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7. Edith Thompson Transcript

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

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

Caroline: On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Just before nine am her gaolers injected her with a sedative, and then offered her brandy as well to calm her nerves. It still took four people to drag her out to the brick shed where her end awaited.

She was strapped into a bosun’s chair. A white hood was put over her head and a noose around her neck. She was barely conscious when, at the stroke of nine, the trapdoor opened and she fell to her death. At the exact same time in a different prison a mile away, the man she loved fell also. She was buried in the prison grounds, and for decades her family begged in vain to be told where her grave was located.

Hers had been a life of passion and fantasy, a whirlwind of imagination she created to escape a humdrum suburban existence. Her lover always maintained that the murder they were hanged for was his idea alone, but she was convicted by a jury immersed in the strict moral code of a bygone era that saw her frankness, love of romance and enjoyment of sex as proof of guilt enough. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, EM Delafield, Dorothy L Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It’s not hard to see why the life and death of Edith Thompson proved so captivating for crime writers and the general public alike. It reads like a ready-made morality tale, or an inverted fairy story, in which the heroine finds her prince only for her happily ever after to turn into a nightmare that ends in the hangman’s noose. It caused a sensation while it was happening in 1922, and it has continued to fascinate people ever since. The events themselves — what we would call the plot, if this was a novel rather than a horrifyingly true story — are shocking enough, but it is really the characters and backgrounds of the people involved that makes this tale so compelling. And to really understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning.

Edith Graydon was born on Christmas Day in 1893 in east London. She was the eldest of five children of prosperous lower middle class parents — her father William was a clerk and her mother Ethel a housewife whose father was a policeman. William also had a part time job as a dancing teacher, and his daughter grew up to love performing. She left school at the age of 15 in 1909 and worked in the fashion industry, doing well at a London millinery firm. She was promoted several times until she became their chief buyer, and travelled twice to Paris for work. Before the idea of the “flapper” had really taken hold in the British psyche, Edith exhibited lots of the traits associated with that 1920s stereotype: she was a hard working career woman, she loved to have fun, she put off having children, she had bobbed hair, she spoke French — the list goes on.

In 1909, Edith also met Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk three years her senior. They were engaged for six years, eventually getting married in 1916 when Edith was 21. She kept working, and the pair initially lived in Southend before buying a house in the outer east London borough of Ilford. The Thompsons lived what appeared to be a happy, comfortable married life, but judging by what happened next, it would seem that Edith was bored or even depressed at her newly suburban, grown up existence.

The fateful meeting that would set Edith on the course to that bosun’s chair happened in 1920, when she reconnected with a young man she had first met nine years before, when he took dancing lessons from her father. Frederick Bywaters was now an 18 year old ship’s laundry steward who was handsome and full of stories about all his travels at sea. He was already friendly with Edith’s younger sister Avis, and it seems that Percy liked him at first too, because all four of them went on holiday together that summer to the Isle of Wight. Afterwards, Percy suggested that Frederick lodge with the Thompsons in Ilford on the rare occasions that he got leave from his ship, and Bywaters accepted.

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What happened next feels inevitable now, looking back at this story with the advantage of hindsight, but I’m sure as Edith was living it, she felt like every glance from Frederick held a new and fascinating potential to save her from her humdrum existence. Not long after returning from the summer holiday, she and Frederick began an affair, conducted under her husband’s nose at the house in Ilford. Of course, Percy found out. In the ensuing argument, Frederick demanded that her husband allow Edith a divorce so the lovers could be together, but Percy just raged and banished him from the house. Afterwards, Edith said later, Percy became violent — hitting her several times and throwing her across the room. Frederick went to sea again for his job in September 1921 and remained away for a whole year. It’s not hard to imagine the despair that Edith faced while he was away, her boring suburban life rendered even worse by the deteriorating state of her marriage.

The really remarkable part of this story, and ironically the thing that probably influenced the jury at Edith’s trial most, is what she did during the year that Frederick was away at sea. She wrote and sent him more than 60 long love letters — that’s at least one a week for a year — that were informed by her love of literary and romantic fiction. There was over 50,000 words altogether, including details about Edith’s life, her feelings, her memories and her reading habits.

In September 1922, Frederick returned to London on leave, and he and Edith reconnected. On 3 October, Edith and her husband were walking home from Ilford station late at night after going to the theatre in central London when a man jumped out from behind some bushes by the road and attacked Percy with a knife. The attacker ran away and her husband died before help arrived. Later, neighbours reported hearing a woman screaming “no, don’t!” repeatedly at the time of the attack.

When the police arrived, Edith identified the attacker as Frederick Bywaters and explained his connection to herself and her husband. I can only assume that she was confident at this point that she was considered to be just a witness to the crime, otherwise it seems like a strangely helpful way for a murder suspect to behave. It was only after detectives investigated Bywaters and found all of Edith’s letters that he had kept that she was drawn into the investigation.

The letters, you see, contained references to certain thrillers that Edith had read, including one called Bella Donna by Robert Hichens, in which a wife poisons her husband. As well as declaring her passionate love for Frederick, these missives also hinted at her desire that he should replace Percy as her husband, possibly using violent means if necessary. At one point, she claimed to Frederick that she had tried murdering Percy by putting ground up glass in his mashed potato. She also made reference to a young woman who had lost three husbands, while she, Edith, “can’t even lose one”. This was enough, apparently, for the police to invoke the law of “common purpose”, under which all those who plan a murder share criminal liability for it, even if only one physically carried out the attack. The letters, with their inclusion of husband-murder tropes, hinted at Edith’s complicity in the attack, the police felt. Both Frederick and Edith were arrested and charged with Percy’s murder.

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Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were tried together at the Old Bailey in London. The proceedings opened on 6 December 1922. They both had famous lawyers defending them — Edith’s barrister Henry Curtis-Bennett had earlier that year appeared for the arsenic poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong and Bywaters’ lawyer Cecil Whiteley had in 1915 defended the ‘brides in the bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith. There was a media frenzy surrounding the case already, with papers all over the country running breathless stories about “The Ilford Murder” and the attractive young lovers in the dock.

The trial only lasted a few days, because Frederick made it all quite straightforward. He had cooperated fully with the police, even showing them where the knife he had used to stab Percy was hidden. He insisted throughout that he had acted completely alone and without Edith’s knowledge, and that she was completely innocent of the crime. He said that his own intention had not been to murder Percy, but to confront him and frighten him into agreeing to release Edith from their marriage. Frederick explained that he had lost his temper when Percy had seemed to find the idea funny, and that’s when things turned violent.

The case against Edith looked like it would easily collapse. There being no material evidence linking her to the planning of the crime beyond the vague suggestions in her letters to Frederick, and her lawyer felt sure that he could argue those represented merely an infatuated woman’s fantasies rather than any concrete intention to act or cause harm. Percy’s body was exhumed and Home Office pathologists (including Bernard Spillsbury, who we met in episode two during the trial of Dr Crippen) could find no evidence that he had been fed glass or poison as the letters suggested. This gave weight to the idea that what she had written in the letters was really just the result of Edith’s imagination running wild, and could therefore be discounted in court.

So how did it go so wrong for Edith Thompson? Afterwards, her lawyer put her conviction down to the fact that she had insisted on giving evidence in her own defence. Her biographer, Rene Weis, writes that she was convinced that if she spoke, she could convince the jury that her relationship with Frederick was no sordid suburban affair but rather a grand romantic passion. She had been mortified by hearing her love letters read out tonelessly in court and seen her parents humiliated and in tears, Weis writes. She felt that she could “set the record straight” and as well as securing her own release, she thought she might be able to convince the judge not to sentence Frederick to death.

Unfortunately, her appearance seems to have had the opposite effect. She contradicted herself on the witness stand and appeared alternately melodramatic and self pitying. When asked about what she had been thinking when she wrote some specific passages in the letters, she said she couldn’t remember. The judge, Sir Montague Shearman, particularly seemed inclined against her, since he began the part of his summing up that referred to her without even using her name. “As for the woman,” he declared, disapprovingly, before going on to remind the jury of their duty to deliver a verdict only based on the evidence presented in the case.

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The guilty verdict was delivered on 11 December. Both Edith and Frederick were sentenced to death by hanging. To the salacious delight of the newspaper reporters in the press gallery, Edith collapsed in hysterics at the news, while Frederick shouted loudly about her innocence. Since he was nine years younger than her, commentators enjoyed portraying him as an innocent youth led astray by a manipulative older woman. He was a mere “romantic, chivalrous boy”, one wrote.

Of course, this could have been what happened. If Edith Thompson was indeed manipulative enough to have pushed Frederick Bywaters’ buttons until he stabbed her husband to death, it is possible that she could also have put on her extraordinary, contradictory courtroom performance because she thought it would muddy the waters and get him a lighter sentence. It seems less likely, though, than the theory that Rene Weis and others have put forward — Edith was just a sentimental, flighty young woman who completely lost her head when her romantic lover took things too far.

