Category: Transcripts

48. The Telephone Call Transcript

The most sinister and disturbing crimes bloom from moments so mundane that they’re barely noticeable. A spontaneous break in a long held routine, a friendly smile to a stranger, a spur of the moment decision on a warm evening to take the long way home: those are the points where the splinters of tragedy begin to pierce an otherwise peaceful existence.

That’s how it was in the case of Julia Wallace, found brutally battered to death in the sitting room of her home in Liverpool on the evening of 20 January 1931. A crime seemingly without a motive or a solution, it has haunted the imaginations of crime writers ever since. Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, P.D. James — they all spent time submerged in the overlapping and contradictory mysteries of this one 48 hour period in 1930s Liverpool, baffled as to how this real life case could be stranger than any fiction.

And it all started with a telephone call.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before I start today, I want to remind listeners that this is a very research intensive and completely independent podcast. If you enjoy listening to it and feel able to support what I do, the best way is to become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club, where in return for your contribution you get to hear the show without advertising, listen to extended versions of interviews, and join the community in reading and discussing a different golden age murder mystery every month. Find out more and sign up by visiting shedunnitbookclub.com/join or by clicking the link in the description of this episode.

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The telephone call was for William Herbert Wallace, Julia’s husband. On Monday 19 January 1931, the day before her death, William set out as usual from their home on Wolverton Street in Anfield, a neighbourhood that lies to the north and east of Liverpool city centre, to go to his weekly chess night. The Liverpool Central Chess Club meet at the City Cafe, and William had entered his name in advance for the tournament that was to be played that evening. He left home as usual about 7.15, expecting to arrive in time to start playing around 7.45.

At 7.20, the telephone at the cafe rang.

sound of ye olde phone ringing

A waitress answered and upon learning that the caller wanted to speak to a member of the chess club, she called over the club’s secretary, Sam Beattie, to deal with it. In evidence later, Sam said that the caller was someone with a “strong, rather gruff” voice and that they asked for William Herbert Wallace. They were disappointed to learn that he had not yet arrived for the meeting, because they had hoped to catch him to make a business appointment. The caller also mentioned that their daughter was about to turn 21, which was relevant because William worked in insurance, and it was customary at the time to give someone coming of age an endowment policy as a gift, since it would pay them out a lump sum at a later date. Sam inferred therefore that this call could lead to a nice bit of extra work for his fellow chess enthusiast, and therefore suggested that the caller ring back a bit later in the evening when William would have arrived for the club meeting. Strangely, the caller declined, preferring to leave a message for Sam to pass on. The substance of this was that Wallace should come to 25 Menlove Gardens East in Mosseley Hill at 7.30pm the next day in order to meet the caller, who gave the name of R.M. Qualtrough before ringing off.

Sam Beattie’s later evidence suggested that in the moment, he just thought this caller was a business acquaintance of William Wallace’s. He passed on the message in that spirit when Wallace did arrive to play chess about 15 minutes later. William had not heard the name, nor did he know where the address was, but he wrote it down anyway, and even apparently consulted some other members about the best way of getting to Menlove Gardens East. They decided that his best bet was to take the tram out towards Menlove Avenue, which is a major road running south east from the city centre, and then explore to see if he could find the precise street there. William Wallace played chess for about two hours that evening, eventually winning his game, and then set off home. There was nothing, yet, to suggest that anything strange was afoot.

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To understand why the case has bewitched so many over the decades, I think it’s necessary to introduce the key characters properly. Julia and William Wallace had been married for 18 years. They had met in 1911 in Harrogate in Yorkshire and got married on 24 March 1913. He had been working as a political agent for the Liberal party, but when the First World War started all political activity was suspended so he instead got a job as a clerk in the Liverpool office of the Prudential Assurance Company. The couple moved to the city and settled down at number 29, Wolverton Street. As far as any of their neighbours, colleagues and friends were able to say after the tragedy, they were happy. William described their relationship as very close: “Neither of us cared very much for entertaining other people or for being entertained; we were sufficient in ourselves,” he wrote.

The Wallaces had no children and plenty of hobbies. Julia played the piano and painted, while William dabbled in amateur chemistry and enjoyed reading about philosophy as well as playing chess. They had lived in the same house for 16 years and seem to have been very settled in their habits. Of course, nobody can ever really know what goes on behind closed doors or inside someone else’s marriage, but all of the evidence presented at the time and uncovered since suggests that they were a financially comfortable, devoted middle class couple. The unexplained violence of Julia’s death that January night in 1931 becomes all the more horrific when contrasted with her life beforehand.

Now, let’s run through the facts as it is possible to verify them. On Julia’s last day, 20 January, everything seemed to be as usual. A policeman saw her husband William mid afternoon not far from the Anfield area, wearing a tweed suit and a light raincoat, and was able to confirm that the insurance clerk seemed to be going about his business in the normal way. Several insurance customers gave evidence that he had visited them to collect their payments that afternoon and seemed in good spirits, cracking jokes and accepting a cup of tea at one house. He finished work about 6 and popped home to join Julia for his tea, in anticipation of going out again to keep his 7.30 appointment with person who had called the chess club the night before, R.M. Qualtrough of Menlove Gardens East.

The last person to see Julia Wallace alive was a 14 year old milk delivery boy, who dropped off the evening pint some time between 6.30 and 6.45, and said that he spoke to her as she fetched it in. The exact time was hard to fix after the fact, because there were contradictory statements about how long his milk round had taken. Julia could still have been alive as late at 6.45, as the evidence of a 16 year old newspaper delivery girl nearby suggested. As you’ll see later, this is the crucial window where the murder seems to have taken place — and one of the inconsistencies that drew Dorothy L. Sayers to the case.

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The next time that it is possible to be sure of William Wallace’s movements is ten past seven, when he was at the tram junction on Smithdown Road, three miles away from his house, asking a conductor the best tram to take to Menlove Gardens East.

Wallace asked several different tram conductors for help in finding Menlove Gardens East as he travelled through the city, repeating that he was a stranger to this part of Liverpool. He was directed to get off where a small street called Menlove Gardens West intersects with the larger thoroughfare of Menlove Avenue, which he seems to have done.

This is where that telephone call the evening before starts to seem more sinister than mundane, because Wallace could not find the caller’s address. He ran into a clerk called Sydney Herbert Green near the tram stop and asked for help, and was told that while there was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, there was no Menlove Gardens East. These three streets make a triangle, not a square, around a small park.

Wallace tried knocking on the door of number 25 Menlove Gardens West, but was told by the woman who answered the door that there was no R.M. Qualtrough at that address. By 7.45, Wallace had wandered further south to a road called Green Lane, where he met a policeman and asked for the address he was seeking, only to be told again that it didn’t exist. He explained why he was hunting for it, and the constable suggested he look it up in the directory at a local newsagents. And that is what Wallace did next — he spent about ten minutes hunting through a directory in a nearby shop, and still had no luck. Eventually, he gave up the search about 8.20 and set off home again from the nearest tram stop.

About 8.45, the Wallaces’ neighbours, the Johnsons, reported hearing someone knocking on the back door of the next house. They were on their way out anyway, and as they left they found Wallace trying to get into his own house. He explained that both the front and back doors of his house seemed to be locked against him, even though his wife had a cold and he did not think she would have gone out. The neighbour offered to get his own back door key and try that — they were terraced houses, and presumably the theory was that the doors would be similar. Wallace explained that the back door lock was quite sticky, and he did eventually manage to get it open while his neighbours were standing there talking to him.

William Wallace was inside the house for about a minute and a half. Then he came running out and said “come and see, she has been killed”. Mr and Mrs Johnson later gave evidence that they had come through with William into the front sitting room, and there found Julia lying dead upon the floor, her head bashed in and blood splashed everywhere. Crumpled up underneath her body was a Macintosh that William later identified as his own. He had been wearing it that afternoon, but had changed into a thicker overcoat before going out to keep the bogus appointment at Menlove Gardens East.

Mr Johnson went out to fetch a policeman, and while Wallace waited with Mrs Johnson, he sobbed a couple of times but mostly kept control of himself, she reported. Once the police arrived, everything proceeded as you might expect — a search was made of the house, the Macintosh under the body was identified, and everyone present when the body was discovered was asked to account for their movements. William Wallace explained about the mysterious telephone call that had sent him on a wild goose chase to the other side of the city.

A medical examination of the body around 10pm found that Julia Wallace had been dead not more than 4 hours, which fits in with the milk delivery boy’s evidence of having last seen her alive around 6.30pm. No weapon could be found. Indeed, no weapon was ever found, but the Wallaces’ weekly cleaning lady didi give evidence that the kitchen poker and an iron bar kept in the sitting room for cleaning under the gas fire had gone missing since her last visit to the house a few days before. There was blood splashed over half of the sitting room and all over the Macintosh under the body, but no stains were discovered elsewhere in the house, nor was there any evidence that anyone had cleaned themselves there recently — no wet towels or anything like that.

William Wallace’s mental state and his expression of emotion that evening became a very important part of the case. As I’ve already said, his neighbour Mrs Johnson later testified that he seemed upset but in control, but she was the only one to think that. Professor MacFall, the doctor who examined the body that night, later said that he felt that William was far too composed given the shock he had just experienced. “He was too quiet, too collected, for a person whose wife had been killed in that way that he described,” MacFall said later. “Why, he was not so affected as I was myself!” Wallace’s explanation for this, by the way, is amazing: he responded to the assertion that he was stiff and emotionless in the face of his wife’s death by revealing that he was merely a disciple of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Wallace was quoted as saying “For forty years I had drilled myself in iron control and prided myself on never displaying an emotion outwardly in public. I trained myself to be a stoic”.

After the initial police investigation, William Wallace was allowed to spend the rest of the night at his sister in law’s house nearby. He spent the whole of the next day being questioned again, spending nearly 12 hours at the station. The officers went into everything in great detail, including the whole story of that telephone call to the chess club the night before, and from the start of the investigation seemed to have a clear theory in mind. The case was already attracting a lot of press attention because of the violence of the attack on a completely respectable middle class house wife. Ten days later, on 2 February, the whole world found out who the police thought was responsible, when William Wallace was arrested for the murder of his wife.

After the break: who made that telephone call?

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Dorothy L. Sayers always maintained a lively interest in real life murder cases alongside her detective fiction. As I covered on the Nurse Daniels episode of this podcast, in 1927 Sayers and her journalist husband had even gone to France to try their hand at investigating a case for themselves. Her 1930 novel, The Documents in the Case, also draws inspiration from another real life mystery I have covered on the show in the past — the case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, who were executed in 1923 for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. In addition, Sayers was one of the contributors to The Scoop, a collaborative radio serial that was aired in 1931 and written by members of the Detection Club. That story, too, was based on an actual murder case – the so called Crumbles Murders from 1924.

All of which is to say: Sayers was no stranger to the interplay of fact and fiction when it came to murder and crime writing. When the Detection Club decided to put together a volume of essays by members about real life cases, she volunteered to write about the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931. This was a case, she wrote, that “could only have been put together by the perverted ingenuity of a detective novelist”. The whole book, by the way, was called The Anatomy of Murder, and it was published in 1936.

In that essay, Sayers lays out why this case above all others held such fascination for her. It “provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation,” she wrote. Everything that happened between William Wallace leaving home to go to his chess club meeting on the Monday evening and returning from his wild goose chase on the Tuesday night to find his wife murdered is “susceptible of at least two interpretations,” she said. It’s the crime writer’s dream: all the clues can be twisted to fit one of several different solutions according to who you want to think committed the crime.

When William Wallace was put on trial for the murder of his wife in March 1931, the level of interest in the case was so high that the legal establishment was concerned that he would not get a fair hearing. When summing up the case to the jury, the judge therefore heavily emphasised the need to come to a verdict that fit the evidence presented and no other. “Can you say, taking all this evidence as a whole… that you are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was the hand of the prisoner and no other hand that murdered this woman?,” he said.

It was not the job of the jury, in other words, to solve the case. They just had to decide whether the prosecution’s case against William Wallace was strong enough to find him guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” or not. Sayers, however, sees a different role for herself. She isn’t a juror, but a detective novelist. Therefore, it is her job, she says, to ask “if the prisoner did not do it, then who did?”.

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Let’s take a closer look at the case the police had built up against William Wallace. Their theory right from the start was that he had committed a pre meditated and calculated attack upon his wife. In this version of events, he had made that pivotal telephone call himself in order to establish a plausible reason to be out of the house at the time when the crime was committed. As avid readers of detective fiction from this period will know, it was not usually possible to trace a call from a public telephone box after the fact, but in this case the police got lucky: there happened to be a fault on the local telephone exchange at the time, so as part of the repair work the staff were manually logging the origin point of every call. As such, there was a record of the call to the chess club at the City Cafe on the Monday evening, and it showed that it had been placed from a telephone kiosk about 400 years from the Wallaces’ home.

The idea was, then, that William Wallace had left home to go to the chess meeting and made the call on the way, disguising his voice sufficiently so that whichever of his friends there answered would not recognise it as him. Having left the fake message that would take him out of the house on Tuesday night, William then proceeded into town as normal and arrived about 20 minutes after his own phone call. Then the next day, he went home for tea after work and killed his wife with the poker shortly after 6.30 before going out to make sure he was seen by plenty of people on the other side of the city, looking for an address that did not exist, so that when the doctor gave an approximate time of death of around 7pm, he could show that he was already out. And then when he came back, he banged loudly on the already open door of his house to attract his neighbours’ attention, and then used them as witness to him “finding” the body of his wife for the first time.

In a way, it was fortunate for William Wallace that the police suspected him so strongly from the beginning, because it meant that they paid a lot of attention to whether there was any blood on his clothes or body. He was searched very thoroughly and not a single speck was discovered on him, which given the amount of blood all over the sitting room was a substantial point against him having committed the crime. This is where the Macintosh that was found under the body comes in, though.

The police suggested that William had told Julia to set up the sitting room for one of their regular music evenings — he played violin and she piano — and gone upstairs to take off all of his clothes and putting on the Macintosh over his naked body. Then, he crept up on his wife while she was bent over lighting the gas fire and killed her with the iron bar, having previously removed that to be handy for his use. The blood would have spattered all over the Macintosh, but he removed that and stuffed it under her body before cleaning himself, redressing in the clothes he had left upstairs, putting on his overcoat and going out. He carried away the weapon with him and disposed of it on the way to the tram in such a way that it was never found.

Although it probably sounds a bit like something that a novelist would make up, the “do a murder naked to avoid bloodstains” method had actually been used before — it had been employed in a couple of high profile nineteenth century murders. In 1840, the MP Lord William Russell was murdered at his London home by his valet Francois Courvoisier, who apparently whispered to the executioner on the scaffold that he had committed his crimes in the nude to avoid bloodstains that would lead the police to suspect him. And again in 1892, the American Lizzie Borden was thought to have killed her father and step mother while naked, for the same reason. Before the arrival of more advanced forensic techniques, this was… just about plausible.

So, that’s how the prosecution explained their choice of William Wallace as the murderer in this case. It just about works as a theory, but there is very little evidence that actually confirms it. The weapon was never found, there are no corroborating fingerprints or bloodstains, there were no witnesses to prove the jiggery pokery with the telephone call. That’s why the judge tried to direct the jury to be cautious in his summing up, but they still quickly returned a guilty verdict. William Wallace was sentenced to death.

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But that isn’t the end of William Wallace’s story, as it is with so many of these cases that I cover on the podcast. He was just very lucky in his employer, shall we say. Before he stood trial, when public opinion in Liverpool had already decided that he must be guilty, his solicitor travelled in secret to London to consult the executive council of the Prudential Staff Union. William and Julia had been fairly well off, but there was no way he could afford to pay for the hefty defence he was going to need, let alone any appeals afterwards. So his solicitor put it to the union that they should help him with these costs.

And the union did something very strange. So strange, in fact, that another detective novelist, Margery Allingham, was moved to write an essay about just this aspect of the case, although it remained unpublished during her lifetime and has only recently been brought to light by the Crime Writers’ Association. In “The Compassionate Machine”, Allingham looks at the mock trial that the Prudential Staff Union council conducted in absolute secrecy. Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour we should expect from people who assess risk for a living — they essentially put their colleague on trial for themselves so they could work out whether he was likely to be found guilty or not, and therefore whether he would benefit from their assistance. Allingham remarks that this is a rare example of the “machine” of the law being put to compassionate use.

In the mock trial, William Wallace was found not guilty. And so the union funded his defence, and then when the jury found him guilty, the funded his appeal. On 19 May, almost four months to the day after Julia had been killed, The Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the guilty verdict on the grounds that it was “not supported by the weight of the evidence”. This was the first time that a conviction for murder had been overturned on these grounds. Usually, appeals succeed when there has been some prejudice from the judge or because new evidence has come to light, but here the Court was essentially saying that the jury had got it wrong.

The Prudential Assurance Company gave William Wallace his job back after the appeal, and he tried to return to some semblance of normal life. But to the people of Liverpool, he was still a murderer, no matter what the court down in London had said, and it became impossible for him to stay in the city. He moved to a small cottage on the Wirral, on the other side of the river Mersey to Liverpool, and lived there quietly. Just under two years later, on 26 February 1933, he died of kidney disease in hospital.

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In Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon, her sleuth Lord Peter repeatedly asserts that in solving a crime, motive matters far less than method in determining who the culprit is. “When you know how, you know who,” he says over and over again. And that was definitely the maxim followed by the police in the Wallace case. They made very little effort to suggest what William’s motive was for murdering his wife of 18 years and instead focused only on how he might have done it.

But in her account of the case, Sayers exercises her right as a detective novelist to stray beyond the limits of what a mere detective can do, and looked more deeply at the psychology of the characters involved. Nobody came forward to attest to any conflict or grievance between Julia and William Wallace, nor was there any suggestion of extra marital affairs or an end to their relationship. Unsurprisingly, given her husband’s profession, Julia’s life had been insured for £20, but that was a relatively small amount compared to the £90 she had in her savings account, and the £152 that William had in his. He had no financial difficulties or secret debts that would make it worth him committing murder for such a sum. As Margery Allingham put it, “Wallace stood to gain nothing but loneliness from his wife’s death.”

Sayers was also dissatisfied with the police explanation for the timeline. The window between Wallace supposedly committing the murder and being on the tram to Menlove Gardens was just too narrow, she felt. Even if you take the earlier estimate of the last Julia sighting, ie 6.30, Wallace only had about 20 minutes to kill her and completely clean and redress himself in order to be on the tram in time. And again, no blood stains were found in the bathroom or indeed anywhere else in the house, so if this was how it happened, he did a very quick but thorough job, and it would have been close run thing.

And then there was the telephone call, which made clear that the murder was pre-meditated. This couldn’t be an argument turned violent or a chance attack, because someone had tried to mess around creating alibis 24 hours beforehand. This lead Sayers to the conclusion that William Wallace was either “An innocent man caught in a trap or a guilty man pretending to have been caught in a trap.”

There are a couple of aspects that point towards it being the former rather than the latter and suggest that the point of the telephone call was to set William Wallace up for a crime he did not commit. Firstly, he was a regular attendee at the chess club, which always met on Monday evenings and started about 7.45, so anyone who had been observing his habits could easily have gleaned this. Then on that particular evening, he had registered to take part in a tournament, and the list of participants was advertised on the noticeboard of the cafe, so his attendance that night could also have been confirmed in advance.

