Category: Transcripts

29. Victorian Pioneers Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Teaching Sleuthing.

28. Let It Snow Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27. Competent Women Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26. Notable Trials Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: The Competent Women.

25. The Mutual Admiration Society Transcript

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

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

Caroline: One chilly night in November 1912, a group of young women gathered together to share their writing with each other. They were all newly arrived first year students at Somerville College in Oxford, part of a cohort of women undergraduates who were still pushing for full equality at the university and in the world at large. Years would elapse between them finishing their studies and actually receiving their degrees, for instance, because at this time Oxford allowed women to take the examinations but they could not formally graduate.

The group was founded as a writing circle, a place for budding poets, playwrights and novelists to share works in progress, receive criticism from other members, and offer their views in turn. Unlike many student enthusiasms, it persisted throughout its members’ university years and beyond, shaping the course of their lives and relationships. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s to this little society that we owe the creation of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, as well as numerous other literary works and distinguished, boundary-pushing careers.

It was the group’s best known member, Dorothy L. Sayers, who came up with its name. Introducing: the Mutual Admiration Society.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to get to know this group of women much better, and learn how their friendships and their work influenced the direction of detective fiction and women’s rights.

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When a nineteen year old Dorothy Sayers named the writing group she had just formed with her new Somerville friends The Mutual Admiration Society, she was reflecting the fact that university women of her time had to be constantly protecting their intellectual endeavours from ridicule and cynicism. At the same time, she was making a joke out of this perennial difficulty, something else that would come to be very typical of the society’s members, who always seemed to have a comic riposte at the ready.

Mo: Right away in their first their first term they formed this group where they would get together in their respective dorm rooms and have cocoa and coffee and share what they’d written and offer each other criticism. So it was a sort of literary criticism society basically and Dorothy Sayers was the was one of the founding members and she was the one who actually named the group. So she said we might as well call ourselves a mutual admiration society because everybody else will anyway. So as a sort of pre-emptive strike although they were not actually they were very critical of each other so they weren’t sort of the pejorative meaning of a mutual admiration society at all.

Caroline: This is Mo Moulton, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham and the author of a new book titled “The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade The World For Women”. I’ll let Mo introduce you to the key figures in the society that you’re going to hear about today.

Mo: All total over the course of their time at Oxford. There were probably eight to ten people who were at least tangentially part of the society in the book though I focus on this kind of core group of about four or five who were in the society and who kept going throughout their lives. I mean that’s kind of the amazing thing lots of people form clubs at university but they actually continued sharing work and criticizing each other’s work for decades and decades. Most of them had quite long lives. So Dorothy Sayers is the most famous one. She became a detective novelist and then as I imagine everybody listening to this podcast will know that she. She was also a popular theologian and an advertising copywriter. Among other things Muriel St. Claire Byrne was one of the later members to join the group to shoot. She came to Oxford a few years later but she she became an important part of the of the society and she became a historian of Elizabethan England. And she was very interested in the theatre as well. And there’s Charisse Barnett Frank Enberg. She was Carol Burnett at at university and became Charisse Frank Enberg. She became a child advice manual writer child rearing advice and a birth control advocate. And she was one of the first female justices of the peace. So this kind of public facing interested in juvenile delinquency and children and and motherhood really. Then there’s Dorothy Rowe. She became a amateur theatre director and she was also an English teacher in Bournemouth. Muriel Yegor who became a science fiction novelist and a playwright and and also a historian later and later in her life and then and then the loss of a person who I write a lot about in the book is and Phyllis said this is the best name and Phyllis Throckmorton middle more than her friends call her Phil. She was a English lecturer. She moved over to Pennsylvania and worked at Bryn Ma briefly and they stayed in touch throughout their lives.

Caroline: While they were students at Somerville, the members of the Mutual Admiration Society took their studies with differing levels of seriousness, but they always found time for sharing their writing and teasing each other. For instance, on one occasion before they went home for the Christmas vacation, Dorothy Sayers had told the group that she planned to write a story told from the perspective of the men inside the wooden horse at Troy. At their first meeting back in January, she got quite far into reading out what she had actually worked on — a miracle play about the three Magi — before Dorothy Rowe loudly asked “but was this happening inside the wooden horse?” to general hilarity. They also played practical jokes on each other, put on plays and attended costume parties. Their dressing up often defined gender conventions, with Muriel St Clare Byrne in particular being keen to adopt masculine roles, which is a theme she would explore in a memoir later in her life.

Whatever plans the members of the society might have had for their post university careers, the First World War disrupted everything. With male friends and relations fighting in Europe, Sayers and her friends finished their studies in a very different Oxford to the one that they had entered in 1912. They saw out the war and its immediate aftermath with nursing, teaching and translation work, and grieved for their friends and brothers who did not make it back from the trenches.

The decade after the war ended was a difficult time for all of them, as they struggled to forge a path in the world as educated career women. In the book, Mo heads one of the chapters about this with the question “Teach or Marry?”, and it was this stark choice that all the members of Mutual Admiration Society had before them. While at Somerville, the combined support of their parents and the college had provided the mental space and the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf would name in 1929 as being essential for a women to fiction. Out in wider British society, where the Representation of the People Act of 1918 had extended the vote only to women over the age of 30, it was more difficult to find roles that they fitted into that weren’t that of teacher or wife. The job market favoured men who were returning from the war, and in any case the idea of a woman with a top university degree was so new that there just weren’t many ready made opportunities for them. Teaching remained an ever-present option, even the default for the educated woman who wanted to remain respectable and uncontroversial, and indeed most of the members of the society did teach at one point or another — even Dorothy Sayers, who seems like she was not at all suited as a personality to the classroom, doing some supply teaching to make ends meet. Dorothy Rowe, however, seems to have found a real vocation in teaching, and inspired successive generations of students at her school in Bournemouth with her challenging and theatrical literature lessons. Others, like Sayers and Jaeger, were trying to make their way as writers, and Muriel St Clare Byrne was taking her first steps towards a career as a historian, although she would struggle throughout her life with the lack of permanent academic research posts available for women.

It was when they started to become more settled in their own careers, Mo says, that the extraordinary thing happened: unlike most student societies or even friendships, which peter out as the years go by, the Mutual Admiration Society came back together and became intimately involved in each other’s lives again.

Mo: So they were also struggling to make ends meet and so the 1920s their sort of connections and then and then and then distances as well. And then in the late 1920s when they sort of become a little a little more established and come back together as a group they went on holidays together they would rent rent a cabin or a cottage in Devon or the South Downs and so they hang out. They exchanged drafts of writing and offered each other suggestions and sometimes extraordinarily harsh criticism. And then and then in some cases they collaborated as well.

Caroline: One of these collaborations, between Dorothy Rowe and Charis Frankenburg, was a series of education books called Latin with Laughter.

Mo: The idea was that young mothers might want to teach their children some Latin for they went to school which kind of oriented to the class background. But to give them a head start on Latin.
And so there are these these kind of hilarious little stories that children can learn in Latin and in English about various funny situations. And so Charisse wrote the text in Latin and the translations and then Dorothy drew the illustrations so she drew these little cartoons of you know that she donkey walks up the road the young boy throws a rock events at it that sort of thing

Caroline: Although it sounds like fun, and represents an interesting attempt by its authors to give more educational agency to middle class mothers, Latin with Laughter is far from the most interesting literary collaboration to come from the post university incarnation of the Mutual Admiration Society. Find out what that was, after the break.

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In 1920, while she was sick with the mumps, Dorothy Sayers became obsessed with reading Sexton Blake stories. Sexton Blake is a detective character who had been appearing in magazine serials and comic strips since 1893, and while she was ill Sayers wrote to her friends begging them to send more magazines so she could keep up with his adventures. Once she was better, she and Jaeger hatched a plan to write some elevated criticism of the Blake stories. She wanted to write an article equating these pulpy comic books with “the old romance cycles” and mythical figures like Robin Hood. She and Jim got stuck in on it, under the pseudonym of Alexander Mitchingham, and had a great time comparing Blake to Jesus and finding allusions to all other sorts of religious events in them. In the book, Mo makes the point that this is a scholarly tactic typical of the Mutual Admiration Society members — it’s both a bit of good fun, but it was also done with the intention of taking mass culture seriously and applying a critical lens to popular literature.

This is how Sayers approached her own detective fiction. Her first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, was published in 1923. She had done various jobs since the war ended, including school teaching and translation, and had even considered returning to university for further study. She contemplated applying for a postgraduate bachelor of letters degrees (the BLitt that Harriet Vane considers doing in Gaudy Night). Sayers’s proposed thesis would have taken her Sexton Blake studies much further. It had a proposed title of “the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a special study of Modern Criminological Romance”. She never did that degree, but with the Wimsey novels she was always trying new ways of pushing the popular detective novel form further, introducing complicated legal or medical concepts, writing from different perspectives, or situating her sleuth in environments that hadn’t previously hosted a whodunnit. The spirit of the Mutual Admiration Society, whose members sought to take their educational advantages and spread them more widely to the general public, was to the fore in her writing. She wanted to mix the learned and the readable, to find a way of blending highbrow and lowbrow forms into a new kind of writing.

One of the society’s greatest collaborative works grew out of Sayers’ efforts in this area. Here’s Mo again, describing how Sayers and Muriel St Clare Byrne came to write together again long after they left university.

Mo: They collaborated on well a range of things essays and and articles and dialogues and stuff but most interesting to me is their collaboration and busman’s honeymoon. Muriel’s St. Claire Byrne wrote about history. She wrote about theatrical history. She wrote lots of book reviews about things about costumes and stuff like that. She really wanted to be a playwright as well. And she’d written a few plays of her own. She’d had a few plays performed by kind of amateur societies. She was approached to do an adaptation of a Dorothy Sayers novel because it was known that they were friends and she ended up declining that offer. But she said to Dorothy Sayers you know what. What if what if we wrote a play together based on your characters. And so this was in the January February time of 1935. And yeah. So they decided to take what they described as Sayers as proprietary characters. So Harriet Vane and Lord Peter whimsy and you know Bunter bunch of the butler and they would they would develop a a play based on those characters. And that was what turned into Batman’s honeymoon which is you know co-written really 50/50 between between the two of them. [00:09:00] The drafts of the player held by the Muriel Wade Centre Muriel Wade now always same year old because there’s so many murals in my book married the Marion raid centre at Wheaton College in Illinois and there you know you can sort of see that they’re going back and forth of each other there’s an annotations in both of their hand writings alongside these these draft draft play and I think of it as a moment where. It’s really clear that Dorothy Sayers friendship with Merrill St. Clair Burnham with her partner Marjorie Barber. I think. I was kind of the catalyst for Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Ramsey to become these more dimensional complicated characters who are not just vehicles for especially whimsy not just being a vehicle for these kind of fun but a little stylized mystery stories. But actually they start to become novels about life and relationships and sort of the nature of being a person in the world.  And I think that’s other people have noticed that that evolution of course. But I think that what became clear to me was that this was something that happened in community in conversation with with Byrne and with Barber.

Caroline: As regular listeners will know, the so-called “rules” of detective fiction strictly forbade the inclusion of romance plots in whodunnits. But as Mo says, Sayers and Byrne were interested in moving beyond those stock tropes to create something more recognisably human. And the origins of the desire to explore the tensions between love, partnership, writing and intellectual work through the characters of Peter and Harriet can be found in these writers own lives.

Mo: Sayers got married in 1926. And so the friendship that developed that sort of redeveloped the reconnection that happened in the late 1920s was really a friendship between two couples. Sayers and Atherton Fleming her husband and St. Claire Byrne and her partner Marjorie Barbour and both of those were fairly complex relationships. You know that neither those were.
Perfectly placid you know marriages or partnerships. And so my sense is that they probably had a lot of conversation between each other amongst each other about the nature of marriage the nature of trying to have an egalitarian partnership. What it meant for one partner to earn more or to have more success than the other partner. And so I think that kind of out of those conversations and out of that that sense of shared experience is where the the turn comes to turn whimsy and vein into this kind of partnership into this lens for thinking through what would an ideal partnership actually look like.

Caroline: One of the most interesting things I learned from Mo’s really excellent book is that the chronology of the Wimsey-Vane novels is not what I’d always assumed — I thought that they must have been written in the order that they were published — Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon. But, in fact, that wasn’t the case. And Sayers did it this way in order to fit things around her most famous collaboration with Byrne.

