Category: Transcripts

41. Mary Westmacott Transcript

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

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

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

Today, we’re going to meet Mary Westmacott.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the break: Mary Westmacott is unmasked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40. Dorothy’s Secret Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the break: can you keep a secret?

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

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

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

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

Now, back to the episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She did the very best she could.”

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

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

Black Lives Matter Resources

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

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

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

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

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

A few of my personal favourites:

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

39. Cui Bono? Transcript

Picture the scene. A wealthy elderly person lies dead, obviously murdered. Their sumptuous mansion is filled to the rafters with expensive assets. Around every corner is a family member or neighbour with some financial tie to the deceased and seemingly no alibi for the time of the crime.

What’s the first thing an intelligent sleuth has to ask? It’s not “who did this”, nor even “how was this done”.

No, the first thing the detective must find out is who benefits, of course.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at how inheritance operates as a motive in classic detective fiction and why financial expectations exert such a powerful influence over supposedly good people.

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When you really boil it down, a detective novel can stand or fall on a single point. Is the reason that an apparently upstanding member of society suddenly took to bumping people off plausible or ridiculous? All of the cunning murder methods and clever concealments cannot hide a dud if the motive doesn’t work. While there are other kinds of crime fiction that function perfectly well resting only on the pathological approach of a serial killer, say, the classic whodunnit needs a more substantial foundation.

During the 1920s and 30s, when the golden age of detective fiction reigned, writers in this genre were constantly on the hunt for a way to effect this transformation — from good egg to murderer — in a believable fashion. The unique combination of greed and desperation engendered by inheritance works very well for this, and it’s no surprise therefore that plenty of writers from this period used variants of it to great effect. Let’s have a more detailed look at why that is.

Firstly, inheritance as a concept is completely relatable. We might not all have rich aunts with complicated wills, but every family of every kind has experienced some kind of transfer of property when a member dies, even if the asset in question was a prized but ugly jug rather than a sprawling country estate. If death is a universal experience, then so is the disposition of property that follows.

Then there’s the temptation that a substantial inheritance offers. Other common motives like revenge, infidelity and protection tend to require the potential murderer to kill for the sake of a concept. Jealousy and rage are powerful forces, no doubt, but it’s much easier to believe that someone might commit murder for material gain than for the more nebulous satisfaction that an idea offers. Especially if that temptation has been designed in order to overcome their moral scruples. Perhaps their rich relative is old, or already ill, or extremely unpleasant. And their heir urgently needs money for some very worthy reason. In such a case, how bad could it be to just… hasten the inevitable? You see how quickly this line of reasoning enters the grey area between right and wrong where a certain kind of character can manufacture a justification that will enable them to do the unspeakable thing. Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1927 novel Unnatural Death, where an elderly woman with a terminal disease dies in suspicious circumstances, and Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade from 1935, in which a hard up young man from a junior branch of a rich and titled family takes steps to move up the line of succession, are both works where you can see this used to great effect.

And beyond just the protagonist’s motivation, inheritance has some useful subsidiary aspects that can be very useful to the novelist. The will has great narrative potential. The murder victim can deliver a sudden twist from beyond the grave in the form of a surprise bequest to someone outside their family circle, or they can astound their relatives with the actual contents of their estate. As a detective unravels the tangled web of tensions that makes up a fraught inheritance scenario, they get a crash course in the dysfunctions of that family — and so does the reader. A will can also help to cut across class boundaries if the deceased has left a major but unexpected bequest to a servant or secretary, for instance. Dorothy L. Sayers liked using inheritance so much in her books that she even had a recurring solicitor character in Mr Murbles, who her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey regularly calls upon when he needs some legal matter explaining.

That’s another reason why inheritance is so suited to the golden age detective story: it is, ultimately, susceptible to investigation. Wills can be extracted from their hiding places or found in archives, and detectives can get statements from solicitors about what they contain. In Unnatural Death, Sayers has Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard do the tedious legwork of finding the Bloomsbury solicitor that Wimsey’s favourite suspect is thought to have consulted, but after interviewing dozens of possible candidates, Parker does eventually find the right man and get the story from him. The legal world loves documents, so there’s always a paper trail to follow if the sleuth is methodical and persistent enough. It’s unlikely that the mystery is going to peter out in an unsatisfactory way.

Inheritance is also both extremely simple and very complicated. In its most basic form, one person dies and another person receives their property as their will dictates. But there are many variations and intricacies that can be added on to this transaction as the whodunnit requires. Multiple versions of wills, spiteful codicils and bizarre conditions can all liven up this kind of story. The enterprising criminal can even manipulate some of them to their advantage, such as in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Sayers from 1928, when the order in which two apparently natural deaths occurred is vital in determining who inherits a fortune. Or in The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox, published in the same year, which sees two cousins who hate each other go on a canoeing holiday together. If the elder one survives the next two months he will inherit £50,000, and if he doesn’t the other cousin cleans up. It’s that simple, and also that complicated.

As you can see from the titles I’ve mentioned so far, inheritance mysteries were very popular in the 1920s and early 30s. And indeed as the tropes of golden age detective fiction became better known, writers started playing with the elements of the classic inheritance plot to mislead readers and subvert expectations. Common elements like a missing heir or an impersonation for profit begin to be used as red herrings or diversions as well as central plot devices. As a reader of these stories, you quickly learn to be on your guard when a prodigal son with a gambling problem turns up to make amends just before his wealthy father kicks the bucket — there’s a strong chance the solution is going to be a bit less obvious than that. But writers didn’t tire of these tropes just because they became popular. Far from it. One of John Dickson Carr’s best locked room novels, The Crooked Hinge from 1938, includes an impersonation element, as does Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar and 1965’s The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons. Once you start looking for them, you see the murderous heirs everywhere.

After the break: it’s time to talk about tontines.

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So far, we’ve talked about inheritance in mysteries in terms of the fundamentals, and I hope you can see now how fruitful that basic transaction between testator and beneficiary can be for an inventive crime writer. Now I want to look in detail at a few of the more baroque creations to come out of this subgenre. For some writers who were concerned with originality and intricate plotting more than they were with character and plausibility, there was no end to the esoteric variations they could dream up. I’m thinking of Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr particularly here, rather than Agatha Christie. Although rightly acclaimed as a Queen of Crime, this is one avenue that I don’t think Christie explored much, usually preferring more transparent, emotional motives. The slight of hand with the heirs in 1938’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas or the widespread obfuscation in 1936’s The ABC Murders is about as far as she goes in experimenting with this. 1953’s After the Funeral is a notable exception, and as such, one of my favourite of her novels.

So, let’s go diving into the strange fringes of the inheritance mystery. The first thing I want to look at is the tontine. This is a financial instrument that was first used in France in the seventeenth century and named for its supposed creator, a Neapolitan banker called Lorenzo di Tonti. This system works as a kind of life insurance, in which a group of people all pay into a central trust and each receive an equal annuity from the fund. As members die, their shares are redistributed among the survivors. Versions of this system are still used in some European countries for insurance and pension purposes, but there are restrictions on them in the US and the UK after public inquiries in the early twentieth century found that they were open to abuse.

The murder mystery almost writes itself, doesn’t it? Every time a contributor to the tontine dies, the rest receive more money. It’s not a big stretch to see how an unscrupulous murderer could make a tidy profit. Unsurprisingly, this somewhat obscure financial instrument has long been popular with fiction writers. In the late 1880s Robert Louis Stevenson and his step son Lloyd Osbourne co authored a novel titled The Wrong Box, in which two brothers are entered into a tontine as children with dozens of others. In old age, they embark on a series of blackly comic adventures in an attempt to be the last heirs standing and inherit the pot of money. I say blackly comic, because although there’s plenty of fun, swashbuckling escapades, the story is ultimately all about trying not to die before everyone else does.

