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2. Crippen Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the second episode of Shedunnit.

Caroline: A classic murder mystery is a closed circle. It’s why settings like trains, islands and country houses are so popular in the detective stories of the 1920s and 30s. They naturally limit and contain the potential suspects.

In these stories, murder is often a family affair. Whereas the penny dreadfuls of the 19th century gloried in the seemingly-random attacks of killers like Jack the Ripper, early 20th century whodunnits keep their crimes close to home. Spouses, siblings, children, servants, friends, neighbours are all suspects, and the murderer frequently turns out to be someone the victim knew well.

There’s a good reason for this. The detective writers of this period weren’t working a vacuum. They took a keen interest in the crimes of their time, often weaving elements from actual murder cases into their plots or even referencing them directly. And there was one case, a murder both infamous and domestic, that interested the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley more than any other.

This real life murder mystery has everything: a body hidden in the cellar, adultery, a transatlantic steamship pursuit, cross dressing, and a pleasingly ambiguous ending. It captivated the detective writers of the golden age, and did a great deal to shape the genre as we know it today.

This is the story of Dr Crippen.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


It all started simply enough. On 30 June 1910, a detective named Walter Dew was called to his boss’s office to consult on a possible case. Superintendent Froest was meeting with two of his own acquaintances, the theatre manager John Nash and his wife Lil Hawthorne, an American music hall singer. They had come in to Scotland Yard to voice their concerns about a friend of theirs named Cora Crippen, who like Hawthorne was a member of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild. Mrs Crippen, who had also been a music hall performer under the name ‘Belle Elmore’, had apparently left England for America suddenly on 2 February and died there on 23 March.

Yet her friends were confused about what had really happened: several bank cheques bearing her signature had been cashed in London after her departure, and her husband, an American homeopath and dentist called Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, had been vague on the details of how or where she had died. Nash and Hawthorne had made some enquiries of their own, and had not been able to find Mrs Crippen on the passenger list of any recent ship sailing for America. They were baffled and a bit frightened. At this point, Dew didn’t doubt for a second that there was a mundane explanation for Mrs Crippen’s disappearance, but he agreed that “the whole circumstances were mysterious” and said he would look into the matter for them.

By the time this case came along, Walter Dew was a seasoned detective of 47. He had already had one brush with a notorious killer, when he was stationed in Whitechapel, east London, in the 1880s during the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Dew later wrote in his autobiography that it was his ‘dream as a young detective one day to stand in the witness box and give evidence against Jack the Ripper’, but he never did. To this day, those murders remain unsolved. Perhaps that’s why he put so much energy into investigating Cora Crippen’s disappearance, even though it appeared at first to be just a run-of-the-mill missing persons case. He said later that “his experience had taught him it was better to be sure than sorry”.

Over the next few days, Dew spoke to Cora’s friends and fellow Guild members. He quickly uncovered contradictions between what they had been told about her departure from England and subsequent death. For instance: Doctor Crippen had told people that his wife had travelled to America to visit his family and take care of some legal business for him. However, when Dew got in touch with Crippen’s son Otto, the product of a previous marriage, in Los Angeles, he told Dew via telegram that he had known nothing about Cora’s visit or her death. It wasn’t until his father wrote to him to say he had ‘accidentally’ told people his new wife had died in LA, that he had heard about it at all. There was also no record of her death with US authorities.

By 8 July, Dew was convinced that he needed to interview Doctor Crippen. Accompanied by a sergeant, he went to the Crippens’ house in Camden Town, north London. There he met a woman named Ethel Le Neve, who he subsequently learned was Crippen’s secretary and mistress. She took the detectives to Crippen’s office on New Oxford Street, where he worked at “Yale Tooth Specialists”.

Upon Dew’s arrival, Crippen immediately confessed that he had lied about his wife’s death, saying that ‘as far I know she is still alive’. Over the next six hours, in between tooth pulling appointments, he gave a lengthy statement to the police officers in which he claimed that Cora had left him for a music hall performer called Bruce Miller, and had probably gone to Chicago to be with him.

Dew wasn’t completely satisfied with this statement, which still contained troubling inconsistencies, but he saw no need to arrest Crippen yet. With the doctor’s cooperation, they returned to his house in Camden and conducted a full search, finding nothing of interest. The detectives left, saying they would still need to track down Mrs Crippen in order to consider the matter resolved. Her description was circulated over the next few days to no avail, and on 11 July Dew searched Crippen’s house again. This time, he found a loaded revolver, and also received the news that Crippen and Le Neve had left home the day after their first interview and had not been seen since. This, Dew felt, changed everything. “The manner of his going pointed to guilt,” he later wrote.