Mo: So even if I can rewrite mine the Strong Poison so she’d introduced Harriet Vane as a as a character and as a as a love interest for whimsy in strong poison which she wrote right around the same time as she was rekindling this friendship with with Bernard with Barbara. And there are a few a few novels of Harriet Vane in them and then she kind of it’s almost as though she’s not sure how to proceed with the relationship. And. There’s a really funny letter that she she writes too.  I believe it’s Dorothy Roe saying well Lord Peter is anxious to get hitched but I don’t know if it’s going to work out for his two decrepit and old and it’s she she says. But he’s here he’s almost forty five he wants to get married before he’s ancient and she’s like she’s in her mid 40s at the same time so she’s clearly feeling this you know at this moment in life so yeah she sort of created this character created this dynamic and then and then it kind of hit pause on it and writes These more dimensional more complex stories in murder must advertise and. The nine tailors that suggests that she’s kind of developing her range as a novelist but Harriet Venus very much talked to one side you as mentioned in one line. Then in 1935 she and Byrne decide to write busman’s honeymoon and they imagine it as the honeymoon that Harriet and Peter go on after they’ve gotten married. And so she’s very clear that. Okay we’re gonna write this play and I have to figure out how it is that he. At what point does Harry accept this marriage proposal that he’s famously repeating on I think April Fool’s Day and her birthday every year. So she realizes that she’s kind of committed herself to to working this out. And so. In the early spring of 1935 Muriel St. Clair burned and Sayers. Right busman’s honeymoon towards the late spring is when Sayers starts writing gaudy night. And her letters are issued its credit she’s very stressed out by the whole process.  Muriel is sending her these sort of queries about the play and do we really want this to happen in this scene are we sure that you know this. We haven’t left this plot you know hold dangling or she wouldn’t mix a metaphor like that. At the same time as Sayers a starting Gotti night and tonight there’s even a lower risk she says well you know I’ve had the lead Harriet uncomfortably standing outside Somerville College shifting from one foot to the other while I answer your letter about Busman’s Honeymoon it’s clear that these are really simultaneous processes for her. So although Gaudy Night ended up coming out before busman’s honeymoon but they’re being they’re being thought of in one as sort of one whole meditation on on marriage and relationships.

Caroline: Sayers also wrote a novelised version of Busman’s Honeymoon, although she was very strict with her publisher that it could not come out until Busman’s Honeymoon the play had been staged. And putting Peter Wimsey on the stage turned out to be a big success.

Mo:  It was wildly popular actually and had financially it had a really positive impact for both Sayers and for Byrne. [00:17:29] Byrne had been making her living kind of doing adjunct teaching essentially a contingent contingent teaching at various places and took a year off to do her own research based on the proceeds from busman’s honeymoon and also moved to a much nicer house. And it isn’t she doesn’t anywhere say sort. I paid for this with busman’s honeymoon but it’s clear that there is a kind of a step up in their financial well-being as a result of that. And then Sayers used the proceeds to finance some. She was she turned to writing religious plays and a kind of funded them funded their tour and that sort of thing with with busman’s honeymoon. So yeah it was really popular. It wasn’t amazingly received critically. People felt that. Critics said it was a little silly. But but people really enjoyed it. /And it was the play was then actually released. It was published as well. And it was taken up by like repertory theatres and amateur theatres including Dorothy Rose Theatre. They actually put on a production of it as well.

Caroline: As an ardent fan of Gaudy Night, it was a great pleasure to me to read Mo’s book and learn how much of what is in the novel has its origins directly in the experiences of the Mutual Admiration Society while they were at Oxford. The fictional Shrewsbury College isn’t exactly Somerville, nor are any of the dons precise portraits of real people, but there are recognisable elements from the letters the MAS members wrote to each other threaded all the way through the book.

But above all, the feelings that Harriet Vane has in Gaudy Night about the successive generations of university women, about how each cohort has pushed things a little bit further so that the next intake could benefit, match up closely with Sayers’s own experience. She was reluctant to return to Oxford for her own gaudies for years after she left, perhaps avoiding encounters with past versions of herself and old ambitions that had never been fulfilled. But when she did go back, it was because she had reconnected with her old friends and begun to write collaboratively again. Alone, she had been wary of connecting up the writer she had become with the student she had once been. But together, the Mutual Admiration Society could celebrate how far they had come.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. I’m much obliged to my guest Mo Moulton for taking part and to the Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our interview. Listeners should also be aware that there is so much more to Mo’s book about The Mutual Admiration Society than I’ve been able to cover here, and I urge you to order a copy immediately online or from your local bookshop. You can find links to where you can do that in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/mas, and there, you can also read a full transcript.
I’ll be back on 13 November with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Notable Trials

24. Enter The Watson Transcript

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

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Caroline: There’s a moment in Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel A Caribbean Mystery that I think about a lot. Miss Marple, generously sent on a luxury winter holiday to the island of St Honoré by her wealthy novelist nephew, has encountered what she believes to be a dastardly murder plot. Two people have died already, and if she does not act swiftly, more will follow. But she’s far away from home, among strangers. She realises that “here on this paradise of an island, she had none of her usual allies” who can assist her in saving the day. As an elderly and respectable lady of limited mobility and strength, she needs someone younger and stronger on whom she can rely for the more reckless and physical side of sleuthing. “Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?” she wonders.
What Miss Marple needs, you see, is a sidekick. A fundamental archetype of the classic whodunnit, sidekicks perform many functions in detective fiction, both in practical and narrative terms. But they don’t often get full credit for the vital role they play in making these stories ones that we enjoy again and again. As readers, we’re inclined to be dazzled by the brilliance of the central sleuth, and not think that hard about the supporting players who make it all possible.
But not today. For once, we’re going to put the sidekicks in the spotlight.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at the recurring characters who accompany our favourite sleuths on their adventures, and explore all the different ways that authors have used this device to enhance their mysteries.

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Before we get into the episode proper, though, I just want to remind you that there are two opportunities to see a live episode of Shedunnit coming up in the next few months — I’ll be at the Dublin Podcast Festival on 15 November and the PodUK convention on 1 February 2020. Full details and tickets are available at shedunnitshow.com/events, and especially if you are wanting to come to the Dublin show I would recommend booking soon as it’s a small venue.

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The detective’s sidekick is one of the fundamental building blocks of the classic whodunnit. Their exact station in life can vary, as can their precise relationship with the central sleuth. Authors really let their imaginations run wild when it comes to the sidekick’s special skills — some are combat experts, there to provide the muscle if the situation gets sticky, others are journalists, writers, lab technicians, butlers or barely-human quasi-mythical entities. What unites all of the sidekicks, though, is their role as a sounding board for the detective. They are present so that they can participate in the case, yes, but they’re also there to be told the story so that the reader can be told, too.

As is often the case with these embedded tropes of detective fiction, the most famous example actually appeared three or so decades before the advent of the so-called golden age of detective fiction after the first world war. I feel like I say this too often in these episodes, but it’s true — to understand what Christie, Marsh, Mitchell and the other top practitioners of this style were doing in the 1920s and 30s, you have to go back to Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t exactly invent the idea of the hero’s close friend participating in the story as a proxy for the reader, but he did refine and popularise it for detective fiction to the extent that the very name of his sidekick has become a widely-used shorthand for this type of character. Enter the Watson.

The thing about Dr Watson, though, is that he isn’t just a foil for Sherlock Holmes — a slightly plodding conventional intelligence included in order to show off Holmes’s uncanny brilliance to best effect, although he is partly that. Watson is also the narrator of nearly all of the Holmes stories and therefore the master of Conan Doyle’s meta narrative. Watson is writing up Holmes’s cases for public consumption and so his impressions heavily influence what ours can be. Of course, this is part of what makes the Holmes stories so enjoyable. Watson has a flair for the gothic and loves a dramatic twist. He lays out Holmes’s deductions as they become apparent to lesser mortals like John Watson (and by extension, we the reader) who can’t follow the lightening fast motion of his friend’s brain. As such, he provides the pacing and structure that make for a good plot. Can you imagine what a classic Sherlock Holmes story narrated by Sherlock Holmes would be like? I’m imagining something very brief, like: “I arrived at the scene of the crime, and it was immediately apparent to me who did it. It took me a few hours to prove it, but once I’d measured a few footprints and shoes the whole thing was wrapped up and I headed back to town to play my violin, leaving the boring bits to the police.”

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As I said, Conan Doyle didn’t invent this “sidekick as narrator and narrator as writer” idea when it comes to detective fiction. That honour goes, I believe, to Edgar Allen Poe, who experimented with this in his Auguste Dupin stories back in the 1840s. Dupin’s exploits are related by an unnamed friend who accompanies him during his cases, and who, like Watson, writes about his experiences with the talented sleuth in the first person. For all that we are constantly told about the brilliance of Dupin’s mind (and Holmes’s, for that matter), we barely ever actually get to see inside it. Poe’s innovation in making the sidekick the narrator was a step on from the omniscient voice of eighteenth and nineteenth century realist fiction up to that point. The pleasure of the Dupin stories, as with the Holmes ones, is that the narrator is there to state the obvious and not find things out too quickly, so that we the reader can actually enjoy the progress of the story.

Literary critics love Poe and Conan Doyle for what it tells us about the development of the novel in the nineteenth century. There’s a whole subset of academic work devoted to what detective fiction can tell us about concepts like “narrativity” and layers of narration. I’ve cited a couple of the most interesting and readable studies in the show notes for this episode, so you can go and read more if that’s your kind of thing. If not, the key thing to note is that the sidekick is the glue that sticks the whole structure of the classic detective story together. Once you start to break it down properly, you realise how very complicated even the most apparently simple whodunnit is. There’s not one story but a minimum of two: the account of the crime, and then the account of the investigation into that crime, and sometimes other layers in between. The interleaving of these two principal narratives is controlled by the sidekick or Watson figure, and sometimes additional intertextual elements are introduced by the inclusion in the story of a diary, a letter or another form of direct statement from the criminal, relating their layer of the fiction in the first person. Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is a good example of this last technique, where Watson’s account is interrupted at the end of part one for an extended reminiscence by the culprit.

When the sidekick’s narration is well written, the greatest trick here remains concealed. That is the way it plays with the balance of power — in the Conan Doyle or Poe model, the detective is meant to be all knowing and all powerful, yet the choices as to how they are described lies completely with their friendly narrator. We think of Watson or Dupin’s unnamed friend as the “sidekick”, imply that they are secondary or an adjunct to the principal character of the detective. But when it comes to the reader, it’s Watson who holds all the cards. He controls Sherlock Holmes’s image and reputation with the wider public and with the reader. I have my problems with the recent BBC adaptation Sherlock, but I do think the writers did a good job of conveying this see-sawing power dynamic between detective and sidekick — people who know Sherlock only from John’s blog are always commenting that they thought the famous sleuth would be taller in real life, or that they find him more impressive if he “wears the hat”. They are comparing the real life Sherlock with the image created by his sidekick, and finding him ever so slightly disappointing by comparison.

Watson, as the most famous sidekick of the nineteenth century, casts a long shadow into the twentieth and beyond. A.A. Milne makes this connection between the work of Conan Doyle and the detective novelists of the next generation very clear in his 1926 introduction to his only whodunnit, The Red House Mystery. Milne identifies himself as a passionate fan of detective stories, and then proceeds to set out his own particular preferences and rules for how they should be written. (I talk about this essay in more depth in episode 9 of this show, if you’re interested, which is all about the rules of detective fiction more generally.) “And now, what about a Watson?” Milne writes. “Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but prologue to a five minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking.” He goes on to use the verb “watsonize” to mean the opposite of soliloquise; that is to speak one’s thoughts aloud to a companion rather than without expectation that there are listeners present. Milne doesn’t have his “Watson” actually narrate the story, but with a couple of exceptions towards the end, he does use the sidekick character to make the progress of the investigation transparent to the reader.

As fast as I’ve been able to find out, this essay was published in April 1926, three months before Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in June of the same year. I don’t know if Milne had somehow read an advance copy of Christie’s novel, which contains the most famous narrative twist of 1920s detective fiction, and which sees Poirot adopt an amateur sidekick in the conventional fashion before the whole thing is upended magnificiently. But he was certainly responding to a growing atmosphere of experimentation within the genre, which meant that Watsons couldn’t always be taken at face value in the way they can in Conan Doyle.

