Category: Transcripts

22. Knock Knock Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: Even the best detectives get stuck during their cases. The alibis are overlapping, the witnesses are contradicting themselves, and the medical evidence isn’t making anything clearer. As readers of whodunnits, as confused as our sleuths, it’s hard not to think about how much easier everything would be if the victim could just tell us what happened. If the dead could speak to the living.
At the same time as detective fiction was booming in popularity in the early twentieth century, so were ideas that death was not the end. Spiritualism, a term which encompasses a set of beliefs and techniques that are to do with making contact with those who have “passed on” beyond this mortal plane, was also rapidly attracting fans in the 1880s and 90s and the advent of the First World War only increased the number of grieving relations looking for solace in this way.
Although the traditional “rules” of golden age detective fiction prohibit the inclusion of supernatural plot devices, many authors including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gladys Mitchell and more made use of seances, mediums and spirits in their work. On the surface, applying logical deduction and listening to the whisperings of wayward spirits seem to be two completely different things, but they are intertwined in the detective fiction of this period in some fascinating ways. Perhaps the detective and the medium have more in common than the likes of Hercule Poirot would like to admit.

Today, we’re going to let the dead speak.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Today, we’re going to learn more about the rapid growth in the popularity of spiritualism in Britain in the 1880s and 90s, the way the First World War turbo charged the public’s demand for seances, and the impact that all of this had on golden age detective fiction.


First, let’s be clear what it is that we mean by spiritualism. The word itself, when used to mean the belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, especially via a medium, only surfaced in the mid nineteenth century. It can all be traced back to a pair of American sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, who in the late 1840s convinced first their parents, and then their neighbours, that their house was haunted by an invisible spirit. They could communicate with it via rapping noises, with it counting out their ages or answering yes or no questions via a code they worked out. The word spread among family friends and the wider community that these girls could talk with the dead, leading to the first major public seance of this type in Rochester, New York on 14 November 1849. The Fox sisters quickly became a public sensation, and other mediums began to hold their own events as the popularity of spiritualism spread. Even at the beginning, there was a strong strand of entertainment to it in both Britain and America. People enjoyed getting mediums to predict what would happen to their investments or their love affairs, as well as the more serious matter of trying to contact dead loved ones, and public seances seem to have often had a music hall like atmosphere, although private ones might be more sombre.
Spiritualism seems to have appealed to people across the boundaries of class and profession. It’s by no means the case, as is sometimes assumed, that only people who had less access to education were attracted to a belief system like this; eminent scientists, writers and politicians from the late nineteenth century were just as keen on it, and in many cases saw it as a way of reconciling the sometimes conflicting spheres of advancing science and religious faith. Perhaps the most famous of these well-known enthusiasts, and the most relevant for our purposes, was Arthur Conan Doyle — creator of Sherlock Holmes and a great influence on many writers of detective fiction’s golden age. He encountered spiritualism in the 1880s via a book written by an early American spiritualist, and was greatly intrigued by this account of a man able to communicate with his wife after her death. He even had a chance to participate in a few seances at the home of a patient while practising as a doctor in Southsea, and in his memoirs wrote that “I was so impressed that I wrote an account of it to Light, the psychic weekly paper, and so in the year I actually put myself on the public record as a student of these matters.”
Conan Doyle was an early member of the British Society for Psychical Research, a group founded in the early 1890s to investigate spiritualism and other ghostly phenomena with a scientific approach. It might sound absurd to us now that a man with a medical degree, who famously created a detective who believed in the application of logic and rational deduction above all else, could fall so heavily for a belief system that relied so heavily on the supernatural, but for Conan Doyle and his fellow late Victorians, it seems there was no inherent contradiction involved. The late nineteenth century was a moment of huge curiosity and a sense that all unknowns could be conquered if a sufficiently open mind was applied. So many of the technological and medical advances at this time would have seemed like magic. Imagine using a telephone for the first time, and hearing the voice of someone hundreds of miles away from you. In that context, is it such a stretch to believe that the spirit of someone who had died could be trying to get in touch with you?
The First World War was devastating for Conan Doyle, as it was for millions of others around the world. Too old for active service himself (he was over 55 in 1914), he lost at least ten members of his immediate family to the war, including his eldest son Kingsley. By this time he was at least two decades into his explorations of spiritualism, so it followed that he tried to use seances to contact his departed loved ones and receive some comfort from the fact that they had peacefully passed on. Conan Doyle was by no means alone in this — in 1914, there were 145 societies affiliated to the Spiritualists National Union in Britain; by 1919, there were 309, and by 1932, over 500, as well as an estimated 100,000 home seance circles in operation. The open support of spiritualism by celebrities like Conan Doyle and the famous physicist Oliver Lodge was part of its popularity — these men were the psychic influencers of their day. We might primarily know Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but nearly a third of the books he published in his lifetime were about spiritualism or paranormal activity, and later in life that’s what his reputation was largely built upon. So much so that when Agatha Christie infamously disappeared in December 1926 (check out episode 4 of this podcast for more on that), Conan Doyle was allowed by the police to take one of her gloves to a spiritualist medium called Horace Leaf to see if he could divine her whereabouts. Conan Doyle and his second wife were even said to have rehearsed their codes and signals so that they could still communicate if one of them passed away suddenly before the other.
It’s not hard at all to understand why the war caused increased interest in spiritualism. Church attendance was in decline, and for many the idea of cutting out the middleman so to speak and communing with the dead directly was very attractive. In a situation where the sheer volume of carnage was frequently too great for any kind of administration, families were often left with no closure or answers as to what had happened. “Missing presumed dead” was a common designation when no body could be found. But if a seance could reach a spirit, happily ensconced in the afterlife, the lack of physical remains might hurt just a little less.
All of which is to say, the tenets and tropes of spiritualism were very widely known and understood in the time that the great detective novelists of the 1920s and 30s were working. In its purest and most sincere form, spiritualism has a lot in common with the aims of your average sleuth, seeking as it does to give a voice to the dead and vindicate their narrative. But inevitably for such a popular belief system and activity, spiritualism became a vehicle via which charlatans and fraudsters on the take could exploit the vulnerable, and as such is a very useful plot device when it comes to crime. Plus, even if the rules don’t technically allow it, the addition of a spooky frisson can do wonders for a whodunnit.

After the break: how a harmless bit of table turning can lead to murder.

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And now listeners, a brief intermission where I’m going to ask you to do me a small favour — if you’re listening on the Apple Podcasts app, could you pause the podcast for just a few seconds and leave the show a nice rating and a review? I know you probably get asked to do this all the time, so here’s two quick reasons why you should take the trouble now: firstly, it means that when potential new listeners are browsing there are lots of great personal testimonials on the Shedunnit page to convince them they’re on to a good thing, and secondly, your reviews help boost Shedunnit up the podcast charts, meaning that more people will be able to see the show when they open their app. And the more people who listen, the more viable this whole thing is for me to keep doing. If that sounds good to you, pause now. . . and now that you’ve done that, we can get on with the episode.

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Before we get into some details of how spiritualism was used in detective fiction more generally, let’s go over some basics for the uninitiated among us. A seance, meaning literally ‘a sitting’, is when a group of people gather together with the intention of contacting spirits. A medium is someone with particular sensitivity to this phenomena, who can contact a so-called “spirit guide” and ask them to in turn connect with the particular dead individuals those in the room with to converse with. I haven’t been able to find any precise gender breakdown, but in fiction at least, mediums are more often women than men, no doubt because of ideas about feminine intuition and sensibility. To have the highest chance of successful contact with the spirits, it was advisable to sit in a darkened, cold room with all the sitters gathered in a circle around a table, holding hands and focusing their minds on the goal. The arrival of said spirits might be accompanied by a dimming of the lights, or a slight haze in the room, but most often they made themselves known by rocking the table (hence the nickname for a seance, table turning) or loud knocking noises. These last were the usual way in which spirits communicated — the medium would ask yes or no questions, and the spirit could knock out the answer, one for yes and two for no. In some cases, the more longwinded alphabet technique was used, where one rap signifies a, two b, and so on. This is how names would be spelt out, so that the sitters could be sure that it was their own loved one who was now present in spirit form.

Of course, an awful lot of these conventions were developed with manipulation in mind. Professional mediums and their accomplices had ways of making sure every sitting produced some memorable effects, in order to ensure that they were asked back. Even the Fox sisters, whose ghostly rappings had begun the whole spiritualist movement, eventually admitted late in life that it had all been done by cracking their joints, especially in the feet — an art which required much practice and muscle strengthening exercises to do consistently. The confession was recanted again a year later, but the damage had been done. Once the suggestion of fraud hung around the Foxes, their audiences dwindled as people turned to other quote real mediums.

Perhaps the best recap of the techniques mediums might use to produce an exciting seance can be found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Strong Poison from 1930. I’ve mentioned this book a few different times in Shedunnit episodes — it’s a particular favourite of mine and has plenty of different themes — but for our purposes today, let’s focus on the character of Miss Climpson, who is a middle aged woman employed by principle sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey to undertake inquiries that are too quote delicate for a man to involve himself in. In the scenes we’re interested in today, Miss Climpson is on a mission to discover a concealed will in the house of an incapacitated elderly invalid, and if she can’t do it quickly then an innocent person will hang for murder. She therefore, with many prickings of her extremely over active conscience, resorts to underhand measures. The invalid’s nurse, she quickly ascertains, is very interested in spiritualism, so Miss Climpson reinvents herself as a medium and conducts a successful seance in order to gain the nurse’s trust. To do this, she gets hold of a small metal soapbox and fixes it to an elastic garter, and we are told that: “When clasped about Miss Climpson’s bony knee and squeezed sharply against the other knee, the box emitted a series of cracks so satisfying as to convince the most sceptical”. In addition, she hides a homemade wire hook up each long, wide sleeve of her black velvet rest gown, so that she can catch it onto the edge of the table. This means she can rock and turn it without removing her hands from their clasp with her fellow sitter — an important element if she is to be believed.

A seance like this, where the reader is in on the plot from the start, is a popular trope among detective novelists. A sleuth can use a belief in spiritualism among their suspects or witnesses to break through stubbornness or a resolve to conceal vital clues — people who even half believe that a spirit might manifest are vulnerable to suggestion. Agatha Christie memorably has Hercule Poirot do this at the denouement of 1932’s Peril at End House. It’s one of my favourite endings of hers (and don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil it here), mostly because the oh-so-rational detective momentarily abandons the order and method of his little grey cells and instead indulges in a bit of parlour theatre in order to prove his culprit’s guilt once and for all. The faithful sidekick, Captain Hastings, is suddenly declared by Poirot to have “pronounced mediumistic powers” (a surprise to Hastings himself, who is such a steady, conventional character) and a seance is quickly put in train before anybody can object. Of course, the reader knows it’s all a fake, but the way Christie writes about it makes it clear that the characters (other than Poirot and Hastings) believe it to be real, or at least that it is possible that it could be real. That’s why it’s such a powerful tactic, and it’s testament to the huge and widespread popularity of spiritualism in the 1920s and 30s that it would be so. Even if they weren’t an active believer, everyone would know how to hold a seance. There’s an homage to this scene, by the way, in Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, who was a guest on the Back To School episode of the podcast — her schoolgirl sleuths, who are at boarding school in the 1930s, use a staged seance as a way of progressing their case too, although they use a ouija board rather than relying on knocks to spell out letters, the board being left over from when they were a spiritualist society rather than a detective one. As well as being part of a grand tradition of seances in detective fiction, this is a very recognisable scene to all the former teenage girls out there, who scared themselves silly with this stuff when they were at school.

Authors used the tropes of spiritualism in their fiction is as a way of including elements of the supernatural without actually abandoning the puzzle-based format of the classic whodunnit. There’s a very dramatic and engaging example of this in John Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders from 1934, in which a family estate is supposedly haunted by the original owner, a hangman. A seance is to be held in the house to commune with this malevolent spirit, and a psychic and his medium are invited to run the show. Yet the psychic is found stabbed to death with a dagger owned by the deceased hangman, the body found in a small stone cottage with all doors and windows locked. The ground around the cottage is completely undisturbed, and all possible suspects were actually conducting the seance at the time of death, meaning that they were all holding hands. This is the first appearance of Dickson Carr’s detective, the barrister Sir Henry Merrivale, and he has to untangle all of this confusion. The story is venerated as a classic of the locked room genre, a so-called “impossible crime”. Here, the sleuth must find a practical explanation for the murder rather than resort to the “it was a ghost” solution, banned by the traditional rules of detective fiction. The seance, of course, functions both as a way of introducing the ghostly atmosphere but also as a more mundane plot device, keeping all the suspects together and supposedly giving them an alibi. There’s something similar in Gladys Mitchell’s When Last I Died from 1941 as well, with central sleuth Mrs Bradley renting a house by the seaside that has a ghostly past, ostensibly because she wants to hold some seances. A diary is discovered in the house (and printed as part of the book) which seems to describe the events leading up to the murder of psychical researcher Tom Turney, written by his cousin Bella Foxley, great niece of the house’s previous owner. As in Dickson Carr’s story, Mrs Bradley must sift through all the evidence and speak to all the witnesses she can find in order to sort out the supernatural from the mundane, and thus find the real truth of the case. In this novel, Mitchell is very clearly influenced by MR James, the hugely popular and influential author of classic ghost stories who had died in 1936. The spooky atmosphere of the house and the story Mrs Bradley uncovers is extremely well drawn, with the added bonus of a murder case on top.

It’s Agatha Christie, though, who found two of the most unusual uses of spiritualism and seances in detective fiction. The first comes in The Sittaford Mystery from 1931, in which a party of neighbours gathering in a remote Dartmoor village one evening in the depths of winter decide to try their hand at “table turning” for amusement. It’s all fun and games for a while, but then a genuine spirit seems to show up and declares that an absent friend from the area, Captain Trevelyan, has been murdered. As this all happens right at the start, it’s no spoiler to say that when one of the sitters heads off through the snow to check on his friend, he finds him dead. Once again the detectives have to work out if there is indeed supernatural agency at work, or whether the seance was very cleverly manipulated in such a way as to frighten someone, or establish an alibi, or for some other purpose that cannot be easily divined. The idea of spiritual interference clouds the view of the witnesses too, making the job of detection that much harder. Christie resolves it all in a way that I’ll let you find out when you read it, but she weaves the ghostly possibility very cleverly through the story, inviting the reader to dismiss the seance as a red herring while also tantalisingly suggesting that it holds the key to the whole mystery. There’s a great callback to Conan Doyle in this book too, since it shares a location and an atmosphere with his 1901 Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, and thereby also obliquely references his passion for spiritualism. Also, as a sidenote, this book contains my favourite type of Christie character — the highly competent one off female amateur sleuth. Here, that role is filled by Emily Trefusis, see also Lucy Eyelsbarrow. Perhaps I’ll do an episode about them at some point.

My favourite Christie seance, though, is in 1937’s Dumb Witness. Wealthy spinster Emily Arundell takes part in a seance on the day of her death, held by a pair of sisters from her village, the vegetarian (and therefore very eccentric) Miss Tripps. Emily isn’t a fully signed up believer in spiritualism, but her companions claim to have seen a mysterious luminous haze gathering around her as they sat together, which after her subsequent death from apparently natural causes, they interpret to be a foreshadowing of what was to come. Poirot, of course, takes nothing at face value, and once he is called in by a posthumous letter from Emily, he sets about examining everything in the harsh light of day. I won’t say any more, except that this is another brilliant example of Christie playing with the reader’s preconceptions about spiritualism — is it real, or was it faked somehow? Does it even matter to the case? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Christie was no spiritualist herself, but she and other novelists of the time had great fun playing on the reading public’s knowledge and appreciation for the movement’s techniques and beliefs. As I’ve tried to outline here, there are so many different ways of incorporating a seance into a murder plot — hopefully when you encounter them in your reading now you’ll have an idea what to look out for.

That said, Christie did once step away from the supernatural ban imposed by the rules of golden age detective fiction. Her 1933 short story collection The Hound of Death is full of twisty little tales that focus on unexplained and ghostly phenomena. And there’s one in there titled ‘The Last Seance’, in which a medium reluctantly agrees to sit for a desperate grieving client one final time, with tragic results. After all of the times when she has baffled you and blindsided you with knockings and rappings, the sheer weird spookiness of this story really hits home.

What if, it seems to say, the dead could speak to us after all?


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear a version of the show without interruption, advertising or intermission, you can do that by joining the Shedunnit Book Club. As well as ad free listening, there are also bonus episodes. Find more details and sign up at
I’ll be back on 2 October with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Off The Rails

21. Brides In The Bath Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: If a terrible accident takes place and a woman dies, it’s just a tragedy. If the same thing happens again, in almost identical circumstances, it might arouse pity and raise a few eyebrows, but it’ll mostly be written off as an appalling coincidence. But the third time? That’s when things start to get suspicious.

This is exactly what happened in Britain in the eighteen month period between July 1912 and December 1914 — three women died in precisely similar ways, each time leaving a husband who stood to inherit substantial legacies and collect on recently taken out insurance policies. But it wasn’t until after the third death that people began to put the pattern together.

The ensuing investigation and trial gripped the nation to the extent that it knocked news from the battlefields of the First World War off the front pages. The twists and turns of this extraordinary story had a dramatic and lasting effect on how stories about crime and detection were told too, with aspects of it appearing in work by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and others.

This is the story of the brides in the bath.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn who the brides were and what contemporary circumstances enabled their murders to go undetected until the sheer volume of crime could no longer be explained away as a coincidence. We’ll also look at what details from this blockbuster case ended up in the detective fiction of the subsequent decades and how it still affects the way we think about narrative and crime today.


But first, a short note. I wanted to try something a bit different in the way I tell this story. Once the trial was in full swing, the newspaper reports were full of shocking revelations about the three murders and the way one individual linked them together. Subsequent retellings have mostly followed this same pattern, I’ve found in my researches, essentially beginning at the last, most gory and dramatic, point in the story and only going back to fill in other events as it seems necessary. But I think there’s another, more interesting way to look at this. There were at least seven brides, not just three, and to me they are far more worthy of your time and interest than the man who became the focus of such ghoulish celebrity because of his violent acts. This string of marriages actually began in 1898, and by meeting six of these women in turn (whether or not they ended up in a bath at the end) I think you build up a fascinating picture of British society in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, and the role that women were able to occupy in it. I also think it helps to see this kind of violence as part of a continuum — this murdered didn’t pop out of nowhere, he was doing awful things to women for decades beforehand, which is a point that both a lot of true crime storytelling and contemporary media coverage of crime tends to gloss over. Instead, here, you’re going to meet all of the brides and hear their stories. I think you might recognise some of what they have to tell you, too.


The First Bride

Her name was Caroline Thornhill, and in 1898 when she was 19 she married a 25 year old man calling himself George Oliver Love. She had met him the year before in Leicester, and he had told her about his dreadful childhood and teenage years spent at a Reform School in Gravesend in Kent (a kind of state youth correctional institution, think something Charles Dickens would write about but worse). Victorian legislators had believed that vagrancy and a predilection towards crime could be “cured” by a harsh regime of physical punishment, frequent humiliation and quasi-military drilling. No doubt as a result of these confidences, Caroline quickly grew close to George, and when he proposed marriage she accepted. Her parents, after meeting him, declined to give their permission to the match, but Caroline was so sure about her choice that she went ahead with the marriage without their blessing.

Not long afterwards, Caroline’s new husband’s business failed (he was then running a bakery) and she said later that he abused and threatened her into applying for jobs as a domestic servant with bogus references written by George himself. Once she found employment, she was to steal as much as she could as quickly as possible. Her husband even made her sell the jewellery and other goods to the fence herself so that he technically had little or no involvement in the crime. They moved around constantly, flitting town as soon as the theft had been carried out. Eventually, in Hastings, Caroline was arrested (George ran away) and served a three month prison sentence. When she got out, her husband had vanished, so she took a job as a servant again. A year later, in November 1900, Caroline happened to be walking down Oxford Street in London when she saw George looking at a shop window. She found a policeman and he was arrested, screaming and raving about how he would “punch her head off”. She gave evidence against him at a trial back in Hastings and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Caroline then returned to Leicester, reconciled with her family and found work at a factory.