Two days later, Dew went back to the Camden house again with the intention to investigate the cellar more thoroughly. He couldn’t say why, just that a “sixth sense” told him it was important. And so it proved: after prodding the floor with a poker for a while, he and his sergeant lifted up the bricks, dug through the clay underneath and found the remains of a human torso. The head, hands and feet of the body were missing. It was partially decomposed. After a few days of medical examination and gathering further evidence, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Hawley Harvey Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on suspicion of the wilful murder and mutilation of Cora Crippen.

The case was already causing a press sensation. There was public outrage that Doctor Crippen had been free — the then home secretary Winston Churchill was asked in parliament whether the police were to blame for his escape. Scotland Yard pointed out that until the remains had been discovered, the case of Cora Crippen had been a completely ordinary missing persons matter, but this didn’t stop the newspapers filling column inches with speculation and criticism. There were false Crippen sightings all over the country, even though the man himself, minus his distinctive moustache, was already out of the country by the time his Camden cellar had been dug up.

Even as the police were combing Britain for him, Crippen signed the register at a hotel in Brussels as ‘John Robinson’, a merchant from Canada. Le Neve wore boys clothes and pretended to be his sick son. They boarded a steamer called the Montrose at Antwerp on 20 July and set sail for Canada.

The ship’s captain Henry Kendall had been given a briefing about the fugitives before leaving London, but did not recognise them as they boarded. However, during the stop in the Netherlands, he had bought a copy of the Daily Mail newspaper which contained photographs of both Crippen and Le Neve. Over the next couple of days, various conversations that Kendall had with the “Robinsons” convinced him that they were not who they claimed to be.

This is where the story takes an electrifying twist. Kendall took a very unusual decision for the time to use the Marconi wireless telegraph device on board to send word of his suspicions back to Britain. The Liverpool police alerted Walter Dew, who rushed to grab a berth on a faster steamer in the hope that he could overtake Crippen mid-Atlantic. Once he was on board, there was nothing to do but wait and hope that Crippen didn’t realise there was any danger. The newspapers were full of this slow motion chase at sea, a whole nation waiting with baited breath for the dramatic reveal.

Thanks to the telegraph, Dew made it to Canada first and was able to board Crippen’s steamer before made port, accompanied by the local police. They arrested Crippen and Le Neve on board, the first such capture to be made because of wireless telegraphy. Without that technology, the suspects would have reached Canada safely and presumably vanished into new identities in north America. To avoid the media furore that had erupted all around them, Dew and his handcuffed companions had to board a return steamer under false names. During the voyage, Crippen was reportedly calm and did not mention his wife at all.

On 18 October, he went on trial for the murder of his wife at the Old Bailey in London. Reportedly, his first words to his defence lawyer were “My first anxiety is for Miss Le Neve. . . I would sacrifice myself to save her.” Apart from a brief glimpse on the train from Liverpool to London, the pair had not seen or spoken to each other since their arrest. Le Neve was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and tried separately to Crippen.

A huge crowd gathered outside the court, and a record 4,000 people applied for tickets to sit in the public gallery for the trial. The media frenzy continued unabated: Crippen was offered huge sums for his life story, and a fee of £1,000 a week for a live tour if he was acquitted, while Ethel Le Neve was promised £200 a week to perform in a music hall sketch titled “Caught By Wireless”. The waxwork museum Madame Tussauds had already completed a likeness of Crippen before the trial even began, which was a star exhibit of their “chamber of horrors” for much of the twentieth century.

Both Crippen and Le Neve pleaded not guilty. The trial was sensational for a number of reasons, chief among them the focus on medical evidence. Crippen was shown a fragment of his wife’s skin on a soup plate, and asked whether a mark on it was the same as a scar on his wife’s abdomen. He apparently showed no alarm at this, and peered at the specimen with interest. A pathologist called Bernard Spillsbury gave evidence as an expert witness for the prosecution and made the case that the scar positively identified the body as that of Cora Crippen. This was disputed by the defence, but Spillsbury made a big impression on the jury and the public. He went on to have a career as a proto forensics expert, and informed similar medical characters in detective stories like that of the chemical analyst James Lubbock in a number of Dorothy L Sayers novels.

