Category: Transcripts

16. Florence Maybrick I Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

This is the story of Florence Maybrick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that, after the break.

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If you enjoy listening to stories about detective fiction on this podcast and you need something to tide you over between episodes, and you’d also like to support the show while getting a nice freebie for yourself, I have an affiliate offer with Audible that does just that. If you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription, the podcast gets a nice little bonus and you get a free audiobook. Visit shedunnitshow.com/audible to see a list of my favourites, including titles from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, and when you click the link there to sign up, you’re also telling Audible about your support for the show so that I earn a bit of money I can put towards the production of future episodes. There’s thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy. Find out more about the offer and sign up at shedunnitshow.com/audible. Now, back to the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Into The River.

15. Period Style Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. This is a new Hercule Poirot story, set in 1930s London, and a stylish, clever mystery. From the start, the world-famous Belgian detective is puzzled — he returns home from lunch one day to find an angry woman waiting outside his door, demanding to know why he sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of a “Barnabas Pandy”. Of course, Poirot has no idea what she’s talking about. But inside his flat someone else is waiting with a very similar story, and it quickly become clear that something very sinister is going on. The little grey cells must be called into action once more, if Poirot is to get to the truth before anyone is harmed.

The Mystery of Three Quarters is a Sunday Times bestseller, and the Sunday Telegraph said that “what Sophie and Agatha have in common is a rare talent for fiendish unpredictability”. If like me you’ve enjoyed Poirot’s previous adventures, you’ll definitely want to get stuck into a copy of this too. The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah is out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook, so get your copy today. You can also enter a competition to win your very own copy of The Mystery of Three Quarters — just send a quick email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be in with a chance of getting your hands on one. There’s no special phrase or question required, just send an email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be entered.

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

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

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

For Jacqueline, the period almost came before the characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Arsenic, Interrupted.

14. Pseudonyms Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Period Style.

13. The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh Transcript

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

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

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

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

Now, on with the show.

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that, after the break.

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

The Mystery of Three Quarters is Sophie Hannah’s third novel featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. It’s a Sunday Times bestseller, and a surprising, twisty read. The Sunday Telegraph said that “what Sophie and Agatha have in common is a rare talent for fiendish unpredictability”. If you’re a fan of the Poirot stories — and I know lots of you are — you’re going to want to check this out too. The Mystery of Three Quarters is available now in paperback, ebook and audiobook, so get your copy now.

You can also enter a competition to win your very own copy of The Mystery of Three Quarters — just send a quick email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be in with a chance of getting your hands on one. There’s no special phrase or question required, just send an email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be entered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Pseudonyms.

12. Round Robin Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Writing is a solitary pastime. To invent the characters and stories that readers love, most authors have to lock themselves away from the world, avoiding company and interruptions until the blank page is filled.

Not everyone wants to spend all their time hunched over their work, though, and the writers of detective fiction in the 1930s were no different. Anthony Berkeley, the creator of the sleuth Roger Sheringham, began organising regular dinners for his fellow detective authors in 1928. This gathering eventually evolved into a more formal organisation called the Detection Club, which numbered Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ronald Knox, Emma Orczy and others among its founding members. They dined together, they drank together, and sometimes, they wrote together.

The novels they collaborated on aren’t necessarily among the best-known works of detective fiction, but they’re fascinating all the same. We’re so used to the idea of a whodunnit being constructed by a single all-knowing author, who invents the solution but keeps it hidden from the reader until the last minute. What happens when a dozen writers work together on the same plot?

Today, we’re delving into the round robin.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to take a look at the multi-author detective stories from the early days of the Detection Club that were written in the round robin format, such as Behind the Screen, The Scoop and The Floating Admiral. Is it possible to construct a compelling whodunnit this way, or is it the case that too many cooks spoil the broth? Let’s find out.

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First, let’s look at this idea of the “round robin”. It’s a phrase that has a variety of meanings in different contexts, but they all share a common sense of “rotation” or “passing around”. In sport, the phrase denotes a tournament in which each competitor plays all of the others, and in computing it refers to a kind of algorithm used to schedule processes in a sequential and equitable fashion. For our purposes, the most relevant point of origin comes from the practice of creating round robin petitions in the 18th century. These were often contentious political statements or controversial demands, so all the signatories would write their names in a big circle at the bottom of the document so no one person appeared at the top and therefore it was harder to punish an individual for the action of the group. It’s no longer the case that people sign things in a circle, but the term is still used to describe a petition that is signed by a group collectively.

In relation to fiction, the phrase “round robin” has a similar meaning — each writer completes a chapter or section, passing the manuscript on to the next person in the group when they’re finished, until the story is completed. It’s long been popular as a method of composition, with science fiction and erotica examples from the nineteenth century. There was precedence in the crime and thriller arena too. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and in whose shadow all the detection novelists of the 20th century worked, was one of 24 authors who wrote sections of an 1892 collaborative novel called The Fate of Fenella, alongside Bram Stoker, Frances Eleanor Trollope and Florence Marryat. In the last few decades, the practice has found a new home, with fan communities on forums or email lists writing fanfiction this way.

The members of the Detection Club first became involved in constructing round robin stories through broadcasting, rather than publishing. The BBC had been founded in London in 1927 and was in search of compelling speech programmes to get new listeners to tune in. The Talks Department approached six of the best-known detective novelists of the day — Hugh Walpole, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, E. C. Bentley and Roland Knox — about creating a round robin detective story for the radio. The format they settled on is both a formal test for the writers and an excellent way of engaging listeners with the BBC — today’s audience experts would do well to take note.

The plan was this: each author would write one of the story’s six sections, with the first three aiming to set up the clues and then the latter trio unravelling them. Every Saturday evening for six weeks each author would deliver their part of the story live on air, and it would then be published a few days later in The Listener magazine. Then at the end of the run the audience would be invited to write in with their solutions to the mystery in the form of answers to three questions about the plot, and a winner would be chosen from those who got closest to who actually dunnit.

Sayers managed the whole project, keeping in touch with her fellow authors and also the editors at the BBC about their progress. Walpole, who was to go first, circulated a synopsis for the whole story too so that they all had an idea of the sphere in which they were working. Each section was short, around 1,800 words, so the resulting story isn’t a long one, but apparently it was still difficult for Sayers to get her fellow writers to deliver on time (in his book about the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards points out that Christie was particularly troublesome in this regard). I suppose this is one of the downsides of collaboration, and of broadcasting — you have to write strictly to someone else’s timetable.

The story that resulted from this process, Behind the Screen, was a success with listeners who heard it on the radio in June and July 1930, despite the behind the scenes anxieties. It’s an enjoyable, fast paced little mystery, hovering somewhere between a short story and a novel (perhaps it’s what we would call a novella, although I’ve never been sure exactly what the word count for that is). Walpole sets the scene with some exciting, fast-paced writing, describing how a young medical student called Wilfred Hope discovers the body of the mysterious lodger, Mr Dudden, fatally wounded in the neck and spouting blood behind the Japanese screen in the drawing room. Christie follows on with a chapter mostly composed of dialogue, and she brings the characters to life through their speech in the aftermath of the discovery. Then comes Sayers, who with characteristic precision looks at the weapon, the bloodstains, and the beginnings of the police investigation. Anthony Berkeley and E.C. Bentley bring in more clues and characters, building sometimes haphazardly on what went before, and then finally Ronald Knox winds the whole thing up to its startling conclusion.

The BBC had 170 answers to their listener competition about the solution, and nobody got it completely right. They awarded the ten guinea prize to Miss E.M. Jones of Birmingham “in view of the excellence of her answers to [questions] a and b”, even though she didn’t get c right. The story is certainly readable enough, even if the emphasis on certain aspects feels a bit disproportionate in light of the solution, as the writers set up clues their successors chose not to make great use of, and so on. It’s also worth noting that Ronald Knox’s solution most certainly does not obey the rules he had set out in his “decalogue” of restrictions for detective novelists — for more about this, do have a listen to episode nine of this podcast where I talked about it in more detail. This certainly wasn’t the first or indeed the last murder mystery to be opened up for competition, either. I’ll talk more about that in a future episode.

Behind the Screen was enough of a success that the BBC came back to Sayers and asked her to organise another round robin mystery story for the following year, although the people at the Talks Department did deplore the persistent lateness of the contributions from the various detective novelists, who were presumably mostly unused to writing to a tight deadline like this. In 1931, another group of Detection Club authors made The Scoop in a similar fashion with the BBC, although Walpole and Knox were replaced by Freeman Wills Croft and Clemence Dane. Once again, it was popular with listeners and brought welcome publicity to the authors involved. The round robin format worked for detective fiction, even if the process of writing for the BBC brought headaches. What if, Sayers wondered, the Detection Club could produce a mystery novel all by themselves?

Find out how that went, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the sleuthing stories to ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really appreciate it if you’d spend three minutes filling out the audience survey I’m currently running for the podcast, which you can find at shedunnitshow.com/survey. It’s just a few questions about how you listen to podcasts and what you’d like to see me do with the show, to help me with some decisions I’m making at the moment about how to keep this thing running in the future. And to say thank you, once you’ve taken part, I’ll enter you into a raffle to win a cherished vintage detective novel. That’s how much I appreciate your help: I am willing to go to the Post Office for this. Right, on with the episode.