After the break: the sidekicks fight back.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about how you can support the podcast’s continued existence. The main way to do that is by joining the Shedunnit Book Club, the membership scheme I run alongside the podcast for listeners who are keen to take their interest in golden age detective fiction further than I have time for in the free episodes. For £5 a month, you receive a bonus podcast feed containing extra episodes of the show as well as access to the book club forum, where members gather to read and discuss whichever whodunnit we’re reading that month. For October, our title is Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham, and if you head to shedunnitshow.com/bookclub you can still join in plenty of time to weigh in on that one. Going forward, I’m also going to be trying out merchandise just for members as well as running meet ups at my live shows, so the club is only getting bigger and better. Visit shedunnitshow.com/bookclub to find out more and sign up. Now, back to the show.

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Now that we have established the narrative history and functions of detective sidekicks, it’s time to take a look at the different ways that authors have created and subverted this trope. Just for the sake of ease, I have loosely grouped characters into five groups for the purposes of our examination and picked an emblematic example to talk about for each one. However, I freely acknowledge that my categories are a bit arbitrary and also that recurring characters move between them as they develop and change.

To start with, let’s consider sidekicks who are personal friends of the detective. This type of character is arguably truest to the John Watson archetype — they are not employed by the detective in any capacity, but are rather a social equal who voluntarily takes part in cases. I think the most recognisable golden age version of this dynamic is the one between Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. Christie first introduced their relationship in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 although it is set several years earlier, during the First World War. Hastings, spending a month’s sick leave with some friends at a country house, runs into Poirot by chance in the village, where the retired police detective is living with some other Belgian refugees. Hastings introduces Poirot to his friends as “my old friend, Monsieur Poirot, whom I have not seen for years”. The two reignite their friendship, and in a subsequent book even briefly live together in a flat in London. As well as his narrative functions as a classic Watson, I think Hastings is also important for his essential upper class Englishness, offsetting Poirot’s performative “foreigner” status for potentially prejudiced clients and associates. Hastings was educated at Eton and served with distinction in the trenches. As such there are few English social situations where he is not welcome, and he can ease Poirot’s path as a result. It is worth remembering, though, that perception of this relationship can be influenced by the long running ITV Poirot TV adaptation, in which lots of stories were rewritten to include Hastings, even though he only appears in about half of the Poirot stories in Christie’s original versions, and he more often narrates short stories than he appears in full-length novels. I think the on screen chemistry between David Suchet and Hugh Fraser has a lot to do with Hastings’s reputation as Poirot’s principal sidekick. You might also look out for other classic Holmes-Watson esque dynamics in the work of Ngaio Marsh, where Roderick Alleyn has the journalist Nigel Bathgate in a similar role, or R. Austin Freeman Dr Thorndyke, who is usually assisted by his friend Christopher Jervis.

My next major category of sidekick is domestic servants. Poirot has one, of course, in the shape of his faithful valet George who occasionally assists as a sounding board or with a small amount of practical help. Peter Wimsey, more significantly perhaps, has the indefatigable Mervyn Bunter, who can photograph a crime scene, dust for fingerprints, press a suit, fix a boiler, tail a suspect and manage a household while also somehow getting a delicious dinner on the table on time. I do wonder sometimes whether Dorothy L. Sayers was indulging in a bit of wish fulfilment when she created Bunter — who among us wouldn’t like such a capable sidekick with us at all times? The one I find most interesting, though, is Margery Allingham’s Magersfontein Lugg, the reformed burglar who acts as personal gentleman and general factotum to her detective Albert Campion. Lugg and Campion have a spikier, more sarcastic relationship than your standard Jeeves and Wooster couple. Although over the course of many novels we realise the mutual bond and affection between them, they constantly express their frustration with each other — Lugg with Campion when he considers that his master is being too posh and whimsical, and Campion with Lugg when the latter’s low social status or straightforward manners causes friction with other characters. However, Lugg’s past as a burglar (we’re told he left the life of crime behind when he lost his figure and could presumably no longer easily scale drainpipes) does come in handy over and over again, when his connections in London’s criminal underworld aid his master’s investigation. The domestic servant sidekick is less often the first person narrator of the detective story, although Bunter does get a chance at relating events via a letter at the start of Busman’s Honeymoon, but they are no less crucial to the eventual resolution of each case. As well as the classic sidekick roles of sounding board and advisor, the likes of Lugg also keep the detective physically capable, making sure they eat food and get dressed properly. For Wimsey, it’s heavily implied throughout the books that it’s only because of Bunter that his lordship was able to recover from the trauma of the first world war and become a functioning member of society again. Some sidekick, eh.

To stick with Wimsey for a moment, my third kind of sidekick also concerns him — the secretary. Although there are frequently male secretaries in golden age detective fiction (think of the overpopulation of them in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, for instance), they tend to be more characters in their own right than detective sidekicks. Female secretaries, however, are sometimes accorded the status of sidekick. This type is most prominent in two of the Wimsey books, Unnatural Death and Strong Poison. Indeed, the former introduces Miss Climpson’s cattery, an entire bureau of so-called “surplus women” who Lord Peter employs as secretaries slash inquiry agents (there’s more about this in the very first episode of this podcast). Miss Climpson herself runs the agency, and she also assists Wimsey directly in both of these books, travelling to the place where either a crime took place or a crucial witness lives and entrusted with gathering information undercover as a helpless female in a way that a man never could. One of her employees, Miss Murchison, also performs this function in Strong Poison when she takes a job as a secretary in a solicitor’s office at Wimsey’s behest in order to move the case forward. In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane’s first thought when it comes to bringing in reinforcements for her sensitive investigation at an Oxford women’s college is Miss Climpson and her army of secretaries, because how else could detective agents be introduced to a community of academic women without arousing suspicion, other than as typists? The female sidekick is an underrepresented character in detective fiction, I think — I’ll say more about this in a moment — but as a secretary, a woman may assist a (probably male) sleuth without arousing suspicion or creating the impression of impropriety. You couldn’t find a more upright character than Miss Felicity Lemon, the secretary that Agatha Christie created for Hercule Poirot and Parker Pyne, yet in that role she is able to provide her detective with invaluable assistance of a kind that a woman without that seal of approval would be less able to give. All hail the secretaries, frankly. Sometimes, they’re the most interesting characters.
Now, we move onto a slightly disputed kind of sidekick: the police detective. I say disputed, because sometimes the police detective is the principal sleuth in a detective story — even during the golden age not all authors were devoting their attention to the gentleman amateur. Roderick Allen, for instance, is a Scotland Yard inspector, as is ER Punshon’s Bobby Owen, Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French and the Coles’ Superintendent Wilson. But where the amateur does take centre stage, as with Wimsey, Poirot, Marple and countless others, there often needs to be some official presence to grease the wheels of the plot and give the sleuth access to sensitive information and crime scenes and so on. Again, we look to Conan Doyle for the precedent here — it is Inspector Lestrade who often brings Sherlock Holmes into a case as a consultant, or pops up part way through with a crucial bit of information that only the police could plausibly have. And it is in that sense that I consider these characters to be sidekicks. Simply put, Lestrade makes the investigation possible, because without his intervention the detective would still be at home looking for tobacco in the Turkish slipper. If there’s a more vital supporting role, I don’t know what it is. And Lestrade’s image is refashioned across lots of different kinds of stories, from Miss Marple’s collaborations with Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering and his godson Inspector Craddock, to Poirot’s benignly antagonistic relationship with Inspector Japp, to Wimsey’s burgeoning friendship with Inspector Parker. I think as readers we have a tendency to consider these emissaries from officialdom as merely part of the furniture, but I think they’re worth elevating beyond that. Dorothy L Sayers perhaps does this best in Clouds of Witness, when Inspector Parker gets his own motives and even love interest in the course of the investigation alongside Wimsey, but they’re always worth keeping a watchful eye out for, the friendly policeman. You never know what clues they might produce next.

Finally, just before I finish, I want to touch on a rather elusive kind of sidekick — one who actually graduates to becoming a sleuth in their own right. For me, the prime example of this is Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver, a detective novelist herself who first appears as one of the four “experts” in 1936’s Cards on the Table. A decade and a half later, Christie brought her back as Poirot’s main sidekick in 1952’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and in her next half dozen appearances, Mrs Oliver takes on a bigger share of the investigation. Indeed, in The Pale Horse, she is the only sleuth on the case, but there are others like Halloween Party and Elephants Can Remember where she does most of the work and Poirot acts only as a kind of mentor figure, helping and encouraging when she gets stuck. Ariadne Oliver is a delightfully tricksy character, since she complicates all of that stuff about the sidekick as narrator, since she’s a writer of mysteries herself and is very conscious of the various tropes as they come along. She’s also a way for Christie to satirise herself. Oliver’s recurring detective is an analogue of Poirot, the vegetarian Finnish sleuth Sven Hjerson, and she frequently expresses her frustration at his popularity and the constant demand for her to keep writing about him even though she knows very little about Finland.

Harriet Vane also has a similar trajectory to Mrs Oliver in some ways — she starts out in Strong Poison as a client Wimsey seeks to defend, and then acts as his sidekick in Have His Carcase, before conducting most of an investigation by herself in Gaudy Night. She’s also a mystery novelist and frequently uses her knowledge of the way plots are created in order to examine possibilities in real life cases. Sayers even slyly references the character’s progress from sidekick to sleuth, because when Wimsey turns up about three quarters of the way through Gaudy Night to hear about the case, he says to Harriet: “We’ll see what kind of a detective you make when you’re left to yourself.” However, Sayers takes Vane one step further than that, because she breaks all the rules about combining romance with detection, and marries Peter and Harriet off at the start of Busman’s Honeymoon. They then undertake a case together in a book that has a lot to say about equality and intellectual freedom in marriage. I’m not sure what Harriet is in that story, but I don’t think she’s the sidekick anymore, especially since Bunter is also on the scene to assist with his usual prowess. I think perhaps Sayers was gesturing towards something else, a genuine partnership within detection, something only possible when the restrictions around giving the sleuth a full realised emotional life are lifted. Love and the solving of mysteries: that’s a topic for another day.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/sidekicks. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to one of the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Dublin or Birmingham. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events
I’ll be back on 30 October with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Mutual Admiration Society

23. Off The Rails Transcript

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

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

[Train sound effect]

Caroline: It’s an iconic mystery setting, almost to the point of cliche, reproduced in lovingly nostalgic detail in films and TV adaptations. The panelled walls of polished wood, deep carpets, comfortable seats covered in plush velvet, and attendants in sharp uniforms, ready to cater to the passengers’ every whim. There’s something so linear and definite about a train journey — it can only take you from A to B, with no possible deviations. Except when murder intervenes, and throws everything off the rails.

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Trains were a very popular setting for detective novelists in the 1920s and 30s. Railways had become sufficiently ubiquitous that the details of train travel was recognisable, even mundane, for readers, yet the luxury trans continental routes like the Orient Express were still in their glory days to provide a bit of glamorous escapism for those who couldn’t quite afford to book a first class sleeper from Paris to Constantinople at a moment’s notice. A train is a mobile locked room, with a limited cast of passengers who can’t escape, and a timetable governing its every move. It’s no wonder, really, that authors found the railways so inspiring.

It’s time to find your seat. The train is about to depart. Let’s see what awaits us on the journey.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. On this episode, we’re going to learn about how such a strong connection was forged between train travel and detective fiction, examine some examples where it was used to best effect, and explore a few theories about why it works so very well.

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First, a bit of background and a few parameters before we get started. I’m going to be talking here about train-based mysteries that are set in Britain, or written by authors based there. I’m aware that different countries have different histories and traditions when it comes to trains and to storytelling, but for the purposes of examining the intersection of railway stories and golden age detective fiction here, we’re going to stick largely to the UK and Europe, since that’s the area that the authors of this period were concentrating on too.

Before there could be mysteries set on trains, there had to be trains. The first intercity train line in the UK ran between Manchester and Liverpool and began operating in September 1830. It quickly put the road-based stagecoach service out of business, since the train reduced the travel time between the two cities to just two hours. A lot of the techniques pioneered on this line — such as transporting mail bags, signally, and running special excursion trains to take people to the races — were quickly picked up by the other lines that were being built all over the country. Britain fell in love with rail, both as a means of transport and as a vehicle for financial speculation. The 1840s brought with it a kind of national infrastructure obsession that was dubbed “railway mania”, as hundreds of new companies secured permission to build new lines all over the country. By 1870, Britain had about 13,500 miles of track.