Throughout it all, Crippen remained calm. He never referred to Cora by name during the trial, calling her just ‘the woman’. His defence rested on the lack of direct evidence that he had actually murdered her — purchasing a lot of the drug hyoscine before her death and then travelling to Canada under a false name did not actually prove that he had done the deed, his lawyers said. And what was his motive? If he had wanted to leave his wife to live with Ethel Le Neve, he could easily have done so. But after just 27 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty”.

Crippen continued to maintain his innocence, and mounted an unsuccessful appeal on the grounds that the identity of the body in the cellar had not been established beyond doubt. He kept up his facade right until the end, when he was hanged in Pentonville prison at 9am on 23 November. He made no final confession, wanting only to know at the end that Le Neve’s innocence had been established and that she was well. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison grounds.

Crippen the man was gone, but his legend remained alive. This diminutive, mild-mannered, middle aged murderer fascinated the world. The self-contained, domestic nature of his crime thrilled people — if he was indeed guilty, he had gone on living in that house in Camden with his mistress for months, in the full knowledge that his wife’s torso was decomposing beneath the cellar floor. If Walter Dew hadn’t come knocking, how long would he have remained there? His was a private, near-invisible crime that took place behind closed doors. Who knew what else was happening in similar homes up and down the land?

In 1946, George Orwell published an essay titled “The Decline of English Murder”, in which he named the Crippen case as one of a handful of murders that represent “Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period”, which he puts as between 1850 and 1925. Most of the incidents he names are domestic or even marital killings, and many of them are poisonings. There seems to be something essentially English and captivating about such a crime, he suggests. It’s decorous, private and even overtly sexual — in keeping with Britain’s contradictory obsession with keeping up appearances in person while devouring the details of each other’s private lives in the newspapers.

The influence of this case on the crime fiction of the time was huge. Just dropping in the name “Crippen” became enough to evoke the idea of a seemingly tender-hearted husband with hidden depths of depravity. It appears in Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Three Act Tragedy during a discussion of male inferiority complexes, and in Anthony Berkeley’s 1926 story The Wychford Poisoning Case as a shorthand for marital discord. “I’ve always felt sorry for Crippen,” says Berkeley’s detective Roger Sheringham. “If ever a woman deserved murdering, it was Cora Crippen.” Think about how common husband-wife murder is in books of this time, and how often the idea of secretly burying a body beneath the floor comes up. For both the writers and readers of the time, this would have been a clear reference to the infamous real life case that had all of these aspects.

Its influence was long lasting, too. Christie specifically drew on the case in her 1952 novel Mrs McGinty’s Dead, in which there is a subplot involving Eva Kane, a woman who had been an “Ethel Le Neve” — that is the lover of a man who murdered his wife and buried her in the cellar so they could be together. Berkeley’s 1931 novel Malice Aforethought also brings in elements of the Crippen story, when an apparently respectable doctor poisons his wife so he can marry a younger woman. Interestingly, this book is actually an inversion of the usual detective story structure, because you find out who the murderer at the very beginning, meaning that the rest of story is about getting into the mind of the killer as he unfolds the tale. It’s more of a “howdunnit” than a “whodunnit”.

This choice to emphasise Crippen’s side of the story reflected Berkeley’s own interest in the original case. In The Golden Age of Murder, a book about the writers of this time, Martin Edwards suggests that different writers had different sympathies in the Crippen story, and wrote their own versions accordingly. Berkeley, unhappily married himself, saw something of himself in Crippen, the husband who snapped. He returned several times to domestic poisoning plots with marital unhappiness in the background. Sayers, meanwhile, was drawn to Ethel Le Neve’s capacity for self-delusion and deception — after all, Sayers herself spent much of her life pretending that her son John Anthony, the product of an affair with a married man, was actually her nephew. Christie, meanwhile, who had had her own experiences of adultery and being discarded for “the other woman”, was convinced that Le Neve was in on it all along, and only acquitted thanks to her stellar courtroom performance. “I’ve always wondered if Ethel Le Neve was in it with him or not,” the character of Miss Letheran muses in the Poirot short story “The Lernean Hydra”.

