Post Number Three Hundred brings out the big existential question. The one you ask on your deathbed . . . the one you ask after you’ve shelled out fifty bucks on eBay for an obscure 1940’s mystery that some wanker said on his blog was a “must have” and “worth the search and expense” and “like Agatha Christie on steroids” . . . It might be the question I ask after I’ve typed up Post Number Thirty Thousand or so, when I look at the first sentence (“Yes, I promised that I would say nothing more about Postern of Fate, but . . . “) and realized that, indeed, I have nothing more to say. And, considering the price of airfare, housing, meals and other expenses, it’s the question we consider at the end of a vacation. Just . . . like . . . now . . .
Me in sunnier times (nine days ago, pre-travels); note the man judging me from behind
I believe it was last November: I was scrolling through the Golden Age Detection page on Facebook when an announcement came up that now was the time to snatch up those early bird tickets to Bodies From the Library 2019. And I . . . I did just that! After three years of the most wonderful online correspondence with this band of nerdy brothers and sisters over all matters Malice Domestic, of friendships blossoming over a shared love of Sherlock Holmes and shin honkaku, it was time to make this real!!
And so I bought a ticket to the fifth iteration of this annual London conference at the British Library, where authors, experts and adoring fans gather for one all-too-brief day to talk about the world of classic mystery. Then came the sticky details, like booking a flight, finding a place to stay, and ignoring the residual anxieties that have plagued me all my life whenever I do anything out of the ordinary grind. And now that eight months of planning and worrying have culminated in an eight-day whirlwind of activity, it’s time to ask: “Was it all worth it in the end?”
And yes and yes and yes. And here are the reasons why.
REASON #1: MATES FOR LIFE
First and foremost, there was JJ. Not to embarrass the wanker, but he bestowed upon me the hospitality of a kingdom that has figured into my sensibilities since I began to read and wonder about England. And he did it all dressed like this the entire time:
When I announced I was going to England, everyone asked me, “What sights are you going to explore?” and “What plays are you going to see?” All I really wanted to do was meet some of these incredible, funny, sweet and knowledgeable folks with whom I finally got to share this quirky passion I’ve had my whole life. I’ll bet a number of you have a passion like this and perhaps have never experienced the chance to talk about it face to face with someone else.
From the very start of my trip, JJ was my entry into that longed-for experience. Lord, how we talked: walking around London that first day, having my first oat-milk latte (goes down smoothly but I’m still not sure . . . ), a fine English breakfast at Bill’s, and just . . . talking on and on about books, about ourselves, about our respective worlds, until it was finally time to part for a bit.
It made me reflect all week on this crazy, scary world of ours: on how a group of autocrats and scared nationalists keep trying to darkly etch in our borders and keep others out, while all folks want to do is get together and share the joys of their lives with each other. Yes, I know I’m being simplistic, but finally being face to face with this smart, funny guy with the Robert Adey locked room reference book soldered to his hip, I couldn’t help wondering why some people want to make the joining of people from all over the world so freaking hard.
I would spend much time this past week with JJ and the most precious people in his world doing the things we love the most: talking about mysteries . . . and eating! I next met Moira, who is every bit as fabulous as she appears, and Kate, every bit as smart, and Christine Poulson, who had just finished her latest manuscript (and I celebrated by locating a signed used copy of her first!), and Martin Edwards, the most charming encyclopedia of arcane GAD knowledge I will ever meet at a tea party Moira hosted at the Wallace Collection.