The club secretary who took the message said that it “would be a great stretch of imagination” to suggest that the caller had sounded like Wallace, too. Sayers takes this further, suggesting that if indeed the call did come from a murderer who was trying to set things up to frame Wallace, they could well have been someone he knew, since in setting this trap they went out of their way to make sure they had no direct contact with him. They could have called when he was there, or sent a note, but they chose to time the message so that it would be passed on by a third party, suggesting that their voice or handwriting would have been recognisable to him. There’s no way to prove that, of course, but it’s a smart deduction on her part.

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Sayers was far from the last person to delve deeply into the murder of Julia Wallace. Writers, layers and doctors alike have been fascinated it by it for decades, and there have been plenty of further investigations and mock trials trying to determine what really happened. Several amateur sleuths over the years have identified Richard Gordon Parry, a junior colleague of William Wallace’s at the insurance company, as a more likely suspect. The theory runs thusly: William had discovered that Parry was stealing from their employer and was considering turning him in.

Therefore, Parry makes the bogus telephone call and either he or an unknown accomplice kills Julia in a way that they think will result in William going to prison, or at the very least being completely discredited and fired. It’s a more plausible motive, even if there’s virtually no practical evidence to back it up. Another, less dramatic version, suggests that Parry decoyed William away so that he could break in and steal the money he had been collecting from insurance clients that day, and that the murder was the result of Julia interrupting the burglary. But then that doesn’t really account for the Macintosh, or the fact that no money was missing. You begin to see what Sayers meant when she said that every incident was open to multiple interpretations.

Several novelists incorporated elements of the case into their plots. Winifred Duke published a thinly veiled account of the case as Skin for Skin in 1935, a novel that Sayers reviewed very positively. John Rhode returned to it twice: firstly in the brilliantly titled novel Vegetable Duck from 1944 and then again, more explicitly, in The Telephone Call from 1949. Then there are plenty of other detective stories where the fortuitous telephone call and the false appointment play a major role, such as Agatha Christie’s radio play Personal Call and the Sayers short story “Absolutely Elsewhere”. In that last one, Inspector Parker has a line which I think sums up the perennial appeal of this as a fictional device: “So you see,” he says. “All the obvious suspects were elsewhere at the time.” As the instrument that can make that so, the telephone was as powerful a weapon for the detective novelist as any blunt instrument.

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Interest in the murder of Julia Wallace has never dimmed. In 2013, P.D. James wrote an article for the Sunday Times in which she claimed to have “solved” the case at last: her theory was that William Wallace was guilty, and it was only because his colleague Richard Gordon Parry had coincidentally chosen the same night for a prank phone call that the matter had become so muddled. Whether or not you find that to be a likely explanation, it was certainly proof of James’s own decades-long obsession with this case — she included elements of it in her 1982 novel The Skull Beneath The Skin and also in 2003’s The Murder Room.

For me, as for so many others who have pored over the facts of this case, it all comes back to that telephone call. The undeniable fact that somebody lured William Wallace out of the house the night that his wife was murdered makes it very unlikely that the attack on Julia was random or spontaneous — somebody planned it. It forces William Wallace into one of two roles, as Sayers puts it: “If guilty, he was the classic contriver and alibi-monger that adorns the pages of a thousand mystery novels; and if he was innocent, then the real murderer was still more typically the classic villain of fiction.”

Either way, he was a character straight out of a murder mystery.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thetelephonecall, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. Join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 14 October with another episode.

47. Locked Room Transcript

Caroline: The line between crime fiction and the supernatural can get a little blurry at times. Although the “rules” of fair play in detective fiction popular in the 1920s and 30s prohibited the inclusion of ghosts, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, writers still enjoyed teasing their readers with murder scenarios that, at first glance, appeared impervious to rational explanation.

The best expression of this facet of the classic whodunnit is the locked room mystery. A body is found in a sealed chamber, definitely murdered, but there is no way the culprit can have got in or out. How did the murderer reach the victim and then escape again? Right from the very beginnings of detective fiction in the nineteenth century, this scenario has fascinated writers and readers alike.

That’s why, today, we’re going to learn how to solve impossible crimes.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Like a lot of things about detective fiction, the origins of the locked room mystery can be traced all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe.

Jim: I think there’s a common conception that the first impossible crime story was also probably the first crime story, which is widely accepted to be “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe from 1843. I think this comes about because of the need for investigation being so key to the impossible crime, to have somebody to actually look into it, to come to some degree of rationalisation why this problem is involved.

Caroline: This is Jim Noy, an impossible crime enthusiast and the author of the detective fiction blog The Invisible Event. He’s something of an expert on this subject, which is why I’ve called him in as our consulting detective on this case. Before we go any further with Poe and the rest, though, I think we need to work out exactly what we mean when we say “impossible crime” or “locked room”. Luckily, Jim is much better at defining these phrases than I am.

Jim: I think there are a couple of phrases they are used interchangeably, I think people talk about locked rooms and they talk about impossible crimes and they also talk about miracle problems. And I tend to refer to them as impossible crimes. I think a locked room is a type of impossible crime web, something occurs inside of a locked room, but typically an impossible crime is usually a crime, a criminal act. It’s usually a crime has been committed in such a way that upon its initial presentation to the characters in the story and certainly to the reader, it doesn’t seem physically possible. And I suggest that beyond that, it also needs to remain to appear physically impossible for a very basic level of investigation and so to a very sort of key initial appearance there must also be that element of bafflement of how it has been committed.  

Caroline: So a locked room murder and a miracle problem are both types of impossible crime — the latter being a situation that appears physically impossible but that isn’t actually a crime like a murder or a theft, such as a sudden manifestation or disappearance. And, as Jim says, it isn’t enough for a writer merely to construct an impossible-seeming scenario, if as soon as the detective steps through the door, they’re going to immediately understand how it was done. The impossibility needs to withstand at least some investigation to really earn the label. So, back to Poe, who did this first. Or did he?

Jim: I mean the earliest cited example is from the Book of Judges in the Bible, where an incredibly fat man is run through with a sword in such a way that their assailant finds it impossible to remove the sword from the wound. And so when people enter the room it would appear to be someone is found killed in a locked room, there’s no sign of the weapon. It just so happens that the weapon is lost inside of the oversized body. There’s also from the writings of Herodotus from about 440 B.C. There’s a story called Rhampsinitus and the thief, which is about a thief who has found a way to gain access to a very rich man’s store of gold. From the reader’s perspective, we know how the access is achieved, but from the man being stolen from it it appears to be impossible.

Caroline: Plenty of Gothic and sensation fiction also dabbles with seemingly impossible incidents, but the crucial point is that it’s not until Poe in the mid nineteenth century that we get the character of C. Auguste Dupin trying to solve these impossibilities in a manner that we now recognise as a kind of detection.

Although it’s been more than a century and a half since “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published, I don’t want to spoil its solution for you — I strongly recommend you go and read it, and I’ve put a link to a free online edition in the show notes. In many ways, it’s a foundational text of detective fiction, even if Dupin doesn’t call himself a detective or describe what he’s doing as “detection”. In fact, the earliest citation for the word “detective” in the Oxford English Dictionary is, like Poe’s story, from 1843. The concept of rational investigation as a part of either professional policing or private sleuthing was really in its infancy.

Over the next few decades, detectives in both real life and fiction proliferated. In detective stories, locked rooms and other kinds of impossible crime became gradually more common, with more and more writers starting to experiment with them.

Jim:  By that point you’ve also got the work of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace starting to come out. Robert Eustace is possibly best known to Golden Age detective fans as the man who wrote the Documents in the Case with Dorothy L. Sayers. But he and L.T. Meade wrote a series of short stories, I believe, under the title The Master of Mysteries, some of which are impossible crimes, some of which are incredibly auric, most of which are incredibly hoary.

Caroline: Meade was an incredibly prolific Irish writer who produced over 300 books in her lifetime. For those who enjoyed the Victorian Pioneers episode of the podcast about early lady detectives, Meade is also worthy of note as the co-creator of several significant female sleuths and villains, including Florence Cusack and Madame Coluchy. Through her work with Eustace, she made a substantial contribution to the emerging impossible crime subgenre, too.

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1892 is an important year for locked room mysteries. There were two publications this year that matter to the investigation we have at hand — one of which I expect a lot of you will have heard of, another that I suspect might be a little more obscure.

Jim: There is the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle from 1892, where a woman is found killed in what is essentially a locked and sealed room. You also have from 1892 The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill, which is another incredibly famous example, which is probably rightly famous because of, again, the fact that it comes up with a very interesting and I believe at the time original solution. But also what it comes up with is a false solution. And so Zangwill arguably in the history of impossible crimes, introduced the idea of a false solution, where what you have is a series of events that would appear to explain away the situation, which are then shown typically in the final chapter to be inaccurate for whatever reason.

Caroline: Arthur Conan Doyle might be by far the most famous late Victorian detective writer, but he was by no means the sole practitioner of the impossible crime story.

Jim: So certainly by the time Doyle is writing these with Holmes, it’s not as if he’s alone in it and it’s not as if nothing has been done in the subgenre by that point. I think it again, in much the same way that Poe and Rue Morgue is so incredibly famous and so it’s seen as the star of the genre. Holmes is so rightly incredibly famous that is often seen as the next logical step of really anything post about 1850.  

Caroline: In the early twentieth century, several writers notably picked up the thread of the impossible crime and tried to experiment a bit further with it.

Jim: In the early 20th century, you’ve got Jacques Futrelle who wrote to say, I mean, Futrelle died on the Titanic in 1912, so probably about 1904, 1905, you got Jacques Futrelle writing his Thinking Machine stories. You’ve got Edgar Wallace writing The Four Just Men around about the same sort of time.

Caroline: The thing about Futrelle, Wallace and other very early twentieth century impossible crime writers, though, is that when you read their stories now, they don’t seem that impossible. Sometimes, it’s even downright obvious what the big reveal is as soon as you’ve read the initial setup. And that’s because these solutions often rely on a general lack of understanding of scientific, medical or technological principles in the reading public of the day.

Jim: And what happens in this era is the rationalisation of the seemingly inexplicable by things which I think at the time weren’t necessarily appreciated by the populace. So we now in 2020 are broadly able to take for granted a lot of scientific principles, a lot of medical principles that I don’t think 100 hundred years ago would have been quite as appreciated by the man and woman in the street

Caroline: As writers sought to outdo each other and their readers with more and more outlandish impossible crimes, the plausibility of what they were writing about started to fall away. For instance:

Jim: Wallace, when he wrote The Four Just Men was he was relying on a scientific principle, which was relatively new at the time, but which if you had a certain amount of insight and understanding, you could actually anticipate. You go back to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — there’s been some fantastic critiques of Murders in the Rue Morgue where the physical space just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not physically possible for what is supposed to have occurred in that space to actually have occurred. It relies on, amongst other things, the existence of a secret hidden catch to seal the window from the inside. It would only exist if the person putting that window in the building knew that in some point in the future, that window was going to be featured in a baffling locked room murder like there is a meta element to it that just becomes so, so incredibly preposterous.

Caroline: The boundary between what is an impossible crime story and what is a science fiction story has always been a bit porous — and that’s something we’ll talk about in more detail a bit later in this episode. But before the locked room murder mysteries of the 1900s and the 1910s could any more implausible, an important shift occurred. And the pivotal writer here? Well, it’s G.K. Chesterton.

Jim: You get to someone like Chesterton and we’ve gone through an era of a lot of bogus, false, scientific, in inverted commas, reasoning, being used to explain away impossible crimes. You go through a lot of principles of, you know, weird physical spaces may be or may not have the properties that describe the fact that, you know, we just accepted that every single building older than a certain age has at least eleven hidden passages leading into any particularly spooky room. But crucially, what Chesterton does and this is one of the things I really love about his writing, is that Chesterton starts to move away from the scientific principles, from the physical principles, and starts to move into the psychological principles. And so it starts to look at the reason that something might be apparently impossible, not necessarily being because there’s something about the physical space or because there’s some scientific principle that people are ignorant of, but fundamentally because that there is a key human blindness in the way that people perceive situations.

Caroline: Chesterton was, in a way, a literary godfather to golden age writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and many others. As I mentioned in the recent episode about the Detection Club, this status was confirmed when he was asked to be the club’s first president in 1930. The first story featuring his priest-detective Father Brown, The Blue Cross, was published in 1910, and he wrote over fifty more over the next two decades. And there’s one from 1911, that expresses his psychological take on the impossible crime better than any other.

Jim: Now, there’s one story in particular that leans into this very heavily, “The Invisible Man“. And I detest that story with every fibre of my being. But it’s fascinating from the perspective of how heavily it leans into a psychological principle. He started to use these psychological principles and started to expand up from just the use of physical space and just the use of what you can physically see in a room to this point of you don’t see this not because of the physical space, but because of you, because there is an inherent flaw in the observer in the way in which these events are interpreted by people in the narrative.

Caroline: The invisible man isn’t invisible because of some special serum he’s drunk or because of some clever trick with a mirror, but because the unreliable, flawed people observing him are can’t see him. I’m not a huge fan of Chesterton or Father Brown either, but there can be no doubt that by popularising the idea of the unreliable narrator and witness, he helped move the impossible crime story into its next, and arguably greatest, phase.

After the break: the golden age of locked rooms, and beyond.

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The impossible crimes of the golden age are at once both simpler than their predecessors and more complicated. There’s far less reliance on elaborate window catches, fake panels in the wall and untraceable poisons, and instead the author has to construct the impossibility so that it exists in the eye of the beholder, as it were. No more physical slight of hand or improbable trickery.

Jim: It’s this idea that you want your reader to engage and so you almost want to be able to hold up to them the physical evidence almost verbatim. I think that became the key principle of what we now talk about as the golden age. 

Caroline: This where we can consider impossible crimes as part of the bigger trend for fair play that is so fundamental to the mechanics of golden age detective novels. It’s not fair if the solution to the impossible crime turns out to be a previously unmentioned secret passage; it’s also much more fun if the reader has known the secret passage was there the whole time but just didn’t work out what it had to do with the plot. This need to lay out all the physical restrictions up front is also where we start getting one of my favourite things about crime novels from this period: the maps in the front of the book.

Jim: The understanding of the physical geography of the space really had to improve, and so you start to see an upswing in the use of maps. And there is a story, “The Round Room Horror” by A Demain Grange from about 1911, which is slightly pre golden age. But this is the earliest example I’m aware of where the precise physical measurements of a space really matter. But because something has a particular dimension, a physical act is is possible inside of that space, then explains away the impossible crime. It’s the first example, the earliest example I’m aware of of a diagram of the space being provided in such a way that the exact arrangement of things in that space really matters.

Caroline: As with all detective fiction that abides by the precepts of fair play, the whole point of this era of impossible crime stories is that the writer gives the reader everything that they need to guess whodunnit, but then still managed to fool them in the end. In that sense, writer and reader are competing with each other, tussling over who is going to triumph by the time the denouement rolls round.

Jim: There’s no longer any fun setting a puzzle that no one else but me can solve. Authors really wanted it to be solvable. You know, John Dixon Carr called the writing of impossible crime fiction, the grandest game in the world. And I mean, the whole point of a game is that you want people to be able to play it. 

Caroline: It’s impossible to talk about golden age impossible crimes without talking about John Dickson Carr. Although born and raised in the United States, Carr is usually grouped in with the mostly British group of writers who dominated detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s. In 1932 he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, and they settled in London, where Carr set to work publishing mystery novels at a great rate. In 1933 he published his first novel featuring the academic and amateur sleuth Dr Gideon Fell, Hag’s Nook, and then in 1934 under the pseudonym Carter Dickson he published The Plague Court Murders, a brilliant locked room murder mystery featuring amateur sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. He carried on working with both of these pen names and detectives for several decades, publishing dozens of novels.

Jim: John Dixon Carr is the greatest practitioner of impossible crimes in the golden age. He wrote an astonishingly large number of brilliant crimes, came up with some brilliant solutions, came up with some brilliantly original solutions, came up with some brilliant twists on extant solutions, really folded the machinations required for the impossibilities into his plots incredibly well. Used Chesterton’s principles of psychology brilliantly. I mean, read something like The Problem of the Green Capsule, which is also known as the The Black Spectacles from 1939. I think that is pretty much the pinnacle of the impossible crime in Golden Age detective fiction, I think, is probably the pinnacle of golden age detective fiction. 

Caroline: That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and Jim definitely knows what he’s talking about. Carr was constantly innovating, looking for new takes on the already well known tropes of the impossible crime. In that book The Problem of the Green Capsule from 1939, a wealthy man sets up an experiment to prove that there’s no such thing as a reliable eyewitness. He stages a number of scenarios before a group of witnesses and also films the whole thing on a movie camera. One scene involves him being fed a large green capsule containing poison, and even though everyone saw the whole thing, nobody can agree on exactly what happened or who committed the murder. Gideon Fell has to use the supposedly objective film footage to prove what really happened. Or take The Problem of the Wire Cage, also published in 1939, in which the locked room is not a room but a tennis court. An obnoxious young man who was taking advantage of a wealthy young woman is found dead in the centre of a clay court, and the soft clay only shows one set of footprints going towards the body – the victim’s own. And yet he did not die by his own hand. How was it done? That’s the mystery.

But Carr’s take on the impossible crime didn’t come out of nowhere — his work was only possible because of everything you’ve already heard about in this episode.

Jim: Carr did so much inside of the subgenre with how he mixed together all of the pre-existing ingredients. Everything brought in by Poe and everything brought in by Doyle, everything brought in by your Gothic writers, by LeFanu, everything brought in by Chesterton,  this incredible melting pot of these wildly diverse ingredients and turned out these hugely creative plots and these hugely creative characters that are also incredibly well-written 

Caroline: Carr slyly acknowledged his debt to his predecessors in plain sight too, in the character of Dr Gideon Fell, who shares some of the Father Brown creator’s physical attributes and opinions — “Fell is G. K. Chesterton, of course,” Carr once said.

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Another writer who was active towards the golden age and contributed a lot to the impossible crime canon was Christianna Brand. She’s perhaps more often remembered by the public at large today for writing the Nurse Matilda series, the basis for the Nanny McPhee films. She didn’t write nearly as many novels as John Dickson Carr, but some of the ones from the 1940s featuring Inspector Cockrill are truly inspired, Jim feels.