Everybody had their own take on the Crippen case. For J.J. Connington (the pseudonym of the chemist Alfred Walter Stewart), the prosecution’s heavy reliance on medical evidence was the part that inspired him. Although less well known today, he was a favourite detective author of both TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers. His 1928 novel The Case with Nine Solutions borrows the theory that Crippen had used the hyoscine as a kind of “date rape” drug to sedate his wife while he spent the evening with Ethel Le Neve, got the dosage wrong and then dismembered her body afterwards to try and conceal his error. Cecil Mercer had been a junior barrister during the trial, and was caught by the fact that the body found in Crippen’s cellar had been partially coated lime, presumably as an attempt to speed up decomposition, which it would have done if it was dry. Because it was wet, the lime solidified like concrete, helping to preserve the remains and thereby aid the prosecution. Mercer borrowed this fact for his 1945 novel The House That Berry Built, one of many he published under the pseudonym Dornford Yates.

The real life sleuth Walter Dew retired from Scotland Yard at the of 1910 — Crippen was his last big arrest. He had become a household name thanks to the notoriety of the case and his chase across the Atlantic, so it would probably have been difficult for him to continue as a plain clothes officer. He was renowned for the rest of his life as “the man who caught Crippen”, and carved out a profitable career as a media pundit on crime. In 1926, when Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days and there was a nationwide search for her, the Daily Express newspaper consulted Dew in case his famous “sixth sense” give him clues about where she was. Unfortunately, he had no idea.

There have been numerous direct fictional retellings of the case, too, from Catherine Meadows’ 1934 Henbane to Martin Edwards’ 2008 Dancing for the Hangman. One of the many reasons the case has always held such attraction for writers is the slight ambiguity of its conclusion — after all, Crippen never confessed, and there were no witnesses to him actually committing the murder. There have always been those who have maintained that he was innocent, including his own American relatives. The case still lives on in people’s minds, more than a hundred years later. James Patrick Crippen of Ohio, the second cousin three times removed of the original Doctor Crippen, said to the BBC in 2010 that “Every time I have come through customs to England, someone has made a comment on my name, linking me to a murderer”. He believes that his relative was wrongfully convicted and executed back in 1910, and has campaigned to have his remains repatriated for burial in the United States.

In 2007, this belief in Crippen’s innocence received a useful boost in the form of alleged new DNA results from a forensic scientist at Michigan State University, which seemed to show that the remains found in the cellar were not those of Cora Crippen. The mitochondrial DNA did not correspond with that of her living relatives, and a further test suggested the body was that of a man. These findings have been fiercely debated, and are not considered conclusive. But on the back of them, in 2009 James Crippen applied to the UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission for a fresh appeal so that Doctor Crippen could be granted a posthumous pardon. He was turned down on the grounds that, as a cousin with no financial interest in clearing his relative’s name, he wasn’t a “properly interested person” under the law. And that’s where the case stands today — there are still those who fervently believe that Doctor Crippen was wronged, while in the detective stories of the time and subsequent popular culture his name is still a byword for a vicious wife-murderer who hides in plain sight.

It’s unlikely a definitive answer will ever be found now, so long after the fact. But it’s still worth knowing what happened in that topsy turvey summer of 1910, when the world was gripped by this thrilling tale. What with all its bizarre twists and turns, the story of Doctor Crippen is so much stranger than anything a detective novelist ever dreamed up.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. For more information about the story of Doctor Rippen and links to all the books mentioned, visit, where you can also find a full transcript. Thank you very much to everyone who told friends about the show and left reviews on Apple Podcasts after the last episode — I really appreciate it. I’ve started a Facebook page for the show, where I’ll be posting articles and photographs relevant to this episode, so do come and say hello at I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: Queer Clues.

Moira: It seemed to me that was something special in the crime story way of looking at this, that the crime stories were using the secrecy of gay or queer life of that time and incorporating it into crime novels.

1. Surplus Women Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the first episode of Shedunnit.

Caroline: Every age has had a different way of describing a woman who exists alone, rather than as part of a couple. Today, she might just call herself “single”, but at different times in the past people might have referred to her, often with contempt, as an “old maid”, a “bachelor girl”, a “spinster”, or a “singleton”.

For most of history, this has been considered to be a pitiful state, against the natural order of things, as if a woman without a man — because until the very recent past it would have been thought that it was a man she needed, of course — was somehow incomplete and lesser.