This piecemeal, entirely private way of developing a rail network lead to lots of small, independent lines that all ran their own timetables, operated their own rolling stock and hired their own staff. If you’ve ever read a nineteenth century novel (or a Sherlock Holmes story, for instance) you’ll probably remember as scene where a character needs to make a journey and asks someone to pass them the “Bradshaw”. This was the commonly used shorthand for “Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling”, a series of travelling guides that amalgamated all the available timetables and routes so that a passenger could easily look up a cross country journey without having to contact each company individually. It was first published in 1839, and continued to exist under that name well into the twentieth century, although the original cartographer George Bradshaw died in 1853.

By 1914, there were about 20,000 miles of rail track in Britain. Several major cities even had underground railways — the London Underground opened in 1863, and was followed by much smaller but similar systems in Liverpool in 1886 and Glasgow in 1896. But the chaotic, buccaneering capitalism that had allowed so many different railway companies to proliferate was calming down. There were still 120 different companies operating, although the rail network had been put under temporary state control during the First World War. In 1921 a law was passed that amalgamated these companies into a handful of smaller entities, and in 1923 the so-called “Big Four” of the Great Western Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and Southern Railway took control of the vast majority of rail travel in Britain.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that by the time some of our most famous fictional sleuths started to appear in the 1920s — Hercule Poirot in 1921, Lord Peter Wimsey in 1923, Albert Campion and Mrs Bradley in 1929, Roderick Alleyn in 1934 and so on, train travel was an affordable and accessible part of everyday life in Britain. More than that, they were already established as an essential tool of the detective. Think about how many times Conan Doyle has Holmes and Watson take a hansom cab from Baker Street to one of the London stations, in order to catch a train that will take them out of the metropolis and deep into the countryside where a mystery awaits. A compartment in a train becomes a kind of mobile version of Holmes’s consulting room, as he prepares himself on the train for what he might find upon arrival. We get a glimpse of this in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ from 1892, when Watson tells the reader that “We had the carriage to ourselves save for an immense litter of papers which Holmes had brought with him. Among these he rummaged and read, with intervals of note-taking and of meditation, until we were past Reading. Then he suddenly rolled them all into a gigantic ball and tossed them up onto the rack.” The train takes the detective where he needs to go, smoothly obeying the dictates of timetable and track, an ordered contrast with the chaos of murder and violence.

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As with any kind of new, society-changing technology, it took a while for most writers to find a way of incorporating rail travel into their fiction in an organic, natural way. Conan Doyle was certainly a pioneer in this regard. I would compare this process with the attempts of today’s fiction writers to come to terms with the arrival of smart phones – how many contemporary novels have you read where people actually text in a way you recognise from your own life? It’s an ongoing process.

In a trio of essays from 1901 titled “The Fallow Fields of Fiction”, the novelist and critic Arnold Bennett published a rallying cry for his fellow writers to pay more attention to the railways and their impact on human life. “The romance, the humanity, and the passions of a great railway system seemed to rise up and overwhelm us… Is not the whole system worth a novel, worth a whole school of novels?… It throbs from end to end with ‘human interest’, you simply can’t get away from humanity on a railway.”

One of the first from the sphere of detective fiction to take on this challenge wholeheartedly was a clergyman named Victor Whitechurch. He was a prolific author, publishing and editing lots of books on religious and other subjects. But most relevantly for our purposes today, he was also a passionate railway enthusiast and a regular contributor on the subject of trains in the early 1900s to Railway magazine and similar publications. In 1903, Pearson’s Weekly published a short story of Whitechurch’s titled “The Investigations of Godfrey Page, Railwayac”, which introduced the first railway detective to the reading public. (Railwayac, by the way, is a strange contraction formed from “railway” and “maniac”, and I think we can all agree that it doesn’t really work as a word.)

Godfrey Page is an amateur sleuth, with no affiliation to any police force or inquiry bureau. Rather, he’s just a private citizen who knows an awful lot about trains who has gained a reputation for being able to solve seemingly unsolvable problems on the railways. Each story usually seems him called in by a train company after a crime has been committed within their jurisdiction, and after some investigation Page is usually able to offer an explanation to the mystery. He deals with murder, robbery, smuggling and occasional espionage, and in each case the denouement arrives because of Page’s wide and deep knowledge of trains, timetables and the routines of railway staff. The Page investigations have a fair bit in common with Conan Doyle’s writing — think of them as a sort of transition between Doyle stories like ‘The Bruce Partington Papers’ and ‘The Lost Special’ and later whodunnits like Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington. Whitechurch was an early member of the Detection Club, by the way, and he contributed a competent early chapter to the club’s round robin novel The Floating Admiral — there’s more on that in episode 12 of this podcast.

Whitechurch didn’t stop at just one railway sleuth. He added a second, publishing magazine stories about a vegetarian fitness obsessive called Thorpe Hazell, who like Page acts purely as a private individual but is frequently called in by railway companies to help them out of sticky situations. The Hazell tales were collected in a 1912 volume called Thrilling Stories of the Railway, and as with Page there’s a mixed bag of robbery, fraud, murder, smuggling and espionage for the detective to deal with. Hazell is a more distinctive character than Page though — he’s a kind of Edwardian wellness guru, constantly trying to get others to try his weird regime of plasmon biscuits and arm swinging exercises — and probably for that reason he has a bit more of an afterlife, with reprints and radio adaptations. But his skills are just as acute as Page’s, and the position he occupies is the same. If the railways are a new world, then there are new criminals and new detectives needed to keep them in check.

After the break: meet the train nerd who turned the railway mystery into an art form.

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Welcome to the intermission. Today, I’m really excited to say that I’ve booked the first Shedunnit live shows, and if you’re quick about it, you can get tickets to come and see me doing this on a stage instead of in the cupboard off my bedroom. Both shows are a collaboration with Conor Reid from Words To That Effect, who you heard on this feed over the summer. You can catch us twice — on 15 November at The Podcast Studios in Dublin as part of the Dublin Podcast Festival, and on 1 February 2020 at the PodUK convention in Birmingham. Tickets for both are available now, and you can find the links to purchase at shedunnitshow.com/events. I’m hoping to be able to do a kind of Shedunnit meet up alongside both shows as well, so if you’re planning to come make sure you’re following the show on social media to get the details of that closer to the time, it’s @shedunnitshow on all the relevant platforms. Hope to see you there! Now, back to the show.

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Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. After finishing school he was apprenticed to an engineer working for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, and over the two decades he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Chief Assistant Engineer for the London, Midland and Scottish railway company in Northern Ireland. In 1919 he had to take an extended break from work while he convalesced from illness, and during that enforced idleness he tried his hand at writing a detective story. The resulting novel was published the next year as The Cask, a 400-page epic that uses train timetables and routes to create a complex plot that eventually unravels in a most satisfactory way. The story opens with a shocking discovery: some workers on the docks in London are unloading a cargo of casks from Paris when they drop one and it splits open slightly. Through the crack they can see that there are gold sovereigns inside, but also what looks like the hand of a dead woman. An Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard, a highly methodical and in some ways quite boring sleuth, is put on the case. He soon draws up a suspect list, but it takes a lot of work for him to get to the solution. This book also contains what would later become Crofts’ trademark — the unbreakable alibi that can only be cracked through intimate knowledge of train timetables and travel itineraries.

Crofts used his decades of experience on the railways to his advantage as a novelist, constructing a plot at once both complicated and simple, which yielded only under the force of hard, methodical detection. He’s sometimes credited as the originator of what we now call the police procedural, because for his detectives there are no wild hunches or sudden flashes of inspiration, just a lot of legwork and eliminating of possibilities until the true explanation is revealed. The Cask was a bestseller in his day, and by the end of the 1920s its author was able to give up his job as an engineer and devote himself to writing full time. He and his wife moved to Surrey in England and by the time he died in 1957, he had published dozens more novels and short stories. A lot of them include elements from his days working on the railways in Ireland, and even published a book in 1946 titled Death of a Train.

Because of his focus on the supposedly mundane details of things like train timetables and journey times in order to construct his plots, Freeman Wills Crofts is sometimes considered by critics to be a boring writer, compared to fellow authors like Christie and Sayers who devoted more words to characterisation, setting and the moral dimension of their stories. Julian Symons, who was a mystery writer himself but is probably best known today for his reviews and criticism about the genre, published a book called Bloody Murder in 1972 in which he identified a group of authors that he called the “Humdrums”. He theorised that the so called Humdrums existed as a separate subgenre of detective writing, distinct from the work of Christie, Sayers, Marsh and so on, and which gave distinctly less pleasure to readers that came upon it decades after it was published. Symons revisited this idea a lot in reviews and essays as well as in his 1972 book, but Freeman Wills Crofts was almost always mentioned as being a founder member of this humdrum school. Merely writing puzzles, rather than pushing crime writer further into thematic development, Symons suggested, was a lesser art form.

In his 2012 book Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, Curtis J Evans reappraises the work of Crofts and the other principle Humdrums, and points out the fallacies and discrepancies in Symons’s original designation. He focuses in on Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode and JJ Connington as the trio most in need of rehabilitation after Symons’s disapprobation. Further, Evans points out that as well as writing very pleasurable puzzles, these authors were also all people with vocational experience, such as Crofts’ work as an engineer on the railways, and as such their works provide a very different insight into society during the golden age when compared with the work of the Queens of Crime, say. It’s a brilliant book and there’s so much in there that I don’t have space to get into know — I highly recommend that you seek it out.

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The rules and systems of the railway, then, could provide a puzzle-minded detective author with great opportunities when it came to constructing alibis and ingenious solutions. But there are other aspects to trains too that appealed to writers. One that cropped up more in the nineteenth century was just the sheer danger involved in such a fast moving, powerful vehicle — think that image from the early era of cinema where a struggling woman is tied to the tracks ahead of a speeding locomotive. While the “train as murder weapon” plot doesn’t surface that often, you can find it sometimes in the work of Victor Whitechurch, who occasionally has criminals attempt to deliberately cause a collision for nefarious purposes, and other authors with a more sensational bent to their work. John Oxenham, the pseudonym of journalist William Arthur Dunkerley, worked with this sense of danger in a slightly different way. In his short story “A Mystery of the Underground” published in 1897, he invented a serial killer who somehow manages to shoot people travelling inside sealed carriages on the London Underground, while the train is between stations. It’s really genuinely very spooky, even to today’s reader, and caused something of a mass panic at the time of its publication, with passenger numbers on the District Line dropping until the serialisation of the story was complete and the killer “caught”.

Another, slightly more esoteric, way of incorporating a train into a plot surfaces in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington from 1957 — not strictly golden age, of course, but bear with me here because this is one of my favourite novels, ever, end of. In this story, Christie takes a railway scenario we’ve all experienced at some point on our travels, when the train we’re in runs parallel with another one for a while, so you can see other passengers in the other train alongside you. In her version, a friend of Miss Marple’s has this happen on a journey, and while idly looking through the window she sees a woman being strangled to death in the other train, but of course is powerless to do anything about it because the two trains then head off on separate lines, and by the time she can alert the authorities, the murderer has already disposed of the body. Miss Marple uses some techniques that Freeman Wills Crofts himself would be proud of to work out which train her friend observed and therefore where the body might be, and a fascinating whodunnit unfolds from that setup. It’s certainly an original premise for a mystery, and a brilliant one in that observing other passengers in another train like that is such a mundane, recognisable event, which Christie then skilfully transforms into a murder plot. The same goes for The ABC Murders from 1936, where Christie uses her readers’ familiarity with the conventional railway guide to construct a sinister serial killing plot.

A far more common use of trains in detective fiction is one I mentioned in the introduction to this episode: the railway carriage as a kind of mobile locked room. You find variations of this everywhere in novels from the 1920s and 30s — someone is found dead in a train compartment, but there’s no way a murderer could have entered because the corridor was under surveillance the whole time and the train was moving. Agatha Christie used this device a couple of times, in 1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, as well as more famously in 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express. In the latter, the enclosed nature of the sleeper car where the murder takes place also means that Hercule Poirot has a very limited cast of suspects to consider — also a very useful consequence of the setting. This is one of Christie’s most famous stories, and its popularity has a lot to do with the luxurious nature of its setting, a mode of travel that most of her readers would probably never experience. Christie, however, was writing from direct experience (of the train that is, not the murder).

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She writes in her autobiography about how she had wanted to go on the Orient Express her whole life. “When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it. . . I was bitten.” In 1928, after her divorce from her first husband Archie was at last finalised, Agatha was in the mood to travel, to shake off the grim aspects of her life over the past 18 months, and start afresh. Archie, by the way, had left her in late 1926 to be with another woman, which had in turn triggered Agatha’s infamous disappearance and the nationwide hunt for her. The separation had dragged out for so long because Agatha was still hopeful that Archie might come back to her, but at a final meeting between them he declared that he “wanted madly to be happy, and couldn’t be happy unless I can get married to Nancy”. Agatha finally called her lawyers, and accepted that that part of her life was over. She booked tickets to the West Indies and Jamaica, planning to spend time in the sun and come back to a fresh beginning.

