Monday, May 05, 2014

Conference Call

I've just got back from the Crime Writers' Association Conference.  It's an annual event, just for published crime writers, and it's always one of my favourite events of the year.

This time it was a particular treat since we met in Guernsey, a small island  only 24 square miles in size, but one that punches well above its weight in terms of historical interest and charm.  It's one of the Channel Islands that sit between France and England; they're not part of the UK or the EU but are described as a Crown Dependency with allegiance to the British monarch and under the jurisdiction of a Bailiff appointed by the Crown.

The islands are actually nearer to France than to England but it has been firmly English (with a few brief French incursions) since they were part of the Norman estates of William the Conqueror, who invaded England in 1066.  The local patois – not widely spoken nowadays – derives from Norman French and is pronounced, I was told, like French spoken with an English accent, and many of the street names are French.

With its position almost on the corner of Europe Guernsey has, since Neanderthal times, been a center of world trade and today, since it has its own tax regime, has a huge financial sector.  Its Guernsey cows are famous for their milk and cream and the countryside is a patchwork quilt of very green fields; its capital, St Peter Port, is a quaint and delightful fishing-town with cobbled alleyways and the obligatory castle guarding the harbor.  Going there is like stepping back in time; the natives are friendly, even stopping their cars for you when you want to cross the road. 

It was the only part of the British Isles to be invaded since 1066; the occupation by the Nazis from 1940-45 is still a vivid and painful memory.

For writers, though, the most interesting of its former inhabitants was Victor Hugo, who wrote Les
Miserables in the fifteen years he spent here.  The wonderful statue that stands on a hill in St Peter Port, looking out to sea, shows him with hair and coat tails blowing in the sea-breeze, looking as if he's just about to speak to you. You can visit the house where he wrote it, still full of his belongings; it's a beautiful white  house, in a stunning position with a vista of the sea and the the other small islands and with a gorgeous garden.

The inside, however, does suggest that writers with a vivid imagination should not be entrusted with interior decor.  One of our number, as he came out afterwards, was heard to say, 'He must have been barking!'


Perhaps I too might write something as harrowing as Les Miserables if I had a bedroom like this.

We all, as usual, ate too much, drank too much and stayed up far too late, basking in the pleasure of the company of other people who  fully understand what it's like.  The other benefit was the series of lectures from distinguished experts; the topics ranged from the history of resistance of the Nazis in Guernsey  to modern-day  investigation of financial fraud.

For me, though, and I suspect many others, the most interesting talk of all was from Dr Isabel Picorel, an expert in forensic linguistics.  This was a branch of forensic science I had barely known existed and I was fascinated by its relevance to the world of crime.

One of the areas she deals in is  the comparison of confessions produced in court and statements made earlier.   One of the tell-tale signs of a constructed confession is the wholesale repetition of the same phrases.  Apparently, if a suspect is asked to give their evidence a second time, it's impossible for them (unless they have deliberately memorized it) to repeat word for word exactly what they said earlier if it's more than 24 words long. So exact repetition almost certainly means they're being stitched up!

Comparative analysis based on the frequency of word use can establish whether the same person wrote two different pieces of material; again, even if there is an attempt at imitating another person's style, it's impossible to keep it up, except in very short passages.

There is also a clear language divide between male and female writers; for example, female writers use more emotional language ( I think, I feel) and try for engagement with their correspondent in a way male writers don't.  There are many other 'tells' , though Dr Picorel did warn that as women become powerful - as head of a corporation, perhaps – their use of language becomes more male.  Powerful men, on the other hand, start using more female language – a point to ponder!

I came back feeling a real surge of inspiration and energy.  I'm looking out for all the new series that will probably appear in eighteen months time starring a forensic linguistics analyst.

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