A big part of her miscalculation was in how the public, and crucially the jury, would respond to her letters. It’s possible, of course, that Edith thought Frederick would destroy them so they could never be read by anyone anyway. There was a heavy vein of sexism in the way the case against her was built, because the prosecution argued that her love of romantic, fanciful books led her to indulge in lethal fantasies that eventually led to action.

There were still ideas around in the 1920s about the harmful effect of romantic or sentimental fiction on women — it lingered for a long time, because it’s the same trope that Jane Austen was making fun of when she wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803. Frederick did say during the trial that Edith liked to “read a book and imagine herself as the character in the book”, not thinking that the jury would take that as an indication that she actually wanted to act out the role of murderess in the thrillers that she had enjoyed reading.

Edith’s biographer Rene Weis has also hinted at a theme I discussed in the first episode of this podcast as an explanation for why she was convicted without any substantial evidence against her. In 1922, Britain was still gripped by the idea, compounded by the figures released for the 1921 census, that the country contained over a million more women than men after all of the male casualties in the first world war. As I showed in that episode, this isn’t strictly correct in demographic terms, but this idea of the “surplus women” as disposable and unwanted was a powerful force regardless. To social conservatives at the time, Edith Thompson was not a “womanly woman” — she worked, she danced, she had been married for six years without having a child so presumably used contraception, and she wrote in her letters to Bywaters about enjoying sex and having an abortion.

If guilty, she had also brought about the needless deaths of two men. Seen in this light, it’s no wonder she was sentenced to death. Her lawyers did appeal, but unsuccessfully. There was even a public petition to stop the execution of Edith and Frederick with over a million signatures, but that was rejected too. Less than a month over her conviction, Edith Thompson was dragged into that shed at Holloway Prison and hanged. As well as being almost unconscious when it happened, she bled a lot — eyewitnesses says it looked like her “insides fell out”. Subsequent commentators, including Weis, have interpreted this as a miscarriage, suggesting that it was possible that Edith was pregnant. If so, she should never have been hanged — the law forbade it. Even if not, it was rare for a woman to be hanged at all — Edith was the first in 16 years.

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The influence of the case on the crime writers of the day was profound and long lived — the real events were so dramatic and improbable that the could not help but capture the imaginations of those who made this stuff up for a living. Martin Edwards documents many of their reactions in his book The Golden Age of Murder, so I recommend seeking that out if you’re interested in learning more. The first novel to appear based on the so-called “Ilford Murder” came out just a year after Thompson’s execution: Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield. You might know her as the author of the semi-autobiographical The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but she was also a novelist and close friend of the Golden Age detective writer Anthony Berkeley. He also dwelt on the idea of a wife inciting a lover to murder her husband a few times in different books, most overtly in 1939’s As for the Woman. In 1937 the authors who made up the famous Detection Club (which we’ll be learning more about in a future episode, by the way) published a book of true crime essays titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which Berkeley wrote about Edith Thompson. Unhappily married and prone to outside passions himself, he felt strongly that she was “executed for adultery” rather than for an actual crime.

One of the most interesting novels to be influenced by the case was The Documents in the Case, a 1930 collaboration between Dorothy L. Sayers and the scientist Robert Eustace. The whole story is told through letters and documents relevant to the case, so the reader feels as if they are playing the role of detective themselves. It too features a young wife (“a sort of suburban vamp”, they call her) who starts an affair with the lodger and is therefore ambiguously implicated in her lover’s later actions. It’s perhaps not as pacy as a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is a bit too wrapped up in the ingenious technicalities of the murder method rather than having properly compelling characters, but it’s an interesting take on the relationship dynamics nonetheless.

The actor Frank Vosper, who would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and die in suspicious circumstances in 1937, wrote a play about Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters called People Like Us. It opened in London in 1929, but was swiftly banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its supposedly racy content, and then remained unperformed until 1948. This play is in turn referenced in Agatha Christie‘s 1949 novel Crooked House, when an actress says suggests that a murder in the family is the ideal time to put on the “Edith Thompson play”, and that “there’s quite a lot of comedy to be got out of Edith Thompson – I don’t think the author realised that”. Exactly what Agatha Christie thought might be funny about this case is sadly not recorded.

Alfred Hitchcock was actually closely connected to the case, since he had been a pupil at Edith’s father’s dancing school and remained friends with her younger sister Avis. He apparently considered making a film about Edith’s demise a number of times, but never actually did. However, there are traces of the case in his 1950 film Stage Fright, and in the 1941 film Suspicion, which stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, ground glass is used as a murder weapon. Incidentally, this film is actually based on Anthony Berkeley’s 1932 novel Before the Fact.

Novelists and film makers are still finding inspiration in the case and the works it spawned today. As well as the 2001 film Another Life, the writer Sarah Waters has written about how it was Fryn Tennyson Jesse’s 1934 novel about Edith Thompson A Pin to See the Peepshow that first gave her the idea for the setting of her 2014 bestseller The Paying Guests. All of the Thompson-inspired novels give “a vision of a suburbia filled with seedy clerks and sulky housewives”, she has said, which seemed to her still an idea setting for a thrilling story of murder.

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In November 2018, Edith Thompson’s body was lifted out the mass grave in Brookwood Cemetery where it had been buried when Holloway Prison was rebuilt in 1971. After the Ministry of Justice finally allowed an exhumation, an ambulance took it to the City of London cemetery where it was laid in the same grave as her mother and father, just as her parents had always wanted.

She might be at rest at last, but the story of Edith Thompson lives on. It’s too extraordinary to be forgotten.

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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 articles that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompson. There, you can also read a full transcript.

I wish all my listeners a very happy new year, and thank you very much for sticking with the podcast into 2019. A few of you have been in touch to say that you discovered the show via Instagram, so I’m trying to be better at posting pictures related to the episodes there. Do come and take a look at instagram.com/shedunnitshow.

If you’d like to show your appreciation for the podcast, do tell your friends and family about it, or leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts because it helps the show be more visible to new listeners.

I’ll be back on 23 January with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.

6. Adaptations Transcript

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

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

Caroline: We think about murder mysteries as “page turners”. For lots of fans, the physical act of reading these books, of racing through the story and seeing the number of unread pages dwindling towards the solution is part of the joy. But for a great many people, their main contact with detective fiction — in particular the stories of Agatha Christie — is via film and television adaptations. For a huge global audience, Christie’s work is as often watched as it is read.

This is nothing new. The first film based on a Christie short story was “The Passing of Mr Quinn”, which appeared in 1928, and many more followed, throughout her life and afterwards. Interest in transforming Christie stories and novels for the screen is still as strong as ever. In the last few years, the BBC has produced a succession of new adaptations by the screenwriter Sarah Phelps, with a new one screened every Christmas. The national interest in these productions is so great that newspapers write stories about every aspect of them, and speculate endlessly as to what bits of the plot will remain the same and what will change.

Given the intense scrutiny and the vast existing canon, I decided to investigate this phenomenon further. What is it really like to adapt an Agatha Christie today?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Sarah Phelps is a British screenwriter with a long list of very well known credits — she has written dozens of episodes of the iconic soap Eastenders, and has adapted JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling for television. Adaptations are a bit of a speciality with her, with her versions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations broadcast by the BBC in 2007 and 2011. More recently, she’s become well known for her adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and short stories, starting with And Then There Were None, which aired in the UK over Christmas in 2015. That was followed by Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence, and for Christmas 2018 she has written a new version of Christie’s 1936 Point novel The ABC Murders.

Her process, she says, is all centred around the novel or story she is adapting.

Sarah: Oh I read the novel. I read the novel or the short story and I sort of go away and think about it a bit. So I tend to sort of at the moment because I’m filming something else, so my intent I’m working on something else at the same time. So over Christmas I’ll be doing a big read of the next one that we think the next or what next one is going to be and talk and we start talking in the new year.

Caroline: However, before she got the job of writing these adaptations, she wasn’t a big reader of Agatha Christie, and she’s deliberately not caught up on all the novels, because she wants to approach each story she is adapting as freshly as possible.

Sarah: So I because I came to this with very unfamiliar with Agatha Christie because I want to remain shocked and surprised by her I’ve decided to kind of limit my reading as it were so I can be really surprised so I don’t have a background of there’s this trope there or that happened somewhere else or because over the course of writing career of over 50 years you’re going to get things that are reiterations and I don’t want to do that thing where I go ‘oh I remember that from something that she wrote in 1927 and now she is writing in 1962’, I want to be kind of surprised by it and shocked and unnerved so I tried to limit what I try to limit what I read to the thing that I think we’re going to be working on next if that makes sense.

Caroline: The key for her, she says, is replicating that sense of shock she feels when first discovering the twist in Christie’s plot for the viewers of the TV adaptation.