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The Detection Club really wanted to have their own permanent meeting rooms in London — a club house, if you will, for them to use for their dinners and conversations. But in order to have premises, they needed funds. To raise this money, they decided to write a book, using the collaborative round robin format from the BBC broadcasts but with a few extra refinements. These took the form of two rules, set out by Sayers in her introduction to the final volume. Firstly, each author, no matter where their chapter came in the sequence, must write with a definite solution in mind, and indeed had to share this solution to be published in an appendix with the others at the back of the book. Then secondly, nobody was allowed to add complications for the sake of it — meaningless red herrings were banned — and each writer must try and explain in their section what their colleagues had written before. And then in addition to these restrictions, there was no overall synopsis or outline sketched out by the group. The chapters were written in order, with each author only able to read the instalments that preceded their own before they began writing.

The book that emerged from this convoluted writing process was published at the end 1931. The Floating Admiral was on the cover attributed to “certain members of the Detection Club”. It had 12 chapters, each written by a different detective novelist (other than chapter two, which was written jointly by the habitual husband and wife writing duo GDH and Margaret Cole). It also had a prologue written after the whole manuscript was complete by the Club president GK Chesterton. Canon Victor Whitchurch, who usually wrote railway-based detective stories that I like very much alongside his day job as a Church of England clergyman, kicked the whole thing off with a chapter entitled “Corpse Ahoy!”. He set the scene, with old countryman fishing enthusiast called Neddy Ware getting up early to try his luck in a nearby river, only to sink his hook into the local vicar’s rowing boat which is bobbing freely on the incoming tide. Inside, he finds the bloodstained body of Admiral Penistone, who lives in a house further up the river, still in his evening dress from the night before.

After Whitchurch, who actually died not long after working on this book, came the chapter by the Coles, and then contributions from Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Croft, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley. Each tried to abide by the rules that Sayers had laid down, keeping the threads from the previous chapters running and only writing with a definite solution in mind. Poor Inspector Rudge, the police detective mouthpiece for all of these sleuthing experts, is run ragged by all of the different approaches to solving the crime. They have him driving all over the place, dashing up and down the river in boats, and taking trains to London with far greater energy than a detective in a golden age book usually exhibits. It’s all entertaining, if very obviously uneven and jerky in places, and somehow the story just about gets to the end without completely falling apart.

The chief joy in this and I think all round robin stories is getting to compare the varying styles and approaches of the different authors up close. We all have our favourites and preferences, but it’s not often that you get to see them cheek by jowl like this and contrast their handling of the same characters and events. For instance, I really like Agatha Christie’s chapter in The Floating Admiral, which is titled “Mainly Conversation”, in which she introduces Rudge to a garrulous pub landlady who conveniently confirms some alibis and busts others. I do not really enjoy Ronald Knox’s contribution in this book, the chapter headed “Thirty Nine Articles of Doubt”, during which he has Rudge sit at a desk and work his way through 39 points of interest from the case in a long list — I just find it quite dull and procedural compared to the hectic energy of the rest of the book. In the same way, I really like Clemence Dane’s chapter in The Scoop, because she gives much greater emphasis to the character of newspaper secretary Beryl Blackwood than the preceding authors had done, and pens a chapter in which Beryl goes shopping, accidentally buys a puppy and through her own investigative efforts makes a major discovery about the murder weapon. By contrast, the more conventional following-up of clues that E.C. Bentley offers just seems less fun to me.

The chapter headings in The Floating Admiral are worth paying attention to, because I feel that’s where you get little peeks into how the authors were feeling as they worked on this unwieldy project. The fifth writer, John Rhode, ambitiously titled his “Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory”, only to be contradicted by Milward Kennedy in the very next one with “Inspector Rudge Thinks Better Of It”. And perhaps best of all is Anthony Berkeley’s concluding section, which is called “Clearing Up The Mess”. Berkeley certainly had the hardest job here, and it took him dozens of pages and multiple sub sections to get the whole plot to a point where he could reasonably reveal a murderer.

The solutions that each author wrote, too, are a delightful part of this book. Some, like Sayers, chose to write entire background essays about the characters involved, filling in all their relevant actions before the book begins. Others, such as Clemence Dane, were far more succinct and frank about the difficulties they had faced in producing their chapters. Dane’s chapter was the eleventh in the book, so she was the last to contribute her possible solution as Berkeley’s actually appeared in the book itself. She sets out an idea for what her bit could lead, and then says: “I am, frankly, in a complete muddle as to what has happened, and have tried to write a chapter that anybody can use to prove anything they like.” Not strictly according to Sayers’s rules for the story, perhaps, but an illuminating insight into the difficulties of trying to wrap up a story where a dozen people have a hand in the plot.

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The Floating Admiral was enough of a success to enable to Detection Club to rent two small rooms in Soho in central London — their longed-for club meeting rooms. The authors also went on to work together again throughout the 1930s on subsequent collaborative novels and collections, although as far as I can tell they never repeated the precise round robin format of The Floating Admiral. There was more fiction, in the form of Ask a Policeman, non-fiction essay about true crime in The Anatomy of Murder, and the unusual Six Against the Yard, in which six authors wrote “perfect murder” cases for a retired Scotland Yard detective to critique. The practice of these collective books slowly fell out of favour as the founding members of the club drifted away or died, but a couple more were published after the Second World War, including the round robin No Flowers By Request in 1953. Short story anthologies have been more popular in recent years, presumably because they’re easier to write and to organise, and are just as good at bringing in funds.

Because the Detection Club still exists today, although not in exactly the same format as it did when Berkeley, Sayers, Christie and co were writing about poor old Admiral Penistone. It no longer has rooms in Soho, but it does number some of today’s top crime novelists among its members, and they meet a few times a year for dinner and shop talk. And in 2016, a loving tribute to the original round robin enterprise was published in the form of The Sinking Admiral — a collaborative crime novel about a dilapidated seaside pub and its unfortunate landlord. There were a few key differences in approach from the modern Club members: for instance, no one author is identified with a single chapter, but the introduction rather explains that a synopsis and outline was worked out at group meetings and then different writers wrote particular sections or scenes according to their own skills and interests. It’s not really a round robin in the strict sense either, because it wasn’t passed around and added to sequentially. However, it’s an enjoyable modern crime novel with some nice vintage touches and references to the original, and certainly reads much more coherently than the original effort. For all that I applaud Dorothy L. Sayers’ strictness about the format, she wasn’t exactly making it easy for her fellow authors.

But then perhaps that was the point. She wanted a challenge, to stretch herself and her colleagues and see what they could do together with detective fiction that might have eluded them as individuals. Some might criticise detective fiction as formulaic, but there’s absolutely nothing predictable about the round robin novels from the 1930s. Most of the time, even their authors didn’t know whodunnit.

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/roundrobin. There, you can also read a full transcript.
One more reminder to take part in the audience survey and win a copy of a detective novel — head to shedunnitshow.com/survey to do that. I’m so grateful to those who have already done it — it’s all really useful information that will help me make the show better and keep it running long term.
I’ll be back on 3 April with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: Ngaio Marsh.

11. The Other Detectives Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Some sleuths need no introduction. They are constantly re-incarnated on television, on stage, in films, in new novels. Fans pore over the books and stories in which they appear, passionately discussing and dissecting new interpretations. Characters like Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, Roger Sheringham, Jane Marple, Father Brown and others may have been created 80 odd years ago, but they feel just as alive and present as if their authors had only just set down their pens.

But the authors of this period frequently had multiple detective characters who they returned to in different novels and stories. These others didn’t necessarily attract the fame or following of their primary sleuths at the time, and so have since tended to fade into the background compared to their more ubiquitous colleagues. It’s about time they had some share of the limelight.

Today, we’re on the hunt for the other detectives.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is the first episode in what I expect will be an occasionally recurring sequence, where I delve into the backstories of some less well-known sleuths from the golden age of detective fiction. I bow to no one in my admiration of Miss Marple, but just for now, we’re going to spend some time with those creations that don’t receive multiple TV adaptations, and languish in undeserved obscurity.

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The obvious place to start as we look for overlooked detective characters is with the work of Agatha Christie. She’s not called the queen of crime for nothing: she published 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as her other fiction and plays, during the course of her seven-decade writing career. While she is best known for creating Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, she also had other recurring sleuthing characters, including Tommy and Tuppence, Superintendent Battle, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite, and it’s a few of these that I want to talk about now.

Each of these characters allowed Christie to expand her range and develop her mastery of the whodunnit form. She tended to dip in and out of their stories, rarely publishing consecutive novels or stories featuring her lesser-known detectives, but just dropping in on them in between outings for Poirot or Marple. I find this fascinating with Tommy and Tuppence, for instance, who she created very early on in her career. They also age substantially from book to book, unlike her other sleuths, who stayed pretty much exactly the same over the decades.

They have received a few TV adaptations, by the way, most recently done by the BBC in 2015 starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine. Christie herself is so famous and such an acknowledged master of the detective genre that her ‘other’ detectives perhaps still get more attention than those of authors with a lower profile. The books, however, rarely appear in lists of her most popular works and I frequently find that even self-confessed fans have never delved into them.

Tommy and Tuppence first appeared in 1922’s The Secret Adversary, which was the second ever novel of Christie’s to be published. In that story, which leans heavily on espionage and thriller tropes as well as including detective elements, the titular characters are young, bored and searching for post First World War careers that will bring them money and adventure. It’s a bit of a romance as well, as we see them grow together over the course of the investigation (although I would argue that Tommy adores Tuppence long before the beginning of the book).

