheming Juno) that Jupiter reveal himself as he really is – when he does this Semele dies (because a mortal cannot behold a God unmasked) – very extreme example of mask as safety-net (and also of male ego story Hines remarked: she said she had pondered whether it would be possible to adapt this story for a modern crime novel and concluded it would not!).

But we need masks. Hines talked of own experience in Florence in late 60’s where there was a seemingly American young man who turned out to be an Italian who had adopted this identity to avoid conscription; but she and friends still wanted to believe in inauthentic Steve rather than authentic Giuseppe. Man in The Iron Mask – one theory was that it was Louis XIV himself and he had child who was smuggled out to Corsica where he became grandfather of Napoleon (this was invented by Bonapartists!). A more likely theory is that it was Louis’ real father who then would not in fact be Louis XIII (this story is given credence by the rather peculiar circumstances of LXIV’s conception).

A brilliant work on this subject is Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Woman Who Pretended to be Who She Was’. Mask as means of becoming – mask gives us space to be what we are – opposite of Jung’s idea of individuation and stripping off masks to become ‘oneself’ [Hines was referring back to Natasha Cooper’s early talk – see my Part 1 and Session 1]. With masks we can be bolder and more direct than otherwise. We assume that masquerades lie but in fact they build us up.

Of course there are harmful masks but many are helpful, positive and life-affirming.

Gillian Linscott (aka Caro Peacock) – Also Known As : Why Authors Change Their Name

Linscott began by telling how when she was on a train to first Caro Peacock signing she realised she had no Caro Peacock signature! Names matter – power of incantation – who I am – identity as oneself [who am I nameless? Tom Bombadil etc.]. Creasey wrote over 600 books under over 20 names! Which led her to first of reasons for changing name….

  1. Too prolific. Mainly in past. Public like to think that writers make some effort now so this is unlikely to happen in a Creasey type way today.
  2. ‘My other job is’ – examples Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery (composer): Nicholas Blake/ Cecil Day-Lewis : John le Carre/David Cornwell (MI5 operative) – Linscott noted this last has changed to-day and Stella Rimington writes under own name: Edgar Box/Gore Vidal (self-appointed all round genius) [actually I think this is a sub-category – pretentious git who somewhat wants to disown their mystery efforts].
  3. Not to confuse the reader. Most famous example is of course Westmancott/Christie, but others include Pargeter/Peters, Vine/Rendell. There is also Hill/Ruell/Underwood. Linscott said she had written to Hill and he had explained that at his start he was very prolific. His first two DandPs were accepted by one publisher and his standalone thriller by another, hence different names on publisher’s/agent’s advice – now of course all reprinted as Reginald Hill! Linscott said that at first she was advised not to let on she was Caro Peacock and had strange photos taken – big problem was coming up with a realistic but different bio! She said she was mightily relieved to be ‘outed’ on a website within 48 hours. Suspects this category is mainly a publisher’s thing.
  4. So as not to embarrass people (including oneself – lot of crime writers may have attempted romance/erotica sometimes very successfully) – Kate Charles invented name so her RL vicar would not be embarrassed (he was worried)
  5. The Gods of the Amazon/EPOS ratings – booksellers/agents /publishers take seriously – if your last series does not have high enough rating then author is looked at askance [EPOS – Electronic Point of Sale – publishers can now track book’s sales precisely] – this was Linscott’s own reason – to ‘have another go in the lottery’ as he put it.

Linscott ended with a few thoughts on that great author Anon and a pleasing anecdote about Scott [who of course tried to keep idenity as author of Waverley a secret for a time].


Other very practical reasons for changing ones name were given….

  • very long name
  • very common name
  • name same as someone else’s
  • position in alphabet – place you get on bookshop’s shelves

GL said that she enjoyed freedom of new identity as a kind of holiday.

In past female writers forced to adopt male names – George Eliot – and many female painters too (some we still not know of)

Do readers actually prefer writers to use different names for different types of fiction?

[This was actually a rather disappointing question session for one minor and one major reason. The minor is that I would have liked to have had a further explanation from GL about her own change – I accept the reason, but it is surely obvious to anyone that the Peacock books, whatever their qualities which are far from negligible, are not of the quality of the Nell Bray books, which I still rank as the best historical series of all, and which had a very long way to run when it was prematurely ended. I can see why the Peacock books would be a kind of holiday, but it is still tragic that the Bray series has ended. So I would have liked to go into this in more detail and had a more detailed discussion of the role publishers play.

However the major reason for the disappointment was that every question was on GL’s paper. I contributed to this by asking a question about ‘family names’ and whether these were a help or hindrance – the Kellermans – so certainly bear some personal blame. But it meant there was no discussion of Hines’ paper which was one of the best and most thought-provoking of the weekend. I am very supportive of her thesis as to the beneficial uses of masks and agree whole-heartedly with her position in opposition to Jung. Indeed I would go further because I am deeply sceptical as to the existence of an ‘I’ in the sense in which people talk of the ‘real’ person as though there were some irreducible central personality which is covered by all our masks, and which it would be ‘healthy’ to uncover. It would not. Far better a pleasant mask. A discussion of Hines’ paper could have started to lead us into some of these fascinating areas and it was a shame that all the questions were on the, admittedly pleasing and well-argued but less profound, other paper.]

St Hilda’s 2011

The 2011 St Hilda’s will be on the weekend of 19th-21st August on the theme of ‘The Anatomy of Justice’.

Make a note in your diary now – if it is even half as good as 2010 it will be well worth attending!