Sarah: I want it to be for the thing that struck me and the thing that surprised and shocked and unnerved me I want I want to write about that I want the audience when they’re watching it go ‘oh God’, as if this story hadn’t been told before or as if this hasn’t been read before. That’s why I I really want to keep that sense of freshness and surprise and suddenness and unfamiliarity. I her want to be unfamiliar rather than to be ‘oh yes we know where we are we’ve been in this landscape before’ and I want it to feel like it’s the first time it’s ever been touched that it’s the first of the stories have ever been told.

Caroline: The temptation with adaptations, especially when working with a really well-known text like an Agatha Christie or a Charles Dickens novel, is to get dug into all the previous versions.

Sarah: I don’t want to know I just want books to speak to me. I’m adapting the novel not adapting other people’s other adaptations of that novel. [00:04:09] For example the first adaptation I ever did for TV was Oliver Twist. Now I don’t think there a book that’s been adapted more than Oliver Twist. I mean it’s lunatic how many various adaptations there were TV, screen, radio whatever, theatre,have been done on Oliver Twist and I just kept thinking what I don’t want to watch anything else apart from the musical Oliver because there’s no escaping that because my mum took me to see it but I didn’t watch any other adaptations all I read was the book and if you just read the book and you don’t look at anything else you don’t read anything else but that book I think you get something right to the essence of it because sometimes we’re familiar with the adaptations, we’re some familiar with those stories but we’re not so we’ve lost touch with the novel and the details of the novel and what the novel is actually about. And so that’s my rule of thumb for adaptation.

Caroline: Sarah’s adaptations are often really dark, and with the way she handles the plots she really digs into the vicious motives that lie beneath the polite veneer of Christie’s characters. These depths came as a surprise to Sarah, she says, when she first started looking in detail at Christie’s writing.

Sarah: I did think she was rather kind of cosy and rather kind of here’s a village green or here’s the big house. Somebody is on the floor. Was it a poker. Was it somebody with a candlestick. But what really surprised me when I read And Then There Were None was just how savage it was and it was utterly remorseless. It was very very cruel and strangely subversive with this weird gallows humour. And I I loved it and I kept thinking actually what this is is this is about the rhythms of Greek tragedy where action begets action begets action and then you are heading towards your end or judgment and nothing you do or say is going to help. And I felt really excited by that and I felt that you know it was pretty much written and published in the same year which was 1939. I kept thinking ‘God if there was ever a story which reflected what it might be like to stand on the brink of the edge of the world as we plummeted again into another world war then And Then There Were None felt like that story’.

Caroline: Her adaptation of And Then There Were None emphasises the isolation and horror of its setting, with ten strangers marooned on an island, being picked off one by one by a foe identified only as “UN Owen”, or “unknown”. It’s a deeply creepy book about morality and justice, as well as containing a really clever murder mystery plot. It’s Christie’s bestselling novel, and indeed, one of the bestselling books of all time. When she came to start adapting it, it showed Sarah a whole new side to Agatha Christie, the supposedly staid author of pleasing little puzzles.

Sarah: So I kind of took that shock and now nightmare quality and and wrote that. That was so I wrote that surprise and that shock and that thrill of going ‘God, you’re really actually you’re not who I thought you were at all’ your. There’s a real this is we are why isn’t this in the modernist canon and you are actually quite subversive and tricksy writer, that’s what I thought about her. [00:09:43][87.6]

Caroline: If you’re interested in this secretly difficult and even radical side to Christie’s work, I recommend you check out episode three of this podcast, which is all about the queer subtext of classic crime fiction.

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Caroline: For Christmas 2018, Sarah Phelps has adapted The ABC Murders, a Poirot novel from 1936 in which the Belgian sleuth has to pit his wits against a serial killer slaying people with alliterative names in alphabetical order. In her approach to it, she decided to set it in a particular moment in 1930s British history, which has a lot of resonances with today.

Sarah: The book is written and set in the 1930s and I put it very specifically in 1933 which is the rise you know is when the British union of fascists started to gain serious political traction and I just felt that without even forcing anything those contemporary resonances were there. Here is the famous Belgian Francophone detective who arrived in Britain as part of the um the exodus from Belgium whether during the German invasion in 1933 when the feeling towards people who had been refugees, it changed really violently and the language when I was doing my research the language is absolutely that of Brexit and Trump and I did lots of deep dives into and into a lot of into you know into my historical research and into some really very strange websites which I wouldn’t want anyone to go and look at because it was nightmarish really. And I found these exposed extraordinary details in the language of the posters and the kind of the lyrics to the BUF marching songs and they really put a shiver up your back that these were chanted you know Britain’s streets when we know they were. So it just gave that background for my Hercule to have to fight his fight his way through it to find this serial killer who taunts him endlessly with these letters. It just felt like it created this really dangerous world and to be reminded it it is a dangerous world there is danger everywhere. Somebody hears you speaking in the wrong accent and they could hurt you and it felt really timely and really relevant and absolutely of its time but absolutely of ours because these things are cyclical they you know these moods these belches of horror don’t go away they just lie dormant waiting for the next economic crisis to bring them alive again. [00:12:24][141.9]

Caroline: The character of Hercule Poirot is introduced in Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. The book is set around 1916, and Poirot, who had been a police detective in Belgium before the First World War, has recently arrived in England as a refugee after the German invasion of his country. Throughout the following 32 novels he appears in, he is frequently belittled and dismissed by other characters as a mere “foreigner” — an insult that he usually brushes off or turns to his advantage when detractors underestimate him. The plight of the outsider and its possibilities for a detective was a theme Christie returned to often. Her adaptation of the The ABC Murders is the first time that Sarah Phelps has worked with one of Christie’s recurring sleuths, and she took great care in how she approached the character, given how familiar he is and how many existing recognisable portrayals of him there are.

Sarah: Well all detectives have a backstory. You’ve got a huge canon of Poirot and Poirot’s familiarity to the reading public to the viewing public. I mean that silhouette, that name , that sort of essence is so familiar. I mean it’s it’s part of our cultural landscape and because I like to say I was unfamiliar with him I thought that that felt really useful to me because all the questions that the killer asks of him were the questions that I was asking of him which is ‘who are you, I am going to come and find me and I am going to just keep nudging you to get at the truth of you are and this public persona of Poirot and behind that is Hercule the private man and I wanted to write about Hercule the private man to kind of bring it bring a different not a different but perhaps bring the you know and we all have public personas and I was just interested in who he might be as Hercule. Right down to the fact that when in the script I never whenever it was his character heading it was never Poirot it was always ‘Hercule’. So he gets called, in the same way that a killer addresses him as Hercule, I addressed him as Hercule all the way throughout the script.

Caroline: John Malkovich plays Hercule in Phelps’s adaptation, and it’s a mark of how beloved and familiar Christie’s character is that rumours of his lack of the distinctive moustache and accent received a lot of coverage in the weeks before Christmas. In reality, she says, a great deal of thought went into exactly how to present these well known characteristics in a new and interesting way to the TV audience.

Sarah: I did try to kind of wind some people up when they went ‘ah god what do you mean Poirot hasn’t got an accent?’. Yeah no, I completely changed it, he comes from Macclesfield. . . just because he is a Francophone Belgian he’s gonna have an accent he’s not going to sound like he’s from Texas or Padstow or something. I think what we were what we were trying to do we had a lot of conversation myself and Alex Gabassi the director with John and it was I was very keen to do something really organic with the accent because I wanted to, I wanted it to feel like that it was a kind of out there accent but that it was actually somebody who had learned English as a new language and they had those precisions and those hypercorrections but underneath you could feel the rhythm of the original French and that was what informed the accent.

Caroline: Agatha Christie’s work is so well known, and a lot of people are really interested in the decisions that Sarah makes as she turns the original books into new TV series. At times, she does choose to diverge from the source material — most notably in Ordeal by Innocence, where her adaptation has a different ending to Christie’s novel of the same name. The intention is always, she says, to produce something fresh and entertaining for the viewer, whether they are a long time Agatha Christie fan very familiar with the canon, or entirely new to the work just switching on after a big Boxing Day tea. Either way, she feels great pressure and responsibility to get it right.

Sarah: Pressure and responsibility — yes of course I feel huge pressure and huge responsibility to be entertaining. Bring something that people enjoy, bring something which is satisfies me as a writer that I’ve got a really good story in a really emotional story that I’ve told the essence of the story, that the spirit of Christie is absolutely alive that I know those preoccupations all the things that she was chasing throughout decades and decades of really long writing career are there but do you know any writer that tells you that they don’t feel pressure or responsibilities is lying, every single page every single line of dialogue every single new scene is absolutely terrifying.

Caroline: The first part of The ABC Murders airs this evening, if you’re listening to this episode in the UK and on the day it comes out (if you’re elsewhere, it’ll be available on demand very soon I’m sure). I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I found it really atmospheric and very evocative of the time that Christie was writing about. If the novel is new to you, I highly recommend going and reading it after you watch the series, especially if you’re interested in more details about how the railway aspect of the plot works.

