Captivating Criminality Conference 2017

Thanks to fellow blogger and online friend Elena (whom some of you may know as @ms_adler on Twitter), I heard about the Captivating Criminality Network at Bath Spa University (in collaboration with Gdansk University in Poland. When I heard about the 2017 conference taking place on 29th June to 1st July, I was determined to attend for at least half a day. So I drove to the chi-chi Wiltshire village of Corsham on Saturday 1st July and entered the dreamy grounds of Corsham Court, where the conference was taking place. At first, I was expecting Darcy to emerge from the local pond…

Then I was intrigued by the plaintive calls from the true masters of the gardens…

But once I found my way inside The Barn, I attended some fantastic talks. I won’t give an in-depth account, but it is so refreshing to see academia engaging seriously (but not pretentiously) with crime fiction from so many different countries. These were scholars (and audiences) who really enjoyed their reading and analysis, and were experimenting with new ideas and interpretations.

You can find the full programme of the conference here.

The first panel I attended was on Newer Developments in Hard-Boiled Fiction. Arco van Ieperen from the University of Elblag in Poland compared Robert Parker’s Spenser and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, and how both of these authors changed and adapted the Chandleresque hard-boiled detective series. Both of them, for instance, evolve violent sidekicks who leave the hero free to have emotions and face ethical dilemmas. Both Spenser and Bolitar are much more respectful of women and have a grudging acceptance of political correctness. Ilse Schrynemakers from City University of New York gave a fascinating paper demonstrating how Ross Macdonald’s dysfunctional families mirrored the fears of a world living in the shadow of nuclear war. She argued convincingly how the obsessive insistence on ‘truth’ and ‘confession’ in the McCarthy era is reflected in Macdonald’s novels, albeit with a darker current. Uncovering the truth and getting the criminal to confess does not lead to remorse or redemption, but is indeed a journey from darkness to darkness.

The second panel was on one of my favourite topics: crime fiction in different geographical locations. We took a trip through Ireland, France, China and Mexico.  Jennifer Schnabel from Ohio State University talked about undercover cops in Tana French’s novels, while Eoin McCarney from Dublin City University made a very powerful comparison between Ireland and Mexico, between bog bodies and bodies dumped in the desert. Both bogs and deserts exist outside the law, outside space and time almost. Finally, Annemarie Lopez from Macquarie University in Australia used psychogeography and Jules Dassin’s Naked City to discuss urban noir. She mentioned two of my favourite authors and the rapidly changing cities they depict: Jean-Claude Izzo and Marseille,  Qiu Xiaolong and Shanghai.

The last talk I was able to attend was Professor Mary Evans from LSE (whose work on gender had been required reading on my anthropology course many years ago). In calm, measured tones, she talked about our eternal fear of loners, of people who seem to be content to be alone, and those who are desperate to belong, to fit in. She based her examples on the Stockholm trilogy by Jens Lapidus, so I found myself adding yet again to my TBR list. Being alone is an essential feature of both criminals and the detectives chasing them, yet there is a crucial difference between being alone and loneliness.

I was reminded once more how fun it is to debate ideas, methodologies and interpretations, and how much I miss these kinds of passionate academic discussions which probably sound over-specialised to others (although crime fiction festivals are a good substitute). I came away brimming with new names, new recommended titles and, above all, new ways of thinking about things. Learning as long as you live, being open to questions, trying out new things: isn’t that what life is all about?

Goodbye, Corsham Court, hope to see you again next year!