The Margery Allingham Society

Cambridge Weekend

22nd - 24th September 2006

On the walk at Coe Fen
 

The weekend of 22-24 September saw the latest convention of the Society taking place at the Arundel House Hotel in Cambridge. It was raining steadily on the Friday morning, which led us to fear the worst for our walk on the Saturday, but fortunately the rest of the weekend was dry. We were most comfortably accommodated and very well fed by the hotel. The conference itself proved admirable and we were able to proceed without interruptions or undue awareness of others (which was certainly not the case at Danbury and Writtle).

We assembled for the first time at dinner on the Friday but there was no official programme that evening. We got properly under way on the Saturday morning with a symposium devoted to crime fiction set in Cambridge. For this, of course, Police at the Funeral was the springboard. This novel, 75 this year, remains one of Margery's finest achievements and it s certainly one of the best of the Cambridge mysteries.

Catherine Cooke
Catherine Cooke

Catherine Cooke got us off to a rousing start with a most entertaining and informative talk on Sherlock Holmes in Cambridge. She guided us expertly through the maze of Holmesian scholarship but was unable to assert beyond question that Holmes was a Cambridge (or indeed an Oxford) man. The debate continues and the point may never be decided: what is established beyond doubt is that Holmes found Cambridge an inhospitable place.

That Margery Allingham agreed with Holmes is clear from Police at the Funeral, as the Chairman demonstrated in his survey of the novel, which approached it specifically as a Cambridge mystery. Barry Pike went on to talk briefly about three other Golden Age mysteries set in Cambridge (T H White's Darkness at Pemberley. Q Patrick's Murder in Cambridge and F J Whaley's Trouble in College) before giving a more extended account of The Cambridge Murders by Dilwyn Rees, aka Glyn Daniel. His admiration for this complex piece of work is not however shared by two of the conference delegates: Margaret Cone finds it stodgy and Pamela Bruxner had trouble getting through it!

Chris Simpson
Chris Simpson

Christine Simpson talked about Death's Bright Dart by V C Clinton Baddeley, on whom she has done much original research (vide her article in the current (50th) issue of Geoff Bradley's magazine CADS). She conveyed admirably the charm of Clinton-Baddeley's writing and the exceptional likeability of his protagonist, Dr R V Davie, who must be one of the most endearing detectives ever created. Her talk was illustrated by Seona Ford with computer graphics of Jesus College, the original of Dr Davie's St Nicholas's.

Richard Cheffins
Richard Cheffins

Richard Cheffins shared with us his delight in the mysteries of Ruth Dudley Edwards, which appear to have become even more enjoyable with the debut as a second series character of Baroness Troutbeck, known to her chums as Jack. Robert Amiss preceded her and is present throughout, but Jack Troutbeck is more emphatically a ‘character', in the line of Sir Henry Merrivale and akin to The Hon. Con. Richard read us the opening pages of Matricide at St Martha's, which were much enjoyed. They establish the Baroness as a free spirit with her own way of doing things. B J Rahn, who is also a fan of this series, recalled from it an original murder weapon, a set of library steps from which the brake has been removed, so that its occupant sails to her death through a window.

B J was also our next speaker. After the coffee break she introduced us in Deborah Crombie's Dreaming of the Bones, a multi-layered novel set partly in Rupert Brooke's Grantchester, in which events from three distinct times interlock to form a pattern. B J greatly admires this hook, considering it exceptional, and she gave us a most impressive account of it, bearing scrupulously in mind the Chairman's injunction that she must not reveal the solution to the mystery!

Jill Paton Walsh
Jill Paton Walsh
Michelle Spring
Michelle Spring

The morning ended with our two guest speakers, Michelle Spring and Jill Paton Walsh. both known to many of us not only through their books but also through earlier encounters at Allingham and Sayers Society events, Michelle went first and proved, to quote Jill when she had finished, a hard act to follow. She spoke most engagingly about the importance of place in mystery fiction and, more specifically, about her life in Cambridge and the ways in which she uses the city in her Laura Principal novels. Jill, too, delighted her audience with her talk about Imogen Quy and how she had come into being. It seems that Imogen passes the ultimate test for a fictional character, in that actual college nurses recognise the truth of how she is presented.

Sarum House
Sarum House
Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the railway station and a walk around Cambridge conducted in his inimitable style by Richard Cheffins, who gave us very good value, guiding us through no fewer than fifteen Allingham locations, beginning with Sarum House in Station Road where Margery was a boarder during her five terms at the Perse School, and ending at Trinity College. which must nearly approximates among Cambridge colleges to St Ignatius. Richard also produced a comprehensive map with an invaluable inset from the Ordnance Survey of 1925. showing the Coe Fen area before the Fen Causeway bridge was built.

After dinner we convened again for a showing of the BBC TV version of Flowers for the Judge. which is 70 this year. Despite a certain coarsening (notably in the treatment of Miss Curley, who becomes sour and snappy), this adaptation gives a very clear view of the novel and presents its complications with considerable skill. Certainly it held its audience on this occasion. Robert Lang as John and Barrie Ingham as Ritchie were notable and the cast generally did an excellent job.

On Sunday there were two further talks, one by B J Rahn on the Maxwell March novel The Shadow in the House, also 70 this year, and one by the Chairman on the illustrations to Margery Allingham's stories in newspapers and magazines.

BJ Rahn
BJ Rahn
Barry Pike, Chairman
Barry Pike

B J gave us a vivid account of the last, and perhaps the best, of the three March books, a full-scale Gothic novel that meets all the criteria of the classic form and yet, by intelligent subversion of the formula, contrives to be original. Her delight in the novel was evident and she undoubtedly conveyed it to her audience. The Chairman's survey of the artists who illustrated Margery's stories was much enhanced by the illustrations themselves, presented in a seamless stream by Seona Ford with her computer.

After lunch we went our separate ways, having had a most enjoyable weekend. Thanks are due to all who contributed, not least to our guests Michelle and Jill. It was a particular pleasure, too, to welcome Barbara Reynolds, doyenne of the Dorothy L Sayers Society, and John Rowe Townsend, Jill's fellow writer and husband. Both Michelle and Jill have books imminent. Michelle's next Laura Principal novel, The Night Lawyer, will be published before Christmas, and Jill's fourth Imogen Quy story, The Bad Quarto, will appear early next year.

Report © Barry Pike
Photos © Lesley Simpson

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