Category: Transcripts

35. The Dispenser Transcript

Caroline: Agatha Christie received a lot of accolades during her long writing career. She had fans all over the world, her books sold thousands upon thousands of copies and (mostly) received good reviews, and in 1971 she was made a Dame by the Queen for her services for literature. But one of her most prized compliments was actually in response to her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which was published in 1921.

“This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written,” a reviewer in the Pharmaceutical Journal declared. Since this was a whodunnit with a clever, unusual poisoning plot, Christie was very proud that it had been praised and her use of science endorsed by the prestigious academic journal published by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Unlike other crime novelists that littered their pages with so-called untraceable poisons and mysterious compounds, it seemed to suggest, here was a novelist who really knew her stuff when it came to chemicals that can kill people.

And indeed she did. Before Agatha Christie was a detective novelist, she was a hospital dispenser, and her experience in that role would go on to exert a great influence over her fiction for decades to come.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Agatha Christie wasn’t exactly groomed for a high flying career in science. Indeed, few women in Britain were when she was a teenager in the first decade of the twentieth century. University degrees for women were still hotly contested topic within higher education and women doctors had only really very recently won the right to qualify and practice medicine freely. Although her older sister Madge was sent away to school, Agatha was educated at home with her parents in Devon. According to Christie’s biographer Janet Morgan, her mother Clara had some rather esoteric ideas about home schooling, including the notion that children shouldn’t be taught to read until they were eight years old “since delay was better for the eyes as well as the brain”. It seems like she learned anyway, becoming a voracious reader from a young age, and learning arithmetic every morning from her father after breakfast. At the age of thirteen she had a brief period of attending a school in her hometown of Torquay two days a week, and then at fifteen she was sent to Paris for a year to be “finished”, but in nether case is it likely that she spent much time learning even the most general science, let alone chemistry.

But for Agatha Christie, as for so many women, the First World War changed everything. She was almost 24 when Britain entered the war in 1914, and so far marriage had seemed like the obvious and inevitable next step in her life. She was already engaged to a family friend, Reginald Lucy, when she met Archie Christie at a local garrison dance in October 1912. Their whirlwind romance superseded all her previous attachments and it was only the cautioning voice her mother that prevented them from getting married mere weeks after they met. During their two year engagement, Archie qualified as a pilot and joined the Royal Flying Corps, which meant that he was part of the first British Expeditionary Force and deployed to France as soon as the war began. Agatha joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Torquay and worked as a ward maid, scrubbing floors and helping the nurses and doctors care for the wounded soldiers arriving on boats from the Front. It was her first time working in a professional setting, albeit as a volunteer, and it exposed her to the daily working life of a hospital in a way she would never have encountered in peacetime. Agatha and Archie got married in Bristol on Christmas Eve 1914 while he was on leave, but he had to return to his unit almost immediately, and she returned to her hospital work. Although being busy and useful undoubtedly helped with the anxiety she felt at a very chaotic time, it seems like Agatha Christie wasn’t necessarily cut out for nursing.

Kathryn: She hated nursing, absolutely detested it. And so a friend suggested to her that she might prefer working in the dispensary, making up all of the pills and the potions that would be prescribed to the recovering soldiers.

Caroline: This is Dr Kathryn Harkup, a chemist and the author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. She wrote a whole book about just how accurate and extensive Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons was, and she’s also explored in detail how crucial this wartime period was for developing Christie’s interest in the topic. But before we get to that, it’s first worth understanding exactly what a dispenser is and how you might become one in 1915.

Kathryn:  She had to study to do this. You don’t just, you know, stick your name on the list and you get the job. This is a very difficult, precise job. You have to know what you’re doing because this is the days before pre-packaged pills and your stock solutions and the rest of it. So she studied very hard. She studied theoretical chemistry. Also the practical side of actually making pills and lotions. So she had an awful lot of knowledge at her fingertips from this particular era.

Caroline: Being a dispenser in a big hospital at this time, like Christie, was really a very responsible and skilled job — it’s no wonder she had to pass exams before she was allowed to do it. Dispensers didn’t just reach for packets off the shelf and pass them over, they actually had to mix raw ingredients to create the medicines doctors wanted for their patients.

Kathryn: Well, they would receive the prescription from a doctor, much like you would take a doctor to this prescription to a chemist today. Except that it would just list the compounds and then you have to take them off the shelf, wipe them out and actually mix them in with other things so that they could be pressed into pills or they could be mixed with oils to make creams, or they could be dissolved into solutions to be so as tonics. So you had to know not only how much was an appropriate dose to give someone, you had to know what it mixed with so that you could make it into the appropriate formulation. But you also had to know what you couldn’t mix with it. So certain drugs could not be mixed together. Otherwise they would have a chemical reaction.

Caroline: While scientific knowledge was obviously extremely important to this work, there was also a subtler side to it.

Kathryn: One of the books that she studied for her exams was called The Art of Dispensing, and it really was an art. Not only was all this theoretical knowledge that she had to bring to bear, but there was a skill in making these pills so that they didn’t crack or they weren’t soft and mixing creams so that they wouldn’t separate. So it really was an incredible job, a difficult job to do. Not just from the safety aspects, but also from the know, from the aesthetics of it to make a product that people were willing to swallow.

Caroline: When Christie qualified as a dispenser, substances like arsenic, strychnine and thallium were still used regularly in medicines and she would have been familiar with their applications and their doses. Sometimes the smallest of margins lay between treatment and poison and she rather flamboyantly made this point in a poem she wrote at the time titled “In A Dispensary”, saying “Here is sleep and solace and soothing of pain – courage and vigour new: / Here is menace and murder and sudden death – in these phials of green and blue:”.

While it all sounds very exciting and dramatic to me as a lay person, what with the constant danger of accidental or even deliberate poisonings, Christie makes clear in her autobiography that work as a volunteer dispenser wasn’t often very thrilling. There was “hardly anything to do but sit around” in a room “surrounded by poisons”, she wrote. With her siblings and her mother, Agatha had always written stories while she was growing up, and at some point during her teens her older sister Madge challenged her to write a detective story of her own. This idea came back to her during her bored hours in the dispensary, and she decided to give it a go. Inspired, no doubt, by all the death filled bottles in close proximity, she settled on a poisoning plot and fixed on a retired Belgian policeman as her detective, who was in England as a refugee because of the war. She finished it in a burst of productivity while on a short holiday from her job at Dartmoor, and eventually sent it off to a few publishers. It was initially rejected and I think she forgot all about it. She had other things on as life restarted after the turmoil: Archie came home, the war ended, she had a baby, they moved into a flat in London, and so on.

But then in 1919 the publisher John Lane from Bodley Head asked her to come in for a meeting to discuss the manuscript she had sent in on spec two years before. Looking back with greater wisdom later in her career, Agatha felt that the contract she was offered wasn’t as lucrative as it could have been, but in 1919 she was just delighted that the book that she dreamed up in the dispensary was going to be published at all. In 1921, therefore, readers in the UK were able to buy the very first Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

After the break: the fashion in poisons.

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Agatha Christie’s life changed beyond recognition between 1920 and 1940. She found fame as a detective novelist after books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express found readers all over the world. She got divorced from Archie Christie after her infamous disappearance in December 1926 — there’s more on that in episode four of this podcast. She travelled extensively on her own, and then met and in 1930 married an archaeologist called Max Mallowan. Her growing fortune enabled her to invest in property, including the Greenway Estate in Devon that is now preserved by the National Trust. Her daughter Rosalind grew up and got engaged to her first husband, the soldier Hubert Prichard.

The world changed immeasurably during that time too, of course, in ways both big and small. For our purposes today, one of the biggest changes concerned poisons. By the time the Second World War broke out, it was no longer quite so easy to wander into a chemist’s and buy a large order of arsenic, for instance. One of the major plot points of The Mysterious Affair At Styles — and don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler — concerns a forged signature on the poison register at the village shop where the deadly drug used to murder Mrs Inglethorp was supposedly purchased. That was no invention, Kathryn says — writing your name and address in a so called “poison book” was really all you had to do in the 1920s in order to be allowed to buy these substances.

Kathryn:  It was just embarrassingly easy to get hold of this stuff. This way of tracking the sale of highly dangerous substances, it’s not exactly watertight. If you’re OK with killing people, you are OK with lying on a poison register and signing the wrong name and giving the wrong address or the wrong purpose for your purchase. I mean, it was a step in the right direction, but I really don’t think it hindered many people.

Caroline: Scientific and social advances in the next couple of decades saw arsenic and strychnine disappear from medicines and household cupboards, meaning that detective novelists like Christie had to adjust the way they used poisons in their books too. If it was going to remain plausible that these murders could actually happen among ordinary people in a recognisable version of real life, the fiction had to move with the times.

Kathryn: She was very up to date with this. And it was interesting that poisons that she might have used at the beginning of her career were less relevant later on. So you couldn’t just drop arsenic into the soup when she was writing in the late 60s because it wasn’t that easy to get hold of. Whereas in the 1920s, it was frighteningly everywhere.

Luckily, with her background as a dispenser, keeping up with the pharmaceutical was something Christie enjoyed doing — she collected medico-legal textbooks and sometimes corresponded with experts about ideas she had for new poisonings. After the outbreak of the Second World War, her husband Max was posted to North Africa with the Royal Air Force, and Christie was on her own in London. She volunteered again as a dispenser, and after updating her qualifications, worked at least two days a week at University College Hospital. A lot had changed since her first stint in the dispensary in Torquay. Lots more medicines now came prepackaged, so the art of creating pleasing pills was far less in demand, for one thing. Many treatments had moved on too, so this work allowed Christie to see first hand the new developments. As Kathryn points out in her book A is for Arsenic, the war was actually a tremendously productive period for Christie as a writer too. She completed 12 novels during this time, including several books with ingenious and horrifying poisoning plots, such as 1942’s Five Little Pigs.

The remarkable thing about Christie’s use of poisons, Kathryn says, is how very strict she was about getting the science behind them right. After all, she was writing fiction — how bad could it be if she altered a symptom or two because it served her plot better?

Kathryn: She almost never bent the rules regarding chemistry or science, which is an astonishing feat. And she is, I think, actually a remarkable science communicator because she can put across very accurate science in a very accessible, easy way that people just digest readily. So she is under no obligation, no crime writer is under any obligation to stick to the facts. This is fiction. You can make things up as you wish. But the fact that she almost never did I think is to her enormous credit. And I realise that there’s very, very few people like me who appreciate that. But it makes it so much nicer when we read the book and realise that, oh, my God, they did their homework. Oh, my God, this is really how it could happen.

Over the course of her career, Christie far preferred using poison as a murder weapon than, say, guns. She freely admitted that she knew very little about ballistics. She even ended up slyly apologising in a later novel via her detective novelist character Ariadne Oliver for an inaccuracy in the length of the blowpipe in 1935’s Death in the Clouds. But no such retrospective correction was ever required for her poisonings. Unlike, say, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie didn’t get a university degree or cultivate an intellectual reputation, but she did have her sphere of academic pride too. It’s really no wonder that she cherished that early review from the Pharmaceutical Journal. It was recognition from experts that she was an expert too.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thedispenser where there will also be links to all the books and sources I mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 15 April with another episode.

34. Happily Ever After Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

Caroline: When you boil it down to the essentials, a detective barely needs to be a human being. The plot of a really great whodunnit demands only that the sleuthing entity observe, analyse, deduce and denounce. A thinking machine with a clear input and output that governs the story. Indeed, the most famous detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes, rejected aspects of existence commonly associated with a full or rounded life, including curiosity about the world, political engagement and romantic relationships.

The famous “rules” of golden age detective fiction from the 1920s took a firm line on this latter point. Love interests were frowned upon, and it was felt by some critics of the genre that incorporating romance into a plot weakened it. And yet some of the most popular authors from this time completely disregard this prohibition. All of the Queens of Crime — Christie, Allingham, Marsh and Sayers — and plenty others besides wove romantic storylines through their crime fiction, and I think it adds greatly to the depth and variety of what they produced.

Or to put it another way: can you imagine Peter Wimsey without Harriet Vane? I know I can’t.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Now, those of you who listen all the way to the end of these podcast episodes that I make will know that the very last thing I usually include is a little teaser for the topic of the next one. If you heard the last one, you’ll have noticed that what I said I’d be doing today and the title of this episode don’t match up. That’s for a good reason — I had been planning on releasing an episode today all about the kinds of prejudice that we encounter in golden age crime fiction, and the best way to think about instances of things like anti Semitism, racism and misogyny as modern day readers. And I still very much want to do that episode, because I think the topic is interesting and important. But all last week when I was trying to do the research and writing necessary to put it out today, I was also reading news stories and messages about the worsening coronavirus pandemic around the world. And I found it really hard to do justice to such a serious and potentially upsetting subject in that circumstance. Where I live in the UK we’re now working from home and making only essential trips out, and I know lots of you listening will be in similar situations or facing even more severe lockdown measures. I hope you’re all well and taking all sensible precautions. I know that when I’m struggling with a difficult situation and need to take my mind off things, detective fiction is one of the things that I use, and I suspect the same is true for lots of you — it’s not known as “convalescent literature” for nothing. So in that spirit, I wanted to talk about something cheering and uplifting today, hence the change of schedule. I have no plans to stop making episodes, by the way — if anything, now that other work I do is being postponed, I have more time to spend on it than usual so Shedunnit book club members should look out for some extra bonus episodes! I am, however, going to stop trailing the next subject for now, and just work on whatever feels best at the time. And with that in mind, let’s talk about crime and romance…

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That directive about keeping romance out of detective fiction appears most clearly in “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, written by the American author SS Van Dine and published in 1928 in The American Magazine. Rule three says: “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.” His other commands are mostly to do with ensuring the author plays fair by the reader when it comes to clues and deductions, although he does also veto “long descriptive passages” and “literary dallying with side-issues”. The British detective writer Ronald Knox also wrote a set of rules around the same time that are often held up next to Van Dine’s, but he didn’t have anything to say about romantic love interests — perhaps because in addition to penning whodunnits and being an early member of the Detection Club he was also a Roman Catholic priest. I talked lots more about the rules and their legacy back in episode 9 of this podcast, so suffice it to say here that Van Dine’s anti-love sentiment was shared by lots of critics who preferred the pure puzzle of a classic whodunnit, and didn’t want their crime fiction sullied by contact with what some might call real human emotion.

Before I get into talking about some of the best uses of romance in detective fiction — because I am in favour of it, if that wasn’t already clear — let’s briefly touch upon the case against it. First, there’s the idea that the introduction of romantic feelings “ruins” the fundamental mechanisms of a whodunnit’s plot. The usual complaint about this crops up when the detective themselves or their recurring sidekick has a flirtation or a relationship with a character involved in the murder plot somehow, because you can place a fairly safe bet that their paramour won’t then turn out to be the murderer, or even an accomplice. Love bends the straight lines of a good plot, this point of view states. It messes with the careful concealment of the culprit until the final chapter.

A detective in love is one who isn’t thinking clearly, and who might not always act absolutely in the interests of justice, too. John Dickson Carr worked with this last effect several times, perhaps most blatantly in his 1944 novel Till Death Do Us Part. It’s all there in the title: this is a story about love and trust and betrayal, which also happens to be an excellent locked room mystery. Carr’s sleuth Dr Gideon Fell finds himself sympathising with and even assisting a woman who he believes to be a murderess three times over, and the author seems to condone this impulse rather than sternly condemning it as a transgression of the detective’s code.

Those who find love to be the antithesis of deduction are essentially followers of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had his character put this very starkly in The Sign of Four: “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true, cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgement,” Holmes says. It’s black and white, this or that, he argues. You can be a great detective, or you can be in love. You can’t be both. In this book, this statement is actually a direct snub to his Watson, who ends the story engaged to their client, Mary Morstan. The sidekick can afford such luxuries as emotional connection, but the powerful mind of the sleuth must abstain.

If it wasn’t already obvious, I think this approach is a bit… limiting. I’ve never been a pure puzzle addict, partly because I don’t think such a thing really exists — murder mysteries are about people and people contain messy multitudes! But when I have encountered a story that is mainly written for the glory of clever mechanics and has little or no emphasis on emotional development, it usually comes across to me as a bit stale and sterile. I can admire the brilliance with which all the threads are woven together, but I will immediately forget all about it as soon as I’ve turned the page. Emotion, and romance in particular, allows authors to experiment with perspective and subjectivity, as that example I mentioned from John Dickson Carr demonstrates.