Then they next turn up in 1929’s Partners in Crime, which is a hilarious series of short story parodies in which Tommy and Tuppence are posing as private detectives. They solve each case in a style that imitates other authors’ famous sleuthing characters, from R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke to Baroness Orczy’s unnamed armchair detective from her novel The Old Man in the Corner to Christie’s very own Hercule Poirot. They’re still the incorrigible young people we recognise from the first novel, and their dynamic is very similar.

Over a decade then passed before their next outing in N or M?, a novel published in 1941. Time has skipped and Tommy and Tuppence are now middle-aged parents living through the Second World War. Once again their investigation is focused on espionage, with them going under cover and various slapstick escapades ensuing. Although the tone is still light, there is more shadow in this book. Tuppence particularly is dissatisfied with her life, and which she feels is less useful than it has been. This continues in 1968’s By The Pricking of My Thumbs, in which Tuppence is feeling quite old suddenly. It deals with themes of ageing and concealment, and although it’s a bit wacky in places, I still find this book deeply creepy. This is a feeling that isn’t helped by the fact that my cheap paperback copy has a drawing of what looks like the severed heads of babies on the cover.

Finally, the pair re-emerge for the last time in 1973’s Postern of Fate, which is the last book that Christie wrote before her death in 1976 (although not the last to be published, we’ll talk more about her posthumous publications in a future episode). They are elderly, and seeking a quiet retirement in an English village, only to be disturbed by a past case that resurfaces. It’s an uneven book, but still has moments of thrill in it. As far as I can work out, though, it’s never been adapted for film or TV — perhaps ageing detectives, especially when they aren’t the famous ones, aren’t quite so attractive. It’s an interesting literary trope, though, and quite rare for the genre, to have recurring sleuth characters whose lives continue between books, and whose ages are quite so integral to each plot. No doubt this was a big reason why Christie kept returning to Tommy and Tuppence. She couldn’t start allowing Poirot and Miss Marple to get any older (not least because their timelines don’t really work with how long their lives continue in the books anyway) but with these lesser-known characters, she could try her hand at writing a different kind of backstory for her detectives.

Christie’s other detectives each provide her with a different realm of experimentation. Superintendent Battle allows her to work with an active policeman (rather than a retired one in as in Poirot’s case). Ariadne Oliver is herself a detective novelist and approaches cases from a sometimes muddled literary perspective — some have even argued that she’s a thinly veiled version of Christie herself. Parker Pyne is an amateur armchair sleuth who describes himself as a ‘detective of the heart’; and the mysterious Harley Quin is a quasi-supernatural being who appears at opportune moments and works mostly through dialogue his ’emissary’, the unusually observant Mr Satterthwaite. In her autobiography, Christie said that the latter pair were her favourite to write, which I can understand — their stories are so weird and imaginative compared to her more mainstream popular work that it must have been a delight to vanish into Mr Quin’s multi-coloured universe for a chance.

After the break: I introduce my most cherished other detective of all.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really love it if you’d pause this episode right after I finish this sentence, and spend five seconds either leaving a review for the show in your podcast app, or texting a friend to tell them to download it. If you include the link shedunnitshow.com in your message, they can start listening right away! I don’t have a team or a marketing budget or anything, so I really rely on you, dear listeners, to help me spread the word about Shedunnit. Done that? Right, let’s get back to the sleuths.

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It’s no secret that I love the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve already talked about it a lot on previous episodes of this podcast, and if you go and take a peek at the Shedunnit instagram (the username is, um, @ShedunnitShow, seamless plug there), you’ll see how often I post pictures of Harriet Walter playing Harriet Vane while gently sighing to myself. Peter Wimsey is by far Sayers’s most famous detective creation, and justly so — the stories that feature him are funny, innovative, gripping and varied. She takes advantage of his aristocratic status to move him seamlessly from situation to situation, so that for one case he can be undercover at a London advertising agency, and then in another short story he’s pretending to be a religious prophet in a small Basque village. His life is as improbable as it is enjoyable.

Her other detective, though, is completely different, and I love him no less dearly. His name is Montague Egg and he appears only in 11 short stories and no full length novels, yet I reread his cases more often than anything else. He’s a travelling salesman working for a wine merchant called “Plummet and Rose”, and he doesn’t identify as a detective in any way. Rather, he’s just a very observant person who travels a lot for his job, and who happens to end up mixed up in a murder case in the places that he stays.

I think that, as with Christie’s other detectives, Montague Egg gave Sayers the opportunity to try out a different way of crime writing without jeopardising the consistency and popularity of her bread-winning character. The character gives her some of the structure and restrictions that were lacking in the way she had created Wimsey — Egg is of a lower social class and he has a job, so he can’t just go swanning off abroad or deploy his limitless resources and staff to get a case solved. He stays in pubs in provincial towns and doesn’t socialise extensively. His cases really need to happen right under his nose, because he isn’t going to go looking for them. He also has a very specific and narrow field of expertise — that is, wine and spirits — so his plots mostly either need to have some element of alcohol involved or to turn on the fact that he has to travel around in order to sell said beverages. A lot of crime writers say that rules and restrictions enhance, rather than impede their creativity; after all, that’s partly where the so-called ‘rules’ for detective fiction in general came from, which I talked about in episode nine.

The advertising side of Montague Egg’s character comes from Sayers’s own experiences working at the agency S.H. Benson’s Ltd in London as a copywriter between 1922 and 1931, before she became a full time writer of fiction, plays and essays. She also used this personal knowledge in the 1933 Wimsey novel Murder Must Advertise, which was published in the same year as the first batch of Egg stories. She liked her job and was good at it — her clients included Colman’s mustard and Guinness beer, and some of the campaigns she worked on for the latter brand still appear today, including the one with the toucan (I’ll put a picture on instagram so you can see what it looks like). She’s also credited with coining the phrase “it pays to advertise”, and found the discipline and restrictions that copywriting put on her as a writer stimulating.

She gave this love of a pithy phrase to Montague Egg, who is constantly quoting maxims from his favourite book, The Salesman’s Handbook, as he goes about his rounds and solves his cases. They’re all sing-song bits of doggerel with a universal message, such as “A cheerful voice and cheerful look put orders in the order-book”. They’re a useful character tell for Egg, though, who is described by Sayers as “a fair-haired, well-mannered young man”, and is generally inclined not to put himself forward in a showy way. He considers that his quite exceptional powers of observation and deduction are just normal, practical common sense, and can be quite diffident about putting his ideas forward to the police, since he often feels that the solution he’s arrived at is so obvious everyone must already know whodunnit. Of course, this is never the case: Montague Egg might think that the basic tenets in The Salesman’s Handbook would help anyone become a good deductive reasoner, but he seems to be the only one for whom it works.

Another way in which I think Montague Egg was a relief for Sayers to write was his almost total lack of backstory. In many of the Wimsey novels, she spends as much time evoking the scenario of the story and detailing his relations to it (such as in The Nine Tailors) as she does on the actual detecting. And of course, there’s the romance with Harriet Vane and Wimsey’s trauma from his First World War experiences to include as well. Balancing all those different elements is a big challenge, so I’m sure it was very calming to write a story with a central character who has virtually no interior life beyond his advertising jingles. We’re told that Egg served two years at the Western Front during the First World War and we can assume from his life of constant travelling that he probably doesn’t have a partner or a family, but beyond that he’s a two-dimensional being, just existing quietly until a murder to happen in the pub where he’s staying so he can save the day. In some ways, he reminds me of an android in a sci-fi story that you can power down when you don’t need it. Sayers just wakes him up at the start of the story. It doesn’t matter at all where he was or what he was doing when she wasn’t writing about him.

I think this might also be why I like reading the Montague Egg stories — they’re just the right amount of bland for a tired brain at the end of a long day. The plots, though, are good and mostly well-formed, in my opinion. There are plenty of classic tropes in there, including false confessions, complicated inheritances, impersonations, multiple likely suspects and misleading clocks, but there are some surprising elements too, such as the story that focuses primarily on cats. Of course, Egg’s knowledge of wines and spirits surfaces quite often, but we also get a few other glimpses into his personality and preferences. He doesn’t like violence of blood, he’s a bit reserved and even pompous sometimes (he really isn’t up for bantering about the smutty photographs a colleagues tries to show him at one point), but he’s not above a bit of mischief sometimes, as he shows by explaining to a shocked policeman a very well-worked out plan for dodging a train fare.

There have been relatively few critical assessments of Montague Egg and sadly very few adaptations exist — I can find one radio version and no screen efforts. However, the philosophy academic Dr Robert Zaslavsky did publish a paper in 1986 about the theological connections of detective fiction, and it includes a fascinating theory about Montague Egg in a footnote. He’s a godly figure, Zaslavsky argues, because he “is a traveller in spirits (pun intended)”, works for a company with a name that suggests death and resurrection (Plummet and Rose) and eggs are associated symbolically with Easter and therefore the passion of Christ. It’s a far-fetched but rather delightful idea, lent weight by the fact that Sayers was deeply interested in theology herself and published several books and essays on religious themes. In the story ‘Murder at Pentecost’, which is set in an Oxford college, Montague Egg does meet a character suffering from a sort of religious mania, and his cool common sense is by comparison very soothing. Perhaps on some level Sayers considered Egg a kind of travelling justice-dispenser, selling wine but also protecting the innocent wherever he went.