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Caroline: Even as we’re enjoying this one, though, Sarah is already gearing up to get to work on the next Agatha Christie adaptation for next Christmas. It’s such a big part of the schedule that multiple years are already planned out, and there’s a very distinct lifecycle to the work.

Sarah: By the time were in this sort of process I’m reading for potentially the next one, and once it’s sort of gone out at the beginning of the new year, then I go and say ‘Look, this is what I think I’m going to do’ and then we kind of well people sort of discuss it and I say ‘no, that’s what I’m going to do’ and then I go off and write it and then I write it again and then we start working on it and geting the cast together. So it sort of takes the kind of year life cycle to it which sort of starts pretty much round about this time just as we’re. . . It sort of starts as we come to the end of filming where we start loosely talking and then I generally sort of start writing when when weve when you know the current broadcast is sort of done because I don’t know about other writers but I kind of like find it very difficult to concentrate when I’ve got something that’s about to go out and I sort of pace and worry and dither so I can’t really concentrate until it’s done. So that’s the sort of life cycle. And then we film over the course of the summer into the autumn and then we’re in the edit, and then we’re all ready for roundabout this time of the year.

Caroline: These adaptations have been a great success for the BBC, and seem set to stay at the heart of their Christmas commissioning for years to come. Agatha Christie herself wasn’t always quite so positive about the screen adaptations of her work, though — she disliked it when the intricate plots she had worked so hard to create were simplified, and she often felt that the new dialogue given to her characters wasn’t plausible. In 1952’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, the character of Ariadne Oliver, herself a detective novelist bearing a striking resemblance to Christie, expresses what has often been read as the author’s own distaste for adaptations, saying to her friend Hercule Poirot: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things they never would have done.”

Who knows what Agatha would have thought of John Malkovich’s Poirot, or any of the other versions of her stories that have appeared in the last nine or so decades? There’s no way of knowing, and endless speculation about this detail or that doesn’t really advance anything. Some people prefer Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple to Geraldine McEwan’s, and David Suchet’s Poirot to Kenneth Branagh’s — and others still prefer to read rather than watch.

Whatever your favourite is, there’s still something rather wonderful about tuning in at the darkest time of the year, full of good food and festive cheer, and knowing that the rest of the nation is also watching a twisty, impossible plot play out on the screen.

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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 events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/adaptations. There, you can also read a full transcript.

That’s it from me in 2018: I wish all my listeners a merry festive period and a good start to the new year, and you’ll hear from me again in 2019. If you feel moved to show your appreciation for the podcast before then, do spread the word to friends and family you like mystery stories, so that they can get all caught up before the next episode comes out. And of course, if you want to leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, that also helps the show be more visible to new listeners.

I’ll be back on 9 January with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: the tragic tale of Edith Thompson.

5. Crime at Christmas Transcript

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

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

Caroline: The classic Christmas traditions are all about comfort. Blazing fires, mulled drinks, vast quantities of food — it’s all intended make the darkest time of year that little bit brighter. Much of the entertainment we enjoy over the festive period tries to do the same thing. The books, films and TV series themed around this time overflow with heartwarming adventures and happy endings.

But there’s one tradition that bucks this trend: the Christmas murder mystery. The depths of December inspired authors like Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and more. Their Christmas novels and stories have vicious murders and ingenious thefts committed and investigated against the backdrop of cosy festive fun.

Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century and watching television adaptations of these books is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most appropriate festive activity.

So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

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One of my absolute favourite murder mystery novels is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers. It was published in 1934 and sees her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigating a theft and murder in the Fens in East Anglia. The first few times that I read it, I was — like most readers — caught up in the detailed study of bellringing that the plot includes. It was only by chance that I happened to open it one year on 24 December, and on rereading came to appreciate that it contains some extraordinary writing about the dark bleakness that accompanies the bright joy of Christmas and New Year.

After that, I began to find similar passages in plenty of other detective novels from this period. Some of them address Christmas directly, such as Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in which a millionaire is found with his throat slit in a locked room on Christmas Eve, and others more obliquely like The Nine Tailors and Gladys Mitchell’s Groaning Spinney from 1950, in which a corpse is discovered the night before Christmas, but Mrs Bradley’s investigation continues well into the spring. The latter was actually republished in 2017 with the new title of Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery to really tie into the festive murder mystery reading trend.

The British Library Crime Classics, a publishing project to bring lesser known or out of print works back to readers also includes its fair share of Christmas stories, including The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay and Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith, as well as several festive themed short story collections. Both of these novels feature the discovery of murdered corpse in the midst of Christmas festivities — indeed, in the former, the victim is actually discovered by a guest dressed as Father Christmas. You couldn’t get a clearer example of murder intruding on cosy Christmas celebrations. But why is this such a popular trope?

Cecily: I think that the particular thing about Christmas is that you have such a strong contrast between the crime that occurs and the context in which it’s occurring.

Caroline: This is Cecily Gayford, a senior commissioning editor at Profile Books. She is also the editor of several anthologies of festive murder mystery stories, including most recently A Very Murderous Christmas, which includes work by Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell and GK Chesterton. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about why murder is such a popular Christmassy subject.

Cecily: You have a time of goodwill, a time that families are supposed to come together, it’s supposed to be about joy and generosity and safety and cosiness and the contrast between the warm inside and the cold outside. But then you bring that darkness, the sort of feeling underneath the Christmas tree of the Christmas dinner, and you have a disaster or an act of violence — a sort of damage to the social contract right in the centre of what is essentially the most safe and warm time of the year.

Caroline: This contrast is a heightened version of the effect murder mysteries have all year round: we like reading them partly because they make us feel safe. In the books, the murders happen in a controlled, ordered way and are solved by clever detectives, unlike the chaotic unresolved fears we might have in real life. At Christmas, this sense of danger resolved is all the greater. There are two ways this works, Cecily says.

Cecily: I think probably the most important is really that there is something about the mood of Christmas which means that we crave a kind of counterpoint to all that comfort and joy. It can feel a bit cloying and actually we fancy a bit of murder and mayhem to offset it. And I think that there’s something about the Christmas mood which obviously is itself a kind of contrast to the dark, miserable time of year and that feels a bit artificial because as a society we know that there’s both light and shadow in the world and if we insist on everything being all comfort and joy and goodwill to all men then there’s a sense in which the other side of life bursts back into being.

And then I think the second reason which is connected to is partly to do with why we like detective fiction in general which is that as well as being a good story it’s a way of working through anxieties that we have about the world and how safe it is for us.

Caroline: These stories are building on one of the fundamental tools of storytelling, she says.

Cecily: Now a lot of detective writers I think, most notably Dorothy L. Sayers, drew a line between Greek tragedy and detective fiction and talked about how the crime itself is a kind of cathartic moment. It allows us to address what happens when society breaks down and we’re no longer safe in places that we should be and of course there’s something about Christmas which is particularly cosy and safe you know we’re usually home with our families or inside brightly lit places at a time of festivity and so that intensifies that feeling of the worst has happened and so we had that cathartic release of addressing what could go wrong and then the resolution of it being solved and things being put back and returned to sort of prelapsarian safety essentially where detective sweeps in from outside.

Caroline: Different authors used the Christmas setting to explore different aspects of human nature.

Cecily: There’s some really great Agatha Christie stories, there’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” which is one in which Poirot’s invited to a country house and finds I think it’s a ruby in the middle of a Christmas pudding. Agatha Christie was someone who was particularly preoccupied by a certain kind of middle class, safe very ordered world. So I think she does it very well.

Margery Allingham was interested in I suppose the more upper class kind of country house side of things. They often have Albert Campion turning up in these slightly fraught noble families having to entertain a large group of country house guests but one of them is a blackmailer and there’s a disreputable uncle and in another corner an heiress with a secret. So I think people addressed it in different ways.

Caroline: Cecily also pointed out to me that there’s a slightly more mundane explanation for the profusion of Christmas murder mystery stories. Readers really like them, so publications pay authors to write them.

Cecily: I mean one of the reasons why there are so many Christmas crime short stories is that it was in a lot of these people were professional writers and it was a good opportunity for them to place a story. I think it had a partly reflects the fact that there were often special Christmas editions of magazines and it was a professional opportunity as well as a creative one.

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Caroline: In the decades since Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Mitchell were working, a new Christmas murder mystery tradition has emerged: that of the TV special. I’m going to be talking a lot more about screen adaptations of these books in the next episode, by the way, so make sure you refresh your feed on 26 December, because you’re not going to want to miss it. In the last few years, the BBC has been running new versions of Agatha Christie stories in the days between Christmas and New Year, and they’ve been a huge ratings hit. Why do we like watching something so dark and violent just when we’re all snuggled up on the sofa with a tin of quality street, though? These stories are not necessarily what you would first jump to as “good family viewing”.

