August 26, 2011

St Hilda’s crime and mystery weekend

Hersilia Press @ 9:44 am

This year I attended the St Hilda’s conference for the second time. As last year, the papers were of excellent quality and very exciting: the theme was The Anatomy of Justice. The conference opened with Ayo Onatade who talked about her day job in the Royal Courts of Justice (which she doesn’t do enough of, but I understand it is not something you can discuss with everyone all the time!) and Val McDermid talking about how to make the law work for authors. This was followed by an interesting discussion which also included the recent rioting in London and the penalties handed out to those found guilty.

All speakers gave fascinating talks: some particularly interesting for me were Frances Fyfield’s paper which discussed unusual trials (of animals and objects) carried out in the Middle Ages, with excerpts from a documentary she did for the BBC World service (you can listen to it here), while Cath Staincliffe talked about the moral and practical difficulties involved in assisted dying – and left me with a big lump in my throat. Penny Evans discussed how women’s ‘nagging’ has been considered a provocation in some murder cases (thankfully that loophole has now been closed!) which was truly astounding.

An excellent and more detailed summary of the event is on the Shots blog. The event was a real success and I discovered more about a number of attending authors and books, including the guest of honour Professor Bernard Knight. Natasha Cooper did a brilliant job of chairing the conference and attendees were very friendly.

The conference was well organised and the speakers’ styles and topics were very diverse, giving the event a good variety of themes and approaches. The questions and discussions were thought-provoking and the environment not intimidating. I only wish there was a website for the conference and more ‘social networking’ presence which would make it easier for new people to get to know those who have been at the conference for a number of years.

Next year’s event will be held between 17 and 19 August and its theme is Stop, you’re killing me: humour in crime fiction. Contact Eileen.roberts@st-hildas.ox.ac.uk if you are interested in attending. I am already looking forward to it!

August 15, 2011

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

Hersilia Press @ 4:29 pm

A Room Swept WhiteA Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novel which despite being a work of fiction reminded me of significant real events in the recent past.

The story runs two parallel threads, one which sees TV producer Fliss Benson rising to the post of director of the company she works for, and at the same time landing her boss’ job directing a documentary about women accused of killing their babies; the other thread following the story of some of the accused women and their families.

Felicity’s boss, Laurie Nattrass, who was heavily involved in campaigning for the innocence of these women and even founded an organisation to this aim, has suddenly decided to move on to another company and leave Fliss in charge. As she starts work on the documentary, she gets to know more some of the people involved: the women, their husbands, and the paediatrician Judith Duffy who as expert witness in many of these trials seems to bear most of the responsibility for sending these women to jail.

With the second murder of one of the women it becomes clear that the two deaths are linked and Fliss also starts feeling in danger. Her work on the documentary, which she is determined to finish, will uncover strange and dark aspects of the personality of some characters as well as the culprit behind the murders.

I enjoyed the book and its “dizzingly complicated” plot and although I was expecting a different type of psychological tension I enjoyed the moral and psychological dilemmas which are more than touched upon in the book: miscarriages of justice, reliability of eye witnesses and expert witnesses, and the trauma of an innocent person not only losing a loved one but being accused of a heinous crime.

However, I found Fliss highly irritating despite the fact that she redeems herself in the end, and in common with another reviewer I was annoyed at the apparent recognition given to a scientifically discredited theory about vaccines. I did enjoy the very deep psychological insight into many characters as well as the writing style, which seems to be easily spanning between a Bridget-Jones-like single thirty-something, and a scientific report on causes of cot death. Sophie Hannah seems to be at ease with either style. Fliss’ occasional very funny comments contributed to lightening the mood from a very thoughtful topic.

The police characters are very much in the background, almost sketched, and the story isn’t as much about the investigation but it is told in the majority by the characters themselves: I found this aspect quite refreshing.

I will certainly read more of Sophie Hannah’s books.

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