It also allows writers to round out their characters. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence are a good illustration of this. Even their most ardent fans would admit that the content of their mysteries isn’t always the most original, but the way she fleshed out their characters and relationship make their books and stories highly readable (with the possible exception of the late novel Postern of Fate, but we won’t go into that right now). Whereas many of her recurring sleuths never age or grow much — I think Poirot must be about 130 by the time of Curtain for instance — Tommy and Tuppence are at a different stage in their life and marriage every time we meet them. We see them as young tearaways in the post WWI novel The Secret Adversary, as middle aged parents in N or M?, and then as elderly retirees in By The Pricking of My Thumbs. That progression gives their story emotional heft far beyond the mysteries they solve, and made it into a series that has delighted millions down the years.

After the break: I will finally talk about Harriet Vane, I promise. I know that’s the only reason you pressed play on this episode.

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Like a lot of people I think, I don’t always analyse my own reading habits in great detail. Within the detective fiction genre I know that I gravitate towards particular authors and reread particular books, but I’m not always considering what it is that attracts me to some stories and not others. When I started putting together lists of books to talk about in this episode, though, I came to realise just how important emotional depth is to me in crime fiction. Almost all of the works that I return to over and over again contain elements of romance or friendship beyond what might be considered within the “rules”.

I’m obviously not alone here, as evidenced by the fact that all four of the Queens of Crime made substantial use of these tropes in their works. As four of the best known and most widely read authors who began publishing in the 1920s, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers can I think be reasonably considered a definitive authority on this topic. And every single one of them had a lot to say in her books about love or the lack of it.

Let’s dispense with Christie first, since despite her prolific output and huge reputation, she’s actually the least interesting writer in this way. Other than Tommy and Tuppence, she mostly used romance either as a motive for murder (such as all the times that unrequited love or adultery end in violent acts) or as a bit of light relief. Poirot’s sidekick Captain Hastings is always falling for pretty girls during their cases, which he is gently and loving mocked for by his friend. Poirot himself of course has his version of “the woman” in Vera Rossakoff, a mysterious Russian countess who appears in The Big Four from 1927 and then two subsequent short stories. Perhaps her most memorable turn is in “The Capture of Cerberus” from the 1947 short story collection The Labours of Hercules, and she is to him “a woman in a thousand, in a million”. This story is the last one in the collection, and after Poirot has cleaned up the canine crime there is a short scene between Point and his secretary Miss Lemon during which the latter deduces that her boss is once more thoroughly smitten with the Countess. Vera never appears in a Christie book again and her whole character is flamboyant to the point of stereotype, so I think we can safely conclude that Christie only ever intended her to be a lighthearted diversion for her sleuth. Still, I do find that this interlude makes Poirot a more appealing character — even the great egoist, with all of his pride in his little grey cells, can be conquered by his affections for a former jewel thief with extravagant taste in cosmetics.

In the hands of Ngaio Marsh, the progress of the serious love interest for her recurring sleuth Roderick Alleyn is an interesting way of tracking her development as a writer. The Scotland Yard detective Alleyn is a bachelor in her first five novels, and although he’s fairly susceptible to pretty women he doesn’t form any lasting attachments. That changes in 1938’s Artists in Crime, when he meets the painter Agatha Troy on the boat on his return trip from New Zealand after the events of Vintage Murder. Once the ship docks Troy goes off to teach at an artists’ colony, and when a murder takes place there Alleyn happens to be staying nearby to investigate. So far, so predictable — and it’s a scenario that has often been criticised as a transparent imitation of the Wimsey-Vane romance. Not all runs smoothly for Alleyn and Troy, although they do eventually get engaged and married in a later book. The part that I think shows how Marsh went her own way and left Sayers’s influence behind comes in books like Final Curtain from 1947 and Clutch of Constables from 1968, when Troy becomes the main protagonist with Alleyn left in the background. Although I do really like many of Marsh’s books, I can’t deny that her sleuth is, well, boring and somewhat forgettable. Agatha, though, only gets more interesting as the books go on. Using a romance for her detective was a brilliant tactic by Marsh, since it simultaneously made Alleyn less two dimensional while also allowing her to introduce another recurring character for future books.

Since Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion started life as a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey, it’s not that surprising that his romances also have some Sayers-esque flourishes to them. In 1930’s Mystery Mile, there’s a very well handled one-side romance between Campion and his old friend Biddy Paget, although it doesn’t necessarily end very happily for him. Then, like Alleyn, he has a romantic arc that spans many books with Amanda Fitton, who first appears as a 17 year old in 1933’s Sweet Danger. She resurfaces in 1930’s The Fashion in Shrouds, now grown up and working as an aerospace engineer, and in the course of the case she and Campion pretend to be engaged as part of the investigation. As ever with Allingham’s work, there’s a good deal of the Wodehousian farce to it, and the will-they-won’t-they nature of Amanda and Campion’s romance over multiple books absolutely has that quality. But as her sleuth matured as a character and threw off some of his sillier mannerisms, Allingham was able to use the relationship to add depth and gravitas to her stories too. This is especially evident in the World War Two story Tiger in the Smoke, which is generally considered to be among Allingham’s best work and in which Amanda plays an important role.

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Which leads me, finally, to arguably the greatest detective fiction romance: Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Wimsey had already appeared in four full length novels by himself by the time that Sayers introduced Vane in 1930’s Strong Poison. He was popular, but something of a Wodehousian aristocratic caricature with his monocle and his dropped g’s. In 1925 Sayers wrote to a friend that the process of constructing a Wimsey story was “rather like laying a mosaic — putting each piece apparently meaningless and detached — into its place, until suddenly one sees the thing as a consistent picture” and said that the whole thing was “most effective when done in the flat”. Later, she said that her novels showed signs of becoming “round”, meaning that she was leaving this two dimensional structure behind in favour of something more developed and less tied to the classical conventions of the whodunnit.

I think her genius in giving Lord Peter a love story, which plays out over four books published in the span of seven years, was to never allow the romance to have greater priority in the plot that the detective’s inquiry. It amplifies and enhances the mystery, rather than detracting from it. We see this perfectly in Strong Poison: Peter’s instant sympathy and affection for Harriet Vane upon seeing her in the dock being tried for murder is the impetus he needs to set out on the investigation that forms the spine and major subject of the book. The same goes for Have His Carcase, where their increasing emotional entanglement is still subordinate to the sleuthing they do together. Harriet finds a body while on a solo walking holiday, and she only summons Peter to help her with great reluctance and because despite everything else, she still has great respect for his abilities as a detective.

From the end of Strong Poison through to the end of Gaudy Night, Harriet and Peter struggle with their relationship. Harriet finds it difficult to reconcile her gratitude to him with any romantic relationship they might have — she can’t work out where her feelings stem from. They also come from very different backgrounds, with Harriet an impoverished middle class doctor’s daughter who supports herself through her writing, and Peter the younger brother of a Duke and rolling in cash. To accept Peter’s constant marriage proposals would be to accept a certain position in society, and the stuffy rituals that go with that are something that Harriet is loathe to adopt. It also could mean giving up her hard fought for independence, and if you remember the episode I made about the Mutual Admiration Society and how Sayers and her friends struggled to establish their careers, it’s not hard to understand why a woman writer in the 1920s might be wary of anything that polluted her room of one’s own. Neither of them are in the first flush of youth, either, and both have had troubled relationships in the past. They’re awkward and short tempered with each other, both scared of revealing their true feelings or offering a commitment the other might refuse. This makes them much more readable — their romance is no saccharine fairy tale, but rather a story of two prickly, intelligent people working out if they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and if so, how to do it.

In Gaudy Night, Sayers makes the unconventional decision to make Harriet, not Peter, the central figure of the book. She returns to the women’s college in Oxford where she got her degree to help the staff there solve a poison pen mystery, and is plunged into all kinds of questions about women’s work, structural misogyny and whether there is such a thing as an equal marriage. Once again, the aspects of this that relate to her connection with Peter are all there because they are relevant to the mystery plot first and foremost, meaning that there’s no sense that one thing detracts or distracts from the other. Like when Agatha Troy takes centre stage in Marsh’s Final Curtain, in Gaudy Night we get to see Harriet not so much as Peter Wimsey’s love interest but as a real person with an interior life of her own. It benefits the novel greatly to diversify the perspective like this, and for readers of the whole Wimsey series it’s just really interesting to see the central sleuth from other books through someone else’s eyes.

Over the course of their romance, Harriet and Peter evolve their own way of speaking to each other. They like to trade quotations, make puns, reference literature they both enjoy, and they do this more and more as they grow more comfortable and intimate with each other. In my experience, this is the most controversial aspect of the way Sayers wrote their dynamic, since some readers don’t love having to look up medieval devotional texts and Latin verse to understand what’s going on. Personally, I enjoy the searching it requires and find that understanding their references enhances my understanding of the characters, but I get that footnotes in a whodunnit are not everybody’s cup of tea.

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The subtitle of the final full length Harriet and Peter book, Busman’s Honeymoon, tells you just how expert Sayers had become at the balancing act between crime and romance. “A Love Story with Detective Interruptions” is how she described it. It’s a bit of a formal jumble, with an epistolary section to start with describing their engagement and wedding followed by a series of flashbacks mostly in Harriet’s voice before the present tense section dealing with the case begins. The book started life as a play that Sayers co wrote with her friend Muriel St Clare Byrne, so it’s not that surprising that the novelised version is a little clunky and relies on visual set pieces. From a romantic narrative perspective, though, it’s extraordinary. I think we would usually have expected to see leave Harriet and Peter at the end of Gaudy Night, with the rest of their lives to exist only in the imagination of the keen reader. But Sayers actually tried to write out what a “happily ever after” might look like when the character are set on a partnership of equals. In the dedication, Sayers wrote that “It has been said by myself and others that a love interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love story”. This was her answer to that dilemma, and although it’s not as strong a work as Gaudy Night, say, it’s still a pretty good yarn.

Sayers approach to romance in detective fiction has been very influential on the genre. As well as her contemporaries like Marsh and Allingham, generations of writers following have followed her lead in mingling the two kinds of plot. Ellis Peters, Ruth Rendell, Barbara Mertz and others all published books that reveal aspects of the Wimsey-Vane template. I personally really enjoy the work of Elly Griffiths, a crime writer working today, and think that her long running Ruth Galloway-Harry Nelson romance also has its origins back in Sayers, even if there’s less quoting of John Donne.

Jill Paton Walsh has written four follow on novels that focus on Harriet and Peter after Sayers own stories run out, and I think they work because of the enduring appeal of that relationship. I’ll talk about this more in another episode, but although golden age detective fiction continuations have become quite popular in the publishing industry recently, they’re often pretty hard to pull off as anything other than a pastiche. Although she writes a decent Harriet Vane, Walsh wisely doesn’t attempt to imitate Sayers’s prose, and she also goes to the trouble of inventing fairly decent mystery plots for the married sleuths to tackle. They age through her books, too, appearing as newlyweds in Thrones, Dominations and then in their 60s in The Late Scholar.

I only read Walsh’s books very recently, despite having known about them for years, because I was put off by the concept and didn’t like the idea of Harriet and Peter being written by anyone other than Sayers. But having now inhaled them all in a matter of days I can see that I was wrong: they really work, for the reasons I’ve already outlined, and because the character have such enduring appeal. The best murder mystery romances are always walking that line between what Sayers called “sentimental comedy” and serious whodunnit. The really outstanding ones fuse the two to make something entirely new.

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

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join. During this time when advertisers are dropping out and live events are out of the question, I really appreciate the direct support that listeners are able to offer. It really makes a difference.

I’ll be back on 1 April with another episode.

33. All At Sea Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

Caroline: When constructing a plot for a detective novel, nothing matters more than boundaries. It’s vital to know where the edges of the world will be, and who will be allowed to come in and out once the mystery is in progress. After all, it’s no fun at all if basically anybody within a hundred mile radius of the corpse is a suspect.

Some of the most memorable and famous murder mysteries are the ones where the writer allows a distinctive location to do this — think of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with the characters marooned on a small island off the coast of Devon. Certain institutions and buildings can work as isolating or limiting devices too, and I’ve covered a few of them in past episodes, such as schools, snowed in country houses and trains.

Part of what makes the island setting work so well, though, is the absolute finality of it. Unlike with a train carriage, say, where there’s always the possibility that a murderer is going to improbably swing down from the roof, it’s completely plausible to the reader that nobody can cross a turbulent sea. But even Agatha Christie, who wasn’t above repeating a plot every now and then, couldn’t keep sending characters to die on remote islands. Luckily, there’s a much more commonplace and believable version of this that works just as well.

What could be better place for a murder than a boat, all at sea?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This episode has a distinctly nautical flavour, and before we get into it properly, I want to explain why this subject interests me so much. I grew up spending an awful lot of time on boats, you see, and sailing is the reason my family is even in Britain. In the early 1980s, my South African parents built their own boat from scratch and sailed it up the Atlantic, eventually settling on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary, which is where I was then born and grew up. Although nobody was ever murdered onboard, thank goodness, long weekends spent sailing across the North Sea as a child and then a teenager gave me a very healthy respect for the sea and a reasonable grasp of seamanship. I did a lot of reading by the light of an oil lamp swinging from the cabin ceiling while we were anchored, with the waves lapping against the hull and someone else turning the pages of their book the only sounds to be heard.

I wrote a whole book myself about this odd childhood I had sailing on the Thames estuary, which is called The Way to the Sea comes out in paperback on 5 March. There’s lots in there about sailing and belonging, and I also snuck a reference to Harriet Vane into the first chapter, just in case Shedunnit listeners needed an extra reason to check it out. There are links to places where you can buy it at carolinecrampton.com/book. You can just search The Way to the Sea at your book retailer of choice, or ask a bookseller in your local shop to order it for you.

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With my credentials on this topic established, let’s have a look at the primary way in which detective novelists have used boats in their murder mystery stories. I already alluded to this at the start, but let’s be clear: a boat, especially one that’s far out to sea, is a brilliant way of creating that closed circle of suspects that is really a requirement for crafting a classic whodunnit. Although lots of writers in the heyday of this form in the 1920s and 1930s did enjoy bending or even breaking many of the so-called rules of the form, that one that was respected most of the time had to do with introducing the murderer early on. “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story,” as Ronald Knox put it in item one of his famous “decalogue” from 1928. And for this to work without immediately giving away the murderer’s identity, it’s best if murderer, victim and suspects are all part of a temporarily closed group. That way, the reader can get to know a finite number of characters quickly, and it also cuts off the possibility that the real culprit might be someone unconnected who wandered in off the street, did the deed, and the disappeared without trace. Because where’s the fun in that?

A group travelling on a boat is a perfect closed circle, then. During the interwar years when popularity of this kind of classic crime novel was at its height, commercial air travel only just beginning to become popular and accessible to the masses. Especially for intercontinental journeys, ocean liner was still the obvious way to travel. For the detective novelist, this setting is perfect. The sea keeps suspects tightly contained, while the anonymous nature of travel means that all sorts of strangers can be plausibly collected together.

One of the foremost examples of this effect in action can be found in Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh. It’s one of her later books, published in 1959, and the twentieth to feature her regular Scotland Yard sleuth Roderick Allen. As the title would suggest, the action takes place on board a ship — the Cape Farewell, departing from London for the voyage south down the Atlantic to Cape Town. Marsh chose her vessel carefully: the Cape Farewell is a cargo ship and doesn’t take many passengers, meaning that aside from the captain and crew, there are only nine people on the ship for the reader to become familiar with.

The setup is dramatic, too. The ship is about to depart from the Pool of London on a foggy night when the body of a strangled woman is discovered on the deck. From various trophies scattered about, it is deduced that this woman is a victim of the so called “Flower Killer”, a serial killer currently terrorising the city. She’s also still holding part of a ticket for the Cape Farewell’s voyage, so it’s assumed that the murderer must be one of the passengers on the ship. Alleyn is able to join the ship before it reaches the Atlantic, and what follows is an extremely enjoyable, if somewhat claustrophobic, shipboard murder mystery. It’s no surprise that Marsh handles this setting deftly. She lived most of the time in her native New Zealand, but made regular trips to the UK and America, always preferring to travel by cargo ship when she could because of how much more peaceful it made her voyages compared to the big commercial liners. She might not have encountered a serial killer, but she certainly knew first hand about the routines and layout of such ships, and had observed for herself what kind of people liked to travel on them.