But when her husband — they were still technically married, divorce was complicated and expensive and rare, as we talked about in the previous episode about Maud West — got out of prison, he came looking for Caroline. She saw him hanging around outside her house, and it was only because her two brothers chased him off that he didn’t see her. To be absolutely sure, though, she decided to emigrate to Canada. In 1906 she departed across the Atlantic, eventually marrying and settling there. She only came back to Britain in 1915 at the behest of the police. Astonishingly, after all of this, she was still one of the lucky ones.


The Second Bride

Her name was Edith Pegler, and in 1908 she answered an advertisement in a local Bristol newspaper placed by someone looking for a housekeeper. She got the job, and started work as a domestic servant for a man called George Joseph Smith, who ran a second hand furniture business. Within weeks, Edith and George (yes, recognise that name?) were married. They moved around every few months, living all over the south of England, often in seaside towns. Sometimes George would take over a local shop to sell his antiques, but sometimes he just did what he told Edith were private deals. He regularly left her for weeks at a time, telling her that he was travelling around the country looking for things to buy for his business. Often when he returned from these trips, he suddenly had a lot of cash — once he told Edith that he had managed to buy a Turner painting cheap and sell it on to a collector, and that’s why he suddenly had so much more money. He wrote occasionally, and he always came back in the end. On 23 December 1914, he reappeared just in time for Christmas, which he and Edith celebrated happily with her mother. Then he departed again on 1 February 1915, and Edith didn’t see him again until she spotted a photograph of a man who looked an awful lot like her husband in the newspaper. He was wanted in connection with a string of crimes including murder and bigamy, so Edith contact the police to tell them she’d been married to this man for seven years, or at least she thought she had.

Although Edith said that George was sometimes threatening to her and he did used to abandon her for months at a time, sometimes without any contact or knowledge of his whereabouts, she was relatively content to remain in the marriage. And for his part, George seemed affectionate towards her, and he did always return to her, eventually. In her excellent book The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Brides in the Bath, author Jane Robins advances the theory that the reason for this was because Edith was from a similar class background to George himself and he therefore had no feeling of inferiority with her — something he was apparently very sensitive to. She was from the lower echelons of the working class and seemingly had no middle class pretensions or connections. Perhaps it was indeed her supposed ordinariness that made him semi-faithful to her. Either way, she at least got to stay safe.


The Third Bride

Her name was Sarah Falkner, and in 1909 she met a man named George Rose in Southampton. They got chatting after a chance meeting on a walk one day, and every day for the next two weeks he called at the lodging house where she was staying. He asked her to marry him at the end of this fortnight, and initially she refused, but after he made it clear he would follow her around until she said yes, she changed her mind and agreed to be engaged. They married quickly in a registry office and then took a train straight to London, where her new husband took Sarah to a bank and encouraged her to withdraw all of her savings and hand them over to him for safekeeping. She had £300, which is equivalent to about £20,000 in today’s money. After this business was taken care of, the newlywed couple went on a trip to the National Gallery in central London. George asked Sarah to sit and wait for him in one of the rooms while he went to the toilet. She waited for an hour and he still didn’t appear, and when she asked the gallery attendants for help, they couldn’t find George either. Eventually she went back to the room they had rented in Clapham Junction, and found that George had been there before her and taken all of her jewellery and clothes, as well as the money she had drawn out from the bank. She did get to keep her life, though. The next bride wasn’t quite so lucky. Hear all about that, after the break.

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And now listeners, a small intermission where I’m going to ask if you’ve got round to signing up to the Shedunnit newsletter yet? It’s the best way to stay up to date with everything I’m doing on the show and find out when a new episode has come out, and I’ve also been making some updates so that it now includes book recommendations and links to articles on the topics discussed on the podcast so you can keep your Shedunnit enthusiasm going until the next episode drops. If that sounds good to you, head to Now, back to the brides.

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The Fourth Bride

Her name was Bessie Mundy, and in 1910 while out for a walk in the Clifton area of Bristol, she met an attractive stranger called Henry Williams. Bessie lived in rented rooms and although she seems to have had a cordial relationship with her extended family back in Dorset, her parents were dead and she lived a relatively lonely life. She was 33, an age by which the societal convention of the time dictated that she should have already been married for half a decade or more. She was well off, having inherited a legacy of £2,500 when her father died (around £200,000 today), which her uncles had invested for her so that she had a stable and regular monthly income and therefore no need to work.

Her romance with Henry Williams was a whirlwind affair. A few short weeks after first meeting him, she accepted his proposal of marriage and they ran away without telling her family to Weymouth and got married. Henry was immediately very concerned about her income, and insisted that she make her uncles send her £123 she was owed in back interest immediately. Bessie was a bit taken aback, but she wrote to her relatives and, although they had serious doubts about her new husband and even took legal advice to see if they could withhold the money, they eventually had to send her a cheque. Immediately after it arrived, Henry had it cashed and then told his new wife that he had to go to London on business for a few days and would be back the following week. He never returned.

According to the couple’s landlady, Bessie had a “hysterical fit” when she found out what had happened, but eventually pulled herself together, paid off their debts in Weymouth with her remaining pennies, and went back to Bristol to restart her life. She even enrolled in college on a secretarial course with a view to getting a job once she had finished training. She had lost that money to Henry Williams, but the trust her uncles had created had protected the full amount of her legacy from him, and now her life was getting back on track.

But then, fatefully, she decided to take a short holiday to the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare on the west coast of England. And who should she run into there on the promenade one day, but Henry Williams? He was contrition itself, saying that he had believed himself to have venereal disease and had therefore abandoned her for her own protection, and then once he realised his mistake he couldn’t track her down again. Amazingly, rather than immediately running to the nearest policeman, Bessie swallowed this story, and the couple reunited. Bessie never returned to her secretarial course or to visit her family. She and Henry moved to another seaside resort, Ramsgate in Kent, and then to nearby Herne Bay where they rented a house and furnished it themselves.

Henry was very busy after their move, getting a local solicitor to draw up wills for them both, leaving all their property to their spouse, and making sure Bessie signed hers. He also purchased a cast iron bath and had it delivered to their new home, although it was never connected to a water supply, so had to be filled manually with jugs or buckets. Almost a week after the bath arrived, on 10 July, Henry took Bessie to a local doctor and told him that she had had a fit. He did most of the talking for her, but when the doctor asked if she had any history of fits or if anyone in her family had them, Bessie was at least able to reply in the negative. Although there was no physical evidence of any fit, the doctor took Henry at his word and prescribed Bessie some medicine to help should it happen again.

Three days later, on 13 July, the same doctor was summoned at 8 in the morning by a note from Henry Williams, who said to “come at once, I am afraid my wife is dead”. When he got there, the doctor found Bessie in the bath, her head below the level of the water, which had cooled to tepid. He lifted her out and attempted to resuscitate her, but she was already dead. Given the previous consultation for the supposed fit, it was presumed that she had had another fit while in the bath and drowned. A tragic, terrible accident.

Henry, intermittently distraught about his wife’s death, haggled hard over the price of the funeral and had Bessie buried quickly and inexpensively. He then sold the almost-new furniture, gave up the lease on the house and even managed to get all his money back for the bath, the shopkeeper apparently happily accepting it as a return.


The Fifth Bride

Her name was Alice Burnham, and she lived in Southsea on the south coast of England and worked as a nurse. In September 1913, she met a man called George Smith and a month later, she wrote to her family that she was going to marry him, and that the couple wanted to come and visit her childhood home before the wedding. George and Alice went, but the visit did not go well, with the Burnhams forming a very negative impression of their daughter’s fiancé, who seemed very argumentative and extremely concerned with his much money his future wife might be entitled to. Later, Alice’s father Charles said that he sensed “something evil” about George. But in the moment, he did no more than tell his daughter to take her fiancé away, and withhold his blessing on their marriage.

They were married about a month later, without Alice’s family present. The day before the wedding, Alice handed in her notice at work and, at George’s behest, took out a substantial insurance policy on her own life. The couple then departed on a honeymoon to another seaside resort, this time in the north of England, Blackpool. There, they looked for lodgings, with George rejecting at least one place because it did not have a bath. After several days there, Alice had a persistent headache and George insisted on her seeing a doctor, who couldn’t find much wrong with her but prescribed some general remedies for good health. A couple of days after that visit, Alice took a bath one evening. Shortly after, the landlady in the kitchen below noticed water dripping through the ceiling, and assumed their guest had allowed the bath to overflow. About twenty minutes later, they heard George shouting that a doctor must be summoned, and someone ran for the one Alice had seen about her headache. Doctor Billing found Alice insensible in the bath, her husband supporting her head above the water. They lifted her out, but could not revive her. An inquest held the next day returned a verdict of accidental death, assuming that Alice had died of heart failure from a too hot bath. Her husband of six weeks buried her in Blackpool with the minimum of expense, and then departed. Alice’s family, telegraphed the news of her death by George, arrived just in time to attend the burial.


The Sixth Bride

Her name was Alice Reavil, and in September 1914 while on holiday in Bournemouth, she met a man called Charles Oliver James who came up to her on the promenade to talk about the weather and then told her he admired her figure. After four days of acquaintance, he asked her to marry him and she accepted. He asked her to sell her existing furniture and draw her savings out of the bank and give him the whole lot for “safe keeping”. Three weeks after they had first met, they went to London as husband and wife, where they moved into rented rooms in Battersea. The next day, they went for a walk in a nearby park and Charles asked Alice to wait on a bench for him while he went to the lavatory. She waited an hour and he didn’t reappear, so she went back to their room to find that he had taken anything of any value and left a letter saying he had gone to Canada. Alice lost her life savings, but perhaps surprisingly was never encouraged to take a bath — lending credence to Jane Robins theory about class. Alice, before her marriage, had like Edith Pegler worked as a domestic servant.


The Last Bride

Her name was Margaret Lofty, and she really, really wanted to get married. She had already had one engagement end in misery when it turns out that her husband to be was already married to someone else. A few months later, one afternoon in mid December she told her mother and sister, who she lived with in Bristol, that she was going out for the afternoon for tea. In fact, she went to the Post Office to withdraw her savings of £20 and then kept her appointment to meet a man named John Lloyd, who took her by train to Bath where he had arranged accommodation for the night. The next day, the pair travelled to Highgate in London, where Lloyd had already been in advance to sort out rooms, rejecting an option without a bath in favour of a house with one. Two days later, they got married at a registry office. On the evening of their wedding day, John took Margaret to see a local doctor, telling him that his wife had had a bad headache. She barely spoke, but the doctor thought she seemed a bit dazed and she had an elevated temperature — he suspected she might have the flu. He gave her some medicine and told her to return if she felt worse. The next day, John took his wife to see a solicitor so that she could make a will in his favour — she already had life insurance she had arranged before their marriage.

That evening, Margaret went up to take a bath, and the landlady downstairs heard a noise of splashing, followed by a sigh. Then she heard the organ in the sitting room being played — John was playing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”, which was the music the band were said to have played on the Titanic as the ship sank. A few minutes later he summoned the landlady to help because he had found his wife insensible in the bath. The landlady ran outside and found a constable, who attempted to revive Margaret with no success. Her funeral, which John haggled over the cost of fiercely, took place just before Christmas.


You don’t need to be a master sleuth to work out that all of these men — George, Charles, John, and so on — were the same man. Over a couple of decades, he honed a method of meeting women by chance, often in seaside resorts, and quickly convincing them to marry him. In some cases, he just robbed them, and in others he drowned them in a bath in such a way as to make it look like an accident, then claimed on the life insurance and disappeared. He had a type — usually a slightly older, middle class woman, often over 30, who was conventional enough to be desperate for matrimony because life alone was too unorthodox or difficult — and he was ruthless in seeking them out.

He was only caught in 1915 because the News of the World covered the death of Margaret Lofty, and the father of Alice Burnham saw it. It was a terrible mistake of George’s (his real name was George Joseph Smith, by the way) to go to London, where the national newspapers were based and interesting, tragic deaths like that of a bride just after her wedding would be reported and sent off around the country. The lack of records that had allowed him to assume so many different aliases and get married so many times undetected was finally trumped by the widespread distribution of newspapers. Charles Burnham sent a cutting about his own daughter’s death in the bath in Blackpool as well as the story about Margaret to his local police station, who in turn passed it on to Scotland Yard. Eventually, it arrived on the desk of Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, who doggedly set about piecing together the tale of the brides in the bath. Along with a pathologist called Bernard Spilsbury (more about him in a future episode), who conducted post mortars on the three dead brides, Neil eventually got his man in a trial that gripped the nation. Britain was at war, of course, but a serial killer with a magnetic personality and a seemingly-undectectable method of murder was much more interesting to both the press and the public. Spilsbury, by the way, conducted extensive experiments with quote an experienced lady swimmer to see how exactly one might drown a woman in a bathtub without leaving any marks of a struggle. By chance, he found that if the murderer were to approach by the feet, suddenly grasp the ankles and hoick the victim’s legs up so that their torso and head was suddenly plunged under the water, the change in pressure and rapid inflow of water into the lungs would kill almost instantly. The lady swimmer survived this experiment, as it happened, but it took them about half an hour to revive her, she swallowed so much water.


A decade after George Joseph Smith was executed for his crimes, his name had become a byword for the serial murderer who sticks to his method and yet somehow gets away with it. It’s in this guise that he is evoked in several well known novels of detective fiction’s golden age. Agatha Christie got in first, with Poirot remarking in 1923’s Murder on the Links that “Man is an unoriginal animal… The English murderer who disposed of his wives in succession by drowning them in their baths was a case in point. Had he varied his methods, he might have escaped detection to this day.” Peter Wimsey makes a similar point in 1927’s Unnatural Death, saying “Criminals always tend to repeat their effects. Look at George Smith and his brides”. In 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon Wimsey makes a joke to his new wife Harriet Vane when a new acquaintances mentions a honeymoon in Herne Bay (“Monster, do your worst! There are only hip baths here,” she retorts). Christie was still using “brides in the bath” as a shorthand in 1964’s A Caribbean Mystery — Miss Marple gently points out that “If a man gets a formula that works he won’t stop. He’ll go on.”

Ernest Robertson Punshon, a member of the detection club alongside Sayers and Christie who isn’t quite so well read today, devoted an entire novel to this subject with 1936’s The Bath Mysteries. His detective, a Scotland Yard man called Bobby Owen, is drawn into a long and complicated insurance fraud that involves a long string of men seemingly by accident drowning in their baths. It’s a good yarn, and I recommend that you seek it out. Something that Punshon grasped about this case is the sheer mundane horror of it — at one point, when Owen is waiting in hiding with colleagues outside a house to surprise a suspect, they hear the noise of running water and one policeman says “There’s water running, that’s all. Someone’s having a bath.” Owen is seized with terror, because “having a bath” is no longer just that to him, an everyday act of ablution. Having a bath could now mean someone is about to be murdered.

Perhaps the best and most thought provoking use of the brides in the bath in fiction, though, is by Margery Allingham. Her short story “Three is a Lucky Number” from 1955 is based on it, with her main character Ronald Torbay stepping into Smith’s shoes and modus operandi:

“Each of his three marriages had followed the same pattern. Using a false name, he had gone on holiday to a place where no one knew him. There he had found a middle-aged, unattractive woman, with some money of her own and no family. He had talked her into marrying him, and she had then agreed to make a will which left him all her money. Both his other wives had been shy, too. He was very careful to choose the right type of woman: someone who would not make friends quickly in a new place.”

The main difference with the setup is that Allingham makes Torbay take longer between marriages; clearly she considered Smith’s haste (I think he actually married three women within the same year at one point, killing two of them) unrealistic for fiction. She also alters the means of killing, instead having Torbay put an electric heater in the bath, conceal it with bubbles, and wait for his wife to be in the water before turning the outlet on so that she would be electrocuted instantly.

The other big change is the agency of the final bride. In Allingham’s version, Edyth is not a hapless innocent going blindly to her death; she is far to self aware for that. “Did you not realize, Ronald, that any middle-aged woman who has been rushed into marriage to a stranger will ask herself about her husband’s reason for marrying her?,” she writes in the letter she leaves for him to find among her financial paperwork in her writing case. Once he conned her into making a will straight after their wedding and started fiddling around with the bathroom, she went to the police. Two undercover officers are living next door, having convinced her to help them catch Ronald in the act. She never got into the deadly bath, instead she climbed out the window and down a ladder she had stationed here ready under the cover of clearing leaves out of the gutter, going straight next door to alert her co conspirators so they can catch Ronald in the act.

“I was stupid to marry you,” she writes, “but not quite as stupid as you thought.” With this story, Allingham belatedly gives Smith’s victims agency. She rewrites the ending, giving the last bride the murderer targeted for a watery death (in real life, it would have been Margaret Lofty) the glory of bringing him to justice. First published in a periodical in the mid 1950s as “Bluebeard’s Bathtub”, it was republished under several other titles, including “Bubble Bath No 3”, “Murder Under the Surface”, and finally “Three Is a Lucky Number”.

In Allingham’s version of the story, the brides have their revenge.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that you can join the Shedunnit Book Club for the low price of just £5 a month, and get access to the secret members forum as well as extra bonus podcasts. It’s a vital way I keep the show going, so please do support if you can — find more details and sign up at

I’ll be back on 18 September with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Knock Knock .

20. The Lady Detective Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: If you’re listening to this podcast, I feel like I can reasonably make the assumption that at some point in your life, you have read a detective novel. I’ll go further: you have probably read at least one whodunnit where the sleuth you followed so avidly was a woman, whether that was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple or Ariadne Oliver, Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, or perhaps a more modern creation set roughly when these queens of crime were working, like Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher.

But while you have enjoyed the fictional adventures of these sleuthing heroines, have you ever stopped to wonder who their real life counterparts were? Were there any actual lady detectives dashing about solving crimes when these authors were working, or was it all pure invention because society at the time would never have stood for the idea of a woman doing anything as grubby as catching a murderer or foiling a theft?

Well, wonder no longer. Today, we’re going to meet the lady detective.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


This story starts, as all the best ones do, with a woman reading a Gladys Mitchell novel one evening.

Susannah: Well, it actually started with crime fiction — with Gladys Mitchell in fact. I’ve been a golden age crime fan since I was in my early teens. And I was reading Gladys Mitchell one evening and just thinking were there really lady detective in the Golden Age of crime, doing the job for real? And so I thought Oh Google will tell me I fancy. Right. So I fancy reading a book about this. And I just order one from the library or something and I couldn’t find anything.

Caroline: This is Susannah Stapleton, a freelance historical researcher and the author of a new book that I think you’re all going to want to buy by the time we get to the end of this episode. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What happened after that first failed google search?

Susannah: Then started looking a bit deeper and I came across just one one mention in the National Archives catalogue which was a description of a photograph of Maud West as London’s leading lady detective. And it all started from there

Caroline: Susannah ordered a copy of this photograph, intrigued by who this Maud West might be, and got her first glimpse of the woman she was about to spend an awful lot more time with.

Susannah: She’s very normal looking. So she’s the photograph when it eventually arrived. Just shows is a middle aged woman. She’s got a beautiful dress on with the most amazing pleating and everything. But she’s at her office in a very ordinary office. Pick the desk is piled with papers and she’s looking through a magnifying glass at a piece of paper which I say in the book it could be a laundry list. Who knows. You know it’s it’s a publicity photograph. But she’s got sort of brown permed hair. It’s you know a little jowly. It is. And she just looks like a normal person. So not the glamour. There’s no sort of red lipstick or anything like that. Not the sort of the the glam kind of lady detective a lot of people often think about but not quite. Miss Marple either.