After the First World War, there was a great flowering of female independence as more women chose to live single lives. This change, and the backlash to it, is all there to be found in the murder mysteries of the period, if you just dig a little below the surface. From self-contained, professional women like Mary Whittaker in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death to dear, fluffy Miss Marple, there are a multitude of single women’s lives to discover.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This particular story starts with the surplus women.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

In 1921, the British government published the results of a census. It recorded that there were just over 44 million people in total in the country, an increase of around two million from a decade before, despite the loss of life during the First World War. The figure that attracted the most attention at the time, though, was a striking disparity between the numbers of men and women. For every 1,000 men, there were 1,100 women, or “an excess that amounts to 1,906,284”, as one newspaper put it at the time.

At this point, the First World War had been over for three years. 700,000 British men had been killed. The casualties were disproportionately young, unmarried and from the middle or upper classes. Another 250,000 people in the UK died in the global Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919. In the decades before the 1920s, there had been campaigns luring young unmarried men to emigrate to British colonies like Australia and India with promises of far greater wealth and luxury than could be obtained by staying at home.

Given all of this, it shouldn’t have been very surprising that in 1921 the country contained more women than men. Many women found themselves single either because fiancés and sweethearts had died in the trenches, or just because all the casualties meant that there was no one left in their circle to pair up with. Some characterised these women as ‘imaginary widows’, unmarried yet mourning the husbands they should have had. A socialite named Isie Russell Stephenson, whose husband died in 1918 from his war injuries, recalled many years later how she went to a party in 1919 and thought it was a women-only affair until she spotted a single suit among all the evening frocks. “It was as if ever man you had ever danced with was dead,” she said.

Helen Parkinson’s great aunt, Mary Shallcross, was another woman who lost the man she might have married to the war.

Helen: Certainly not affianced or anything like that but somebody she was fond of, and then that’s it. She led a solitary life other than being ‘aunty’ and things after that.

Caroline: Mary was a factory worker who worked variously in munitions and confectionary plants throughout her life. She never married, or to Helen’s knowledge even came close.

Helen: She was very shy. I would imagine if the pool of available men was much reduced there’d be other people possibly her younger sister, thinking about it, who’d be better at nabbing what was left.

But for all that she’d lost someone important to her, Mary was happy — at least as far as Helen knows she was.

Helen: She was actually she took content in small things. Because my granny certainly ran round my grandad all her life doing exactly what he wanted. So maybe Auntie Mary was quite glad she didn’t have to.

Mary Shallcross was just one of thousands of women who found their circumstances irrevocably altered by the First World War, but refused to give into spinsterhood and despair. Yet even before the 1921 census confirmed Britain’s gender disparity, the plight of those like her had become the focus of much outrage and indignation.

A medical doctor named Murray Leslie had given a widely-reported lecture to the London Institute of Hygiene in February 1920, in which he warned that women would soon be scrapping like cats over “the scared and elusive male”. This in turn would lead to a lowering of moral standards, more infidelity and clandestine sexual relationships — which in his view, would result in a national crisis. Reporting on his talk, a Leeds Mercury newspaper writer linked Britain’s post-war economic depression directly to the terrible behaviour caused by the mere existence of these extra females. “No wonder the value of the pound has become so depreciated abroad,” he mourned.

Of course, women wrote in to these newspapers, often anonymously, to point out that they were, in fact, also human beings with a right to their own lives. In response, men penned opinion pieces proposing solutions to this supposed problem such as increased female emigration, and special care for that scarce commodity, male infants.

Throughout all of this fuss, one phrase was repeated more than any other. Surplus women.

Rosemary: The phrase surplus women came about in the press in the early 1920s in response to the 1921 census.

Caroline: This is Rosemary Cresswell, a senior lecturer in global history at the University of Hull.

It isn’t just as simple as to say that the First World War unbalanced the population, she says.

Rosemary: The trend in there being more women than men in British society goes back to the Victorian and the Edwardian period and some factors around that are emigration to Empire but also that infant mortality was higher amongst boys than amongst girls.

Caroline: The reductive idea that everyone in the nation was supposed to pair off, boy girl, boy girl, is fraught with problems — not least because not everyone is straight. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence at this point in history, although of course gay and lesbian people existed and had relationships in spite of prejudice and the need for secrecy. Part of the reaction against the so-called surplus women is connected to this, as women would often set up house with their female friends, causing alarm among those who hated the idea that they might love each other, rather than a man. We’re going to talk much more detail about how the private lives of queer people find their way into detective stories in a future episode, so listen out for that.