Another novel with a not dissimilar premise is Nine – And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson. This book was published in 1940, and can also sometimes be found under the titles Murder In The Submarine Zone or Murder in the Atlantic. Carter Dickson is a pseudonym of the American golden age author John Dickson Carr, and this was one of the many books he wrote featuring his series detective Sir Henry Merrivale. As Marsh would a couple of decades later, Dickson Carr chose to set his story on a particular kind of ship that helped to keep the cast list very small. The book is set during the Second World War and the S.S. Edwardic is mostly being used as a munitions transport across the Atlantic, although there are also nine passengers on board. As one of the alternate titles underlines, the ship is under constant threat from U boat attacks. It’s travelling in a blackout, and Dickson Carr does a great job of amping up the fear and foreboding out there in the Atlantic in 1940. Of course it then turns out that there is danger onboard too, when a woman is found with her throat cut. The murderer has left two nicely clear fingerprints at the scene of the crime, though, except investigation then shows that they don’t match anybody on board. If there aren’t any stowaways, and it’s not any of the passengers or crew, who killed her? A wonderful setup, and it’s only enhanced by the restrictions of its maritime setting.

Of course, Marsh and Dickson Carr were far from the only writers to position their closed circle of suspects on board ship, but I do think these two novels are among the finest of the form. We might also include The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie, too, although the sea voyage is only one section of a more convoluted journey in that book. An honourable mention goes to the often overlooked writer Christopher St John Sprigg, who in 1935 published a short story titled “Four Friends and Death” that I think is an outstanding closed circle maritime mystery. The four friends of the title are just sitting down to a meal in the cabin of a yacht at anchor, celebrating the fact that they have successfully come through a nasty crossing of the Bay of Biscay. They’ve just reached the after dinner brandy stage when one of the four falls face down on the table — poisoned by Prussic acid. The remaining three then have to confront the fact that one of them is a coldblooded, highly opportunistic murderer, because nobody else could possibly have come on board and slipped the poison into the glass. It’s an extremely clever and twisty short story, and reading it only makes me sorry that Sprigg didn’t live to write more crime fiction — he was killed at the age of 30 while fighting for the British Battalion of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

After the break: what happens out at sea, stays out at sea. Or does it?

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An important way in which boat based mysteries differ from those set on other forms of transport, such as trains, is that the boat itself can serve both as the setting and the means of murder. Regular listeners will know that I did a whole episode last year about trains in detective fiction, and I don’t think I talked about many stories where the dastardly plan of the villain was to drive a train over someone, in that silent film “woman tied to the tracks” way. However, there are plenty of times when a boat is intrinsic to the way someone is killed. Edmund Crispin ably demonstrates this in a short story from his Fen Country collection called “Man Overboard”. In that tale, a pair of American crooks who are in hiding in Britain take to sailing as part of a life insurance scam, which then has surprising and fatal results. Agatha Christie works this line too in a story from the early Miss Marple collection The Thirteen Problems. In “The Blood Stained Pavement”, murderers and victim are repeatedly confined in a small rowing boat on a supposedly jolly outing, from which the crime can be committed and disguised out of sight. This is the point, you see — nobody about from others on board can see what you’re doing on a boat far out to sea, and being afloat on water removes the potential for a lot of the clues that detectives usually rely on. There can be no footprints, disturbed undergrowth, flattened grass, or any of the other tell tale signs of nefarious activity on land that golden age sleuths know to look out for. Boat based murder mysteries represent a challenge to detectives and writers, then, which might explain why there are more examples in the short story form than there are full length novels. The shorter mystery requires less detailed explanation.

Another key consequence of setting a murder mystery on a boat is the opportunities it offers for the easy disposal of evidence. Police in detective fiction seem to have extraordinary luck when it comes to finding murder weapons in bushes and stuffed into the backs of wardrobes, but their job is made that much harder when there’s a handy river or sea into which someone can drop a revolver. There’s a pre golden age example of this in a short story from 1897 by LT Meade and Robert Eustace called “The Eight Mile Lock”, in which a diamond necklace is stolen during a party on a houseboat anchored on the Thames. The water all around prevents a getaway or a handoff, so the stolen goods must either be still in the boat, or in the water.

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile makes good use of the water too, with an incriminating pistol and wrapper thrown overboard from the Egyptian steamer where Hercule Poirot and his fellow tourist passengers suddenly find themselves in the midst of a murder plot. The circle of suspects isn’t quite as neatly closed in this book as in Singing in the Shrouds, say, just because of the boat being on a river it is passingly plausible that someone from outside could come on board unseen during a stop. However, Christie does take advantage of the physical setup of a Nile steamer, allowing witnesses to overhear crucial moments from cabins positioned next to each other, or out on the communal deck. And of course, the fact that the characters must eat and relax together in communal areas is a great help to a novelist trying to establish relationships for the reader.

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I mentioned John Dickson Carr earlier in this episode, and I want to circle back to him now because of his stellar reputation in one particular subgenre of detective story: the locked room mystery. Actually, the novel I talked about, Nine – And Death Makes Ten, isn’t a classic locked room story, but rather an “impossible fingerprint” one, but most of the rest of Carr’s output under his Carter Dickson pseudonym does fall into this category. Locked room mysteries or impossible crimes, for those not familiar with the terms, are pretty much what you might assume from the names — a corpse is usually found inside a locked room or space with no apparent way of a murderer getting inside and then out again to do the deed. Carr was a master at adding extra details to make his setups that much more impossible, such as in The Plague Court Murders when the body is discovered inside a locked cottage that has 30 feet of undisturbed mud around it, apparently showing that nobody even approached the building, let alone went inside.

Boat based mysteries can offer a similar guarantee for locked room stories. I really like one called Bullion! from 1911 by an author called William Hope Hodgson. In it, a ship is transporting gold bullion from Australia to London when the captain begins to fear that there are ghosts on the ship. Investigation of the sealed room where the gold is being kept reveals that some funny business is going on, with whisperings in the air and chests disappearing and reappearing in the middle of the night. A round the clock watch is established until they reach port, and there is seemingly no way in which thieves could get at the loot. And yet, when they inspect the chests… I’ll let you read it for yourself to find out exactly what happens, but it’s a great example of a locked room mystery enhanced by being set at sea, when the water itself provides an added level of difficulty to the puzzle.

Hodgson was a lifelong professional sailor, having run away to sea at the age of 13, and his first hand experience certainly helps to make his story more vivid and believable. This is generally the case with maritime mysteries, I find — when the writer has some personal knowledge of sea travel, either as a regular passenger like Ngaio Marsh or as a sailor like Hodgson, there tends to be more realistic detail.

I do especially enjoy stories where it is little details about sailing that hold the key to the plot, such as in Josephine Bell’s “The Thimble River Mystery” from 1950. It concerns the death of an amateur yachtsman while his boat is on its mooring in a small river off Southampton Water. She includes lots of small nautical details like the state of the tide, the use of fenders and the way a halyard is tied as a way of building up the plot, and as someone who grew up being drilled in the correct way to use a cleat and the right knots for fenders, it’s very gratifying to see this stuff serving a purpose in detective fiction. I should also mention The Floating Admiral here, which I talked about way back on episode 12 of this podcast. The maritime details aren’t quite so sharp in this book, because it’s a collaborative, round robin work written together by 12 members of the Detection Club. But as the title suggests, the murdered man has been a senior Naval officer, and his discovery as a corpse floating in a rowing boat on a tidal river gives some of the writers great scope to use tides and ropes to create and break alibis.

Of course, not all boats in detective fiction serve such a clear purpose in the plot. It would be remiss of me to end this episode without mentioning the Freeman Wills Crofts novel Fatal Venture, the first half of which is almost entirely taken up by a speculative scheme to launch a cruise ship line to circle Britain’s coast. It’s not really a spoiler to say that this actually has nothing really to do with the crime Inspector French eventually investigates — Crofts just really liked boats and found it interesting to write about one.

But most of the time when a detective story is set on a boat, you can be fairly sure of getting a twisty, smart plot that makes good use of the boundaries and restrictions imposed by its setting. After all, to most of us, the sea itself is a mystery.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/allatsea where there will also be links to order my book. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Prejudices.

32. The Pale Horse Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

A friendly warning: there are major spoilers for The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie in this episode.

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Caroline: I think we’re all quite comfortable with the idea of real life events inspiring fiction — it’s not for nothing that some of the most critically acclaimed films that come out every year are the ones that have “based on a true story” at the beginning. Crime fiction is no exception to this. I’ve talked about this a fair bit on this podcast, discussing the ways in which some of the most famous murder cases in history, from Crippen to the Brides in the Bath and more, inspired authors working in the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s.

That’s the expected order of events, isn’t it? A crime is committed, it becomes a public sensation with huge amounts of media coverage, and therefore shifts popular narratives around innocence and guilt. Writers respond to that, importing new tropes and ideas into their work, and readers recognise it.

But what if it happened the other way around? What if life imitated art? One particular book seems to have had a strong pull on people in this regard — not only as an inspiration for murder, but also equipping would-be sleuths with the knowledge to save victims before it was too late.

This is the story of The Pale Horse.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse was published in 1961, a long time after the so called golden age of detective fiction was over. Although she herself started her career at the beginning of the 1920s, forty years later many of her fellow detective authors from that prolific period of whodunnits between the two world wars had passed away or moved onto different kinds of writing. Christie had also broadened her range, to be fair, writing some romantic fiction as well as for the stage, but she never abandoned her original form. Indeed, by the time The Pale Horse came out she’d pretty much published a detective novel a year for three decades.

Of course, over time there had been some shifts and alterations in her style. Later Agatha Christie is generally characterised by more thriller-esque plot elements and less of a reliance on the true golden age rules. She had always enjoyed breaking up appearances for her regular sleuths Poirot and Marple with books that focused on one off characters, but these became darker and more preoccupied with contemporary themes. The Pale Horse is just such a book as this. The previous year Christie published The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a collection of short stories mostly featuring Poirot, and the year after she put out The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, a classic of the Miss Marple in St Mary Mead type. What came in between was utterly, completely different.

There’s something deeply disturbing about The Pale Horse. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised — Christie took its title from the Book of Revelation in the Bible: the full line being “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

Sarah Phelps: It was the fact that you had this sort of cheerful, sunlit existence, which in the book always seems to bounce through. And it’s almost got a kind of boy’s own adventure quality, the novel has. And that there are these fierce little seeds planted in the book, which just make me go, what’s that doing there? What is that detail doing there? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with story. And yet to me, that is the story.

Caroline: This is Sarah Phelps, a screenwriter who has now worked on five television adaptations of Agatha Christie works. Her latest, of The Pale Horse, just aired on the BBC in the UK and will shortly be available internationally. It was the deep strangeness of the book that hooked her in from the start.

Sarah: As I was kind of reading, I kind of became really focused on for me the things that didn’t quite fit. And that’s the way I’ve read all of the Christie is that I’ve worked on for adaptation, which is I think that there is an internal kind of conflict. And in the future, who knows at somebody will do some incredible kind of like academic study on Christie and the conflict and tension between the book she wants to write and the book she knows people want to read. You know, popularity is a double-edged sword. People want to read a particular kind of book. They want to read a Christie. But I think that Christie wants to write about things that might not suit being popular. That might be a little bit more out there, a little bit more subversive, a little bit more sly. So she’s got to contain them in a kind of in a way that she sort of almost drops a clue. She drops a little close, something that doesn’t feel quite right in that sort of tone of the story. And and that’s what I follow.

Caroline: For example, she was really struck by the seemingly strange tastes of the novel’s central figure, Mark Easterbrook.

Sarah: There’s a detail in the end, the story about Mark Easterbrook, and that he lives in an area of the Kings Road, which is actually pretty squalid. He doesn’t need to live there. And people say to him, why do you live there? And he says, I like it. He likes the noise and he likes the kind of the the raucousness of it all. But even as he’s saying he likes it, he also has this little detail where he talks about the smell of girls, unwashed hair. And it’s sort of done with a kind of distaste, but also with a thrill. And I thought, well, there’s a character detail that I’m going to follow.

Caroline: This all helped Sarah to set the tone of her own adaptation, which certainly dials up the weird and unsettling aspects of the plot. But they’re there already — after all, the whole story revolves around a former village pub called The Pale Horse, which is now inhabited by three old women who seem to be witches. Mark finds out that they’re part of a very efficient “murder to order” conspiracy — pay your money, sign a contract and these three will perform a ceremony that soon sees your chosen victim die of apparently natural causes, leaving you completely free of suspicion. Christie’s description of the ceremony is a fascinating combination of the old and the new. A cockerel is slaughtered for its blood, but there’s also a very scientific box that scans an object owned by the victim in order to better direct the supposed “death rays” in their direction. As Mark says, it’s a ritual carefully designed to contain something for everyone, whether traditionalist or modern sceptic.

It is — and I’m afraid that this is where the spoilers come in, so beware — just a very clever piece of misdirection. What eventually tips Mark off to the true nature of the plot is the one thing all the victims of the Pale Horse seem to have in common: they lose hair before they die. This is a really profound piece of symbolism, Sarah says, and it goes to the heart of how she sees Christie’s work.

Sarah: Hair is important. And it’s sort of thrilling because her is both it’s sort of, you know, the woman’s crowning glory, the beautiful tresses, the silken mane, the all the rest of it. And yet it’s also disgusting. And you think about hair growing in the grave after death, hair falling out of your head and hair collecting in hair brushes. And you also think of the hair that was shaved off people in camps and it becomes rather horrible. And as well as being this glorious thing that’s about sex and life and everything else, it becomes a sort of harbinger of an apocalyptic sort of genocidal way of thinking about humanity. It’s it’s really, really unnerving. And also, you know, that by this point, people were understanding that radiation sickness made your hair fall out. So it was it was for me when I was reading The Pale Horse, I was just thinking, obviously, the Pale Horse is a puppet. It’s also the you know, the one of the one, you know, a harbinger of the apocalypse that all the time that she’s writing in these sunlit villages and these sort of charming little fates and these tea parties on vicarage lawns, that this is long, long shadow of of horror that falls across it, the horror of a technology that can obliterate him, a human being to her, to a shadow on the wall, and the horror of Western industrialized slaughter can do in, you know, in Europe. And I just kept feeling this shiver going through my blood and thinking, right then that’s what I’m going to write about.

Caroline: After the break: what the Pale Horse was really up to, and how it influenced a real life murderer.

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So what, other than witchcraft, can make people die from apparently natural causes, but also make their hair fall out?

Kathryn Harkup: Thallium is an element in the periodic table. It’s a metal. It’s rather uninteresting as an element, but it does slightly more interesting things when it’s made into a salt. If you swallow metals, they they don’t really dissolve in the body very well. So they’re not such good poisons. But if you turn metals into salts by combining them with another combat and other elements, then they become much more accessible to the body and they become much more toxic. And that’s the case with thallium.

Caroline: This is Dr Kathryn Harkup, a chemist and the author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. There’s a whole chapter in that book about thallium and The Pale Horse, and I highly recommend it if you’d like to understand this stuff in more detail than I can fit in one episode. Anyway, here’s what thallium will do to the unsuspecting poisoning victim:

Kathryn: The tricky thing with thallium is a whole host of things happen to people. From a chemical point of view it’s similar enough to potassium to fool the body. So the body needs potassium. It’s essential to our health. So if the body sees something that looks like potassium, it grabs hold of it and it tries to use it in the same way. The problem is that thallium is not potassium, so it does a rubbish job. So it will stop enzymes working in the correct way. It will mess with your nerves and all sorts of other things because it’s not doing what it should do. So then the body realizes that something is wrong and it tries to get rid of the thallium and it tends to get rid of it in saliva. So, of course, you swallow your saliva back down and the stomach reabsorbs it and you just continuously repoison yourself. So finding it is truly horrible and it’s doing all of these little subtle, malevolent little changes within the body that if you make too many of those changes and adjustments can be fatal.

Caroline: Because every body can respond differently to the presence of thallium, it can be really hard to diagnose that that’s what’s causing symptoms like hair loss, pain and nausea.

Kathryn: So historically, it has been very difficult to diagnose thallium poisoning because it produces so many different symptoms. Those at a famous real life case in the early 1970s, when one person had been poisoned with thallium, no, there was several people. And they had been seen by a combination of something like 43 medical experts and not one of them diagnosed thallium. So you can see how deceptive and particularly nasty this is as a poison.

Caroline: Even though Christie was very accurate in describing the effects of thallium in The Pale Horse, as a poison it’s rare enough to still give the reader a frisson of the supernatural. Unlike arsenic and cyanide, it’s not exactly a common one in detective fiction although there is a Ngaio Marsh novel, Final Curtain, that also uses it. But in the 1960s when the book was published, it was fairly easy to get hold of, as it was still included in creams for treating skin conditions like ringworm. And this is where fiction intersects with real life.