Jim: Green For Danger, Tour de Force, Death of Jezebel. Have these magnificent casts. These magnificent uses of psychology inside of the crime. I think Brand did a lot of stuff that she doesn’t necessarily get credit for, for instance, people talk about The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen as being this incredible story where the killer’s identity is revealed in the final line. Now I mean that’s true. Anybody paying attention can deduce who the killer is before the final line of The French Powder Mystery. But if you just want to wait and be told, then you can be. You can just be told. In the 1940s, Brandreth a book called Suddenly At His Residence, also known as The Crooked Wreath, where the fine line reveals not just who the killer is, but how they worked the particular crimes. Well it’s, it’s this very pithy, wonderful moment where you realise everything has been kind of funnelling down and it’s it’s arguably a far more accomplished. Distillation of what Queen was doing in The French Powder Mystery

Caroline: And of course, we should touch on the Queens of Crime in relation to this subgenre. Actually the only one of those four famous authors to try out the impossible crime in any serious way was Agatha Christie, who did it twice in full length novels: Murder in Mesopotamia in 1936 and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas in 1938. In the former, a woman is found bludgeoned to death in a locked room within a courtyard that nobody can have entered or exited unobserved. In the latter, a wealthy old man is heard fighting with an assailant in his locked room and when his children break down the door, he’s dead in a big pool of blood and there’s no way anyone else can have got in to fight with him or to cut his throat. I think both of these are among her top rank of plots, but they’re good more because of her skill with character and dialogue than because the plots really push the boundary of the impossible crime in any meaningful way. But then there is one that she wrote which is really like nothing else at all.

Jim: The one exception to that being somewhat debated as to whether it qualifies as an impossible crime, of course, being and then there were none, which is just one of the finest novels written ever, regardless of genre. I would personally consider that an impossible crime. I included that in a list of my fifteen favourite and impossible crime novels. Some people debate whether that technically follows is an impossible crime. But if you’ve got 10 people on an island on all 10 of them have been murdered and there’s no opportunity for the murderer to escape, then. That strikes me as an impossible crime. 

Caroline: Alongside English language impossible crime practitioners like Christie, Brand and Carr, there are lots of other authors that often get overlooked in these discussions because their work hasn’t, until now, been very widely translated.

Jim: Also, let’s not forget, there was a certain amount of stuff done in the impossible crime during the Golden Age that wasn’t done in English. There are French authors such as Noel Vindry or Marcel Lanteaume or Pierre Boileau or just before the Golden Age, of course, Gaston Leroux with The Mystery of the Yellow Room, that those of us who are not intelligent enough to speak a second language are only just starting to learn about because there are new translations of these coming out. There’s the Honkaku stuff that was written in Japan in the in the 1930s and 40s, Seishi Yokomizo and things like that that are just being published. I mean, there are some incredibly inventive examples of this that can be found, not necessarily Anglocentrically that people who have had an understanding and a knowledge of these cultures have known about for the intervening 80 or 90 years. And some of us are only starting to learn about now and starting to get very excited about it as well. 

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Caroline: The creativity and innovation behind some of the best golden age impossible crime stories burned fiercely during the 1920s and 1930s, but what happened to this subgenre when the classic murder mystery began to fall out of favour after the Second World War?

Jim: There’s no doubt that there was a period where the detective novel certainly started to lose its lustre and start to fall from favour. And I think, as I said earlier, the impossible crime and the detection concept was so key, they grew up together and so they fell out of fashion together. 

Caroline: John Dickson Carr was still publishing Gideon Fell novels into the 1960s, but even he had slowed down and was experimenting with historical melodrama alongside it. And new crime writers who were emerging at that time weren’t interested in reshaping what had by now become the pretty tired old trope of the locked room mystery. P.D. James, who published her first novel in 1962, was writing police procedurals, as was Ruth Rendell, who debuted in 1964.

Mainstream crime fiction, then, had turned away from the playful puzzles and the fair play obsession of the golden age, but there were other kinds of genre fiction that could be stretched to incorporate elements of the impossible crime, for those who still felt it had some mileage. But constructing these intricate plots was definitely a niche activity.

Jim: There were a couple of examples written into the 50s and 60s and 70s, a lot of them by authors, interestingly, who then went on to write just pure science fiction. So you’d get someone like John Sladek, who wrote a couple of absolutely brilliant impossible crime novels, Invisible Green and Black Aura. I believe it was Sladek who said one could go hungry from just writing detective novels because they simply weren’t popular at the time. Or someone like Mack Reynolds, who wrote a novel, The Case of the Little Green Men, I believe it was called, in which a series of supposedly impossible events happened, the only explanation of which appears to be aliens. So someone wakes up and finds that wall burned by a laser beam. Someone is found having been dropped from a great height, as if having been thrown off a flying saucer. 

Caroline: The great American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov also wrote some straight detective fiction about a group of mystery solvers called the Black Widowers. But in 1968 he published a short story collection called Asimov’s Mysteries that are crime stories with paranormal or sci-fi backgrounds, and in the introduction he reflected on the compatability between the two genres.

Jim: And he said in the introduction, people seemed to see science fiction and detective fiction as entirely non sympathetic genres, because you could just say, I want to find out who the killer is, well, I’m going to point my Liar-Tron 500 at everybody and ask them if they killed them. And then my Liar-Tron 500 will tell them, will tell me sorry if if they’re lying. And he said, that’s actually fine, you can do that. But then why not write a universe which contains a Liar-Tron 500 and come up with a reason why that then can’t be used and fall back on scientific principles for your detection.

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Caroline: In a way, the impossible crime story came full circle, because by the end of the twentieth century, writers were doing something quite similar to their counterparts at the end of the nineteenth century. They were experimenting at the edges of plausible science and technology to create scenarios that would baffle and delight readers. And of course, as real world science advances, some of these stories date rather badly.

Of course, people are still trying to write impossible crime stories and locked room mysteries, but things like forensic science and advanced surveillance don’t make it very easy to create plausible yet impenetrable plots. As a result, Jim says, a lot of the locked room mysteries published today aren’t very good.

Jim: There’s a lot of so-and-so was stabbed outside of the room and then fell into the room and locked the door after them to protect them. There’s a lot of oh, yeah, they just happened to consume a poison an hour before and then they fell down dead at a time that it made a pair as if it was impulse. Was a lot of sort of very hoary late Edwardian, early Victorian stuff, which is a shame. That’s some good work being done. Adam Roberts wrote a very interesting, again, science fiction crossover novel called The Real Town Murders, where a body, a dead body turns up in a car manufacturing plant where no human actually has any access. It’s a fascinating idea.

Caroline: That, I think, is a stroke of genius — what better setting for a contemporary locked room mystery than a full automated factory where no humans ever go?

Jim: There are some authors doing some interesting work with it these days, but they are definitely in the minority. Someone like James Scott Burnside has self published two extremely good impossible crime novels Goodnight, Irene. And The Opening Night Murders, both of which have a real understanding and a real desire to go back to what the classic era detective fiction novel was, was trying to achieve. 

Caroline: It’s no surprise, then, that most of the authors still trying to write locked room mysteries today are writing historical fiction or speculative fiction.

Jim: But I find it interesting that they do tend to exist either in broadly speaking, either in people setting books back in the eighteen hundreds or early nineteen hundreds or people setting books in the 22 hundreds of the future.

Caroline: Part of what made the golden age the perfect period to incubate brilliant impossible crimes, it turns out, was that there was just enough of a popular understanding of science to make these plots plausible, but not so much that the writers had no wriggle room. Add to that the sense of interactivity and fun that the fixation on fair play provided, and you had the perfect conditions for this subgenre to flourish.

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But even though we’re now almost a century on from that, I do think you can still detect traces of the human obsession with apparently unsolvable puzzles that made the impossible crime such a force in crime fiction. It’s there in the 1990s British TV show Jonathan Creek, or the mass popularity of escape room experiences.

We might not have someone like John Dickson Carr writing today, but we’re still desperate to work out whodunnit behind the locked door.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes and links to Jim Noy’s writing about impossible crimes at shedunnitshow.com/lockedroom, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. For instance, if you’d like to hear a much longer version of my discussion with Jim and get lots more detail about impossible crimes and locked rooms, book club members will be able to do that via their monthly bonus episode. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 30 September with another episode.

46. The Lifelong Fan Transcript

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Caroline: With detective novels from the 1920s or 1930s, I’m always conscious of the distance between when it was written and when I’m reading it. Not that I think you need to be immersed in the historical context to enjoy a murder mystery, that’s not it at all. Part of what makes these stories and characters so enduringly popular is how mobile they are. For the best of them, the process of working out whodunnit is as fun in 2020 as it was in 1930.

But reading them now is a different experience. The world has changed, and I’m not part of the reading public that Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers imagined that they were addressing when they put pen to paper all those decades ago. But what if we could hear from someone who grew up through the twentieth century alongside these books, reading them as they came out? That would really be something, wouldn’t it?

And that’s why, today, we’re going to hear from Renée.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Renée: I don’t know if you know anything about me, but I went out to work when I was 12 and where I was working I was closer to a large library, a city library.

Caroline: This is Renée. She was born in the town of Napier on the North Island of New Zealand in 1929. Her life was touched by death early on — when she was four years old, Renée’s father had shot himself, seemingly completely out of the blue. In her memoir These Two Hands, she quotes from a contemporary newspaper account of his death, which makes this inexplicable family tragedy sound rather like something from a 1930s murder mystery. It says:

“Stanley George Howard Jones left his home, ostensibly to go to Napier, purchased a .22 rifle there, caught a service car to Palmerston North and his body was found lying on the railway embankment in Wellington. How he covered the last stages of his journey – from Palmerston North to Wellington – is unknown. Beside his body were two unopened bottles of ale and in his pocket a broken glass.”

The death of Renée’s father completely changed her life, as you might expect, but in a way it also lead her to the literature that she still loves today. That awful event irrevocably altered her mother, and it put an end to any hope Renée might have had of staying in education. Because, when she was 12 years old, her mother told her that she needed to get a job to help pay for her two younger siblings to go to high school.

Renée lied and told prospective employers that she was 15, and secured herself work at a nearby woollen mill.

Part of the reason that she had wanted to study more was to do with her love of reading — something that she had inherited from her mother.

Renée: My mother was a great reader and and she read voraciously and and she taught me to read before I was five. And so I began reading her library books when I was about 10 because I got sick of Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables and books like that. I was a little bit supercilious about them, I think. Now I appreciate them probably more, at least I see the hard work involved in them, but with my mother’s books, which I read almost as quickly as she did. But of course, not quickly enough before she took them back.

Caroline: Working 40 hours a week in a factory at the age of 12 isn’t the childhood that characters in books generally get to have. But for Renée, it did have some benefits in terms of independence in what she got to read. Her work was near the bigger city library, and that mattered.

Renée: And so I used to go there in my lunch hour. And so a lot of the crime novels that I read, but not being able to read the end because my mother took them back to the library before I’d finished, I was then able to finish.

Caroline: Perhaps the most significant literary encounter that Renée had around this time was with the 1935 novel Gaudy Night.

Renée: Dorothy Sayers has always been my favourite because I think she can write as well, and she sort of talks about things that caught my attention. She talks about what a marriage should be, that a woman should be allowed to work in all of this. You know, follow her own career. Those kinds of things, which I really as a young girl, I was about 11 when I read first Gaudy Night. And that really interested me for some reason, which I don’t understand, because I was quite young, but I guess I was reading Vera Brittain as well. And Rebecca West.

Caroline: Now, long time listeners to this podcast will know how much I love this book too. It’s a mystery novel — although not a murder mystery, because it’s more of poison pen plot — but it’s also a treatise about love and relationships and work and how women can exist between them all. When I was talking to Renée, we had so much in common when we spoke about how this book had shaped us, even though she is 91 and read the book quite soon after it came out, and I’m 32 and read it decades after Sayers had died. But we’re both equally captivated by it, and return to it often.

Renée: I’m so pleased that it’s just so nice to know because I don’t know anyone else who really does that. And there’s something about you fall into that book that because it was the first one I read, I fell into it. And I don’t think I’ve ever quite come out.

Gaudy Night, and the other detective novels of this time that Renée devoured at the library, offered her a glimpse of a completely alien world. Here she was, a girl not yet in her teens who was working full time in a mill in New Zealand to help support her family, and on the pages of these whodunnits were lives and places that were completely unrecognisable to her.

Renée: I was like a little Gulliver looking in these strange new worlds. I mean, there were places that had a butler and maids and all those sorts of things which I had never entered my as sort of little world. And then Sayers’s Gaudy Night was the first novel I read of hers and she was at Oxford and which was fascinating for me, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know what a proctor was. For example, I found some of the terms quite difficult. But I was young. And so I just read it mainly for the pleasure and the surprise of hearing people, adult people actually talk about poetry or literature. And none of which I knew. But it was just another idea that that’s that could be a part of conversation was a. A really nice thing. I liked it.

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Caroline: Around the same time that Renée was immersing herself in the world of Sayers like this, she had a very fortunate encounter with a neighbour that set her on the path to a greater understanding of the literary world.

Renée: When I was going to work one day, I must have been about 13. I was walking to the bus, a new couple had come to live in our street and the man walked to the bus at the same time as me, caught the same bus. And he was English. And he wore tweed coat and he carried a briefcase and he was well-dressed and stuff like that. And we either walked, I walked ahead of him or he walked behind me. And we both walked very quickly. And one day he came up alongside me and he’d noticed on the bus that as soon as I got on the bus, I sat down and opened a book and read. And so he said to me, You like reading? And I didn’t really know how to speak to adults. And so I just said yes. And he said, what do you like reading? And I said something ridiculous, like books. He was meaning the writers, I guess. And then he said to me. And this was the thing. He said, My mother sends me copies of John O’London’s Weekly, when I finished with them, would you like to look at them? Would you like to read them? So I said yes. I didn’t even know what he meant. But from then on, on different days, he would give me a copy of the latest John O’London. Well, the latest New Zealand copy of it. And so I read. You know, everything, every word on the pages. And I discovered that people wrote reviews about books and all those sorts of things. My eyes were totally opened like they were opened the first time I read Gaudy Night. And so I began to have a little bit of background, so I read some of the writers in them. So guess I had that. As well. And every time I reread Gaudy Night, say, I had more. I brought more to it because I understood more about the literary scene in Britain. You know?

Caroline: If Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night had cracked open the door to the literary world a little, then this kind stranger pushed it a little wider for her.

Renée: And because adults, well, I don’t know what they’re like now, they’re probably better now with children. But I mean, even though I going to work, I was still a child, really. And but in those days, they didn’t really bother. And no one else, apart from my mother, I didn’t know anyone else who read so voraciously as we did. And yet here was this man, a grown man. You know, I don’t know how old he was, say, thirties and he was thinking highly enough of reading to hand me a weekly. There aren’t any other circumstances I would never, ever have seen. It just wasn’t in my, we were working class, poor people, you know, it just wouldn’t have been in the lexicon of my life. And, yeah, so that was a lovely thing to have happened. And that is why I grew to know some of the writers, or at least know their work.

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Caroline: When Renée was in her late teens, she met Laurie, an apprentice mechanic. They were married for 31 years, during which time Renée worked, had children, finished her education and gained a degree from Auckland University. Like Dorothy L. Sayers, she loved the theatre, and found inspiration in it.

Renée: I did about 25 years and community theatre. And then I started writing plays and some of that. And I did a lot of feminist revues. We travelled around and some of the plays that I wrote. I mean, all of them were, they had productions, but some of them have had lasted. And one in particular is a highly regarded piece.

Caroline: She’s referring here to her 1985 play Wednesday to come, which looks at the experiences of a family during the 1930s Depression in New Zealand and features three generations of women. Her first play, Setting the table, is dated to 1981, which is also the year that Renée left her husband Laurie for the woman that she had fallen in love with. She writes about this turning point in her life in her memoir as if it is a scene in a play, assigning dialogue to herself and Laurie as if they are characters she had created. During the 1970s, she had become very involved in feminist organising, and she is often now described as “a lesbian feminist with working class ideals” — a bio that she goes along with, even if she didn’t choose it herself.

After the break: Renée takes on the Queen of New Zealand crime fiction, Ngaio Marsh.

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Renée read many of the great crime novels as they were coming out. Her mother was an Agatha Christie fan, so the latest Christie often turned up in their house from the library when she was a child.

With the exception of Sayers, who didn’t publish any more full length crime novels after Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937, the other three queens of crime — that is Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham — all carried on putting out whodunnits throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. Seeing their writing develop and the detective novel itself alter as the world changed has been a great joy to her.

Renée: It’s one of the pleasures of following the same writer, isn’t it, to see how from their first novel over time how, well, I guess there’s an assurance isn’t there that comes with if you sell well and you get some good reviews and people enjoy your work, then there’s a certain assurance that benefits the writing, isn’t there?

Caroline: Before I spoke to Renée, I took it for granted that she would be a big Ngaio Marsh fan. After all, to the rest of the world and certainly to those interested in crime fiction, Ngaio Marsh is one of the most famous writers to come out of New Zealand. Marsh was also a very enthusiastic participant in the theatrical world, so I felt sure that Renée would be a disciple.

But once I’d got to know Renée a little, I realised that I should have known better. I highly doubt that Renée has ever been predictable, and therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she has her problems with Marsh’s writing.

Renée: Some of them are quite, well, crude’s the wrong word, but what I mean as crude in the way they put together or in the puzzle or both, and certainly. Like some of the characters are just kind of, there’s nothing really to them is there, they’re just little walk ons that she like little puppets she pushes on. In a Ngaio Marsh, they’re all very restrained and. Yeah, just seemed unlike real life to me. But maybe it was for her. I don’t know. Yeah. As we say before, anyway, she she was inclined to be to keep things under wraps. She was very restrained and she kept a real rein on herself where emotions were concerned. I sort of feel there a bit. Now, I do know you can sort of see or at least I think I can see her restraint. Was she kept a real grip on her own emotions. And so her characters seemed to do the same, perhaps.

Caroline: An awful lot of detective fiction from the 1920s and 30s is focused on posh people — that’s where that old cliche about the genre, that it’s “snobbery with violence” is rooted. For Renée, some of that comes out more strongly in Ngaio Marsh’s work than it does in that of other authors, although her positions clearly develop over her career.

Renée: Ngaio Marsh is quite slavishly adoring of the British upper classes and. Yes, and all of them. Didn’t do well with working class characters. That was it. And as a child, of course, I didn’t really know what a lot. I didn’t know what a manor house was.

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Caroline: Renée has recently acquired a new perspective on crime writing, because at the end of her ninth decade she wrote her own detective novel. As a result, she’s been delving a little more deeply into modern crime fiction rather than revisiting favourites from decades past, and noted some important differences.

Renée: I’ve read two books recently who’ve been which have been highly lauded, and I can see why, but I just couldn’t I couldn’t finish them because they involve a kind of torture of a young woman. And I couldn’t I just can’t do it. And also I find now that I’m old as well, quite a few people start their books with the murder of an old woman. Have you noticed that? Well, perhaps I’m just noticing that because I’m old. And I just immediately don’t want to read on. I just think it’s a kind of trope and who cares? It gives me that impression. So, yes, I think there’s something,  I don’t know what the word is, is it fairer about Sayers and Christie and all those? You know, that they were a little bit more general in their crimes and maybe we didn’t get the gory details that maybe are expected now.

Caroline: Renée’s novel, The Wild Card, is a story that encompasses several of its author’s main interests. Its heroine is Ruby, a thirty something woman trying to solve the mystery of her friend Betty’s death two decades before. To do so, she must investigate the children’s home where they both grew up, and that means delving into the systemic racism that Māori children in state care have long faced. Renee, who on her mother’s side is of Māori descent, wove topical issues of New Zealand’s bicultural heritage into her book as well as exploring feminist themes. Plus, Ruby is also involved in an amateur theatre company, so there’s a nod to her theatrical experience in there as well.