Caroline: So Susannah now had an idea of what this supposed lady detective looked like, but she had no other information. Luckily, though, she’s rather a dab hand at solving mysteries herself, using the power of archival research and a lot of persistence. She tracked down a few other references to Maud online, and traced them all back to a single source.

Susannah: There were just a couple of mentions online once I started to look deeper and I looked all the all of them went back to just one book which is Elsie Lang’s Women of the 20th century which is something I use all the time and I didn’t remember there being a detective in it. It’s basically a book about it was written in 1929 I think. And it’s just about the amazing things women were doing at that time. And yes and it turns out she’s just again in another list. You know it’s sort of six words: ‘Miss Maud West is a detective’.

Caroline: After another tantalisingly brief mention, the next stop was newspapers.

Susannah: The first couple of things I found were one her adverts which were in the classified ads all the time and they were just it was just like something out of Agatha Christie — adverts for her services. And for that she actually ran out ran an agency. So she had staff she had male and female staff and she was based in the centre of London in New Oxford Street.

Caroline: Suddenly, that figure in the photograph had a backstory, a business even — Maud West wasn’t just someone messing around with a magnifying glass for a photograph. She had her own agency, and was advertising for clients in Britain’s biggest newspapers. Even more thrillingly, Susannah found that Maud’s life had intersected at least once with an author of detective fiction.

Susannah: The other thing I found on that first trawl in the Times was a mention of her chairing a meeting at which Dorothy Sayers was the guest of honour talking. It was a meeting of the efficiency club which I had no idea what that that was but erm I’ve looked into it in the book and a fascinating club of professional women that were set up in 1920 when 1919 and they had guest speakers they had social nights it was all about sort of women helping other women in the business world and Dorothy Sayers came along to do a talk on efficiency and murder and Maud was in the chair at night.

Caroline: But the next set of articles that Susannah found were a lot more confusing. It seems that as well as placing advertisements and posing for publicity photographs, Maud West also wrote articles about her own exploits. And what articles they were! You can read excerpts from them between the chapters in Susannah’s book, and they are really something. In them, Maud describes in the most extravagant terms how she has foiled blackmailers, narrowly escaped armed assailants, recovered diamonds, and travelled the world, often while in disguise as a man.

Susannah: That’s when I realised I’d bitten off quite a bit more than I thought I could chew in that Maud used the tropes of detective fiction to write supposedly true stories about her work in order to publicise herself.

Caroline: Quickly, though, Susannah realised that Maud wasn’t really expecting anyone to take these stories completely seriously. They made her a bit of money, but more importantly they helped to lodge her name and brand in the minds of any prospective clients among her readers. Again and again in her ridiculous tales, she focuses on the main kinds of cases that were the real-life Maud’s bread and butter: missing persons investigations, blackmail cases, and divorce. She also did slightly more specialised work, such as attending country house parties to catch card cheats and kleptomaniacs.


Divorce was the mainstay of the private detective business in Britain in the early twentieth century, for Maud and for other proprietors of detective agencies. To understand why this was, we need to go back to the mid nineteenth century when a bill called the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 moved the dissolution of marriages from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. Up until this point, divorce had been something that was only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged, since it required a lot of arcane legal argument and a private bill to be passed through parliament.

Once divorce became a matter for the ordinary civil courts and lawyers, the volume of cases increased enormously, from three in the year before the act to 300 the year after. There were still some major hurdles and inequalities that wouldn’t be corrected until the twentieth century, including the fact that although a husband could seek a divorce just because his wife had committed adultery, a wife had to prove adultery as well as another factor such as rape, desertion or incest. The history of divorce, especially from a feminist perspective, is a fascinating topic in its own right, but the relevant point for our story today is that using adultery as grounds for a divorce required proof — there was no such thing as a no fault or mutual consent divorce as there is today.

Adultery was the easiest and most popular grounds for divorce at the time when Maud was working, but couples who wished to use it needed to have proof and witnesses to present in court in order to get their marriage annulled. As divorce was still a highly controversial and scandalous proceeding, it was often difficult to persuade the people involved to appear, especially if participating in the case would result in notoriety or damage to their reputation. This problem created a market for an impartial but reputable observer, who could be hired by a suspicious spouse in order to collect the required evidence for the divorce petition. And this observer, of course, was the private detective. There are even some excellent accounts of how in cases where there was no adultery, but a couple wanted to get divorced, a detective could help “create” the required evidence for the courts by providing a husband with a sham mistress and a cast iron set of witnesses. This was commonly known as a “Brighton quickie”, since Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England, was a popular location for Londoners seeking to end marriages in this way.

As for the rest of Maud’s work? Well, she did all sorts, Susannah says.

Susannah: Blackmail really came into its own in the 1920s. And so Maude was working between 1985 and 1939 so it covers an amazing period of social change and and especially change in women’s lives. So that so divorce and blackmail and missing people. Nothing. It was very much easier to disappear in those days without term social media and CCTV and everything like that. So. And everything from checking up on people’s fiances to the business credit checking services because there weren’t credit checking agencies. They were basically snooped on everyone and anyone it want to hear and they would travel abroad to do it as well — they would they would go wherever they were needed [00:09:00][4.2]

Caroline: It would seem that there was plenty of work for a private detective in London in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. But was Maud the only woman to become a professional sleuth? More on that, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about an offer I have with Audible that is a bit of a win win — you can get a free audiobook, and I get some money to keep the podcast going. This is how it works: if you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription using the podcast’s link at, I get £5 back as a kind of finder’s fee. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy because I don’t have to give the fiver back! There are thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings, but today I want to particularly recommend that you choose the audiobook of Susannah’s book, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, which is read by the author herself and includes loads more detail that we weren’t able to cover in this episode. Visit and click the link at the top now to get your free audiobook and give the podcast some free money. Now, back to the show.


So, was Maud West the only lady detective in London?

Susannah: No she wasn’t. She was one of only a handful to actually run an agency. There were hundreds hundreds of female detectives because women were needed to be able to go undercover in places that men couldn’t. You bet. But no there were there were few very few who ran their own agencies and most of them didn’t last very long. But Maud had one great rival called Kate Easton who actually ran a detective agency literally across the road from her office.

Caroline: Maud and Kate were direct competitors, as women who ran rival agencies on the same street in London. Susannah is actually going to read us the bit of her book where she explains how this went down:

Susannah: So for 20 years their adverts battled it out in the newspapers jostling for the attention of readers in a pingpong of superlatives indefinite articles. Maude west London’s lady detective Kate Easton the lady detective Maude west London’s foremost lady detective Kate Easton London’s leading women in every branch of detective work and so on Maude won eventually if only because Kate Easton retired in 1929. By then of course Maude had been sending photographs of herself to the press with the caption London’s only lady detective for quite some time

Caroline: It’s interesting, I think, that both Maud and Kate made much of their gender in their advertisements — they clearly saw it as an advantage in their work and a possible attraction to their clients. It’s not hard to imagine why, either. Although much had changed for women in the decades during which Maud worked, British society at the time was still very rigid and governed by class hierarchies. A woman, especially dressed in the uniform of a servant, wasn’t of much consequence to most people, and could thus pass mostly unseen in lots of scenarios.

Funnily enough, we have an example of this tactic in fiction in the form of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 by Emma Orczy (who is more famous as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel). Lady Molly is a professional detective with the Metropolitan Police, and she relies heavily on what she calls her “feminine intuition” to solve cases, although a lot of the time it’s more owing to the fact that she can disguise herself as a charwoman and work in the house of a suspect to gather intelligence that a male detective would never get just by asking for it in the official manner.

Maud West was rather fond of a disguise, both for her publicity stories and her real cases. But who was she really? And what would make someone want to devote themselves to the life of a private detective, which was still considered a rather shady and seedy profession? Susannah has spent an awfully long time trying to find out.

Susannah: She was very elusive for quite some time and it was only when I started to find out that she was very elusive quite some time because as I found out she actually wanted to be. She had a sort of another persona hidden away which I eventually sort of found out. And it was only when I sort of managed to dig beneath the Maud West persona which is an absolute who I mean she would dress up as Charlie Chaplin and to show off her disguise skills and at one point she threatened to shoot a ghost. To say on such a publicity set as a publicity stunt to prove that it wasn’t real. But beneath that it was only when I managed to get beneath that that veneer theatre. Yes she did. I start to get a real sense of her as a person and of her her real life.

Caroline: We’re not going to say much more about this, because Maud’s story is a great whodunnit in itself and you should read the book to find out more. But something I am still curious about is how her life and work intersects with the detective fiction of the period — she was a professional, after all, not an amateur, and as a result her work differed quite a bit from that of Miss Marple, say. There’s a bit less murder and a bit more routine missing persons cases in Maud’s casebook.

Susannah: Well I would say that you do find her type of work in those things but there subplot subplots you know it. And private detectives rarely dealt with murder mainly because that was the police’s job. But then when you start talking about private detectives and the police it gets very tangled. Because the majority of private detectives in London during that time were in fact Scotland Yard inspectors who had retired set up their own agencies and then hired ex bobbies you know from the beat. So almost it’s sort of that apart from the fact that one was official and one wasn’t — it’s a real old boys network. Maud and Katie Easton also both employed ex police on their staff and everything. So there was there was that connection between police and private detectives. And I think when it came to murder cases I would be amazed if they weren’t consulted you know in some sort of swift pint after work kind of way. And but it would have been very much sort of behind the scenes and not something that would’ve ever come up in court which is one of the main ways that we can trace what was happening at this time because private detectives records very very rarely exist now because they just destroyed the confidentiality

Caroline: This last point is a good one: the reason why Maud West isn’t somebody that lots of people, even diehard fans of detective fiction know about, is because she was deliberately trying to fade into the shadows. That made Susannah’s job all the harder — Maud trod very lightly through the pages of history, and what traces Susannah has been able to find were very difficult to winkle out. In a way, she had to become a lady detective herself, tracking down a missing person.

Susannah: I think if I had known what it was going to be like I probably wouldn’t have started it. It was thrilling and hilarious. I mean I haven’t laughed as much doing any other research before. It is just wonderful things come. But there is one thing I like the fact this is the first quote in the book you find it which absolutely sums up how I feel at the end of writing this book. And it is something that Maud West wrote in 1914. “In all good faith to other women who would become detectives, I would utter one word of advice: don’t”. And she is spot on.

Caroline: You have been warned, aspiring lady detectives. Sleuthing isn’t quite as easy as the stories make it seem.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guest today Susannah Stapleton, and to The Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our recording.

Just a reminder, you can get the audiobook with Susannah reading her book about Maud West for free if you sign up for a trial with Audible, and by doing this you’re also making a £5 donation to the podcast. Head to to do that right now. I’ll be back on 24 July with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Murder Goes On Holiday.

19. Back To School Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: School is enclosed world. Perhaps you finished your education just a handful of years ago, or perhaps it’s been decades. But either way, I bet you can still remember the claustrophobic atmosphere of the place: its cliques, its gossip, its competitiveness, its feuds. Memories of our schooldays are inexorably intertwined with our feelings about being young, and then leaving that time behind to join the grown up world. Recalling it in too much detail can be a melancholy exercise.

For a lot of these reasons, schools have long been a popular setting for fiction — there’s a well defined set of characters, the emotions can easily boil over, and the rumour-mongering power of such a closed community can be a very useful plot device. Boarding school stories in particular have a history going back a couple of centuries at least, as authors have enjoyed imagining adventures for children and teens relatively free of adult supervision.

You might have spotted, though, that a lot of the factors that makes schools and colleges great settings for fiction in general also make them a perfect backdrop for detective stories. Everything from the strict adherence to a timetable to the application of school rules can help build a rigid structure for a sleuth to subvert. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that plenty of authors from Agatha Christie to Dorothy L. Sayers to Nicholas Blake and more have experimented with whodunnits set in the world of education, and that the tradition continues to this day.

Today, we’re going back to school.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


The very first school story is generally considered to be a set of linked short stories by the writer Sarah Fielding, published in 1749 under the title The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Fielding’s schoolmistress, who was brilliantly named Mrs Teachum, is “a gentlewoman who undertook the education of young ladies”. She has nine pupils at her little school, and one day after lessons they start fighting over who should get the biggest apple in the basket. The subsequent chapters are all about how the girls begin to grow up and learn to be less selfish, interspersed with fairy stories and fables with clearly relevant morals. It’s a very early example of a full-length work written to be read by children, and appeared at a time when it was only beginning to be appreciated that children had their own tastes and interests separate from adults.

Up until this point, the few books for or about children that had been published were generally very transparently aimed at moral or religious education — thinly disguised versions of the catechism or Bible stories. But through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, middle class children were more and more seen as a profitable market for publishers, and more and more authors began to include school-based plots in their works — whether they were aimed at adults or children. After all, school should be a pretty universal experience, and we start to see that in fiction, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from 1847 to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield in 1850, and then perhaps the most famous nineteenth century school story, Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which was published in 1857. The wild popularity of this last book made this subgenre of books set in schools a fixture.

In England, boarding school — also sometimes called public school — was a popular educational route for the very rich who could afford to pay the fees. Through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it was residential schools that inspired some of the most famous school stories. Since there were different schools for boys and girls, different authors were writing different stories on each side. Some of the most famous girls’ school stories come from Angela Brazil, who published her first one A Terrible Tomboy in 1904, and Enid Blyton, who began her school-writing stories with The Naughtiest Girl in the School in 1940, quickly followed by works in her other school series St Clare’s and Mallory Towers. For boys, the Billy Bunter stories by Charles Hamilton and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, also both from the first quarter of the twentieth century, dominate.

I was a huge fan of all of these series when I was a child, but my absolute favourite was the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I devoured those books, reading them over and over again, and to be quite honest I often do open them again when I feel like my brain needs a rest or I want to feel cosy and safe. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to see the connection between the closed world of the early twentieth century boarding school story and the classic whodunnit. Yet crime is a popular theme in these stories, albeit mostly of a “who took the last biscuit from the tuck box” kind, and pupils often take on the mantel of impromptu amateur detective to solve the puzzle. Long before Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery set partly in a girls’ boarding school, authors like Blyton and Brent-Dyer were experimenting with what it could mean to introduce a sleuthing element to a school story.

A really good example of this crossover can be found in a popular comic strip for girls called The Silent Three which ran in a comic for girls called School Friend from 1950 to 1963. Here’s Moira Redmond, a long time fan, to tell you more:

Moira: Most of the girls reading the comic would not have been as gone to a boarding school. So there was Bunty, there was School Friend Crystal — they all changed names over the time. The particular favourite was The Silent Three, who were in School Friend and they were girls who dressed up in robes and cowls and masks to solve crimes. I mean they were quite extraordinary but we loved them we thought they were wonderful. They were at St. Kitts and they nobody knew who they were. They were was hidden amongst the schoolchildren everybody knew that the silent three would solve crimes and they would find a justice and they would fight it but nobody knew who they were. Well any any seven eight nine year old girl worth her salt is just going to a door There’s a classic one with a maid has been is being fired because she’s thought to have broken something or stolen something they will find out who really did before the crime it’s nearly always somebody is wrongly accused and they go to help her. I think there was also cheating in exams stealing from the top boxes and all that kind of thing. The usual stuff.

Caroline: Moira was also an avid reader of school stories growing up, and credits Enid Blyton’s miniature whodunnits with inspiring her love of detective fiction as an adult.

Moira:  I still wonder if my great love of crime fiction as an adult in fact dates from First Term at Malory Towers where there is a very memorable plot line where Darrell Rivers who’s the heroine of the books she’s been wrongly accused of breaking another girl’s pen heaved a very important piece of kit and she is being sent to Coventry by the other girls because it seems clear that she must have committed the crime. Now another girl shy Mary Lou who hero worship ships. Darrell decides that she knows that drill could not have committed this crime so she has to find out who did it. She thinks about it and she thinks I’m somebody. I’m gonna be able to find this through someone’s shoes a stamp stamped on the pant and there’ll be ink on the shoes. And brave Mary Lou goes down in the middle of the night and such as the cupboards till she finds the shoes which have been hidden the ink stained shoes. And that means she can prove to everybody who committed the crime and the really embarrassing thing is that I haven’t had to check that or look that up. I remember every detail of this plot. It’s not embarrassing. That’s just that’s just really a rather large number of years I haven’t had to check any of that. I know that that’s what happens in first time a man retires. And I was so struck by this the fact that Darryl was wrongly accused the fact that someone else could go forward and solve this crime. I loved it and that was the start.

Caroline: There are lots of other examples of this — a suspected thief is caught stealing the supplies for a midnight feast at St Clare’s, numerous instances in different stories of pupils found stealing from their peers so that they can give the items back and thus gain social standing, even a hunt to find a crucial alibi in a castle guest book in the brilliant if eccentric novel The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb. Within the world of the school story, it seems plausible that pupils would take matters into their own hands and solve their own mysteries, because parents aren’t involved and teachers are merely remote cyphers, there to have pranks played upon them. Indeed, some of the schools, like the Chalet School and the unusually progressive boarding school in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series actively encourage the students to dispense their own justice. The latter has a kind of school tribunal, where miscreants are investigated and then, if guilty, punished with no involvement from the teachers.

This is the special attraction of the boarding school setting, really, Moira says.

Moira: The boarding school is great because it’s a closed world, there’s no parents. There are teachers but you’re allowed to ignore those to some extent. So you’ve got those aspects which will make the story interesting and I think also that children reading them. You can imagine yourself in that situation and you’d think suppose that everybody thought that I’d stolen Jane’s sweets and it wasn’t me. What would happen. I think we like the idea that actually somebody would believe in us because the very striking thing is that in the injustice ones is the people’s certainty that the person who’s been accused wasn’t guilty which is a personal knowledge thing and that I think is quite an important trait in these.

Caroline: It’s that naturally enclosed, unsupervised world, which is just so perfect for detective fiction. And we’re going to find out all about how mystery writers have used it, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about the Shedunnit book club, the membership scheme that I’ve started alongside the podcast that is both helping to fund the show and proving to be such a lovely, supportive community. If you’re listening to this episode on the day it is released, the members will be gathering in the secret club forum to discuss our June book, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I can’t wait to get on to the July title, because it’s going to be the first time reading Josephine Tey for some. If you’d like to be introduced to new detective novels and make some new online pals while you do it, you can join now for just £5 at Now, back to the episode.

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When I think about true golden age detective fiction that has effectively utilised the school setting, the most school story-ish title that comes to mind is Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof from 1935. As we heard in episode 14, Blake was the pseudonym of the British poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis, and this was the first of over a dozen detective novels he wrote featuring his amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. In this story, Strangeways is called into a boys’ boarding school by a friend who is a teacher there, after one of the pupils has been found strangled inside a haystack on the school sports day. As he gently probes into the various goings-on at the school, he brings to light all kinds of tensions among the staff, including illicit affairs and workplace bullying, as well a brilliant, mysterious secret society run by the boys. The rigid framework of everyday school life proves invaluable to Blake in constructing the plot too, which Strangeways able to rule people in or out of the frame by testing where they really were against where the school timetable required them to be. It’s a smart, only mildly improbably story that, in my opinion, far outshines the rest of the Strangeway novels, just because it makes such good use of its boarding school setting.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night was published the same year as A Question of Proof. Although it isn’t strictly a murder mystery — there’s no actual body — it does concern a spate of more minor crimes including vandalism and a vicious campaign of anonymous letters happening over a couple of terms in a women’s college at Oxford University. The students and dons all live in the college, so it’s an awful lot like a boarding school, with a set routine, uniform and controlled entrance and exit points to give the writer some restrictions around which to mould her plot. There’s a lot to say about this book that isn’t strictly relevant to this theme, since it’s mostly a novel that tackles issues of women’s education and societal role, plus some stuff about academia vs so-called real life and so on, but as a pure school story, I think it’s very nearly perfect.