Kathryn: It’s astonishing that out of Christie has been cited in a murder trial.  Not many fiction writers have that dubious honour. But there was a case. A man called Graham Young had poisoned several of his colleagues at work and he had used thallium.  And this had occurred in 1971, 10 years after the publication of The Pale Horse. And if you read The Pale Horse and you read about the Graham Young case, there are so many similarities and parallels. It is another thing. So I’m not surprised that people ask the question, was Graham Young inspired by The Pale Horse? Now, to be honest, Graham Young had such an unhealthy obsession with poisons and poisoning people. And he did his own research. He was frighteningly well read in this area that there was nothing Agatha Christie could have taught him. He knew it already. He claimed he’d never read the book, but his sister said that it was the sort of book he might have read because of the subject matter. It would have interested him.

Caroline: Kathryn has actually written a much more detailed account of Young’s astonishing career as a poisoner, which I’ll link to in the show notes, but suffice it to say he was a very unpleasant man who started off by putting atropine in his sister’s drink when he was a teenager and ended up doctoring the tea run at the factory where he worked with thallium and poisoning eight people, two of whom died. And, like the culprit in The Pale Horse, it was his hubris and desire for the spotlight that gave him away in the end — he seized the floor at an employee meeting about the illness that was going around the workplace and talked in such detail about metal poisoning that he aroused suspicion that eventually resulted in his prosecution. He’d evaded capture for so long for precisely the same reason that the murderer in the book does too, because he carefully chose poisons that gave his victims natural-seeming symptoms so that the real cause of their illness wasn’t identified until it was too late. Thallium poisoning can be quite effectively treated with a compound called Prussian Blue, Kathryn says, which traps the thallium within its structure so it can be excreted safely, but it has a much higher chance of working if administered early on.

However, despite all the notoriety that Graham Young brought to Christie’s book, the legacy of The Pale Horse is not all grim.

Kathryn: This is the worrying thing about doing research into poisons. I mean, seriously, if the police ever come through my front door and look at my shelves, I’m in trouble. It’s a worrying collection of books that I have. And it must have been exactly the same for Agatha Christie.  And the risk of writing something like The Pale Horse. Are you going to inspire someone to mimic these actions? Well, I would hope not. And actually to counterbalance that The Pale Horse, because of its accuracy, because of its attention to detail. People have recognised thallium poisoning in others and been able to save lives. So knowledge is never in itself, good or bad. It’s what you do with that knowledge.  So having accurate descriptions of poisoning can be of enormous benefit in one circumstance. But good, very, very, very slim risk that people like Graham Young stumble across it.

Caroline: So there you have it: a spooky story with a solid scientific basis that may well have inspired a real serial poisoner. As someone who reads detective fiction for fun, the idea that there might be someone out there reading not for entertainment, but for practical tips, is darker than anything Agatha Christie ever dreamed up herself.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guests, Kathryn Harkup and Sarah Phelps. You can find more information about their work as well as links to all the books and sources we mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thepalehorse. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 4 March with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: All At Sea.

31. The Great Gladys Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

Caroline: There’s a tendency sometimes to think of detective fiction from the early twentieth century as “cosy”. In fact, in some countries the phrase “cozy mystery” even serves as a semi-official subgenre of crime writing — especially in America where it is defined against the so-called “hardboiled” stories of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

I don’t personally subscribe to the belief that there’s any such thing as a “cosy” murder mystery, since even the most bloodless and genteel whodunnit is still about the hunt for a violent killer. But it is certainly true that some writers from the golden age of detective fiction between the two world wars created characters who are a little more conventional than others. Miss Marple is always described as being pink and fluffy, and aside from her interest in crime and human nature, she’s keen on knitting, gardening and getting good bargains on high quality household linens. Whereas Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, who first appeared in print in 1929, just two years later than St Mary Mead’s most famous resident, was according to her creator: “Dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty”. Mrs Bradley’s interests are many and varied, but include garish silk dressing gowns and witchcraft.

Who was the woman who created this strange, reptilian sleuth, and then wrote 66 novels featuring her?

Today, we’re going to meet the Great Gladys.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Caroline: Gladys Mitchell’s long life spanned much of the twentieth century, and it’s incredible to think about all the change she witnessed. She was born in 1901 in Cowley and brought up in Oxfordshire. After the First World War in 1919 she went to the University of London and qualified as a teacher, focusing her studies mainly on history. From the age of 21 until her retirement in 1961, she worked as a teacher of history and games in a series of girls’ schools with barely a break, and during that same time she also wrote at least a book a year — mostly featuring Mrs Bradley, but she also produced five historical novels under the pseudonym of Stephen Hockaby and after her retirement, she debuted a second sleuth in a series of six books published under the name of Malcolm Torrie, which are about a crime solving architect named Timothy Herring. Oh, and she also wrote ten children’s book under her own name. I really don’t know where she found the time.

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It’s for Mrs Bradley that she is principally remembered, though. She first appears in the 1929 novel Speedy Death, and she is immediately everything that a golden age sleuth isn’t supposed to be. She breaks lots of the “rules” of detective fiction in this book, including one pretty major one, and she’s rude and sarcastic as well as being highly perceptive and smart. Mitchell once described Mrs Bradley as having “the maternal anxiety of a boa-constrictor which watches its young attempting to devour their first donkey”, and I’ve always loved that summation. She looks like a pterodactyl, too, we’re frequently told, but she has a gorgeous mellifluous voice which charms everyone she speaks to. Mrs Bradley has been married three times, she’s a highly educated woman who works as a psychoanalyst and writes books herself, and she’s very interested in the weird and supernatural. Miss Marple, she is not.

But for fans of Mitchell and her foremost creation, it’s that difference that makes her books so appealing.

Lee Randall: They’re so funny. She is so funny. She just cracks me up. She’s got a very caustic wit and I really, really appreciate her wit. And I appreciate Mrs. Bradley’s rather sarcastic view of the world and the fact that nothing surprises her. And I also I happen to I’m a big fan of the Mitfords. And there’s a kind of writing from early in the 20th century that I know is not to everyone’s taste and very much to mine. It’s almost it’s almost very brittle. For example, in the beginning of Speedy Death, the characters burst into the scene and they start talking nine to the dozen in that particularly arch now archaic style. And I am a sucker for that stuff. I love that.

Caroline: This is Lee Randall, a writer based in Scotland and the programmer for Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s crime fiction festival. She came across Gladys Mitchell completely by chance when a package of reprinted novels landed on her desk at her newspaper job.

Lee: So I took the books home and they were sort of random sampling. I can’t even remember what the first three I read were. And I fell instantly in love with the language and with Mrs. Bradley, who I think is the most marvellous creation. And with Mitchell herself, I became intrigued. And I’m one of those annoying people who when I am intrigued by something I start swatting up on it. So I was combing the internet, trying to find out about Gladys Mitchell and trying to find out more about the series of books. And that led me down the Detection Club wormhole and all sorts of things started bubbling up

Caroline: I don’t want to take the edge off the shock you get from reading a Mrs Bradley book for the first time, because you should absolutely try one for yourself. But here’s a small taster of what you could expect from Speedy Death, for instance:

Lee: That book has everything it took. It’s a locked room, cosy crime, country house mystery with transvestitism and nymphomania and psychological shadows and light and then a rousing courtroom scene at the end. It’s got every single thing you could possibly have in the book. And it’s so brazen.

Caroline: Mitchell tackled topics in her books that most other golden age novelists avoided completely.

Lee: They’re not cosy in the slightest. All sorts of things go on. And she also the other person I often compare her to is Collette, because sometimes when I’m reading Collette, I have to put the book down and turn to the copyright page and say how this book feels so fresh, so modern. It’s talking about subject matter that we forget that that sex was not invented in 1963.  People have always been smart and savvy and perverted and weird and intricate. Always, always, always. And Gladys Mitchell just put it all out there on the page.

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Caroline: Mitchell’s work was popular during her long lifetime — she died in 1983 at the age of 82 — and she was an early member of the Detection Club, the association of crime writers who met regularly in London from the 1930s onwards and collaborated on novels and short stories. Alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, she was hailed at this time as one of the “big three” women detective writers, even though she took quite a different, subversive approach to the form and never attained the global popularity that Christie certainly enjoyed. Mitchell said herself in an interview from 1976 that her books “never made much money” and that she never regretted keep up her teaching career. During a brief break between jobs, she said that she “missed the daily self-discipline and the irritations of classroom work”.

After Mitchell’s death, her work fell out of favour. Copies of her novels became somewhat difficult to track down, and without new reprints and an active literary estate, her stories weren’t finding new readers, although three novels that were published posthumously sold well. For a couple of decades, only the most ardent of fans were still reading and talking about Mrs Bradley. It’s astonishing how quickly a writer, even one with such a significant body of work, can disappear from the public view.

Gladys Mitchell never married and had no children, so she lacked future generations to inherit her copyrights and champion her work in the way that Agatha Christie’s descendants have done so, for instance. Mitchell is sometimes included in that group of lesbian or queer golden age writers that also includes Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although there isn’t any direct confirmation of this from her that I’m aware of. Mitchell’s fiction certainly exhibits a more liberal attitude to many aspects of sexuality than that of almost all her contemporaries, but that’s not definitive evidence of anything, nor is it particularly useful or kind to think of another person’s private life as a mystery to be solved.

What we do know is that Gladys Mitchell was a fiercely independent, active and self-sufficient woman. Certainly in the first few decades of her professional life this would have marked her out as extremely unusual. As I’ve talked about on previous episodes, the years after the First World War certainly saw a great opening up of opportunities, especially for educated middle class women, but her decision to live alone and split her talents between teaching and writing would still have marked Mitchell out.

Given her circumstances, and the brilliant strangeness of her fiction, it’s not that surprising, therefore, that her work declined in popularity after her death. But it didn’t languish in obscurity for long, as we’ll find out after the break.

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Barry Bloomfield was a librarian and a poetry scholar. He died in 2002 and is probably best known today for his bibliography work on two major twentieth poets: WH Auden and Philip Larkin. For our purposes, though, the most important thing about Bloomfield was that he owned a near complete set of Gladys Mitchell books that he kept in his spare room. Bloomfield first became acquainted with Larkin when he began work on the bibliography of the poet’s work, and the two were soon fast friends, with Larkin often staying in that spare room where all the Mrs Bradley books were kept. Indeed, detective fiction seems to have been a key part of their relationship — Larkin’s nickname for Barry was “Inspector Bloomfield”, because of his diligent research on the bibliography. Books that Larkin gave his friend as gifts often had inscriptions that refer to this, with one reading “To Inspector Bloomfield – The start of a fresh investigation! Love Philip”.

Philip Larkin matters greatly to the story of Gladys Mitchell’s fall and then rise in the esteem of the reading public. He was an ardent fan of her work and believed that her books had value not just as detective fiction, but as novels in their own right too. (I personally don’t think that this is a good distinction to make — detective fiction is fiction too! — but I recognise that Larkin meant this as a huge compliment.) You get a sense of the depth of his regard for Mitchell’s work, and for detective fiction generally, in a review he wrote for the Observer newspaper of her 62nd novel, Here Lies Gloria Mundy. He goes deeply into where this book fits in the canon of Mitchell’s whodunnits, and even references Miss Murchison, a character who only appears in a significant way in one Sayers novel, Strong Poison! I think Philip Larkin and I might have got on well. I’ve linked the whole piece in the show notes for this episode, for it’s worth reading in full, but the most significant part for now is the conclusion. Larkin says: “The best thing about the book is that it will send me back to some of the earlier masterpieces… And I shall read them as novels. They ought to be known as such.”

Two years after this review was published, Larkin was offered and declined the position of Poet Laureate, the highest honour Britain has for a living poet, and a position that had previously been held by, among others, John Betjeman, Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth. For a literary figure of his stature to so wholeheartedly offer acclaim to a detective novelist in her ninth decade who was often seen by others as a relict of a twee period of crime fiction’s past was incredibly significant.

Larkin’s nickname for Mitchell — the Great Gladys — now adorns almost every reprinted version of her novels. I would hazard a guess that without this blurb, Mitchell’s work might have languished unrecognised by major publishers for even longer than it did. As an author myself, I know how much store the publishing industry sets by a good endorsement, and Mitchell got just about the best one there is. Here’s Lee Randall again, explaining how she reacted when those first Gladys Mitchell books landed on her desk:

Lee: One day out of a puffy envelope tumble the couple of vintage reprints. And I saw right away that not only with a classy looking packages, but there was a giant puff coat on the top that said “the Great Gladys” — Philip Larkin. And I thought, well, I am not really used to famous poets endorsing crime writers.

Caroline: You see? Those three words, the great Gladys, have extraordinary power. The BBC made a television series based on Gladys Mitchell’s books in the late 1990s called The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, with Diana Ring in the starring role, although they changed almost everything about the character — I mean, can you really imagine Rigg, a former Bond girl, ever being reptilian? They only made five episodes, and focused mostly on making the 1920s setting as glamorous as possible — it’s a kind of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but made 15 years earlier. At the time that the show aired, only one of Mitchell’s books was still in print and available to buy as a paperback.

There are a few theories as to why Mrs Bradley didn’t endure in the way that Miss Marple did.

Lee: Part of me wonders if it was the audacity of creating a old, ugly, really smart female protagonist. I mean, Miss Bradley’s ugliness is stressed in every single book and her age, although it remained fixed through all eternity. Those around her grew up and grew older. She’s now about 57 in the first book. And. But she’s always described very much as a crone. And she’s like that. That figure from medieval literature, the wise crone who you really want to be on the right side of.

Caroline: Witchcraft and the supernatural play a really big part in the Mrs Bradley books, appearing in titles like Here Lies Gloria Mundy, The Devil at Saxon Wall and When Last I Died — and that’s just one of the ways in which she regularly breaks the rules of detective fiction. And as you might expect of someone who wrote getting on for a 100 books over her life, not all of Mitchell’s novels are very good. She freely acknowledged this herself, telling an interviewer once that “I know I have written some bad books, but I thought they were all right when I wrote them. I can’t bear to look at some of them now.” She singled out 1939’s Printer’s Error and 1940’s Brazen Tongue as two that she particularly disliked.

In 2005, a small US-based publisher of mystery fiction put out a volume of previously uncollected Gladys Mitchell short stories titled Sleuth’s Alchemy. It was surprisingly popular — testament both to the quality of Mitchell’s own work and to the general revival of interest in classic early twentieth century detective fiction that had been building since her death. Several other small scale reprints followed, and in 2009 Vintage started republishing her books in mass market paperback form again, in a distinctive triband cover style that recalls that of the original Penguins. Now, new readers are spoiled for choice when it comes to Gladys Mitchell novels. You can browse all the spines together in a bookshop, and allow yourself to be carried away by the promise of their titles. Should you begin with Nest of Vipers? Or maybe Here Comes a Chopper? Perhaps Hangman’s Curfew will do the trick for you, or Spotted Hemlock, Watson’s Choice or The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop. But wherever you begin, I can guarantee that your first Gladys Mitchell novel will be completely unlike any other whodunnit you’ve tried before.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Lee Randall. You can find more information about her work as well as links to all the books and sources we mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thegreatgladys. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

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

Next time on Shedunnit: The Pale Horse.

30. Teaching Sleuthing Transcript

Caroline: In 1945, the American critic Edmund Wilson published a series of three essays deploring detective fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Dorothy L. Sayers as of little value. In the second essay, which was titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” as a direct dig at Christie’s bestselling whodunnit from 1926, he came to the damning conclusion that “with so many fine books to read…there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish”.

Needless to say, plenty of people disagreed with Wilson, and the popularity of these writers continued unaffected. But his sneering didn’t come from nowhere. It represented a wider belief in academic and critical circles that detective fiction could not be considered on a par with those “fine books” Wilson suggested people should read instead. In other words, it might be good fun, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that should be taken seriously, or heaven forbid, studied in a university.

But a lot has changed since then.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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For all the time I’ve been reading detective fiction, I’ve thought of it as something enjoyable to read on a train journey or before I fall asleep at night. That is, until I started making this podcast, and it became something that I approach in a more workmanlike manner, fitting my reading to the topics I want to cover on the show. Which is not to say that I don’t still have a stack of whodunnits piled up by my bed at all times, I do — I just also have them on my desk as well.