Renée: It’s really sort of cosy in a way that the crime is historical. And so it’s a matter of finding out who was responsible for that. And, of course, it’s got theatre in it, running through it. The production of Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Caroline: Although her book deals with a historical or cold case, it’s still very much set in a recognisable today, although Renée still isn’t sure that she is cut out to be a modern crime novelist.

Renée: I’m writing another one at the moment, which is a little bit grimmer. I don’t really have that splinter of ice in my heart that you’re supposed to have. Also I like happy endings, which it kind of works against someone who wants to write crime novels.

Caroline: By including the theatrical plot in The Wild Card, Renée is very much working in parallel with Ngaio Marsh, who was passionated about theatre and set many of her novels in that space — more on that in a future episode. Although she isn’t Renée’s favourite golden age novelists, there’s no escaping the comparison, it seems, especially when you live and work in New Zealand.

Renée: I think she’s regarded quite highly. I think I’m in the minority. It may just be like she’s regarded extremely highly for her theatrical work, and I regard her highly for that as well. She was a great Shakespearean director and she did a lot of work with university students who had no experience in theatre, but under her tuition and her direction, she did some absolutely — I didn’t see one, but I am told by people whose opinion I trust that they were totally the best theatre that I’ve ever seen in their lives. She was in love with Shakespeare as much as she was in love with Roderick Alleyn, I think. And I think she was a very talented woman and she was a painter. She was an artist and and was good at that as well. I think for me, her main fault is her slavish adoration of a particular class.

CarolineThe Wild Card has actually been shortlisted for New Zealand’s highest honour in crime writing — the Ngaio Marsh award — so perhaps Renée is destined always to be associated with her as a writer.

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That said, there will really only ever be one golden age novelist for Renée.

Renée: I can see how one particular writer can endear themselves to you so much that writing and finding out about them is while it looks to outsiders like, you know, don’t you really get sick of this sort of thing, there’s there’s a kind of deep, deep interest, isn’t there, there’s something about the writing that touches you in some deep sort of way, which I suspect is the reason I’ve never, ever got bored with Sayers.

Caroline: She has loved Dorothy L. Sayers’s work since she was 11 — that’s 80 years of rereading and rethinking and reappraising. I might think of myself as pretty committed to my love of detective fiction, but I’ve got nothing on Renée.

She is truly a lifelong fan.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes and links to Renée’s book The Wild Card at shedunnitshow.com/lifelongfan, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. For instance, if you’d like to hear the full version of my conversation with Renée — and we talked for over an hour — book club members will shortly be able to do that. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 16 September with another episode.

45. The Detection Club Transcript

Caroline: Writing can be a lonely profession. Once a book or story exists, it can be a highly sociable thing — the author is interviewed about it, appears at events, and these days can always be available to talk to their readers online. But the period of creation is one of solitude. Just you and the page, alone in the process of finding the right words to put on it.

In the late 1920s, one writer of detective fiction was feeling this aloneness acutely. Anthony Berkeley had published several novels and was enjoying some success with them, as detective fiction surged in popularity during what we now call its golden age. But he was feeling the lack of colleagues with whom he could celebrate and commiserate over the minutiae of their shared occupation.

So he invited some writers over for dinner. Eventually, they would call themselves the Detection Club, and that’s what we’re going to learn about today.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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For all its later formality and ritual, The Detection Club had quite casual origins.

Martin: Well, the detection club was formed in 1930, but it sprang out of a series of dinners that Anthony Berkeley had hosted from 1928 onwards at his home in Watford.

Caroline: This is Martin Edwards, the current president of the Detection Club and the author, most recently, of the novel Mortmain Hall. Over the years of his involvement with the club, he’s made a study of its history, and he published some of that research in his book The Golden Age of Murder, which was a big inspiration for me when I was starting this podcast.

In that book, Martin explains that it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint exactly when those early dinners at Berkeley’s house took place or who was there, because naturally nobody kept a proper record. I mean, who does keep carefully filed lists of their dinner guests? However, we do still have access to some of Berkeley’s motivations at that time via his letters.

Martin: And his idea at that time was that detective novelists really didn’t know each other socially at all, they were all working in isolation. And he thought it would be good to get together with fellow writers, and talk about matters of mutual interest, whether it was real life crimes of the day, whether it was their dealings with publishers or anything else.

Caroline: Although we don’t know exactly who was there when, I think it’s reasonable to guess that Berkeley hosted various combinations of people who would become founding club members — so Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Margaret Cole and others. A good time was had by all, it seems.

Martin: And the dinners were apparently a big success. And arising out of that success, he felt that it would be a good idea to form a social club that would meet a number of times a year to have dinner and essentially just chat and chat into the night. And so the club was was proposed. Dorothy L Sayers was amongst those who was an enthusiastic supporter, and she became very much a prime mover, but also Agatha Christie. Ronald Knox and a good many other leading lights of the day came on board.

Caroline: Once he had an idea in hand, Anthony Berkeley was not slow to action. It was felt that a proper club should have a president, and that this should be someone eminent in the profession of crime writing.

Martin: And in early 1930, Berkeley approached Arthur Conan Doyle to ask him to become the first president. But this was shortly before Conan Doyle died. He was unable to accept. So Berkeley didn’t waste much time in approaching G.K. Chesterton, who did accept and became the first president of the Detection Club.

Caroline: Although Conan Doyle was sadly not able to be part of this new initiative because of ill health, it was fitting that he was Berkeley’s first choice for president. Back in the early 1900s, Conan Doyle had been part of something called the Crimes Club, a dining society made up of writers, lawyers, academics and others who shared a fascination with crime and the criminal mind. Fellow members included P.G. Wodehouse, Doyle’s brother in law E. Hornung, the coroner Ingleby Oddie, the MP and novelist A. E. W. Mason and many more. Although Berkeley’s idea for the Detection Club was more narrowly focused on crime writing rather than criminology, there can be no doubt that he was inspired by this earlier group.

The Detection Club’s first president, the critic, theologian and author, G.K. Chesterton is probably best known in this context as the author of the Father Brown mysteries. Like Conan Doyle, Chesterton was also fairly near to the end of his life when he became involved with the Club — he died of heart failure in 1936 — but for Berkeley, Sayers and the rest of the new generation of crime writers, he represented a vital link with their late Victorian forebears who had done so much to popularise the genre.

With a president in place, Berkeley began to invite fellow writers to become founding members. He had some strict ideas about who should be let in, it seems.

Martin: And the idea was that members would be people who wrote detective fiction of high calibre. They would have produced at least two such books, and they would be elected by secret ballot by the existing members. So it was a self-selecting elite, if you like. Thriller writers were not allowed in and the theory was that the standards of detective fiction were to be elevated.

Caroline: In practice, of course, many of the early members were people that Berkeley had got to know during those early dinners. Dorothy L. Sayers was very involved in the initial organisation and became an enthusiastic founder member when the club began in earnest in 1930, as did Agatha Christie, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Clemence Dane, Robert Eustace and others. By the time a formal set of rules and a constitution was adopted by the club in 1932, twenty eight members had been elected. It went pretty well from the start, by all accounts.

Martin: The club soon became quite well-known and very reputable because most of the major writers of the time became founder members, a set of rules and constitution were drawn up in 1932. And it really went from strength to strength.

Caroline: The popularity of crime fiction itself, coupled with the personal success of many of the members, assured the Detection Club a certain amount of publicity from the outset. And then there was also the brilliant brain of Dorothy L. Sayers, who had been working in advertising for a few years alongside her writing, to help it along. For instance, as Martin explains in The Golden Age of Murder, when Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930, Sayers saw the chance for a bit of press and quickly sent a card in tribute from the whole of the Detection Club.

Ritual and rules were a key part of the Club early on. I talked about this a bit more in the ninth episode of the podcast. The Club’s constitution included a set of rules about who could join, how disagreements would be settled, and what kind of writing the club existed to encourage. The doctrine of “fair play” was crucial here, with the first rule declaring that “it is a demerit in a detetive novel if the author does not play fair by the reader”. This was an idea that had grown out of the “puzzle craze” after the First World War, and in a whodunnit came to mean that the writer constructed the story in such a way that it was possible for the reader to work out the solution for themselves, no clues withheld. The rules also prohibited members who produced “adventure stories or thrillers or stories in which the detection is not a main interest”.

Anthony Berkeley didn’t bring together these writers so that they could write necessarily — it really does seem that what he was intending was something in the style of the Crimes Club, a dining society and social club essentially, or at most a kind of professional talking shop or association. But quite soon after the club was formed, an opportunity arouse for the club members to collaborate on a mystery.

Martin: In its very early days, half a dozen of the members, including Agatha Christie, were signed up by the BBC to record a radio serial. They each wrote an instalment and read it out live. A competition was run alongside it, and that was a huge success. That was a story called Behind The Screen. And if you read it now, it’s not the best detective story, but it was enormously popular and they were then asked to write a second. This was called The Scoop and that was a good detective story. Dorothy L. Sayers took the lead with that. And again, it was listened to by many millions. The sort of audience that today the BBC or any other broadcaster would kill for.

Caroline: Readers and listeners seemed to really enjoy these whodunnits that were written in collaboration by a group of their favourite writers, and of course it was all excellent publicity for the club and for the individual authors. So much so, in fact, that the Detection Club decided to take control of the whole process.

Martin: They decided to abandon the BBC and produce a novel of their own, a collaborative novel. And this was called The Floating Admiral. And that was compiled by 13 of the members, they each wrote a chapter in turn and Anthony Berkeley wrote the final chapter when he had to solve the mystery, pull all the strands together. It’s a very long chapter and it’s called “Clearing Up the Mess”.

Caroline: There was another reason beyond pure artistic fulfilment that Dorothy L. Sayers and others put their time and effort into The Floating Admiral — money. The Detection Club wanted a room of its own, and that required club funds. The proceeds from sales of that book and its follow up Ask a Policeman enabled the members to rent two rooms at 31 Gerrard Street in Soho, right in the heart of what was then London’s red light district. Members gathered often, enjoying the local bars and restaurants before staggering back to their club house to debate methods of murder over a night cap. I think whenever I’ve imagined the Detection Club’s heyday, it’s this time in the early 1930s that I’ve thought of, when the popularity of the golden age style was high and these collaborative books were paying for its foremost practitioners to have a good time.

The question is, though, how long could it last? After the break, we’ll find out.

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Inevitably, the golden age of detection fiction couldn’t last for ever. I haven’t actually talked much about this on the podcast so far, focusing instead on how the period and the style came into being, rather than how it fizzled out. But if there’s anyone who is qualified to explain this to us, it is Martin, and he says that just as the First World War had a great influence on how things got started, so did the Second World War help bring it to a close:

Martin: The Second World War did change everything. And of course, all thing was a dead as that the books that had previously been enormously fashionable were no longer of such interest, much less appeal to the critics who were looking at the new writers like Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons and others, and therefore perhaps of less interest to the publishers. So there were a number of golden age type writers not not not least in the United States who simply couldn’t get their books published at all. Christie, of course, is an exception to every rule. And Ngaio Marsh was a high profile and very successful book. But the Golden Age, although books of that type continued to be written and course still continue to be written in one way or another. The Golden Age as as a period of burning intensity and innovation seems to me to have come to an end with the war.

Caroline: The war changed lives all over the world, and the Detection Club members were no exception.

Martin: Well, the detection club really continued to flourish until the Second World War. And in fact, by that time, Agatha Christie, who wasn’t one of life’s great joiners, was actually on the committee. So that shows you just how interested and enthusiastic she was. And then, of course, the war came. The club couldn’t meet. The minutes were apparently lost in the Blitz and there was some suggestion. John Dixon Carr at one point told Ellery Queen that the club ceased to exist, but it hadn’t. But. But it came back in the late forties from about 46 onwards. But, of course, the founder members, a small percentage had died. Others had lost their enthusiasm, such as Berkeley, and Sayers, so more members were brought in.

Caroline: As Martin says, the war also marked a shift in the careers of two of the most enthusiastic original members, Berkeley and Sayers. Neither published any crime fiction after 1939, although Berkeley did keep up his journalism and Sayers of course devoted herself to plays, religious writing and translation work. For them, perhaps, the Detection Club had served its purpose. But there were still crime writers — what role could it play in their work?

Martin: But the club as a whole had a lower profile for a long time and it really continued although books were very occasionally published, it really continued to fly below the radar and operate just as a social club. But Agatha Christie took over as president after Sayers died in the late fifties and she remained president until her death and was a very loyal adherent of the club. And after her there was Julian Symons and after him Harry Keating. So, so remained a club which stuck to the basic idea of members by election and a relatively small membership because after all it’s a dining club.

Caroline: The Club’s fortunes were very closely tied to the style of writing that its founding members had stood for, and so as the public’s interest turned away from intricate puzzle based whodunnits and towards more psychological stories, police procedurals and the like, the Club too fell out of the spotlight somewhat. In an attempt to recognise the changing times, the ban on thriller writers joining was lifted in the 1950s.

I was really keen to hear from Martin about his own experience with the Detection Club — after all, it’s not exactly something that you can apply to join. So how does a contemporary crime writer get to be a member and eventually, president?

Martin: Well, I was invited as a guest a very long time ago by Robert Barnard, who’s a very good friend of mine, and one of those older writers who was to some extent a mentor. And someone somebody gave me a lot of encouragement, helped me to get early short stories published and things like that. And he invited me along to the Savoy. That was that was in the nineties and then somewhat out of the blue as these things happened. I got a letter when I got home from work one day from Simon Brett, the president told me I’d been elected. First I was aware of it, of course. And so that was in 2008. And I was elected and inducted on the same night as another good friend of mine, Ann Cleeves. So so we joined together and have been members ever since.

Caroline: The initiation ceremony dreamed up by the early members, in which the candidate had to swear an oath on Eric the skull to uphold the principles of the club, is apparently still in use, too.

Martin: Well, the initiation ceremony was dreamed up in 1931 mainly by Sayers, but with input from Berkeley and Ronald Knox and one or two others. I think it’s been adapted over the years and they’ve been various different versions of it. So the version that is used today is much shorter and crisper because ultimately the reality is that you have a nice long dinner and the initiation ceremony comes at the end of the dinner and you don’t want it to go on for hours and hours and hours. So it’s relatively brief, but it’s still part of the still part of the tradition of the club.

Caroline: There are some pictures from the modern swearing in ceremony on Martin’s website, which I will link to in the show notes, I recommend taking a look.

Martin, I should explain, has been publishing crime novels and short stories since the early 1990s alongside his work as a solicitor. He’s also worked very hard on promoting the genre — many of the British Library Crime Classic editions that you might have read are edited by him, and he’s also worked on lots of anthologies of short stories. Many of his own books are set in the modern day, but his two recently novels, Gallows Court and Mortmain Hall, are set in the golden age period, and the latter even includes a “clue finder” — a “fair play” device almost certainly not seen in a mystery novel since the heyday of the Detection Club in the 1930s.

My own introduction to his work, though, was through The Golden Age of Murder, his non fiction book about the founding of the Detection Club and the stories that surround its original members. There’s a huge amount of original research in that book and details about detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s that you will struggle to find anywhere else. He was able to include some of that information because of his role as the Detection Club’s archivist, a position he was given in 2011. As far as I can make out, he grabbed at the chance to amass golden age history, and has barely looked back.

Martin: Well, the the history to this is that probably about 15 years ago, knowing of my interest in the history of crime fiction. Even in those days, the Crime Writers’ Association asked me to be their archivist. They had kept material from the 1950s. And at that time, I was working full time so I wasn’t able to do very much with it. But coincidentally, a few years later, Simon Brett as president asked me to do something in the archives of the detection club. But the difference was that the Detection Club had no archives. There’s nothing there. So so the task was rather different. It’s to try to assemble material. And so I’ve gone around trying to pick up bits and pieces where I can find information about the early members as well. So so the archives of the Detection Club are much less thorough than those of the Crime Writers’ Association, which are quite substantial. But I’ve been trying to add to them. And for instance, I’ve added to them Bob Barnard’s archive. Quite a bit of his material is now part of it. And he was a not only an interesting writer and an interesting person, but he kept everything so so that that’s there’s some meat there that I think is interesting to study. And I reached an agreement with Gladstone’s Library in North Wales near Chester in a village called Hawarden, founded by Gladstone towards the end of the 19th century, a wonderful place. And they agreed to take the archives on loan and to catalogue them and look after them, and comply with GDPR and all these things that you’ve got to do with archives nowadays. So that that was a real breakthrough. And in the last few years, not this year, unfortunately, because of the pandemic, it’s had to be postponed until next year. But for the last few years, we’ve had a weekend in June called Alibis in the Archive where writers have given talks and members of the public have not only been able to come along and indeed stay because you can stay in the library, it’s got very nicely pointed rooms, great place to stay, very convivial atmosphere. But you can also have a look at some of the material. So this is a long term project and it’s certainly one that will far out last me. I’ve got no doubt about that. But I think that as with any major project, you’ve got to start somewhere. And although in a low key way I feel that it was right to try to stockpile and preserve material where possible and make it accessible to people so that people can see it for themselves. It’s not locked away in some dusty basement all the time. And so my my hope is that as interest in the heritage of crime fiction develops, so interest in the archives will increase.

Caroline: The modern day Detection Club is also still publishing collaborative novels. In 2016, along with other members of the club, Martin wrote The Sinking Admiral, the title being a nod to the original Club round robin work.

Martin: Well, we did a modern homage to it called The Sinking Admiral that Simon Brett masterminded. And I wrote one chapter of that. When we’d written most of it he organised a dinner, which was called the Whodunnit Dinner, when we all sat around the table and figured out who the murderer would be and selected the unfortunate person who had to write the final chapter, which thankfully wasn’t me.

Caroline: It didn’t work quite the same way though — unlike in The Floating Admiral where each chapter was written and signed by a different author, in The Sinking Admiral you have to work it out for yourself.

Martin: That was that was a little game, so that the challenge to the reader is to see if you can figure out who wrote, who wrote which.

The Detection Club does non fiction, too. In 1936, they published a book called The Anatomy of Murder, which features essays by Sayers, Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and others about real life cases. And later this year, an anthology of writing by members past and present will appear under the title of Howdunit.

Martin:  Publication has been delayed this year because of the pandemic, but it will come out soon in September, I think, this book called Howdunit, and that’s the Detection Club’s new book about the art and craft of crime writing. And it’s predominantly present day members, but they’re also 20 odd members from the past with their thoughts on different aspects of the process. And that’s something that was was great fun to put together. It was it was quite, quite a demanding job, as it turned out. So I envisaged 15 or twenty pieces, really, rather than 90. But but it was worth it because it’s a book I found really interesting to work on.

Caroline: The focus on craft is apt, I think, given how much the Detection Club has always been about writers and the writing life. Although regrettably some of the early Club papers and records have been lost, what remains still constitutes a fascinating record of a group that has gathered down the decades in honour of an enduring literary art form: the detective novel. Some things change — the people, for one thing, and the premises. No more sleazily glamorous Soho club house. But others remain the same — the writers who are devoted to this form are still gathering to experiment, collaborate and commiserate with each other.

And Eric the Skull of course. He never changes.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated and edited by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes and links to Martin Edwards’s books at shedunnitshow.com/detectionclub, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 2 September with another episode.