Anna: It’s such a good question because obviously when you think about murder mysteries you’re mostly thinking about kind of hysterical violent deaths which doesn’t seem like the most cozy thing off the bat but I think there’s so much about them that’s comforting and I think part of what I originally found comforting about murder mysteries was kind of the way that they make a silly theatre out of death which you know a lot of us struggle with fear around death.

Caroline: This is Anna Leszkiewicz, a cultural critic and the deputy culture editor at the New Statesman magazine. Some eagle eared listeners might recognise her as my co-host from the now discontinued pop culture podcast SRSLY, which we hosted together for two and a half years. I’ve known Anna for a long time now, and one of her most beloved pastimes is watching murder mystery adaptations on ITV3, all year round, but especially near Christmas. She likes series like the David Suchet adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but her real obsession is with series like Morse and Midsomer Murders, which although they are modern use many of the tropes and styles of the golden age of detective fiction. This, she says, is precisely what is so comforting about them.

Anna: For me I started really getting into murder mysteries when I was a student and I was watching Lewis which is set in and around the university I was studying art in Oxford and I really liked the way a that it made such a kind of ridiculous theatre out of death but by the way it kind of dramatised the absurdity of caring too much about academia because a lot of the villains would be like Oxford professors or students with like maniacal revenge against their tutors and it made it so clear that to care too much about your essay deadlines was just so absurd. And I found it really comforting but I think what Lewis also has is a is a kind of fairly derivative template. It’s a mix of very familiar either down to earth or eccentric characters very kind of lush grand or period settings and then these kind of contained wild plots that you just watch over the course of one episode or maybe two episodes if they’re two parter structures of this kind of like melodramatic easy to follow murder plot line. So they’re kind of that combination of familiar and wild and crazy but all in this very kind of like safe contained old fashioned space. So I think it’s that combination of things that makes them quite compulsively watchable and quite comforting because it’s that familiarity without it being boring is what makes it so comforting for me.

Caroline: As with detective novels, there are certain key aspects that a comforting murder mystery adaptation has to have for it to work, she say.

Anna: But for me the things that they need to have are they have to have the identity of the murderer being withheld from the audience for kind of the whole of the episode. I don’t like these murder mysteries like Luther and stuff where you know what’s happening and you’re just waiting for liefer to figure it out. I like I like being surprised at the end I like being able to make my best to make my guess. And then you have this recurring and probably very brooding detective figure. But they don’t have to be a detective. They can be as we know a hot pathologist or a hot vicar. Grant Chester and other shows. Each episode has to explore like a brand new case. So you could just pick up whenever you don’t have to watch the series kind of in order. I think that’s a big part of their accessibility. And then you have to have this you know ridiculous staged grand reveal where the detective figure somehow manages to persuade them the murderer to just explain everything they did in front of a whole room full of like people gasping. You know that’s kind of key. And then I think you have to have that tone of kind of absurd death implausible twists.

Caroline: A wintry, Christmassy setting really amplifies the comforting nature of these shows, she says.

Anna: They’s not really any kind of summer glorious summer set murder mysteries there’s a lot of these kind of twee English villages which really come into their own at Christmas these sorts of settings. I do think part of that is the kind of fairy opulent period setting which really just lends itself to kind of the lushness of festive decor and you know in mazing coats on and I think yeah it’s just the more comforting a program the more you want to watch at Christmas like Christmas is a time of comfort watching. You also want it to be something accessible and though murder mystery is often aren’t really suitable for tiny children they are quite family appropriate especially you know once once the kids are a bit older a grown up it’s kind of the kind of thing I mean I watch a lot of Midsomer Murders growing up with my family. Here was a big thing that we would all sit round and watch as family we’d laugh at the theme tune we’d laugh as Martine McCutcheon was bludgeoned to death with a giant wheel of cheese. That’s something very accessible and family watch about those programmes so I think that’s a big part of why they have such an appeal at Christmas as well. And also I think Christmas because it’s a kind of creepy time — the days are short, the nights are long — ghost stories are a big part of Christmas and murder mysteries often especially the Christmas ones come with that kind of like supernatural edge that’s eventually you know especially something like Jonathan Creek which is all about this kind of guy. He disproves the paranormal that’s kind of his whole role as a detective. They often can try and incorporate these ideas that you know Poirot’s seen a ghost or whatever it might be. And so I think they’ve just got all these little boxes that they tick you know period setting tick alignment with the supernatural tick easy to watch tick it just really means that they’re kind of perfect Christmas viewing.

Caroline: This issue of the wheel of cheese is an important one, because although these stories are violent, we don’t often actually see the gore, or even the actual moment of killing. For tales of death, they can be oddly bloodless. Plenty of the Christmas short stories I’ve read in Cecily’s anthologies and elsewhere don’t even include a murder, but focus rather on theft or deception. (My favourite of this kind, in case you were wondering, is “The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s in the 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, and you should definitely get hold of it to read on Christmas Eve.) This lack of explicit violence in these murder mysteries is a key part of why they’re enjoyable at Christmas, Anna argues, although there is some sign that that is changing.

Anna: Over the last four years there has been a trend to make these particularly the Agatha Christie adaptations more dark more gritty I guess because that’s where a lot of TV has gone. But I kind of prefer them with without but the real darkness and violence and as you say like I don’t I love watching murder mysteries and actually they don’t feel like a pity a place that’s full of violence against women even though obviously women are murdered so they literally do it involve violence against women it’s done in such a such a way that you never feel like it’s particularly depressing or realistic or likely to to happen you know it’s often the motives are not oh well he was domestically abusing his wife. It’s like well she had the ruby opal or whatever.

Caroline: Ultimately, we want just enough violence so that the peril feels real and the resolution convincing, but not so much that we actually feel scared ourselves.

Anna: That’s part of what makes them enjoyable is that they’re safe because it’s kind of taking all the things like you know death mud sexual affairs and all these things and putting them in such a soft twee and distant often context you know whether it’s the village of midsummer or 1920s London or whatever it put it puts it at a distance from reality and hams up everyone’s motives so much that it’s just that the melodramatic element takes it away from reality and it makes it quite as safe space to kind of engage with things like that without it feeling terrifying or horrible.

Caroline: As ever, murder mysteries take our anxieties about the world and reflect them back at us. At Christmas, a time that is meant to be all about plenty and goodwill, but which is often cold and difficult for many, they help us remember that not everything is comfort and joy, and give us a way to process our own feelings about safety and violence.

The firelight might be bright, but the shadows in the corners are darker than ever.

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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 events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. There, you can also read a full transcript.

A reminder that this was just the first of two festive specials – the second one will be out on 26 December. If you head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and sign up, you’ll get an alert when it comes out so that you can pretend to your family you have a very important work email and go off to another room to listen in peace.

I got a really nice surprise this week when the podcast leapt up the Apple Podcasts chart, thanks to all of the lovely reviews and ratings that listeners had been leaving. We peaked just outside the top 50 in both the UK and Ireland, which is completely amazing and you’re all very kind. If you’d like to keep spreading the word, who knows how high we can go. Regardless, I’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Adaptations, with special guest Sarah Phelps.

4. The Lady Vanishes Transcript

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

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

On 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in the southern English county of Berkshire just after 9.30 in the evening. She drove away in her Morris Cowley car, taking a small suitcase and a fur coat with her. Her secretary Carlo Fisher, who also helped to look after Agatha’s then seven year old daughter Rosalind, later related that the author had said nothing about where she was going.

The following morning, the car was found 15 miles away at Newlands Corner near Guildford in Surrey, on the edge of a lake called Silent Pool. The headlights were still on and her luggage was inside, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. The police quickly identified it and brought Fisher and Agatha’s husband Archie Christie to the scene to see if they could shed any light on what had happened. By the time they got there, the car was already surrounded by members of the public, their curiosity piqued by the mystery of the mystery writer’s disappearance.

The word was out: the lady had vanished.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

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At the end of 1926, Agatha Christie was already a well known author, although not yet the worldwide bestseller she became later in her career. Hercule Poirot had made his debut in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920, and she had also introduced the recurring sleuthing pair Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Four more books had followed, the most recent at the time of her disappearance being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in June 1926. This last proved to be something of a breakthrough for her, with its unusual structure and twist earning good reviews and sales. It marked the start of a new, much more profitable, publishing deal with William Collins and Sons, the firm that would remain her publisher for the rest of her life. It’s also probably one of her most enduringly popular books, and in 2013 was voted the best crime novel ever by the members of the Crime Writers’ Association.

It might have been a good year for her professionally, but Agatha Christie’s personal life in 1926 was a lot tougher. She wrote in her autobiography that it was a year of her life she hated recalling, because “when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong”. Her mother Clara, with whom she had an especially close relationship, had died earlier in the year. Relations with her husband Archie were already strained, thanks partly to his golf obsession — Agatha described herself as “that well-known figure, the golf widow”. They had been apart for lengthy periods that year already, Agatha going to Corsica and Archie to Spain, and after her mother’s death Archie’s disinterest in her grief drove them further apart. Archie stayed in London while Agatha took their daughter to Devon and spent the summer months back at her childhood home in Torquay, sorting out the house and its contents. She was lonely, ill, grieving and clearly depressed — she wrote later about how during this time she kept bursting into tears all the time for no reason, or over seemingly trivial things like not being able to remember how to start her car.