Crime fiction in general, from the Victorian stuff I talked about in the last episode right up to modern novels being published today, has always been incredibly popular with readers and is usually put in this same recreational category. We read these books because they’re fun and, in the case of those from decades past, because they are enlightening about a different moment in history. Unlike with so called literary fiction, which is often positioned as a commentary on modern society as well as a kind of art, there’s little pressure on detective novels to make big statements about The Way We Live Now as long as the plot twists are well executed and the big reveal at the end is satisfying. Which is not to say that crime fiction of any kind can’t provide commentary on topical matters, it can and does — just that it’s not considered a core tenet of the genre.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone, therefore, when I say that crime fiction has always been regarded as a lesser kind of literature. I think a big part of this has to do with its popularity and value as entertainment, because things that are fun and widely read often acquire a reputation for being less serious (see also attitudes to romance, fantasy and science fiction). That label “genre fiction” is still used sometimes to distinguish these kinds of stories from literary fiction, although I think there’s less of these divisions than there used to be, which can only be a good thing.

Although plenty of major literary figures have been fans of detective fiction throughout its history, including the likes of TS Eliot and WH Auden, for a long time it didn’t have the serious reputation that would prompt widespread academic study of the form. There have always been good critics of detective fiction reviewing new titles as they were published for newspapers. Eliot was one, Dorothy L. Sayers was another, and later in the twentieth century Julian Symons did a great deal to enhance the critical reputation of the form. But let’s just say that when I went to university to study English Literature in the 2000s, there wasn’t even an optional paper available about crime fiction, and I had to work quite hard to convince the authorities to let me write an elective thesis that even mentioned it.

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A lot has changed very quickly in the academic study of detective fiction. As other disciplines that intersect with it have become more established, such as gender studies, critical theory and the study of popular culture in general, new approaches to crime fiction have emerged also. There are now scholars all over the world working on authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and others — indeed, you’ve heard some of them interviewed on this show in past episodes — and more fronts for exploration opening up all the time.

Research is a big part of what academics do, of course, but they also teach students. Since I never got the chance to study my favourite novels as an undergraduate, I’ve always been very curious about what a detective fiction module at a university might be like. So I thought: let’s ask someone who teaches one.

Victoria: My name’s Victoria Stewart. I’m a Reader in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Leicester and I teach and research 20th century writing and detective fiction is quite a big part of that.

Caroline: You might recognise Victoria from episode 26, where she told us about her research on the Notable Trials series. She also teaches a module on detective fiction at her university, though.

Victoria: Well, I’m lucky in that I’m able to actually offer a whole module on detective fiction, which is my module, so I’m solely responsible for the teaching of it. And that’s an optional module. And I usually get about a dozen students — third year students.

Caroline: Third year undergraduates in Britain, just for the avoidance of doubt if you’re used to a different higher education system, will usually be around 20 years old, although there are of course mature students as well. Victoria aims to give them a thorough grounding in detective fiction, beginning in the nineteenth century.

Victoria: Well, it’s a course that goes chronologically, and I just the really the late Victorian period up until the 1930s. So it’s really hard to know where to begin, actually. And the first time I taught it, I started with Conan Doyle. But after that, I decided that I wanted to backtrack a little bit. And now I ask students to read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter to get them started. And then we also look at Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which I puts on the module partly after I started doing some work on Sayers and realized how interested she was in Collins and how he was a really important figure, actually in the 1920s and 30s. A lot of people used him as a reference point. So I felt that made sense. And we then go through and look at Doyle, we look at some of the short fiction from around the same period. We look at some of the Raffles stories and then go to Christie, Sayers, and I’m particularly interested in how criminals are depicted in detective fiction and how the boundaries of the genre get pushed out really. So I also add in Francis Iles’s novel Malice Aforethought, which follows the criminal rather than the detective and play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope, which was the source for the Alfred Hitchcock film at the film is very different, but the structure is essentially the same. The dynamic between the characters is the same. And again, that’s focusing on the criminals.

Caroline: They also focus in on certain novels from the golden age of detective fiction between the world wars.

Victoria: Well, I’ve had to change her a little bit the share births in previous years. I’ve asked them to look at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and also The Body in the Library. So we did a Poirot and also Marple for various reasons. I’ve had to put the Marple to one side for this year. So we’re just going to be looking at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd from Christie. And I might also bring in a short story, perhaps the first year that I thought the course we looked at. Sorry, I tend to remember now. Yes. The first year that I taught the course, I looked at The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. But then I decided to change and do Strong Poison so looking at the Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey origin story, if you like, and there’s some such fantastic depictions of women in that novel, that seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity not to look at that one. And that’s always good fun to teach.

Caroline: While Victoria was telling me about the curriculum, I started to wonder how this all strikes the young people who sign up for her class. I mean, I know that I had devoured most of Agatha Christie by the time I was their age, and I suspect lots of you listening might have done the same, but is that how today’s teenager spends their time?

Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television. But my take on that is that that’s one of the ways in which we almost inhale the generic conventions. I think a lot of people would be able to tell you what their expectations are of detective fiction and they pick those expectations up almost without realising it by watching adaptations or by the odd thing that they read. So even if students haven’t read a lot of detective fiction before, they still have some reference points for it

Caroline: That makes me feel quite old, but it’s also interesting how big a part TV plays in the way the formal structures of detective fiction are disseminated today. Once the students are more familiar with these stories in their original forms, though, they are also a useful tool for Victoria to give greater historical context for the time they were written.

Victoria: There are themes that emerge across the course I’m very interested in the historical context and particularly in how we can pick up things like shifts in attitude to the police and how they’re depicted. It’s also broad themes like masculinity, for instance, and shifts in perceptions of masculinity. And the First World War is a bit of a hinge point in that regard. And the other issue that we do talk about quite a bit are issues to do with domesticity and the home. And in the earliest stories, something like the moon stone. How do servants figure in that narrative? Servants are such interesting figures, always in detective fiction. They’re in this unusual position that they have access to people’s private lives. They literally can go through people’s underwear drawers, but they’ve got very low status socially. People often are in almost fear of their servants in case they reveal something that they shouldn’t. And so figures like that are quite interesting to trace across that historical span as well.

Caroline: But the popularity of the genre itself also forms a major part of the discussion.

Victoria: One thing that we do talk about quite a bit on the module is how detective fiction was staking a claim for itself as a form. So for instance, the work of someone like Sayers in saying, look, this is a form that is interesting. It’s worth thinking about is worth paying attention to. And I suppose we do engage with some of those debates. I mean, one question that I always ask students at the start is were you surprised to see that you could do a module on detective fiction? And they almost always say yes. And they often say, well, we’re used to studying things like Shakespeare and the so-called great authors, because even these days, as people are expanding the material that they teach on English degrees, there is still a sense of there being the canonical authors, if you like. And so I think students actually find it quite refreshing to look at stuff that is important, not necessarily because it’s always had a lot of status and a lot of critical interest, but because people read it and it’s been popular. So it is a slight shift in that way, I suppose, a slight shift in perspective. But I think in other ways, it’s just another kind of material, the tools that they’ve developed for analysing literature. They can still use to look at this material as well.

Caroline: Just because there is now a greater recognition that these kinds of books are worth studying, doesn’t mean that there’s much consensus on anything else to do with them. Some listeners might remember that the London Review of Books published a very long essay by the novelist John Lanchester in December 2018 titled “The Case of Agatha Christie”, in which he looks at Christie as a prose writer as well as a mystery writer, and finds her wanting on the former front. This kind of analysis is still common in detective studies, Victoria says.

Victoria: I was reading I think it was a blog post actually by an academic who had been teaching detective fiction. And they made a comment that I thought was interesting. They said that you couldn’t really do close reading on Agatha Christie and close reading the detailed analysis of a piece of text, looking at the imagery, the use of language unpicking it. That’s often a staple still of the study of English literature in an academic context. Zero in on a particular passage and unpicking it. And I think before I actually started teaching this course, I might have seen where that person was coming from, that maybe it would be more challenging because of Christie’s style really to do that kind of analysis. But now I actually take a slightly different view, which is that often it can be really worthwhile to do that kind of analysis. So to think about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This person had said that they couldn’t really see that there was much significance in the way that the dagger was described in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And without giving too much away, I’m sure most of your listeners will have read that novel.
But without giving too much away of the plot, actually, one of the interesting things about the way that dagger is described is the perspective from which is being described that the narrator who’s describing it and why he’s describing it rather than describing other things that are in the room at the time, i.e. a dead body which actually gets less attention than the dagger. So that’s not how we might normally go about doing close reading necessarily. But I think there is still a way in which you can use those sorts of techniques for that type of material.

Caroline: As that Lanchester essay shows, it’s still quite common for critics to be especially critical of Agatha Christie — and although I would be the first to admit that her work isn’t flawless, it’s hard not to think that her immense popularity plays a part in this approach. There’s a lot more to her work than might immediately meet the eye, Victoria says, and that’s the kind of thing she’s encouraging her students to seek out.

Victoria:  I always try and encourage students to think about historical contexts. That’s that’s another aspect that you can bring in again. Sometimes Christie has been characterized or even caricatured as not really saying much about the historical context in which her stories unfold. But actually there are definitely clues there. So, for instance, again, to use Roger Ackroyd as an example, there’s a character who appears from America and what America signifies as a place in the mid 1920s, there’s a whole set of associations that would have been available to readers at the time that are perhaps a bit opaque to us now. And that’s the the kind of work we might do in trying to establish how that might have signified to a contemporary reader of Christie.

Caroline: Victoria’s students are assessed on their detective fiction module via an essay they write at the end, which can be about any author or work they choose. They might go on to become passionate fans of detective fiction, or the course might only have succeeded in persuading them that watching Poirot when visiting Gran is the limit of their interest in the genre. But either way, they’ve participated in something important — a programme of critical study that doesn’t make any difference between this kind of popular fiction and the more rarefied world of literary fiction. In short, they’ve had ample opportunity to absorb the idea that just because a lot of people enjoy something, it shouldn’t automatically be considered to be unserious. And who knows, maybe Victoria is training future generations of Shedunnit fans while she’s at it.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Dr Victoria Stewart. You can find more information about her work as well as links to all the books and sources we mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/teachingsleuthing. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Birmingham on 1 February. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events.

I’ll be back on 4 February with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Great Gladys.

29. Victorian Pioneers Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Before there was Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley or Harriet Vane, there was Amelia Butterworth, Dorcas Dene and Loveday Brooke. Although Victorian detective fiction is most associated with a male character that tends to overshadow all else — Sherlock Holmes — there was a thriving tradition of women detectives among nineteenth century authors. Some of the lady sleuths I mentioned there were employed directly by the police; others worked for private agency or entirely on their own. What they all haven common, though, is irrepressible confidence and a desire for adventure. They track down murderers, foil thefts, trail criminals in disguise, travel the world in pursuit of suspects, and altogether solve mysteries in a highly entertaining way.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a twentieth century whodunnit where a woman takes the lead on an investigation, as a professional or an amateur, then you’ve partaken in a tradition that has its roots in the swashbuckling lady sleuths of the 18o0s.

Today, we’re going to meet detective fiction’s Victorian pioneers.

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Welcome to a new year of Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Two points of housekeeping before I get into the episode proper. First, a reminder that if you would like to listen to the podcast with adverts or interruptions, you can become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive a private podcast feed of ad free versions, as well as bonus episodes. Secondly, if you can get to the UK on 1 February and would like to see me performing a live episode called “A Complete History of Detective Fiction, Sort Of”, I will be doing that at the PodUK convention in Birmingham at 2.30 pm. Secure your ticket for my show at shedunnitshow.com/events, which also gets you into the whole day of podcast live shows. I’ll also have a table in the foyer all day where you can come and say hello and buy a Shedunnit pin. Hopefully see you there. Now, back to the nineteenth century:

The title of “first detective story” is a disputed one. It’s probably most often awarded to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a short story first published in 1841 that sees a sleuth, C Auguste Dupin, solve a case using “ratiocination”, or a process of deductive reasoning. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House from 1853 was the first western novel to include an investigation by a police detective, although Inspector Bucket’s murder investigation is very much a minor plot. It’s Wilkie Collins, though, who usually takes the honours for the first proper detective novel with 1868’s The Moonstone — TS Eliot certainly thought it so, anyway. There are other possibilities too, but the point is that those middle decades of the nineteenth century is when the idea of a story propelled by this new figure of the “detective” who investigates and resolves a crime over the course of the story. Something that all of these early whodunnits have in common, though, is that their central sleuths are men. Which, given the time that they come from, isn’t that surprising — married women in Britain couldn’t even legally own property until 1882. No wonder nineteenth century detection, like so many other professions at the time in both fiction and reality, were the sole preserve of men. That’s certainly what I thought until I started researching this topic more thoroughly, and found out how wrong I was.

Olivia Rutigliano: In the 1860s, there are a couple of lady detectives who just appear there. There’s one Mrs. Pascal, there’s one named Mrs. G. And these are the earliest. Suddenly there are these very capable characters who use their natural feminine intuition and other qualities to solve crimes on behalf of society, to fix problems on a grand scale.

Caroline: This is Olivia Rutigliano, a writer and researcher who is currently finishing a PhD on the detective in nineteenth century entertainment at Columbia University in New York. The surprising thing about Victorian women detectives, she says, is not that they are rare. It’s that there are so many of them.

Olivia: I think a lot of people think that a 19th century female Sherlock Holmes would be a sort of one off a sort of rare occurrence and exciting moment in the Victorian era.

But the fact that there were so many, I think speaks to a very overwhelming interest in having female characters do the kind of exciting work that the male detective characters of the age got to do. And certainly they were very, very many male detectives.

Caroline: In real life, detectives were a relatively new innovation. The Metropolitan Police Service in London was founded in 1829, and a detective bureau was added in 1842. But it wasn’t until 1919 that the first woman was officially hired as a police officer (i.e. not a volunteer). Women weren’t allowed to make arrests until 1923. The women detectives of nineteenth century fiction, then, were complete fantasies — their real life counterparts wouldn’t arrive until the next century.

The academic Joseph A. Kestner once wrote that the existence of fictional lady detectives “constituted a profound fantasy of female empowerment”. It’s a phenomenon that expresses the tumultuous, overlapping changes that were occurring at the time to women’s societal roles, Olivia says.

Olivia: Some of the later lady detectives, the ones who emerge in the eighteen eighties through the early 20th century as coinciding with a phenomenon that prioritizes women’s advancement politically and socially. While that while there are suffragettes marching for the right to vote and while women are entering the workforce in increasingly competitive capacity.

Caroline: The women detectives are part of a larger embodiment of this trend in popular culture, especially fiction.

Olivia: There’s a body of literature classified as new woman literature. The new woman is that the sort of bicycle riding, bloomer wearing progressive young woman who emerges as an archetype but based in reality in circa the turn of the century and there’s a lot of literature about women who get abortions. Women who work in professional capacities and who deal with with the sort of resistance society has to progress and sort of iconoclasm and difference. And so the lady detective literature sort of seems to be swept up in that.

Caroline: It also expresses the contemporary thinking about gender in other respects. The perceived difference between men and women are an important aspect of how these women detective characters are conceived, as we’ll see later. Here’s Olivia with an example from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which she considers to be essentially a detective novel with Mina Harker acting as the main investigator.

Olivia: There’s a fascinating moment in Dracula where Van Helsing is talking about how the vampire has a child brain. And then he breaks off to say that Mina, the woman who performs the detective function in Dracula, actually has like a man brain, which is a which is pretty rare. And everyone’s like, oh, yeah, Mina definitely has a man brain. So all of these different factors and these anxieties about these questions were represented in the female detective character who is to me, this hallmark of, you know, questions about female potential, just sort of trying to burst out of this murky shell.

Caroline: Of course, grappling with notions of women’s role and potential is not unique to detective fiction. There are plenty of female heroines in other types of literature.

Olivia: Criticism of Jane Eyre and Gothic literature vastly in which there are female heroines who do also investigative work to a certain degree of criticism that also exists, then there’s always been a pushback against these sort of strong female protagonists. What we might call in the age of Netflix, the strong female lead. This character has been around for a very long time. But in the Victorian era, with the specific profession of the detective, there seems to be a way in which all of these things that people have been wondering about, women sort of emerge. And it’s in its most vibrant and in their most vibrant and groundbreaking forms. So these qualities have been percolating in literature and women’s focussed or sensation or Gothic literature for a long time. But in this this moment. When the detective character emerges, this is when it all sort of comes to a head.