Harriet Vane, an alumna of the college, is asked by the dons to take up residence again on the pretext of doing research for a new novel, and so be on the spot to investigate the antics of the “poison pen” without having to face the kerfuffle of calling in the police or university authorities. There are numerous incidents where the socially and physically closed environment of the college is brought to the fore, such as when the malefactor is dashing around the college at night removing all the fuses so that nobody can turn on an electric light, and Harriet pursues her, trying to use it as an opportunity both to unmask her villain but if not that, then at least remove some people from the suspect list who she can see are still in their rooms and thus can’t be the miscreant. This is very useful to the plot, but only possible because of the traditional quadrangle style college buildings, where a sleuth can stand on the lawn in the centre and see all the windows on all four sides. With so many bright women, all with their way to make in the world and their worth to prove over and over, in such close proximity to each other, is it any wonder that things begin to go off the rails? That’s the central question of the book, and it underlines again and again how vital the setting is to the subject.

Josephine Tey also chose a further education establishment as the setting for her “school” based mystery, Miss Pym Disposes, which was published in 1947. Leys is a physical training college for young women who want to work as sports teachers, and the titular Miss Pym is a psychologist and a friend of the head of the college, who visits to give a talk. Almost all of the book is taken up with Lucy Pym’s observations of college life, of how the young woman cope with the stresses of the extremely rigorous course they are taking, and of how they interact with each other. She sees how tightly scheduled their time is and how all-consuming all of the studying and practising they have to do is, and then when there is a death, all of that factors very heavily into the way she thinks about the case. This rigid timetable, as well as the enclosed world at Leys make Miss Pym Disposes a classic school mystery, even if the pupils are a bit older. I’ve actually talked about this book before with Moira Redmond on the queer clues episode of this podcast, episode 3, so if you’d like to hear more about it from another perspective do go back and check that out.

Perhaps the most famous detective novel set in a school is actually the one that has the least to add to a discussion of the setting. Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons was published in 1958, arguably too late to be truly from that golden age between the world wars, and it’s also got elements of espionage and thriller that move it away from being a classic whodunnit. There are several chapters set in a fictional middle eastern country called Ramat before we even arrive at Meadowbank school, although that is then where the actual murders take place. Although there’s plenty of tension and drama between the staff, most of the pupils don’t have much character, other than the two who take centre stage in the mystery and eventually bring in Hercule Poirot to look at the case. As a school story, then, Cat Among the Pigeons has very few of the classic tropes of the genre, although once again the closed setting and the reputational difficulties caused by a murder at a high end girls school are both strings that Christie pulls on to get her plot running. It’s still a great read though — we read it in the Shedunnit Book Club in May and I think it went down pretty well.

So we’ve established why schools are popular settings for detective novels, and looked at a few examples of how writers have handled them. But something I’m very aware of with this topic is that authors are still tackling it today. Just in the last few years there have been some great examples of school or college-based crime stories, such as Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun, Tana French’s The Secret Place, and — most significantly for me, because I’m a big fan of hers — Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series. This last is probably the most classically-inspired school-based detective story since the golden age. It’s set in the 1930s, at the fictional girls boarding school Deepdean, and follows the adventures of two pupils, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, as they solve the murders that seem to happen fairly regularly in their vicinity. Here’s Robin, explaining how she got the idea to combine these two kinds of story:

Robin: when I was 13 I was sent to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies College in Cheltenham which is of course one of the very big very old very fancy British boarding schools. And I turned up there as I mean I grew up in England. I was born in America but I was raised very American my mother gave me old American food American holidays American accent as you can hear. So I turned up at Cheltenham and I just was bewildered by it. There are all these rules but nobody told you but you just had to know like there was a staircase. You could only go up if you were a fifth former or above. But I didn’t know that. And I went up it and I got told off and I just kept being brought up short by all these strange things that everyone acted like were normal. And I thought then it would just be such a great place to set a murder mystery because it’s so enclosed It’s so weird. Everybody knows each other very well it’s got ticks all the boxes for a perfect setting and I also really wanted to write a story about my own experience of boarding school because I had been a big fan of Enid Blyton and all her school stories and I was really thrilled to go off to boarding school. And it was sort of like that but it was different in this small but crucial ways. I wanted to put those differences down into a book. And so just the idea floated in my head I think even while I was at Cheltenham thinking it would be so great to write a story about my experiences it was so great to write a murder mystery it is so great to write a murder mystery at boarding school. And so even though I didn’t sit down actually start to write murder most unladylike till I was 22 and I left school about four or five years. I’ve been out of school I’ve been through university. I think I was thinking about it from a very early age. I added in some thing that I wished had been at my school but wasn’t. So at Cheltenham there was a bricked off blocked off little passageway that it used to go from I think it was from the hall to this to the west wing of the school and girls used to go under there to go hide from rain while they went between lessons and the whole. And I wish that that had been open. I thought that was it a cool creepy thing. And so in my deep dream it is open. It is still there and as it heads off get into it at one important point of murder most unladylike.

Caroline: Robin’s books, like most early twentieth century school stories, are written to be accessible to younger readers, but she’s also very conscious of working within the traditions of detective fiction. As such, she keeps both the Deepdean school rules she’s invented and the rules of detective fiction in mind when creating her plots.

Robin: I take rules seriously. I like thinking about them I like working within them and playing with them and choosing which ones to break careful and then breaking them as hard as I can. So yeah I’m definitely an observer of fair play like Agatha Christie. I like to drop all of the hints possible. I like to make sure all the suspects are really well defined. So I’m thinking about the the 10 Rules that Father Knox put in place and I’m sort of problematising them. I’m playing with them and I’m using them

Caroline: Beyond her characters and plots, something that makes Robin’s stories great fun for grown ups who like detective fiction to read is how referential they are within the genre. Daisy is a huge fan of detective novels, and tries very hard to conduct her investigations with Hazel along the lines of her sleuthing heroes. This has a function beyond just adding fun easter eggs to the books, though, Robin says — it helps to embed her stories in the detective tradition.

Robin:  All of the books that Daisy reads are my favorites. And you can I hope that readers can track her reading list and read read it themselves and get a really good grounding into my favorite Golden Age detective stories and the stories that influence me but I also think that it’s quite a golden age detective trope to have the detective. Oh quite self-aware and aware of themselves as being in a story that is slightly fictionalized slightly weird like detectives will say quite a lot. They’ll be like. Good thing we’re not in a detective story. Or like if this was a detective story. The murder of walk into the room right now. And so I kind of love that self knowing this and the richness of it. And so I’m trying to give Daisy and Hazel a little bit of that of that kind of consciousness. [

Caroline: As a nice bonus, Robin is also training up a new generation of detective fiction fans.

Robin: A lot of children say that they read my books and then they move on up to Agatha Christie which is exactly what I was hoping for. And you know partly I created the books to be in the space between Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie which of course there wasn’t that space when I was younger and the fact that there is now is so great and especially lovely. They read my third book first class murder which is obviously based on murder on the Orient Express by the Christie. It’s very influenced by that in terms of its setting and then they go and read or watch murder on the Orient Express and that’s how they get into Agatha Christie. So it’s all working perfectly as I hoped.

Caroline: Robin has now written seven full length Deepdean novels and some short stories, and the eighth instalment, Top Marks for Murder, is out on 8 August. However, she’s not tired yet of working with the school setting — it’s endlessly interesting to her.

Robin: I think boarding school particularly is just so fascinating because it’s got the element of being enclosed being separated off from the rest of the world and all of the people inside a boarding school are in some way separate in some way special I mean partly special you know because they’ve sort of been selected in some way by wealth or attainment or some other characteristic. But it does make them make them different makes them interesting and it makes them really weird and I think that any setting where you’re in a small enclosed space with people all around you you become you get your own slang you get your own way of thinking and you will talk to each other in a way that you sort of forget isn’t the way that everyone else in the rest of the world talks. And so you can get very sort of then very narrow focus and sort of start forgetting the wider world exists and myself as well. I remember from my boarding school days that all that mattered were the girls around me and how you know whether what we were friends whether we were arguing who had been mean to who. What you heard about this teacher that teacher you know it was all just so precise and so narrow. And I think that it breeds resentment it breeds tension and suspicion and stress. And also I do remember at my boarding school there was a lot of pressure there’s pressure to get good marks and exams there was pressure to behave. There was pressure to be the best and the most important and brightest and that kind of pressure does it breeds this stress and confusion and jealousy which is great for a mystery writer. That’s what you want.

Caroline: The heyday of the pure boarding school story and the golden age of detective fiction might both be far in the past now, but it’s reassuring to know that the tropes that first attracted writers to them remain a strong draw. The school setting just works too well for mysteries for it to be left behind.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned in today’s episode at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guests, Moria Redmond and Robin Stevens. You can find links to Moira’s blog about schoolgirl detectives and Robin’s books in the description for this episode.

I’ve been a bit rubbish recently about updating the podcast’s social media accounts, but I’m determined to get back on it — follow me at ShedunnitShow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see pictures of the books I’ve discussed and plenty of other detective fiction trivia.

I’ll be back on 10 July with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Detective.

18. Florence Maybrick II Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.Noise of train approaching

Caroline: A few weeks ago, on a rainy Monday afternoon, I took a train towards Liverpool from the village where I live.

Train announcer: This train is for Liverpool Central

Caroline: Then, from the city centre, I took another train out to the suburbs that stretch along the river Mersey to the east of Liverpool. I got off at a station called Aigburth and started walking away from the train line through the rainy streets.

Sound of footsteps.

There was a main road not far away, I could hear the rumble of traffic, but these leafy avenues were quiet. I could hear birdsong and the rattle of rain in the mature trees that grow out of the pavements here. Already, I was slipping into sleuthing mode, and these trees were a clue. The trunks are thick and gnarled and the canopies spread wide. They’re far older than some of the houses that sit in their shade, some of which look as if they were built in the last couple of decades.

I rounded a final corner and came into a street with low rise modern flats on one side and Liverpool Cricket Club’s ground on the other. So far, so conventional. You could find the same kind of buildings in a thousand other suburban streets across Britain.

But as I got further south, closer to the river the houses changed. Now they were big, gracious, multi-storey buildings, set back and shielded from the road by an imposing stone wall. The frontages were white, the sash windows large, and the gardens mature. I was nearly at my destination.

Finally, I stopped in front of a particular gate, at the address I had researched and marked on the map before setting off. The house looked like all the others in the row: an impressive Victorian villa with a bay window at the front overlooking the lawn. Except this house has a history. Although it now just goes by its number and street name, it used to be called something different. This is Battlecrease House, and this is where in 1889 a young woman called Florence Maybrick was arrested on suspicion of using arsenic to murder her husband.


I wanted to see Florence’s house for myself, because I wanted to feel sure that her extraordinary story did have its roots in reality. Aspects of her case seem too fantastical, too improbable to be true, and yet they are as solid and enduring as the building I had trekked through the rain to find. On 14 May 1889, three days after her husband died, she was placed under arrest in the spare room here. On Saturday the 18th, her solicitor was told to be at the house by 2pm. Eight men, including a magistrate and the police superintendent, entered Florence’s room, and she was formally charged with murder. Two policeman carried her, white as a sheet, downstairs in a chair. She was put into a carriage and the horses were whipped into a brisk pace, down to the main Aigburth Road and then off to the jail. Meanwhile, Florence’s mother, the Baroness von Roques, hammered on the locked door of the bedroom where she had been sent to ‘rest’, so that she would not be able to obstruct the removal of her daughter by the police.

What came next was a trial that gripped the nation and tested Britain’s legal system to the limit. It also had lasting repercussions for the public’s awareness of poisoning, the role of women in society, and the myth of middle class domesticity as somehow immune from vice and degradation. Today, we’re continuing the story of Florence Maybrick.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


In this episode, I’m concluding the story of Florence Maybrick. The first part of this tale appeared as episode 16 of this podcast, so do go back and listen to that first if you haven’t already. Just in case, a brief refresher of the story so far: Florence Chandler, aged 17, met a Liverpool cotton merchant called James Maybrick on board a ship crossing the Atlantic in 1880. They soon got married, settled down together and had two children, and to all intents and purposes looked like a prosperous, happy nineteenth century family. But behind closed doors there were whispers of cruelty, abuse and adultery, and in 1889 James became ill and died. He was unwell for several weeks before he finally passed away, and during that time his servants, friends and relatives began to suspect that he was being poisoned by his wife. Although there was no immediate evidence or even verifiable testimony that showed this, Florence was arrested and removed to prison to await the inquest on her husband’s body.

In the intervening period between her arrest and the beginning of the legal proceedings, the press went wild. Although, of course, any subsequent trial should be conducted independently of any pre-existing speculation, it’s highly unlikely that those involved didn’t have their opinions coloured by the sheer mass of conflicting theories and libellous allegations that were flying around. Florence’s mother Carrie came in for a good deal of the latter. Her rather colourful life, which I talked about in more detail in part one, intensified the public’s prejudices against her daughter. Reports from American newspapers were republished in the British dailies. It began to be pointed out that her first husband, a wealthy banker, had died extremely suddenly soon after Florence’s birth, and that the precise cause of his death wasn’t widely known. Carrie had married a Confederate officer very rapidly after, and then he had died quickly too, and was buried at sea with what some considered to be unseemly haste. Lastly, the fact that she was separated but not divorced from the Baron von Roques made her less respectable too. One newspaper even called her “a Lucretia Borgia incarnate”.

Of course, none of this had any direct bearing on Florence’s case or James’s death. But it’s worth understanding a little the atmosphere in which Florence Maybrick had to prove her innocence. She was already an outsider as an American, and now she was commonly understood to be the daughter of an adventuress who may or may not have poisoned one or more husbands herself. Kate Colquhoun in her great book about this case, Did She Kill Him?, writes that quote “Florence would be judged not simply under the law but against complex ideas of womanhood”. Ideas about what kind of woman she was weren’t formed by reliable evidence or scientific analysis. They were a more nebulous cultural formation, knitted together from scraps of gossip into the late Victorian maelstrom of modernity and morality. This aroma of unrespectability and sin was to follow Florence around for years, long after the events of 1889. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.


The inquest on James’s body was carried out in a public court, which meant that all the servants from Battlecrease House were questioned by the coroner in front of a breathless gallery full of excited onlookers. The nursery maid Alice Yapp repeated her suspicions about Florence’s handling of James’s medicines, as did the nurse engaged to look after him near the end. The cook mentioned the confusion in the kitchen about the master’s food coming back from upstairs tasting sweeter than it had been made. Several of the servants spoke about seeing Florence soaking flypapers in a bowl of water and described the violent confrontation between Mr and Mrs Maybrick the night they returned from the Grand National race meet at Aintree. Although Florence’s lawyer William Pickford was careful to establish that the flypapers had not been soaked in secret — they were in a bowl on Florence’s dressing table and she left the door wide open — there can be no doubt that observers left the court with a strong impression of a husband and wife who had come to hate each other, and a lethal concoction that had been quietly stewing away under everyone’s nose. Given the fame of the so-called “Black Widows of Liverpool” case just five years before, in which two women from the city had been convicted of using flypapers to murder a husband, it’s not surprising that this was the conclusion everyone jumped to. Florence’s unguarded letter to her lover Alfred Brierley was also read out.

Yet the police analyst had still not established a conclusive cause of death for James Maybrick. As I said before, there was arsenic everywhere in Battlecrease House, mostly in the wide variety of patent medicines he loved to take, but very little actually in his body. The state gave permission for an exhumation so that further samples could be taken, and in the meantime Florence was remanded in custody. She had now been in prison for over two weeks. The further tests on her husband’s corpse were similarly confounding for the prosecution. There were only tiny traces of it in his intestines, liver and kidneys, but none in his stomach, which would have been expected if he had died from a fatal dose. Florence’s lawyer triumphantly pointed this out when the analyst gave this evidence to the inquest. He made a special point of drawing the jury’s attention to this paucity of arsenic in the victim’s body, clearly believing that without its presence Florence could not be held any further on the charge of having administered it.

But he was wrong. After a brief deliberation of just thirty-five minutes, the jury returned and the foreman announced that by twelve to two they considered that James Maybrick had been deliberately poisoned by his wife in an act of wilful murder. The jury, by the way, was made up only of men from the professions and trades. It would remain illegal for women to serve as jurors in Britain for another three decades, until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919, and even then certain land ownership requirements remained in place for jurors. Which is not to say of course that the outcome of James Maybrick’s inquest would have been different had the jury selection pool been wider. It’s just worth noting that this is one of the many ways that the legal system was restricted and biased at this time. But that’s by the by. Florence Maybrick was now bound over for a criminal trial at the newly-built St George’s Hall, a vast neoclassical civic building in the centre of Liverpool. If found guilty, she could face the death penalty.

More on that, after the break.


Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really love it if you’d pause this episode right after I finish this sentence, and spend five seconds either leaving a review for the show in your podcast app, or texting a friend to tell them to download it. If you include the link in your message, they can start listening right away, no matter what kind of platform they usually use for podcasts! I don’t have a marketing budget or anything for this how, so I really rely on you, listeners, to help me spread the word about Shedunnit and make it a sustainable thing I can keep doing. Done that? Right, let’s get back to poor Florence.


Florence was brought from the prison to the assizes at St George’s Hall in a closed carriage. A new jury had been sworn in for this fresh trial, men drawn from the Lancashire region beyond the Liverpool. The public benches were stuffed with the city’s most notable citizens, eagerly anticipating the next chapter in the drama of what the newspapers were calling The Maybrick Murder (all caps). Florence wore a mourning dress and a veil, and when asked how she plead to the charge of murder, she answered firmly: not guilty.

It was relatively rare to see a woman in the dock on such a serious charge at all, let alone one from the prosperous middle class like Florence. Perhaps this had something to do with the unusual numbers of women who chose to attend the trial as spectators, too — the newspapers made much of the quote “strange spell of fascination” it exerted over them.

Over the days of the trial, all of the same evidence from Florence’s servants and James’s brothers was went over again, as well as all of the conflicting testimony from the medical experts who had examined James’s body and the other materials taken from Battlecrease House for poison. For a detailed blow by blow account of what was said in court, I recommend Kate Colquhoun’s book or the Maybrick volume from the second series of Notable British Trials. Suffice it to say here that things got very complicated and confusing, with witnesses qualifying statements they had made at earlier hearings with new details and impossibilities emerging. For instance: it was fairly well established that Florence had added a powder to a bottle of meat juice (she said she did this at James’s urging, he wanted relief from one of his favourite medicines) and she was seen by the nurse to do so. But the nurse was sufficiently concerned by Florence’s behaviour that she made a point of replacing the bottle with a fresh, unopened one, and was positive that her patient never drank anything from the supposedly tainted one.

This pattern kept coming up — there were damning moments for Florence, but nothing that absolutely unequivocally showed she had actually caused her husband direct harm. In fact, the early suspicions of the nursery maid and James’s family almost acted in her favour at this late stage — by removing her from the sickroom and watching her more carefully, they were actually able to give a better account of her actions than perhaps would have been the case had there been no concerns. However, their statements didn’t clear her either. Her defence rested on two main points: there was no conclusive evidence that James Maybrick had died from arsenic or any other kind of poisoning, and there was no direct evidence that his wife had administered said poison. In addition, in his summing up her lead barrister Sir Charles Russell made a good deal of the fact that she was relatively alone and friendless in Britain; that she had expressed concerns about her husband’s use of patent medicines to a doctor long before he became seriously unwell; and that she was merely the victim of nasty suspicion.