Except, at the last minute, a chance conversation over dinner brought the idea of the Orient Express steaming into her mind again. She changed her plans, and five days later was on board, on her way to Baghdad. The train represented freedom and independence for her — she wrote that “It’s now or never. Either I cling to everything that’s safe and that I know, or else I develop more initiative, do things on my own.” She had little experience of solo travel or the Middle East, but she took the train and trusted that she would cope. As it turns out, that decision to go east not west was pivotal in more ways than one. The train itself provided Christie with the setting for one of her most popular and influential novels, and she also picked up details for a host of other stories along the way. It was also on that trip that she was to meet her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and get her first taste of a part of the world that was going to play a big part in their lives in the decades to come.

Its railway setting also makes Murder on the Orient Express a popular choice for theatre, film and television adaptations — there was another major film one just a couple of years ago, starring Kenneth Branagh’s awful moustache as Hercule Poirot. The luxury travel element of the story situates it in both a recognisable and a nostalgic dimension. Trains also have a long pedigree when it comes to stories of suspense, rather than murder — think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Both have become highly successful films I think for similar reasons that they worked on the page, a pacy improbable story with an element that firmly connects them to the real world. Who knows, the next time you get on a commuter train, you might meet a spy fleeing his pursuers, or meet someone who wants to trade murders with you. The Wheel Spins written by Ethel Lina White and published in 1936 is also a fantastic example of the railway suspense novel that translated brilliantly to the screen. It was filmed in 1938 by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes, and has subsequently been adapted a fair bit under that name. In it, a young woman meets an older one on a train travelling across Europe and has lunch with her in the dining car, but then the older woman vanishes and nobody on the train has any recollection of ever seeing her. She can’t have got off the train, but she also doesn’t appear to be on it. Not strictly a whodunnit in the golden age sense, perhaps, but a spectacular railway mystery all the same.

And the tradition of the railway story is by no means one that is confined to the past. Authors are still turning out thrillers involving trains that sell thousands of copies, such as Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train from 2015, which was also adapted for the big screen the following year. There’s even a popular historical series about a railway detective, written by author Keith Miles under the pseudonym Edward Marston, which follows an Inspector Colbeck who solves crimes on the British rail network in the 1850s. Being able to look up the time table on the internet might have slightly dented the possibilities of the train mystery, but it’s a tradition that continues to go from strength to strength nonetheless.

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Sidekicks

22. Knock Knock Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Even the best detectives get stuck during their cases. The alibis are overlapping, the witnesses are contradicting themselves, and the medical evidence isn’t making anything clearer. As readers of whodunnits, as confused as our sleuths, it’s hard not to think about how much easier everything would be if the victim could just tell us what happened. If the dead could speak to the living.
At the same time as detective fiction was booming in popularity in the early twentieth century, so were ideas that death was not the end. Spiritualism, a term which encompasses a set of beliefs and techniques that are to do with making contact with those who have “passed on” beyond this mortal plane, was also rapidly attracting fans in the 1880s and 90s and the advent of the First World War only increased the number of grieving relations looking for solace in this way.
Although the traditional “rules” of golden age detective fiction prohibit the inclusion of supernatural plot devices, many authors including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gladys Mitchell and more made use of seances, mediums and spirits in their work. On the surface, applying logical deduction and listening to the whisperings of wayward spirits seem to be two completely different things, but they are intertwined in the detective fiction of this period in some fascinating ways. Perhaps the detective and the medium have more in common than the likes of Hercule Poirot would like to admit.

Today, we’re going to let the dead speak.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Today, we’re going to learn more about the rapid growth in the popularity of spiritualism in Britain in the 1880s and 90s, the way the First World War turbo charged the public’s demand for seances, and the impact that all of this had on golden age detective fiction.

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First, let’s be clear what it is that we mean by spiritualism. The word itself, when used to mean the belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, especially via a medium, only surfaced in the mid nineteenth century. It can all be traced back to a pair of American sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, who in the late 1840s convinced first their parents, and then their neighbours, that their house was haunted by an invisible spirit. They could communicate with it via rapping noises, with it counting out their ages or answering yes or no questions via a code they worked out. The word spread among family friends and the wider community that these girls could talk with the dead, leading to the first major public seance of this type in Rochester, New York on 14 November 1849. The Fox sisters quickly became a public sensation, and other mediums began to hold their own events as the popularity of spiritualism spread. Even at the beginning, there was a strong strand of entertainment to it in both Britain and America. People enjoyed getting mediums to predict what would happen to their investments or their love affairs, as well as the more serious matter of trying to contact dead loved ones, and public seances seem to have often had a music hall like atmosphere, although private ones might be more sombre.
Spiritualism seems to have appealed to people across the boundaries of class and profession. It’s by no means the case, as is sometimes assumed, that only people who had less access to education were attracted to a belief system like this; eminent scientists, writers and politicians from the late nineteenth century were just as keen on it, and in many cases saw it as a way of reconciling the sometimes conflicting spheres of advancing science and religious faith. Perhaps the most famous of these well-known enthusiasts, and the most relevant for our purposes, was Arthur Conan Doyle — creator of Sherlock Holmes and a great influence on many writers of detective fiction’s golden age. He encountered spiritualism in the 1880s via a book written by an early American spiritualist, and was greatly intrigued by this account of a man able to communicate with his wife after her death. He even had a chance to participate in a few seances at the home of a patient while practising as a doctor in Southsea, and in his memoirs wrote that “I was so impressed that I wrote an account of it to Light, the psychic weekly paper, and so in the year I actually put myself on the public record as a student of these matters.”
Conan Doyle was an early member of the British Society for Psychical Research, a group founded in the early 1890s to investigate spiritualism and other ghostly phenomena with a scientific approach. It might sound absurd to us now that a man with a medical degree, who famously created a detective who believed in the application of logic and rational deduction above all else, could fall so heavily for a belief system that relied so heavily on the supernatural, but for Conan Doyle and his fellow late Victorians, it seems there was no inherent contradiction involved. The late nineteenth century was a moment of huge curiosity and a sense that all unknowns could be conquered if a sufficiently open mind was applied. So many of the technological and medical advances at this time would have seemed like magic. Imagine using a telephone for the first time, and hearing the voice of someone hundreds of miles away from you. In that context, is it such a stretch to believe that the spirit of someone who had died could be trying to get in touch with you?
The First World War was devastating for Conan Doyle, as it was for millions of others around the world. Too old for active service himself (he was over 55 in 1914), he lost at least ten members of his immediate family to the war, including his eldest son Kingsley. By this time he was at least two decades into his explorations of spiritualism, so it followed that he tried to use seances to contact his departed loved ones and receive some comfort from the fact that they had peacefully passed on. Conan Doyle was by no means alone in this — in 1914, there were 145 societies affiliated to the Spiritualists National Union in Britain; by 1919, there were 309, and by 1932, over 500, as well as an estimated 100,000 home seance circles in operation. The open support of spiritualism by celebrities like Conan Doyle and the famous physicist Oliver Lodge was part of its popularity — these men were the psychic influencers of their day. We might primarily know Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but nearly a third of the books he published in his lifetime were about spiritualism or paranormal activity, and later in life that’s what his reputation was largely built upon. So much so that when Agatha Christie infamously disappeared in December 1926 (check out episode 4 of this podcast for more on that), Conan Doyle was allowed by the police to take one of her gloves to a spiritualist medium called Horace Leaf to see if he could divine her whereabouts. Conan Doyle and his second wife were even said to have rehearsed their codes and signals so that they could still communicate if one of them passed away suddenly before the other.
It’s not hard at all to understand why the war caused increased interest in spiritualism. Church attendance was in decline, and for many the idea of cutting out the middleman so to speak and communing with the dead directly was very attractive. In a situation where the sheer volume of carnage was frequently too great for any kind of administration, families were often left with no closure or answers as to what had happened. “Missing presumed dead” was a common designation when no body could be found. But if a seance could reach a spirit, happily ensconced in the afterlife, the lack of physical remains might hurt just a little less.
All of which is to say, the tenets and tropes of spiritualism were very widely known and understood in the time that the great detective novelists of the 1920s and 30s were working. In its purest and most sincere form, spiritualism has a lot in common with the aims of your average sleuth, seeking as it does to give a voice to the dead and vindicate their narrative. But inevitably for such a popular belief system and activity, spiritualism became a vehicle via which charlatans and fraudsters on the take could exploit the vulnerable, and as such is a very useful plot device when it comes to crime. Plus, even if the rules don’t technically allow it, the addition of a spooky frisson can do wonders for a whodunnit.

After the break: how a harmless bit of table turning can lead to murder.

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And now listeners, a brief intermission where I’m going to ask you to do me a small favour — if you’re listening on the Apple Podcasts app, could you pause the podcast for just a few seconds and leave the show a nice rating and a review? I know you probably get asked to do this all the time, so here’s two quick reasons why you should take the trouble now: firstly, it means that when potential new listeners are browsing there are lots of great personal testimonials on the Shedunnit page to convince them they’re on to a good thing, and secondly, your reviews help boost Shedunnit up the podcast charts, meaning that more people will be able to see the show when they open their app. And the more people who listen, the more viable this whole thing is for me to keep doing. If that sounds good to you, pause now. . . and now that you’ve done that, we can get on with the episode.

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Before we get into some details of how spiritualism was used in detective fiction more generally, let’s go over some basics for the uninitiated among us. A seance, meaning literally ‘a sitting’, is when a group of people gather together with the intention of contacting spirits. A medium is someone with particular sensitivity to this phenomena, who can contact a so-called “spirit guide” and ask them to in turn connect with the particular dead individuals those in the room with to converse with. I haven’t been able to find any precise gender breakdown, but in fiction at least, mediums are more often women than men, no doubt because of ideas about feminine intuition and sensibility. To have the highest chance of successful contact with the spirits, it was advisable to sit in a darkened, cold room with all the sitters gathered in a circle around a table, holding hands and focusing their minds on the goal. The arrival of said spirits might be accompanied by a dimming of the lights, or a slight haze in the room, but most often they made themselves known by rocking the table (hence the nickname for a seance, table turning) or loud knocking noises. These last were the usual way in which spirits communicated — the medium would ask yes or no questions, and the spirit could knock out the answer, one for yes and two for no. In some cases, the more longwinded alphabet technique was used, where one rap signifies a, two b, and so on. This is how names would be spelt out, so that the sitters could be sure that it was their own loved one who was now present in spirit form.

Of course, an awful lot of these conventions were developed with manipulation in mind. Professional mediums and their accomplices had ways of making sure every sitting produced some memorable effects, in order to ensure that they were asked back. Even the Fox sisters, whose ghostly rappings had begun the whole spiritualist movement, eventually admitted late in life that it had all been done by cracking their joints, especially in the feet — an art which required much practice and muscle strengthening exercises to do consistently. The confession was recanted again a year later, but the damage had been done. Once the suggestion of fraud hung around the Foxes, their audiences dwindled as people turned to other quote real mediums.

Perhaps the best recap of the techniques mediums might use to produce an exciting seance can be found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Strong Poison from 1930. I’ve mentioned this book a few different times in Shedunnit episodes — it’s a particular favourite of mine and has plenty of different themes — but for our purposes today, let’s focus on the character of Miss Climpson, who is a middle aged woman employed by principle sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey to undertake inquiries that are too quote delicate for a man to involve himself in. In the scenes we’re interested in today, Miss Climpson is on a mission to discover a concealed will in the house of an incapacitated elderly invalid, and if she can’t do it quickly then an innocent person will hang for murder. She therefore, with many prickings of her extremely over active conscience, resorts to underhand measures. The invalid’s nurse, she quickly ascertains, is very interested in spiritualism, so Miss Climpson reinvents herself as a medium and conducts a successful seance in order to gain the nurse’s trust. To do this, she gets hold of a small metal soapbox and fixes it to an elastic garter, and we are told that: “When clasped about Miss Climpson’s bony knee and squeezed sharply against the other knee, the box emitted a series of cracks so satisfying as to convince the most sceptical”. In addition, she hides a homemade wire hook up each long, wide sleeve of her black velvet rest gown, so that she can catch it onto the edge of the table. This means she can rock and turn it without removing her hands from their clasp with her fellow sitter — an important element if she is to be believed.