Caroline: One of the catalysts for this is the rise of women’s education — at the same time as these women detectives were first appear in print, women students were campaigning to be allowed to study at universities for the first time, with the aim of entering professions that were previously only open to men. This all feeds into the detective fiction too:

Olivia: As women are marching for the right to vote and as they are attempting to enter the workforce in more competitive capacities as journalists and in other related fields, as they are certainly educating themselves it stands to reason that there should be a literature of support surrounding this.

Caroline: There’s a sense in some of these stories that some of these women detectives have outpaced society. They’ve managed to acquire a high level of education and accomplishment, but there’s not really any jobs available that they can respectably do. So the writers of fiction come up with the perfect solution: the overeducated young woman should become a detective.

Olivia: There are women who are these lady detective characters are incredible, very smart, very accomplished young women who are looking for places to use their exemplary skills and their wonderful educations, but also who are looking for social opportunities that are less restrictive. So Grant Allen’s Lois Cayley is a young woman, I believe, with a Cambridge degree, graduates penniless but as a spirit for adventure and becomes a bicycle saleswoman throughout Europe and and embarks on a series of adventures that require her deductive skills. And she solves mysteries and falls in love. There’s this really wonderful, unconventional social narrative accompanying that. So it seems like the detective profession seems to be a way for these exemplary women to do things in society that they might. The detective said, I’ll rephrase, as the detective profession seems to be a place for these women to use their exemplary skills, which, given the barriers women face in society at this time, are somewhat useless. A woman who graduate with a university degree and then goes to work in some sort of capacity that won’t fulfil that education will have skills that are better deemed excessive for the detective profession puts those skills to use in a way that is really exciting and progressive.

Caroline: There are lots of examples of this. Dora Myrl, created by the Irish lawyer and politician M. McDonnell Bodkin, first appears in a collection of short stories 1900. She’s a medical doctor with a maths degree from Cambridge, which is a fantasy in itself, since women were not awarded full degrees by that university until 1948. Dora can’t find work as a woman doctor, so she becomes a private detective, riding a bicycle and carrying a gun. Hilda Wade, created by Grant Allen, is a brilliant nurse who solves medical mysteries because advancing further in her main profession is very difficult. And then there’s Mina Harker, a talented school teacher who keeps the plot of Dracula advancing with the sheer force of her logical brain.

Olivia: So in all of these books, specifically detective fiction and then the ones that are sort of on the fringes of detective fiction, including Dracula. There are these very well educated, very clever problem solving and. Keen women who move the narrative forward so so education or like investment in educating oneself is a big shared trait of the lady detectives of this time.

Caroline: After the break: why you should never trust a woman’s intuition.

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Although the changes to women’s role in society helped to create the conditions that produced Victorian fiction’s women detectives, the characters aren’t just empty political ciphers. There’s far more to them than that. Many of the best ones, like my personal favourite, CL Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke, are fully fleshed out professionals with as many investigative skills and quirks as their male counterparts.

Something that many of these characters have in common, though, is what the author’s tend to call “women’s intuition” — the idea that women have the innate skill to divine things about their surroundings, just because they are women.

Olivia: All of these lady detectives are also able to do their work because of this quality is abstract quality called women’s intuition. And no one seems to know what to do with this, except that a bunch of female detective characters are able to almost psychic. We start when there’s a situation where something has gone wrong or Senate relations gone awry, or that someone is an unsavoury character. Hilda Wade in particular is discussed as having women’s intuition that is too strong. It’s actually jokingly or maybe not jokingly referred to by another male character as being witchcraft. She’s so spot on, she’s so incisive and able to figure out just sort of exactly who somebody is.

Caroline: If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because the megastar detective of Victorian fiction does it rather a lot himself.

Olivia: I mean, Sherlock Holmes can look at you and tell you, you know, your job, what you eight in the last 24 hours, what kind of person you are, why you’re coming to his door to inquire about his services, et cetera, et cetera. And that’s referred to as being highly calculating and deductive. Right. It’s sort of a scientific mode of inquiry, whereas a woman can sort of feel a woman in that position, can tell you everything about you as well.  But it’s given this much more emotional quality than than a thoughtful or cognitive quality.  Even then, Hilda Wade. And Sherlock Holmes are basically doing the exact same thing. But with the way it’s construed, it is particularly gendered so that women sort of get the female character sort of seem to get the softer explanation.

Caroline: When a male detective displays this kind of extraordinary perception, it’s an impressive deductive skill. But for the women, it’s just “intuition”.

For all that these characters originate in a time of progress and change, there’s still a lot of prejudice and limitation placed upon them. This frequently occurs in their origin stories — only rarely do the women in these stories become detectives because it seems like a fun choice of profession, or because they think they can excel at it. No, a respectable woman can only do this because all other options are closed to her, mostly because of a sudden reversal of fortune or a personal tragedy.

Olivia: I think there are a couple lady detectives who sort of wind up in the profession because they can’t be stay at home. Domestic figures. You know, someone’s husband dies, Dorcas Dene’s husband goes blind, a fiancee has been shot. These women who wind up in the detective profession sort of need a way to earn money. And society sort of justifies their entering the workforce because they have to be the sole breadwinner.

Caroline: There are some, though, who are detectives by choice alone.

Olivia: But then there are other characters like Lois Cayley, for example, and Judith Lee, who are unattached. Madeleine Mack also like a beautiful or alluring, exciting lady detective who’s not held back by these domestic constraints in a way that is very exciting. Madeline Mack is able to take down these criminals. She’s brilliant. She’s gorgeous. And she never breaks a nail while she is taking care of all this business.

Caroline: Some of these perceived limitations and the emphasis on respectability stems from the fact that many of these stories about women detectives are written by men, who are both enchanted by the potential of progress but also reflecting their attachment to the status quo in their characters. A major way this comes out is in how many of these characters end their investigative careers when they get an offer of marriage. Here’s Olivia again:

Olivia: I would say that a lot of the lady detective characters who were written by men are sort of sort of extra unrealistic? They don’t want to transgress social mores too much and they’ll stop doing detective work, for example, as soon as they get married or find someone to provide for them. Both Lois Kelly and Hilda Wade, who were both written by Grant Allen, the science writer and friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, are quick to end their swashbuckling adventures and cross country exploits when they have an opportunity to marry someone

Caroline: The women detectives are revolutionary in their way, but their also a product of the time in which they were created.

Olivia: I think the lady detective character captures is really tough double bind of being a woman in that in this particular historical moment, which is, you know, having a kind of they’re able to have a kind of freedom. That women do not normally have. But also they’re restrained from doing too much of that.

Caroline: These lady sleuths, though, laid the foundation for what was to follow. In fact, if you think about it, one of the most famous female detectives of the golden age between the world wars could even have overlapped with the likes of Dora Myrl.

Olivia: And you know, I miss Marple is herself an older woman when she emerges in the Agatha Christie canon. Right. And so she’s you know, she actually might be of this generation like the tail end of the generation. But, you know, you can imagine a sort of young Miss Marple solving crimes alongside a late lady to a late Victorian lady detective character like Judith Lee. So I like I think that the character of Miss Marple sort of allows for this generational transition. And, you know, and the way we culturally look received Miss Marple as the sort of ironic figure this this woman who embodies the irony of how women are perceived, especially if they’re older or if they’re single.

Caroline: The Victorian women detective characters didn’t die out so much as morph and change into something new as the world changed. The idea of the woman sleuth as we see her today in countless modern crime novels and TV shows was born in that era of bloomers and bicycles and shaped by the lady detectives of the 1920s and 30s.

Olivia: I think you’re thinking about Miss Miss Marple as maybe having career flashbacks to that sort of the burgeoning heyday of Victorian lady detective fiction allows us to see this as being a very long process, a very long transition of women entering this kind of. Women becoming these kind of characters more and more. I mean, Harriet Vane is an exciting sort of new type of woman. I mean, she’s she’s and she’s not a flapper, but she’s she’s a 20th century woman. In a way that this Marple seems to be. It seems to be hanging on to a previous generation. Like literally just by existing because she’s older. It’s time to hand the baton to the next legion of lady detectives.

Caroline: If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the likes of Dora Myrl, Lois Cayley or Mrs Paschal, the answer is just that an awful lot of these stories and novels have yet to be rereleased in modern editions. You can find plenty of the stories collected in anthologies — Penguin have done a couple of good ones, and there’s another called The Dead Witness I would recommend. But you have to go looking for them, whereas if you’re at all interested in crime fiction you’ll trip over a Sherlock Holmes related story, film or episode every time you turn around. These Victorian lady sleuths are worth seeking out, though, both because they’re just tremendous fun in their own right, and for what they tell us as the ancestors of our favourite women detectives of later generations.

Olivia: I think our culture is primed to receive these lady detectives, but I don’t think they know that the culture knows too much about them yet. I think the world needs this. We have we’ve had a lot of Irene Adler adaptations and that we need the other ladies to take centre stage.

Caroline: They’re all there, waiting for you. Bodices, bicycles and all.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about my guest and all the books we mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/victorianpioneers. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear a version of the show without interruption, advertising or intermission, you can do that by joining the Shedunnit Book Club. As well as ad free listening, there are also bonus episodes, a discussion forum and a monthly detective novel reading group. Find more details and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Next time on Shedunnit: Teaching Sleuthing.

28. Let It Snow Transcript

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

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

Caroline: The days are drawing in. Darkness falls mid afternoon. The light and warmth inside only emphasises quite how icily cold it is out.

At first, the snow is a cheery accompaniment to a festive gathering somewhere remote and rural, a thick white blanket to be admired out of the window while sitting by the fire with a glass of something. But as the weather gets worse and worse, things take a sinister turn. A murder under these conditions is doubly horrifying: the snow means that help can’t get through, but also that the crime must have been committed by someone who is already inside.

This is a classic murder mystery scenario, especially beloved of British detective novelists from the early twentieth century. If judging by the crime fiction of this period, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was a white Christmas every year between 1918 and 1940 and beyond. As written by the likes of Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Cyril Hare and others, wintry weather is every villain’s best friend and detective’s worst enemy.

That’s why, today, we’re going to let it snow.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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The first time that I can remember being really conscious of the role that snow plays in detective fiction is probably one that many fans of this genre share. On Christmas Day in 2010, I watched the ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express on television with my family. It stars David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, of course, and it’s a lavish, 80 minute version of the story that is a notably darker departure from the more cheery, episodic nature of some of the earlier ITV Poirots. What struck me about it most, though, was how cold everything seemed. This adaptation emphasises the novel’s themes about natural justice and revenge and links them to Poirot’s own Catholicism. As a result, the great Belgian detective spends a lot of time standing outside in the cold, thinking deeply while the snow swirls evocatively around him. There’s much less time spent displaying the warm wood and velvet of the train’s plush interior than in the recent Kenneth Branagh film. In the ITV version, there’s also a very dramatic shot of the train itself almost completely submerged in a huge snow drift with only its chimney sticking out, just to ram home that point about the snow and the cold. As a result, I feel like this version of the story gave me more awareness of how isolated and cold everyone on board must have felt, even before the murder caused panic and fear.

Snow is a very powerful tool in the hands of a detective novelist. In other kinds of fiction, wintry weather might be a useful backdrop or a way of creating a certain atmosphere, but in a whodunnit, it can act both as a catalyst for plot developments and even a kind of character in its own right. When constructing a murder mystery plot, two of the most important elements are the closed circle of suspects and the clues left behind by the murderer. Both must be established in a fairly plausible fashion, so as not to derail the reader’s interest from whatever else is going on. A thick blanket of snow is the perfect way to achieve both of these things in one go, without having to resort to improbable contrivances or undue complexities. A snowstorm can easily imprison a group of people quite realistically in a house or train. And even once the snow stops falling, as long as it lays on the ground, it provides the perfect surface to record footsteps and tracks of all kinds.

In addition to these two fundamental qualities, a heavy snow fall has other, less practical implications for a novel. If you’ve ever been outside the morning after a heavy snowfall, you will know about the transformational and befuddling powers of snow. It can make a landscape look completely different, meaning that even someone quite familiar with a place or route can lose their way. It also has a silencing effect, dampening some sounds and magnifying others. In some circumstances, this can be charming, picturesque even, and in others, deeply sinister. Snow might keep characters neatly imprisoned inside, but it opens all sorts of doors for their creator.

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Because the boom in detective fiction between the two world wars that is generally called the golden age was mostly centred on British, Irish and a few American writers, their stories are generally set in the northern hemisphere. As such, a snowy mystery is often also a Christmas mystery, which brings its own possibilities for plot and setting. The popular link between Christmas — generally considered to be a joyful celebration — and crime is long established and superficially contradictory. But when you dig a bit deeper, and think about the tensions that lie beneath the surface in family gatherings and a time of year when consumerism and conspicuous consumption is at its height, it’s a bit easier to understand how the association came about. When I spoke to the screenwriter Sarah Phelps for my Adaptations episode this time last year, she put forward a theory that there’s something primal about how we want difficult stories as we gather together in the firelight at the darkest time of year, and it runs through culture beyond just crime fiction.

Sarah: When I was at Eastenders, Christmas Day Eastenders, you want a punch up, you want a big disclosure, you want everyone falling out and you know somebody dressed as Father Christmas being found out as having been shagging his son’s wife you know that’s what you want. You want a great big thing and I think maybe there’s something cathartic about it but I think for me it’s that sense of a real emotional complexity with a real kind of pay off is satisfying because you’re brain’s engaged and you are being pulled into a story and pulled out of you know you’ve entertained your family, you’ve fed them, everybody’s eaten everything they put in front of you.And you’re absolutely sick of making cups of tea. And now I will sit down. you’re going to be felt sorry and you know that tradition goes back to before television that sitting around the fire and having somebody tell you story after feasting to away the dark that need in us to be told a story and to be taken out of ourselves. It goes way deeper than TV, it goes way deeper than Christmas it’s just this part of our DNA it’s at a molecular level that we love after the feast to sit down by the fire and have somebody take us out of ourselves. It’s just who we are.

Caroline: It’s worth noting that not only does a wintry, Christmas setting work well for an author seeking a clever plot, but it’s also a time of year when readers enjoy consuming this kind of bloody, murder filled story. We might like to think that what we want during the festive season are jolly stories with happy endings, but as Sarah points out, one of the UK’s most watched shows on the 25th December each year is EastEnders, and that festive episode almost always includes multiple catastrophes. There have been explosions and fires, as well as devastating revelations about characters’ love lives. Like reading stories about murder, death and divorce is perhaps not what you’d think people would want to watch play out on Christmas afternoon as they put their feet up after a big lunch. Yet that’s what they choose to tune in to, while munching happily through tins of Quality Street.

For a whodunnit, a Christmas gathering can enhance and augment the closed circle already created by a snowy setting. Think of Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, for instance, in which members of a family travel from far and wide to spend the festive season back at the family home, only for a bloody murder to take place on Christmas Eve. People who would never normally chose to live under the same roof are shoved together in the name of Christmas spirit, and if a sudden fall of snow means that they can’t leave, then you have the perfect conditions for detective fiction.

After the break: a rundown of the best snowy mysteries for your enjoyment this festive season.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about how you can support the podcast’s continued existence. The main way to do that is by joining the Shedunnit Book Club, the membership scheme I run alongside the podcast. For £5 a month, you receive a bonus podcast feed containing extra episodes of the show as well as access to the book club forum, where members gather to read and discuss whichever whodunnit we’re reading that month. There’s still time to join us in December for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie — if you head to shedunnitshow.com/bookclub you can get signed up now and weigh in on that one. You can even gift a membership to a friend, or sign up with someone you don’t see enough and use it as an excuse to stay in regular touch with them. What could be more Christmassy than that? Visit shedunnitshow.com/bookclub to join now. Now, back to the show.

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Publishers cottoned on early to the idea that Christmas detective novels and stories sell well, and have long been commissioning authors to write them. The idea of a “Christie for Christmas” became legendary in the industry during the decades that Agatha Christie was working, because a book by her released in mid October could be absolutely relied upon to sell lots of copies before the big day rolled around in December. Other companies and authors of course picked up on this trend too. Magazines and periodicals as well would seek out festive stories for December issues, which means that there’s really a very large quantity of wintry, Christmas related mystery fiction to choose from, especially from the 1920s, 30s and 40s when the “golden age” style of Christie and her contemporaries was at the height of its popularity.