It was a great afternoon of talk and delicious gluten free morsels. Then came the bonus of hopping a bus to Charing Cross, where the gang patiently waited while I expended a lot of money on this:
Hey, folks, if The Puzzle Doctor can bring Brian Flynn back to life, and Curtis Evans can do the same with . . . every other author, then I can champion Leonard Gribble! (I only hope I like the book . . . )
More mates were found at a pre-conference dinner that I was invited to, where our charming host, Mike Linane, proved so adept to our every need that I know the only way we’re going to get a conference like this going in America is if he comes over to help. (And he has offered!!!) I met the warm and welcoming Dolores Gordon-Smith, her husband Peter, and one of her five daughters, another big Christie fan named Sue (who has almost convinced me that I have to take the sojourn to Torquay as soon as possible) along with her charming husband, the author Julius Green, who would go on to present such a fascinating talk on Christie’s plays at the conference, and the amazing John Curran, who I could sit and talk to about Christie and all things GAD for weeks on end, and who might forgive me for not being a lover of Sayers . . . well, ifI rectify that in as short a time as possible. (You’re very hard, John.)
REASON #2: BODIES FROM THE LIBRARY (AND MORE MATES)
All the people I mentioned meeting above were presenters at the fifth annual Bodies conference, made so special by its lack of pretention and the gathering of so many knowledgeable folk in one room. You don’t need a blow by blow from me because others have already done it (here’s Kate’s). I loved the conversations the most, the back and forth between two or more people, about whether classic mysteries are humdrum, about Christie and the theatre, and in a humorous finale called “Ask the Experts,” about everything and nothing. I loved the live radio play, “Sweet Death,” a loving, (almost) tongue-in-cheek rendition of a Christianna Brand inverted mystery. Most of all, after what I think had amounted to a lot of nervous worry about whether it would all go well, I loved how JJ and Daniel Curtis (of The Reader Is Warned) blew us all away with a hilarious whirlwind of information about the locked room mystery. The details are here; the joy was in their delivery.
The conference was opportunity at last for me to meet Daniel, a true charmer, the Puzzle Doctor, who proved to literally be a walking advertisement for the upcoming Flynn releases (nice tee shirt, Steve!), and Countdown John, who has just honored me by continuing a poem I forgot I had started. Read it here! Many people had to train it home right after the conference, but JJ, Daniel, John and I dined afterwards, and then JJ, John and I went to a swanky cocktail bar (I drank ginger and lime, thank you very much.)
Which one of these three is a bleeding American???
Daniel, JJ, and I would get together again, and these true gentlemen put aside their overly fanatical touchingly devoted preference for locked rooms and allowed us spend a never-to-be-forgotten evening extolling the joys of Agatha Christie. And if I managed to say anything halfway intelligent amidst my joyful clumsiness over just being with them, then one of these days you might get to hear some of what we said . . .
Members of The Overly Fanatical Touchingly Devoted Christie Fan Club
REASON #3: PLAYING RESIDENT IN LONDON
I didn’t play tourist much – not enough time, but also I stayed at my first Airbnb and felt less like a tourist than I have ever felt before. My charming cottage was in a lovely neighborhood equidistant from High Street Ken and the Gloucester Road. Mornings I would get up early and walk to have a coffee and porridge or, once or twice, heartier fare. Then I would return and perform my morning ablutions and walk endlessly to a variety of places. I also used the tube extensively, and I have to say, with only a hint of pride, that I only got off at the wrong stop twice. Figuring out your way by tube reminded me of my recent success in an escape room; obviously, I want to do both of these things many more times. I’m also rather chuffed at how well I handled the money! It all finally made a bit of sense to me, and I began to challenge myself by trying to give vendors exact change. (They were very patient with me!)
I TOOK THIS PICTURE!!!!!
London is such a fascinating metropolis, enormous, it’s true, but with so many distinct neighborhoods. I spent a lot of time at Leicester Square, walking to the Strand or manytimes to the bookshops on Charing Cross Road, where I spent all too much money on all too few books. I visited my dear friend Andy and his charming husband Laurent in the London Bridge area, dining al fresco next door to London’s kooky-looking City Hall building overlooking the Thames. I visited JJ in Balham, where he pointed out the Deco apartment complex admired by no less than Adolf Hitler. I walked through the Wallace Collection before our tea, charmed by the architecture of the house and the slightly jarring juxtaposition between the classic art, furniture, and military gear with a vistiting collection of Manolo Blahnik shoes. I visited the Tate Modern, which in retrospect might have been a mistake.