Characters like Montague Egg are worth seeking out both for the sheer enjoyment to be had from reading them, but also for what they can tell us about the writers who shifted gear from their more popular sleuths in order to create them. Both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers used these interludes to refresh their writing and push the boundaries of their form in new and interesting directions. And it isn’t just these two — lots of authors from the golden age of detective fiction had other characters they returned to in between their main series. I highly recommend seeking them out, not least because it can be a nice change to read something that doesn’t have such a burden of previous interpretation and adaptation on it. I sometimes feel like reading a Poirot novel now comes with a lot of baggage, whereas a Montague Egg or a Parker Pyne is refreshingly free of other people’s opinions, allowing me to just enjoy it as I like.

And who knows, maybe Montague Egg’s moment in the limelight is still to come.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theotherdetectives. There, you can also read a full transcript.
I’m in the midst of coming up with a plan for how I can turn this podcast into a sustainable, long-term project, and even start making episodes every week instead of every fortnight, as a lot of you have requested. If you’d like to be the first to hear about that, sign up for email alerts about the show at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Thanks for listening this far and for all your support.
I’ll be back on 20 March with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: Round Robin.

10. Nurse Daniels Transcript

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

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

Caroline: On 6 October 1926, a young woman went into the cloakroom on the quay at Boulogne in France. Her friend was waiting for her outside, expecting her to come out again quickly because they were due to catch the boat back to England in ten minutes’ time. The seconds ticked by, and the boat left, but still the young woman didn’t appear. She was never seen alive again.

Five months later, her body was found several miles away. An umbrella and a syringe of morphine were lying nearby, and it looked as if she had been strangled. No witnesses came forward and the police were baffled. British and French journalists descended on the town, eager to try their hand at investigating this riddle. Among them was a newly-married Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist with a keen interest in the crimes of her day, excited to test out her sleuthing skills on an actual case. But when she got there, she found that not every crime has a neat beginning, an intriguing middle and a satisfying ending. Real life is a whole lot more complicated.

This is the story of Nurse Daniels.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn about Dorothy L. Sayer’s frustrating adventures in France trying to crack a case that was captivating Britain, and how she managed to weave elements of it into her fiction. But to understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning. Who was Nurse Daniels, and why did her disappearance and death cause such a sensation?

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Winifred May Daniels was 21 years old when she disappeared. She was a nurse probationer at a hospital in London, and according to the interviews given by her family after she vanished, she was a happy, cheerful person, who wasn’t prone to getting upset easily. One friend described her as “level-headed and cool, and not in any way hysterical” . She wasn’t famous or notorious, but she did live during interesting times, as the saying goes. Her disappearance caused a stir because of the role she inhabited in society, and her death was a good excuse for people to air a lot of prejudices and assumptions.

May Daniels belonged to the generation of women who grew up in the aftermath of the First World War and were able to take advantage of the progress that came afterwards. The very fact that she was training full time at a hospital even though the war had been over for years tells you something about the kind of person she was. She wanted to qualify and work as a nurse in a professional environment, rather than being the kind of gentlewoman volunteer who might having taken up nursing temporarily during the war. We don’t know anything about May’s romantic life, but she was unmarried and unattached as far as the newspapers could find out. She might well have been one of those “surplus women” supposedly left to fend for herself after thousands of men died in the trenches. You can find out more about that phenomenon and the ways it influenced detective fiction in the very first episode of this podcast.

Another clue to her personality lies in her appearance. The newspapers described Nurse Daniels as having “shingled hair”, which was an important identifier at that time. It means she had her hair bobbed in the modern style, rather than grown out long and arranged in a demure and complicated undo as her Edwardian mother and grandmother might have had. Shingled hair signalled that a woman had better things to do than spend hours fiddling with hair pins. She wanted a style that was comfortable, convenient and fashionable. To a certain kind of more conservative critic, reading this description would have had some negative connotations too, because some perceived the style as racy, since it exposed the back of a woman’s neck. A nurse with shingled hair might be assumed by some unenlightened individuals to be promiscuous or sexually available. This idea became part of the story later on, after the body was found, when people were attempting to find an explanation for how a nice, hardworking English nurse could have ended up strangled and dumped in a field in France. Naturally, the speculation got a bit lurid and out of hand. We’ll come on to that later.

On that day in October, May Daniels and her fellow nurse Celia McCarthy had 12 hours’ leave from work. They decided to take a day trip to France, and took the train to Brighton from London and then the ferry across the channel from there. The two women were close; May’s brother said later that “May simply adored Nurse McCarthy”. An eyewitness reported seeing them on the boat having a great time, laughing and chatting together. They spent the afternoon in Boulogne looking around the shops and having tea, and then just before their boat back to Brighton was due to depart, May said that she wanted to go into the cloakroom quickly for a “wash and brush up”. We know from later reports that May was dressed smartly, in a black coat and a fashionable mauve toque hat with a point at one side — perhaps she was enjoying the rare chance to be out of her nurse’s uniform. While she was in the cloakroom, Celia waited outside, and I think we can assume she would have told her friend to be quick, because they only had a few minutes before their ferry left.

Celia McCarthy waited and waited, the bustle on the quay all around her, watching the door through which her friend had vanished from sight. But May Daniels didn’t return. The boat left, and only one nurse was left behind on the quay.

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When you look back on a sequence of events like this, it’s easy to jump between the significant points and ignore the boring periods in between. There aren’t very many historical accounts of the Nurse Daniels case, but those that do exist tend to leap straight from her disappearance on the quay in Boulogne that evening to the discovery of her body five months later. But if you sift through all the newspaper clippings from the days immediately after she vanished, you get a fascinating glimpse into the mundane trivialities of crime and tragedy that detective stories usually leave out altogether.

For instance, although we know with hindsight that it is May Daniels who deserves our sympathy, it’s not as if Celia McCarthy was left in a very safe situation, either. She said in interviews afterwards that as she waited for any sign of her friend, she was completely unsure as to what she should do. It’s not as if you would immediately jump from your friend’s slight delay inside a cloakroom to assuming that she had been abducted or murdered. It would just be a bit unsettling to miss your ferry. McCarthy also didn’t speak much French, so once she was convinced that Daniels was no longer in the cloakroom, she found it very difficult to make enquiries as to whether anyone had seen her friend walking off anywhere. She was just left standing on her own on a dock, with no idea how long she should wait, and no idea where her friend could have got to. The ferry was due to leave around 5pm, and she waited on the dock until 9.30. Alarming, yes, but there was no reason yet to suppose that the story would have such a tragic ending.

One fact that many of the reports focused in on was that it was May Daniels, not Celia McCarthy, who was carrying the pair’s tickets. This suggested that it was unlikely that Daniels’ disappearance was planned, since if she had known she wouldn’t be returning to England with her friend, why keep hold of McCarthy’s ticket and leave her stranded in France? Police and public alike felt that this suggested Daniels had not vanished voluntarily, but had been “enticed away by a plausible stranger”, as one paper put it.

Nurse McCarthy ended up spending the night in the cloakroom before heading to a nearby convent early in the morning — she was a Roman Catholic — for some rest and the facilities to set enquiries in motion. She telegraphed to her sister in London for some money to pay for a return ticket and communicated with the British consul about May’s disappearance. The police tried to trace Daniels, but with little success, and her family offered of a £100 reward for information. But eventually McCarthy had to return to her own job and life back in England, none the wiser about where her friend had ended up. There was a small flurry of interest in the missing nurse in the papers, and some journalists tried to interview McCarthy at the hospital while she was on duty, but aside from the bizarre fact of her friend going into a cloakroom and apparently never coming out again, there was very little for the press to go on.

But then, a French farmer made a very unpleasant discovery. More on that after the break.

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And now listeners, a small intermission where I’m going to ask if you’ve got round to signing up to the Shedunnit newsletter yet? It’s the best way to stay up to date with everything I’m doing on the show and find out when a new episode has come out, and means you’ll be the first to know when any of the secret plans I’m hatching at the moment for the future of the podcast actually come to fruition. If that sounds good to you, head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Now, back to the story.

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It was almost five months later, on 26 February 1927, when a French farmer called Jean Houchin made his unpleasant discovery. He was walking near a well-known landmark on the outskirts of Boulogne, the Column de Grande Armee, built in the early nineteenth century to honour Napoleon. There are gardens laid out all around the column, and about 100 yards from the landmark he came across the decomposing body of a woman hidden under what the Sunday Post newspaper would later dramatically call “the Bush of Death”.

After the police were called and the scene properly investigated, they found a broken umbrella and a torn handkerchief buried in the sand near the body, and a little further away a small metal box containing a broken hypodermic syringe. This last gave the police and the journalists who began to appear in Boulogne over the next few days their first far-fetched theory: that Nurse Daniels was a secret drug taker, and had given her friend the slip in order to take a dose of something, only to succumb to an overdose. The fact that Daniels had no known history of drug taking, and that it would be very odd to sneak out of a cloakroom and walk a mile and a half just to get a hit, soon quashed this theory, but not before the papers had indulged in some seedy speculation.