As a sidetone, it’s interesting to see that this festive effect on the crime fiction publishing market endures pretty much unchanged. At the end of 2014, the British Library Crime Classic reprint of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White became an unexpected bestseller, as shoppers responding to its wintry cover and its subtitle of “A Christmas Crime Story” picked it up in their thousands to enjoy over the festive period. Similarly, an anthology of Christmas short stories from the same imprint published the following year and titled Silent Nights became one of the fastest selling crime anthologies in decades. The lure of a vintage murder mystery at Christmas seems to be as strong as it ever was.

Farjeon’s Mystery in White from 1937 is a distillation of lots of these themes, which perhaps explains its popularity. A group of strangers are stranded in a train on Christmas Eve after it hits a snowdrift. Several of them decide to strike out away from the line in the hopes of finding somewhere warm to spend the night. After floundering around for a while, they come across a house with the door open. Nobody is around, but the fires are lit and the tea table has just been laid. The snow piles up, and soon even if they wanted to leave, it’s impossible. It’s a perfect opening to a festive mystery, which then goes on to have plenty of creepy moments with locked rooms, mysterious footprints in the snow, and vanishing servants. Even if the denouement is not all that the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot would expect, it’s still a great example of how snow can shape a plot.

The same is true of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery from 1931, which I actually talked a bit about already in the last episode about her competent woman characters. One of the barriers that sleuth Emily Trefusis faces in trying to solve this murder committed in a remote village on Dartmoor is the snow, which makes even accessing the scene of the crime very difficult. Captain Trevelyan is found dead at his home one evening while a blizzard is raging outside. So fierce is the snowstorm that no cars can get by on the roads, and trekking through the heavy snow on foot is time consuming and dangerous. I don’t want to give away the really excellent twist to this tale, but let’s just say that when Emily finally works out the solution, it fits in perfectly with the wintry atmosphere and the huge volume of snow present throughout.

Snow is a popular device for putting technology and transport links out of action, in order to isolate murderer and suspects together unavoidably. I’ve already mentioned how this works with trains in Murder on the Orient Express and Farjeon’s Mystery in White, but it works with cars too, as in the Sittaford Mystery, and also in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1934 novel The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey ends up in a remote fenland village on New Year’s Eve because his car careers off the road in a blizzard, so he’s forced to seek shelter at the nearby vicarage, where he gets drawn in to a bellringing escapade that also involves murder. It’s also worth mentioning how Christie adapted this method in her short story “The Erymanthian Boar” in the Poirot centric collection The Labours of Hercules from 1947. The detective is in Switzerland following a previous case, and takes a funicular lift up a mountain to a remote hotel for a few days’ break. On his first night there, the lift is damaged by an avalanche (the snow playing its vital role again), isolating the guests and staff at the hotel on the mountain. This time, it’s also a nice parallel with the myth that Christie is riffing on, since in the original tale Hercules traps the Erymanthian boar after it gets stuck in a snowdrift — evidence that the use of snow as a narrative device stretches back a long way.

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Snow is also a regular addition to the classic country house mystery, itself a means by which the closed circle of suspects is created. Cyril Hare’s An English Murder and Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman both contain good examples of this. In the latter, a Dorset manor house being cut off from the world by a sudden snowstorm, which also conveniently takes out the telephone line so that no help can be summoned (coincidentally, the house seems to have its own electricity generator so that the inhabitants don’t die of cold while the events of the novel take place). You might also recognise this setup from Christie’s famously long running play The Mousetrap, which also uses snow to maroon the inhabitants of a guest house during a storm that stops the telephone from working. Her take on this plot actually began life as a radio play requested by Queen Mary, wife of George V, for her 80th birthday. After its broadcast on the BBC, Christie adapted it into a short story, and then later, a play — which you can still see running in London’s West End today.

Manor houses and hotels might be the most common locations for potential murder victims to be snowed in, but there are variations. For instance, in Stairway to Murder by Osmington Mills (the pen name of Vivian Collin Brooks), the characters are confined by snow in a pub in Yorkshire, and in Micheal Innes’s 1940 story There Came Both Mist and Snow, it’s a converted priory. There’s another countryside guest house in Nicholas Blake’s The Sad Variety, but these snowed-in houses don’t even have to be in rural England, although that’s a very common setting — Hilda Lawrence’s 1944 novel Blood Upon the Snow features an estate on the East Coast of the United States. But the important thing for the story is for everybody to stay put, it doesn’t matter as much exactly where. One of my favourite variations comes in The Slype by Russel Thorndike from 1927, where the snowy action takes place around a cathedral close, and a body is actually pulled from a heap of snow in the precinct. It also contains one of the best lines in all detective fiction, when Inspector Macauley of Scotland Yard responds to details of where the body was found with the immortal line “Splendid! Recent footprints in the snow, of course?”

Of course there are footprints; there are always footprints. The snow often helps to make things definite — the presence or absence of footprints shows that somebody either did or didn’t pass that way. No grey areas. In “The Queen’s Square”, a short story from Sayers’s 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, they prove that a suspect did in fact go outside while the foxtrot was being danced at a new year’s eve party, just like he said he did. In Groaning S pinney, a 1950 Christmas set mystery by Gladys Mitchell, there is a rare example of contradictory footprint evidence, though. Some are seen leading into a wood where a body is found, but then more falling snow obliterates them so that the sleuth must remember what they looked like. Mysterious long impressions suggest multiple people have been stepping in the same tracks, too, just to confuse the picture further. This book has been republished recently with a new title, obviously aimed at the Christmas whodunnit market, so you will now find it in a new edition as “Murder in the Snow”, just to further emphasise its importance to the plot.

The reality of Christmas weather conditions in rural England where many of these stories take place never really troubled these writers greatly — we’re actually statistically relatively unlikely to have heavy snow at Christmas here, it being more common for it to fall in January or February. But then when has meteorology or indeed any practicality been allowed to trouble a good mystery plot? The Case of the Abominable Snowman by Nicholas Blake features a corpse hidden inside a snowman, for goodness sake, and I don’t think Blake worried unduly about exactly how one would go about constructing such an edifice or how long it would take.

A fondness for experimenting with snow is by no means confined to authors from the 1920s or 30s, either. The recent popularity of Scandinavian crime writing is testament to how much readers love a wintry landscape as the backdrop for a detective story. Notable modern examples include Anne Holt’s 1222, about a stranded train and a snowbound Norwegian hotel, The Snowman by Jo Nesbo of course, and Whiteout by the Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson. But there is still that particular pleasure in sitting down on a winter’s evening with a book from nearly a century ago, and reading about how the snow closed in while a murderer was on the loose. What could be more festive than that?

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/letitsnow. There, you can also read a full transcript.
That’s it from me in 2019 — thank you so much to everyone who has listened and reviewed and generally made this podcast a pleasure to run. I’m taking a break over Christmas and New Year, but I’ll be back on 8 January with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Victorian Pioneers.

27. Competent Women Transcript

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

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Caroline: Detective novelists have always been loyal to their sleuths. Some, like Gladys Mitchell, created a character and devotedly returned to them again and again. Other authors, like Dorothy L. Sayers, had a main detective character — in her case, Lord Peter Wimsey — but also worked with at least one other secondary sleuth who appeared more infrequently (like my beloved Montague Egg).

In both scenarios, both writer and reader could enjoy the comfort of returning to a familiar detective in book after book. The characters could develop across multiple stories, maturing through their lives and giving fans a reason to pick up the book beyond just the pleasure of a new puzzle. Never forget how angry everyone got when Arthur Conan Doyle decided that he was fed up of writing about Sherlock Holmes and threw him over a cliff. Readers like what they know.

There are times, though, when a writer might conceive of a character who fits perfectly in one plot, but who can’t reasonably be inserted into other situations. They’re more unusual, these one-off detectives, but there is an author who created them fairly regularly, even though she’s best known for her recurring characters.

Today, we’re going to meet Agatha Christie’s competent women.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It is in Agatha Christie’s second published novel, The Secret Adversary from 1922, that we get our first glimpse of a competent woman. Miss Prudence Cowley has spent the First World War in a blizzard of activity, serving successively as a hospital kitchen skivvy, a ward maid, a military driver and a worker in a government office. “I had intended to become a land girl, a postwoman, and a bus conductress by way of rounding off my career—but the Armistice intervened,” she says in the first chapter. Despite the circumstances, she has enjoyed herself immensely. Unfortunately, the end of the war has brought waves of returning soldiers requiring their jobs back, making even the most efficient of young women surplus to requirements again. Only an healthy fear of having to return to the vicarage where she grew up — where skirts must be worn long, cigarettes are banned, and there is plenty of unpaid drudgery awaiting her — has enabled her to survive in London on no income.

This character, who is also known Tuppence Beresford, does recur in three more novels and a short story collection spread out across Agatha Christie’s long career, so she isn’t completely the type that we’re seeking. Yet seen in this first appearance alone, she is an excellent blueprint for the one off competent women characters that are peppered through the rest of Christie’s fiction. Tuppence is bursting with energy and talent, but circumstances aren’t allowing her to exercise her abilities. She’s completely broke too, and is thus readily talked into pursuing amateur detective work as a means of seeking her fortune. This is vital: these characters usually need some kind of seismic life change or moment of adversity to impel them to turn their talents towards mystery-solving. A desire for adventure, which Tuppence also has in spades, is a common attribute too. These competent women want more than the domestic toil or humdrum conventionality that seem to be their lot. Together with that comes a certain desperation, combined with fearlessness. Tuppence would risk pretty much anything to avoid becoming a spinster skivvy back at her parents’ vicarage.

The moment when all of these factors come together — i.e., when Tuppence turns to her childhood friend in a crowded teashop and says “Tommy, let’s be adventurers!” — isn’t just an exciting evolution of a character. It’s also the kickstart to a plot, and I think perhaps the reason why most of Christie’s competent women were one-book wonders. Even Tuppence ages substantially between each of her appearances in fiction, because I think it’s too implausible even for a 1920s detective author to pull off this kind of trick book after book. Besides, I think a big part of the appeal of these characters for Christie was how ephemeral they were. They were free of the pesky details that plagued her with her recurring sleuths — I mean, how old is Hercule Poirot by the end? 120? I think these one off women have a lot of the attraction of Mary Poppins about them. They turn up, have and adventure, sort everything out, and then disappear over the horizon at the end of the story.

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Christie’s first full-blown competent woman, by my definition, is Anne Bedingfield from 1924’s The Man in the Brown Suit. She is the central protagonist and also the main narrator of a story that is as much a thriller as it is a detective story, really — if it weren’t for Anne’s constant efforts to uncover the truth behind the mad adventures she is having, we might not think of this book as a whodunnit at all. She starts out with a dreary, domestic life, as a kind of housekeeper slash secretary slash general factotum for her father, who is “one of England’s greatest living authority on Primitive Man” but apparently cannot do things like remember to pay the grocer or type his own manuscripts. Anne runs her father’s life with ease, but is very bored with her lot in life. She says early on: “I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility.” Having already met Tuppence, I’m sure you can see how Anne is a competent woman with an adventurous spirit and an inquiring mind constructed along the same lines.

After her father dies, Anne is liberated from housekeeping and also inherits an amount of money that her solicitor thinks is completely insufficient for a woman to live on, but which Anne is excited by because it’s the most she’s ever had. This is the spur that begins the plot: Anne goes to London and at the end of the platform at Hyde Park Corner tube station, she sees a man fall to his death, apparently after recognising someone behind him. She follows the doctor who examined the body out of the station and picks up a piece of paper he dropped, which seems to be in some sort of code. Her suspicions about this death send her on a madcap journey to South Africa and then Zimbabwe, during which she gets almost killed several times before eventually unmasking the villain.

At the end of chapter two, Anne permits herself a moment of self mockery, imagining what title a sensationalist newspaper would give her account of these events. “Anna the Adventuress,” would be sufficiently silly, she decides, before declaring that “girls are foolish things”. Much to Agatha Christie’s own amusement, when the London Evening News serialised the novel, they changed the title to “Anna the Adventuress”, seemingly completely missing the element of irony with which Anne utters that phrase. But given that the paper was paying £500 for the rights, which according to the National Archives currency convertor would be about £20,000 in today’s money, Christie didn’t make a fuss. In fact, she bought her first car with the money and rejoiced over the independence it gave her.

It’s Anne Bedingfield’s competence that stops this novel from descending completely into farce — although she does walk into her fair share of traps, it’s always her quick thinking and sensible attitude that gets her out of them again. Much of her adventures are based on the world tour that Agatha Christie undertook with her then husband Archie in 1922 (she, like Anne, bought too many souvenirs including an unwieldy giraffe). It’s easy to imagine that there’s an element of wish fulfilment in Anne Bedingfield’s character. She has no family, no domestic ties, and no husband who spends too much time playing golf. She can travel the world and give her talents free rein.

After the break: the stakes get higher for the competent women.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the show where I tell you about one of the ways you can support the podcast. Today, I have a very exciting announcement — there is now Shedunnit merch! Two hundred shiny Shedunnit pin badges are currently winging their way to me, and I’m now taking pre-orders for them. If you want one for yourself or to give as a gift, head to shedunnitshow.com/shop to see the design and place your order now, and I’ll post them out as soon as they arrive with me. There is also a limited number of Christmas-themed Shedunnit gift bundles on sale there too — each one includes a pin badge as well as a festive detective novel and some other goodies. Finally, if you’re in the mood for holiday shopping, you can also gift a membership of the Shedunnit book club — head to https://shedunnitbookclub.com/gift to do that. And as is traditional on the internet at this time of year, there is a discount code that will make all of this a bit cheaper for you. Listen right to the end of the episode to find out what it is.

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For Emily Trefusis, the competent woman at the heart of Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel The Sittaford Mystery, what tips her over into the risky occupation of sleuthing is rather more than just a desire for adventure. We meet her at the point in the story when her fiance is being detained by the police as a very likely suspect in his uncle’s murder. Emily reassures him as he is taken away that he can leave it all to her, and proceeds to turn detective in order to prove that her Jim couldn’t have done the crime. Because Emily isn’t the narrator of the story, we get another character’s description of her when she first enters. Inspector Narracott gives a very able summary of her as a competent woman. She was, he says “a very exceptional kind of young woman. She was not strikingly beautiful, but she had a face which was arresting and unusual, a face that having once seen you could not forget. There was about her an atmosphere of common sense, savoir-faire, invincible determination and a most tantalizing fascination”.

Chapter 11 of The Sittaford Mystery is called “Emily Sets To Work”, but that could really be the title of the whole book. She travels to the scene of the crime, recruits a journalist as a sidekick, interviews witnesses, checks alibis and generally bustles about trying to find out who the murderer is, having reasoned that uncovering the real culprit is the best way of getting her fiance off the hook. In the politest, most appropriate way, she won’t take no for an answer. As her assistant Mr Enderby observes: “Emily had the kind of personality that soars triumphantly over all obstacles.”

Emily is a very satisfying character to read. I think of her as the embodiment of how all readers want to feel during a whodunnit — she’s clearly smart and very capable, but even she doesn’t tumble to the solution of the mystery until near the end of the book. There’s also a decent amount of graft involved in her deductions. She goes places and speaks to people and thinks hard. The right answer doesn’t just come to her out of nowhere.

As with Tuppence and Anne before her, there is a romantic element to the way Emily’s character operates in the novel. Of course, she’s motivated to get involved in the case at all because of her fiancé, but then the sidekick she recruits also seems to develop feelings for her, so she has to maintain the delicate balance of keeping him onside but also not doing anything she might regret later, which adds interest to her exploits for the reader. I think the constant presence of at least one love interest is another reason why so few of these competent women get a second outing — Christie does like to marry them off where she possibly can. Of course, Tuppence is the exception, because her husband then appears in the subsequent stories alongside her. Much to my regret, we never hear any more of Emily Trefusis after she solves The Sittaford Mystery. But her forthright intelligence and practical acumen place her firmly among a distinguished lineage of such women — a character who leaves us wanting more.

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Before I get onto the last of the trio of competent women that I wanted to talk about in detail today, let’s take a moment to consider the honourable mentions — competent women who certainly belong in this category, but who for a variety of reasons have never quite made it to the front rank in my mind. There’s Bundle Brent from The Secret of Chimneys, who gets a Tuppence-like recurrence in The Seven Dials Mystery. Katharine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train has the potential to conduct the investigation herself, in the manner of Emily Trefusis, but is somewhat stymied by the fact that Christie also put Poirot in this book and he dominates the whole affair. There’s also Lady Frances Derwent in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, who I like a lot but is really part of a sleuthing double act with Bobby Jones.