Rosemary Cresswell first started researching the surplus women as part of her work on the Overseas Nursing Association, an agency that recruited British nurses who wanted to work abroad. Large numbers of women were applying to do this in the early 1920s, a trend that could well be a result of so-called surplus women wanting to seek their fortune abroad, as an alternative to remaining in a Britain that regarded them superfluous.

Rosemary: I would think there if they did want to marry and hadn’t found somebody in Britain, there would be this awareness that there’s more men — more choice in Empire. But also I think it is an adventure to go overseas so there’s more to it I think than just seeking marriage. I think it’s about independence, autonomy, a different lifestyle to that which you had had in Britain.

Caroline: During the First World War, the number of women in the workforce had increased by nearly a million. Women had stepped into traditional male roles in factories, on farms, in hospitals, and in offices, and many had found it to their liking. In 1918, British women received partial suffrage for the first time, when the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met certain minimum property standards. When the war was over and there was pressure to step aside so that returning soldiers could have their jobs back, many women were reluctant to relinquish the independence and autonomy that their new working lives had provided. Being labelled as “surplus” was just an additional insult, along with the lack of equal pay or proper pension provision.

There was an additional incentive for working women to remain single at this time, in the form of what was called a “marriage bar”. Here’s Rosemary Cresswell again:

Rosemary: If you got married and you were a teacher, for example, then you would have to leave your job. This was a trend that started after the first world war, because there were men coming back with demobilisation who needed employment, so there was much more emphasis that women could not work if they got married. So if people wanted a career, if they wanted to be a teacher and become a headteacher, if they wanted to be in nursing and become a matron and progress up, then it could be a choice not to get married and in the civil service it was the same as well. It was legal to do this at that time, to force women to resign their job if they married.

Caroline: In many cases, these marriage bars were informal — just an unspoken understanding that married women wouldn’t work, as opposed to an actual rule or law. It worked though: 90 per cent of women gave up their jobs when they got married. If you were someone who wanted a career, therefore, it was in your interests to remain unattached.

It’s always been the case that women with any degree of power or autonomy become objects to be feared or dismissed as “unnatural”, and the scaremongering in the 1920s around the idea of “surplus women” only exacerbated this existing prejudice. There are plenty of examples from other literature of the time — Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé in the war, wrote a poem titled “The Superfluous Woman”, in which she described them as “ghosts crying down the vistas of the years”. Her friend Winifred Holtby, another post-war single woman with whom Brittain lived, wrote several novels with characters who struggled with the loneliness and futility of their lives. There are loads more works like this too, and together they suggest that Britain was stuffed full of maiden aunts, a tragic lost generation of British womanhood.

This literary stereotype of the spinster is one manifestation of the many ways in which independent women have been stigmatised down the years. Even as society has become more tolerant and fair, that caricature remains.

Camilla: I know that we’ve tried to retrieve spinster as a word to try and sort of flip it on its head but it still it retains that kind of connotation. To me it’s a pernicious kind of a word. . . It’s a word that’s hard to reclaim.

Caroline: This is Camilla Nelson, an associate professor of writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia. She’s made a study of all the ways in which single women are portrayed in literature. And she’s found that some of the most sympathetic and positive versions exist in the detective novels of the 1920s and 30s.

Camilla: What’s wonderful about many of those stories like Miss Marple or Miss Lemon or Miss Climpson is that they’re stories about women who are leading full and satisfying lives, who are working, who aren’t reliant on men, who are characters in novels who aren’t just sort of a satellite of the male character or a conduit to their husband, and who are leading full lives which are separated or divorced from marriage and romance.

Caroline: In her 1927 novel Unnatural Death, Dorothy L Sayers explicitly addresses this notion of the surplus women. In chapter three, which is entitled “A Use for Spinsters”, her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, invites his Scotland Yard chum Inspector Parker to visit a “little flat in Pimlico” with him, where there’s a woman Wimsey wants him to meet. Parker, surely a proxy for the 1920s reader here, immediately jumps to the conclusion that this is Wimsey’s lower-class mistress, housed at a comfortable distance from the luxury of Piccadilly for his lordship’s convenience.