May Daniels’ brother went to Boulogne and his identification along with some dental evidence confirmed that the body was indeed that of his sister. The police were able to turn up a few witnesses with a vague memory of seeing a woman who might have looked like Daniels walking in the vicinity of the column, but there was no definitive statement or evidence to explain how she had come to be there and at what point in the previous five months she had met her death. They had not been able to trace her in the time since she disappeared, and it was even harder to do after news of the body’s discovery spread and people suddenly had a voyeuristic desire to be associated with the case.

Even the cause of death was hard to establish, with the medical evidence citing “syncope”, or sudden heart failure, but with no clue as to the underlying cause. There was thought to be some marks of strangulation on the body, but with its advanced state of decomposition, they couldn’t be certain. Neither were any drugs or poisons found in her system, although that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there — a long time had elapsed since her disappearance and many analytical techniques were in their infancy. In short, this was nothing like the miraculously clear-cut post mortem reports you get in books, with time and cause of death neatly delineated for the detective’s convenience. There was little doubt that May Daniels was dead, probably murdered, but beyond that, the trail was cold.

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Interest in the Nurse Daniels case ran high in Britain and France over the next few weeks, fuelled by the rewards offered by her family and the fact that the police seemed to make no progress at all towards finding a solution or even a credible witness report. The circumstances were all aligned for maximum public interest: a pretty, modern young woman vanishes in mysterious, impossible seeming circumstances, and then her body is found months later alongside some hints of drug taking or other illegal activity. The lack of proper clues or witness reports left a vacuum in which speculation and outlandish theories could thrive. A lot of these focused on the broken hypodermic syringe, suggesting either that Daniels was a secret drug addict or that she had been doped by a gang of kidnappers, but there was one French police inspector who gave rise to another popular, if unsupported, explanation of events.

He had the turf beneath Daniels’ body analysed, and found a large quantity of blood in it. From this, he decided that she had bled and died at that spot, rather than having been moved there after death, and that most likely she suffered heart failure as a consequence of some operation that was being performed on her. The syringe hinted at medical involvement of some kind, too, lending circumstantial corroboration to this. The police and newspapers were reluctant to actually name the kind of operation that everyone was assuming had taken place — the inspector himself just said that “the act leading to the death of Miss Daniels was an offence against French and English law”.

What he, and everyone else, meant was abortion. A whole new narrative about May Daniels was built up, in which the cheery outing with her friend to Boulogne was actually a front for a desperate woman’s attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy at a time when there were no legal or safe options available to her. In this version, she either disappeared from the cloakroom voluntarily, giving her friend the slip in order to keep her appointment with a backstreet abortion provider, or her friend was helping her, and lied about the disappearance in order to cover up what Daniels was really doing. This latter seems unlikely, though, since surely Celia McCarthy would have had a better story if she’d been able to think about it in advance than just “she went into a cloakroom and never came out”. And then, goes the theory, the operation went wrong somehow and May Daniels died, so didn’t return to rendez-vous with McCarthy and return to England as expected. Those who had done the operation panicked, and dumped the still-bleeding body of Nurse Daniels in a bush on the outskirts of town, and then kept their heads down when the police started asking questions.

This is just about plausible as an explanation, although it falls down a bit when you wonder why they would leave her body badly hidden right by a well-known landmark, and why, if she had died during a medical procedure, it looked as if she had been partly strangled. But the press carried on embellishing this version of events regardless of its implausibilities and contractions. Within a few weeks, the story had advance to the point where Nurse Daniels wasn’t just pregnant, she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the British establishment (not named) who had paid for her to go over to France for the abortion in order that it would be harder to trace back to him than if it took place in London. There was no proof or even indication of this, by the way, but the addition of an aristocratic or political connection did add spice to an already salacious story. It didn’t help investigators get any closer to the truth, though.

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Dorothy L. Sayers arrived in Boulogne in mid March 1927. She came with her husband Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist who wrote for the newspapers under the name of Mac Fleming. They had been married just under a year, and although Sayers was still enthusiastic and happy when she wrote about their relationship in letters to others, they had both embarked on the marriage with some baggage and it would become troubled later on. Mac was divorced with two daughters from his previous marriage, and he had a wound from his First World War service that gave him chronic pain and periods of illness. Sayers, meanwhile, had had a prior relationship with a married neighbour that resulted in the birth of her son, John Antony — a secret she kept closely for most of her life. We’ll talk more about this in a future episode, but for now it’s worth knowing that just a few years ago, Sayers had found herself in a not dissimilar situation to the one that had been imagined for May Daniels. Rather than abortion, which she abhorred both on religions and practical fronts, Sayers ended up having the baby and giving him away to be fostered with a cousin. She had hoped that when she married Mac, her son might come and live with them, but it never happened, although he did take Mac’s surname and use the name John Anthony Fleming.

Mac was due to report on the Daniels case, and the News of the World newspaper hit on a cunning idea: since he was a journalist and his wife was a detective novelist, why not pay for the two of them to go over to France and see if they could solve the mystery? Sayers and Fleming accepted — possibly partly because it was a free holiday at a time when money wasn’t exactly plentiful for them, since Sayers worked as an advertising copywriter and Fleming was freelance. They were far from the only special investigators sent by newspapers like this, either: former Scotland Yard man Chief Inspector Gough was hired by the Daily Mail and Netley Lucas, a conman turned crime correspondent was there for the Sunday News. Indeed, the town was crowded with people trying to work out what had happened to Nurse Daniels.

On 20 March, Dorothy wrote to her mother from Boulogne. “We rushed violently over here yesterday afternoon at about half an hour’s notice,” she said. “Mac is investigating the Daniels case and I am fooling about, hoping that an opportunity may present itself to ask leading questions! Anyway it was a very jolly trip over – simply glorious weather, sunshine and the cafes open till 2 in the morning. We rolled into bed about 2.30 and feel all the better for it, in spite of an intensive course of mixed drinks during the evening… of course, the place is swarming with English journalists.”

It seems like the sleuthing pair were having a lovely time, drinking and socialising with the makeshift press pack that had assembled in the town. However, they did also find time to do a bit of investigating, inspecting the mysterious cloakroom and various other key locations, but in the end Sayers had to admit herself stumped — she couldn’t do any better than the police in this instance. She did however find herself inspired by several of the aspects of the Daniels case, and worked quickly to incorporate her fictionalised versions of them in her next novel.

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By early 1927, Dorothy Sayers had already published two Peter Wimsey novels — Whose Body? in 1923 and Clouds of Witness in 1926. By the time of the trip to Boulogne to investigate the Nurse Daniels case with Mac she had already written most of her next detective story featuring her monocled aristocratic sleuth. This book was titled Unnatural Death and it would be published later in 1927. Her biographer Barbara Reynolds points out that at the time of the Daniels investigation in March Sayers was still able to insert some new details that draw on her attempts at real-life detection.

That book, which incidentally is one of my own favourite detective novels, features a cloakroom scene very like that which Celia McCarthy experienced that October day on the quay in Boulogne. During the course of a trip to Liverpool, Wimsey’s manservant and detecting assistant Mervyn Bunter is instructed to follow a mysterious unknown woman who they believe might be connected to the case. He trails her successfully to a ladies’ cloakroom where Bunter feels that he, as a man, can’t follow. He waits outside, secure in the knowledge that there is only one exit and he can carry on tracking her after she comes out. He waits for ages and she doesn’t appear, and after getting a hotel employee to check the cloakroom he finds that the woman has somehow vanished.

So far, so similar to what happened with Nurse Daniels. But at that point, Sayers’ imagination takes over, and she invents a solution of her own. The woman in her story is completely aware that she is being followed, and she has come equipped to throw off her pursuer. She cunningly changes her coat and hat in the cloakroom and emerges looking completely different, and is therefore able to walk straight past Bunter without him noticing her, since he didn’t know her personally and was mostly using her outfit to identify her.

Sayers also uses this episode as away of hinting towards the way society looked upon single, so-called “surplus” women at the time — they’re interchangeable, she seems to be saying, and all you really notice about them are their clothes. Elsewhere in the same book she also includes a scene in which a murdered young woman is found under a bush in a semi-public place with various red herrings strewn around. I don’t want to give away anything more, because it’s such a good story, but let’s just say that hypodermic syringes and nurses also feature.

There can be no doubt that Sayers found her brief stint as a real life amateur sleuth very stimulating. And it’s not that surprising: the case of Nurse Daniels reads like the first ten pages of a brilliant detective story. The independent young woman, out for a day’s fun with a friend, goes into a cloakroom and is never seen to come out again. Her body is found months later, with several convenient red herrings nearby. But as Sayers and others found when they tried to work out what happened next, real life doesn’t work out as neatly as the stories we make up for ourselves.

Nobody was ever able to prove how May Daniels got out of that cloakroom without her friend seeing, or what sequence of events lead to her death, or even how she was killed. There’s no satisfying ending where a clever detective brings a wicked villain to justice. A horrible act of violence was committed against a young woman, and nobody was ever punished for it.

The sad reality is that sometimes, you never get to find out whodunnit.

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

I have to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported the show in the last two weeks — it’s been a really busy time for me, and getting the notifications of your donations and reviews really helped keep me motivated to stay up late and write and record. A few of you pointed out though that the book wishlist link I mentioned last time wasn’t working, so I have now fixed that. If you feel an urgent desire to buy me a mystery story to talk about in a future episode or a magnifying glass that I can brandish while I read, go to shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

I’ll be back on 6 March with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

I know I said that last time, but this time I really mean it.