Detective novelists took up this plot with alacrity. Too Many Cousins by Douglas G Browne from 1946 is a tontine novel. The book itself doesn’t quite live up the promise of its excellent title, which really gives you all the summary that you need. Dead March for Penelope Blow from 1951 by George Bellairs is a much better read. It features a large extended family, several of whom suffer “accidental” deaths. There’s a lot going on in this book, including a somewhat nineteenth century atmosphere, but the tontine will underpins it all.

There are also several examples of detective novels that use a tontine-like inheritance device, although it isn’t that exact financial instrument at work. Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel 4.50 from Paddington features a family oppressed by an unusual will. The grandfather made a huge fortune but didn’t trust his own son to dispose of it wisely, so left him only a life time interest in it, with the entire lot to go to the grandchildren. It’s done in such a way that every time one of them dies, their share is divided up between the rest, so although it’s not precisely a tontine, the effect is the same. It’s not quite so pronounced, but I think Police at the Funeral from 1932 by Margery Allingham shares some of these same characteristics. In that plot, an elderly woman is effectively holding her descendants hostage by keeping them on small incomes while she’s still alive, breeding resentment. They too work out that the fewer there are of them, the bigger their eventual share will be when she finally dies.

If you like obscure legal details — and who doesn’t — then you can’t do better for an inheritance murder mystery than the aforementioned Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is a favourite novel of mine and I’ve talked about it a lot on this podcast. I don’t want to say too much in case there are still listeners out there who haven’t read it yet, but there’s a very pronounced inheritance motive in this story, and it concerns the passing of a law in the mid 1920s that governs how wills work. Mr Murbles the solicitor has a prominent role in explaining how this all works to Lord Peter Wimsey, and it’s just as well that he does, because the reader very much needs his expertise to understand it as well.

In that book, the old woman who dies at the start has a complete horror of making a will, and flatly refuses to do so because she thinks it is tempting fate to talk about what should become of her property after she dies. Fortunately for us readers, wealthy characters in mystery novels don’t often feel like this. In fact, some of them delight in crafting wills of great complexity in order to satisfy their living urges towards revenge or justice.

Edmund Crispin’s most famous novel, The Moving Toyshop from 1946, contains just such a will. The beneficiaries are all strangers to each other as well as to the elderly lady who wants to pass on her money in this bizarre way. Naturally, they enter into an outlandish conspiracy in order to secure their inheritance, which Crispin documents in his usual farcical style.

Sayers also experimented with bizarre wills in a couple of short stories. In “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleaguer’s Will” from the 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, a niece with socialist inclinations has been neatly trapped by said uncle. He has written two wills, one in her favour and one in favour of the Conservative group the Primrose League. If she is smart enough to solve the mystery of where her will is, she gets the money and thus betrays her communist principles. If she can’t solve it, her political enemies will receive the fortune instead. It’s a neat problem, and a very funny read, especially for those who like crosswords.

Another story in the same volume, “The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach”, also deals with a whimsical inheritance. A friend of Wimsey’s receives an odd bequest from his Great Uncle Joseph — that relative’s stomach pickled in a jar. They dismiss this as an eccentric last act of an odd old man until another relative breaks in to steal the stomach, at which point they start paying a lot more attention to the precise wording of Great Uncle Joseph’s will…

These more excessively complicated inheritance stories might be a twentieth century invention, but the idea of asking “who benefits” from a crime goes back much, much further. Cui bono, a Latin phrase meaning literally “to whom is it a benefit?” was popularised by the Roman senator and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero. He used it in a speech he made in defence of a man suspected of murdering his father, and argued that just because the son had inherited, it didn’t prove that he’d committed the crime.

Inheritance is never as simple as it seems. There’s always a twist, somewhere.

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

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community, where we read books together and recently have been enjoying a group watching party for a detective fiction TV adaptation. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

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

 

38. The Collectors Transcript

Caroline: For some readers , whodunnits are transient, disposable things. Once you’ve read a murder mystery once, there’s no point keeping it or reading it again, according to this school of thought. You already know who did it, and there’s little use in   cluttering up your shelves with books that are now redundant.

But for others, this is complete heresy. It isn’t enough just to read detective novels once — we want to own them so we can return to them again and again. For me, there’s so much more to a good mystery than just finding out who the culprit was. Personally, I read my favourites at least once a year just to enjoy the atmosphere and characters.

Beyond the pleasures of rereading, though, lies a whole world of collecting. Lots of detective novelists who started writing between the world wars, like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, went on to publish dozens of books over their long lives, and you can collect them all. For some lesser known writers who are now out of print, just tracking down all their titles can prove to be a life’s work. And then there are different editions and covers from around the world, not to mention other associated ephemera like autographs, stamps, pens, film posters and more…

The perfect collection is never complete.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Books can be beautiful objects, as well as historical artefacts. There’s a particular kind of satisfaction you get from seeing a completed set up on your shelf, especially if you had to spend many hours in secondhand bookshops and charity shops to track them down. Of course this can be true for any kind of book, but golden age murder mysteries are especially suited to the amateur collector. This is partly because the period produced plenty of prolific authors, and partly because detective novels have always had a large audience, so there even for the rarest titles you tend to have at least some chance of finding a copy eventually and being able to afford to buy it.

It’s not important to everybody, I’m sure, but I also think there’s something special about reading a book from the 1930s in a copy that was published in the 1930s. Beyond just the cover art or dust jacket, even the typeface and page layouts can tell you something about how books were made then, and I enjoy absorbing all of that context alongside the story. And you learn new things all the time. I got a copy of Margery Allingham’s historical novel Dance of the Years for my birthday last month that was printed in 1943, and there’s a special stamp on the cover page that explains that the book was produced in accordance with wartime regulations on paper rationing, meaning that thinner paper was used to save resources. Turning those wafer thin pages makes me feel closer to the time when Allingham was writing it, and I think that’s a valuable experience.

But that’s just how I feel about collecting detective novels. Owning books is such a personal thing and our collections often represent emotional connections to the past that others will never be able to see from the outside. So to try and capture some of that for this episode I asked listeners to send in their own stories about what their detective novels mean to them.

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Lesley: I grew up in the sixties and seventies when Agatha Christies had covers painted by the illustrator Tom Adams. My mother didn’t think these were suitable, she worried that they would upset us because they had still lives of skeletons, skulls. I don’t know, nasty things. 

So she cut the covers off. And I grew up in a world where there were a few covers which we were allowed to see. But a lot of the Agatha Christies had no covers at all. When I was in my forties, I found that there were a lot of these in charity shops. And I began to collect them because some were familiar and they just brought back that time when I was a child and I was first reading Agatha Christie and some were new, some must have been the covers she’d cut off. So I began to collect them.  

At first it was easy. Some were much more common than others. And I built up my collection. But of course, there are over seventy Agatha Christie books and Tom Adams did at least one illustration for almost all of them. And for several he did two and even three different covers. So there were 100 plus to collect. The ones that I found most difficult were some early ones, like the first version of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? with the golf ball. But the one that really eluded me was the first version he did of Five Little Pigs, which is a cover with a kind of crazy paving background with a mini cannon on it and a ball of wool and a pipette. 