When Archie finally visited in August, it was not to take her to Italy for two weeks to recuperate as she had been expecting. Instead, he told her that he was in love with someone else: Nancy Neele, a secretary ten years his junior. Neele had previously worked for Major Belcher, the director of the British Empire Mission, who had arranged for the Christies to go on a ten-month round the world trip in 1924. Archie and Neele had been seeing a lot of each other in London while Agatha was in Devon, and now he wanted a divorce as quickly as possible. In the weeks that followed, the Christies attempted a brief reconciliation, mostly for their daughter’s sake, but it was no good.

They had been together for over a decade. Archie had swept Agatha off her feet in 1913, even though she was engaged to someone else. They had married on Christmas Eve 1914, two days before he was sent into action. He served with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and won two medals for bravery.

It was Archie’s ruthlessness and decisiveness that Agatha had initially found attractive in him, but now those same qualities were instrumental in making her terrible year much worse. During the breakdown of their marriage, Archie was relentless in pursuit of his own happiness with Nancy, Agatha recalled later. That his happiness came at the cost of hers didn’t seem to register.

On 3 December, which was a Friday, Agatha was out during the day. Archie packed his bags during her absence. Their attempted reunion was a waste of time, he had decided. He had been invited to a house party that weekend, and Nancy would be there. By the time Agatha got home, her husband had already left.

In her autobiography, Agatha discreetly draws a veil over what happened next. “So ended my first married life,” she wrote, before skipping ahead to the next February, when she went to the Canary Islands with her daughter and her beloved secretary Carlo. This is understandable: Agatha Christie had spent 11 days at the centre of a nationwide manhunt and media maelstrom. She probably didn’t want to dwell on all the ugly details.

Luckily for your curiosity, though, that’s exactly what we’re about to do.

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Something that’s important to know as we try to understand what really happened on the night of 3 December 1926 is that Agatha Christie really, really loved her car. She said once that nothing else had given her “more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle nosed Morris Cowley”. She had bought it a few years previous with the £500 she had received from a newspaper for the serial rights for her novel The Man in the Brown Suit. That was a lot of money: according to the National Archives currency convertor, it would be about £20,000 in today’s money. Cars were still relatively rare in Britain at this time: none of her friends had one. Buying it herself with money that she had earned with her writing was one of the most exciting things she ever did, equalled only by being invited to have dinner with the Queen at Buckingham Palace forty years later.

When her husband and close friend saw this beloved car abandoned on the edge of a lake, therefore, they would have immediately jumped to the conclusion that something was very, very wrong. Inside, the police had found her coat, luggage and expired drivers’ licence. There was no sign of the woman herself, so a missing persons report was issued. A hundred police officers combed the Surrey Downs for the vanished author, assisted by concerned members of the public who started arriving as the story began to appear in the newspapers. The initial theory was that Agatha had had a motor crash and wandered away from the car in a state of shock, but that quickly collapsed as no trace of her was found in the surrounding countryside. Several ponds, including the Silent Pool, were dragged, but nothing was found. An aeroplane was used to survey the area from above — the first time this was done for a missing persons case in Britain — but to no avail.

By 7 December, Scotland Yard had been called in and newspapers all over Britain were breathlessly reporting every development in the case of the “vanished woman novelist”. The stories mentioned her happy home life (Archie Christie obviously choosing not to contradict them) and speculated about a possible nervous breakdown over the loss of her mother and the hard work of producing so many novels in such a short time. As the days went by and nothing new emerged other than lots of false sightings, the coverage became wilder and wilder, even turning towards the supernatural for answers. The Daily Sketch newspaper called in a clairvoyant, who suggested that Christie’s body would soon be found in a woodshed. The Daily Express asked the retired detective Walter Dew, “the man who caught Crippen” — who we met in episode two — for his thoughts. He gave his opinion that “all women are subject to hysteria at times”, but made no actually practical suggestions. Christie’s fellow crime author Dorothy L Sayers even wrote an article for the Daily News where she ran through all the possible solutions to the mystery, from suicide to a voluntary disappearance. The incident clearly stayed with Sayers, too, because a similar abandoned car and missing woman scene appears in her novel Unnatural Death, which was published the following year.

Perhaps the most bizarre intervention in the case was from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was in his late 60s now, and had formerly served in the ceremonial role of Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey, which gave him a certain measure of authority. The police gave him one of Agatha’s gloves so that he could take part in the inquiries, and he took it to a spiritualist medium called Horace Leaf for information. Leaf wasn’t able to divine a location, but he did say that he thought Agatha was still alive. Conan Doyle conveyed this news to Archie and announced to the press that it proved how useful psychometry was to the detective. The police, increasingly desperate for hard evidence amid the media furore, appealed directly to the public for help. On 12 December, over 2,000 people turned out for what was dubbed “the Great Sunday Hunt”, wrapped up warmly against the cold. Sayers went along herself, but neither she nor anyone else found anything significant, and the search was called off when darkness fell.

During the time that Christie had been missing, there had been several suggestions from more cynical observers that this was all just a stunt to sell more copies of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The story just seemed too perfect to be true: famous mystery writer, wife of war hero and mother of beautiful little girl, disappears under mysterious circumstances and even the greatest detectives of the day can’t find her. The headlines from those days are like something that would spin up into view on the screen during a silent film: “Search intensifies”, “Mystery Deepens”, “Police Baffled”, “Still No Clue”. There were even convincing red herrings, just like in one of Christie’s novels — on 10 December it was reported that her body had been found in a canal near Basingstoke, but the corpse was later positively identified as that of Mrs Alice Livings, a widow from Aldershot. There were also persistent rumours that she was hiding in London or Cornwall, for no clear reason at all. It’s really no wonder people started to think it was all engineered for publicity — Christie was already believed to be brilliant at concocting unsolvable plots. Who else could be behind something like this, but her?

The police repeatedly stated that they felt the disappearance was genuine, but the longer it went on, the more public opinion began to turn against Christie. Then, on 14 December, two musicians in the band at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, reported their hunch that one of the guests there looked a lot like Agatha Christie. Their suspicious were correct, and within hours new headlines were blazing everywhere: “Mrs Christie At Harrogate Under A False Name”. She had been there the whole time.

Over the next few days, the newspapers expressed their disappointment at the unlikely and somewhat anticlimactic end to the story with articles decrying all the resources wasted on the search. The Leeds Mercury described the public mood as “one of intense exasperation that so much money and time should have been wasted on futile searches”, and contrasted all the attention Christie had received with the virtually ignored case of a missing vicar in Yorkshire two years before. Soon, because the Christie family gave no comment or further explanation beyond the fact that she had suffered from amnesia and remembered nothing, the momentum died out of the story, and it fell off the front pages.

So what really happened on the night of 3 December? Christie never spoke about it publicly, but we can make a reasonable guess as to the logistics. After abandoning her car, she walked to the nearest station, took a train to London, and from there another train on to Harrogate. Somewhere along the way she did some shopping, because when she arrived at the hotel she had a small suitcase and suitable clothing for her stay. She had plenty of money with her, too, because she took a five guineas a week room at the Hydropathic. Crucially, she gave her name as “Mrs Theresa Neele from Cape Town” — Neele being the surname of her husband’s mistress. She seemingly spent a pleasant and relaxing ten days, playing bridge and billiards, dancing, doing crosswords and borrowing thrillers from the library. After the tip, the police brought Archie up to the hotel, and he identified her. She resumed her own identity, and was taken home.

The mystery of where she had been was solved. The mystery of why she had vanished remained a puzzle.

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The first official biography of Agatha Christie was published eight years after her death in 1984. Unlike the author’s own autobiography, Janet Morgan’s account of Christie’s life does contain a version of the events of December 1926, but offers no explanation beyond the amnesia statement made by Archie Christie at the time. Without more details, fans and writers have speculated endlessly to fill in the gaps. Over the decades since it occurred, the 11 day disappearance of Agatha Christie has garnered a reputation for intrigue as it it was one of detective fiction’s greatest unsolved crimes, and plenty of people have tried to work out what really happened and why.

In the late 1970s the writer Kathleen Tynan published a novel based on the case, which was also adapted into the film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha and Timothy Dalton as Archie. It also pushed the amnesia theory, but included a bizarre secret murder-suicide plot as well. The film was generally well received, although the fictional character of Wally Stanton, played by Dustin Hoffman, was criticised as unrealistic.