I guess there’s a limit for me regarding what constitutes modern art.
I revisited the British Library one day (the Magna Carta is there!), walked around a different sort of neighborhood, and found in Skoob’s Books a green Penguin addition of Carr’s The Dead Man’s Knock (which it turns out I have another edition of at home, but as I said to JJ, “Who cares?”). Miles and miles of walking, and still so much to see. And always having a “home away from home” to return to. I think I’ve been converted to the Airbnb lifestyle!
REASON #4: THE THEATRE
There wasn’t much time, and there wasn’t much I wanted to see. I made a sort of pilgrimage to London County Hall to see a Witness for the Prosecution in a true legal setting. The audience was gathered in these huge circles of chairs to truly witness the unfolding of Agatha Christie’s best, most successful play. With the exception of a truly puzzling performance from a young man playing the central part of Leonard Vole, the cast was magnificent. Best of all for me was listening to the people around me trying to piece it together and then, at the end, as their collective gasps proved that Christie had done it again, the chills ran down my back, even though I’ve known the ending since I was 15.
And then, after two years of nagging by friends who felt they knew me better than I know myself, I went to see The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce that’s “sort of” in the vein of Noises Off but really reminds me more of Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting. What a bonus that the play these “actors” are mangling is a classic murder mystery. It was extraordinarily funny – although the two teenaged girls sitting mutely next to me through Act One were immune to its charms. One of them pulled on her long hair for an hour, flicking it against my cheek. More violence was nearly done in that audience than all you saw on the stage, but thankfully, these fillies left at the interval. The Play is coming to San Francisco for all too brief a run, but if you can see it, you should.
Oh, and isn’t it a wondrous joy that you can eat ice cream at the British theatre?!? They really are so much more civilized than we are.
I know that it’s at the end of our adventures that we feel at our most adventurous. We’ve broken the barriers of our all too limited normal lives, gone places, seen things and done deeds that we might have never done at home. We feel different, as if we could conquer anything, including the limits we impose upon ourselves. I know expense is an issue for most of us. If it wasn’t, I tell you know that I would jump back and forth between New York and London whenever I could. Yet while the Big Apple is a haven for any theatre lover, the city formerly known as The Big Smoke is a stone’s throw from some of the loveliest people I have ever met. And so, to Dolores and Peter, to Mike, John Curran, Sue and all the folks at the conference; to Moira and Chrissie, to Martin, and to sweet Kate (yes, Moira, Kate and I got to eat far more at tea than you and Chrissie did – a triumph for gluten-free eaters everywhere); to Steve and Countdown John and Carol for being best mates in the audience while everyone else got to go up and talk about their passions (PD – I hope next year is your turn!); to Daniel, for your warmth and humor and for walking with me back to the Tube and lovingly placing me on the wrong train and then figuring I’d know how to fix that (and I did!); and to Megs and Jim for every, every, everything. Mates for life.
Oh, and one more thing: let’s call it REASON #5. The conference was over, and I had walked down the aisle and joined Moira to congratulate her on a job well done and to simply revel in the happiness of this group of hail fellows well met. A young woman walked up to us and said, “Excuse me.” I figured she was talking to Moira, but no. Her name was Chloe, and she wanted me to know that she reads my blog and enjoys it very much. I guess that moment made me realize how much I love writing this stuff for other people, not just myself. And if, a bit selfishly, I felt an enormous sense of validation for the past four years of (mostly) joyous work from this one sweet encounter, well . . . as someone recently said to me, “Just let yourself take it in.” Thank you so much, Chloe.
And so, jetlagged and temporarily off my clock, happy to have my kittens in my arms but missing my British friends, and three hundred posts into an endeavor that may slow down here or there but shows no signs of stopping, I truly believe that it was all worth it in the end. Happy Fourth, my fellow Americans. Happy Thursday, you lucky Brits!
Tomorrow: the latest from Paul Halter.