Sayers then pulls the rug out from under us by introducing the woman herself — a single middle aged woman called Miss Climpson, who Wimsey is employing as a kind of private enquiry agent. “She is my ears and tongue and especially my nose,” he declares to his friend. Although Miss Climpson is very smart and sharp, she is very good at giving the impression that she’s merely a gossipy middle aged lady. As a result, if Wimsey sends her in to a delicate situation to ask questions, it doesn’t arouse suspicion the way a man doing the same would. More than that, it’s expected that she will be nosy. He’s taking advantage of the way society looks down on her — it’s like she’s in permanent disguise. For Miss Climpson, being a spinster is a kind of superpower.

Wimsey congratulates himself on having found this “use for spinsters” as stealthy private detectives. The nation should erect a statue to him, he says, with an inscription that reads “To the Man who Made Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Exertion to Himself”. In subsequent Sayers novels like Strong Poison, Miss Climpson appears as the head of a bureau of surplus women, who are deployed by Wimsey in roles like secretaries, companions, nurses and governesses in ways that will help solve his cases.

What makes the novels of Dorothy L Sayers stand out particularly in this regard, I think, is the wide variety of single woman characters she includes in her plots. They’re not just maiden aunts or elderly companions, but academics, nurses, socialites and revolutionaries. Her spinsters are real people, beyond the negative stereotype of a shabby, grumpy old maid.

Of course, the most famous mystery-solving spinster is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Like Miss Climpson, her status as a single woman means that everyone underestimates her, and confidences are shared with her that would never make their way to a male detective’s ears. Here’s Camilla Nelson again:

Camilla: I think that what makes her Miss Marple a stand-out is that she’s pink cardigan on the outside but she’s got a mind like a steel trap and the men in the books around her actually respect her. The policemen defer to her. The policemen can tell that she is a woman who is intelligent, who is rational, who is not hysterical who doesn’t imagine things which makes her an interesting, quite a unique character particularly for that for that period where more usually a spinster character is a prattling character or is a sour or desiccated character.

Caroline: In creating Miss Marple, Christie turned all of the unfavourable assumptions about spinsters on their head. Miss Marple is very nosy and gossipy, and deeply interested in the lives of her servants and everyone in her village. But in these novels that’s a good thing — she cares about people and is empathetic. Again and again in the books, she finds the solution to the puzzle when nobody else does because she pays attention to tiny domestic details like the toppings of a trifle, or how a curtain was hung. Because she’s so involved in the village life of St Mary Mead, there’s not much about human nature that she doesn’t know.

Both Sayers and Christie lived relatively unconventional lives for women of their period. In her 20s, Sayers had affairs with men she didn’t marry, and even had a child out of wedlock. She later married a divorced man and continued to work full time as a copywriter and author. Christie got married to her first husband in 1914, but divorced in 1928 after he was unfaithful to her. She later went travelling in the Middle East on her own, eventually marrying an archeologist who was 14 years younger than her. These experiences made their single women characters more nuanced, Camilla Nelson says.

Camilla: You wonder if the life experience of writers like Christie was divorced or Dorothy Sayers as well for her Miss Climpson and that she married much later in life and of course she worked as an advertising copywriter and you wonder if that struggle of doing a job and living a life and wanting to live a full life really comes through in that fiction. I do think that if Agatha Christie hadn’t divorced that maybe Miss Marple may not have grown in the way that she did.

Caroline: We might like to think that today’s society is free of prejudice towards single women, but it isn’t quite that simple.

Camilla: What’s interesting about some of these characters is that when they’ve been adapted to television recently — Miss Marple, ITV gave her a romantic backstory which I think was was ludicrous because it sort of ruined the character but it’s almost like the way we think about story and plots seems to involve the way you round out a female character seems to be that you marry them or you make them unhappy in love.

Caroline: We might not talk about “surplus women” anymore, but society still struggles sometimes with viewing single women as whole beings, independent and self sufficient. Single friends who have travelled in more remote parts of the world have told me that it’s sometimes easier to wear a fake wedding ring than face endless questions about their lack of a husband. Female celebrities are still asked about their love lives and their children in a way that men rarely are. Unmarried women are still asked by relatives and colleagues when they’re going to ‘settle down’.

Perhaps there are still spinster sleuths among us, even now.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. My thanks to Rosemary Cresswell, Camilla Nelson and Helen Parkinson for their contributions. For more information about the subjects discussed and links to all the books mentioned, visit, where you can also find a full transcript. If you enjoy the podcast and you’d like to do me a good turn, consider telling a friend who likes mystery stories about it, whether that’s in person or on social media. You could also tell a stranger by leaving a review on iTunes. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: Crippen.