9. The Rules Transcript

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

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

Caroline: A good detective story has a recognisable rhythm. The plot might have unexpected twists and the characters can surprise you, but there are certain structures and tropes that recur through much of the crime fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. Some of them have been parodied to the point of cliche, such as the old ‘the butler did it’ solution, but they are usually there nonetheless, providing the author with some creative constraints and the reader with a frame of reference.

Even if you aren’t a big reader of mysteries, these founding principles of the genre are so familiar that I expect you’d still be able to name a few: nothing supernatural, no secret twins, no springing clues or suspects on the reader in the final chapter — the list goes on. But how did these precepts come to be woven through the books from the golden age of detective fiction between the two world wars? And what happens when you break the rules?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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My obsession with what is and isn’t allowed in a detective story began with A. A. Milne. Although he is best known now for creating The Hundred Acre Wood and its residents Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and co, Alan Alexander Milne was also a journalist, playwright and novelist publishing work both before and after the First World War. He also had a passion for detective stories and in 1922 published one of his very own, The Red House Mystery, in which the host’s long lost brother is found shot during a country house party, and two of the guests turn to sleuthing to solve the puzzle. It was a great success, being reprinted many times, and is still read today.

Four years later, he wrote a new introduction for the 1926 edition, and in it Milne set out his own “curious preferences” about what a detective story can and can’t be. He wanted his whodunnits written in plain English, without the intrusion of a romance plot, starring an amateur detective who works just with logic and reasoning rather than specialised scientific knowledge or equipment. There must also be a ‘Watson’ character, via whom the detective can narrate his sleuthing progress, who must be neither too quick to catch on nor a total fool (in fact, a lot like the original Watson in Sherlock Holmes, perhaps).

Milne hated the final chapter reveal, in which the detective proudly unveils the solution to a throng of other characters, which is invariably based on a whole load of clues the reader had never heard of before. He wanted readers to feel that they had a fighting chance of solving the mystery for themselves; that the important clues had been dropped like breadcrumbs through the whole text, if only the reader was smart enough to work out which ones mattered and which ones didn’t.

There’s plenty I agree with here – I too like the illusion that I could outwit the detective — and some that I don’t (I think some of the best detective stories have a romantic element, as Dorothy L Sayers later proved). But what first captivated me about Milne’s essay wasn’t the specifics of what he outlined, because after all he made clear he was just addressing his personal preferences, but rather the seriousness with which he had considered the formal structures of detective fiction as a form. So-called “genre” writing has always suffered from the perception that it isn’t as important or worthy as highbrow literature, but here was a respected author really getting stuck into the tropes and conventions that underpinned this kind of writing.

And he was far from the only one. Plenty of other writers, both at the time and later, have tried to lay down “rules” for detective fiction. T. S. Eliot was one such — he was a big fan of the whodunnit too, and used to review new detective fiction in his literary journal The Criterion (although not under his own name). He even described himself in a letter to his friend Virginia Woolf as a “person who specialises in detective stories and ecclesiastical history”, and I don’t even think he was joking, although by that time he’d published Prufrock, The Waste Land and other major poetic works.

Eliot’s own favourite story was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which although it was published in 1868, long before the advent of detective fiction’s golden age in the early 1920s, Eliot considered to be the first and best example of the form. (This is also an opinion that was shared by G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories and the first president of the Detection Club.)

From the work of Wilkie Collins and his familiarity with the novels that followed it, Eliot evolved a few rules of his own about how a whodunnit should be put together. He banned elaborate disguises, supernatural incidents and bizarre coincidences, and insisted on a clever detective who is not so brilliant that it comes across as some kind of superpower. Most of all, though, he wanted the criminal’s motive to be normal or logical, and for the reader to feel that they had a sporting chance at finding the solution.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American art critic Willard Huntington Wright published in 1928 under his regular pseudonym of SS Van Dine an essay titled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, which has often been quoted and cited since. He has many of the same preferences as Milne and Eliot as far as romance, transparency and rationality, but he also had some more specific (and funny) hang ups. No secret societies, no murderers who are also domestic servants, no long ‘atmospheric’ passages of writing, no professional criminals, no fake seances, no code letters, no knockout drops or hypodermic syringes, no cigarette butts as evidence. . . The list goes on and on and on.

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As listeners will have no doubt have spotted, Van Dine’s rules were broken left, right and centre. Just from those few points I listed, I can think of popular and acclaimed detective stories that include those specific elements, from the scene setting in The Moonstone itself, to the professional criminals that Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion encounters, the fake seance in Dorothy L Sayer’s Strong Poison, to the possibly coded letters in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, the hypodermics in Sayers’ Unnatural Death, and finally Sherlock Holmes’s own preference for using cigarette ash as a major element of detection.

This is the key point, I think — these rules were never written to be taken very seriously. Ronald Knox, himself a detective novelist as well as a Catholic priest, wrote a rather more tongue in cheek list of ten ‘commandments’ for detective novelists that were published in the introduction to the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology in 1928. Several things we’re now very familiar with are prohibited by his list too, such as twins, ghosts, multiple secret passages, overly smart Watsons and concealed evidence, but he also banned detectives who are also murderers and Chinamen.

This last was a reference to the racist stereotypes prevalent in the popular thrillers of the time, where mysterious Oriental villains from smoky Limehouse opium dens abounded. Knox himself said in the same piece that too many rules could cramp an author’s style — he clearly never intended detective fiction to become some kind of tick box exercise. Putting down these ideas was just another way of recognising the popularity and legitimacy of the form.

An idea that all of these rule-makers had in common, though, was that of “fair play”. Indeed, it was such a foundational part of the style in this period that the first item in the constitution of the Detection Club, to which Christie, Sayers, Marsh and others all belonged, says that “it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not ‘play fair by the reader'”. This comes back to that sense that T. S. Eliot reference of wanting the reader to have a “sporting” chance at solving the crime for themselves; indeed in his history of this time, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards links this desire to the idea of being honourable on the cricket pitch, of that old fashioned English idea of “playing the game” and not deceiving anyone.

The kind of detective novel that most closely adheres to the notion of fair play is the pure puzzle, where the whole setup of the crime scene is described to the reader so they can form their own deductions. Dorothy L Sayers didn’t often write this kind of book, since she was usually breaking rules all over the place with her seances and her romances and her elaborate disguises, but in Busman’s Honeymoon she did have a go at it. This story actually started life as a play that she later turned into a novel, and is the last full-length appearance of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. It features that classic murder plot — the locked room, or house in this case — in which the victim seems to have had his head bashed in somehow while completely alone in a secured dwelling.

Pretty much everything you need to know to solve this one is there in the first few chapters, but I’d be very impressed if anyone manages to do it without any prior knowledge of the twist at all (if you do, write in and tell me how, I’m on caroline@shedunnitshow.com). That said, when I’ve reread this book since, some of the clues do seem a bit obvious and clunky, so maybe it isn’t as impenetrable as I think.

Another writer who was very interested in maintaining a sense of fair play was John Dickson Carr, who even included a meta discussion of it in relation to locked room murders in his 1935 novel The Hollow Man. It’s the most extraordinary scene in which Carr’s protagonist Dr Gideon Fell delineates all the different ways a supposedly ‘locked room’ mystery can be engineered, with commentary about which ones are more or less common or fair. He even says “we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not”. Carr was a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton, who was himself a great proponent of fair play — it’s even been suggested that his description of Fell was meant to suggest that he looked like the great creator of Father Brown.

J. J. Connington, a favourite of T. S. Eliot’s, even went so far as to include a “clue finder” appendix in his 1929 novel The Eye in the Museum, which gave the page numbers of all the major clues so that after they’d read the solution, the reader could go back and check up on all the hints that they missed. He, and the handful of other authors who used this device like Ronald Knox, really wanted people to know that they were trying to stick to the rules.

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But what about when authors threw the rule book out of the window? I think there are two good examples of this, the first a single book and the second an entire career. The first is, of course, Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which is perhaps the finest example of the exact opposite of fair play (although some critics maintain that it doesn’t completely break the rules). When it was published, it caused a bit of a stir for its rule-breaking structure (I’m not going to say anymore, because I don’t want to ruin the first time shock for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but please do seek it out) and its disgruntling effect on some readers became well-known enough that when the American critic Edmund Wilson wrote a grumpy essay about how he didn’t see the point in detective fiction in 1945, it was headlined “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”.

I think Christie enjoyed experimenting and causing a fuss; lots of her books are certainly full of smaller examples where she deviates from the rules, not least because of Hercule Poirot’s love of keeping the workings of his little grey cells a secret until he’s absolutely sure of his solution. Five Little Pigs is another good example of inverted fair play, because that’s a novel in which Poirot is called into reinvestigate a case from decades before, and he has no evidence to go on beyond the psychological inferences he can make about the people involved. This style of story is sometimes referred to as that of an “armchair detective”, because there’s no need for any energetic sleuthing to crack the mystery. I’m not sure that T.S. Eliot would have been madly keen on that as a way of telling a detective story, but I personally think it’s one of Christie’s stronger books — she apparently created it as a challenge to herself to see if she could pull off a plot without the more conventional elements of an investigation like fingerprints to help her.