Russell also took the unusual step of allowing Florence to make a direct statement to the court, since under the rules of the time she was not otherwise allowed to speak in her own defence or give evidence. Having Florence, heavily veiled and sorrowful, speak openly added greatly the drama of the trial. She briefly mentioned her children, and said that on his deathbed James had forgiven her for her sins against him (no doubt referring to her adultery). The two key points she addressed though, were the matter of the bottle of meat juice, which she explained as I mentioned before, and also this matter of her soaking flypapers. She said that she had been in the habit for a long time of doing this to make a face wash that contained arsenic, according to a recipe given to her by a chemist back in the United States. Her appearance and manner seems to have been reviewed relatively favourably by the press at least — she didn’t do herself any harm in their eyes by speaking out. Although the atmosphere of the trial was still highly charged, I suspect that her lawyers were fairly confident of getting a favourable verdict, given the lack of conclusive proof provided by the prosecution. That is, until the judge began to speak.


The judge, James Fitzpatrick Stephen, undoubtedly swayed the case against Florence. He summed up for a full 12 hours, during which he cast substantial doubt on the reliability of the scientific evidence, but ended with a vicious censure of Florence’s adultery and other behaviour. It was, he said in the final moments, “a horrible and incredible thought that a woman should be plotting the death of her husband in order that she might be left at liberty to follow her own degrading vices”. As an afterthought, he added the customary words to the jury that they must not find Florence guilty unless they were absolutely sure that the case against her was proven. Stephen, incidentally, was an older brother of the critic and author Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. James Stephen was a philosophical sparring partner of the influential theologian John Henry Newman, and had a reputation as a staunch traditionalist. By the time Florence Maybrick came up before him, he was very near the end of his life, and there have been suggestions that his powers were waning. Abruptly, after all those hours of speaking, he dismissed the jury to deliberate about 3pm.

It took just 43 minutes. Some of the women in the public gallery were holding bunches of flowers when the court reconvened, ready to hand them to Florence in congratulation for her exoneration. Except… when the foreman of the jury was asked whether they had found the prisoner guilty or not guilty of the murder of James Maybrick, he replied: Guilty. Judge Stephen put on the black cap and sentenced her to death. The crowd hissed and then yelled as, half fainting, she was dragged away.


A storm erupted in Britain after the verdict in Florence Maybrick’s case. The newspapers for the time are stuffed full of furious letters and interviews, as lawyers protested that her case had never been properly proved, and scientists argued that the analysis results hadn’t been properly understood by the jury. Reading it now it feels like the fallout from a culture clash: modernity, in the form of more enlightened judicial and medical practices was butting up against Victorian traditionalism, and this poor woman was caught in the middle. The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, was besieged with petitions and attempted deputations pleading for a new ruling in Florence’s case. In fact, the popular outcry almost counted against her, since Matthews was known to be a stubborn man and was loathe for it to appear that newspapers and plebs could change his mind. He remained closeted for days with experts and clerks, trying to recalculate the amount of arsenic found in James Maybrick’s body, and straighten out all of the tangles produced by Florence’s trial. Meanwhile, she remained in prison. The mechanism for her execution was checked, and the date was set.

On the evening before she was due to be hanged, Matthews recommended to the Queen that her sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. He believed that Florence Maybrick was guilty, but he also felt that there was quote “grounds for reasonable doubt whether the arsenic administered was in fact the cause of his death”. He was satisfied that she had the intent to murder, but not that she had actually done so in this particular manner. She was therefore to be imprisoned on the lesser charge of attempted murder, even though she had not actually be tried or found guilty of this, and her death sentence would be rescinded. Soon after, Florence was moved south to Woking Gaol and began her indefinite stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

And that’s where she stayed for years, as times changed, the Victorian age came to an end, and attitudes to women shifted. Her mother and representatives of the US government campaigned periodically for her release, but successive new home secretaries kept kicking her case into the long grass, reluctant to take the reputational hit that would come with releasing her and admitting that a grave legal mistake had been made. Because that’s really what all this was about, ultimately: I’ve read a lot about this case and I still have no idea if Florence Maybrick was actually guilty of killing her husband, but I do feel pretty certain that nothing against her was ever properly proved during her trial. Justice isn’t as black and white as ‘she did it’ or ‘she didn’t do it’. Innocent people end up in prison and the guilty walk free. But the system is nothing if it doesn’t adhere to strict standards of evidence and that basic tenet that people are innocent until proven otherwise. And Florence, to my mind at least, was never proven guilty.


Then, in 1903, a new home secretary announced that Florence would be released the following year, having served 15 years in prison. There was no public inquiry into her case, or even real explanation as to why she was now being let go after so many years of having her appeals denied. The times had changed; she was no longer infamous. A new generation had grown up while she had been behind bars, and the idea of the arsenic-wielding husband-killer was no longer such a powerfully disruptive one. She was transferred to a convent in Cornwall for the final six months, so that she could transition back to normal life, and then on 20 July 1904, she walked free. She went first to France to visit her ageing mother, and then back to America. For a while, she was something of a celebrity, and was asked to speak on her case and on prison reform. She published a book soon after her release called “My Lost Fifteen Years”, but she quickly faded out of the limelight. Many of the people who had followed her case so voraciously at the time had moved on, or had died themselves. It was a new century now, and she belonged to the dramatic moral battles of the one before. Florence gradually withdrew from public life. She moved to rural Connecticut and lived in a small cabin under a different name, and kept cats. She never saw her children again — they were fostered by Michael Maybrick’s London doctor and grew up without her. When she died in 1941, it was as a lonely old American woman. There was little to connect her to the charming young girl who had once turned the head of all British society.


As I’ve hinted, the Maybrick case had a profound effect on the way murder, and in particular domestic murder, was thought of in Britain. It was one of the cases mentioned by George Orwell in his essay about the “Elizabethan period’ of murder, and it was alluded to by several novelists of detective fiction’s golden age. Anthony Berkeley in particular was very affected by it. He was inspired by the Maybrick case to write 1926’s The Wychford Poisoning Case, which he called “a psychological detective story”, and considered a departure from the puzzle-based plots popular elsewhere at the time. The parallels are obvious: a foreign born woman (in this case, she’s French), is sentenced to hang for poisoning her husband. She supposedly extracted arsenic from flypapers and it was found in his medicine as well as his food and drink. Berkeley’s amateur detective Roger Sheringham sets out to prove her innocence, when even her lawyers think she did it.

Sheringham is no feminist, though — notably in this book he declares that quote “nearly all women…. are idiots”. Berkeley too had a complicated relationship to this topic, which I hope to unpack in more detail in a future episode. His interest in Florence Maybrick (and in Edith Thompson, whose case I explored in episode seven) was centered on adultery more than anything else. He had a passion himself for the married novelist EM Delafield, and believed that the censure and societal discrimination still meted out to those who ended or escaped from marriage was severe and unwarranted. He and Delafield debated this often, for they were close friends, even if Berkeley never did succeed in pairing up with her. Golden age critic Martin Edwards has written that they regarded both Thomson and Maybrick as quote “victims of a hypocritical morality that punished them for having sex outside marriage”. Perhaps that’s how Berkeley saw himself, too.

For writes like Berkeley, Sayers, Christie and their colleagues, the Maybrick case encapsulated so many of the themes they grappled with in fiction. Florence had, whether deliberately or unwittingly, exposed the seedy underbelly of the supposedly respectable middle class Victorian way of life. The real horror was in the home, not out there in the dark alleyways of Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims. Spousals poisonings appear so often in detective fiction, and they can all be traced back to the Maybricks. Then the legal quagmire Florence experienced spoke to the detective novelists’ interest in injustice, and the plot potential of unpunished guilt. Finally, Florence was that tantalising object, the potential female murderer. They’re so rare in real life, yet so prevalent in fiction. The idea of the angel of the house transformed into an avenging demon is compelling on the page, although perhaps unconvincing in reality.

For all that Florence Maybrick lived on in the collective psyche, it’s hard not to find what happened to her unutterably sad. She called her autobiography “My Lost Fifteen Years”, but it seems more accurate to say that it was the rest of her life that was taken from her, even though her death sentence was never carried out.


By way of a postscript: I promised to reveal the Jack the Ripper connection to the Maybrick case, and it is this. In 1992, more than a hundred years after his death, a diary was produced purporting to be written by James Maybrick, in which he confessed to the murders of the five women commonly identified as the Ripper’s victims, plus two others. It was published the following year and has been the source of great controversy ever since, with its finder recanting and reaffirming its provenance a number of times. A few experts have verified it, but most dismiss it as some kind of ephemera or hoax. As someone who has no interest in the vast enterprise that is Ripperology, I find this posthumous connection to the Maybrick case extremely amusing. There is so much that is genuinely horrible about what happened to James and Florence; it’s almost laughable that this got tacked on afterwards. Anyway, if you’re interest, there’s a lot you can read about this online, and I’ll include some links in the show notes.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned in today’s episode at the show notes for this episode at two. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that you can join the Shedunnit Book Club for the low price of just £5 a month, and get access to the secret members forum as well as extra bonus podcasts. It’s a vital way I keep the show going, so please do support if you can — find more details and sign up at
I’ll be back on 26 June with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Back To School.

17. On The Thames Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: The Thames is probably the most storied river in the world. Its 215 mile expanse, from its source at Kemble in Gloucestershire to the far reaches of the estuary where it joins the North Sea on the east coast, feature in countless poems, novels, songs, paintings and folk tales. The presence of the river has even become closely associated with patriotism and Britishness: it’s where royal pageants are held, and the most important buildings in the UK’s capital city stand on its banks.

But the Thames also has a dark side. For just as long, its fast-flowing, tidal waters have attracted those with something to hide or business to transact out of reach of the authorities. Beneath London’s famous bridges a parallel lawless city exists on the river, where bodies can be quietly disposed of or contraband goods smuggled away. For this reason, the river is also a popular character in detective fiction, with new stories constantly being added to its existing mythology. Of course, many of them centre on London, but there is also marvellous crime writing encompassing all parts of the river, turning its peculiar disposition and attributes into clever elements of a whodunnit’s plot.

So strap on your sea legs and hold on tight. Today, we’re going on the Thames.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


I want to start by explaining why this topic interests me so much, and why I’m making this podcast now. You see, for the past five years or so, I’ve been working on a book of my own. I’m sorry to say that it’s not a detective novel (although there is quite a lot about Harriet Vane in chapter one, I couldn’t help myself). It’s a narrative non-fiction book all about the Thames, in particular its estuary, and my own relationship to it — part memoir, part nature writing, part history I’d say is an accurate description of it. It’s called The Way to the Sea, and it focuses particularly on the myths and stories that have been woven around the Thames from source to sea over the centuries, from apocryphal tales of monsters and demons to verifiable accounts of shipwrecks and great floods. And as for why I’m sharing this with you now. . . Well, the book is finally published on 6 June, so I’m finally able to talk about it at a time when people can actually get hold of a copy to read for themselves if they’re interested. Check the show notes for links and more information on that.

During half a decade of reading every book I could find about the Thames, I naturally started to think about how what I was learning about the river and its power as a force for narrative intersected with other things I’m interested in, such as detective fiction. I began collecting crime novels that were set on the Thames, or which had something to contribute to the wealth of mythology around the river. The more I read in this area, the more I came to realise that the major events over the past three hundred years that shaped the way the Thames exists today, from the change in the way shipping was unloaded to the building of the flood barrier, also helped create the version of the river that works so well in detective fiction. But for there to be a successful detective, there needs to be a crime, so let’s start with why the Thames has always been so closely associated with law breaking.


It all comes down to the unique and strange physical characteristics of the river, you see. The Thames isn’t the longest river in the UK (that honour goes to the Severn) nor the fastest (the Spey, the Swale and the Arun all clock quicker times). But a complicated set of geological circumstances has created an extraordinarily long tideway on the Thames — twice a day, the tide flows a hundred miles inland from the North Sea all the way to Teddington Lock in the west of London. The tidal range is huge as well, with a difference of as much as seven metres between high and low water in some places at certain times of year. This, combined with all of the curves and switchbacks the river makes as it flows east, has made the Thames a complicated river to navigate, with strange currents, rips and swirls all over the place. It’s a dangerous place for amateur boatsmen to spend time, and this sense of peril, combined with the natural disposal characteristics of a fast flowing tidal river, always attracted a criminal element.

Then it’s also important to know that the most famous section of the Thames — the bit that runs through central London — used to be a lot wider than it is today. When the Romans arrived at the site where they would build Londinium in 43 CE, it is thought that it was roughly five times as wide as it is today. Deposited silt and sediment gradually narrowed the river over the centuries, but it was still broad and had gradual, silty foreshores on either side that inclined slowly up to meet the banks. Then in the nineteenth century when the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with cleaning up the incredibly polluted, diseased and disgusting river, he built artificial embankments that contained large sewers on either side, filling in the space behind to create reclaimed land for parks and promenades. But before this hard stone edge was built into the river, that foreshore was a major site of criminal activity, as people left everything from human remains to household rubbish at the tideline in the hope that the Thames would just wash it away. Out of sight, out of mind is a big theme when it comes to the river.

There was also a major problem of jurisdiction. Before the advent of organised, state-sponsored law enforcement, there was no one body that had authority over what happened on the Thames. For instance: if a crime was committed somewhere on the water west of the Tower of London, it was the City of London’s problem. Further east, and it was the county of Middlesex. Nobody could agree which entity owned the foreshore, or the bridges, or the river bed. This had implications for maintenance — part of the reason why the river was so fetid for so long in the mid 1800s was because all these bodies refused to bear to cost of cleaning it up — but it affected policing particularly acutely. And as we all know, when it comes to bureaucracy and officialdom, if something is difficult to work out, chances are absolutely nothing will get done.


The biggest draw for criminals, though, beyond just the excellent waste disposal opportunities offered by the Thames, was the vast quantity of ships and goods it contained. Until the end of the 18th century when protected locked basins began to be dug in the river’s north bank, all the thousands of ships that arrived in London had to wait midstream for a wharf to be available for them to unload. It was said that at the busiest times it was possible to walk from bank to bank without getting wet just by hopping across their decks. As London expanded and yet more cargo turned up on every tide, this temporary waterborne city developed a terrible crime problem. Thames pirates in small boats would roam the river, stopping merchantmen on their way back out to sea and pinching valuable cargo, which could be instantly turned into cash at any of the dodgy riverside markets where buyers wouldn’t ask too many questions. Some of these thieves even used to masquerade as genuine dockers, convince sailors to lower cargo into their boat for delivery to a wharf, and then vanish with it into the murk. It was estimated that at least half a million pounds worth of goods disappeared like this in the year 1797 alone.

In an attempt to stem this crime wave, the social reformer Patrick Colquhoun produced a report entitled A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, in which he documented all the different ways that wrongdoing was happening on the water. Among the species of criminal he identified were “river pirates, night plunderers, river pilferers, fraudulent lumbers, scuffle-hunters, mudlarks, lightermen, artificers and crooked labourers”, and he argued that a dedicated unit of men patrolling the Thames at all times was necessary to curb all this illegal activity.

At first, various merchants of the West India trade route put up money to pay for Colquhoun’s “Thames River Police”. The officers were hired from among the ranks of ancient river professions like the watermen and the dockers, and they were an instant success — foiling robberies, preventing violence and acting as a deterrent. In 1800, the British government took over funding the unit and expanded it, making it the first official police force anywhere in the country, nearly 30 years before Robert Peel first put bobbies on the beat in what was to become the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829.

Of course, the Thames River Police, now known as the Marine Policing Unit, didn’t eradicate crime on the river altogether — far from it. And even if the large-scale thievery was reduced, the river was still a kind of no man’s land, running through London but not completely part of it, a grey area in which to conduct dark deeds. In the nineteenth century dead bodies washed up on every tide, and even today it is said that on average a corpse a week is found somewhere in the Thames. The river’s curves and quirks tend to deposit them in the same places over and over again, too, such as the “Dead Man’s Hole” just by Tower Bridge and the western foreshore of the Isle of Dogs. In many cases, it’s impossible to make an identification, or even work out the details of how the person died. Their life, and their identity, is obliterated by the waters. Is it any wonder that detective novelists have always been so drawn to the Thames? It’s a crime writer’s dream, a river that conceals gruesome secrets under the noses of the rich and powerful. More on that, after the break.


Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to strongly recommend that you join the Shedunnit book club, the membership scheme that I’ve started to give the show a sustainable future and to create a space for like-minded readers to enjoy their favourite whodunnits. This very day (if you’re listening to this on the day the episode comes out) the more than a hundred people who have joined so far will be gather in the secret members’ forum to discuss our very first book pick, Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie. For just £5 a month, you can be one of them — I can say honestly that the forum is now one of the highlights of my days, with people posting pictures of their dogs, chatting about audiobooks, and generally being lovely in a way you don’t often find on the internet. If you would like to find out more and join, visit, and I hope to see you in the forum soon. Now, back to the river.


The first detective novel in which I was really aware of the Thames’s presence was Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, her 1935 story about Harriet Vane’s return to Oxford to investigate a series of unpleasant anonymous letters at her old college. It’s an unusual story, this — I don’t want to say too much in case some listeners haven’t read it yet, but in many ways it’s more of a psychological study and a meditation on academia than it is an actual whodunnit. But the Thames is a constant presence in it, both as Harriet’s refuge where she bathes and punts when her memories of Oxford become to painful, and as a potential place of death later in the book. At the very end, Harriet faces a tough decision, and she takes it on the banks on the river, where she realises that quote “No one can bathe in the same river twice, not even in the Isis” (the Isis is the fancy name given to the Thames in Oxford, by the way, there’s more on that in my book). The river has been a temporary escape from her past, but it only flows onward, towards the sea. It’s there to teach her that even when solved, crimes cannot be undone, and words cannot be taken back. Actions have consequences.

Sayers isn’t the only author to have found the river near Oxford particularly inspiring, though. Another Detection Club member, and the author of that “decalogue” of rules for detective fiction that we enjoyed unpacking back in episode nine, published perhaps a more literally-minded idea of a Thames whodunnit in 1929’s Footsteps at the Lock. Ronald Knox has two cousins and erstwhile Oxford university students, Derek and Nigel Burtell, head upriver on a supposedly relaxing canoeing trip. Derek disappears, presumed dead, and then a couple of days later his apparently innocent cousin does too. All that’s left for private investigator Miles Bredon to go on is a series of strange wet footprints on a footbridge near the lock where Derek disappeared. The story is absolutely stuffed with clues and classic puzzle mystery devices, from imposters to secret codes, and I have to say I’m not a total fan of the wry tone in which Knox writes, or his frequent winks at the reader from the page.

But I do really like how much detail there is in the book about the traditional way of life on the upper Thames that was just about still there in the 1920s, embodied in the character of Burgess, the gardening obsessed lock keeper. There’s also lots of great bits about the canoes and punts visitors could hire to camp in as they beetled about on the beautiful stream, overhung with willows and inhabited by herons, in the manner of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat from three decades before. Knox even acknowledges how unlikely a setting it is for a murder, having Bredon say part way through “The Upper River is the last place where your’e likely to meet an old acquaintance with a grievance and a shot-gun.” Unlike the sometimes seedy character of the Thames downstream in London and beyond, here in the upper reaches death cannot touch its pastoral wonders.

Perhaps the most directly Thames-related whodunnit, the most perfectly rivery mystery, is to be found in a short story by another Detection Club member, the Irish novelist Freeman Wills Crofts. “Dark Waters” was actually published long after the so-called golden age of detective fiction had come to a close with the advent of the second world war, since it first appeared in the London Evening Standard in September 1953. Yet since Crofts published his first novel in 1920 and was a contemporary of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, taking part in several of the collaborative works I mentioned in episode nine, I think this story belongs with his golden age work. It’s a deceptively simple and short tale, showing Crofts’ genius for cunning plot construction, with a thriller-esque twist to it that I don’t want to spoil by giving more details. But it’s a brilliant example of the place the Thames holds in the collective psyche as the taker-away of all awkward problems. As the central character says: “The Thames! What was the river for, if not to meet the problems of those who lived on its banks?”