44. A Room of One’s Own Transcript

Caroline: In October 1928, the novelist Virginia Woolf gave two lectures to literary societies at women’s colleges at Cambridge University. Her subject was women and fiction, and she ranged throughout history to build up her case for how for centuries structural inequality had systematically excluded half the population from literary work. The lectures were later published as an extended essay, which has been so popular in the decades since that it’s never gone out of print.

Detective fiction in the 1920s had no shortage of successful women writers, but they were still subject to all of the same intellectual and economic oppressions that Woolf laid out. Dorothy L. Sayers, for instance, who had a university degree and a great talent for writing, still struggled with the feeling that she didn’t fit into an intellectual sphere and an economic system designed by and for men.

That’s what we’re going to look at today. To borrow Woolf’s famous question: if a woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year to write fiction, what does she need in order to write crime fiction?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Four of the most popular authors from the golden age of crime fiction — Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngiao Marsh — are often referred to as the “Queens of Crime”. I’ve yet to track this phrase back to its source, so I’m not sure exactly when or why this monicker attached itself to these writers in particular, but I’m sure their popularity and ubiquity had a lot to do with what was probably originally a publicity ploy. The phrase has lasted, though, because it represents a truth: against the example of other literary genres, some of the highest profile crime writers from the 1920s and 30s were women. The title and premise of this very podcast is an allusion to this fact. To put it another way: there are no “Kings of Crime”.

Which is not to say that there weren’t successful male crime writers — of course there were. Anthony Berkeley, Ronald Knox, John Dickson Carr and others all thrived alongside Christie, Sayers and the others. But the prevalence and indeed dominance of these women novelists was sufficiently remarkable that it was worth pointing out to readers. It was noticeable and unusual that not all of the popular whodunnits from this time were written by men, in other words.

There had been women novelists writing professional before, of course, albeit often under a male pseudonym. But the public success of so many women working in one genre as can be seen in golden age detective fiction was unprecedented, and the fact that it happened at all had a lot to do with a series of rapid societal changes in the 1910s and 1920s.

Francesca: The universities were opening up to women and allowing them for the first time to take degrees, at least at Oxford. Cambridge didn’t for many years after that until 1948. But there was this sense that possibilities were expanding. The suffrage movement was growing. And I think women like Dorothy Sayers, who’d graduated from university and were looking to to live an independent kind of life, very different perhaps from the lives that their mothers would have led, were looking to find places where they could set up home not just in a family home, but living by themselves or with friends and dedicating their lives to their work.

Caroline: This is Francesca Wade, the author of Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. She has spent years researching this moment of opening up that occurred in the period between the First and Second World Wars, when at least for a certain class of woman, there were suddenly more options beyond the traditional paths of wife and mother.

Many different factors had coincided to make this change possible. Decades of campaigning by women in Britain’s universities had finally resulted in some institutions allowing women students to actually receive degrees, meaning that they had credentials they could take out into the world to push for jobs on an equal footing with male graduates. Legal changes in the 1870s and 1880s enabled married woman to own and manage their own property — until this happened, anything that a wife earned or possessed legally belonged to her husband. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, which allowed women over 30 to vote — about two thirds of women qualified — and in 1928 women over 21 were given the same voting rights as men. As we’ve talked about several times before on the podcast, the First World War also had a profound impact on how women were perceived. As men went to war, women took over their roles in factories, on farms and in offices, as well as serving in the forces. When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, it was much harder than before to tell women that they just weren’t allowed to do things, when they had been flourishing in these roles for four years.

This is where Woolf’s “room of one’s own” comes in. It’s all very well having the ambition to write professionally, but as her essay lays out, without physical and mental space (and the economic resources that provide those), it’s unlikely to happen. Francesca’s book is about the lives of five women who at one time or another lived in one London square. They all came to Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury seeking their own rooms and the time to write in them, and although they aren’t all crime writers, I think their experiences are very instructive. I’ll let Francesca introduce them to you.

Francesca: The first woman is the poet Hilda Doolittle, the imagist poet who came over to England from America in 1911 and lived during the First World War in Mecklenburgh Square. Her husband, Richard Aldington, was away fighting and she was living in the square, working on a series of translations from Greek tragic choruses, particularly focused on the suffering of women left at home by war. The second is Dorothy Sayers, the detective novelist, who moved into the very same flat that HD had left just a few years before. And she spent the year that working on her very first detective novel Whose Body?. The next is the classicist Jane Harrison, who came to the Square in her 70s. She’d spent most of her career in Cambridge, where she’d written these groundbreaking works of imaginative, mythological excavation that restored these matriarchal goddesses to history, who she argued had been erased by later cults to the kind of patriarchal gods of Olympus that we know about. And she came to the Square with her partner, Hope Mirrlees, to work on Russian translation. And the fourth is the mediaeval historian, Eileen Power, who is an amazing scholar and pacifist and internationalist. And she taught economic history at the London School of Economics and was known for her radio broadcasts of world history to schoolchildren and for the parties that she hosted in her kitchen. And the last is Virginia Woolf, who is the most associated with Bloomsbury, I guess, of all of these women? Well, maybe of everyone. And she moved in the very week that the Second World War was declared and spent a very uneasy year moving between London and the countryside, working on her memoirs and a biography of her friend Roger Fry and her final novel, Between the Acts

Caroline: Bloomsbury is now a term used to describe the middle class Bohemian set that Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell belonged to, as well as the name for the central London district around the British Museum where many of these people lived. But until I read Francesca’s book, I thought it was pure coincidence that it was this part of the city that attracted these creative people. It turns out, Mecklenburgh Square and a few others around it were ideally suited to women in search of rooms of their own, thanks to a quirk of architecture and property development.

Francesca: Bloomsbury has a really interesting architectural history. It was laid out or developed over the course of the nineteenth century on land belonging to the Duke of Bedford, who initially wanted to create a kind of upper middle class suburb with grand mansions for middle class families. But by the time these squares were ready to live in, most families who could have afforded to live there actually wanted to live in west London where the area was much more fashionable. So Bloomsbury ended up in this strange situation of having these huge houses which no one wanted to buy or live in. So they ended up being generally divided up into flats.

Caroline: Because the grand houses were divided up into flats or even individual rooms, they were affordable for women who needed somewhere to be alone with their ideas. The Stephens sisters — Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell — first moved to Bloomsbury from Kensington when their father died in 1904, and by the time the First World War ended, the area was already associated with literary and artistic endeavour.

Francesca: Bloomsbury, of course, had a very literary reputation already because it was the neighbourhood of the British Museum, which was the library open for everyone to come and read in free of charge. And there were universities around. So it was a place where in particular women who had literary or intellectual aspirations could congregate. 

Caroline: In the immediate aftermath of her graduation from Oxford in 1920, Dorothy L. Sayers felt the pull of literary London acutely. She was one of the first women to receive a proper degree from the university, but even in that moment of triumph and progress there was uncertainty — what could a female graduate do in the real world? Even among the five women profiled in Francesca’s book, there weren’t many optimistic role models for the likes of Sayers.

Francesca: I think they were they were establishing ways that they could have [independence] for themselves and that other women could have it in the future. I mean, Jane Harrison is an amazing example. She isn’t a generation older than the other women in this book. She is one of the first women to study at Cambridge. And after she left, she found it very difficult to find a job because she was excluded from the professorships at universities simply for being a woman. And her career is a really amazing example of a woman reshaping the way that she works and the work that she does in order, say, to carve out a new image of what a woman scholar could look like. 

Caroline: The options for Sayers’s generation seemed quite limited: teach or marry. Neither appealed, and she was determined to forge a different path, as a writer. She wrote to her parents that “more than ever, I realise the paramount necessity of always being on the spot – I feel as if I hardly dared leave London for a second.”

In December 1920, she moved into number 44 Mecklenburgh Square — the very room, in fact, that the poet Hilda Doolittle had vacated in 1918.

Francesca: I mean, they all lived in in different circumstances. When Sayers moved in the house, number 44 that she moved into was one of the boarding houses. She writes a lot about the landlady, who is clearly quite an eccentric figure, who lived in the house and rented out the rooms and took an interest in the lives of her tenants. And she says that she thinks that the landlady particularly likes having slightly bohemian people around. H.D. writes about the suffragettes who lived upstairs and who could always be heard burning their toast. And I think Sayers enjoyed that sense of rubbing along and having to get on with her neighbours and doing her laundry and doing her cooking and living a life that to her was one of independence. 

Caroline: Sayers described the room as having three great windows that she could not afford to curtain, a fireplace, a gas ring and no electric light. She wrote at the time that “All I want [is] to be left alone, and I can’t think why people won’t leave me!”

Despite her reluctance to become a full time teacher, the necessity of earning a living lead her to accept a temporary post at at a school in Clapham, south London, and she did some freelance translation work as well. And in January 1921, she was “visited” by the idea for a detective story in which a corpse is found dead in a bath wearing pince nez. The room was working its magic already.

After the break: enter Harriet Vane.

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In 1921, Dorothy L. Sayers was a figure imagined by Woolf in her essay: an unknown girl writing her first novel in a bed sitting room. She was getting by on her teaching and freelance income, but she wanted more, and commercially successful detective fiction is the way she was going to get it.

Francesca: Looking at the letters that she wrote to her parents and to her friends at that time, she’s so determined that she that she wants to do something different and so kind of single minded and her and her insistence that she will do whatever it takes to finish a novel. 

Caroline: Although Bloomsbury today is a very expensive and sought after neighbourhood, at the time when Sayers lived there, it was not fashionable and not particularly expensive — that’s why she was able to afford to live there at the start of her career, after all. The boarding house at number 44 Mecklenburgh Square employed someone to do the washing up and basic cleaning, which was a great luxury for someone trying to write a book, but in other ways it was hardly a fancy place to live. Sayers’s room didn’t come with curtains or electricity, so she lit the room with an oil lamp and enjoyed the view of the tennis courts in the middle of the square at all hours. She fried her own meals on her little gas ring, or went out to eat at cheap restaurants in the West End. As long as she could keep paying the rent for her room, she still had a foothold in literary London. Her fiction became a kind of financial escapism as well as means of hopefully earning money in the future.

Francesca: There’s a letter or an essay she wrote later where she said that part of the way that she created Lord Peter Wimsey was by giving him all of the kind of accoutrements that she at that point couldn’t have herself. When she didn’t have enough money to pay her bus fare, he gave him a horse and carriage and a rare book collection when she was off to the library.

Caroline: Years later, when Sayers had moved away from Mecklenburgh Square, she returned in her imagination by giving that same address to Harriet Vane. Gaudy Night, published in 1935 is the third book in which Vane appears. She’s a detective novelist who shares some of Sayers’s own experiences, including the view from her desk out onto the square.

Francesca: I think the significance in Gaudy Night of Sayers giving that address to Harriet Vane, I think is is very notable because that novel is so much about all the questions that she was really asking during her year there, about to know how to live a life that combined intellectual and emotional satisfaction. And what sort of life she wanted to have and what sort of books she wanted to write. 

Caroline: At the start of the novel, Harriet is looking out the window at the tennis players and the tulips, and thinking back to the quadrangles at the Oxford women’s college where she had been educated and wondering whether her life now is the one that she would have imagined for herself then. She decides that she will return to the college for a reunion, even though she is worried that her infamous past — she lived with a man without being married to him, and was then tried for his murder — will make it awkward. Sayers didn’t have those kinds of regrets, but she did leave years before returning to her own Somerville college, I think perhaps partly because she felt that her career as a crime writer was not the academically high flying profession that had been expected of her as a student.

As I talked about on the Happily Ever After episode of the podcast, Gaudy Night is a novel about female ambition and whether emotional and intellectual life can coexist within an equal marriage. The time that Sayers spent living in Mecklenburgh Square was clearly formative for her on both of these subjects — it’s where she completed her first novel, and it’s also where she experienced great heartache in an ultimately doomed relationship. Whether or not it was a completely happy time, the days she spent sat at the desk above the square like Harriet stayed with her. It was her first room of her own and she would not forget that easily. Francesca argues in her book that Sayers could not put the difficulties of her time in Mecklenburgh Square behind her until she had written about it, and I think that’s what we see in Gaudy Night. As Harriet learns to reconcile the two parts of her life — before her trial and after — she becomes more at ease with the links between Mecklenburgh Square and Shrewsbury College. She’s able to see her life as a progression from one place to the next and to command respect in each, rather than having to hide from her past.

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Woolf’s essay is about equality and her argument that women require a “room of one’s own” has resonated with the feminist movement for decades. Plenty still find it inspiring. But I think it’s just as important to look at who doesn’t get to inhabit such a room as it is to celebrate those, like Woolf, Sayers and others, who do. As I’ve already mentioned, as a movement “Bloomsbury” was a very middle class enterprise. Woolf, her sister and her friends were able to spend lengthy periods of time working on their novels and paintings because they were from wealthy families and didn’t have to work for an hourly wage in order to make ends meet. They could domestic help so that they could ignore the constant demands of cooking and cleaning. Even when she lived at number 44 Mecklenburgh Square in the early 1920s, Sayers benefited from the fact that the boarding house had a regular cleaning woman who took care of the basic chores for the residents. The room and the money that Woolf mentions aren’t the only things you need, it would seem — you need somebody else to shoulder the domestic labour.

In one sense, it’s unfair to apply this critique too strongly to Woolf’s argument. Just because housework has traditionally been women’s work, it doesn’t mean that the women who choose to seek a different kind of life must bear the ethical burden of resolving this conundrum in its entirety. Woolf’s husband Leonard, also a writer, undoubtedly benefited greatly from their servants’ work too, yet because Virginia actually wrote about this issue, her work attracts more dissent on the subject. Criticism for hiring cleaners still today falls disproportionately on women, because there’s still a lingering assumption that a woman should be doing that kind of work for herself, that it’s a woman’s work, not a man’s. Feminist writers have been grappling with this question for decades, and recently there’s been some great work on applying this historically, such as in Katrine Marcal’s book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?. It’s an interesting exercise, I find, when reading the work of great male authors of centuries past, to wonder who was beavering away elsewhere in their house in order to have dinner reader when they decided to stop writing for the day.

All of the women that Francesca writes about in Square Haunting were aware of their privilege in this area, and several of them addressed it directly in their writing.

Francesca: I mean, it’s something that a lot of these women thought about a lot and I mean, sometimes it is contradictory and hypocritical to some extent. Eileen Power, for example, had a housekeeper who is, by all accounts, an integral and devoted part of her household. And it’s hard to see, she doesn’t mention her much  much in the correspondence that survives, but it’s difficult to know whether she would have seen the incongruity that her own independence did rely on the labour of another woman within her household. And that’s something that Virginia Woolf thought about a lot, in fact. And at this time in her life was reflecting on quite a lot more the kind of discomfort that the freedom that she had obtained and had argued for was not applied to the women who actually lived and worked with her in the house. And it’s something that I think a lot of women at this time were complicit in, but also wondering about in interesting ways. 

Caroline: This is one of the things I found startling about Francesca’s book, actually — so many of the concerns that Woolf, Sayers and the rest were thinking about are the same ones that women face today. In the expanded version of her initial talks that was published in 1929, Woolf ranges through literary history, seeking to explain why there are so few women poets from the Elizabethan era, say, or why it is significant that Jane Austen never married or had children. As she said to the women students she was addressing, the thwarted literary spirit of Shakespeare’s sister “lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed”. Equal pay also came up in Francesca’s research:

Francesca: They were emerging at a time when they really had to negotiate the barriers that very much did remain, often slightly more subtle ones. I mean, Eileen Power, for example, was furious that she was paid less than her male contemporaries even when she was doing the same work or collaborating with them. She writes amusingly about how often she would turn up at dinners in her honour, and the men would just assume that she was someone’s wife rather than the professor of economic history that they had all come to celebrate. She was very alert to that sort of disparity and kind of enjoyed and sort of relished defying people’s expectations whilst also being very keenly aware of the prejudice that she was having to constantly fight. 

Caroline: And what women were allowed to wear if they were to be considered “serious”:

Francesca: Eileen Power loved clothes and fashion, and she didn’t think that it should be that if you wanted to be taken seriously as a woman intellectual, you should look as a sort of a dowdy bluestocking. That was itself the stereotype. That was the kind of allowable image of a woman intellectual. And she said she didn’t think there was any incongruity in loving clothes and being interested in them.

Caroline: Sayers was very interested in this question of feminine presentation too.

Francesca: There’s some amazing descriptions of her at university wearing increasingly outlandish costumes, and sort of skull and crossbones cufflinks and earrings with parrots in cages. And in fact, in later in life, she generally moved into wearing male clothing because she wrote this essay Are Women Human?, where she insists that the virtues that are traditionally considered feminine are ones that subordinate to women and that she doesn’t want to be considered as a woman. She wants to be considered a person, which actually is a refrain, strangely, that that links several of the women in this book. When they wrote about questions of gender, they will write repeatedly about wanting to be treated as a person, you know, whether that meant redefining femininity or changing people’s impressions. 

Caroline: That essay, Are Women Human?, began as an address that Sayers gave to a women’s society in 1938. In it, she argues for true equality, in which she is not a “woman writer”, but just a writer. Among detective novelists, at least, I think she achieved this. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of female authors in the genre, there’s no sense today that there is “women’s golden age detective fiction” as distinct from men’s, not least because many of the bestselling and more influential books are written by women anyway. The power imbalances that are present in other areas of literary endeavour are absent.

It isn’t just an analysis of class and labour that is largely missing in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The Black American writer Alice Walker, in the title essay of her 1982 collection In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, applies Woolf’s historical analysis of female creativity to racial oppression. Walker writes: “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s day? In our great grandmother’s day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”

Walker goes on to write about the eighteenth century African American poet Phyllis Wheatley, who was captured and enslaved at the age of 7 and transported to North America from her home in West Africa to serve a white family. Wheatley became famous for her poetry, largely on the terms of her owners who promoted her as a kind of curiosity or anomaly. Phyllis was allowed to write, but she lacked the autonomy that Woolf never even has to question. It’s meaningless to talk of owning a room with a lockable door and a sufficient income, Walker argues, when we talk of Phyllis Wheatley, “who owned not even herself.” What matters about Wheatley, the essay goes on, is not the poetry itself — which was written in the colonised context that Wheatley inhabited — but the notion of black women’s creativity that she kept alive through her writing.

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The room of one’s own was never just a room, of course. The slightly dowdy little flats in Bloomsbury that Sayers and countless others occupied in the years when they were still affordable for struggling writers were not inherently creative spaces in and of themselves. It was the separation they represented that mattered. Decades on, it’s still pretty much the case that you need financial security and the mental freedom to ignore the rest of the world in order to write. The only difference is that now I think we’re talking more about who has access to those things and who doesn’t, and why.

Crime writing is no exception to this. As Woolf put it, who gets to have “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think”? It isn’t everybody, yet.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/aroom where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. You can join now  at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 19 August with another episode.

43. Murder On Holiday Transcript

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Through the long winter months and the interminable drizzle of a British spring, we look forward to our summer holidays. Whether they involve a flight to a far off destination or a quick drive to a homegrown seaside resort, those few days in July or August mark a pleasurable pause in the year, a moment for leaving domestic cares behind and ignoring work pressures for a bit. And if there’s an opportunity for lying about in the sun reading mystery stories, so much the better.