A seance like this, where the reader is in on the plot from the start, is a popular trope among detective novelists. A sleuth can use a belief in spiritualism among their suspects or witnesses to break through stubbornness or a resolve to conceal vital clues — people who even half believe that a spirit might manifest are vulnerable to suggestion. Agatha Christie memorably has Hercule Poirot do this at the denouement of 1932’s Peril at End House. It’s one of my favourite endings of hers (and don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil it here), mostly because the oh-so-rational detective momentarily abandons the order and method of his little grey cells and instead indulges in a bit of parlour theatre in order to prove his culprit’s guilt once and for all. The faithful sidekick, Captain Hastings, is suddenly declared by Poirot to have “pronounced mediumistic powers” (a surprise to Hastings himself, who is such a steady, conventional character) and a seance is quickly put in train before anybody can object. Of course, the reader knows it’s all a fake, but the way Christie writes about it makes it clear that the characters (other than Poirot and Hastings) believe it to be real, or at least that it is possible that it could be real. That’s why it’s such a powerful tactic, and it’s testament to the huge and widespread popularity of spiritualism in the 1920s and 30s that it would be so. Even if they weren’t an active believer, everyone would know how to hold a seance. There’s an homage to this scene, by the way, in Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, who was a guest on the Back To School episode of the podcast — her schoolgirl sleuths, who are at boarding school in the 1930s, use a staged seance as a way of progressing their case too, although they use a ouija board rather than relying on knocks to spell out letters, the board being left over from when they were a spiritualist society rather than a detective one. As well as being part of a grand tradition of seances in detective fiction, this is a very recognisable scene to all the former teenage girls out there, who scared themselves silly with this stuff when they were at school.

Authors used the tropes of spiritualism in their fiction is as a way of including elements of the supernatural without actually abandoning the puzzle-based format of the classic whodunnit. There’s a very dramatic and engaging example of this in John Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders from 1934, in which a family estate is supposedly haunted by the original owner, a hangman. A seance is to be held in the house to commune with this malevolent spirit, and a psychic and his medium are invited to run the show. Yet the psychic is found stabbed to death with a dagger owned by the deceased hangman, the body found in a small stone cottage with all doors and windows locked. The ground around the cottage is completely undisturbed, and all possible suspects were actually conducting the seance at the time of death, meaning that they were all holding hands. This is the first appearance of Dickson Carr’s detective, the barrister Sir Henry Merrivale, and he has to untangle all of this confusion. The story is venerated as a classic of the locked room genre, a so-called “impossible crime”. Here, the sleuth must find a practical explanation for the murder rather than resort to the “it was a ghost” solution, banned by the traditional rules of detective fiction. The seance, of course, functions both as a way of introducing the ghostly atmosphere but also as a more mundane plot device, keeping all the suspects together and supposedly giving them an alibi. There’s something similar in Gladys Mitchell’s When Last I Died from 1941 as well, with central sleuth Mrs Bradley renting a house by the seaside that has a ghostly past, ostensibly because she wants to hold some seances. A diary is discovered in the house (and printed as part of the book) which seems to describe the events leading up to the murder of psychical researcher Tom Turney, written by his cousin Bella Foxley, great niece of the house’s previous owner. As in Dickson Carr’s story, Mrs Bradley must sift through all the evidence and speak to all the witnesses she can find in order to sort out the supernatural from the mundane, and thus find the real truth of the case. In this novel, Mitchell is very clearly influenced by MR James, the hugely popular and influential author of classic ghost stories who had died in 1936. The spooky atmosphere of the house and the story Mrs Bradley uncovers is extremely well drawn, with the added bonus of a murder case on top.

It’s Agatha Christie, though, who found two of the most unusual uses of spiritualism and seances in detective fiction. The first comes in The Sittaford Mystery from 1931, in which a party of neighbours gathering in a remote Dartmoor village one evening in the depths of winter decide to try their hand at “table turning” for amusement. It’s all fun and games for a while, but then a genuine spirit seems to show up and declares that an absent friend from the area, Captain Trevelyan, has been murdered. As this all happens right at the start, it’s no spoiler to say that when one of the sitters heads off through the snow to check on his friend, he finds him dead. Once again the detectives have to work out if there is indeed supernatural agency at work, or whether the seance was very cleverly manipulated in such a way as to frighten someone, or establish an alibi, or for some other purpose that cannot be easily divined. The idea of spiritual interference clouds the view of the witnesses too, making the job of detection that much harder. Christie resolves it all in a way that I’ll let you find out when you read it, but she weaves the ghostly possibility very cleverly through the story, inviting the reader to dismiss the seance as a red herring while also tantalisingly suggesting that it holds the key to the whole mystery. There’s a great callback to Conan Doyle in this book too, since it shares a location and an atmosphere with his 1901 Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, and thereby also obliquely references his passion for spiritualism. Also, as a sidenote, this book contains my favourite type of Christie character — the highly competent one off female amateur sleuth. Here, that role is filled by Emily Trefusis, see also Lucy Eyelsbarrow. Perhaps I’ll do an episode about them at some point.

My favourite Christie seance, though, is in 1937’s Dumb Witness. Wealthy spinster Emily Arundell takes part in a seance on the day of her death, held by a pair of sisters from her village, the vegetarian (and therefore very eccentric) Miss Tripps. Emily isn’t a fully signed up believer in spiritualism, but her companions claim to have seen a mysterious luminous haze gathering around her as they sat together, which after her subsequent death from apparently natural causes, they interpret to be a foreshadowing of what was to come. Poirot, of course, takes nothing at face value, and once he is called in by a posthumous letter from Emily, he sets about examining everything in the harsh light of day. I won’t say any more, except that this is another brilliant example of Christie playing with the reader’s preconceptions about spiritualism — is it real, or was it faked somehow? Does it even matter to the case? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Christie was no spiritualist herself, but she and other novelists of the time had great fun playing on the reading public’s knowledge and appreciation for the movement’s techniques and beliefs. As I’ve tried to outline here, there are so many different ways of incorporating a seance into a murder plot — hopefully when you encounter them in your reading now you’ll have an idea what to look out for.

That said, Christie did once step away from the supernatural ban imposed by the rules of golden age detective fiction. Her 1933 short story collection The Hound of Death is full of twisty little tales that focus on unexplained and ghostly phenomena. And there’s one in there titled ‘The Last Seance’, in which a medium reluctantly agrees to sit for a desperate grieving client one final time, with tragic results. After all of the times when she has baffled you and blindsided you with knockings and rappings, the sheer weird spookiness of this story really hits home.

What if, it seems to say, the dead could speak to us after all?

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/knockknock. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear a version of the show without interruption, advertising or intermission, you can do that by joining the Shedunnit Book Club. As well as ad free listening, there are also bonus episodes. Find more details and sign up at shedunnitshow.com/membership.
I’ll be back on 2 October with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Off The Rails

21. Brides In The Bath Transcript

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

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

Caroline: If a terrible accident takes place and a woman dies, it’s just a tragedy. If the same thing happens again, in almost identical circumstances, it might arouse pity and raise a few eyebrows, but it’ll mostly be written off as an appalling coincidence. But the third time? That’s when things start to get suspicious.

This is exactly what happened in Britain in the eighteen month period between July 1912 and December 1914 — three women died in precisely similar ways, each time leaving a husband who stood to inherit substantial legacies and collect on recently taken out insurance policies. But it wasn’t until after the third death that people began to put the pattern together.

The ensuing investigation and trial gripped the nation to the extent that it knocked news from the battlefields of the First World War off the front pages. The twists and turns of this extraordinary story had a dramatic and lasting effect on how stories about crime and detection were told too, with aspects of it appearing in work by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and others.

This is the story of the brides in the bath.

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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 who the brides were and what contemporary circumstances enabled their murders to go undetected until the sheer volume of crime could no longer be explained away as a coincidence. We’ll also look at what details from this blockbuster case ended up in the detective fiction of the subsequent decades and how it still affects the way we think about narrative and crime today.

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But first, a short note. I wanted to try something a bit different in the way I tell this story. Once the trial was in full swing, the newspaper reports were full of shocking revelations about the three murders and the way one individual linked them together. Subsequent retellings have mostly followed this same pattern, I’ve found in my researches, essentially beginning at the last, most gory and dramatic, point in the story and only going back to fill in other events as it seems necessary. But I think there’s another, more interesting way to look at this. There were at least seven brides, not just three, and to me they are far more worthy of your time and interest than the man who became the focus of such ghoulish celebrity because of his violent acts. This string of marriages actually began in 1898, and by meeting six of these women in turn (whether or not they ended up in a bath at the end) I think you build up a fascinating picture of British society in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, and the role that women were able to occupy in it. I also think it helps to see this kind of violence as part of a continuum — this murdered didn’t pop out of nowhere, he was doing awful things to women for decades beforehand, which is a point that both a lot of true crime storytelling and contemporary media coverage of crime tends to gloss over. Instead, here, you’re going to meet all of the brides and hear their stories. I think you might recognise some of what they have to tell you, too.

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The First Bride

Her name was Caroline Thornhill, and in 1898 when she was 19 she married a 25 year old man calling himself George Oliver Love. She had met him the year before in Leicester, and he had told her about his dreadful childhood and teenage years spent at a Reform School in Gravesend in Kent (a kind of state youth correctional institution, think something Charles Dickens would write about but worse). Victorian legislators had believed that vagrancy and a predilection towards crime could be “cured” by a harsh regime of physical punishment, frequent humiliation and quasi-military drilling. No doubt as a result of these confidences, Caroline quickly grew close to George, and when he proposed marriage she accepted. Her parents, after meeting him, declined to give their permission to the match, but Caroline was so sure about her choice that she went ahead with the marriage without their blessing.

Not long afterwards, Caroline’s new husband’s business failed (he was then running a bakery) and she said later that he abused and threatened her into applying for jobs as a domestic servant with bogus references written by George himself. Once she found employment, she was to steal as much as she could as quickly as possible. Her husband even made her sell the jewellery and other goods to the fence herself so that he technically had little or no involvement in the crime. They moved around constantly, flitting town as soon as the theft had been carried out. Eventually, in Hastings, Caroline was arrested (George ran away) and served a three month prison sentence. When she got out, her husband had vanished, so she took a job as a servant again. A year later, in November 1900, Caroline happened to be walking down Oxford Street in London when she saw George looking at a shop window. She found a policeman and he was arrested, screaming and raving about how he would “punch her head off”. She gave evidence against him at a trial back in Hastings and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Caroline then returned to Leicester, reconciled with her family and found work at a factory.

But when her husband — they were still technically married, divorce was complicated and expensive and rare, as we talked about in the previous episode about Maud West — got out of prison, he came looking for Caroline. She saw him hanging around outside her house, and it was only because her two brothers chased him off that he didn’t see her. To be absolutely sure, though, she decided to emigrate to Canada. In 1906 she departed across the Atlantic, eventually marrying and settling there. She only came back to Britain in 1915 at the behest of the police. Astonishingly, after all of this, she was still one of the lucky ones.

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The Second Bride

Her name was Edith Pegler, and in 1908 she answered an advertisement in a local Bristol newspaper placed by someone looking for a housekeeper. She got the job, and started work as a domestic servant for a man called George Joseph Smith, who ran a second hand furniture business. Within weeks, Edith and George (yes, recognise that name?) were married. They moved around every few months, living all over the south of England, often in seaside towns. Sometimes George would take over a local shop to sell his antiques, but sometimes he just did what he told Edith were private deals. He regularly left her for weeks at a time, telling her that he was travelling around the country looking for things to buy for his business. Often when he returned from these trips, he suddenly had a lot of cash — once he told Edith that he had managed to buy a Turner painting cheap and sell it on to a collector, and that’s why he suddenly had so much more money. He wrote occasionally, and he always came back in the end. On 23 December 1914, he reappeared just in time for Christmas, which he and Edith celebrated happily with her mother. Then he departed again on 1 February 1915, and Edith didn’t see him again until she spotted a photograph of a man who looked an awful lot like her husband in the newspaper. He was wanted in connection with a string of crimes including murder and bigamy, so Edith contact the police to tell them she’d been married to this man for seven years, or at least she thought she had.