Gladys Mitchell was also inspired to explore the possibilities of the Thames for detective fiction a bit after the interwar period. Her 1943 novel Sunset Over Soho does a wonderful job of skipping between different locations on the river, reminding the reader always that no matter how different Soho might be from Kensington, and Chiswick from rural Gloucestershire, it’s all still the Thames, and the water flows through it all. It is a war novel, interestingly: Mitchell’s recurring sleuth Mrs Bradley is volunteering at a Rest Centre in Soho during the Blitz when a strange coffin appears in the Centre’s cellar containing the body of someone who was poisoned with arsenic, albeit a couple of years ago. Through a slightly tenuous leap of deduction (she recognises a dressing gown pattern in the corpse’s wrappings), Mrs Bradley then unravels an extremely tall tale that takes in trans Atlantic sea adventures, Spanish sailors, Dominican nuns, awkward sex scenes and secret trapdoors. It’s a divisive book this, with even some Mitchell fans admitting that they can’t get on with it, but I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt because of how much I like the river-based encounters between the hero David Harben and the strange, nymph-like woman Leda who swims up to his boat one night and sets him on a path that contains murder and adventure.

The final Thames mystery that I want to talk about today is Josephine Tey’s 1936 story A Shilling for Candles. This one is vastly different to what Gladys Mitchell came up with in response to the river, and indeed some would probably say I’m stretching a point to even say that it is about the Thames. The main plot focuses on the murder of a film actress on the beach near the cliffs in Kent, a seemingly impossible crime since there are no traces of anyone coming near enough to drown her. Tey leads readers and her detective Alan Grant on a wild goose chase all across the county and beyond, having him zip up and down to London by road and rail. But it’s only much later that it occurs to him that there’s a major route out of the city and down to the coast that he has neglected: the river. It was there all the time, hiding in plain sight.

Since my own book focuses particularly on the estuary end of the Thames, since that’s where I grew up, Tey’s take on the river is particularly gratifying to me. She grasped what so many others missed: the river is a single living entity, carrying water and knowledge and memories out to sea. There’s so many ways that it can play host to mysteries — I’ve just scratched the surface here and I’ll include a longer list of river-based titles you might like to try in the show notes. After reading them, I hope you’ll agree with me that the depths of the Thames are most definitely worth exploring.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books I’ve mentioned in today’s episode in the show notes at There, you can also read a full transcript.

Just a reminder that my very own book about the Thames, The Way to the Sea, is out next week, i.e. on 6 June! If you are interested in getting a copy, there is information and links to various retailers in the show notes or at And if you want to do me an extra favour, consider pre-ordering a copy! You get your book at a slightly better price, and it helps show booksellers that this is a book they should be paying attention to. That’s it for today — I’ll be back on 12 June with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Florence Maybrick, Part Two.

16. Florence Maybrick I Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: It was the spring of 1880 when a young woman named Florence Chandler and her mother, the Baroness von Roques, boarded a steamer in New York bound for Liverpool. Florence was just 17, beautiful, eager and ready for adventure. On board the SS Baltic she met James Maybrick, a British cotton broker 24 years her senior. The pair became attached immediately, spending the long days at sea in each other’s company and attending the dinners and receptions for first class passengers together.

Sixteen months later, Florence and James were married at a church in London. They had their first child in Liverpool, and then spent a couple of years living across the Atlantic in Virginia, where James had regular business dealings. Then, in 1886, they set up home properly in the prosperous river-side Liverpool suburb of Grassendale. That summer, a daughter was born, and the Maybricks generally gave the appearance of being a happy, well to do nineteenth century family. They entertained friends and family at home, took drives in the countryside, and attended the theatre and the races with the cream of Liverpool society.

That was how it looked from the outside. Behind closed doors, it was quite different. Tensions were already developing that within three years would lead to a murder charge, a death sentence, and international notoriety that was still lingering decades later when the novelists of detective fiction’s golden age were writing.

This is the story of Florence Maybrick.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. Since this is kind of a complicated case, I’m actually going to tell this one over two episodes, so we don’t have to skimp on any of the details. So in this part, we’ll learn all about the domestic life of Florence and James Maybrick, how they tried to keep up appearances with showy domesticity in the 1880s, and how everything collapsed into horror and suspicion. Then in the next part, which you’ll hear on 12 June, I’ll deal with the aftermath of this poisonous tragedy, how the resulting trial influenced the way people thought about murder, and how decades later these attitudes fed into the fiction of writers like Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley. Oh, and there’s a Jack the Ripper dimension as well. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. Let’s start at the beginning.


Florence Chandler was born in September 1862 in the prosperous American seaport of Mobile, Alabama. Her mother Carrie was from a well-to-do New York family and her father William, a banker, had been one of the most eligible bachelors in the south before the Civil War started in 1861. But Florence didn’t have a particularly stable upbringing or education. Carrie herself had a colourful life long before her daughter hit the headlines. She partied hard as a newlywed in Alabama, simultaneously delighting and shocking her new southern neighbours. William died three months before Florence was born, and less than a year later Carrie had married a Confederate officer named Frank DuBarry.

There were whispers that she had been close to DuBarry before her first husband’s death, and after she was catapulted into the limelight as Florence’s mother two decades later, this old gossip caught fire as newspapers scrabbled desperately for any other scandal in the family. DuBarry had died at sea in 1864, and by the time Florence had settled down with James Maybrick in Liverpool Carrie had married a third husband, the impoverished Prussian cavalry officer Baron Adophe von Roques. She separated from him soon after the wedding, although she still went by the title of Baroness and they didn’t divorce. Burying two husbands within five years and then living apart from a third certainly raised eyebrows in late nineteenth century Britain. Carrie’s questionable social position and behaviour certainly didn’t help her daughter appear more respectable, and the disrupted, wandering nature of her childhood and teenage years just added to this effect.

Carrie had also caused problems between her daughter and her husband. She was constantly in need of money and on several occasions had convinced her son-in-law to make her loans which she then never repaid. By 1887 he was so furious with her that for a few months he forbade Florence from receiving letters from her mother, and only allowed her to write to Carrie at his own dictation. There’s also a suggestion that he was hoping for more money from his marriage to Florence. Anglo-British marriages, especially between the heirs to Old World aristocratic titles and New World ingenues with plenty of new money were all the rage at this time, perhaps embodied most famously by the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Manchester in 1895.

Neither Florence nor James was quite in that league, but given that her mother had been the toast of Alabama society and was now married to a Prussian Baron, it’s perhaps not unreasonable that James might have expected to gain something more financially from the marriage than just the responsibility for his new mother-in-law’s debts. Florence, too, could be something of a spendthrift — when relations between the couple began to sour in late 1888, arguments about money were at the heart of it.

James’s cotton trading business wasn’t quite as prosperous as he liked people to think, and he was dabbling in more risky but potentially more profitable futures rather than just straight commodity importing. Since so much of financial trading like this relied on personal reputation and gentleman’s agreements, it was vital that the household keep up a wealthy appearance, even if it was just an act. The cotton business in Liverpool was huge — the six million bales a year that arrived across the Atlantic from accounted for nearly half of the city’s imports. The links between this port city in the north west of England with the southern states like Alabama, where Florence was born, were so strong that Liverpool had actually supported the south during the Civil War, hoisting Confederate flags over its public buildings. James was trying to keep his position among a lot of competition as he tried to maintain the illusion of success and prosperity for his business partners on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, the Maybricks kept spending money on clothes and living in an expensive rented villa, even though — as Florence wrote to her mother in late 1887 once the prohibition on personal letters was lifted by her erratic husband — they were down to assets of just £1,500, with only £500 as cash in the bank.

But although Florence was worried about money and feeling lonely because of the lack of contact with her family and her situation as a transplanted American in Britain, the Maybricks’ life jogged along in relative comfort until early 1889. They had a cook, several maids and a nursery maid to look after the children, and the house was always busy with visits from James’s brothers and their family friends. But then in early March of that year, Florence did something that would set off a chain of events that would alter the course of her life.

More on that, after the break.

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It was in March 1889 that Florence took the trip to London that really sealed her fate. She took a room at a hotel in the West End under the confusing alias of “Mrs Thomas Maybrick”, assuming the character of her own fictional sister-in-law, and stayed there for three nights. A waiter from the hotel later testified at her trial that she had had a male companion most of the time, and that this companion had also stayed at the hotel in the same room as Mrs Maybrick. He identified this man in court as Alfred Brierley, another Liverpool cotton merchant with whom Florence was known to have a close, flirtatious relationship. While in London, she also had dinner with a childhood friend and confessed that she was planning on seeing a lawyer during her trip about a possible separation or divorce from her husband, because he was “cruel to her and struck her”.

It was her public display of affection towards Brierley at the Grand National race meet at Aintree the end of March that caused a crisis in the relations between James and Florence. She was familiar with Brierley for the whole day, going about on his arm and avoiding her husband’s company to a degree that other racegoers commented on it to James, which made him furious. When they got home that evening there was a row that culminated in James physically assaulting his wife, tearing her dress and blackening her eye. Judging by her letters, this wasn’t the first time he’d done this. On this occasion, he then tried to eject her from their home, and it seems that only the intervention of the servants prevented him from doing so. The accounts of this rely mostly on the servants’ testimony, but it seems like there was no suggestion of James knowing about Florence’s tryst in London with Brierley. He was just furious about her behaviour at the races that day. Florence had also recently discovered that James had had infidelities of his own, and that he had one long-term mistress who he saw regularly. It’s unclear how exactly she found this out — whether she worked out where some of their dwindling cash was going, or if James let something slip. But the fact that he was punishing Florence for her interest in another man while carrying on affairs of his own and expecting her to carry on playing the role of dutiful wife certainly added intensity to their quarrel.

Both physically collapsed after the scene, but the next day pretended to the household that nothing had happened, although the incident understandably only strengthened Florence’s desire to leave the marriage. She sought advice from a family friend, Matilda Briggs, who had successfully managed a separation from her husband, and had even managed to avoid the social censure that was usual when a woman in the late nineteenth century refused to tolerate an unhappy or abusive marriage any longer and sought to end it. Matilda, who was also a friend of James’s, tried to persuade Florence to attempt a reconciliation, and suggested that their family doctor should mediate. This was partially successful — James did agree to take care of Florence’s debts, but he was suspicious of the real purpose of her trip to London. However, he was willing to give the marriage another go, as long as she was.

Not long after this, James was taken ill with stomach trouble and retired to bed. Despite their recent conflict, Florence nursed him, supervising his food and making sure that he was comfortable. According to the later accounts of his friends and colleagues, James Maybrick was a huge hypochondriac and a serial consumer of patent medicines. He regularly consulted multiple doctors in both Liverpool and London, complaining variously of headaches, numb legs, gastric trouble and liver pains. As a result, he was prescribed an astonishing array of tonics, pills, powders and solutions, many of which contained toxic ingredients like strychnine and arsenic in varying quantities. Florence didn’t like this habit, and was convinced that James would one day take too much of something and do himself harm. She perhaps even suspected that he was addicted to arsenic. A few months before, when a Dr Humphreys was at the house to treat the children for whooping cough, Florence raised her concerns about her husband’s dependence on these medicines with him. In a horrible foreshadowing of what was to come, the doctor brushed off her concerns as the hysterical fears of a young wife, and even joked that if James should ever die suddenly as a result of taking an overdose of something, “You can always say that we spoke about it.” Of course, when the worst happened, the fact that she had been afraid that her husband would do himself an injury with his self-medicating habits didn’t do Florence any good.


One of the striking features about the Maybrick case is just how much poison there was everywhere. The house was strewn with it, with bottles, packets, pill boxes and parcels all over the place. It’s astonishing that nobody had died sooner, really.

James continued to feel ill on and off over the next few days. To start with it seemed like any of the other times he had taken to his bed complaining of stomach pains and numb legs. Florence tried to comfort him and the servants brought him traditional Victorian invalid foods like gruel made from arrowroot and chicken broth, and he kept recovering sufficiently to go into his office in the city, and then relapsing and returning to his bed. Different doctors were called, and all agreed that James had gastric trouble and suggested a restricted diet and ‘soothing’ tonics. So far, so usual for the time — great medical advances had been made in the preceding decades, but even a rich person’s experience of medicine in the 1880s was still shot through with guess work and home remedies. James had been sick like this before, and since he had a mortal fear of illness and death, it’s highly likely that at least some of his family and friends considered it to be an illness of the mind, rather than the body. Rest and plenty of attention from his wife and doctors usually did the trick.

But as the days went on, James didn’t get better. Gradually, suspicion began to seep into the household, like a noxious gas, filtering under the doors and spreading to the upper floors. It all began with the nursery maid, Alice Yapp. She felt that Florence wasn’t always very kind to her sick husband, refusing to rub his painful hands, and that she was trying to keep the servants out of his bedroom. One of the other maids had said that sometimes the food sent up for James to eat came back to the kitchen tasting or smelling different — sweeter, usually. Alice communicated all of this in private to two family friends when they came to visit James, and they too began to look at Florence differently.

Then Alice remembered that a few weeks before she had seen a bowl of flypapers soaking in water on Florence’s dressing table. Flypapers were readily available for purchase at any chemists and they contained arsenic. A sensational murder case in Liverpool in 1884 had widely publicised the fact that they could be easily soaked to extract a poisonous solution. Two women, Catharine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins, had been convicted of murdering the latter’s husband this way and collecting an insurance payout. After seeing the bowl in the Maybrick household, Alice Yapp immediately jumped to the conclusion that something similar was happening here.

Two more things happened around this time that proved significant later on. First, Florence, completely miserable, wrote a letter to Alfred Brierley telling him about James’s illness. She described her husband as “sick unto death” and underlined it, and implored Brierley not to leave for a business trip to America until she had been able to see him again. Ever trusting, she gave the letter to Alice Yapp to put in the post. Alice claimed later that Florence’s little daughter Gladys dropped the letter in a puddle on the way to the post office, and that was how she came to read its contents. Instead of just asking for a new envelope and sending it as her mistress had instructed, Yapp brought the letter back and gave it to James’s brother Edwin. He shared its contents with the rest of the family circle, and this apparent proof of Florence’s infidelity, together with the other issues Alice had already raised, deepened their suspicions of Florence. Michael Maybrick asked the doctor to take samples of James’s vomit to test it for poison, and banned Florence from her husband’s sickroom. These results came back negative, with the doctor confirming that he had found no poison in James’s fluids.

Shortly after, one of the nurses hired to care for James reported seeing Florence come into her husband’s room around midnight, remove a small bottle of meat juice from his bedside table, and tamper with it by adding a powder. However, the nurse maintained that James had never actually drunk from the bottle. Florence later explained this incident by saying that her husband had begged her to add one of his patent powders to the juice because he was in need of ‘a pick-me-up’.

It didn’t change what happened next. By the evening of 11 May, James Maybrick was failing fast. His children were taken in to see him one last time while his wife lay unconscious in the spare room, exhausted by the weight of suspicions around her. At five o clock, he died.


The pre-existing suspicion that Florence was in some way responsible for her husband’s death quickly set a predictable chain of events in motion. A doctor tested that bottle of meat juice that Florence had apparently tampered with, and found that it contained half a grain of arsenic. Less than 24 hours after James Maybrick died, a police inspector arrived at the house. The rooms were ransacked and a huge collection of arsenic-containing items were amassed, including plenty of James’s own medicines, some powder sold as a cat killer, several pieces of crockery, and lots of random bottles. Samples were taken from all of these and sent off for analysis. Florence remained unconscious in the spare room, unaware of what was going on until the police came to arrest her.

The scientific analysts who tried to establish whether James had in fact been poisoned had a mountain of different substances and mixtures to test. The strange thing is that the only place where they really struggled to find a substantial presence of arsenic was in the body of James Maybrick. A postmortem was performed in the bedroom where he had died, and then his body was also later exhumed so that further samples could be taken for more tests. In both cases, only a small amount of arsenic — about three quarters of a grain, way less than the fatal dose of about three grains — was found. If this was a detective story, you’d say that all of the poisonous medicines piled up by James’s sickbed were a red herring, and that he actually met his death in some other undetectable and ingenious way.

But because it was real life, there was just a huge amount of confusion, with different lawyers and police officials choosing to put more or less emphasis on the presence of some medicines, and scientists contradicting themselves and each other as they tried to make a convincing case for a cause of death. And at the heart of it all, a man was dead — a man afraid of illness who had put his trust in the apparently all-knowing doctors of his time. Yet the best they could do for him was to recommend things like the popular patent remedy Fowler’s Solution which contained a solution of potassium arsenite mixed with a drop of lavender oil. This concoction was supposed to cure everything from syphilis to lumbago to diabetes to snake bites.

Florence was soon charged with her husband’s murder, mostly thanks to the early evidence of Alice Yapp and the nurse. She was initially kept confined in the spare room at the house, unable to leave even to attend James’s funeral. Then, she was taken to Walton Jail on the outskirts of Liverpool to await the inquest on her husband’s body and any subsequent trial. The city’s three main newspapers were immediately filled with coverage of her arrest and the suspicions that her husband had been poisoned, and soon the national press were running the story too. Reporters crowded around the carriage, trying to get a glimpse of her, this American woman who had failed so spectacularly and publicly as a wife.

Because that’s what so much of this was about, and it’s also one of the reasons why the Maybrick case lived on in the public imagination — the British tabloids are still running stories about it today. Florence Maybrick lived at a time when the role of women was changing. In the preceding decades, several legal changes had altered women’s rights to their own property and children. They were no longer their husband’s chattels. The feminist movement was growing, as was the campaign for women’s suffrage. But at the same time, the strictures of Victorian morality prevailed. To a large portion of the political and social establishment, a woman’s place was in the home. Double standards around behaviour and infidelity were considered completely acceptable. This is why Florence’s downfall was so titillating to the vast majority of the reading public. She should have been the essence of conventionally passive femininity, the heart of the home, the source of nourishment and safety and security. And yet she had subverted that at every turn by seeking her own pleasure outside of the marriage, allegedly administering poison to her husband, thereby completely ruining the family’s reputation and her own. She was what society at the time most featured: a disruptive, selfish, monstrous, murderous woman. She was Flaubert’s Madam Bovary come to life. When you add to that the other details such as the prying, tale-telling servants and the hapless doctors, you begin to see why this case touched a nerve with the middle classes, high on its cocktail of adultery and arsenic. It exposed all of their fears.

Tune in again on 12 June for the second part of Florence’s story and to hear all about her sensational trial. Oh, and apparently James Maybrick was really Jack the Ripper. I’ll get into that then, too.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books I’ve mentioned in today’s episode in the show notes at There, you can also read a full transcript.

This podcast is barely six months old and yet it already has such a solid and lovely community around it. I want to say thank you for that and all of the support, whether you’ve joined the book club, left a nice review, told a friend, bought a book from the wishlist, or just sent me an encouraging email. I’m heading into one of the busiest and most terrifying period of my career so far, because my first book comes out in a couple of weeks, and as I’m trying to convince myself to stay calm and knowing that you listeners wish me well is very comforting. Don’t forget that for more episodes and a lovely community reading experience, you can join the Shedunnit book club at

I’ll be back on 29 May with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Into The River.

15. Period Style Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.


The most recognisable thing about Golden Age Detective fiction — more than the murder weapons, the puzzles and all the other trappings of the classic whodunnit — is the time in which it is set. That two-decade period between the First and Second World Wars has become synonymous with the idea of the murder mystery, even though such stories were being written before 1920 and continued to appear long after 1940.

Plenty of the most famous sleuthing characters and tropes have their origins in this time frame. Sayings that are associated with detective fiction like “the butler did it” and “the game is afoot” are archaic enough to remind us of the genre’s origins in the 1920s and 30s, as is the inclusion of the fashion, music, decor and morality of this time that so often resurfaces in comedy sketches and adaptations as a shorthand for “classic crime”.