Holidays in detective fiction, though, tend not to be quite so relaxing. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Roderick Alleyn seemingly only have to check into a holiday resort for a corpse to show up on the beach, and then they’re right back in the role they have gone travelling to escape: that of sleuth.

Grab your bucket and spade because today, we’re investigating murder on holiday.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It was about a month into the coronavirus lockdown in the UK that I began to notice a pattern in what I was reading. I’ve always got about six books on the go at a time, between the research I do for the podcast and other writing work that I’ve got on, but wherever I could choose what whodunnits to read, I was picking the ones where my favourite detectives were on holiday. I followed Harriet Vane once more on her English seaside walking tour in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, I joined Roderick Alleyn on a trip to New Zealand in Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder, and with Miss Marple I stayed once more At Bertram’s Hotel. I even found myself rifling through short story collections looking for miniature mysteries with holiday settings that I’d previously overlooked, and found several excellent ones featuring Hercule Poirot including “Triangle at Rhodes” and “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan”.

It’s not hard to work out why I’ve suddenly become so keen on travel-based mysteries, since I am now spending so much time staying in the same place. Depending on where you are in the world, an actual holiday may or may not be a possibility in the near future, but you can always travel vicariously like this, tucking yourself into Miss Marple’s carpet bag as she sets off from St Mary Mead for an adventure.

Indeed, once I started actively looking for holiday or travel based mystery novels from the golden age period, I began to see them everywhere. Some of the genre’s most famous titles fall into this category of course, like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, but there are also plenty of others that are focused around a holiday in some way that I hadn’t previously been quite so aware of, like Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers, say, or Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh. In fact, it began to feel like my favourite detectives were more often on the move than they were at home.

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This prompted me to think about why this might be the case. Why are holidays so popular in detective fiction? The most obvious answer seems to me to be just because they’re fun to read. A devotee like me might have been willing to read thousands of pages about Bunter going food shopping and Miss Marple choosing table linens, but when these books were first published their writers were trying to excite people, not make them fall asleep. I’m surely not the first person to travel vicariously through the pages of a mystery novel. Although foreign holidays were becoming more accessible to ordinary people in the early twentieth century, luxurious overseas travel of the kind described in some bestselling golden age novels would have been out of reach of most of the people who read them. The 1930s reading public enjoyed finding out what the meals were like on the Orient Express as much as we do in 2020, I suspect.

These books also reflected the zeitgeist. Holidays, in the sense of a reasonably long and planned break from work for leisure or travel, was still a relatively new concept for Britain’s working classes. Of course, the aristocracy and very wealthy had been taking grand tours around Europe and the globe for centuries, but that was very much the exception. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century, once the industrial revolution had completely altered the workforce, that there was some movement towards enshrining a right to paid time off work. The Bank Holidays Act was passed in 1871, and that established roughly four days a year when a worker would be paid but not have to work. A byproduct of this was an explosion in the popularity of British seaside resorts like Brighton and Blackpool, where people from the surrounding areas could easily go for summer day trips and amusements.

Around 1900, the growing trade union movement in Britain began to make paid leave one of its campaigning priorities. Some employers did give their workers leave, but it was rarely paid at their usual rate, if at all, meaning that even a few days’ break could set the household finances back for weeks or months, and there was nothing to spend on any travel.

Newspaper reports about “struggling housewives” trying to manage strained finances and committee reports continued throughout the 1910s and 1920s, and finally in 1938 the Holidays With Pay was passed by Parliament. This piece of legislation gave workers on minimum wages set by their trade boards the right one week of paid leave a year. It was a significant step forward, even though unions had been pushing for two weeks. The law also didn’t cover all workers and because of the outbreak of the Second World War the next year it wasn’t completely implemented.

However, as an indication of the country’s direction of travel on this issue, it’s a useful point of reference. Through the 1920s and 30s, working class readers were increasingly thinking about and longing for holidays of the kinds they saw pictured in magazines and novels, and so detective fiction reflected that. Commercial providers were already designing holiday experiences for the masses, though. The first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness in 1936 and the package holidays offered by companies like Thomas Cook were growing rapidly in popularity. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about delving more deeply into travel based mysteries is how they reflect the changes in the ways people went on holiday over the period when the various books were published. The shooting trip the Wimsey family is on during Clouds of Witness, published in 1926, feels like a very typical aristocratic holiday that could have happened at any time in the previous hundred years, but Hercule Poirot’s journey home from France in 1935’s Death in the Clouds is extremely modish, since he travels via a commercial airliner.

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A lot of these travel based mysteries reflect their authors’ real holidays, of course. Agatha Christie was an extremely well travelled woman by any definition, but especially so given the time in which she lived. In her teens she had spent time in Egypt with her mother, and then in 1922, she and her then husband Archie were part of a round the world trip organised to promote the British Empire Exhibition. They spent ten months away from Britain, visiting places including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada on the way. Travel was also her self prescribed remedy after her disappearance in 1926 and subsequent divorce: she went first to the Canary Islands in 1927, and then in 1928 she took her first Orient Express journey to Istanbul on the first leg of a tour of the Middle East. It was on that trip that she met her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, and after they married in 1930 she often accompanied him to digs in the region. Of course, this is how she gathered the material for Murder on the Orient Express, but novels like Appointment with Death, which is set in Petra, Jordan, and Murder in Mesopotamia, based on an archeological dig in Iraq, were also based on her experiences during this time.

The same can be said for the other queens of crime. Ngaio Marsh travelled fairly regularly between her native New Zealand and Britain, and so does her recurring sleuth Roderick Alleyn. She even wrote one book, Singing in the Shrouds, about a murder mystery among the passengers on a liner travelling from London to South Africa, a journey she had made herself — I talked more about this book in the All at Sea episode of the podcast. Marsh’s novel Spinsters in Jeopardy is also about a holiday, although this time Alleyn and his family are having a break in the south of France. The murder set up in this book is very dramatic, with the Alleyns seeing what looks like a stabbing happening in the illuminated window of a medieval castle as they travel past it on a train. According to Marsh biographer Margaret Lewis, this castle was based on one that the author’s wealthy New Zealand friends the Rhodes had rented for a holiday in 1949.

It’s much easier to write about a place when you’ve actually been there, of course. A detective will have a much more convincing holiday if their creator has actually been on such a trip themselves. In the late 1920s, Dorothy L. Sayers and her husband Mac Fleming visited Galloway in Scotland and stayed at the Anwoth Hotel in Gatehouse of Fleet. This is where she centred the artistic community that features so heavily in 1931’s Five Red Herrings, and obviously found her stay so helpful that the novel is actually dedicated to Joe Dignam, the hotel proprietor. She says in the preface that “All the places are real places, all the trains are real trains and all the landscapes are correct, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there.” For a Scottish holiday that involves a lot of detailed stuff about train times, you can’t really do better.

After the break: wasn’t it lucky that Hercule Poirot was on the train?

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One theory about why detective fiction was so popular between the two world wars has to do with the general exhaustion and ennui caused by global events. I’ve talked about this on previous episodes — the idea put forward by the scholar Alison Light is that whodunnits are a kind of “convalescent literature”, ideal for reading while recovering from trauma. Since travel, often to a place with good air like a seaside or mountain resort, was a regular prescription by late nineteenth century doctors, it follows that mysteries set in these places would fit in well with this idea of crime fiction as a tool for recovery and escape.

Some writers took this even further, writing books where their detectives are holidays for their own convalescence. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a good example of this, with her sleuth Inspector Alan Grant taking a sleeper train to Scotland to recuperate after a breakdown. Although it was published long after the actual golden age years — it came out in 1952 — Tey’s crime writing remained fairly steeped in the prevalent traditions of the 1920s and 30s. Grant is planning a relaxing break staying with friends and fishing, but when he gets off the train at his destination, one of the other passengers is found to be dead. Even then, Grant resists the temptation to jump straight back into work and continues with his plans, only to find that he’s picked up the dead man’s newspaper and there are some cryptic clues written on it. From that point on, the detective can’t leave the case alone, even though he’s not officially engaged on it. Tey’s novel is as much a meditation on the isolating effects of illness as it is a whodunnit, and Grant’s travels around the Highlands are key to unravelling both strands of the book.

Beyond stories of literal convalescence like this, I think there’s something to be said for cracking open a relaxing murder mystery while on holiday. I’m personally a bit prone seeing holidays as an opportunity for self improvement, when I’ll read all the serious and important books that I never get round to in real life. Of course, that never happens, and I just end up reading whatever battered Agatha Christie is on the B&B free shelf, or in some desperate situations, buying new crime novels in a local bookshop. It’s only recently that I’ve realised this and stopped dragging hefty tomes away with me, instead loading up on golden age classics I haven’t read before. If possible, it’s always fun to read travel mysteries that are set in the place you are yourself visiting — I’ve never been to Egypt, but if I do go one day, you know I’ll be rereading Death on the Nile, for instance. There was a bit of a vogue for this during the golden age, I think, and lots of authors played up to it as you can see in titles like Calamity in Kent by John Rowland and The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude.

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Those are the external societal factors that encouraged writers to set their murder mysteries on holiday. But there are also some compelling reasons from within the genre’s conventions for why a holiday or travel setting is a good option for a whodunnit.

Firstly, a holiday can often provide the closed circle that a good mystery plot requires. Sometimes that’s because the means of travel creates physical limitations on the number of suspects. Trains were of course a popular choice for holidaymakers and crime writers alike, as Agatha Christie demonstrated in novels like Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train, but boats work too. Death in the Clouds, which uses an aeroplane, is an enjoyable addition to this list.

Hotels and resorts are also an excellent way of defining the limits of a story, meaning that a detective can get to know all the possible suspects in a social setting. Plenty of books work on this basis — Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and At Bertram’s Hotel, for instance, or Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Harriet Vane stays at the excellently named Hotel Resplendent in a small English seaside town after finding a body on the coast nearby. Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell has a neat twist on this, with the murder taking place at a masked ball at a seaside hotel. Bell’s regular detective David Wintringham and his wife are on holiday and decide to attend the party, at which one of six identiacaly costumed clowns is killed. The ball essentially makes a circle within a closed circle, creating even more of a challenge for the sleuth.

When the hotel or resort in question is in another country, there are additional non physical barriers that keep the circle small — language being one obvious one, but also cultural differences that keep tourists and locals separate. This manifests itself interestingly in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, which is set on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Hercule Poirot is travelling through the country, and is called in by the local British authorities when a murder among the archaeologists’ party proves too sensitive for a police investigation. In this one, there are both physical restrictions — the entire expedition lives in the same closed compound — and also divisions between those who speak Arabic and those who don’t.

In situations like this, the famed parochialism of the English tourist really comes to the fore. Even the wealthiest of travellers are in a somewhat precarious situation when away from home, removed from their usual resources and allies. They’re at the mercy of the weather, their hosts, and the local authorities to smooth the way for them. This also can have the helpful effect of quickly placing the detective in a position of trust among the suspects — as a fellow guest but also a known sleuth, he represents the hope of a quick and just resolution without the need to engage with what might be a baffling or slow moving local investigation. Tour de Force by Christianna Brand exhibits this particular trope well, with Inspector Cockrill forced to abandon his own holiday to take over the murder investigation on a small Mediterranean island when the local police aren’t up to the job.

When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh, which was published in 1970 but exhibits many of the traits she began with in the golden age, is a classic holiday mystery. Roderick Alleyn happens to be in Italy on another case, so he’s called in when a tour guide vanishes and a body turns up in an ancient sarcophagus. Marsh put a lot of effort into portraying the tourist experience in Rome accurately, and also in delineating the different tensions and characters within the tour group. This is a great device for a mystery, because even more than in a hotel, the tour group throws together people who would never normally meet, which is a staple of a good murder mystery plot. Unlikely friendships can form, but old animosities can also arise. Like all the best tropes, this one has its basis in reality. We will all have experienced the difficulties of travelling in a group where not everybody gets along, so all a crime writer has to do is dial up that tension, and you’ve got the perfect setting for a murder.

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Although I’ve mostly been focusing on summer holiday so far, just because there are more books about them, winter travel can work well for this as well. Crossed Skis, a recently republished book by Carol Carnac, is a great example of this. Carnac, listeners might remember, is the alternate pseudonym of E.C.R. Lorac, who I talked about in the last episode. This book is about a group of people on an Alpine skiing holiday together, in which all the travellers end up as suspects for a murder that happened back in London. Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes has a not dissimilar premise, although with the added benefit that the hotel where the main characters stay can only be reached by one ski lift, providing a excellently isolated closed circle. The short story “The Erymanthian Boar” from Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules features this too, but takes the isolation one step further when the funicular up to the mountain top hotel where Poirot is staying breaks, marooning the guests in icy conditions until it can be fixed. And of course, something similar happens in Murder on the Orient Express, when the train gets stuck in a snowbank and the passengers are thus isolated while the crime is investigated.

You’ll notice, by the way, that quite a few of these books include a detective who just happens to be on holiday somewhere that a crime occurs. Sometimes this is woven into the plot — Hercule Poirot in particular is plagued by criminals who incorporate his presence into their schemes in attempts to turn his notoriety as a sleuth to their own advantage. Peril at End House is a very good example of this, although I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot for those who haven’t read it yet. More often, though, the author lays out this coincidence with a knowing wink to the reader, and we all accept that suspending disbelief on this point is necessary for murder mysteries to work. Perhaps the best example of this is Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, in which she turns the coincidence into an element of the mystery itself. The murderer had no idea that the house where the victim died had been sold to famous sleuthing duo Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and that they would turn up on their wedding night to move in for their honeymoon. Without their presence, Sayers hints strongly, the crime might have gone unsolved.

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Although detectives rarely manage to stay off duty or incognito long when on holiday, false identities for suspects, victims and murderers are very common in holiday murder mysteries. Away from home, especially overseas, it’s easy for a character to represent themselves to their fellow holidaymakers as a different person. There are no casual acquaintances hanging around to destroy the illusion, and very little likelihood that a chance encounter will give the game away. New friends made while on holiday will be inclined to take people at face value. It’s also much harder for investigators to verify who people really are when far away from police records and resources.

Detective novelists experimented extensively with this trope — there are dozens of novels where all sorts of holidaymakers turn out to be not who they initially said they were. Indeed, Dorothy L Sayers pushes this trope to the limit in the Wimsey short story “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face”, where a holidaying victim’s face is mutilated, seemingly as a way of preventing identification. As a metaphor for the anonymity of travel, it can’t really be beaten.

This question of identity comes up a lot in Agatha Christie, of course, with one of her classic holiday mysteries playing with the problem of who’s who. Evil Under the Sun from 1941 sees Hercule Poirot enjoying a break in a hotel in Devon, where he meets a whole cast of fellow guests. He remarks early on that all of the sunbathing bodies laid out on the beach look the same, and that remark sets the tone for the whole investigation. This book is actually based on an earlier short story by Christie called “Triangle at Rhodes”, which first appeared in 1936. The plots have a lot in common, but the short story is obviously set abroad, which adds an atmosphere of strangeness and isolation that the slightly cosier Devon hotel doesn’t really have. Both, though, are superb examples of how travel allows characters to refashion themselves for the audience of their fellow holiday makers.

It’s clear that as a frequent traveller herself, this was something that Christie had thought about a lot. The first Miss Marple volume, The Thirteen Problems, collects stories published in the late 1920s, and two of them deal with the fluid identities of travellers abroad. “The Blood Stained Pavement” and “The Companion” are, in my opinion, the most chilling stories in the book, mostly because of the callous and calculated way their culprits assume and then shed different personas for their evil ends.

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I can’t help wondering whether Christie ever caught a fellow traveller out in the act of changing their identity on a trip, or if she just imagined it as a possibility. Either way, it was an idea she returned to again and again in her fiction. But whether or not you get to travel this year, you can live vicariously through the experiences of Christie, Sayers and others and explore the  destinations they wrote about in the murder mysteries on your bookshelves. Maybe you’ll go to the south of France, or the Highlands of Scotland, or a resort on a Swiss mountain. Wherever you choose, I’m sure it’ll be a nice break from everyday life, just like a real trip would be.

And then once you can go on holiday again, you’ll be fully equipped to play the sleuth — in between the sandcastles and the sunbathing, that is.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/murderonholiday including links to all the books mentioned. There are annotated transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. This month, we’re reading The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie together, and there’s still time to get involved in the discussion in the private members’ forum. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 5 August with another episode.

42. E.C.R. Lorac Transcript

Caroline: There are a few names that come up a lot in relation to the so called golden age of detective fiction. Agatha Christie, of course, but Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh are also all writers who are more or less associated with that great flourishing of crime writing that took place in Britain between the two world wars.

But then there are the writers who were active and popular around this same time, but their work and reputation hasn’t endured in quite the same way. Perhaps it never sold quite as well, went out of print quickly, fell out of fashion, or didn’t find a later critic to champion it to a new audience. Whatever the reason, it can be time consuming and expensive to get really stuck into their work now, and so beyond a small coterie of devotees, these writers don’t have many modern fans.

Things are beginning to change, though. There are more and more affordable reprinted editions of golden age novels appearing, making it easier to sample these whodunnits without dropping hundreds of pounds on rare books first. But where should you start? That’s where this podcast comes in. And it’s why, today, you’re going to meet E.C.R. Lorac.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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I first encountered an E.C.R. Lorac in my local library about ten years ago. The copy I picked up at random one day was a pretty dilapidated book that looked like it had been borrowed and enjoyed a lot in the decades since its publication, and I gave it a second glance mostly because it was in the crime section and the title — The Organ Speaks — attracted me as intriguingly mysterious. When I read it, it turned out to be a story ideally suited to my interests, since it combines a murder plot with classical music, and I read it with enjoyment before returning it to the library and forgetting all about its author for a few years.

I had no idea back then, when I read crime fiction just for fun and wasn’t researching a podcast about it, that I had stumbled by accident upon a rare, acclaimed and probably quite valuable book. When it was first published in 1935, Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed The Organ Speaks in glowing terms for the Sunday Times, praising it as “highly original, highly ingenious, and remarkable for atmospheric writing and convincing development of character”. However, for some reason there are almost no copies of this book to be had these days, and it is yet to be reprinted, so any time one does surface for purchase, the price rockets up very quickly. I was very lucky to have that be my first Lorac, although I had no idea at the time.

The Organ Speaks wasn’t E.C.R. Lorac’s first book, either. That honour goes to The Murder on the Burrows, which was published in 1931, and was quickly followed by a string of other highly competent whodunnits at a pace of roughly two a year. That’s another thing about this author that makes the recent obscurity of their work all the more mysterious — under two pseudonyms, they published 71 detective novels in 27 years, so it’s not as if there’s a lack of material to be enjoyed. And yet I’ve been hunting for the better part of a decade, and I still don’t have anything like a complete set of Lorac books. While some authors rejoice in ubiquitous editions and mass market appeal, others just seem to vanish with no explanation at all.