Although Edith said that George was sometimes threatening to her and he did used to abandon her for months at a time, sometimes without any contact or knowledge of his whereabouts, she was relatively content to remain in the marriage. And for his part, George seemed affectionate towards her, and he did always return to her, eventually. In her excellent book The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Brides in the Bath, author Jane Robins advances the theory that the reason for this was because Edith was from a similar class background to George himself and he therefore had no feeling of inferiority with her — something he was apparently very sensitive to. She was from the lower echelons of the working class and seemingly had no middle class pretensions or connections. Perhaps it was indeed her supposed ordinariness that made him semi-faithful to her. Either way, she at least got to stay safe.

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The Third Bride

Her name was Sarah Falkner, and in 1909 she met a man named George Rose in Southampton. They got chatting after a chance meeting on a walk one day, and every day for the next two weeks he called at the lodging house where she was staying. He asked her to marry him at the end of this fortnight, and initially she refused, but after he made it clear he would follow her around until she said yes, she changed her mind and agreed to be engaged. They married quickly in a registry office and then took a train straight to London, where her new husband took Sarah to a bank and encouraged her to withdraw all of her savings and hand them over to him for safekeeping. She had £300, which is equivalent to about £20,000 in today’s money. After this business was taken care of, the newlywed couple went on a trip to the National Gallery in central London. George asked Sarah to sit and wait for him in one of the rooms while he went to the toilet. She waited for an hour and he still didn’t appear, and when she asked the gallery attendants for help, they couldn’t find George either. Eventually she went back to the room they had rented in Clapham Junction, and found that George had been there before her and taken all of her jewellery and clothes, as well as the money she had drawn out from the bank. She did get to keep her life, though. The next bride wasn’t quite so lucky. Hear all about 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 I’ve also been making some updates so that it now includes book recommendations and links to articles on the topics discussed on the podcast so you can keep your Shedunnit enthusiasm going until the next episode drops. If that sounds good to you, head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Now, back to the brides.

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The Fourth Bride

Her name was Bessie Mundy, and in 1910 while out for a walk in the Clifton area of Bristol, she met an attractive stranger called Henry Williams. Bessie lived in rented rooms and although she seems to have had a cordial relationship with her extended family back in Dorset, her parents were dead and she lived a relatively lonely life. She was 33, an age by which the societal convention of the time dictated that she should have already been married for half a decade or more. She was well off, having inherited a legacy of £2,500 when her father died (around £200,000 today), which her uncles had invested for her so that she had a stable and regular monthly income and therefore no need to work.

Her romance with Henry Williams was a whirlwind affair. A few short weeks after first meeting him, she accepted his proposal of marriage and they ran away without telling her family to Weymouth and got married. Henry was immediately very concerned about her income, and insisted that she make her uncles send her £123 she was owed in back interest immediately. Bessie was a bit taken aback, but she wrote to her relatives and, although they had serious doubts about her new husband and even took legal advice to see if they could withhold the money, they eventually had to send her a cheque. Immediately after it arrived, Henry had it cashed and then told his new wife that he had to go to London on business for a few days and would be back the following week. He never returned.

According to the couple’s landlady, Bessie had a “hysterical fit” when she found out what had happened, but eventually pulled herself together, paid off their debts in Weymouth with her remaining pennies, and went back to Bristol to restart her life. She even enrolled in college on a secretarial course with a view to getting a job once she had finished training. She had lost that money to Henry Williams, but the trust her uncles had created had protected the full amount of her legacy from him, and now her life was getting back on track.

But then, fatefully, she decided to take a short holiday to the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare on the west coast of England. And who should she run into there on the promenade one day, but Henry Williams? He was contrition itself, saying that he had believed himself to have venereal disease and had therefore abandoned her for her own protection, and then once he realised his mistake he couldn’t track her down again. Amazingly, rather than immediately running to the nearest policeman, Bessie swallowed this story, and the couple reunited. Bessie never returned to her secretarial course or to visit her family. She and Henry moved to another seaside resort, Ramsgate in Kent, and then to nearby Herne Bay where they rented a house and furnished it themselves.

Henry was very busy after their move, getting a local solicitor to draw up wills for them both, leaving all their property to their spouse, and making sure Bessie signed hers. He also purchased a cast iron bath and had it delivered to their new home, although it was never connected to a water supply, so had to be filled manually with jugs or buckets. Almost a week after the bath arrived, on 10 July, Henry took Bessie to a local doctor and told him that she had had a fit. He did most of the talking for her, but when the doctor asked if she had any history of fits or if anyone in her family had them, Bessie was at least able to reply in the negative. Although there was no physical evidence of any fit, the doctor took Henry at his word and prescribed Bessie some medicine to help should it happen again.

Three days later, on 13 July, the same doctor was summoned at 8 in the morning by a note from Henry Williams, who said to “come at once, I am afraid my wife is dead”. When he got there, the doctor found Bessie in the bath, her head below the level of the water, which had cooled to tepid. He lifted her out and attempted to resuscitate her, but she was already dead. Given the previous consultation for the supposed fit, it was presumed that she had had another fit while in the bath and drowned. A tragic, terrible accident.

Henry, intermittently distraught about his wife’s death, haggled hard over the price of the funeral and had Bessie buried quickly and inexpensively. He then sold the almost-new furniture, gave up the lease on the house and even managed to get all his money back for the bath, the shopkeeper apparently happily accepting it as a return.

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The Fifth Bride

Her name was Alice Burnham, and she lived in Southsea on the south coast of England and worked as a nurse. In September 1913, she met a man called George Smith and a month later, she wrote to her family that she was going to marry him, and that the couple wanted to come and visit her childhood home before the wedding. George and Alice went, but the visit did not go well, with the Burnhams forming a very negative impression of their daughter’s fiancé, who seemed very argumentative and extremely concerned with his much money his future wife might be entitled to. Later, Alice’s father Charles said that he sensed “something evil” about George. But in the moment, he did no more than tell his daughter to take her fiancé away, and withhold his blessing on their marriage.

They were married about a month later, without Alice’s family present. The day before the wedding, Alice handed in her notice at work and, at George’s behest, took out a substantial insurance policy on her own life. The couple then departed on a honeymoon to another seaside resort, this time in the north of England, Blackpool. There, they looked for lodgings, with George rejecting at least one place because it did not have a bath. After several days there, Alice had a persistent headache and George insisted on her seeing a doctor, who couldn’t find much wrong with her but prescribed some general remedies for good health. A couple of days after that visit, Alice took a bath one evening. Shortly after, the landlady in the kitchen below noticed water dripping through the ceiling, and assumed their guest had allowed the bath to overflow. About twenty minutes later, they heard George shouting that a doctor must be summoned, and someone ran for the one Alice had seen about her headache. Doctor Billing found Alice insensible in the bath, her husband supporting her head above the water. They lifted her out, but could not revive her. An inquest held the next day returned a verdict of accidental death, assuming that Alice had died of heart failure from a too hot bath. Her husband of six weeks buried her in Blackpool with the minimum of expense, and then departed. Alice’s family, telegraphed the news of her death by George, arrived just in time to attend the burial.

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The Sixth Bride

Her name was Alice Reavil, and in September 1914 while on holiday in Bournemouth, she met a man called Charles Oliver James who came up to her on the promenade to talk about the weather and then told her he admired her figure. After four days of acquaintance, he asked her to marry him and she accepted. He asked her to sell her existing furniture and draw her savings out of the bank and give him the whole lot for “safe keeping”. Three weeks after they had first met, they went to London as husband and wife, where they moved into rented rooms in Battersea. The next day, they went for a walk in a nearby park and Charles asked Alice to wait on a bench for him while he went to the lavatory. She waited an hour and he didn’t reappear, so she went back to their room to find that he had taken anything of any value and left a letter saying he had gone to Canada. Alice lost her life savings, but perhaps surprisingly was never encouraged to take a bath — lending credence to Jane Robins theory about class. Alice, before her marriage, had like Edith Pegler worked as a domestic servant.

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The Last Bride

Her name was Margaret Lofty, and she really, really wanted to get married. She had already had one engagement end in misery when it turns out that her husband to be was already married to someone else. A few months later, one afternoon in mid December she told her mother and sister, who she lived with in Bristol, that she was going out for the afternoon for tea. In fact, she went to the Post Office to withdraw her savings of £20 and then kept her appointment to meet a man named John Lloyd, who took her by train to Bath where he had arranged accommodation for the night. The next day, the pair travelled to Highgate in London, where Lloyd had already been in advance to sort out rooms, rejecting an option without a bath in favour of a house with one. Two days later, they got married at a registry office. On the evening of their wedding day, John took Margaret to see a local doctor, telling him that his wife had had a bad headache. She barely spoke, but the doctor thought she seemed a bit dazed and she had an elevated temperature — he suspected she might have the flu. He gave her some medicine and told her to return if she felt worse. The next day, John took his wife to see a solicitor so that she could make a will in his favour — she already had life insurance she had arranged before their marriage.

That evening, Margaret went up to take a bath, and the landlady downstairs heard a noise of splashing, followed by a sigh. Then she heard the organ in the sitting room being played — John was playing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”, which was the music the band were said to have played on the Titanic as the ship sank. A few minutes later he summoned the landlady to help because he had found his wife insensible in the bath. The landlady ran outside and found a constable, who attempted to revive Margaret with no success. Her funeral, which John haggled over the cost of fiercely, took place just before Christmas.

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You don’t need to be a master sleuth to work out that all of these men — George, Charles, John, and so on — were the same man. Over a couple of decades, he honed a method of meeting women by chance, often in seaside resorts, and quickly convincing them to marry him. In some cases, he just robbed them, and in others he drowned them in a bath in such a way as to make it look like an accident, then claimed on the life insurance and disappeared. He had a type — usually a slightly older, middle class woman, often over 30, who was conventional enough to be desperate for matrimony because life alone was too unorthodox or difficult — and he was ruthless in seeking them out.

He was only caught in 1915 because the News of the World covered the death of Margaret Lofty, and the father of Alice Burnham saw it. It was a terrible mistake of George’s (his real name was George Joseph Smith, by the way) to go to London, where the national newspapers were based and interesting, tragic deaths like that of a bride just after her wedding would be reported and sent off around the country. The lack of records that had allowed him to assume so many different aliases and get married so many times undetected was finally trumped by the widespread distribution of newspapers. Charles Burnham sent a cutting about his own daughter’s death in the bath in Blackpool as well as the story about Margaret to his local police station, who in turn passed it on to Scotland Yard. Eventually, it arrived on the desk of Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, who doggedly set about piecing together the tale of the brides in the bath. Along with a pathologist called Bernard Spilsbury (more about him in a future episode), who conducted post mortars on the three dead brides, Neil eventually got his man in a trial that gripped the nation. Britain was at war, of course, but a serial killer with a magnetic personality and a seemingly-undectectable method of murder was much more interesting to both the press and the public. Spilsbury, by the way, conducted extensive experiments with quote an experienced lady swimmer to see how exactly one might drown a woman in a bathtub without leaving any marks of a struggle. By chance, he found that if the murderer were to approach by the feet, suddenly grasp the ankles and hoick the victim’s legs up so that their torso and head was suddenly plunged under the water, the change in pressure and rapid inflow of water into the lungs would kill almost instantly. The lady swimmer survived this experiment, as it happened, but it took them about half an hour to revive her, she swallowed so much water.

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A decade after George Joseph Smith was executed for his crimes, his name had become a byword for the serial murderer who sticks to his method and yet somehow gets away with it. It’s in this guise that he is evoked in several well known novels of detective fiction’s golden age. Agatha Christie got in first, with Poirot remarking in 1923’s Murder on the Links that “Man is an unoriginal animal… The English murderer who disposed of his wives in succession by drowning them in their baths was a case in point. Had he varied his methods, he might have escaped detection to this day.” Peter Wimsey makes a similar point in 1927’s Unnatural Death, saying “Criminals always tend to repeat their effects. Look at George Smith and his brides”. In 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon Wimsey makes a joke to his new wife Harriet Vane when a new acquaintances mentions a honeymoon in Herne Bay (“Monster, do your worst! There are only hip baths here,” she retorts). Christie was still using “brides in the bath” as a shorthand in 1964’s A Caribbean Mystery — Miss Marple gently points out that “If a man gets a formula that works he won’t stop. He’ll go on.”