I searched and searched for this one. I couldn’t find it anywhere.  I looked online. I put a track on it on Abebooks, but absolutely nothing came back. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d even done it properly. A couple of years went by and then one day I saw a copy of it on eBay and was just beside myself with excitement. So I put a bid on it. I waited a week. I watched it every day. I couldn’t believe that I might not get it. I was so worried it would be snatched away. Anyway, I won the auction. I was absolutely delighted. And I got my beautiful copy of Five Little Pigs, illustrated by Tom Adams. And then I had an email from Abebooks books and they’d found it and I bought that one.  So now I have two. And that completed my collection of Tom Adams covers. And it was a really strange feeling. It was very connected into my childhood and my memories of the books that did have covers in the books that didn’t and my curiosity about what I’d missed. 

Caroline: The connection to childhood is something that came up in a lot of the stories that I received for this episode. Here’s Helene, a listener from France, explaining how her Agatha Christie books connect her to her family, and to a specific piece of furniture at her grandparents’ farm.

Hèlène:  I remember my grandparents farm. We went there like every three weeks with my mother and my sister. It was very modest and poor. They had like animals and garden and a field of cornfield. But they had a wardrobe that was magical. And in there it was a lot of books. Seventies and sixties editions of Christie novels, the Zola novels, the French writer in Emile Zola. Of course, they were all in French. Yeah. So whenever when we went there with my sister and my mother, we would be with my sister very bored because my mother and my grandparents would talk about people we didn’t know, like who died, who had kids, who got divorced, etc.  So we would go see the hands in the garden picking strawberries or tomatoes or parsley, would eat parsley from the stem and get lost in the cornfield, maybe get cherries off the tree, count the baby rabbits. This was all very nice and fine in summer, but in the winter it was cold and damp and we had the wood stove and everything. So we played Ludo. We played cards. We tried not to fall in the little water piece they had. And then we went to the magical wardrobe. 

It was different every time. Sometimes we’d spend hours there looking at every book and like cataloguing them and putting them in piles. And sometimes just as we went home was, oh, I need a book from the wardrobe. So it was a very large wooden dark wardrobe that had like napkins and such in it. And in the bottom part, it was like a pile of 100 or so books. And from this I read my very first Christie books. So in the end, when my grandmother left the farm, when she was, I don’t know, 88 or something, the shelf was empty and the books are scattered among the family. And I have some of those books and I think they are still my most beloved possessions. I don’t think I have any recent editions of Christie books in French because I have those and I just I can’t live without them, really.

Caroline: Handing books onto the next generation is a common tradition, and it’s never not wonderful as an adult to be the one who introduces a young person to the wonders of detective fiction for the first time. Except, as Mary’s story shows, creating an obsession with whodunnits isn’t always what the grown up has in mind…

Mary: I grew up in a small town in 1980s Ireland that didn’t have a library. I was lucky to be the youngest of a bookish family, and so there were lots of books in the house, but there was a definite emphasis on the classics. There were regular exciting parcels from America, though they came from my mother’s cousin Mary in New Jersey and were filled with exotic things like pencils that had our names printed on them and sachets of hot chocolate that had marshmallows in them. And from her husband, Norman, hardback books. Norman and Mary were in their seventies and had no children of their own. He was a great reader and wanted to get rid of as many of his books as possible before he died. He used to say frequently that he didn’t want his lawyers making a bonfire. They visited Ireland every summer. And when I was eight or nine, Norman stopped me in my uncle’s kitchen doorway and demanded to know what type of books I liked. Mysteries, I said, a bit stuck for an answer. Mysteries, he shouted, as if I couldn’t possibly have made a more disappointing response. 

Mary defended my choice and started listing books he could send me, they love to argue as loudly as possible. And that was the start of Norman sending me books. They would arrive in large padded envelopes, often full of dust. No letter, because he had arthritis in his hands. Just a book with a book plate inside the front cover saying it came from Norman and his address in Lakewood, New Jersey. I would write back a thank you letter and finish with my childish news and book reviews. I’d get another book in return. He sent me hardback American editions of Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey and crucially, Agatha Christie.

He still disapproved thoroughly of my love of mysteries, despite obviously owning so many himself. Every summer he would brusquely tell me so, you gotta stop reading those stupid mysteries. He’s sometimes tried to send me books he thought I should be reading, to which I owe an enduring love of Mark Twain. But mostly those choices didn’t work out. Norman died when I was 17. I’m 41 now. I’m still reading mysteries. The most prised books on my shelves are the ones Norman sent me. Particular favourites are a gorgeous edition of all the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories, a Cards on the Table that has a very pretty dust jacket. One of my favourite mysteries. And that first ever Mark Twain anthology, he sent me. 

Without Norman, I don’t know if I would ever have read some of those authors. I’m so grateful to him for taking the time. There’s a framed photo of us together on my landing. But I think it’s when I open a new mystery that I honour his memory most. The fact that it would really annoy him is just a bonus.

Caroline: Not everybody who collects detective novels wants to own them, though.

Brian: My name is Brian McGackin and I’m a poet and educator in Los Angeles. My first Agatha Christie book I got at a library book sale for about 25 cents. It was Postern of Fate, which isn’t really the best place to start. I didn’t have a really good idea who Tommy and Tuppence were, but I enjoyed the mystery and I enjoyed the writing. So I went back the next week and picked up the complete short stories of Miss Marple. I loved them. So I’ve been going back ever since, just picking up, you know, two, three, four books at a time. I got really lucky when my isolation period started that I had just gone and gotten Death on the Nile and a few others that I hadn’t read on before, Murder in Mesopotamia. So I met, I think, forty eight Agatha Christie books that I’ve read at this point, which is probably more than any other author I’ve read, but I don’t own any of them. I only get them from the library. And it’s been really kind of freeing because it would be daunting for me as somebody who normally loves collecting books, it’s freeing and refreshing to have at least one author that I will only get books from the library.

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Caroline: After the break: if you had a hundred thousand pounds, would you spend it on a book?

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about an offer I have with Audible that is a bit of a win win — you can get a free audiobook, and I get some money to put towards future podcast episodes. This is how it works: if you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription using the podcast’s link at shedunnitshow.com/audible, I get £5 back as a kind of finder’s fee. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy because I don’t have to give the fiver back! There are thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings. I’m an Audible subscriber myself, and I recently enjoyed David Timson’s reading of Ask a Policeman, which is a collaborative Detection Club novel published in 1933, in which authors like Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Gladys Mitchell borrowed each other’s detectives and wrote stories involving them. Highly recommend that. Visit shedunnitshow.com/audible and click the link at the top now to get your free audiobook and give the podcast some free money. Now, back to the show.

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You might have noticed that a lot of the people who sent in stories for this episode talked about Agatha Christie. I didn’t necessarily ask for responses just from Christie collectors, but it seems like her work is a common choice of quarry for detective novel hunters. And it’s easy to see why: she published more books, she had two very long running series detectives, and she’s also just more popular, so there are more editions and translations out there than with other authors. Her catalogue is absolutely perfect for the budding collector to get their teeth into, which is exactly what Audrey and her friend Emily did — they didn’t just try and acquire a copy of every Agatha Christie novel, they read them all too, and documented their experiences.