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E.C.R. Lorac was not this writer’s real name. She was born Edith Caroline Rivett in Hendon, north London, in 1894, the youngest of three daughters born to Harry, a commercial traveller, and his wife Beatrice. The family had a brief sojourn to Australia in the late 1890s when Carol was still small in the hope that the warmer climate would help her father’s poor health, but he died on the turn voyage to England and was buried at sea in June 1900. After that, the three Rivett girls lived in St John’s Wood with their widowed mother and her extended family. Edith was a day pupil at a local girls’ school and then went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts to finish her education.

What she did between her teenage years as Carol Rivett and the publication of her first detective novel when she was 37 in 1931 as E.C.R. Lorac is not very easy to establish.

Sarah: She’s actually quite hard to find out a huge amount about. When I was looking into her life, I could see that she taught for a while and she seemed to have worked in sort of art history as well. She didn’t start writing until her late 30s, so presumably she was making a living by teaching and other work. And it’s quite amazing that she wrote so many books being a late starter really. I mean, starting in her late thirties, you think you’ll only get about ten, fifteen books but she kept going. So I presume that at the time she was making a living by her writing, I know somebody on the Internet did some research and she she was living in a school during the war. So presumably she was teaching then in Devon. So like most writers, she was probably doing writing and other things.

Caroline: This is Sarah Ward, a crime novelist herself and a keen fan of E.C.R. Lorac’s work. I first heard Sarah speaking about Lorac at a conference last year, and among the many interesting insights she had, it was a relief to me to finally understand the origin of the unusual name this author used for her fiction.

Sarah: So she used those the initials of her real name, E. C. R. as the first letters of her pseudonym. And then she also wrote books under the name of Carol Carnac. And so she then turned Carol, her first name, Carol, around to make Lorac. So that’s how she came up with a pseudonym. And I do quite like that. I like writers who play with words and and so on. So I love her pseudonym. But E.C.R. Lorac, of course, whenever anyone writes with initials, even today, you’re never entirely sure of the gender, which is no bad thing in my opinion.

Caroline: Although Lorac’s first detective novel was published at a time when interest in the genre was running very high, it seems that she was not herself immediately part of the same social circle as the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, who were key figures in the establishment of the Detection Club in 1930. In fact, the Lorac pseudonym seems to have caused a bit of a shock when the woman herself first showed up.

Sarah: Although I heard that I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but that Dorothy Sayers thought she was a man until she turned up at the Detection Club. But yeah, so apparently, although she was well known, I don’t think that she must have been on the sort of social circuit if people were surprised by her gender when she turned up at the Detection Club.

Caroline: The novels that Carol Rivett published as E.C.R. Lorac all feature the same detective, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, a Scottish policeman based in London at Scotland Yard. Despite his ubiquity in her books, the reader never really learns that much about him. We don’t get anywhere near as close to his private life as we do to that of Peter Wimsey, say, or Hercule Poirot.

Sarah: Chief Inspector MacDonald is a sort of a sort of career detective. He’s unmarried. He loves walking in the countryside and in some respects is possibly a little bit boring. But he because of that, maybe that’s why he doesn’t come into the books until the crime’s firmly established and the suspects and so on. And then you’ve got this sort of quite reassuring presence that we like from our detectives to solve the crime. His sidekicks were often a little bit more interesting. So Peter Reeves, Inspector Peter Reeves is the main one. He’s quite interesting. But there’s often, you know, sort of a hapless constable who gets into some kind of scrape in the books as well. All we know really is she doesn’t talk about MacDonald’s past and not like Christie, who gives us, you know, sort of what Poirot did in Belgium and so on. It’s not like that at all. We know he’s Scottish and he’s not married. And that’s just about it. It’s always on the source of the crime and the sets of characters around the particular crime.

Caroline: So if it’s not the sleuth that provides the attraction for Lorac’s books, why are they now some of the most sought after purchases for serious collectors? I can’t be sure, of course, but I think it’s because these stories have something that is actually quite rare in detective fiction from this period: immersive and well described settings. The places where these whodunnits take place are always really vividly described and evoked, which adds immeasurably to the pleasure of these books. This is where much of Lorac’s skill as a writer lies, Sarah says.

Sarah: She’s very good at plotting her books for the place. So, for example, the book set in Devon, for example, Murder in the Mill Race, which is a British Library publication. It’s full of sort of quite a bleak Devon. It’s not the Devon of the thatched cottages that we know. It’s got a sort of moorland setting and so on. So she’s very good at sort of picking up individual parts of a place and using it to the best in the crime novel. In comparison, her Lancashire books have a very northern feel to them, which I love as well. I particularly like regional writing sets in the North and Midlands, and her Lunesdale books are absolutely fantastic about sort of bringing to life the farming community. Her books often have a strong emphasis on farming, which makes it sound boring, but it isn’t at all. She sort of shows the hardship of working on the land.

Caroline: And Lorac isn’t just a rural writer. A Londoner herself, her novels set in the capital are some of my favourites, especially the ones set during the Second World War, which do a brilliant job of capturing what it was really like to live through momentous events on a personal, day by day level. Murder By Matchlight, which is about a murder witnessed in the moment a match flared up in the blackout instituted during the Blitz, is a case in point.

Sarah: It’s talking about the Blitz and what it’s like to live with the blackouts. And of course, all sorts of deeds can be done when there’s no lights. And so wherever she’s writing about, she’s very good at evoking a particular period and a particular landscape.

Caroline: Whether they’re set in London, or Lancashire, or Devon, all of the E.C.R. Lorac books that I’ve read are firmly rooted in their settings. Plenty of whodunnits from this time are set in an imaginary countryside or a city that feels like a stage set, or the plot is plonked down in a random area so that the publisher could market the book as “a Scottish mystery” or similar. But in Lorac, the places matter, and her novels feel deeper and richer for the space she gives to atmosphere and scenery beyond the mechanics of the murder plots.

After the break: how to find your first Lorac.

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It’s hard to pin down exactly why a writer’s work disappears from view, as E.C.R. Lorac’s did. She carried on writing detective novels right up until her death in 1958, and many of them were published on both sides of the Atlantic, but they seem to have been largely neglected since then. There are lots of examples of this happening throughout the twentieth century, and not just with crime novels, Sarah says.

Sarah: And these writers have been incredibly popular in their time. And then they go into obscurity. And I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for it. She has been called a humdrum writer to me because she wrote so many books and not all of them are brilliant, of course, especially if you’re writing that many. But when she gets it right, I think her books can be sort of inspiring, really. So one of my favourite books of hers is called Picture of Death. And it’s that’s that’s one of the northern books. And it’s got all the sort of hallmarks of a Gothic thriller. You’ve got this sort of crumbling house. You’ve got a picture that falls off the wall and kills somebody. You’ve got squabbles over inheritance. It’s got a sort of the classic golden age motifs with a slightly darker twist. And and I love it.

This word “humdrum” is an interesting one, and I’d like to return to it in a future episode because it’s a big topic within detective fiction. It’s a term popularised by the crime writer and critic Julian Symons, who used the word “humdrum” in a pejorative sense from the 1950s onwards to describe detective novels past or present that he felt were dull and lacking in excitement. Sometimes, it’s applied to writers like Freeman Wills Crofts who spent more time developing complex alibis than strong characters or John Rhode who largely focused on the puzzle element of the whodunnit.

Sarah: You see, I didn’t really know the term humdrum until I started to meet more golden age writers and go to conferences and so on, because it’s very subjective, isn’t it, really? I mean, if you love a writer, you want to read the same – not the same story over and over again. But that’s what you the type type of writing, the type of story, the type of mystery is what you want. Over and over again.

Caroline: It is true, as Sarah says, that E.C.R. Lorac wrote a lot of books and not all of them are completely brilliant — inevitable, surely, in such a long writing career. In that sense, perhaps she could be described as “humdrum”, but I also think that that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is all a matter of personal taste.

Sarah: So for me, I wouldn’t call her a humdrum writer. But then I can understand what the term means in terms of other golden age writers that I think aren’t as interesting for me to say. I mean, no one is alive all of a sudden upset anyone. But yeah. So I’m not a big fan of Edmund Crispin. I’m probably committing heresy by saying that. But I, I wouldn’t call him a humdrum writer. He’s just not the writer for me. Every book I read, I sort of don’t really engage massively in the story. And so it is subjective, the term humdrum. And I personally love Lorac. And if a Lorac dropped on my doormat tomorrow, I would clear my reading list and go straight to that because I immediate know the detective, whether it’s set in London or Lancashire or Devon, I’ll know it’s going to be a great sort of story set set in the landscape with a satisfying conclusion. And so she’s not humdrum for me.

Rhythm and routine are reassuring. It’s part of the reason why recurring detectives are popular in crime fiction, after all, because readers like to experience the same characters in slightly different scenarios each time. And E.C.R. Lorac was really good at that — her books have her ups and downs, but the quality is really remarkably consistent across the ones that I’ve managed to read.

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Until very recently, if you wanted to read E.C.R. Lorac, you needed to have deep pockets or friends with very extensive libraries. Secondhand copies of her original editions often go for hundreds of pounds on online auction sites, and in the past I haven’t been able to find many digital editions either. But that’s changing, thanks to reprint projects such as the British Library Crime Classics series, which is bringing rare works by overlooked authors back into easy accessibility. There are five E.C.R. Lorac novels currently available from this imprint, and a sixth to be published in August. One of her Carol Carnac books, Crossed Skis, also came out earlier this year — these don’t feature Inspector Macdonald, and are slightly more in the psychological thriller vein than the Lorac whodunnits, but from the ones I’ve been able to find are very enjoyable nonetheless.

The British Library titles are a good place to start if we’ve whetted your appetite for E.C.R. Lorac, but if you’ve already inhaled Bats in the Belfry, Murder by Matchlight, Fell Murder, Murder in the Mill Race and Fire in the Thatch, at least for now, you’re going to have to widen your search to local libraries and online auctions. But where to start?

Sarah: So I really like Shroud of Darkness. And it’s one of the books that’s easier to find, you will find secondhand copies around that must have had a bigger reprint. And it starts off now. A big theme of Lorac is trains, transport. So quite a few things happen on trains or in cars. And in this particular one, there’s a train and a mist and there’s a very agitated young man on the train who then when he gets off at the station, something happens to him. It’s a London based book, and I love it because it’s very, very atmospheric. You’ll get a sense of what Paddington is like. And also, you get the sense of how people live in London, that they’re sort of they live in it. Some of the suspects live in subdivided flats and they sort of boil an egg for tea and so on. And I just love the whole period. So Shroud of Darkness would be my recommendation.

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As I talked about on the recent episode about book collecting, there’s a deep satisfaction to be had from tracking down rare or less well known whodunnits that you are desperate to read and keep on your shelves. And E.C.R. Lorac is a great writer to collect. Her books are, by and large, very readable and her mysteries are satisfying. There’s also enough still out there, I think, that you can amass a reasonable stack of her books without spending too much money, which is always a plus. She also writes about things that you don’t often find in crime novels — what it was like to run a farm during wartime regulations, for instance, or how easily identities were shed and acquired during the Blitz. I hope we’ve whetted your appetite to discover more of Lorac, and I wish you good hunting for her books.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll chance upon a copy of The Organ Speaks again.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. Many thanks to my guest for this episode, Sarah Ward — you can find a link to pre order her next book, The Quickening, in the podcast description right now. You can also find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/ecrlorac where there will also be information about how to get old of all E.C.R. Lorac books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community, where we read books together, listen to bonus episodes of this podcast, and discuss all things detective fiction in the private members’ forum. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 22 July with another episode.

41. Mary Westmacott Transcript

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In 1930, any serious fan of detective fiction would have been able to tell you that Agatha   Christie published just the one novel that year — The Murder at the Vicarage. This was a significant one for her, a step up in her already successful writing career. It was both the first full length Miss Marple story, and it also marked a return to the true whodunnit form after a few more thriller-esque books, like The Big Four and The Seven Dials Mystery.

Nobody could accuse Christie of being unproductive, either. As well as this novel, she also had a volume of short detective stories published in 1930 too — The Mysterious Mr Quin. Just in case anyone thought she was slacking.

But in actual fact, Agatha Christie had three books published in 1930. It was just that at the time, nobody knew that Giant’s Bread, a novel about family tension, emotional abuse and career obsession ostensibly by an unknown first time novelist, was actually penned by the Queen of Crime herself. Christie managed to keep this literary sideline secret for nearly two decades.

Today, we’re going to meet Mary Westmacott.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Writers publish under names other than their own for all sorts of reasons. They might do it for fun, or to keep different kinds of work separate, or to reach new readers, or to conceal something about themselves. Of course, there’s a long history of women writers choosing overtly male or gender ambiguous pseudonyms. Mary Ann Evans, who wrote as George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, aka Currer Bell, are just two of the most famous examples. They did this because of prejudice against women both in the publishing industry and among the reading public.

But that’s not why Agatha Christie decided to debut a pseudonym almost a decade into her writing career. After all, she chose another woman’s name, so she clearly wasn’t that interested in concealing her gender, although some early drafts do show that she toyed with being “Nathanial Westmacott”. Ultimately, though, she didn’t stray that far when picking the name itself. Mary was one of her middle names, and Westmacott was a name she borrowed from some distant relations. No: for Christie, the pseudonym was about escaping her growing reputation as a mystery writer. She wanted to explore a different kind of writing, unencumbered by expectation. Supposedly, the two styles and personas were so distinct in her mind that she even used a different kind of handwriting when for the Mary Westmacott manuscripts.

Giant’s Bread is a novel about obsession and the havoc it can wreak on emotional life. The central character is one Vernon Dayre, who we first meet as a small child growing up at his father’s estate in the country. Unusually, the first few chapters are actually told from the perspective of this child in the present tense as it were, rather than with the adult looking back on his early years. Christie actually manages this surprisingly well, making Vernon’s life of nurseries and nannies quite engaging. Vernon then grows up into a discontented student obsessed with modern music, who ultimately destroys his own chance at love through his fixation on his work.

Although the protagonist is a man, there are plenty of well fleshed out female characters in this book. Vernon’s mother is shown as a clingy, self-obsessed woman who is very good at creating her own version of events and sticking to it, despite all evidence that an argument or incident actually happened a different way. His cousin Josephine grows up alongside Vernon into a “modern” young woman who is constantly having new artistic enthusiasms and idolises unavailable older men. And Nell, the love of Vernon’s life, is a beautiful but unintellectual young woman who is under pressure to marry a man with money so that she and her mother can live in the wealthy style to which they are accustomed.

There’s very little here of the exquisitely plotted whodunnits with which Christie made her name, but Giant’s Bread does have a certain verve to its style — the first time I read it, I kept turning the pages as I would with a mystery, keen to find out how Vernon’s problems with his music and with Nell and Joe would work out in the end. It should also be noted, I think, that this book is one of several of Christie’s works that includes some unpleasantly anti Semitic stereotypes. Vernon and Joe’s childhood friend Sebastian is from a wealthy Jewish family, and his treatment is not always very pleasant, although it is clear in the book that those who shun him are not very admirable people.

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The critics were impressed by Mary Westmacott’s first effort. The Observer called it “ambitious and surprisingly sentimental” and expected that it would be “very popular”. Across the pond, the New York Times praised it with the weirdly backhanded sentence “her book is far above the average of current fiction, in fact, comes well under the classification of a ‘good book’”. The critic noted that although the blurb teased readers with the fact that the author had already published half a dozen successful books under her own name, “who she is does not matter” because of the novel’s quality.

It must have been extremely gratifying to Christie to read these kind of reviews, which acknowledged her novel’s worth while completely unaware of her existing literary reputation. But reading them today, knowing who actually wrote them, it’s very easy to think about the Mary Westmacott books in light of Christie’s own biography, rather than evaluating them on their own merits. Plenty of what happens to Vernon in Giant’s Bread has uncanny parallels in Christie’s life, including his musical training and the fugue state or amnesia that he experiences after an accident during the First World War. Christie had some musical talent herself and studied singing in Paris in her late teens, and it seems plausible that she intensified this experience for use in the book. And of course, a fugue state was the explanation given for her infamous disappearance in December 1926, when she vanished for 11 days and eventually turned up staying in a Yorkshire hotel under a false name.

I talked more about that in the fourth episode of this podcast “The Lady Vanishes”, but without getting into too much detail here, let’s just say that many biographers down the years have made the obvious connection between Christie’s amnesia and Vernon’s. Christie never publicly wrote about that episode. She even draws a discreet veil over it in her autobiography, merely saying “so ended my first married life”, rather than getting into any specifics. It’s not surprising, therefore, without any more details, that people have turned to Giant’s Bread for some hint of what really happened during those 11 days when Christie was unaccounted for.

All of the Mary Westmacott novels are difficult to slot into any one genre. They often get referred to in passing in blurbs as “romances”, but I think anyone who has read these books would agree that that’s not an accurate description, since there’s a lot more heartache, loss and despair in these stories than is usual in romantic fiction. They’re not historical, they’re not comic, they’re not thrillers, and they haven’t ever been given that elusive designation of “literary fiction”. Neither are they whodunnits. Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks referred to them as “bitter sweet stories about love”, and I think that’s about the best way of characterising them. They’re about women with turbulent emotional lives who usually end up having to face the harsh realities of life, and they rarely have neat or happy endings.

After the break: Mary Westmacott is unmasked.

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After the relative success of Giant’s Bread, Christie did not wait long before returning to the Westmacott pen name and style. Unfinished Portrait was published in 1934, and again has been read by biographers as a loosely disguised comment on the author’s personal life. It concerns Celia, a woman who at the start of the novel is on the brink of taking her own life, and is only saved by a chance encounter with the male artist, Larraby, who narrates the book. It has a strong metatextual element, with Celia telling her life story to Larraby, who is then writing it out for another intended reader. Like Christie, Celia has been married to a man who swept her off her feet, only to leave her a few years later for another woman.

In a direct parallel to Christie’s own experience with her first husband Archie, Celia’s husband Dermot asks her not to cite his mistress in the divorce paperwork, prevailing once again on the kindness of the woman he has deserted. By this time, Agatha had been happily married to the archaeologist Max Mallowan for several years — if we were to indulge in a bit of psychological speculation around this book, we might say that perhaps she was finally ready to process what had happened with her failed marriage in the previous decade, and Unfinished Portrait is the result.

The next Mary Westmacott novel, Absent in the Spring, was published ten whole years later. Of course, Christie was under no pressure to produce Mary Westmacott novels. But something was driving her to keep writing them. In that intervening decade, Christie had produced a string of now-classic crime novels including The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None and The Body in the Library, but she still had capacity for more and there were things she needed to put out that could not be said within the confines of crime fiction. In her autobiography, she calls Absent in the Spring “the one book that has satisfied me completely” and “the book I had always wanted to write”. She wrote it in a frantic three days, on the third day excusing herself from her shift at the hospital dispensary where she was doing wartime volunteering work because she dared not stop before all 50,000 words had poured out of her onto the page.

This story of a woman who has a very decided view of herself and her own life, only to have her entire self conception shattered when she finally has five days alone to herself is probably my favourite of the Westmacott novels, and not just because the writer in me is in awe of the fact that Christie wrote it in such a short time and apparently barely had to edit it all before publication. It’s a strange, angular book all told in the past tense — the heroine, Joan, is extremely unlikeable and there isn’t much plot. Yet I still had that same frantic page turning experience with it as I did with Giant’s Bread. Even when in disguise as Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie knew how to hook her readers in.