So before you don your flapper dress and your monocle for your murder mystery party, take a second to wonder: why is it that detective fiction is so closely associated with this period style?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into today’s show properly, a small update! I announced on the last episode that I had started the Shedunnit Book Club as a membership scheme for listeners who wanted to be more involved in the podcast and support its long-term existence. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many of you have signed up already — when I was setting it up, I whacked some goals up on the website almost as an afterthought, saying that when we hit 50 members, I’d make an extra exclusive episode, when we hit 100 I’d make two, and so on, and I’m very glad to say that we are, at the time I’m recording this, only one member away from the first goal, just in the first two weeks!

The club members have already chosen our first book — we’re going to be reading and discussing Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie this month. So if you would like to hear more of this podcast and get involved with reading your favourite detective novels along with the group, head on over to to read all about the other goodies you get and sign up. Now, on with today’s show.


One of the comments I hear most often from listeners is that they love the music that I use on the podcast. Music like. . . this, that you’re hearing in the background right now.


The reason I include this 1920s, ragtime style music is because a) I like how it sounds, but also b) because it helps to evoke the period that the books I’m mostly talking about are from, without me constantly having to say “this is about the 1920s! did I mention that already?!”. But by using it, I’m doing exactly what the person who buys a generic “murder mystery” halloween costume with fringed dress and feathered headband is doing, really. I’m making that connection between this genre of writing and this particular time period without really interrogating why they’re associated.

Of course, in some ways this association is completely natural, since some of the most famous books and characters of the classic “golden age” detective genre originated in that period between the first and second world wars. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, came out in 1920, and The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple’s novel-length debut was published in 1930. Lord Peter Wimsey first turned up in Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 novel Whose Body?, and Albert Campion put his specs on for the first time in 1929’s The Crime at Black Dudley. Plenty of other sleuths took their first steps towards popularity (or should I say notoriety) in this decade or the one that followed.

Since most of the time these authors were writing about their own time, or a version of it, rather than setting their stories in the past, it makes absolute sense that the technology, fashion and social mores of the day make an appearance, from telegrams to gloves to formal calls. There’s also a publishing dimension to why detective fiction (along with other popular, mass market literary genres) experienced such a boom in the years after the first world war: it coincides with a big expansion in the production of popular, cheap books, which meant that more people could read more stories for less money.

When Allen Lane founded his publishing house, Penguin, in 1935, it was with the intention of making paperbacks of high quality fiction and non-fiction so that they were accessible to more readers (and profitable for the company). The first ten titles selected to appear as Penguin paperbacks in their now-iconic triband coloured and white design perfectly represent this mission, from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to André Maurois’s Ariel, a fictionalised biography of the poet Percy Shelley.

But two of the ten titles will be very familiar to my fellow detective fiction fans — Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are in there too, in the green and white covers that soon became synonymous with Penguin crime fiction. Neither author was published long-term by Penguin, but Lane acquired the rights to these two novels specially for his new launch. Given how well the early Penguins sold with the 1930s reading public, it’s not that surprising that we think of those novels as so associated with this particular time period — it’s when they were really widely read and appreciated, after all.

After the Second World War, some detective novelists allowed the changing times and social attitudes to influence their writing, while others, like Agatha Christie, mostly kept delivering roughly the same, 1920s-esque but also fairly timeless backdrop for her whodunnits. This isn’t to say that she completely buried her head in the sand and avoided all mention of modernity, because novels like 1966’s Third Girl (which is about a young woman who lives in a flatshare with her peers and has an unsuitable boyfriend) and 1969’s Halloween Party do incorporate later ideas. But she did keep writing about the landed gentry and country house weekends long after plenty of these establishments had been broken up and sold, partly because it’s what she knew her public enjoyed, and partly because it’s what she knew she was good at. I also think it’s notable that although Dorothy L. Sayers lived until 1957, she didn’t write any more Lord Peter Wimsey stories after the start of the Second World War. His time was done.

Another reason why the 1920s and 30s seem to go on for ever in detective fiction is a very practical one, to do with forensics. While detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Albert Campion are happy to take advantage of what a police surgeon can tell them about a time of death or a fingerprint expert can discern from a smudged print, they are primarily characters who work with deductive reasoning, rather than microscopes and bloodstains, in order to find the solution. In some of my favourite stories from the golden age, it’s a big leap for the police to even be able to say for certain that the blood on a weapon is actually human blood, never mind being able to identify which human it came from. The kind of advance forensic techniques that appear in today’s police procedurals, where near-infallible DNA identifications can me made from minute strands of hair and entire crime scenes must be swabbed down in exacting detail just don’t fit with the kind of story that turns on Poirot finding a partially burned piece of paper in the grate and being able to say ‘aha, this is probably part of someone’s will!’. I don’t for a second subscribe to the idea that forensic technology “spoils” crime fiction, far from it, but I do think that scientific advances have inevitably lead to a different kind of plotting and writing that creates something quite different to the murder mysteries of the golden age. Therefore, it makes sense that for authors who came along long after this period was over who wanted to write in the classic whodunnit form, it’s easiest to set their stories back in those decades between the First and Second World Wars, to remove the need for any convoluted explanations for why their detectives don’t use mobile phones or advance blood analysis.

After the break: we hear from a bestselling contemporary author who writes mysteries set in the golden age.

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So I’ve talked about why murder mysteries might have this strong association with the 1920s and 30s, and why writers today who want to write this kind of low-tech puzzle whodunnit might set their stories in that time period for expedience. But writing a novel with a period setting, especially a very well known one like this, is easier said than done. That’s why I wanted to talk to someone who had done it, time and time again, to great success.

Jacqueline: My name is Jacqueline Winspear and I’m the author of the Maisie Dobbs series.

Caroline: Jacqueline is the author of lots of novels, beginning with 2003 with Maisie Dobbs, and has won prizes and appeared on bestseller lists for them. She’s written 15 stories now in the Maisie Dobbs series, all about her titular heroine – a private detective based primarily in 1920s and 30s London, but who also travels around the UK and internationally for her cases. Maisie’s stories bring in lots of different elements we’re familiar with from the golden age of detective fiction, from the milieu of her world to her methodical approach to detection. She even has an assistant, Billy Beale, who I think bears some resemblance to Albert Campion’s right hand man, Lugg.

For Jacqueline, the period almost came before the characters.

Jacqueline: I’ve always been interested in that period of time between say just before the Great War. The lead up to the Great War and right up to say the end of rationing in Britain following the Second World War. So let’s say end of 1954 and I think what drew me to it even as a child is it’s it’s so much happened during that period time there were so many societal changes wrought by war itself and also that everything the same. There was so much on the face of it so much chaos and yet life went on. So it’s really an interesting period altogether.

Caroline: Maisie has direct experience of lots of dramatic and tragic events, from her time as a nurse in the First World War and the Spanish Civil War to her experiences of the Blitz in London in Jacqueline’s most recent novel, The American Agent. This is another reason why this period appealed to her as a writer, though, she says — there’s lots of possibilities for testing her characters.

Jacqueline: And of course periods of chaos really do lend themselves to to storytelling to fiction and indeed to an exploration of the human condition. What is it that makes us who we are how do we act when life goes away from what we expect of the ordinary to become extraordinary. What do we do about that. Because we’re just ordinary people and it’s it. It makes for a good good basis for telling a story.

Caroline: She also saw a great opportunity for fiction centred on women’s lives in this period, since it was a time of such tremendous social and political change for women (which is something I covered in more detail in the very first episode of this podcast, actually, so do go back and listen to that if you haven’t already). During her research of this period, Jacqueline found some extraordinary testimony about how the real women who lived through the time that Maisie Dobbs does in the books had their lives changed by all the chaos and conflict.

Jacqueline: I was listening to some audio of that generation speaking about their experiences. And I think this was mainly recorded probably in the late sixties into the seventies when it was obviously realized that that generation was going to be lost pretty soon, they were getting on. Anyway there was this one woman who was speaking and obviously being interviewed by a young woman maybe a student, I don’t know and probably been asked the question ‘how did the Great War change life for you’. Because suddenly you heard this woman say well very clipped tones ‘Well my dear let me tell you the Great War opened the stable door and we women bolted and once we had bolted there was no going bac’k. And you could imagine her this very correct straight back lady saying well no we’re not we’re not having any of that anymore we don’t want our corsets we’re wearing you know if you think of the close of the Twenties how clothing changed to be much more I think kinder to women and women’s opportunities changed.

Caroline: Research is something that Jacqueline takes very seriously — she’s been on multiple trips to the battlefields of the First World War in France and Belgium, she’s spent time in the archives at the Imperial War Museum in London, and she reads a lot of non-fiction about the period. But she’s also been absorbing the details of this time, in a way, her whole life without realising, she says. She even used to collect the china and pottery of the art deco period when she was in her twenties.

Jacqueline: And this goes back to when I was a child you know and being very curious about my granddad who had been he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shellshocked gassed and had horrible leg wounds. So I was very you know I was interested in that you know and had the questions are why does granddad breathe like that and so on and so forth and and also so knowing that there were a number of women in our small community who were Miss this Miss that I miss the other. And you know as one of the few small children in the place where I lived I was often invited round for tea or lunch with one of the ladies. It was in later years that I came to realise that one of the great tragedies of that generation of women was that so many were rendered childless because there were not enough men to go around to. There was that marriage and children would never happen and so as a little girl in the neighbourhood I was invited along for tea as I said or lunch and for each one there would be that. That sepia photograph on the mantelpiece of a young man lost to war. And so as I grew older that childhood sort of curiosity just became more adult interest and inquiry. So I was always interested in women and particularly women and war and what war did to the lives of women. So when it came to writing Maisie Dobbs and when I wrote Maisie Dobbs. I mean literally I didn’t plan to write a novel because I was writing non-fiction at the time I was writing articles essays. I didn’t think I’d ever write fiction. I know it sounds weird. I didn’t think I could tell a story. And then this idea literally came to me while I was on my way to work. It was one of those moments you know I figured that you know J.K. Rowling got sort of several more more than one Harry Potter on a train. I can get a lazy toffs but you know those moments don’t happen in a vacuum. And I think it was that intense interest in that era that that you know inspired Maisie Dobbs.

Caroline: There is such a thing as being too accurate, though.

Jacqueline: I don’t belabour the details and by that I mean I believe that that research should be like an iceberg and that only 7 percent of it is visible above the surface but all the other research you do it informs every single word you write. So I’m not one of these people who thinks my goal golly I all this research you bet I’m gonna get it in. Otherwise I might as well not be writing a story. The story absolutely comes first. Absolutely before everything else and if I had to love what Susan Isaacs the writer Susan Isaacs always said that if you read the acknowledgments to her books she says something along these lines in the annoyance of every books she lists all the people that have helped her. You know that the local judge the police chief rabbi lawyers or whoever. And then she says where their facts don’t mean my meat my fiction. I have jettisoned the facts so my facts will never take over from the story. They are there to give a sense of time and place and to underpin the story in certain places.

Caroline: The thinking behind her new novel The American Agent, which just came out in March 2019, is all about look back over this period as well as forward. What happens when you make it through one world war, only to find that another is beginning?

Jacqueline: I’m looking at the character of Maisie Dobbs but also those around her but someone like Maisie Dobbs who saw Death of a most terrible kind at an impressionable age. She lied about her age to serve on the Western Front as a nurse. And she was herself wounded and she comes through that. And I think by Book 3 people will realise that Maisie is a shell shocked as any man who ever fought in a battle. But then how does it feel for her to see another war on the horizon and to know that as people did to have a sense that there would be another war how does that feel and that feeling and that sense of wanting to go through another period of war and to take the characters into that time was you know thinking about my grandfather. And how did he feel this man who had been so horribly wounded in 1916. How did he feel when he saw his sons in uniform. You know my father 18 years old and an explosives expert working in a year in Germany blowing up bridges and things. How did he feel when he saw that and I don’t know the answer to that question because though that generation never talked rarely talked about what they saw and what they experienced. But I wonder about that what did how did he feel seeing his sons go off to war. And so I’ve I wondered that about Maisy. How does it feel. And that’s what I’m exploring at the moment once it is right at the start of the Blitz.

Caroline: So with all of the thinking and researching and plotting that she does in the 1920s and 30s, I had presumed that Jacqueline would be a big fan of golden age detective novels. But, I’m afraid to say, she won’t be joining the Shedunnit Book Club any time soon — at least not until she’s finished writing the Maisie Dobbs series.

Jacqueline:  I do not read fiction set in the era I’m writing about. I’m saving it all up for and I don’t write about that era anymore. People so have you read this set in the First World War. Have you read this said in the Second World War and now I do not read it at all.

Caroline: I suppose it make sense that in order to write good fiction set during the golden age of detective fiction, you have to steer clear of all those famous novels and plots that might influence your work. Regardless, I don’t think that writers’ fascination with setting mystery stories in this time is going to diminish any time soon. It’s just too chaotic and hypnotic a period for sleuths and their creators to leave alone.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributor, Jacqueline Winspear, at her website For more information about the topics we discussed plus links to all the books mentioned check the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget: there’s still time to join the Shedunnit book club and start listening to the podcast without adverts, as well as get your hands on the bonus episodes and the extra book club material. You can join up at I’ll see you in the secret book club forum, where this week we have been sharing pictures of our dogs and discussing the relative merits of different audiobook narrators. I’ll be back on 15 May with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Arsenic, Interrupted.

14. Pseudonyms Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: Authors’ names and personalities loom large when we think about detective stories. It’s enough to say “I’m reading an Agatha Christie”. You don’t need to give the title or summarise the plot for someone to know what you kind of book you’re enjoying. Just saying the name is enough.

Of course, writers don’t always use their actual names when they’re publishing books. For a whole lot of different reasons — some of them personal, some of them professional — they might choose a pseudonym to go on the cover with the title. And that’s the name that readers will get to know them by, perhaps never realising that it’s a name invented only for this purpose.

Pseudonyms have always been a feature of genre writing, with crime and detective fiction in particular overflowing with them — some writers even maintain multiple professional names, publishing as two or three or even more personas. But why go to all this trouble to craft a pseudonym? And what makes a good one, anyway?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into today’s episode properly, I have two very exciting bits of news to share. The first is that Shedunnit has been nominated at this year’s British Podcast Awards in the “smartest podcast” category, which is a really lovely thing to happen and not something at all I expected to happen. It’s also something that I owe very much to you listeners, literally, since I used the money that listeners have been donating to pay for the entry, so thank you very much for that. The other nominees are all really impressive and excellent podcasts, so do go to and check them out if you’re looking for something else to listen to in between episodes of Shedunnit.

The second is that I’ve made some decisions about how I’m going to keep making Shedunnit, mostly based on what listeners told me they wanted in the recent survey about the podcast’s future. And. . . I’m starting a book club for the podcast! It costs £5 a month to be a member, and for that you get access to the secret members-only forum where we’ll discuss our chosen detective novel each month, at least one extra bonus podcast episode a month, and early access to the main show without adverts or interruptions.

I hope this is going to be a really fun way to spend more time talking about the detective novels that we all love, and a sustainable way for the show to continue. If you’d like to find out more and sign up, you can do that at I’ve also written an article that explains why I’m choosing to focus most of my attention on the podcast’s community and its own website, rather than using an external platform like Patreon or seeking lots of sponsorships, so if you’re interested in understanding more about that do have a read, I’ve linked it in the show notes. And of course, if you have any questions about the book club or encounter any problems getting set up, please do drop me an email on and I’ll do my best to help. Same goes if you’d like to contribute but circumstances make it difficult at the moment — do get in touch and we’ll work something out.
Right, enough of that. On with today’s episode.


I first became interested in the relationship between crime writers and their pseudonyms because of Josephine Tey. I think the first of her novels that I read was The Man in the Queue from 1929, coincidentally also her first detective novel to be published, in a reprinted edition that I found in a charity shop when I was a teenager. I still have this copy somewhere, and it definitely names “Josephine Tey” on the cover. I assumed that Josephine Tey was just the name of a writer of detective fiction from this period just like others I was familiar with, such as “Agatha Christie” and “Dorothy L. Sayers”, and set about tracking down copies of Tey’s other novels featuring Inspector Alan Grant without giving a thought to the idea that there might not actually be anybody called Josephine Tey at all.

It wasn’t until I read a biography of Josephine Tey many years later that I learned that it was actually the pseudonym of an Elizabeth MacKintosh, known to her friends as Beth. She was Scottish, born in Inverness in 1896. She didn’t come from a family of writers or academics — her parents ran a fruit shop, and before their marriage her mother had been a teacher. Beth trained as a physical education teacher after school (a setting she would reuse to great effect in her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes) and worked at various schools and clinics around the UK before and during the First World War. In the early 1920s she was working at a school in Tunbridge Wells in Kent in the south of England when her father asked her to come home — Beth’s mother Josephine was very ill, and indeed she died in 1923 when Beth was just 26. She decided to remain in Inverness to keep house for her widowed father, and it was during this time that she first began writing in earnest. She made friends with a soldier a couple of years her senior, Hugh Patrick Fraser McIntosh (no relation, despite the similar surnames) who also had literary leanings, and they encouraged each other to submit their short stories and poems for publication.

It wasn’t the works of Josephine Tey that poured out from her pen, though. Beth was the first of the pair to be published, with a poem in the Weekly Westminster Gazette in August 1925. It appeared under the name of “Gordon Daviot”, which was the pseudonym that Beth had chosen for her nascent writing career. She had serious literary ambitions, hoping to write novels one day and publish her verse in the best London journals, and she felt that the best way of accomplishing that was with an explicitly male-sounding name. This isn’t that surprising — three years later in 1928, Virginia Woolf would deliver the lectures upon which her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” is based, detailing all the ways in which true literary and academic success were denied to women because of prejudice and inequality. As an unknown Scottish woman with few connections in the London literary scene, it make complete sense that Beth would want to take one reason for editors to turn her down — her gender — out of the equation. I don’t know where the first name Gordon came from, but Daviot is the name of a village just outside Inverness, where the MacIntosh family used to go for holidays.

Beth, as “Gordon”, continued to publish poetry and short stories over the next few years, as did her friend Hugh. In fact, Beth’s biographer Jennifer Morag Henderson has speculated that if he had lived, a romance might have developed between Beth and Hugh. But he was in Inverness because he had tuberculosis, contracted no doubt after the horrendous conditions he endured in the trenches during the First World War. He died in 1927, and if there was any secret romantic connection between them, Beth couldn’t express it publicly. She never married anyone else.


Hugh didn’t live to see it, but Gordon Daviot’s literary career went from strength to strength. In 1929 she had two novels published, the literary piece Kif: An Unvarnished History, and the first Inspector Grant novel The Man in the Queue, which also initially appeared under the Daviot pseudonym, despite the fact that latter editions have attributed it to Josephine Tey instead. Just to make things extra confusing, Beth dedicated her first detective novel to “Brisena, who actually wrote it”, which was actually her nickname for her typewriter, but does make it seem like she’s pointing to the fact that the author is not writing under her real name. Gordon Daviot also wrote plays, and one of them, a historical piece about Richard II, was performed in London’s West End in 1932.

It wasn’t until 1936 that she published another crime novel, this one called A Shilling for Candles and also featuring Inspector Grant. But this one appeared under a new pseudonym, that of Josephine Tey. Josephine was Beth’s mother’s name, and she believed that “Tey” was the surname of her English great-great-grandmother, although Jennifer Henderson writes that she couldn’t the name in any family records and wonders if actually Beth misread the name “Fry” to find her pseudonymous surname. However she came upon it, it was clearly a division of authorship that worked for her — she continued to write more literary fiction and plays as Gordon Daviot, and her detective novels as Josephine Tey, and she even had separate literary agents for each one. Plenty of writers around this time used pen names to kept different types of writing distinct like this. Cecil Day-Lewis, father of the actor Daniel and Britain’s Poet Laureate between 1968 and 1972, published around 20 detective novels under the name Nicholas Blake, which he started writing in order to make money (because poetry didn’t pay that well). Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote under a few different names, including Anthony Berkeley, Frances Iles and A. Monmouth Platts, trying out different formal experiments with detective fiction for each. Others just used one pen name for everything, as in the case of Clemence Dane, real name of Winifred Ashton, who wrote plays, detective fiction, literary fiction and non fiction all under that same pseudonym.