The second major contradiction of the fair play doctrine I think comes in pretty much all the work of Margery Allingham. Her books do have many of the trappings of the conventional golden age mystery, such as the singular detective in Albert Campion, the country house and upper class settings, and so on, but you only have to read the first Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley from 1929 to see how quickly she chucks all notions of fair play out the window. Campion disappears at a crucial moment in the plot, and then reappears several chapters later, and doesn’t even then really explain what he’s been up to until the very end.

Allingham said that she wrote this book via what she called the “plum pudding” method, in which anything can be stirred into the mixture to enhance its richness. That’s certainly how the novel feels, as more gangsters and ancient curses turn up. There’s something of the P.G. Wodehouse style romp to some of her books, and she did also really like to hint at the supernatural, such as in 1931’s Look to the Lady. This is something that she had in common with Gladys Mitchell, who also liked to make reference to witchcraft and folk customs in her detective novels, and didn’t particularly trouble herself about whether her sleuth Mrs Bradley’s methods were always completely fair and transparent to the reader.

Part of the focus on fair play at this time stems from the other kinds of puzzle games that were popular, like crosswords, mahjong, treasure hunts and so forth — the classic, truly honest fair play detective novel should be as easy to solve as a crossword with all the clues listed underneath it. And while there are novels that manage to do that while also creating a story that’s exciting and enjoyable to read, plenty of authors clearly struggled under the constraints and ended up prioritising their puzzle plot over everything else.

Allingham described the construction of a mystery story as a process of building a box with four sides, made up of “a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion”, and said that the box could be both “a prison and a refuge”. I think what she meant by that was that the restrictions of the form could both prompt her to be more inventive, but also curtail some of her more outlandish ideas. I’m glad to say though that she didn’t allow it smother many of her stranger ideas — with authors like Allingham and Mitchell particularly, it’s the moments when they break free of the rules that I most enjoy their work.

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I don’t think anybody other than a few extremely grumpy critics has ever put down a detective novel and refused to read further after discovering it doesn’t completely adhere to the idea of fair play, but I do still sometimes observe the traces of this attitude when it comes to contemporary television adaptations of these stories. There’s an element of the audience who want to judge a TV version of a story by how faithful it is to the source book, and I have seen people post on social media about turning off an episode in disgust halfway through because an element of the plot has been changed or approached in a different way.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with having strong feelings about the quality of how something was made, but when I see that kind of view expressed, it does make me think back to the rules of SS van Dine and others, and wonder how differently detective fiction would have developed if everyone had always coloured inside the lines, rather than extravagantly slopping paint everywhere just to see what would happen. I suspect that everything would have been much flatter, more conventional and less captivating if they had resisted experimentation in favour of obedience.

After all, everybody knows that rules are made to be broken.

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

Something both really surprising and lovely has been happening over the past few weeks — I keep getting these emails from Paypal telling me that listeners have sent the show money. Thank you very much to everyone who has donated, it’s really kind of you and all helps keep the wolf from the podcast’s door. If you’d like to join in, you can head to shedunnitshow.com/donate to send me your loose change, or as per lots of requests, I have now set up a wishlist so you can buy me books to help research future episodes. You can find that at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist..

I’ll be back on 20 February with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

8. Dining with Death Transcript

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

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

Caroline: It’s a perfect image of family harmony and domestic bliss. Everyone gathered around a table groaning with food, brought together for the daily ritual of breaking bread. Maybe it’s a huge dining room full of damask and silver; perhaps it’s a small, homely kitchen with everyone crowded in on stools. The class signifiers matter less than the fact that the whole family is there, eating together.

Except too often, in a detective novel that is, these jolly family dinners aren’t quite what they seem. There’s resentment about inheritance simmering below the surface, and extramarital affairs being conducted under spouses’ noses. Long held grudges from childhood hover in the background, all the more dangerous now that everybody is all grown up. Still, as long as everyone can stay civil and eat together, they can pretend that everything is just fine.

That is, until somebody clutches their throat, turns blue in the face, and falls face forward into their soup

Because tonight, you see, we’re dining with death.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

A brief note before we go any further: in order to be able to discuss this subject properly, I might need to hint at whodunnit. If you’re worried about spoilers, please refer now to the list of books in the episode description, and maybe come back when you’ve finished reading them.

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Food matters in literature. Describing what characters eat and how is an important tool for authors trying to build a world and an atmosphere quickly and without a lot of exposition. You can learn a lot about someone from what they choose to eat and what they leave on the plate, and how they behave during the meal.

Food also has a deeper symbolic meaning: it stands for comfort, security, domesticity and family. There’s a reason why, both in real life and in fiction, when something terrible happens our first reaction is to make tea or heat up soup. It’s a way of showing love and of taking care of someone.

Food can also do a lot of the work in a story when it comes to setting the scene and evoking the period.

Kate: I have always been interested in the food in Agatha Christie because it was sort of a a quite interesting picture of England. So At Bertram’s Hotel is full of people sitting in an old fashioned hotel dining room eating muffins and doughnuts and crumpets and having big pots of tea and A Pocket Full of Rye is about a jar of marmalade and about tea time at work and about scones and jam and there is this sort of picture of England that you get through the food which I always really appreciated and felt sort of placed me in the stories in a really definite way.

Caroline: This is the food writer Kate Young, the author of The Little Library Cookbook. She grew up in Australia, and she writes about food herself, so she’s always been sensitive to the ways in which it is used in fiction generally, and — as a massive Agatha Christie fan — in these novels in particular.

In both of the books she mentioned there food plays a vital role not only in expressing their essential Englishness, but also in delineating period, setting and character. So in At Bertram’s Hotel, Miss Marple is continually troubled by how perfectly expressive the food at the hotel where she is staying is of her Edwardian girlhood, all seed cake and perfect muffins — a type of fare that had mostly vanished by the time the book was published in 1965. It’s all just too good to be true, she feels, as if the afternoon tea service is a performance on a stage rather than a real part of life. And of course, it turns out that she is right. The food at the hotel is explicitly designed to give the place a nostalgic atmosphere of the utmost respectability in order to detract from the shady things that are going on.

Similarly, in the opening chapter of A Pocket Full of Rye from 1953, we follow a long description of how the morning tea break takes place at an office, learning all the while who is competent and who is not. (The ability to make tea with water that is actually boiling is rarer than you might think.) The perfect tray is eventually presented to the boss, only for him to collapse and die shortly after taking a sip of his tea. In crime novels, food isn’t just a way of setting a scene or evoking a place. Food can also be a means of murder.

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In detective fiction, food has a dual, and even contradictory, role. It has all of that sense of home and tranquility, but then when that is disrupted by violence, the juxtaposition is all the more jarring. So many detective stories start with a peaceful exchange over the breakfast table — lots of Sherlock Holmes stories begin this way, as does Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, and many other of her works. Then, the bad news arrives and the meal is spoilt. The food is left to go cold because crime has intervened. Normality is disrupted. It’s even a way of showing that someone is depraved or lacking in humanity — in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey says that he’s known murders tuck into the supper of someone they’ve just murdered quite cheerfully in order to suggest that the death occurred later.

Of course, the most prominent role food plays in crime fiction is as a vehicle for poison. This is the most extreme way that comforting, nourishing food is subverted for evil ends, when the meal itself becomes the way in which the fatal blow is delivered. Here’s Kate Young again:

Kate: A Pocket Full of Rye is a really good example of that. There’s these extraordinary breakfast that is described and then a really lovely afternoon tea both of which are how the two characters who enjoy those meals that the breakfast meal and then the afternoon tea. That’s how they’re murdered. There’s poison slipped into tea and poison put it into a pot — taxine from the yew berries in the trees outside that is put into the pot of marmalade. So it is a really grim and eerie look at food which is supposed to be this warming wholesome comforting thing I think particularly like lovely breakfasts at home and and an afternoon tea service in your library are supposed to be the sort of things that you could just eat and enjoy that happen every day and suddenly are the result of somebody getting murdered. It is a really interesting thing and the descriptions of those meals because they keep returning to them and considering how that poison could possibly have been administered it is really interesting to keep returning to that table and how it was set.

Caroline: Agatha Christie in particular liked using this means of murder in her books; just under half of her plots involve a poisoning of one kind or another. Partly this is because the use of poison can just make for a more interesting plot, and it also fits into the mostly bloodless kind of violence preferred by the crime fiction of the 1920s and 30s. (Incidentally, most descriptions of poison victims’ deaths in novels skate over some of the more unpleasant symptoms, like excessive vomiting and diarrhoea. Euphemisms like “violently unwell” appear instead. If you’re interested in getting all the gory details about what really happens when you swallow a lethal dose of something, I recommend reading scientist Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic.)

Poison is a frighteningly easy way of killing someone, too. It’s quiet, it doesn’t require excessive physical strength, and in some cases the deed can even be done at second hand, so the murderer doesn’t even have to be present administer the dose themselves. There are countless examples of this, and I’ve always found them some of the most terrifying deaths in detective fiction. There’s Aunt Julia in Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral, who dies because one of her weight loss pills has been poisoned and then put back in the packet, and the murderer is just waiting for the morning when she happens to swallow that one.