Her longtime publishers, William Collins, were never that enthusiastic about Mary Westmacott. After her editor completely misunderstood the plot of the fourth novel, 1948’s The Rose and the Yew Tree, Christie begged her agent to find these books a new home. “Collins have never appreciated the lady,” she wrote to him, and in her autobiography she says that “They hated Mary Westmacott writing anything.” However, Heinemann were delighted to have the new book, and published subsequent Westmacott novels with enthusiasm, while her crime fiction stayed with Collins. Christie and Westmacott had different publishing requirements, it seems.

Christie also writes in her autobiography that although one of her friends had guessed the identity of “Mary Westmacott” after reading Unfinished Portrait back in the 1930s, nobody else had twigged. That friend had recognised the way Agatha talked in some of the novel’s dialogue, but she was alone in that. Perhaps there wasn’t much cross over between fans of her mysteries and the readers of these new novels, or maybe it just was very hard to tell. From the vantage point of hindsight, I find it impossible to judge whether I would have been able to work out that Murder on the Orient Express and Unfinished Portrait were written by the same person, had I seen them side by side in a shop when they came on in 1934. My hunch is that I would have had no clue, though.

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Although Christie even used another pseudonym — that of Daniel West — for the Westmacott publishing contracts, she wasn’t able to keep the secret forever. The true identity of Mary Westmacott was revealed in 1946, in an American review of Absent in the Spring. Biographer Gillian Gill writes that Christie was “wounded and outraged” that the author’s wish for anonymity could not be respected. She wrote to her agent that she really minded most about her friends knowing, because it was “cramping to one’s subject matter”. She did not, however, abandon the Mary Westmacott name and re establish her anonymity through other means. Three more Westmacott novels followed over the next decade, with the last one, The Burden, published in 1956.

There is relatively little academic scholarship about the novels of Mary Westmacott. Maybe that’s because they have been dwarfed by the edifice that is Christie’s crime fiction. Or perhaps it’s because their status as “romance” books has made them seem unworthy of serious treatment. However, in a journal article from 2011 titled “A Hidden Body in the Library“, the American scholar Sarah E. Whitney makes a persuasive case that the Westmacott novels should not be seen as separate from the Christie whodunnits, but rather an extension of them. The difference, Whitney argues, is that in the Westmacott stories, the characters are made to apply all the discipline and diligence of detection to their own internal emotional lives, rather than to an external murder case. I think this thesis applies especially to Absent in the Spring, in which Joan Scudamore is force to reconsider her whole life in light of new revelations. She’s essentially a sleuth trying to solve the case of her own feelings.

These are also, in their way, novels about violence. It’s just not the “blunt instrument” kind of violence, but rather a more subtle but equally deadly force that can be exerted by twisted love and jealousy. Mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives — they all make each other miserable and in some cases drive each other to the brink of self harm with the ferocity of their feelings. The women in these books are victims too. Who needs actual murder when you have a husband who refuses to speak to you and a child who both hates you but also won’t let you live your own life?

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The American crime writer and critic Dorothy B Hughes once wrote that the Mary Westmacott novels are “six books which encompass some of the best of Christie’s writing”. And in my time exploring them, I found that they deepened my understanding of Christie’s work as a whole. There is sometimes a tendency to dismiss Agatha Christie somehow as a lightweight writer and acclaim her only as a master of clever plotting. But I think these six novels demonstrate that there was a lot more to her skill than just ingenuity with alibis or motives.

Now that I’ve had time to truly appreciate them all, I don’t think you can truly understand Agatha Christie without getting to know Mary Westmacott too.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/marywestmacott where there will also be links to all the books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community, where we read books together, listen to bonus episodes of this podcast, and discuss all things detective fiction in the private members’ forum. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 8 July with another episode.

40. Dorothy’s Secret Transcript

Caroline: Dorothy L. Sayers is well known for many things: as a writer, a translator, a playwright, a theologian, and a feminist. She was among the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University. Her work in setting up the Detection Club and her reviews of other authors’ work in the genre were crucial in establishing detective fiction as a genre and even an art all of its own. And, of course, she is remembered as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, her ever popular aristocratic sleuth.

Like many professional and successful writers, Sayers lived a semi public life, with both her writing and details about her private life in demand by newspapers and magazines. And to an extent, she played the game as well as many of her contemporaries, joining in with discussions about the future direction of the whodunnit and speaking at events and on the radio.

But there was one thing she never shared, not even with her closest friends, although elements of it made its way into her fiction.

In this episode, we’re going to learn the truth of Dorothy’s secret.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to look more closely at Dorothy L. Sayers’ life during the 1920s and learn how some seismic events in her personal life influenced the detective novels she wrote during this time and after.

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On 14 October 1920, Dorothy L Sayers stood in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and received her first class degree in French. She had finished her studies in June 1915, but it wasn’t until five years later that the university allowed women to officially graduate, rather than just taking the examinations but never being given the same title that male students received by right. She was among the first cohort of women to go through this ceremony, and the incursion of women into sacredly male space of Oxford academia that the spectacle represented was to resurface in her detective fiction 15 years later as the novel Gaudy Night.

Sayers benefited from having parents who were both able and willing to make her an allowance towards her living expenses while she was in her twenties, but she still lived a somewhat precarious existence. Over the next several years she tried out various jobs. She worked in publishing, did bits of freelance editing and translation, and stepped in as a temporary teacher at schools in London and in Hull. But she was determined not to “succumb” as she saw it and spend her career at a school — as Mo Moulton lays out in their book about Sayers and her Oxford contemporaries The Mutual Admiration Society, teaching was one of a vanishingly small number of career paths that the educated, literary-inclined women could respectably pursue in the 1920s.

While pulling together this patchwork living alone in her flat in London, Sayers was also working on the first Peter Wimsey novel and enjoying a lively social life. By 1921 she had met and fallen in love with the Russian American writer John Cournos, with whom she had a passionate, if confusing, relationship. She revelled in making lovely meals for him and in her letters writes of her hopes that they might marry and have children. Cournos, however, seems to have wanted a more “modern” free love kind of affair.

According to Sayers’s friend and later biographer, Barbara Reynolds, Sayers and Cournos did have a physical relationship but “stopped short of consummation”. Sayers was at this time internally conflicted over what her high anglican religion had taught her versus what she, as a modern young woman in 1921, might want to do. She and Cournos fell out over what she euphemistically referred to afterwards as a “question of practical Christianity” — ie contraception — and his refusal to countenance marriage to her.

Both Sayers and Cournos would infuse their fiction with the tumult from this unhappy time. Sayers got in first, giving the scenario to crime writer Harriet Vane and her murdered lover Philip Boyes in 1930’s Strong Poison. Cournos then followed up with his 1932 novel The Devil is an English Gentleman, in which his central character Richard says I’m not the marrying kind” but offers that “You might become my mistress… if we pull along all right for a space we can discuss marriage.”

But that would come ten years later. In September 1922, John Cournos went on an extended trip to America and didn’t write to Sayers at all. A couple of years later, she found out that he had married an American detective novelist called Helen Kestner Sattisthwaite. This, despite his vehement objection to marrying her, and his previous derision for the art of detective fiction. It was all extremely wounding, and Sayers gave some of that simmering hurt to Harriet Vane, who in Strong Poison says, speaking of Philip Boyes: “I quite thought  he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage — and then it turned out to be a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough.”

Emotionally destroyed by the Cournos affair and his subsequent departure, Sayers then almost immediately took up with Bill White, a car salesman and motorcycle enthusiast who happened to be staying with her upstairs neighbours. They had a very different kind of relationship — White was openly disdainful of being too “literary” and preferred the more immediate pleasures of dancing and going to the pub — but Sayers was happy with him. Having tortured herself over the question of pre marital sex while with Cournos, she seems to have found her own answer with White. They used contraception, and for a while everything was fine. Her first detective novel, Whose Body?, was published in 1923 and she was at work on the next Wimsey story, Clouds of Witness. But then she found out that she was pregnant. And everything changed.

After the break: can you keep a secret?

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Now, a brief intermission. But instead of the usual advert or suggestion of how you can support the podcast, I want to talk about the ways Shedunnit listeners can support Black Lives Matter and the anti racist movement. There are plenty of lists out there already on where best to make donations and how to educate yourself on these issues, and I’ve linked a few that I’ve found helpful in the page I’ve set up for this at shedunnitshow.com/blacklivesmatter. Far more qualified and eloquent people than me are doing vital work reporting on the racial injustices in our society, and I trust that listeners, like me, are doing their best to read and learn from that.

This is a podcast about detective fiction, though, mostly British detective fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. It’s not a particularly diverse subgenre of literature, let’s be frank. Although there were perhaps more successful women writers than across fiction publishing more generally, in my research over the last few years I haven’t been able to find any black writers or writers of colour from this period whose work survives in a substantial way at all. And when white authors of this time do include characters of colour or from minorities, they often rely heavily on unpleasant and racist stereotypes to do so. As I mentioned back in March, I’ve been working on an episode about this which got somewhat delayed by the onset of coronavirus lockdown, but I hope to be able to finish it soon.

Where I’ve come to on this myself is to be a critical reader of what was written in the past. But books being published more recently are a different matter: there’s really no reason at all why the crime fiction of today should be completely dominated by white authors or characters. Since starting this podcast a couple of years ago I’ve been gradually reading more modern crime fiction, and one of the joys of it is discovering stories written from perspectives other than my own, or about parts of society or the world that I have no experience of. If you’re an avid reader of crime fiction — and I strongly suspect that a lot of you are – I would encourage you to be actively seeking out writers of diverse backgrounds to broaden the fiction you get to read. In the live episode about the history of detective fiction I did with Conor Reid of the Words To That Effect podcast last year we included a section on this — you can hear a recording of that by searching for his show in your app or at wttepodcast.com/wordsdunnit.

I’ll wrap this up now with a few recommendations of writers in this vein that I’ve enjoyed. AA Dhand has just been long listed for the CWA dagger awards, and he writes pacey, exciting books set in Bradford starring his British Asian Sikh detective, Harry Virdee. Kwei Quartey has written six police procedurals set in Accra, Ghana, the city where he grew up, and earlier this year released the first novel in a new series about Ghanian private investigator, Emma Djan. He also used to host a podcast called Leading a Double Life about his work as both a doctor and a writer, and it’s a good listen. Steph Cha’s smart, noir influenced books are set in LA and are all about the cases of her Koreatown based detective, Juniper Song. And finally, if you like medical mysteries, I would suggest trying out the work of Tess Gerritsen. She’s published twelve novels in her Rizzoli and Isles series, as well as other titles that crossover with the romance and thriller genres. I’ve put links to all of these and a few more at shedunnitshow.com/blacklivesmatter, and I hope you’ll share your recommendations with me too — search ShedunnitShow on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to join the conversation.

Now, back to the episode.

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When Dorothy L. Sayers told Bill White that she was pregnant, he seems to have run for the hills as fast as possible. He was already married, although it’s not clear when in their relationship that Sayers found this out. His wife and daughter had been living in Southbourne in Dorset while he looked for work in London and went about with Sayers. He had even spent Christmas with her at Sayers’ parents home in Christchurch, Cambridgeshire, so perhaps his own family life was not particularly stable.

Regardless, when faced with the news of this new child, White quickly ceased to play any meaningful role in Sayers’s life. She was by this time working as an advertising copywriter at S. F. Benson’s, so she had a steady income as well as her writing, but she also had an office job and coworkers who would notice if she suddenly became an unmarried mother. Peter Wimsey, by the way, would later enroll at a fictionalised version of this firm in her 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise.

Over the next few months of 1923, Sayers considered the extremely limited options open to an unmarried pregnant woman in the 1920s. She did discuss the possibility of an abortion with a doctor friend, Alice Chance, even though it was then both a dangerous and illegal route to pursue. She ultimately decided to keep the child, but to make its existence a secret from almost everybody in her life, most especially her parents. Meanwhile, she managed to conceal her pregnancy from her colleagues at Benson’s — or if they noticed, they turned a blind eye — and she was granted eight weeks of leave for “ill health”, which covered the last two months of her pregnancy. She kept her friends and parents at arm’s length during much of this time, writing letters about how busy she was with the next Wimsey novel.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this story is the actions of Bill White’s wife. While he had abandoned Sayers when she became pregnant, his wife, when she was told that her husband had fathered a child from an affair out of wedlock, was kindness itself. It was she who arranged for Sayers to have the baby at a nursing home near Southborne, and during that time Mrs White and her own daughter stayed at Sayers’ flat in London to feed her cat, forward her mail and keep up the fiction for any acquaintances who called that Sayers was just on sick leave from work and definitely not away in the countryside giving birth to an illegitimate baby.

Once she had decided to keep the baby, Sayers still didn’t have many options. Formal adoption did not become legal in Britain until 1926, so there was very little safe or regulated infrastructure for those seeking it. Informal adoptions happened all the time, but Sayers seems to have been wary of just handing her child off to complete strangers and having no contact in the future.

Two days before the baby arrived, Sayers finally wrote to her cousin Ivy, who was. The daughter of her mother’s widowed sister. Dorothy and Ivy had been close as children, and now Ivy worked as a foster parent, living in Cowley, near Oxford. Sayers had visited Ivy’s home and seen how happy the children she cared for were. She therefore asked Ivy to take charge of her child too. It was in many ways a good solution, since it meant the baby would be well cared for and always within reach should Sayers’ own circumstances change. But it was also a huge risk to the secrecy of the situation, because it meant that Sayers’s mother could easily find out any time that the child her sister and niece were caring for was, in fact, her own grandchild. Still, Ivy was happy to help and Sayers must have judged the arrangement worth the risk.

On 3 January 1924, Dorothy L. Sayers gave birth to a son at the nursing home in Southbourne. It was a difficult birth but Sayers wrote later about how proud she was at what her body had achieved in bringing her son into the world. She named him John Anthony. The area on the birth certificate for the father was left blank.

While still recovering, Sayers wrote to Ivy and told her the whole story, so that she knew who John Anthony’s real parents were when she took charge of him. Sayers suggested that her boy go by his father’s surname — John Anthony White. She also wrote to her parents during her three weeks convalesce at the nursing home, pretending that she was still at home in London, working on Clouds of Witness. Miraculously, from then on Sayers seems to have managed to keep her secret. Ivy was a faithful friend, non judgemental and supportive at a time when many would have reacted to Sayers’s status as an unmarried mother with horror.

The addition of John Anthony to her life — even in secret — did change Sayers’s outlook on work, however. Rather than focusing on more literary or translation projects, she continued to work on advertising copy at Benson’s by day as well as working hard on more Wimsey novels and stories in her free time so that she had plenty of money to provide for him as well as maintaining her own household.

Although she had made the decision to live apart from her son, Sayers did not sideline him in her mind. As John Anthony grew up under Ivy’s loving care, his mother wrote to her regularly for news and visited often, collecting snapshots of her boy as he grew that she never showed to her friends. She occasionally would tell strangers about this long distance kind of motherhood she was thrust into, but very carefully kept it from her own social and family circle.

When Sayers married the journalist Mac Fleming in 1926, Ivy sent a gift of “a beautiful set of chessmen” — which, I imagine, inspired the set that Harriet Vane covets in Gaudy Night. Six weeks after they were married, Sayers took Mac to Cowley to meet John Anthony. He knew her as “Cousin Dorothy” who visited sometimes and brought gifts, and now he had a Cousin Mac too.

But although Mac was supportive up to a point, he was not interested in having the boy come to live with them. It seems Sayers had hoped for this early on in their marriage, but it wasn’t to be. They lived in a small flat without room for a child, and one or both of them would have had to give up work to care for the boy. As two career-minded writers and with Mac struggling with chronic health problems from injuries sustained during the First World War, this didn’t come naturally. Instead, Dorothy chose to keep up her detective fiction and her advertising work, bringing in enough money both for her own household and to support her son. When he was ten John Anthony was told that his “cousins” had adopted him and that his surname was now Fleming.

As her son grew up, Sayers began to write to him about books, writing and what his future might hold. Despite the difficult decision she had made and the secrecy she maintained, she cared deeply about him. In summer of 1940 she wrote a heartbreakingly practical letter advising him to remain in Oxfordshire for his safety, and telling him that if she was to be killed in an air raid he and Ivy must get in touch with her solicitors for her will (which would reveal that he was her son and sole heir, although since she survived the war he was destined not to find that out yet). She also told him that “in the event of a German occupation of this country… be careful not to advertise your connection with me; writers of my sort will not be popular with the Gestapo.”

But the guilt that Sayers felt about her actions in the early 1920s never quite left her. In 1943 she was recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury for an honorary doctorate of divinity in recognition of her Christian scholarship in works like The Man Born to Be King and The Mind of the Maker, but Sayers ultimately declined the honour, saying “I should feel better about it if I was a more convincing kind of Christian”. Biographer Barbara Reynolds speculates that this feeling stemmed from her lingering uncertainty around John Anthony’s birth, and whether the publicity involved in receiving the degree would result in word of her illegitimate son getting out.

So there we have it: that was Dorothy’s secret. It’s really quite extraordinary that she was able to keep the truth of John Anthony’s existence away from most of her own family and friends for so long — I think we can assume that some may have guessed, but since Sayers didn’t raise it herself, were discreet about their suspicions. In a way, it could be said that we owe the existence of at least some of the 12 Lord Peter Wimsey novels to John Anthony’s birth, since without the need to support him, Sayers might have moved on to her religious writing and her theological work much sooner than she did.

The connection between Dorothy L. Sayers and John Anthony Fleming was only revealed to the world after Sayers died in 1957, because her son was the sole beneficiary in her will and therefore the inheritor of her literary estate.  Although motherhood perhaps didn’t happen as she wanted, his birth still changed her, and keeping the secret of what he meant to her was a defining feature of her life. Her inner conflict and grief about it is there in her writing, making it deeper and more emotionally true. And as John Anthony Fleming said himself of his mother in an interview given shortly before his death in 1984:

“She did the very best she could.”

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/dorothyssecret where there will also be links to all the books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. For more information about places to donate towards Black Lives Matter and the authors I mentioned in that segment, see shedunnitshow.com/blacklivesmatter.

I’ll be back on 24 June with another episode.

Black Lives Matter Resources

Here are a few places you can show your support for the Black Lives Matter movement, by reading, donating, and choosing diverse crime fiction.

This is a comprehensive and very useful document listing books, podcast episodes, films and other media that can help you learn more about the anti racist movement.

Donate to Black Lives Matter here, to the Bail Project in the US here, and find links to different memorial funds to support here.

In the UK, you can give directly to Black Minds Matter here, the Stephen Lawrence Trust here, Hope Not Hate here,  or find another charity you want to support from this list.

This Guardian article from 2018 and this list from the i newspaper include some good modern crime fiction by contemporary authors to check out.

A few of my personal favourites:

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey (first Darko Dawson novel)
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey (first Emma Djan novel)
Kwei Quartey’s podcast (sadly not updated since 2017 but still good!)
Streets of Darkness  by A.A. Dhand (first Harry Virdee novel)
Follow Her Home  by Steph Cha (first Juniper Song novel)
The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen (first Rizzoli & Isles novel)