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bodyinthegardenLast weekend I headed home to Adelaide for the inaugural Body in the Garden South Australian Crime and Garden Writers’ Festival. Only Adelaide, with its leafy streets and reputation for particularly heinous and sinister murders would think to host a festival like this. And when Adelaide hosts a festival, the city does it right. Some of the best crime and garden writers from around the world, including Barry Maitland, Ann Cleeves, Gabrielle Lord, Kate Llewellyn, Shane Maloney, Håkan Nesser, Toby Musgrave, Trisha Dixon, Richard Aitken and Charles Elliott, flew in to share the secrets of their craft and discuss their passion for all things green and deadly.

The festival was held over two days in Adelaide’s gorgeous Botanic Gardens, and best of all, it was free. (Did you hear that, Melbourne? FREE.)

There was one paid session to open the festival in Elder Hall on the Friday night, and, having made the journey over, I went along to that too.

As well as catching up with friends and family, it was a bit of an indulgence to spend the weekend wandering through the Botanic Gardens spying all the exotic plants and lolling about on the grass eating Paddle Pops and listening to the writers talk on such enticing subjects as The Philosophy of Mud, Seven Deadly Sins and The Female of the Species: Is She More Dangerous?

Unfortunately, I was among the very few ‘young’ people at the festival (and I’m being generous and defining young as under 35). I think to say, ‘well, that’s because Gen Y are too absorbed in FaceSpace and Hipstergram and Twitterbird to bother with anything so old school as a book’ is reductive. Many of us do read voraciously, and an increasing number of us are developing green thumbs and growing our own herbs and veggies too. I think part of the problem is marketing. I had a number of friends who would have loved to go, had they realised it was on. The event had a Twitter account, but hadn’t tweeted anything or followed anyone. There wasn’t a Facebook event that I could find, nor was there an Instagram account or even an official hashtag. It’s 2013. If it’s not on social media, it didn’t happen.

But then, perhaps this approach was deliberate? At one of the sessions (sponsored by the Heart Foundation) everyone in the audience was handed a little card: ‘How to recognise your heart attack’ or maybe it was how to prevent it. Either way, at 27 I hope it will be a few years yet before I need to worry too much about that. The next session was worse. It was sponsored by White Lady Funerals with the chairperson pointing out the advantages of cardboard coffins and inviting us to view a display after the session.

That’s not to say this was a nannaish event (or maybe it was and I’m just old before my time). The speakers were sprightly enough and the sessions very entertaining. I really hope the festival will be held again next year, and that there’ll be a few more young faces in the crowd.

The big advantage of a new and small-ish festival, such as this, is the intimacy of it. The writers mingle with the crowd rather than just doing their bit and disappearing. At one point I was dozing on the grass and looked over to find Trisha Dixon stretched out not three feet away. It creates a friendly ambiance you just don’t get at some of the bigger festivals, especially some interstate writers festivals where the venues are spread across the city.

Anyhoo, to give a little taste of what the writers spoke about, I’ve typed up a few notes from a few of the sessions I went to. For more info, check out the website, list of attending writers and program.

Friday Night Sesh: Burying the Body: Compost or a Crime?

Speakers: Ann Cleeves, Charles Elliott, Toby Musgrave and Håkan Nesser

Ann Cleeves and Håkan Nesser made a case for crime while Toby Musgrave and Charles Elliott represented the green thumbs. I have to admit, I’d never read any of these authors, though I’m inclined to now.

Cleeves emphasised the importance of place in fiction, especially crime fiction where writers need to research such important matters as how quickly a body will decompose in  various soils (I learned that peat will not only preserve a body, it will turn bones red). Meanwhile Nesser argued that ‘place is so important, you can’t always leave it up to nature’.

The garden writers spoke about crime in the garden. Charles Elliott had the audience in stitches with anecdotes about garden theft—it’s become so bad he’s had to fit his garden shed with a burglar alarm, which is, unfortunately regularly set off not by thieves but by bats. Toby Musgrave  talked about the thieves themselves—sweet little old ladies smuggling cuttings out of famous gardens in their handbags.

While the connection between crime and gardening my not be immediately obvious, last night’s panellists all agreed that both act as a barometer of the society that produces them. A garden, particularly the famous gardens of the past can teach us where people where travelling, what they were eating, how they spent their leisure time, even how they understood beauty. Crime fiction, meanwhile, tends to become popular in times of social unrest. People turn to crime fiction where they can put their faith in the god-like detective sent to restore order. In fact, the panellists agreed that both crime fiction and gardening can be seen as attempts to impose order on chaos.

The Female of the Species: Is She More Dangerous?

Speakers: Ann Cleeves, Trisha Dixon, Holly Kerr Forsyth, Poppy Gee and Gabrielle Lord

Gabrielle Lord pointed out that women make up just 7% of Australia’s prison population, which would seem to indicate that we are not dangerous. Poppy Gee backed her up citing that we’re often less violent, but pointed out that we can be very manipulative and strategic, and well as controlling the domestic sphere, which can make for powerful fiction as well as making women a force to be reckoned with. Tricia Dixon and Holly Kerr Forsyth spoke about the poisons available to us in our backyards and how women, being nonviolent, often use these poisons as their weapon of choice.

Moving away from criminals to those who write about them, Ann Cleeves pointed out that some of the most famous crime writers, particularly from the golden age of crime, are women.Gabrielle Lord backed this up explaining that this may be because women are often better at noticing this and this can make us strong writers.

Finally, and I can’t remember the context—perhaps a discussion about women as temptresses—but what stuck with me most from this session was when Gabrielle Lord pointed out that it is Saudi Arabia, where women are required to cover themselves from head to toe, that has the world’s highest rate of rape.

Seven Deadly Sins

Speakers: Ann Cleeves, Barry Maitland, Derek Pedley and Alastair Sarre

The discussion was not so much about the sins themselves as whether they are still relevant today and the general consensus was that they are not. Alastair Sarre suggested that we add four more: willful ignorance, a sense of entitlement, prejudice and the abuse of power. Derek Pedley agreed. While the seven deadly sins are often motivators in the true crimes he writes about, they are really just a starting point. He thought power should be added to the list, quoting John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton who famously said: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Barry Maitland said, that in his experience, real criminals rarely had such lofty motives. The true crimes he’d researched had largely been stupid, thoughtless acts. Though he also said the deadly sins left out the most important motivation: revenge. Ann Cleeves agreed. Having worked as a probation officer, she said most murderers were ‘sad and pathetic’ and not particularly interesting. Of all the sins, though, she thought lust was the truly deadly one.

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