Audrey:  Several years ago my friend Emily and I spent an entire year reading all of Agatha Christie’s works and we decided to blog about the experience and document our adventure on social media. In the process of trying to acquire one copy of each of Christie’s numerous novels for our project, which we called the Year of Agatha, we ended up coming across quite a few different paperback iterations of her books. And that sparked the desire to become Christie collectors. Now, four years later, our combined Christie collection is in the hundreds. And just when we think we have found every beautiful cover, another one pops its way into our Instagram feed and we are on the hunt again. We are particularly fond of the Pocket Books paperback editions from the 1970s. Each book has a bold neon coloured cover with a small illustration on the front. As soon as you see one, you will die to have them all. I must admit, tracking down the final book from that set was one of the proudest moments of my life. Throughout our project and the subsequent sharing of our collecting endeavours on Instagram, we became connected with a host of Agatha Christie fans around the world as part of the bookstagram community. It has been such a joy to meet others who share the same passion we have for the queen of crime and the thrill of the book hunt. 

Caroline: In fact, collecting Christie is such a widespread activity that one avid collector started a website and Facebook community dedicated to the practice so as to help newcomers avoid common mistakes and scams. David Morris maintains collectingchristie.com, and has also been collecting detective novels and associated ephemera for much of his life. He grew up in Devon with an ambient awareness of Christie’s fame, but it wasn’t until he moved to America for college that he really caught the collecting bug.

David: While I was at university one day, I went into a used bookstore in the local city and on the shelves of the used bookstore found a copy of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in a dust jacket. It was a cheap reprint version by Triangle Books and again that visual imagery on the cover kind of attracted me and re-engaged me in reading Christie that I had kind of forgotten for a few years. And owning that book just really had a sense of kind of history in place and just kind of piqued my curiosity. And it was from that moment of finding a used hardback with a dust jacket that really kind of triggered a little kind of extracurricular activity on weekends while at university, which was to go around bookshops looking for books. And that’s really what kind of began the journey of used book collecting.

Caroline: David began where many of us do, picking up affordable used paperbacks in secondhand shops. But he then progressed to much rarer editions.

David: My most prized book edition would be the first U.S. of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  So that’s her true first edition. First ever, a published book was actually published in New York and The Mysterious Affair at Styles, certainly being the first book and the first one ever printed. Having that one is the one I cherish the most.

Caroline: Oh, and in case you were wondering, that’s not the only first edition that he has.

David: I have enjoyed collecting a full suite of UK first editions and the full suite of US first editions. I find both of them a great fun to collect. They have different cover art. A few of the books have different titles and some of the US ones were actually published before the UK ones.

Caroline: Just to give you some idea of the price you might pay for a really valuable first edition today…

David: A UK first edition from the 1920s in a dust jacket in a good condition, dust jacket will likely sell from anywhere between £30,000 to £100,000.

Caroline: He’s even waited for decades for the right book to come along, sometimes.

David: There was a book, but I had found in my early years in university it was actually a U.S. reprint of The Secret of Chimneys. It was the second edition in a dust jacket, and I had once had a book dealer friend who in my early days when I was a little more ignorant in this world of collecting, had motivated me to trade it for a few other books. Little did I know years later that that would be a jacket I would never find again, or I shouldn’t say never, but I didn’t find it in 30 years of looking for it. And then finally, one showed up that I stumbled on and of course, you know it was that journey for several decades that took me to find that perfect dust jacket. And it even though it was a reprint, I would say finding that one, is one of the finds that’s made me most happy because it replaced a piece of the bookshelf that I had unfortunately given away and never knew would be so hard to find again. 

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Caroline: Whether you’re in the market for a first edition worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, or hunting for that last 50p paperback that will make your set complete, there’s a thrill to book collecting that it’s hard to find anywhere else. And during this time when we can’t get out to secondhand bookshops or car boot sales or auction houses or libraries or any of the other places where you might usually look for your next book, I hope it’s been some kind of substitute to hear these stories from listeners about what they collect and why. Sometimes when I’m sorting out my own books, I wonder what the Agatha Christie of 1920, a novice author flush with success at the publication of her very first novel, might have thought if someone had told her that a hundred years later,  thousands of people all over the world would be diligently tracking down their favourite editions of her stories and lining them up with pride. I think she would have thought you were pulling her leg, and who could have blamed her?

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

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you can hear a bonus episode with all the collecting stories I received in full — do that now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

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

37. Bedside Manner Transcript

Caroline: Detective fiction works best when there are rigid structures that can be obeyed, subverted or undermined. The closed circle of suspects, the unbreakable alibi, the pact to play fair by the reader — all of these restrictions help to stimulate writers’ creativity. The presence of certain archetypal characters is part of this too, especially in crime writing from the 1920s and 30s. The detective, the Watson, the red herring, the least likely suspect, the elderly miser, the suspiciously hard up wastrel and so on are all very familiar to fans of whodunnits from this period. That classic Cluedo formula — Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick — didn’t come out of nowhere.

One of these character archetypes that never gets enough attention, I feel, is that of the nurse. She’s a regular presence in golden age detective fiction, providing crucial evidence in a poisoning plot or emerging as an unlikely suspect, but it’s not often that she gets to stand centre stage. There’s a wealth of fascinating historical change to the nursing profession reflected in these books, too if you only know to look out for it.

Today, we’re going to work on our bedside manner.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

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In real life, the role of nurses in Britain was changing rapidly during the period that detective fiction was growing in popularity. Florence Nightingale had come to prominence during the Crimean War in the 1850s, advocating for better organisation and training of nursing staff who could treat wounded soldiers more effectively. In 1859 her book Notes on Nursing was published, which set out principles of sanitary care and treatment that could be applied in the home or in a hospital setting. Her public profile and cultural cachet in Victorian Britain helped attract funding, and the following year the Nightingale Training School opened at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. It provided a year’s residential training for student nurses, one of the first institutions of its kind to do so. By the time The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was published in 1868 — which is often considered to be one of the first full length detective novels — the first few cohorts of Nightingale nurses were working in institutions around the country. The successor training schools to that first foundation still endure today, and in 1971 they acquired a connection with detective fiction when PD James published a mystery novel that was set in a nursing school called Nightingale House. Titled Shroud for a Nightingale, this dark, spooky mystery sees her detective investigate why student nurses are being bumped off before they can finish their course.

But back to the nineteenth century for second. To understand what these first Nightingale nurses, with their pristine uniforms and evidence-based training, were replacing, we don’t have to look much further than a character like that of Mrs Gamp in the 1844 Charles Dickens novel Martin Chuzzlewit. She’s a caricature of an untrained, sloppy, frequently drunk practitioner, who cares far more about what she can get for herself than she does about the health of her patients. The starched white caps of the women who trained at the Nightingale School stand in stark contrast to the battered black umbrella that Mrs Gamp always carried with her.

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw a crucial moment of transition for nursing. From Nightingale’s beginnings, which were funded by public donation and therefore leaned heavily on her own public profile, a more organised and professional system of training and practice was emerging. At the same time, the nature of healthcare itself in Britain was changing. Whereas before anyone could call themselves a “nurse” (including the Mrs Gamps of this world), the role was rapidly becoming codified and regulated as part of the medical profession. All of this influenced the nurse characters we see in whodunnits, and indeed it’s possible to track some of these changes through the ways they are reflected in detective fiction.

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But before we get on to the nurses of detective fiction, let’s dig a little deeper into what was happening for their real life counterparts. How would a young woman even go about becoming a nurse at the start of the twentieth century?

Rosemary: Well, the usual route would be to train through a hospital and then it was actually there were lots of opportunities to work as private nurses either hired out by the hospital or through nursing associations or agencies.

Caroline: This is Dr Rosemary Cresswell, senior lecturer in global history at the University of Hull. She has researched the history of nursing and first aid extensively, and is currently working on a history of the British Red Cross. If you’ve listened to the very first episode of this podcast, about surplus women, then you might recognise her voice, because she was one of my very first guests. Lovely to have her back again.