Or Rex Fortescue in A Pocket Full of Rye as Kate said, dead because of poison his housemaid put in his marmalade because her boyfriend told her it was a truth serum. Or Anne Johnson in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, who wakes up thirsty in the night and downs the glass of water by her bed, except the murder has replaced it with hydrochloric acid and she dies in burning agony. This last one scared me for months after I read it as a child — a glass of water is such an innocuous thing, and yet here it was turned into a deadly weapon.

And then there’s the classic “sending a box of poisoned chocolates” way of trying to kill someone, which I’ve always thought was deeply creepy, especially when, as in Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors, the poison has only been injected into the chocolates that the intended victim particularly likes. That such an intimate thing to do, to exploit someone’s taste in sweets like that. It brings murderer and victim as close as if he was holding a pillow over her face.

Another reason why Christie used poison so often in her plots is because she had professional knowledge to draw on. During the First World War, she volunteered as a nurse in a hospital in Devon and ended up working in the dispensary there. She took and passed exams in 1917 that qualified her to work as a dispenser, meaning that she had a wide knowledge of different drugs, their therapeutic uses in medicine, the safety procedures required at the time, and what the consequences of misuse might be. She gave this exact job to a character in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Cynthia Murdoch is a dispenser in a hospital, and her knowledge of and proximity to dangerous compounds like arsenic and strychnine is vital to that book’s plot.

Christie remained interested in pharmacy long after the war was over, collecting books on the subject and keeping up with the latest research. During the Second World War she again volunteered as a dispenser, updating her training with further study and working at least two days a week at University College Hospital in London. This is why Miss Marple is so extremely knowledgeable about poisons and their antidotes — sometimes to a degree that slightly stretches credulity, such as in the short story “The Thumb Mark of St Peter”, when she immediately knows that a dying, poisoned man is trying to call for the compound “pilocarpine” to counteract the fatal dose of atropine eye drops he has just ingested.

Christie even corresponded with specialists throughout her writing career to make sure she got the details of her fictional poisonings absolutely right. Largely, she did, unlike some other, less well versed detective novelists. The Pharmaceutical Journal reviewed The Mysterious Affair at Styles and said that “This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written,” which was an accolade Christie remained proud of her whole life.

When poison has been used, the food that carried it is subject to much greater scrutiny than it would otherwise be in a novel. It ceases to be part of the background, and comes sharply into focus. Again, it’s a macabre parody of the virtuous attention to detail a good cook would pay to the creation of a meal. Analysts pore over small samples of crucial dinners and detectives quiz the diners about the precise details of who ate what and when. Domestic poisonings were horribly common in Britain in the 19th and early 20th century, mostly due to a lack of proper regulation and the ready availability of large quantities of extremely toxic substances in things like fly papers and patent medicines. The newspapers covered these cases constantly, so the techniques available to the police for working out what had been introduced into food and why came to be well known. This, of course, meant that any would-be poisoner, even in fiction, had to get creative if they were going to get away with it.

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For me, the most infamous meal in detective fiction is served in the Dorothy L Sayers novel Strong Poison, first published in 1930. This book actually opens not with a disrupted breakfast, but with a courtroom drama. A young detective novelist by the name of Harriet Vane in the dock, being tried for the murder by poison of her lover Philip Boyes. She absolutely denies the charge, and Lord Peter Wimsey, watching from the public gallery, believes her, although the judge and most of the jury seem convinced of her guilt. Fortunately for both the reader and this nascent sleuthing romance, the trial falls apart when the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, giving Wimsey time to investigate properly.

The tale he discovers all turns on this one dinner, the last meal that Boyes ate before he succumbed to the effects of arsenic poisoning and died. It was served at his cousin Norman Urquhart’s house, and the description of all the courses — a cup of cold bouillon to start, then a piece of turbot with sauce, followed by a poulet en casserole, and finally a sweet omelette, actually made at the table by the murder victim himself using a spirit lamp and a chafing dish — is detailed and elaborate. Reading it, you can feel your mouth watering, until you remember that some part of this dinner actually killed someone. Both Boyes and his cousin ate some of everything, and all the dishes bar the omelette were also eaten by the servants. When Boyes is taken ill later that evening, Urquhart even takes the precaution of preserving as much of the meal as possible for testing, despite the fact that to start with there is no suggestion of poisoning. As Wimsey puts it towards the end of the book, “Did you ever hear of a meal hedged round with such precautions? It’s not natural.” The extreme focus and preparation around this one meal is suspicious, and that’s what ultimately leads to the detective discovering the solution.

There’s a similarly elaborate plot around the death in the Agatha Christie short story “The Tuesday Night Club”, when a husband who happens to be a salesman for a chemical firm engineers that the maid will use hundreds and thousands laced with arsenic to decorate a trifle. It appears on the surface that husband, wife and the wife’s companion have all eaten the same meal and yet only the wife died, but Miss Marple soon works out that Mr Jones just scraped off the hundreds and thousands, and the companion Miss Clark was “banting” (that is, dieting) so wouldn’t have touched her helping of dessert. To me, this is such a grim murder — trifle is such a cheering pudding, and hundreds and thousands are a kind of sugar decoration you’ll often see on sweets for children. Turning them into a way of killing an unwanted wife is doubly horrible.

It’s perhaps interesting that in both of these examples that I’ve singled out to talk about, the poisoners who adulterate otherwise delicious-sounding food are both men. Poison is traditionally considered to be a “woman’s weapon”, both because it doesn’t require great strength to wield, and because it works best in the customary women’s sphere of the home. Even if real-life statistical analysis of poisoning cases doesn’t actually back up this stereotype, it’s definitely a persistent idea in detective fiction that if someone is poisoned, you should look for a murderess, not a murderer. That’s why Harriet Vane so very nearly gets convicted, and why Elinor Carlisle in Christie’s Sad Cypress very nearly does too, and why Mitzi, the cook in A Murder is Announced, is convinced that she will end up in prison too. The links between nourishing food and femininity are so strong that when the former is subverted for evil purposes, it follows that the latter has been corrupted too. The central pillar of society — the home — has collapsed, and all is in disarray. “Dining is the privilege of civilisation” wrote Mrs Beeton – until, one day, it’s not anymore.

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Yet despite all of ghastly poisonings in detective novels, we still love reading about the food. Or perhaps it’s because of this that there’s such interest in these dishes – there’s a certain piquancy to making a recipe that could so easily have an extra, deadly ingredient. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of books that exist to cater to our desire to replicate the food we read about in whodunnits, from Anne Martinetti’s Agatha Christie cookbook Crèmes & châtiments : Recettes délicieuses et criminelles to The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.

In Kate Young’s The Little Library Cookbook, there are two recipes she’s created that are inspired by descriptions in Agatha Christie stories.

Kate: The first one is creamed haddock on toast, which because I love Sleeping Murder which is the book that it’s from. And because I also love like a late night fish supper and the creamed haddock on toast is something that Gwenda asked for for breakfast and the woman who works in her house her sort of housekeeper says ‘um, no you’re not eating fish in bed, you can have that for supper instead’. And I like the idea of sort of a late night fish supper. So I went with creamed haddock on toast which is totally delicious not very photogenic. There’s clearly not a picture of it in my book and there’s a reason for that. And then the crystallized ginger is one of my granddad’s favorite things. It’s from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a Hercule Poirot book where he goes to a big house in the countryside and there’s a ruby and a Christmas pudding and it’s it’s very like classic Christie feel in terms of the house but it’s even more so because it’s an English house at Christmas time.

Caroline: When she’s developing a recipe from a novel – and her book is full of them, it’s not just detective stories — she’s trying to recreate the feeling you get while you read about the food, as much as literally translate what’s on the page.

Kate: I’m not a food historian so while I really enjoy the research and looking into the sort of history surrounding a recipe the biggest thing for me is that it has to work in your kitchen. So what I do at the beginning is really consider the time the book was set and who’s doing the cooking in that house whether it’s somebody who’s employed to cook or whether it’s a member of the family. And then what cookbooks they might have had. And so there’s lots of great historic cookbooks that are available that you can have a look at and lots of them are available online. I play around with different ingredients and different methods and have a think about social class and what access to ingredients and access to equipment that character might have had and then all of that kind of gets thrown away when I come to write the recipe because it needs to work in 2018-2019. So I know this is a non Christie example that I’m going to talk about but the roasted goose in A Christmas Carol that Mrs Cratchit makes for their family on Christmas Day is roasted over a spit and if I put a recipe for roasted goose in the book where that said ‘Ok ready your spit’ nobody’s ever going to make it. And so it needs to be something that’s going to work in your kitchen now that has an essence or an understanding or a bit that is from that book without being sort of really adherent to the cooking methods and ingredients at the time.

Caroline: For the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth in 2010, the actress Jane Asher created a recipe for the “Delicious Death” chocolate birthday cake that Mitzi makes in A Murder is Announced. It’s described as a cake with “an intense, forbidding dark Belgian chocolate centre which is lifted by the unexpected sharp zing of its brandy-soaked cherry and ginger filling”. In the book, someone is found dead after eating this rich centrepiece of the birthday tea, but in real life people queued up at the Agatha Christie festival in Devon that year to grab a piece.

Perhaps risking death is worth it, if the cake is especially delicious.

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

We’re welcoming new listeners all the time, but I still need to tell more people about it if I’m going to turn the podcast into something sustainable I can do long-term. If you’d like to help me out with that, the best things you can do are tell your friends or family about it, post about it on social media, or leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

I’ll be back on 6 February with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Rules

7. Edith Thompson Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.