If fans of Gordon Daviot’s The Man in the Queue recognised Inspector Grant when he popped up in the Tey novels in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, they didn’t make a big deal of it — it does seem like to most people, the different names and works weren’t obviously connected. This impression was bolstered too by the fact that Beth was a very private person, who kept her life very compartmentalised between family, friends from her teaching days, Scottish friends, and literary friends in London. Perhaps that’s a vital characteristic of an author who wants to work with different pseudonyms, in order to keep them all straight.
Pseudonyms are certainly no less popular or prevalent in today’s crime fiction than they were when Elizabeth MacIntosh was working. One of the biggest literary news stories in decades broke in 2013 when it was revealed that the crime author Robert Galbraith was actually the pseudonym of Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. Like Beth before her, Rowling had wanted to use a different name for her adult crime fiction to escape the pressure of publicity and expectation, and a male one at that to circumvent any speculation or prejudice that she might face as a woman writing hardboiled noir-style stories. Very little seems to have changed in this regard.

After the break: a contemporary crime writer explains how she went about creating her pseudonym.

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Although the motivation for a woman novelist to publish at least some of her crime fiction under a pseudonym might be unchanged since the early 20th century, the practicalities of doing it have changed somewhat. An author’s name is now their personal brand, to be nurtured through website, social media and personal appearances, so it’s much harder to keep everything separate and secret the way Beth MacKintosh did with Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.

Helen: I write crime fiction which is police procedurals as Helen Fields and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. That series is ongoing and a little while ago I agreed that I would write a different book for a different publisher. That’s not a police procedural it’s slightly different it’s part legal thriller and part psychological thriller. We discussed this with my agent and publishers and we reached an agreement that there would be a different name. And I went away and I gave them three different names.

Caroline: This is Helen Fields, a former barrister and now crime fiction author. She has a new book out on 16 May, but it won’t be appearing under her own name. Instead, her novel Degrees of Guilt will have the name “H.S. Chandler” on the cover. Part of the reason for that, she says, is just because it’s coming out with a different publisher to her Helen Fields novels. When it actually came to choosing the new pseudonym, Helen didn’t get the final say, although she did draw up the shortlist:

Helen: I went back to them with three names. I’ve kept my initials but they are initialized. That’s not my full first name. And it was actually the publishers who chose which of the three they wanted me to use. That wasn’t my decision. I did give them all names that had some meaning to me. So I didn’t just kind of pluck them out of thin air. And for example I give an example of one that if we didn’t use but I gave them the name Blakelock which I thought was great. I thought it was all kind of a psychological thriller and kind of dark whatever but that’s my husband’s family’s original name from a couple of centuries back. And I think that’s amazing. That was the one they went for. I think they were after something a little bit more kind of up to date.  So it’s it’s Chandler which actually is my mother’s maiden name so it’s a family name that has some resonance to me I’m not. So they’re going to be sat on a panel withsomebody calling me by a name that I’ve just made up and I can’t recognize.

Caroline: Helen was pleased that her new writing name uses initials rather than a first name, and so comes across as more gender neutral.

Helen: I suppose to an extent we initialize because of that age old thing about there being some men who don’t like buying books by women that is still true I still have men come up to me at events and say I don’t read women’s books and I politely say that’s completely fine that’s up to you. So in that you know following the amazing footsteps ofJ.K. Rowling sometimes it’s easier to initialize than actually putting the initials in rather than a full first name meant that if it was a element myself I could keep the same but private so I am HS, that’s real. And that was quite useful to me. But there are also other, more aesthetic considerations. Publishers are trying to think of very way in which the author’s name might affect whether someone chooses to buy the book or not, Helen says.

Helen: And it starts with the book concept and it’s on the cover and it’s also about layout on the book. So they’ll look at how you know H.S. Chandler works written along the bottom of the book is it neat as it does it stay balanced with the title layouts hugely important. How does it look down the spine because it could be really difficult to get a very long name on a spine along with a long book title. So it’s it’s hugely carefully managed and carefully thought out. So none of that happens by accident.

Caroline: Helen isn’t keeping her pseudonym a secret — hence the fact that’s she’s telling us about it now — but she is keeping the two “brands” distinct, with separate social media presences. They’re also already distinct in her writing styles and in her head, interestingly.

Helen: It’s funny sometimes I kind of slip over into the Helen Field’s writing when I was writing as HS Chandler. And I feel it immediately. It helps what really helps me and this is just a quirky thing to do with me is that the Helen fields books are set in Scotland. And when I write them literally every word my my brain voice as I write right to a Scottish accent it does it all the way through andH.S. Chandler is is kind of English and more of a me voice but I I physically hear the voice I hear the words out loud as I as I write it. And that’s quite a good separation technique for me because I could feel when I’m slipping from one style of writing into another.

Caroline: So there you have it, two women working in crime fiction almost a century apart, still grappling with the same issues around their gender and the names they choose to associate their work with. A pseudonym can be part of a fun game that a writer is playing with their readers, or it can conceal a more serious need to avoid prejudice and retain some modicum of personal privacy.

Whatever the reason, it makes the detective writers of the 1920s and 30s like Josephine Tey feel very close to us now. I mean, it’s almost as if nothing has really changed at all.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributor, Helen Fields, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript.

It’s also part of a collaboration with my friend Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist podcast. If you go and subscribe to that show now — search “The Allusionist” wherever you get your podcasts or click the link in the show notes — and next week you’ll be able to hear another episode all about pseudonyms and names featuring yours truly.

A reminder that if you’d like to join the Shedunnit book club and start listening ad free to extra bonus episodes of the podcast in between main releases, you can join up at I look forward to chatting with you in the forum and picking our first book to read together.
I’ll be back on 1 May with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Period Style.

13. The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh Transcript

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

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: Before we get started with today’s show, I want to tell you about another podcast you should check out. The Lonely Palette is a show that aims to make art history accessible, enjoyable, and fun, one artwork at a time. Each episode, host and recovering art historian Tamar Avishai picks an artwork, plants herself in front of it at the museum, and interviews unsuspecting passersby to record their first impressions and descriptions. Then, in a 15-20-minute audio essay, she dives deeply into the object, the movement, the social context, and anything and everything else that will make it as exciting to you as it is to her.

With high-quality production values, evocative music cues, and a warm, friendly tone that is both intelligent and welcoming, The Lonely Palette acts as both a witty and compelling museum companion and a narrative radio show about the visual world. In the words of podcast-inventor Christopher Lydon, “this is what those snooze-a-thon museum audio guides should be”. Find it at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Now, on with the show.


By any definition, Ngaio Marsh lived an extraordinary life. She was the longest-lived of the four Queens of Crime from the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s and was made a Dame by the Queen of England for her services to theatre in her native New Zealand. Thanks to her 32 detective novels, Marsh is still that country’s bestselling ever author. She travelled regularly between Britain and New Zealand at a time when the trip took weeks rather than hours and was a keen painter and a journalist as well as an author.

Yet she was also an intensely private person, who only shared a little of herself with acquaintances and fans. She never married or had children, and destroyed many of her letters and papers before her death. Her books, of course, remain widely read, but in the UK and the US she isn’t quite as popular as Agatha Christie, say, or Dorothy L. Sayers. There’s even an aura of mystery around Ngaio Marsh herself — who was she really, this globetrotting blockbuster author who lived her life on opposite sides of the world?

Well, stay tuned to find out, because today we’re delving into the secret life of Ngaio Marsh.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Ngaio Marsh was born on 23 April 1895 in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Her father Henry didn’t actually register her birth with the authorities until four years later, though, a mistake that Ngaio herself liked to take advantage of in later years in order to claim that she was a bit younger than her true age. Christchurch was a place that had been imbued with a strong sense of class and position right from its beginnings, when in 1850 four shiploads of settlers under the auspices of the Church of England arrived from Britain to expand the town. The passengers on these ships had been specially selected so that they represented the “proper balance squire, merchant, artisan and labourer” according to a 1980s history of the city. Basically, the aim was to export the British class system to this part of New Zealand as a way of getting away from the idea, common at the time, that emigration could be a way of making a fortune and escaping from social structures.

As a result of growing up in this atmosphere, Ngaio described her parents as “have-nots” within Christchurch’s rigidly separated society. Her father, Henry, had come to New Zealand from England when he was a young man and worked as a bank clerk his whole life. Her mother Rose had been born in New Zealand as her parents — Ngaio’s grandparents — had emigrated from England in the 1850s. From what I’ve read of Ngaio’s early life, it wasn’t exactly one of great deprivation, since the family were able to employ two servants and when she was quite young they moved to a newly-built house up in the hills beyond Christchurch, which is where Ngaio first encountered the New Zealand landscape that she occasionally rhapsodised about in her detective fiction. But her family weren’t wealthy by any means, and it’s interesting I think that by Christchurch standards, Ngaio definitely considered them to be on the poorer side.

This class background is important when it comes to getting beneath the surface of Ngaio Marsh’s character and understanding why she was so reticent about her personal life.

Joanne: She was from a generation of people who who were sort of aspirant. They were middle class but aspirant upper middle class to almost you know beyond that. And so to talk about things that were awkward or difficult were just was just not things that those people did.

Caroline: This is Joanne Drayton, a New York Times bestselling author and Ngaio Marsh’s most recent biographer. Joanne’s book Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was published in 2008, and she’s passionately interested in Ngaio’s work, her life, and what she represents for New Zealand. Perhaps best of all, she’s actually met the woman herself, so we can hear first-hand what the great Ngaio was really like in the flesh.

Jo:  My family knew her and I met her myself as a young person. When I was eight I met Ngaio Marsh. My cousin actually was one of her proteges, her acting proteges. So I met her through the theatre and she was a very imposing, wow, absolutely sort of daunting to an eight year old character: very tall, very chic and stunning, really a stunning woman. With a voice that was so low and so deep and resonant that it sort of really blew you blew you away really. It was amazing.

Caroline: Interestingly, even with this encounter as a child, Jo got a hint that there was something more to Ngaio Marsh than there appeared on the surface.

Joanne: Well my mother said to me ‘you know she was one of those sort of women’. At eight years old, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. And I’m still not exactly sure what she meant but I think she meant. But she was she was a member of a group of women really who were unmarried, who were career orientated, who were very very intelligent, well educated. They were a generation who were not only career women but also women who didn’t have the opportunity to marry. And she was exciting and interesting and I think perhaps my mother might have been referring to notion that she was a lesbian. So. But yes she was interesting and she was ‘one of those sort of women’ and I thought well I’m going to find out what that is.


Caroline: Ngaio Marsh wrote her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, in 1931. She was in her thirties and on an extended visit to London, where she was visiting and travelling with her aristocratic friends Tahu and Nelly Rhodes. They had partied all over the place, been to the theatre everywhere and even gambled in Monte Carlo, but on the day that Ngaio started scribbling her first attempt at crime writing in an exercise book, she was back in London and alone for the weekend. She had been writing articles for newspapers back in New Zealand about her travels as “the Canterbury Pilgrim” and she had come to England with some early chapters of what she hoped might be a literary novel, perhaps even an early example of “the great New Zealand novel”, which was felt at that time to be something that hadn’t really come into being yet.

But this was the golden age of detective fiction, and in London she was right at the heart of it. Miss Marple had just made her first novel-length appearance in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. The Detection Club was just getting underway. (Although Ngaio was never a member, she did attend and very much enjoy one of the club’s rituals on another visit to London in 1937.) Also in 1930, Dorothy L. Sayers published Strong Poison, the first Peter Wimsey novel to feature her detective novelist character Harriet Vane, and the year before Margery Allingham had introduced Albert Campion to the reading public in The Crime at Black Dudley. A Man Lay Dead actually has a similar setup to Campion’s debut — it’s also a country house mystery set around a house party in which the guests decide to play an amusing game of “murder”, only for it all to turn tragic when someone is found stabbed to death with a dagger.

Right from the start, though, Ngaio favoured a slightly different approach to some of Christie’s most famously ingenious puzzles. “I invariably start with people, with two or three or more people about whom I feel I would like to write,” she said of her process many years later. “Very often I begin to write about these people in their immediate situation with no more than the scantiest framework for a plot and its denouement.” This character-led approach is one way in which her novels stand out from others of the same period — they’re not quite as obsessed with the ‘how’ of the mystery, and lean more on the characters and their relationships. Her detective, Roderick Alleyn, is famously detached and somewhat self-effacing. Marsh’s stories are clever, funny and well-constructed, but Alleyn perhaps lacks the showiness of a Hercule Poirot or a Peter Wimsey. He’s above all extremely plausible — a detective who likes method but doesn’t keep going on about it, and who hates making unfounded guesses. He did mature over the course of Marsh’s dozens of books containing him, but his progression wasn’t nearly as drastic as that of Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion, say, who had much further to travel from their initial caricatures into rounded human beings.

Ngaio’s mother Rose visited her daughter in London in the early 1930s, and according to Joanne’s biography, was impressed by an early draft of A Man Lay Dead. Rose hoped that her daughter might come home to New Zealand with her at the end of her trip, but the lure of literary life in London was too great. Ngaio longed to stay and remain part of it all, but she did have to return home in 1932 when her mother fell ill. Ngaio left the manuscript of A Man Lay Dead behind in London with a literary agent named Edmund Cork that summer in the hope that he might be able to find a publisher for it and took the long boat back to New Zealand, where her mother was seriously ill with cancer. Ngaio got back in August, and her mother died in November, no doubt pushing any thoughts of Roderick Alleyn and his adventures out of her mind. Laid low by grief and convinced of the need to stay in Christchurch to be with her now retired and widowed father, Ngaio put any further travel to Britain on hold. But although she herself might be staying in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, Ngaio had left a little piece of herself behind in London in the form of her first detective novel, and from henceforth she would live a divided kind of life, split between the north and south hemispheres, and her public and private selves.

More on that, after the break.


This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. This is a new Hercule Poirot story — a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in 1930s London. In it, the beloved Belgian sleuth returns home from lunch one day to find an angry woman waiting outside, demanding to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of a Barnabas Pandy, a man neither of them have ever heard of or met. As The Mystery of Three Quarters continues, it turns out that other letters like this have been sent too. Of course, Poirot has to investigate — who is writing these awful letters under his name, and who is Barnabas Pandy, the supposed murder victim? You’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out.

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Now, let’s head back to New Zealand and Ngaio Marsh.


It was a few months after Rose Marsh’s death that Ngaio received word from her agent that he had found a publisher for her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead. She received a £30 advance and the book was published in 1934, with Ngaio receiving the final copies a full two months after they went on sale in the UK, because that’s how long it took for things to reach New Zealand. It was a moderate success, with some critical acclaim, although a few reviewers struggled to work out the writer’s gender and background thanks to Ngaio’s Maori originating first name. It came out the same year as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, both acknowledged masterpieces of the detective genre. The fourth Queen of Crime had arrived.

But even as her writing career developed and flourished, Ngaio Marsh would always feel pulled between two worlds. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:

Joanne: I think she had a split life really she lived in two places. And I think that gave her also a certain amount of she could be one person one sort of person in one place and another person in another place. So I think New Zealanders knew a very different Ngaio Marsh to the one that she presented publicly in the UK and then you know I mean she was very ravishing and chic and quite down to earth and New Zealand where that was much more you know the thing to be. But I think it was fascinating that she managed to also make that shift in her writing because most of her writing really was intended I think to satisfy the genre that was shaped.

Caroline: In a way, Ngaio Marsh was a chameleon: she could be whatever the situation required of her.

Joanne: So she fitted in there with you know Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Tey, very well but she also had she could actually turn the genre into a New Zealand story as well. In that period of that period with all the same kind of cosy intensity almost village like intensity, but it had that real New Zealand flavour. And if you’re a New Zealander you recognize it profoundly in Died in the Wool and Colour Scheme and some of those amazing stories that speak to New Zealanders in a very personal more intimate way. Using that same genre which is amazing. And it was special to have here among that you know the kind of pantheon really of great writers of the genre and do that and achieve that from New Zealand which was much more difficult.

Caroline: And achieve she did — Ngaio’s publishers kept her to a tight schedule, and she often produced a book a year. She travelled back to London every so often too, and each time she said she felt refreshed and renewed, and felt she had to start writing again as soon as she arrived. In 1949, she experienced something very rare for a writer of any kind, when one million copies of her books were issued into the international market in the same year — 100,000 copies each of ten different novels.

At the same time as her public career was going from strength to strength, Ngaio’s private life remained as much of a closed book as ever. She remained single — or a “spinster”, as the parlance of the day would have it — and devoted much of her time to her close female friends, some of whom she knew from going to school in Christchurch, others from university or her work in the theatre. Over the years, as a result of this closeness, there have been many suggestions that Ngaio Marsh was a lesbian, or at least not completely heterosexual. But like the canny crime writer that she was, Ngaio didn’t make it easy for people to find out her secrets. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:

Joanne: I think also there’s no doubt about the fact that she had very close personal relationships with women. In terms of really hard evidence you’re right though there’s not a lot of facts absolute facts that can be tested. They say two or three sources is a piece of information that you can use and you certainly don’t get that sort of thing around Ngaio Marsh. She was very careful about cleaning out behind her. And it depends on how you define lesbianism with you. I mean most people these days don’t necessarily see a physical relationship is defining it but it does also and it does depend on how you what you bring to this situation as your own definitions. So I could never guarantee that I match sleep with other women but what I can guarantee is that her most significant friends were women right.

Caroline: Ngaio was private, yes, but she wasn’t above hiding in plain sight.

Joanne: And you know I think I think there were there were people that often often traveled with her sometimes not not not when it was it was actually almost secretly they traveled with her overseas. People didn’t know about it. I found photographs of people that weren’t even identified as being as traveling with her that I knew were close friends of his. But she kept. You know she played her cards very close to a chest.

Caroline: She even had one particular friend who lived right next door to the Marsh family home in Cashmere.

Joanne: She had a very close friend called Sylvia Fox who eventually moved into the house behind her. There was a hedge with a connecting hole. So they used to dash into each other’s houses through this hedge between them and Sylvia Fox was went to school with her in Christchurch and they were just long term very old and close friends right throughout their life and are buried together.

Caroline: For a long time, Joanne says, Ngaio Marsh was just written off as the classic spinster author, who lived out her days alone. But even though Ngaio clearly didn’t want the world to know what her life was really like, we’re now able to think of her as a much more complex person.

Joanne: I think that you know what’s previously been written has been written particularly from a really traditionally heterosexual position because defining relationships as either you are either heterosexual or you’re not. It’s sexual and you’re either with a man or you know you have a man in your life. We don’t. Whereas I think we know now we’re prepared to see people as more complex than that and see sexuality as more fluid and end complex [00:25:50][33.8]

Caroline: There’s so much more to say about Ngaio Marsh — I’ve really only scratched the surface here. As well as being a prolific detective author, she was a keen painter and a revered theatre director who did a huge amount to establish and develop the theatrical tradition and profession in New Zealand. But hopefully I’ve been able to say enough to whet your appetite and intrigue you about her, this women whose name is so often lumped together with the other so-called Queens of Crime, but who in reality lived such a different and intriguingly complex life. I find her endlessly fascinating. Like all the best detective novelists, she kept her secrets very, very well.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributors Joanne Drayton, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript.

The sharp-eared among you will have noticed that for the very first time, this episode had advertising on it! Truly, this podcast is growing up and finding its place in the world. I am also going to be launching a system whereby you can get an ad free version of the show very soon though, so if that’s something that interests you, make sure you’re signed up to the Shedunnit newsletter at and then you’ll be the first to hear about it. My thanks to to everyone who has filled out the audience survey over the past few weeks, I honestly couldn’t be doing this without your help.

I’ll be back on 17 April with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Pseudonyms.