Being a nurse in 1910, say, didn’t necessarily mean that you would work in a hospital, though, even if that’s where you did your initial training.

Rosemary: Three or four years and three would be the normal I think by that time. Nightingale School is training for four years, that’s at St Thomas’s Hospital. It’s a serious training, you’d be expected to get experience in a variety of wards and types  of care. Whereas prior to Nightingale’s time you might have just been working with a particular doctor on a particular wards. You’d only know particular skills. So the training is very different by the early 20th century.

Caroline: The National Health Service in Britain wasn’t founded until after the Second World War, and in the couple of decades prior to that access to free healthcare was still extremely patchy. Wealthy people paid for their treatment privately and tended to prefer to be seen by their doctor at home, away from the risk of infection in public hospitals. But although medicine was changing at this time, there was still plenty of work for nurses in private practice within households.

Rosemary: This is in that period when the middle and upper classes are starting to go into hospital. Before that, they’ve tried to avoid being in hospital. They’ve been treated in their homes. So there’s still quite a lot of work in people’s homes. There’s also kind of increasing amount of nurses working in nursing homes as well. Convalescent homes. It’s a lot to do with the kind of aseptic care in hospitals from that time, it’s a lot more sanitary to be operated on, for example, in a hospital. But there’s still examples I’ve looked at myself in my own research of nurses being at least questioned in exams on carrying out surgery in the home into the 1930s. So it’s a period of transition, still, whether the wealthier classes are going to go into hospital or trying to be treated at home.

Caroline: Readers of detective fiction set around this time will be quite familiar with the nurse who is hired to live within a middle or upper class household to provide treatment to someone who is sick. Think of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, for instance, where elderly cancer patient Miss Dawson is tended to by a combination of the live-in professional nurse and her own niece, who also has professional training. Or of Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie, where Nurse O’Brien looks after Mrs Welman in her own home after she’s had a stroke. Or there’s The Blue Geranium, a story from the first Miss Marple collection, The Thirteen Problems, in which the invalid Mrs Prichard is looked after by a succession of private nurses, many of whom suspect that their patient doesn’t really have any physical ailments but rather only mental ones. Since detective stories quite often revolve around a crisis of health for one or more characters — either because of an attack of some kind like a poisoning or because there a natural death is imminent that will kick off a question of inheritance — nurses are regular presence.

At a time when it was by no means the norm that women worked outside the home, nursing was a vocation that was deemed socially acceptable even for well off young women to adopt. All the work that Florence Nightingale and her Victorian contemporaries had done to establish nursing as being about sanitary care and wellbeing had paid off, because the role of the nurse had acquired a sense of virtue and respectability. Still, as Rosemary says, it’s not as if debutants were flooding the wards all at once.

Rosemary: It’s obviously people who need employment and the intention from Nightingale’s time is to get a better educated class of women and to enter hospitals and training. But it’s still obviously it’s women who need to go out to work who are often training.

Caroline: Nurses were still by and large women who needed to earn their living. But as with many of the topics I cover on this podcast, the onset of the First World War was to completely change nursing as a profession. The huge loss of life on the battlefields of France created a massive demand for medical personnel, both in field hospitals and back in the UK as wounded soldiers were transported home for treatment and convalescence. Here’s Rosemary again to explain how this changed the way nurses thought about themselves:

Rosemary: There’s been a lot of discussion because of the First World War, and so the voluntary aid detachment members who had a much briefer training, although they’ve had considerable experience of work during the First World War. So by 1918-19, nurses really wanted to express that they’re a profession, they’d been trained thoroughly and they have a register for nurses by 1919. So this means that’s. So there’s a real identity for nurses I think by the 1920s that they’ve been trained, they’re professional, they want to set themselves apart from people who haven’t been. And there’s still lots of different ways you can go into heath care. There’s things like health visiting, you don’t necessarily have to have a nursing background for that. So these professions are starting to have that training identity very specifically, which I think midwifery’s had from 1902, so nursing is a little bit behind that because of all the debates about how do you say who’s a trained nurse.

Caroline: When we first meet Tuppence in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary from 1922, she has just been discharged from her role in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Among other things, as a VAD she had worked in a hospital as an auxiliary to the nursing staff (mopping floors, peeling potatoes and referring fights between Matrons about boiled eggs, as she memorably describes in the novel’s first scene). She clings to her job “like a limpet” for months after the Armistice, but is eventually dispensed with as the hospital goes back to a peacetime footing, a dismissal that ultimately plunges her into the mystery that makes up most of the book. Even though Tuppence doesn’t make a career as a nurse, her years working as a hospital ward maid had a great influence over the rest of her life — just like Christie’s own time as a VAD dispenser at the hospital in Torquay that I covered a couple of episodes back.

Nursing, whether as a professional engaged in a private capacity, or as a volunteer during the war, was an important shared experience for many of the women who lived through the first world war. After the Armistice in 1918 and the flowering of detective fiction that followed, it makes sense that the nurse as a character was present in plenty of those stories.

After the break: how are you feeling today?

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The nurse is such a useful character to the detective novelist. The role comes with connotations of all that is nurturing, compassionate and womanly, which can either make her a foil for evil elements elsewhere in the story, or provide a handy facade for a murderer in need of a disguise. The classic uniform of a nurse in the early twentieth century, with its folded and starched white cape covering the hair and some of the face, can make her an anonymous figure — did a witness really see a nurse they knew, or just someone else wearing the same outfit? And on top of these outer characteristics, her training gives the nurse a command of detail and plenty of experience in reading people.

The private nurse working within a middle class household also occupies a strange position, neither quite one of the family nor one of the servants. Like a governess or companion, she inhabits a liminal space in which her education and training command respect, but she’s still a working woman who is paid to be there rather than an invited guest or an equal. As such, she can observe moments from which a housemaid would automatically be excluded, and access parts of the house at odd times of the night under the cover of fulfilling her duties.

Now, I won’t spoil the plots of any of the stories that I’m about to mention, but I’m sure you can see from what I’ve outlined there how a nurse is perfectly equipped both to commit a clever murder, and to be the detective that uncovers such a plot. Detective novelists have used this archetypal character both ways with both success, and although I’m not going to reveal any solutions, I just want you to keep in mind that these characteristics cut both ways.

The nurse as detective has a distinguished pedigree, beginning with Grant Allen’s Hilda Wade from 1899. She’s a brilliant sleuth who solves medical mysteries with the help of her almost supernatural-seeming intuition (although as my guest laid out in the Victorian Pioneers episode of this podcast, what seems supernatural in a woman is considered just natural intelligence in a man like Sherlock Holmes). Allen actually died before fully finishing Hilda Wade, having dictated the final scenes from his death bed to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who polished it up before publication. As Rosemary explained earlier, Hilda Wade is working at a time when nursing isn’t quite yet a formally recognised profession, and there is also a sense with that character that if it was easier for a woman to become a doctor, she would be doing that instead. Still, it’s a great book and I highly recommend Hilda Wade as the matriarch of all the nurse sleuths who followed.

The writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes called “the American Agatha Christie”, trained as a nurse in Pittsburgh herself, graduating in 1896. She married a doctor and worked with him on surgical cases until financial hardship forced her to take up writing as well for an extra source of income. Unsurprisingly, she drew on her own professional experience for plenty of her books, and one of her most memorable creations is the private detective Hilda Adams, also known as Miss Pinkerton. A trained nurse, Adams is recruited in the first story, 1911’s The Buckled Bag, by one of her patients, who is a police detective. He is impressed by her competence and discretion, and of course quickly grasps the potential of having a detective who is also a nurse and can use her dual role to gather evidence for tricky cases. And it works — in the five Hilda Adams stories, she uses that ambiguous role of private nurse in a well to do household to gather clues and crack tough cases.

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As the golden age took over from the more swashbuckling, Holmes-esque stories of the late Victorian detectives, the nurses become more nuanced and ambiguous characters. Dorothy L. Sayers worked very successfully with this in 1927’s Unnatural Death. In this book, Mary Whittaker, a highly competent nurse who gave up her post in a London hospital to move down to the country and care for her ageing aunt, faces off against sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. He is investigating the suspicions voiced by Whittaker’s local doctor, who believes that despite appearances, the aunt did not die of natural causes (hence the novel’s title). Wimsey has a healthy respect for Whittaker’s intelligence and ingenuity, and Sayers plays nicely on that dual interpretation of a nurse’s skills — she could equally either be the wrongfully accused healer, or the cunning murderer.

There’s a nurse in Sayers’s 1930 novel Strong Poison too, who plays a minor but pivotal role. Miss Booth is a retired nurse who works in a private capacity caring for a wealthy but ailing elderly stage actress. This latter lady’s will is crucial to Wimsey’s investigation, and he dispatches Miss Climpson, the head of his “surplus women” investigative bureau, to find out everything she can about it. I talked more about the relationship that Misses Climpson and Booth strike up in the episode about spiritualism — because it is over a seance that they bond — but those scenes are a great example of how the presence of a private nurse can provide a detective with a way into a household that they otherwise have no business snooping around in.

Jumping forward a decade and a bit for a minute, a very similar plot device applies to Anthony Gilbert’s 1945 novel Don’t Open the Door, which was published in the US under the in my opinion better title of Death Lifts the Latch. Gilbert, by the way, was one of the pseudonyms used by the extremely prolific British mystery writer Lucy Malleson — I want to make a whole episode about her so I won’t get too into her biography here. Suffice it to say that she wrote a lot of mystery novels between 1925 and her death in 1974, and most of them have now quite unjustly disappeared out of print. Don’t Open the Door opens with a nurse, Nora Deane, making her way to her next private client through the fog. A man’s friendly voice guides her to her destination, but vanishes when she reaches the right doorstep. Nurse Deane’s patient then dies in the night, and later she herself disappears. Gilbert’s regular detective, the lawyer Arthur Crook, then enters and investigates all of these strange goings-on. In this story, the nurse is a witness and a potential victim, rather than a detective herself, but the story is no less enjoyable for that.

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Beyond the world of private nurses, there are a couple of notable examples where the nurse in a whodunnit is a district nurse responsible for caring for patients in a rural area. I already mentioned Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie from 1940, which features Nurse Hopkins — a well known figure in the local community where the death of an elderly lady has recently taken place. She’s one of the people present during a tea party that the results in the novel’s second death, and her evidence about some medical terminology is ultimately key to Poirot cracking the case. Later, the 1955 novel Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh uses the observations of District Nurse Kettle to frame the whole narrative. The story opens with her pen portrait of the village of Swevenings and its inhabitants, and ultimately closes with a similar recollection — with crucial updates after the events of the whodunnit have unfolded. Class is one of the big themes in this story, but the nurse moves easily between different households and can therefore see more of what goes on than an ordinary character would.

As I’ve talked about before, institutions like schools with regular timetables and routines work very well as settings for murder mysteries, and the same goes for medical establishments like hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. Marsh actually wrote a novel entirely around the latter premise, called unsurprisingly enough, The Nursing Home Murder. It was her third book, published in 1935, and sees her sleuth Roderick Alleyn investigate a case of what we might now call medical malpractice. A British MP is taken ill with appendicitis while speaking in the House of Commons and rushed to a nursing home for treatment. He dies shortly after the operation and his wife becomes convinced that someone used the appendectomy to kill her husband in a plausible and hard to detect manner. The surgical team, which includes several doctors and nurses, all come under scrutiny as potential suspects and their special roles in the operating theatre are examined for their potential for murder. As a closed circle story with lots of period medical details, this one can’t be beat, I think.

It’s also worth mention the Cherry Ames books, beginning with Cherry Ames, Student Nurse by Helen Wells, which was published in 1943. This is a really popular American mystery series in Cherry, a sleuth rather in the Nancy Drew mould, solves mysteries in the hospital she works in. They’re not really golden age and are more of a crossover with the kind of girls’ fiction popular in the 1940s, but they are still lots of fun and a good illustration of why the hospital setting can work well for mystery plots.

Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger shares some plot similarities with Marsh’s novel, although her story is set in a hospital during the second world war. Brand, by the way, also wrote the Nurse Matilda books that were subsequently adapted as the Nanny McPhee films. In Green for Danger, a nurse is the first murder victim after she blew the whistle on a dodgy operation during which the patient died. Like Alleyn, Brand’s sleuth Inspector Cockrill ultimately has to stage a recreation of the surgery to help get to the bottom of the mystery, so that he can see the hospital’s procedures in action and spot where the gaps are that the murderer has exploited.

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The more I’ve thought about nurses in detective fiction, though the more I come back to the double-edged nature of their role. All medicine relies on trust, because the patient must trust that those treating them are trying to help not harm. We put our faith in science, and those who have spent their professional lives delivering care. But in the context of a murder mystery, though, you can never be quite sure. Is the smiling, sympathetic young woman in the pristine white cap going to use her skills to save your life, or to bring it to an untimely end?

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

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

I’ll be back on 13 May with another episode.

36. The Hay Poisoner Transcript

Caroline: On 26 October 1921, a solicitor named Oswald Martin went to have tea with a fellow lawyer named Herbert Armstrong. The two worked for rival law firms in the town of Hay on Wye, which lies on the border between England and Wales. They were currently representing opposite sides in a local property dispute, but everything seemed amicable to Martin, and he chatted with Armstrong as they enjoyed the cake and scones Armstrong’s housekeeper had laid out.

At some point during the meal, Armstrong picked up a buttered scone and handed it to his guest to eat, asking Martin to “excuse fingers”. Later that day, Martin was taken very ill with what at first seemed to be a bilious attack, although he later developed a worryingly rapid pulse rate and a local doctor was called in to treat him.

It later turned out that during his tea with Armstrong, Martin had consumed a hefty dose of arsenic. His subsequent illness set in motion a train of events that led to an exhumation, an infamous trial and, eventually, an historic execution. The case was hailed by George Orwell as a grisly highlight of Britain’s “Elizabethan period” of murder, and it went on to exert great influence over crime writers working in the 1920s like Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley.

After all, isn’t a poisoner handing his victim a scone laced with arsenic during a genteel tea party just like something out of a golden age murder mystery?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my irregular series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. Today we’re going to learn all about Herbert Rowse Armstrong and how his adventures with arsenic in the early 1920s ended up being immortalised in fiction.

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There are so many aspects of the Armstrong case that seem to be lifted straight out of the pages of a 1920s whodunnit that it can be difficult to remember sometimes that the whole tale wasn’t constructed by a novelist for our amusement. Tropes that we’re so familiar with from detective fiction just keep surfacing. Probably the most obvious of these is to be found in the character of Armstrong himself. As well as being a solicitor, he was a church warden and a freemason, a well known and well liked addition to the town of Hay on Wye. He was married and a father of three children. As neighbours, strangers and journalists alike said after his trial, it would be hard to find a less likely murderer. Armstrong’s unlikeliness was even discussed by the characters in a real life detective novel, Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer, published in 1953. “Armstrong was a respectable little man no one ever dreamed would murder anyone, but he did, so it’s no use saying the motive isn’t strong enough,” one says to another. In novels at least, it’s always the person you least expect. Isn’t it?