0. Whodunnit? Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of this mini first episode of Shedunnit.

Caroline: For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. Many things, actually — there were murders in country houses, on golf courses, in Oxford colleges, on trains, in vicarages, in far flung parts of the globe and quaint English villages. Pistols, daggers, blunt instruments and exotic poisons abounded.

No fictional character was safe.

Because these events were all fictional — the plots of novels that flooded the market in the 1920s and 30s. People couldn’t get enough of all the inventive ways that writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more could think of for people to die. This period came to be known as the golden age of detective fiction, and for good reason.

If this all sounds very familiar to you, then you’re in the right place. Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This golden age coincided with the aftermath of the first world war, when more women were starting to achieve the right to vote and the economic freedom to earn their own living. One of them, Agatha Christie, is one of the biggest selling authors ever, with billions of copies bought all over the world. The work of Sayers, Allingham and co is also still very much in print and finding new readers every day. The huge popularity of detective stories enabled these women to work as professional writers in a way that hadn’t really existed in a widespread way before. They weren’t struggling to prove that their work was worthy of being deemed “great literature”, but instead delivering gripping, thrilling entertainment to millions.

And their work is still reaching people — there are so many ardent fans of golden age detective stories all around the world. The books are translated and adapted everywhere, with new TV and film versions appearing all the time.

There are so many different aspects of these books that speak to people, too. During my research for this podcast, I’ve been a few fans to share their reasons for loving these books with me, and I got such a variety of answers. For Maxine, it’s the thrill of the chase.

Maxine: I like golden age detective fiction because I love a good puzzle. Novels such as these always have a fabulous puzzle. you have the clues laid out before you, and I guess if you’re bright enough you can actually work it out ahead of time. Often, I find I just like to get caught up in the story.

Caroline: For Lina, it’s all about what she can learn about the era these books were written in.

Lina: The stories transport you to another age that heralded that heralded the modernity of our today.

Caroline: But then for Sonija, it’s about the contrast with how crime stories are told now.

Sonija: I enjoy the deductions of the detectives, both professional and amateur, without forensics, mobile phones and other modern methods.

Caroline: Kirsty found her love of Miss Marple through a TV adaptation, and learned early on about ageism and how women are too often underestimated.

Kirsty: I grew up watching Joan Hickson on the BBC and I absolutely loved the fact that she was so amazingly intellectual, and yet she was a little old lady, and that was such a marvellous thing for me.

Caroline: For Helen, these stories help her feel connected to people from her past.

Helen: I think really what I enjoy is the recreation of a world. I’m not even sure it’s a world that was a good one, or a safe one, or a fair one, but that’s what attracts me because it puts me back in contact with people who died a long time ago, you know, my older relatives.

Caroline: For Skye, they’re a way of connecting the generations.

Skye: I started reading them because I found them on the shelves of my grandmother’s house in Finland. She was reading them to help her learn English but also because she loved murder mysteries and she imparted that love to me. I just recently read Murder on the Orient Express to my son and he enjoyed that, and now we’re just about to start reading another one so it’s come full circle.

Caroline: The work of these authors — many of whom, like Christie, Sayers and Allingham, were women shaping for themselves what it meant to be a professional writer in their time — was informed by their political and social context, by the real-life cases that they pored over, and by the voracious appetite of the public for yet more puzzles.

But the sheer popularity of these books has to an extent obscured the fascinating stories that lie behind the plots. We all know about Miss Marple’s nosy parker ways, but less about why her status as a spinster makes her so ideally suited to solving crimes. Dorothy L Sayers wasn’t just a mystery author: she was a Sherlock Holmes superfan who worked as an advertising copywriter and created something called “the mustard club”, which was a really early form of successful guerrilla marketing. Agatha Christie was a bestselling author, yes, but she was also an archaeologist and a pioneering surfer.  All of these women had complicated, startling lives that are worth bringing to the fore.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in this podcast, telling the stories that lurk in the shadows of the famous detective novels. Along the way, we’ll learn all about things like the queer subtext of golden age detective stories, the intersection of feminism and stories of murder, the slow creep of technology into detection and much, much more.

If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you. Find us at, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the first episode.