For a crime writer, going to Oxford is a pilgrimage to a place central to the history of crime-writing, and so the offer by our British colleagues to hold a congress of AIEP there was greeted with great enthusiasm. The European train system makes Oxford convenient to anyone on the continent and Heathrow takes care of us other continents. One expects the Oxford of novelists like Michael Innes, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and even Colin Dexter to have evaporated in the harsh winds of the modern age, but there it is: 38 colleges and 6 “private halls,” each of them vital institutions of learning, some dating back to at least the 13th century.
AIEP’s host was St. Hilda’s College, founded in 1893 to further women’s education and ultimately the last Oxford college to go co-ed. Oxford is honeycombed with slow meandering rivers, and St. Hilda’s walls enclose a bank of the river Cherwell, about as wide as a suburban street and on pleasant days filled with students and tourists learning how to pole their punts. It should be simple, this gondoliering, but judging from the number of punts I saw bumping into each other or thumping into a bank, it takes a certain finesse. Punting is evidently like writing. Everyone thinks they can do it, but only a few do it well.
When we convened on August 26, we numbered about as many delegates as there are Oxford colleges and a full schedule of talks and activities had been arranged by a committee composed of Janet Laurence, Susan Moody, and Tim Heald, though the latter two insisted that all the credit should go to Janet, who cheerfully handled the hundreds of tiresome details that such a successful meeting demands. A few more like organizers like Janet and they wouldn’t have lost the empire.
Bob Cornwell also should be included in the praise for organizing such interesting and informative panels. Guests from publishing and bookselling discussed the current international landscape in crime writing, especially issues related to translation, the growth of subtitled television imports in the UK (like The Killing), and cross-border trends in crime writing. There was also a variety of individual speakers, including Forensic Physician Dr. Andrew Wilkinson, Simon Brett, publisher Christopher MacLehose, and Dame Elizabeth Neville, the second woman to be promoted to Chief Constable in the UK.
Martin Edwards, author of the blog “Do You Write Under Your Own Name?” guided delegates on a literary walking tour of Oxford, pointing out colleges and locations that figured prominently in Oxonian mysteries, ending in The Eagle and Child pub where “The Inklings” (C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others) lubricated their creativity. Delegates also visited the Pitt Rivers museum, a collection of exotica that evokes the age of pith helmets and Victorian collecting. All the props for boys’ adventure books of the 1930s are there: witch doctors’ masks, tribal spears, unusual firearms, and shrunken heads.
We were promised that the food at St. Hilda’s was “quite good,” in that understated English way, but no one expected much from it, given England’s mythic reputation for cuisine and the fact that, after all, this was college food. However, it would have been hard to find restaurants that could equal the meals we received in St. Hilda’s dining hall. Someone there has certainly learned how to cook meals for a large number of people. The food was delicious and St. Hilda’s students must gain more than the usual freshman fat.
The primary business on the agenda for AIEP was to carry out the election for president that had to be postponed due to the lack of a quorum in Toronto. The election committee made its report. Only one nominated candidate had consented to run, Emanuel Ikonomov of Bulgaria, who spoke briefly and was elected on a unanimous vote. Such worries as the president may have are now his, and though I remember my five years in the position with great affection and look upon it as one of the most fortunate honors I have ever received, I am very happy to pass the responsibilities along to Emanuel. I hope his experiences working with all of these wonderful people are as good as mine.
A venue for our next international meeting has not been set. There have been some discussions about meeting in Rasnov, Romania, concurrent with their excellent Mystery and Thriller Festival, but nothing has been set yet. Charles Den Tex of the Netherlands jokingly suggested that we simply book a cheap hotel on the Aegean and have a meeting. Why not? AIEP is the membership and gathering together is the point. We can certainly appreciate the high standards set by our British colleagues in Oxford and by our colleagues in earlier meetings without feeling we have to do better every time out.