Those books are all from the 1920s and 30s, but there are two instances of competent women from much later on in Christie’s career — Victoria Jones in 1951’s They Came to Baghdad and Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 1957’s 4.50 From Paddington. The former is one of the weaker novels, in my opinion, but the latter is an absolute triumph to my mind. In fact, I like it so much that during the Q&A after my live show in Dublin last week, a listener expressed surprise that I didn’t name it as my favourite ever detective novel (it is up there, for sure, but that particular night I was feeling more inclined towards Strong Poison, in case you are curious).

Although Lucy Eyelesbarrow has a lot to do with why this book works as well as it does, there are two other elements that make it stand out too. One is the sheer originality of Christie’s murder setup — as indicated by the title, someone travelling on that particular train witnesses a murder during the few seconds that her carriage is running alongside a train on a different line, but is then powerless to investigate further as the two tracks diverge. The second factor is something that Christie and other novelists used many times, but which never fails to provide interesting complicating elements to a plot — the large dysfunctional family warped by a matter of inheritance.

The witness to the murder is Elizabeth McGillicuddy, and she is on her way to visit Miss Marple when she sees a woman being strangled on the other train. That lady immediately sees the possibilities of a train as a venue for a crime, as long as the body disposal had been planned beforehand, but regretfully is too old to go poking about on railway embankments herself. This is why, early on, she enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who she had got to know when her nephew hired her to look after Miss Marple’s house during a bout of illness.

Lucy is described as possessing “in addition to scholarly brilliance, a core of good sound common sense”. Despite having taken a First in Mathematics at Oxford, Christie says, Lucy prefers to work as a kind of freelance short-term domestic help, and has cultivated a stellar reputation for her services. She never wants for clients or for money, and can pick and choose her jobs as they interest her. I imagine her as a bit like a cross between Mary Poppins and Bobby from Queer Eye: she’ll turn up for a bit, teach you some lessons you’ll never forget, and then leave your house looking unrecognisably clean and organised. I don’t know whether such a job ever existed, but Lucy is certainly Christie’s imagined solution to the change in the social order after the Second World War, when domestic help was in short supply, people began to relocate much more readily, and the wealthy who ran stately homes were going bankrupt.

She might be nearly 30 years on from Emily Trefusis, but Lucy Eyelesbarrow has the same sense of adventure.

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She takes up that challenge with vim, and in between scouring scrubland for traces of a corpse, she scrubs and cooks her way into the heart of her new employers. There are lots of brilliant descriptions of the food she makes, from crispy Yorkshire puddings to an unfortunate yet delicious sounding curry, and I also very much enjoy her rationalisation for doing what she does. “Cooking satisfies my creative instincts, and there’s something in me that really revels in clearing up mess,” she says. She’s brainy and highly educated but also good at baking: one can’t help feeling that Christie, who never go to have much formal education at all and whose domestic life was far from conventional for her time, might be indulging in a bit of a personal fantasy.

Lucy is the ultimate competent woman. She tracks down murderers and feeds hungry schoolboys with equivalent aplomb. Best of all, she seems to enjoy herself. Indeed, this is what all of these characters have in common, along with their doughty personalities and their desire for adventure. After dozens of stories, there’s never much sense that a recurring sleuth like Poirot or Marple gets much of a thrill from what they do — they more often act out of necessity, because they’ve been employed, or because it feels like the moral thing to do. Lucy Eyelesbarrow, though, takes up detective work because it sounds like fun and proceeds to enjoy it to the full. Who wouldn’t want to do the same?

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/competentwomen. There, you can also read a full transcript.
If you’d like to be the first to know when the Shedunnit pin badges go on sale, make sure you’re following the show on social media — it’s @shedunnitshow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I’ll be back on 11 December with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Let It Snow.

26. Notable Trials Transcript

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

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Caroline: Towards the end of Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1930 novel Strong Poison, her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is feeling stumped. He’s tackled a tricky poisoning case with all the verve and enthusiasm that readers of the previous four Wimsey books had come to expect. He’s dashed about London, planting spies in crucial locations and chivvying Scotland Yard into tracking down the most obscure clues. But it’s not until he sits down at home in his flat in Piccadilly among his books that the crucial breakthrough comes.

I’m not going to tell you what his great revelation is — you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out — but it is interesting that Sayers is so specific about which books Wimsey has pulled from his shelves to help him crack this case. She tells us: “Strewn on tables and chairs lay the bright scarlet volumes of the Notable British Trials—Palmer, Pritchard, Maybrick, Seddon, Armstrong, Madeleine Smith—the great practitioners in arsenic”.

The rest of the story might be fictional, but these red books of Wimsey’s are real. The author has given her detective a tool that contemporary readers might well have recognised — volumes from a popular series of edited case reports from actual court proceedings, a kind of true crime recap that represents a crucial link between the fictional world of the detective story and the reality of famous murder cases.

Today, we’re delving into the Notable British Trials.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to learn about the background to this fascinating and widely-read series of legal histories, and look into how these books helped to shape the narratives around crime that end up in our favourite detective novels.

Before we get started though, I want to remind you that my first ever live show is coming up very soon. I’m doing a joint show with Conor Reid from the Words To That Effect podcast, and we’re going to be trying to do a complete history of detective fiction from Edgar Allen Poe to Tana French in about 60 minutes, it’s going to be a wild ride. There are two dates when you can see this. If you’re listening to this episode on the day it comes out, then you can still catch me at the Dublin Podcast Festival on 15 November at 7pm, but if you miss that, there’s another chance to see the show at the PodUK convention in Birmingham on 1 February 2020. Full details and tickets for both dates are available at shedunnitshow.com/events, and if you are coming to either event, do tweet me on @shedunnitshow to let me know, because I’d like to arrange some kind of post show meet up if possible. Hope to see you there.

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To begin at the beginning, then. How did Wimsey’s “bright scarlet volumes” come into being, and how did they become so influential that even a fictional character had them on his shelves? To understand that, we’ve got to take a brief trip north of the border.

Victoria: The Notable Trials series was established by a Scottish publisher called William Hodge & Co. And actually, publishing was not their main line of business. The firm was originally set up to provide shorthand note takers for the courts in Scotland. And they then branched out into publishing as a sort of sideline, really. But the publishing is the thing that they’re most remembered for now. And they published various kinds of material, some related to legal matters, some relating to Scotland. So biographies of historical figures or travel books about Scotland. This kind of thing. But in 1905, they set up a series called Notable Scottish Trials. And the series did was it looked back to famous trials from Scottish history. So not recent trials, but 19th century and even earlier trials.

Caroline: This is Dr Victoria Stewart, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Leicester. She is particularly interested in the relationship between true crime narratives and detective fiction, and her 2017 book Crime Writing in Interwar Britain: Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age is the result of her work in this area.

Although trials are, then as now, generally open to the public, the creators of this series recognised that spending days on end in the public gallery was not necessarily a practical thing for everyone who might be interested in legal matters to do. Of course, there were plenty of newspaper reports of sensational cases, but it was harder to access the full facts of what occurred in court. The books were therefore put together with this in mind.

Victoria:  What you got in each volume was an edited transcript of the trial where that existed, and sometimes they had to patch together different kinds of sources to produce that narrative. And each volume also included an introduction which would explain why this was a notable trial, what the key points of legal interest might be. Now, those introductions were sometimes written by people who were lawyers who had legal qualifications and they were aimed at quite a wide audience. The hope for this series was that they would be of interest to the general public, so it was an alternative to give people a sense of how the justice system worked, really.

Caroline: The series was popular, and in 1915 it was expanded to include trials from England as well and was renamed just “Notable Trials”. As well as looking back to key cases from history, it began to cover recent cases that readers would have been familiar with from news reports.

Victoria: In the 1920s and 30s, that’s when the series was really at its height. So at that period, what they were doing was partly continuing to publish historical cases. And in fact, some of the cases that had first appeared as Scottish trials were republished actually given fresh new introductions and appeared under the notable trials series. But they also started covering very contemporary trials and in some cases, a volume might be appearing 18 months or two years after the actual trial.

Caroline: That period in the 1920s and 30s, of course, is what we refer to as the golden age of detective fiction and it’s when major novelists from the genre like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and so on were beginning to publish their best-known works. Given the public interest in reading about fictional crimes, it follows that a non fiction series with similar subject matter would also find an eager audience.

By this time, it was James Hodge, grandson of the original Hodge that started the company publishing Notable Trials, who was editing the trial transcripts and commissioning the introductions for new volumes. He started to look beyond the legal profession, deliberately crossing the boundary between those who dealt with murder only in fact, and those who worked with it in fiction, too.

Victoria: And what happens when the series expands is that the pool of people providing introductions expands. So more general authors and writers who have an interest in crime and criminology start to be brought in to provide introductions. So one person in particular who does this, who I’d mention has quite a long standing association with the series, is F. Tennyson Jesse. And if she’s remembered at all these days, it’s probably for her novel A Pin To See The Peep Show, which was published in 1934 and itself draws on elements of the Bywaters and Thompson case from the 1920s.

Caroline: I talked about that case in detail back in episode 7 of this podcast, titled “Edith Thompson”, if you’re interested to learn more about that sensational murder trial and the way F Tennyson Jesse imported aspects of it into her fiction. Tennyson Jesse — who by the way was a great nice of the nineteenth century poet laureate Alfred Tennyson — had worked as a war reporter during the First World War and lived, according to her biographer Joanna Colenbrander, a sometimes bizarre and itinerant life. Her husband had a very complicated personal life of his own, and for the first three years of their marriage they lived as if they were having an affair rather than husband and wife, sneaking around hotels in disguises. But despite all of her personal turmoil (and there was a lot, I recommend reading a biography of her) Tennyson Jesse produced crisp, original introductions for the Notable Trials series.

Victoria: She wrote introductions for half a dozen volumes from the 1920s right through until the late 1950s. The first one she did was actually to provide a new introduction to the volume on Madeline Smith. And the Madeline Smith case was a very high profile case that had taken place in Scotland in the mid late 19th century. And this was a case where a young woman had been accused of poisoning a man who turned out to be her lover. And this was very scandalous because she was from respectable family and she was put on trial. And the verdict that came back was the Scottish verdict of not proven, which essentially means we think you probably did it, but we don’t have enough evidence to say so beyond reasonable doubt. So it’s a verdict that leaves a shadow cast really over the defendant. And F Tennyson Jesse’s angle on this trial in the late 1920s is rather different from the angle when the volume first appears in 1905. And she’s quite interesting about what it might reveal about women’s positions in the Victorian period and how things have changed or not since then.

Caroline: Another important indication of how popular the Notable Trials series was came in the 1940s, when Hodge & Co did a deal with Penguin to produce anthologies of the case introductions that could be sold cheaply for the mass market.

Victoria: Now, Penguin had been founded in 1935 and from the outset had had a very strong crime list, mainly focusing on detective fiction. But they also published non-fiction books about crime as well, things like retired detectives’ memoirs, that kind of material. And quite early on in 1937-38, Hodge and Penguin start negotiating about Penguin maybe doing some kind of series of the trials, because up until this point, these were quite expensive books to buy and you’d be more likely to borrow them from a library, really. 1941, the first one appears and these are omnibus volumes. Each one contains four or five of the introductions from the Notable Trials volumes. So what you get is the little the familiar Penguin paperback and it has four or five essays. And for each one, they tend to choose a range of cases that there might be some historical ones and then some more recent ones and they produced in the end. In total, there were ten of those. And certainly when I first read them, I didn’t realise that each of those essays had originally been attached. To an actual trial transcripts. They didn’t have to do an awful lot of editing to make them readable as standalone essays. And there were a really interesting glimpse of what people at the period felt were notable criminal cases.

Caroline: Although the Notable Trials books were intended to be an objective account of a court case, there was a strong element in subjective curation in the way subjects were chosen. What made a trial “notable”, after all?

Victoria: One thing that Hodge was really, really keen on was to make sure that the cases that were chosen had some particular interest as trials, that there was some legal peculiarity about it. He didn’t just want to choose cases that had made the headlines because they were scandalous. So, again, his educative approach was very much the fore.

Caroline: The Notable Trials books, then, were intended to educate and inform readers, not entertain them — there were breathless, grisly newspaper reports for that. But how widely read were these somewhat dry count transcripts, really?

Victoria: It’s always very difficult to try to establish what the readership was for books in the past. And so you have to go about it in a slightly roundabout way. So my sense of how widely read these books were is really gleaned from when people mention them in other books or looking at things like how prominent the advertisements are for them in literary journals from the period, that sort of thing. So trying to deduce how well-known and how widely read these books were using that material is obviously not scientific way of going about things. But for instance, I’ve certainly seen it mentioned in memoirs of lawyers that they’ve had a whole set of them in their offices, for instance. So they do seem to have got a legal readership.  But I suppose another example that I turn to is fiction.

Caroline: In one instance, a detective novelist was actually writing a fictional version of one real life case alongside an essay about another one for a Notable Trials volume.

Victoria: So around the time that F Tennyson Jesse was writing A Pin To See The Peep Show, the novel that draws on the Bywaters and Thompson case, she was also writing the introduction to the volume on Alma Rattenbury. So Rattenbury and Stoner, which is another case involving the murder of a husband and an affair and the Rattenbury and Stoner case caused a certain amount of scandal because of the age gap between Rattenbury and her lover. And Jesse is actually relatively sympathetic towards her and certainly the way that she was treated by the press. The fact that Rattenbury actually took her own life at the year after the sorry Jesse shows a certain amount of sympathy towards how Alma Rattenbury was treated by the press, really. And you can’t help thinking that while she was working on that case and she was also thinking about the Bywaters and Thompson case, there are some similarities there, and particularly to do with attitudes towards marriage, attitudes towards adultery, and particularly towards the women in those cases being demonized to an extent, especially by the popular press.

Caroline: The Rattenbury case from 1935 was of great interest to another detective novelist too. In The Anatomy of Murder, a collection of non-fiction essays about real life crimes written by members of the Detection Club and published in 1936, Anthony Berkeley under his pseudonym Francis Iles writes about this case too. The relationship between adultery and murder was a theme that Berkeley came back to many times in his fiction, such as in 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case and the 1931 Francis Iles novel Malice Aforethought.

In her book, Victoria posits the existence of what she calls a “shared canon of ‘classic’ crimes”, which the Notable Trials books helped to fix in the public mindset, and with which writers like Berkeley, Sayers, Tennyson Jesse and others were in dialogue, in both their fiction and their non fiction writing. Others made this connection too: in his 1946 essay “Decline of English Murder”, George Orwell identifies what he calls “our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period”, referring to the years between 1850 and 1925. The famous crimes from this time are the “murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels”, he says, making explicit that connection between accounts of real events and crime fiction. Orwell is partially writing about sensationalist newspaper coverage here, but he does also refer to “verbatim” accounts of trials too — it’s clear that text like the Notable Trials books have contributed to the creation of these “famous murders”.

As we’ve already seen with Peter Wimsey reaching for a volume from the series to help him solve a case, these books were thought to be well enough known by the general public to merit casual inclusion in detective fiction. As well as in Sayers, there’s a reference to them in Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera from 1934, when a victim is described by a colleague as “just the sort of woman you read about in the ‘Great Trials’ series – you know – morbid and quiet, with all sorts of repressions and complexes”. In other words, she was the type of woman who would get herself murdered in a way that will attract a lot of attention, some of it of an unwholesome nature. And the Great or Notable Trials rubric provides an excellent shorthand for that.

The best illustration of Victoria’s thesis, though, is in undoubtedly in Sayers’s Strong Poison. There’s an added layer of connection there, since Harriet Vane — the woman accused of poisoning her former lover — is a detective novelist herself. A large part of the case against her is that she admits to purchasing arsenic, the poison used in the murder. She says she bought it in order to test how easy it is to acquire such a substance as part of the research for a new novel. She also freely admits to having accounts of famous poisonings on her bookshelves, also as research material for her writing, she says. As a defendant in the dock, she becomes the subject of much media attention, a lot of it negative. As Mitchell’s character says, perhaps Vane is also “the sort of woman you read about in the Great Trials series’ — she seems to have all the potential to be the tragic star of a famous murder case that will be committed to paper and bound in that distinctive red livery, and it will be all the more shocking because of the fictional frisson of her chosen defence.

It’s therefore all the more apt that Wimsey uses accounts of real-life cases, in the form of his Notable Trials books, to crack the invented mystery that Sayers has concocted for him. Fact and fiction meld together, until it’s difficult to say whether it’s art imitating life or the other way around.

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

Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to one of the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Dublin or Birmingham. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events.

I’ll be back on 27 November with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Competent Women.