Another book published in 1998, Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, put forward a different theory: that Agatha had done the whole thing deliberately, not for book publicity but to humiliate her husband for his infidelity, hence her choice of his mistress’s name for her alias. What could be a more apt punishment for cheating on a mystery writer than to be suspected of her murder? Agatha’s grandson Mathew Pritchard strongly refuted this, but the suggestion has lingered on in some quarters. Plenty of people still like the idea that Agatha, a mastermind of plotting let us not forget, engineered the whole scenario to teach her husband a lesson about considering the feelings of others.

People are still investigating the possibilities. In 2006 Andrew Norman published a book titled The Finished Portrait, in which he argued that the trauma of her marriage breaking down sent Christie into something like a fugue state. This is the name for a period of out of body amnesia, often triggered by stress. This fits all the facts, Norman argues — it even explains why she read about her own disappearance in the newspaper but didn’t come forward, because people experience a fugue state often temporarily adopt a new personality and don’t recognise their previous persona. In the book, he carefully compares the Christie case to a number of medical case studies, pointing out the similarities.

It’s all very interesting and it gave the British newspapers another chance to speculate, but of course there’s no way to prove any of it now. Alternative theories still crop up periodically: for instance, in 2017 Andrew Wilson published a fictionalised version of the case called A Talent for Murder, in which Christie is the heroine of her own detective story, locked in battle with a blackmailer. At the time of the book’s release, Wilson also put forward the suggestion that the real explanation for her disappearance was that she had attempted suicide — by driving her car in to Silent Pool — and then been overcome by shame when the attempt failed and run off to Harrogate rather than face anyone.

There’s even a Doctor Who episode that tries to solve the case, from 2008, in which the disappearance is explained via the presence of giant alien wasps. After spending a few weeks immersed in all these theories, this started to feel like the most sensible one, to be honest.

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Agatha Christie spent the following year at the home she had shared with Archie in Berkshire, which they had renamed “Styles” in honour of the setting of her first novel. She travelled with her daughter, and slowly recovered from the traumas of 1926. Public opinion was not always kind to her in the aftermath of the disappearance. In February 1927 there was even a question asked in parliament about how much the search and rescue efforts for her had cost, and once the home secretary revealed them to be about £12, a fellow MP angrily demanded “and who is going to compensate the thousands of people who were deliberately misled by this cruel hoax?”. She became shy in front of crowds and distrustful of the press, and found that writing did not come so easily to her as it had before. She did manage to stitch together some previously published short stories to create the Poirot spy thriller book The Big Four, which is enjoyably absurd if not among some of her finest work. In 1928 she expanded another short story to create The Mystery of the Blue Train, which was a book the author herself said she hated. Her divorce from Archie was finalised that same year, and she dedicated the book to “the OFD”, or “the order of the faithful dogs”, i.e. those of her friends who had stuck with her through the ordeal.

Another spy romp followed in 1929 in the form of The Seven Dials Mystery, again repurposing elements introduced in a previous novel. By this time, the furore surrounding her disappearance and divorce had faded, and Christie began to travel again and take an interest in the development of detective writing. Of course, fans remain obsessed with what really happened during those 11 days still — it’s still an irresistible mystery, never fully explained. But Agatha herself seems to have put it behind her at last, at least in the part of her life that she chose to share with the public.

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It wasn’t until 1930 that Agatha Christie really got back on track with her writing with The Murder at the Vicarage, the first novel-length appearance of Miss Marple. It was dedicated to Rosalind, by now 11 years old, and although didn’t receive a universally positive reception with critics, was very popular with fans.

That same year, Christie also published another book, except at the time nobody knew she had written it. Giant’s Bread appeared under the pseudonym “Mary Westmacott”, and deals with themes such as divorce, financial trouble, and death — many have seen it and those like it that followed as the place where Agatha really worked out the problems that led to her 11-day disappearance in 1926. But that, as they say, is another story.

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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 events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theladyvanishes. There, you can also read a full transcript.
This is your advance warning that there is going to be an episode every week for the rest of December! I strongly advise going to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and signing up for email alerts from the podcast, because I have some very exciting things planned and you don’t want to miss any of it.

Thank you very much to all of you who have subscribed in your podcast app, told a friend about the show, or left a review on Apple Podcasts. All of these things help a lot to spread the word about it, which in turn helps me make this a sustainable thing to keep doing. I’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Crime at Christmas.

3. Queer Clues Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the third episode of Shedunnit. Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

[Music]

Caroline: On the surface, everything about classic detective stories seems straightforward. It’s all very black and white: people are either good or bad, guilty or innocent. There’s not a lot of grey in between.

These easy distinctions are what some readers find appealing about murder mysteries, since the idea that there are actually definitive answers to life’s questions can be very comforting.

Except if you dig a bit deeper, nothing is as simple as it seems. In a scenario where anyone could be a suspect, nobody is really being honest or presenting their true self. For a whole variety of different motives, everyone is playing a part.

The writers of detective stories from the 1920s and 1930s used this as a way to hide subversive, secret back stories for their characters in plain sight. This is true particularly of gay and lesbian characters, some of whom have hidden depths that it’s unusual to find in works of this period.

It’s all there though, alongside the murder weapons and the red herrings.

You just have to know how to spot the queer clues.

[Music]

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

[Music]

The dominant perception of the work of authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey and Gladys Mitchell is that it is cosy and nostalgic for a simpler time. Detective fiction’s golden age in the 1920s and 30s isn’t exactly well known for being edgy, or at the vanguard of the struggle for gay rights.

And it’s true that these novels do contain their fair share of vast country houses and cute rustic cottages, peopled by glamorous aristocrats and their well-meaning servants. In many ways, they do seem to reflect the political attitudes of their time. Women in these stories are unlikely to have careers, and if they do have jobs it’s often remarked upon as something surprising. If set abroad, the local people will probably be described with thinly veiled colonial callousness. And if a character happens to have been born out of wedlock, it would be considered enough of a personal shame to be a very decent motive for murder, should anyone find out. In this context, you’d be forgiven for assuming that gay or lesbian characters would be non existent, or else the first to die once a killer appeared on the scene.

But for some readers, there’s a whole world of queer stories beyond this. For JC Bernthal, an academic and author of Queering Agatha Christie, this is how these murder mysteries have always appeared to him. Even as a child, he was fascinated by all the deception:

JC Bernthal: I didn’t have many friends as a kid, so after reading all of Roald Dahl and everything in finding every other children’s writer too saccharine, I moved on to my granddad’s collection of detective stories which was Agatha Christie mostly and I just became absolutely engrossed with this idea of a puzzle but also these characters interacting with each other and hiding things from each other and then finding out secrets about each other. As a child with a very limited social circle and not much to do in the world, it was really fascinating to be able to get into all these problems and this really cynical view of humanity as something that can be quite dark and horrible.

Caroline: It was obvious to him early on that there were queer clues everywhere in these books.

JC Bernthal: I’ve been thinking about detective fiction as queer for as long as I’ve been queer which is a very long time now. So you know partly sort of growing up not being a straight person I found that a lot of my refuge was in detective stories and part of that is fundamental in how I view myself as a queer person is that absolutely cynical attitude towards how people present themselves in crime fiction. So I always loved this fact that in an Agatha Christie book or especially a golden agey crime novel everyone is so pretentious and presenting themselves in this very respectable way. And by the end of the novel we know that that’s all rubbish. We know that we’re going to uncover horrible secrets about everyone in the book and that sort of cynical attitude to respectability was something that really helped me as someone who wasn’t heterosexual or presenting myself in the way that the world wanted me to. So in that sense I’ve always read the detective fiction queerly, but actually queering detective fiction as it was was something but I wanted to do as soon as I learnt what queer theory was as a postgraduate student.

Caroline: One of the most basic ways in which queer themes and characters are woven into these stories is via existing stereotypes. Therefore, a manly woman who spurns the company of men, or an effeminate man with an artistic temperament, can both be read as hints towards queerness. Here’s Bernthal again:

JC Bernthal: A lot of the writers in the interwar period used accepted codes to describe what they would have called ‘gender inverts’ or ‘perverted people’. So if you look in any interwar popular novel for a man with long fingers or artistic fingers or a man who spiteful or has a womanish mouth he’s what we would now call gay.

Caroline: Although it was a different time politically, the word queer did already have a slang meaning connoting homosexual activity, especially between men. It appears in this sense in several detective novels, and its ambiguity elsewhere is helpful for hinting at meanings that are not fully explored. But just because things aren’t always made completely explicit, doesn’t mean they aren’t there, JC Bernthal argues.

JC Bernthal: The fact that these references might appear coded in the books doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being avoided. Often the very fact that something’s not being talked about is what raises that something.

Caroline: His own favourite queer character is Christopher Wren, from Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap, who is implicitly queer coded through the use of various familiar tropes.