There were perhaps a few clues in Armstrong’s background to his eventual fate, if one is willing to play armchair psychologist for a second in the best tradition of of the amateur sleuth. Although by 1921 he appeared to be a model of middle class prosperity, he wasn’t born into financial ease. He was born in 1869 in Plymouth to a colonial merchant and his wife, and grew up there and in Liverpool where — as far as I’ve been able to find out — the family’s fortunes were decidedly on the wane by the time Herbert was old enough to think about a profession. The generosity of two aunts enabled him to go to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to study law, and from then on he worked hard to achieve the kind of stability and social position that he hadn’t had as a child. Armstrong was also quite small in stature even as an adult, standing just over five feet in height and weighing around 7 stone. Both court reporters and later authors made much of this, suggesting that his lack of height and overt masculinity helped to make him into a murderer, but personally I’m not sure there’s much concrete evidence for that.

He moved to the Hay on Wye area in 1906, after successfully applying for a job in a law firm there, and a year later he married Katharine Friend. They had three children in quick succession, and in between work, parenting and church matters, Herbert also found time to take part in the Volunteer Force, a kind of proto Home Guard. That meant that when the First World War broke out in 1914, he was called up straight away. He served at various bases around the UK and was also deployed in France. He seems to have done well in the military — he had achieved the rank of Major by the time he was demobbed at the end of the war. He apparently liked to be called “Major” in civilian life afterwards, which is a fact that perhaps matches up with his lack of height and Poirot-esque moustaches in creating what became the public image of Armstrong as a shy, henpecked, status obsessed man with an inferiority complex.

I’ve talked a lot on this podcast about how the First World War was a great force for social change far beyond the battlefields, especially in relation to the roles and opportunities to women. Some men took advantage of the greater freedom and license the war years offered too, and Herbert Armstrong was one of them. Although his letters to his wife and children are affectionate, Armstrong, shall we say, lived it up during the war, starting a number of affairs and seemingly acquiring a taste for a secret life beyond his churchwardenly peacetime persona. Knowing this, with hindsight it’s not that surprising, then, that in 1919 his wife was suddenly taken ill.

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Amid all the publicity around Armstrong’s trial and what came after it, I think the sad fate of Katherine gets a bit lost in most of the accounts. In May 1919 she was taken ill with a mixture of symptoms including numbness, pain, headaches and gastric trouble. The local doctor, Thomas Hincks, was called in and diagnosed a kind of neuritis, which as far as I, as a non medical expert, can make out is a broad term given to a whole variety of problems that stem from nerve inflammation. After that initial attack, she recovered and didn’t see the doctor again for a year. But during the summer of 1920 she went downhill again rapidly, with her mental health affected too after weeks of being unable to get out of bed because of continual vomiting. Her doctor, apparently still not suspecting anything untoward, recommended that she go away for treatment at a private mental asylum called Barnwood.

While Katharine Armstrong was away, something rather extraordinary happened. A solicitor from another town in Wales was arrested upon suspicion of murdering his wife with arsenic. Mabel Greenwood had lived with her husband Harold and their four children in Kidwelly, a town about 70 miles west of where the Armstrong were based, until she died suddenly in June 1919 after a perfectly normal meal disagreed with her. Her husband Harold Greenwood then married another woman with what the local community considered to be unseemly haste, and there was a lot of gossip about whether Mabel had in fact been poisoned to make way for Harold’s new woman. This, too, to me sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, but it really did happen, and after about four months the accusations reached such a pitch that the Welsh police actually applied to the Home Office for permission to exhume Mabel’s body.

It was found to contain about half a grain of arsenic, and so a year after she died her husband was arrested for her murder. It caused a great sensation in the national press mostly because of how rare it is for a member of the legal profession to be tried for a major crime like murder. The publicity was such that Greenwood was able to secure the noted barrister Edward Marshall Hall to defend him. Known as “the Great Defender”, Marshall Hall had a great reputation as a brilliant orator and was very popular with the press. His defence for Greenwood relied on the fact that the police had no actual evidence showing that he had administered the arsenic to his wife, and made much of the fact that the whole thing had only ended up in court because of slanderous local gossip. Marshall Hall also spent a lot of time casting doubt on the forensic evidence and refuting the contradictory claims of various servants. And it worked: Greenwood was acquitted in November 1920, while Katharine Armstrong was away being treated for her own mysterious complaint at the private asylum. After the trial, Greenwood changed his name to Pilkington and moved to a different town with his new wife and lived an apparently blameless life until he died naturally in 1929.

Katherine began to improve as soon as she was admitted to Barnwood. She was extremely weak when she arrived and was experiencing serious symptoms like heart murmurs, but after about four months there she was well enough again to be discharged to be cared for at home. She arrived back at Mayfield, the Armstrong house near Hay on 22 January 1921, her apparently husband having driven to Gloucester to fetch her. Almost immediately, her mysterious illness returned and, weakened by the previous bout, Katherine went downhill quickly. Dr Hincks was puzzled as to why she should recover so positively at the clinic, only to relapse so utterly when she got home. Her husband was seemingly very concerned too, spending long hours by her bedside. Exactly a month after getting home from Barnwood, Katharine Armstrong died at home from her symptoms. Her death was recorded by the doctor as being caused by gastritis and heart disease and she was buried with all due ceremony. Nobody suspected anything.

At least, not yet.

After the break: how that scone triggered a murderer’s downfall.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to ask you a favour. Today, I’d like your help with a future episode of the podcast I want to make all about books, book collecting and the emotional attachments we develop to our personal libraries. If you have a story you’d be willing to tell about how you finally completed your Agatha Christie collection, or what it meant to you to track down a special edition of your favourite Margery Allingham novel, or how much happiness it gives you to look at your shelf of green triband penguins, I want to hear it. The best way to take part is to take a couple of minutes to sit in a quiet place and record yourself telling the anecdote on the voice memo app on your phone, and then send the resulting recording to caroline@shedunnitshow.com. You can also just email me and we’ll work something out together! I look forward to hearing your stories. Now, back to the show.

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In Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey tackles a very difficult case. He has plenty of reason to suspect that a murder has been committed but absolutely no way of proving it or even really investigating it in any meaningful way. Wimsey and his friend, the Scotland Yard inspector Charles Parker, discuss this endlessly throughout the book, wondering whether it’s really only the bad murderers who get caught. The ones like George Joseph Smith of “brides in the bath” fame that I talked about on episode 21 of this podcast who don’t seem to be able to stop once they had got away with a few times. Sayers’s novel was published in 1927, and she has Wimsey explicitly reference Herbert Armstrong a couple of times, as another example of someone who might have got away with their initial crime if they had only had some restraint. The serial murderer is such a staple of crime fiction, and Sayers uses it to great effect in this book, as her initial culprit commits more crimes as they try to thwart the investigation and get away with the initial killing.

If Herbert Armstrong had laid low after his wife’s death, he might have escaped detection altogether. Unlike in the Greenwood case, it seems that there was little or no speculation that Katherine had been poisoned in his town. Later, it did emerge that Herbert had a “lady in Hampshire” to whom he had proposed marriage in the aftermath of his wife’s death, but this wasn’t well known and there was no community outcry. He continued to practise law in Hay on Wye and live at Mayfield. Two of his children were away at boarding school but the youngest still lived at home, and there were three servants in the household.