JC Bernthal: He can be mean and catty and bitchy but sort of midway through the play he completely breaks down and reveals that he just feels completely abandoned by the world around him and this is a post-war play. So it’s just a really interesting character and he turns out to be a war hero which is just this wonderful way of showing that even though he’s been completely spat out by the world around him he’s still done what is configured in the world of the play to be his patriotic duty. He’s a really interesting nuanced character, Christopher Wren, and he’s also a huge fun. He has some of the best lines. I love that at the end of the play he just takes over the housework while everyone else is busy trying to work out who did the murder.He goes off to the kitchen and bakes a pie. I think that’s fabulous queerness. He also looks longingly at the male hero and calls him my dear and makes him very uncomfortable and demands that he can stay in a bed with chintz curtains and rose petals or something so he’s absolutely wonderfully eccentric.

Caroline: Sometimes, though, the queer clues are so obvious that it feels impossible to find any other interpretation. In Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, which although published in 1950 exhibits many of the characteristics of the golden age, there are two women characters that seem very much a devoted, loving couple. Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd share a house in a rural English village, go everywhere together, and are generally accepted by the neighbourhood as a pair. When one of them dies in tragic and suspicious circumstances, the other is completely distraught in a way that seems far more like the devastation a lover would feel at their partner’s death than the grief of just a friend.

Moira Redmond: You know that they’re gay because they wear trousers one of them’s got shorthair and the other is quite feminine. Trousers and short hair is definitely something to look out for if you’re looking at lesbian characters in books of any kind. And although it’s never spelt out this couple is actually lesbian that there is any sexual activity. It’s absolutely clear as you’re reading it that they’re meant to be a very close couple who live together virtually as man and wife. And it is very sympathetically done and it’s tremendously sad.

Caroline: This is Moira Redmond, a journalist and blogger who has been writing about crime fiction for years. For her, another key queer moment in detective fiction — albeit a more unsettling and less positive one — comes in the 1927 Dorothy L Sayers novel Unnatural Death.

Moira: I’ve always interested in the fact that unnatural is in the title there and there is an absolutely extraordinary scene in that in which a woman tries to seduce Lord Peter but it becomes apparent to him — he as any regular reader knows is irresistible to any woman. But it’s obvious that this woman is revolted by him and doesn’t want to seduce him but feels she has to for the purposes of her plot and the reason is because she is gay. That’s why — she’s a lesbian.

Caroline: This character is Mary Whitaker, although she is in disguise as her alter ego Mrs Forrest during this particular scene. As Whitaker, she has a relationship with a young woman called Vera Findlater that some in her village consider too close for comfort. The latter is described as having “quite a pash” for Whitaker, and their stated ambition of retiring to a cottage and taking up chicken farming is generally dismissed as weird and unserious. Then in her encounter with Lord Peter, Whitaker does her best to simulate heterosexual desire, but she can’t make herself do it.

Moira: She doesn’t want to kiss him because she it’s repellent to her but she is trying to do that in order to further her wicked ways. And it’s quite a startling scene actually. I’ve no idea what Sayers thought about these things in everyday life but it’s not attractively done in that particular book. The woman’s motives for what she does are not related to her sexuality particularly but her sexuality does arise in that book. She’s certainly not saying she’s evil because she’s gay or she’s gay because she’s evil but the way in which she reacts to what’s happening and to. Lord Peter is definitely shown as unnatural I would say.

Caroline: In the queer crime fiction anthology Murder in the Closet, Redmond has an essay in which she argues that the all-female educational establishment is “a gift to fiction writers”, particularly those interested in queer subtext. She focuses particularly on Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a college called Leys that trains women to become physical education teachers.

Moira: The training college in Miss Pym Disposes is a very odd place. . . it’s a very enclosed world the world of this college Leys college and she uses it to magnificent effect in this very very unusual book while leaving you with an ambiguity and I think it’s an incredibly clever book for that reason because in the end you can’t say for sure that there is a lesbian subtext or there isn’t. Well I see there definitely is but she is not going to tell you she’s going to leave you to work out for yourself whether the two main characters actually engage in sexual activity.

Caroline: Unlike the women’s educational establishments in Gladys Mitchell’s detective novels (she was also a teacher, so there are plenty), Leys is curious sexless and inward looking. Almost none of the characters have any relationships with men at all, and instead there’s a complete focus on the friendships and attachments between the women. But, as Redmond says, it is possible to find a reading of the novel where none of the characters are lesbians, although it feels like a bit of stretch. This doubling effect is largely intentional, she argues.

Moira: I think there was a definite two layer version here that the writers knew what they were saying but they also knew that some people reading this book would never for a million years think anything other than Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were good friends.

Caroline: Bernthal agrees.

JC Bernthal: I would say if you want to read the books as nostalgic and reassuring, that’s absolutely fine — that reading is there but it’s kind of like if you have a passive aggressive relative round at Christmas and they say ‘oh this is a lovely decoration — for the budget’, you can take that as a compliment or you can take it is rather insulting and I think that some of the tweeness and conservatism in golden age crime fiction really should be taken with a pinch of salt. I think a lot of these authors are cocking a cynical eyebrow at the world around them.

Caroline: There could be a good reason for that — for some of them, their own lives weren’t exactly following the traditional path society might have expected.

JC Bernthal: Gladys Mitchell who is one of the greatest crime writers who many people are still never read. She created the wonderfully eccentric Mrs. Bradley and she lived a large amount of her life with another woman quite openly about it. And her books are absolutely fantastic because they smash pretty much every social and sexual taboo that you can have. They feature homosexuality and incest and all kinds of other things. People have speculated about other writers like Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey as being potentially gay and are a lot of male writers of detective fiction were gay as well.

Caroline: There’s a sense in which outsiders — of which queer people were just one kind — could better straddle the different world contained within a whodunnit, Bernthal says.

Bernthal: A lot of the writers if we look through their biography or whatever will find that may might have been what we now call gay or they were unmarried or they struggled with some aspect of trying to fit into normal life whether that was a sexuality thing or a religious thing or even politics. And many of the writers of Golden Age crime fiction were on the edges of respectable middle class life which is why it’s so funny really that we have this twee and nostalgic view of this genre.

Caroline: In contemporary pop culture, it’s become an automatic assumption that the queer character is more expendable than the straight one, and therefore more likely to be killed off. There’s even a jokey TV trope name for this phenomenon — “Bury Your Gays”. It might be logical to think that golden age detective fiction would be even worse on this score than today’s novels and shows, but this isn’t the case.

JC Bernthal: There’s this big myth about Golden Age crime fiction that when queer characters appear they die and they rarely actually do crime fiction today is much less forgiving towards people who are different than Golden Age Crime fiction was.

Caroline: Bernthal’s research focuses particularly on Agatha Christie, and he’s crunched the numbers on this.

JC Bernthal: She only has two victims out of her many hundreds of victims. Only two of them are what I would call queer and only one murderer.

Caroline: Why, then, is contemporary drama, especially crime drama, so much more inclined to lean on negative stereotypes and shortchange queer characters?

JC Bernthal: I think part of that is because crime authors today are directly tackling issues around things like misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and as such many of today’s writers make the queer character the victim or the murderer to sort of show how social pressures have turned them into a monster. And because the Golden Age writers weren’t trying to have that agenda. They were able to make often much more subtle points.

Caroline: This is my personal favourite manifestation of golden age detective fiction’s queer clues — when authors use the stereotypes embedded in readers’ brains to mislead them for the purposes of their plots. As Bernthal explains:

JC Bernthal: Often because of the prejudice at the time and they need to shock the reader or trick the reader often Christie will create a rather sinister effeminate young man and the reader is supposed to think ‘ah, he’s guilty, I don’t like the look of him’ and of course because she’s trying to shock you will turn out to be completely innocent and that’s massively interesting because it shows us that the initial judgments we make are going to be completely wrong.

CarolineThis happens with Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, and with the “womanish” and “artistic” antiques dealer Mr Ellsworthy in Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy, and with another lesbian-coded Miss Whittaker in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, and plenty of others. For me, it’s the ultimate kind of twist, because it relies on the reader’s own prejudices to work rather than just clever sleight of hand with the plot.

The queer clues are there, if we bother to look for them.

[Music]

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributors JC Bernthal and Moira Redmond, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/queerclues. There, you can also read a full transcript. My thanks also to Stephanie Boland for her help.
Just a head’s up, I’m hoping to have not one but two festive themed episodes for you over the next month, so make sure you’re subscribed in your podcast app so you don’t miss them. If you do have time to do something extra to spread the word about the show to others, the top two ways to do this are leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or telling a real-life friend to listen. Thanks in advance for your help. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Vanishes.

2. Crippen Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the second episode of Shedunnit. Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

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

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

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

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

This is the story of Dr Crippen.

[Music]

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

[Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Music]

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Queer Clues.

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

1. Surplus Women Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the first episode of Shedunnit. Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

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

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

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

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

[Music]

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Music]

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Crippen.

0. Whodunnit? Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of this mini first episode of Shedunnit. Listen to it now in your app of choice.

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

No fictional character was safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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