During the summer of 1921, Armstrong got involved in a local property case. There is some speculation that he was already in some financial difficulty, and if the decision went against him in this case he would be personally liable to pay back a deposit of £500 he had taken for the sale. During his trial, much was made by the defence of the fact that although Herbert had inherited his wife’s estate of several thousand pounds, he had not attempted to touch the money (suggesting that his money problems were not that bad). Regardless of how much or little debt he was in, Armstrong obviously decided that he could not pay the deposit back. Oswald Martin, another Hay on Wye solicitor, kept chasing him for the money and Armstrong kept evading him.

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That’s how the pair came to be having tea on 26 October 1921 — Martin assumed the invitation had been extended so they could finally sort out this matter of the missing deposit. In fact, he said later, Armstrong seemed mostly interested in talking about local matters and even mentioned how he felt lonely after the death of his wife. She had been dead about eight months at this point, and there was as yet no suspicion associated with her passing.

In the end, it was the smallness of the town that really did for Armstrong, because when Martin was taken ill after that suspicious scone, it was the same doctor who had attended Katherine Armstrong who came to treat him. Dr Hincks immediately recognised Martin’s symptoms as similar. At the same time, Martin’s father in law, John Davies was having his own misgivings. He was a pharmacist, and had recently sold several packets of arsenic to Herbert Armstrong, supposedly so that the latter could kill the dandelions in his lawn. Knowing something about poisons, Davies put together this sale of poison with his son in law’s symptom’s after eating Armstrong’s food, and came to the conclusion that something nasty was going on. The three of them — Martin, Hincks and Davies — pooled their information and also realised that Mrs Martin’s sister in law had recently become ill after eating chocolates from a box delivered anonymously to their house a few weeks before. Upon inspection, these were found to have been tampered with, with a nozzle-sized hole in the bottom of each chocolate showing where another substance had been injected. The doctor sent some of Martin’s urine off for analysis, and when it tested positive for arsenic he alerted the Home Office as to his suspicions.

We’ll never know whether Herbert Armstrong was inspired by what happened to Harold Greenwood, or if it was just a coincidence that another solicitor in the same area was tried in a very similar case around the same time. We can be reasonably sure that he knew what had happened, though — local papers show that the tragedy of Mabel Greenwood’s and her husband’s subsequent marriage and trial were big news in Wales in the early 1920s. The authorities were also very aware of this case, and trying to avoid another high profile acquittal of a solicitor was a big reason why the police moved so slowly and cautiously in Armstrong’s case. Oswald Martin was advised by Scotland Yard not to accept any more invitations to tea or to eat any food sent anonymously to his houses, but it took several months for police to gather evidence.

In the meantime, Armstrong was passionately pursuing Martin, issuing regular invitations to have tea or dinner at his house. Martin couldn’t let Armstrong know what was going on behind the scenes, but he also couldn’t risk eating another poisoned scone, so he ended up making up farcical excuses as to why he couldn’t come round. Armstrong, meanwhile, became more and more pushy. The two solicitors had offices near to each other, and at one point Armstrong took to having his housekeeper from home come and set up tea in his office so that he could ring Martin and say ‘come round now! it’s all ready!’, thus putting his fellow lawyer on the spot. Martin managed to evade all of these traps, though, and Armstrong was eventually arrested on New Years Eve, 1921.

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When the police took him, Armstrong actually had a packet of arsenic in his pocket, which looked particularly bad for him — almost as if he was making sure he was ready to poison someone at a moment’s notice. Dorothy L. Sayers borrowed this detail for her 1930 novel Strong Poison, which also deals with arsenic. Armstrong was a keen gardener and he stuck to his story throughout that he had been using arsenic to kill dandelions, but he didn’t have an adequate explanation as to why he separated his poison out into individual little packets that could be easily hidden in a suit pocket rather than just pouring it straight into the ground to kill the weeds. After he was arrested, the Home Office gave permission to exhume his wife, and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury was dispatched to Wales to collect evidence for a belated post mortem.

You might remember Spilsbury from a couple of previous episodes of the podcast. He was rather famous by the 1920s because of his evidence as an expert witness in the Crippen case in 1910 and the Brides in the bath murder trail in 1915. He was the one who opined on that bit of scar tissue purported to be from Cora Crippen, and who nearly drowned a volunteer lady swimmer by accident while trying to prove how a woman could be overpowered and drowned in her own bathwater. His involvement in the Armstrong case, therefore, helped to attract greater public attention to it.

Spilsbury found that Katherine Armstrong’s body was exceedingly well preserved, far better in fact than one would expect of a corpse that had been buried almost a year. He discovered a good deal of arsenic still present in the organs, and deduced that a major dose of the poison had been administered in the 24 hours before death. This contradicted Dr Hincks’s theory that Katherine had died of gastritis, and opened up the possibility that Oswald Martin was not Herbert Armstrong’s first victim. Since Martin had eventually recovered from the scone, it was with the murder of his wife that Herbert Armstrong was charged in January 1922.

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Martin Edwards says in his excellent book The Golden Age of Murder that the novelist Anthony Berkeley “took a special delight in identifying with meek middle class professional men who found themselves driven to murder”. Berkeley, who was unhappily married and had extra marital affairs, seemed to identify with men like Crippen and Armstrong who had strong willed wives who didn’t survive very long. The newspapers of the time were full of gossip that Katherine Armstrong had only allowed her husband to smoke in one room of the house, and prevented him from drinking alcohol most of the time — clearly grounds for doing away with her. The whole idea of a husband being ‘henpecked’ and a wife ‘domineering’ seems extremely loaded and misogynistic to me, but that’s very much the lens through which this stuff was seen at the time.

Herbert Armstrong’s trial was very inspiring to Berkeley, who used it as the basis for his 1931 novel Malice Aforethought, published under the pseudonym Francis Iles. In this inverted mystery the reader is taken inside the mind of Dr Bickleigh, a mild mannered GP who poisons his wife in order to be with another woman. We see Bickleigh’s trial from his own perspective, knowing from the very first line of the book that he is guilty, yet somehow Berkeley makes the reader root for him to get away with it.

Herbert Armstrong maintained his innocence throughout, but he did not get away with it. Although the police didn’t actually have any evidence that he had administered the fatal dose of arsenic to his wife, his possession of a large quantity of the poison and the way in which her health had dramatically improved when she was away from him was enough for the jury to find him guilty. His appeal against the verdict was dismissed and he was executed at Gloucester prison on 31 May 1922, becoming the only solicitor in British history to be hanged for murder.

It’s fitting, I think, to give the last word on this much-fictionalised story to a fictional detective. As Peter Wimsey says in Unnatural Death: “Armstrong is supposed to have got away with many more crimes than he was tried for—it was being clumsy over Martin and the Chocolates that stirred up the hornets’ nest in the end.”

If Armstrong hadn’t tried to kill someone with a scone, his subtle, progressive poisoning of his wife would probably never have been discovered. Which makes you wonder: how many smarter murderers have managed to stop after their initial success and thus got away with their crimes? We’ll never know.

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

Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join. This month, the book club is reading Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham together and there’s still plenty of time to join in.

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

35. The Dispenser Transcript

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the break: the fashion in poisons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Happily Ever After Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33. All At Sea Transcript

To download the mp3 of this episode click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Prejudices.