Ernest Robertson Punshon, a member of the detection club alongside Sayers and Christie who isn’t quite so well read today, devoted an entire novel to this subject with 1936’s The Bath Mysteries. His detective, a Scotland Yard man called Bobby Owen, is drawn into a long and complicated insurance fraud that involves a long string of men seemingly by accident drowning in their baths. It’s a good yarn, and I recommend that you seek it out. Something that Punshon grasped about this case is the sheer mundane horror of it — at one point, when Owen is waiting in hiding with colleagues outside a house to surprise a suspect, they hear the noise of running water and one policeman says “There’s water running, that’s all. Someone’s having a bath.” Owen is seized with terror, because “having a bath” is no longer just that to him, an everyday act of ablution. Having a bath could now mean someone is about to be murdered.

Perhaps the best and most thought provoking use of the brides in the bath in fiction, though, is by Margery Allingham. Her short story “Three is a Lucky Number” from 1955 is based on it, with her main character Ronald Torbay stepping into Smith’s shoes and modus operandi:

“Each of his three marriages had followed the same pattern. Using a false name, he had gone on holiday to a place where no one knew him. There he had found a middle-aged, unattractive woman, with some money of her own and no family. He had talked her into marrying him, and she had then agreed to make a will which left him all her money. Both his other wives had been shy, too. He was very careful to choose the right type of woman: someone who would not make friends quickly in a new place.”

The main difference with the setup is that Allingham makes Torbay take longer between marriages; clearly she considered Smith’s haste (I think he actually married three women within the same year at one point, killing two of them) unrealistic for fiction. She also alters the means of killing, instead having Torbay put an electric heater in the bath, conceal it with bubbles, and wait for his wife to be in the water before turning the outlet on so that she would be electrocuted instantly.

The other big change is the agency of the final bride. In Allingham’s version, Edyth is not a hapless innocent going blindly to her death; she is far to self aware for that. “Did you not realize, Ronald, that any middle-aged woman who has been rushed into marriage to a stranger will ask herself about her husband’s reason for marrying her?,” she writes in the letter she leaves for him to find among her financial paperwork in her writing case. Once he conned her into making a will straight after their wedding and started fiddling around with the bathroom, she went to the police. Two undercover officers are living next door, having convinced her to help them catch Ronald in the act. She never got into the deadly bath, instead she climbed out the window and down a ladder she had stationed here ready under the cover of clearing leaves out of the gutter, going straight next door to alert her co conspirators so they can catch Ronald in the act.

“I was stupid to marry you,” she writes, “but not quite as stupid as you thought.” With this story, Allingham belatedly gives Smith’s victims agency. She rewrites the ending, giving the last bride the murderer targeted for a watery death (in real life, it would have been Margaret Lofty) the glory of bringing him to justice. First published in a periodical in the mid 1950s as “Bluebeard’s Bathtub”, it was republished under several other titles, including “Bubble Bath No 3”, “Murder Under the Surface”, and finally “Three Is a Lucky Number”.

In Allingham’s version of the story, the brides have their revenge.

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

Don’t forget that you can join the Shedunnit Book Club for the low price of just £5 a month, and get access to the secret members forum as well as extra bonus podcasts. It’s a vital way I keep the show going, so please do support if you can — find more details and sign up at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Knock Knock .

20. The Lady Detective Transcript

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

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

Caroline: If you’re listening to this podcast, I feel like I can reasonably make the assumption that at some point in your life, you have read a detective novel. I’ll go further: you have probably read at least one whodunnit where the sleuth you followed so avidly was a woman, whether that was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple or Ariadne Oliver, Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, or perhaps a more modern creation set roughly when these queens of crime were working, like Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher.

But while you have enjoyed the fictional adventures of these sleuthing heroines, have you ever stopped to wonder who their real life counterparts were? Were there any actual lady detectives dashing about solving crimes when these authors were working, or was it all pure invention because society at the time would never have stood for the idea of a woman doing anything as grubby as catching a murderer or foiling a theft?

Well, wonder no longer. Today, we’re going to meet the lady detective.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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This story starts, as all the best ones do, with a woman reading a Gladys Mitchell novel one evening.

Susannah: Well, it actually started with crime fiction — with Gladys Mitchell in fact. I’ve been a golden age crime fan since I was in my early teens. And I was reading Gladys Mitchell one evening and just thinking were there really lady detective in the Golden Age of crime, doing the job for real? And so I thought Oh Google will tell me I fancy. Right. So I fancy reading a book about this. And I just order one from the library or something and I couldn’t find anything.

Caroline: This is Susannah Stapleton, a freelance historical researcher and the author of a new book that I think you’re all going to want to buy by the time we get to the end of this episode. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What happened after that first failed google search?

Susannah: Then started looking a bit deeper and I came across just one one mention in the National Archives catalogue which was a description of a photograph of Maud West as London’s leading lady detective. And it all started from there

Caroline: Susannah ordered a copy of this photograph, intrigued by who this Maud West might be, and got her first glimpse of the woman she was about to spend an awful lot more time with.

Susannah: She’s very normal looking. So she’s the photograph when it eventually arrived. Just shows is a middle aged woman. She’s got a beautiful dress on with the most amazing pleating and everything. But she’s at her office in a very ordinary office. Pick the desk is piled with papers and she’s looking through a magnifying glass at a piece of paper which I say in the book it could be a laundry list. Who knows. You know it’s it’s a publicity photograph. But she’s got sort of brown permed hair. It’s you know a little jowly. It is. And she just looks like a normal person. So not the glamour. There’s no sort of red lipstick or anything like that. Not the sort of the the glam kind of lady detective a lot of people often think about but not quite. Miss Marple either.

Caroline: So Susannah now had an idea of what this supposed lady detective looked like, but she had no other information. Luckily, though, she’s rather a dab hand at solving mysteries herself, using the power of archival research and a lot of persistence. She tracked down a few other references to Maud online, and traced them all back to a single source.

Susannah: There were just a couple of mentions online once I started to look deeper and I looked all the all of them went back to just one book which is Elsie Lang’s Women of the 20th century which is something I use all the time and I didn’t remember there being a detective in it. It’s basically a book about it was written in 1929 I think. And it’s just about the amazing things women were doing at that time. And yes and it turns out she’s just again in another list. You know it’s sort of six words: ‘Miss Maud West is a detective’.

Caroline: After another tantalisingly brief mention, the next stop was newspapers.

Susannah: The first couple of things I found were one her adverts which were in the classified ads all the time and they were just it was just like something out of Agatha Christie — adverts for her services. And for that she actually ran out ran an agency. So she had staff she had male and female staff and she was based in the centre of London in New Oxford Street.

Caroline: Suddenly, that figure in the photograph had a backstory, a business even — Maud West wasn’t just someone messing around with a magnifying glass for a photograph. She had her own agency, and was advertising for clients in Britain’s biggest newspapers. Even more thrillingly, Susannah found that Maud’s life had intersected at least once with an author of detective fiction.

Susannah: The other thing I found on that first trawl in the Times was a mention of her chairing a meeting at which Dorothy Sayers was the guest of honour talking. It was a meeting of the efficiency club which I had no idea what that that was but erm I’ve looked into it in the book and a fascinating club of professional women that were set up in 1920 when 1919 and they had guest speakers they had social nights it was all about sort of women helping other women in the business world and Dorothy Sayers came along to do a talk on efficiency and murder and Maud was in the chair at night.

Caroline: But the next set of articles that Susannah found were a lot more confusing. It seems that as well as placing advertisements and posing for publicity photographs, Maud West also wrote articles about her own exploits. And what articles they were! You can read excerpts from them between the chapters in Susannah’s book, and they are really something. In them, Maud describes in the most extravagant terms how she has foiled blackmailers, narrowly escaped armed assailants, recovered diamonds, and travelled the world, often while in disguise as a man.

Susannah: That’s when I realised I’d bitten off quite a bit more than I thought I could chew in that Maud used the tropes of detective fiction to write supposedly true stories about her work in order to publicise herself.

Caroline: Quickly, though, Susannah realised that Maud wasn’t really expecting anyone to take these stories completely seriously. They made her a bit of money, but more importantly they helped to lodge her name and brand in the minds of any prospective clients among her readers. Again and again in her ridiculous tales, she focuses on the main kinds of cases that were the real-life Maud’s bread and butter: missing persons investigations, blackmail cases, and divorce. She also did slightly more specialised work, such as attending country house parties to catch card cheats and kleptomaniacs.

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Divorce was the mainstay of the private detective business in Britain in the early twentieth century, for Maud and for other proprietors of detective agencies. To understand why this was, we need to go back to the mid nineteenth century when a bill called the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 moved the dissolution of marriages from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. Up until this point, divorce had been something that was only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged, since it required a lot of arcane legal argument and a private bill to be passed through parliament.

Once divorce became a matter for the ordinary civil courts and lawyers, the volume of cases increased enormously, from three in the year before the act to 300 the year after. There were still some major hurdles and inequalities that wouldn’t be corrected until the twentieth century, including the fact that although a husband could seek a divorce just because his wife had committed adultery, a wife had to prove adultery as well as another factor such as rape, desertion or incest. The history of divorce, especially from a feminist perspective, is a fascinating topic in its own right, but the relevant point for our story today is that using adultery as grounds for a divorce required proof — there was no such thing as a no fault or mutual consent divorce as there is today.

Adultery was the easiest and most popular grounds for divorce at the time when Maud was working, but couples who wished to use it needed to have proof and witnesses to present in court in order to get their marriage annulled. As divorce was still a highly controversial and scandalous proceeding, it was often difficult to persuade the people involved to appear, especially if participating in the case would result in notoriety or damage to their reputation. This problem created a market for an impartial but reputable observer, who could be hired by a suspicious spouse in order to collect the required evidence for the divorce petition. And this observer, of course, was the private detective. There are even some excellent accounts of how in cases where there was no adultery, but a couple wanted to get divorced, a detective could help “create” the required evidence for the courts by providing a husband with a sham mistress and a cast iron set of witnesses. This was commonly known as a “Brighton quickie”, since Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England, was a popular location for Londoners seeking to end marriages in this way.

As for the rest of Maud’s work? Well, she did all sorts, Susannah says.

Susannah: Blackmail really came into its own in the 1920s. And so Maude was working between 1985 and 1939 so it covers an amazing period of social change and and especially change in women’s lives. So that so divorce and blackmail and missing people. Nothing. It was very much easier to disappear in those days without term social media and CCTV and everything like that. So. And everything from checking up on people’s fiances to the business credit checking services because there weren’t credit checking agencies. They were basically snooped on everyone and anyone it want to hear and they would travel abroad to do it as well — they would they would go wherever they were needed [00:09:00][4.2]

Caroline: It would seem that there was plenty of work for a private detective in London in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. But was Maud the only woman to become a professional sleuth? More on that, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about an offer I have with Audible that is a bit of a win win — you can get a free audiobook, and I get some money to keep the podcast going. This is how it works: if you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription using the podcast’s link at shedunnitshow.com/audible, I get £5 back as a kind of finder’s fee. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy because I don’t have to give the fiver back! There are thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings, but today I want to particularly recommend that you choose the audiobook of Susannah’s book, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, which is read by the author herself and includes loads more detail that we weren’t able to cover in this episode. Visit shedunnitshow.com/audible and click the link at the top now to get your free audiobook and give the podcast some free money. Now, back to the show.

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So, was Maud West the only lady detective in London?

Susannah: No she wasn’t. She was one of only a handful to actually run an agency. There were hundreds hundreds of female detectives because women were needed to be able to go undercover in places that men couldn’t. You bet. But no there were there were few very few who ran their own agencies and most of them didn’t last very long. But Maud had one great rival called Kate Easton who actually ran a detective agency literally across the road from her office.

Caroline: Maud and Kate were direct competitors, as women who ran rival agencies on the same street in London. Susannah is actually going to read us the bit of her book where she explains how this went down:

Susannah: So for 20 years their adverts battled it out in the newspapers jostling for the attention of readers in a pingpong of superlatives indefinite articles. Maude west London’s lady detective Kate Easton the lady detective Maude west London’s foremost lady detective Kate Easton London’s leading women in every branch of detective work and so on Maude won eventually if only because Kate Easton retired in 1929. By then of course Maude had been sending photographs of herself to the press with the caption London’s only lady detective for quite some time

Caroline: It’s interesting, I think, that both Maud and Kate made much of their gender in their advertisements — they clearly saw it as an advantage in their work and a possible attraction to their clients. It’s not hard to imagine why, either. Although much had changed for women in the decades during which Maud worked, British society at the time was still very rigid and governed by class hierarchies. A woman, especially dressed in the uniform of a servant, wasn’t of much consequence to most people, and could thus pass mostly unseen in lots of scenarios.

Funnily enough, we have an example of this tactic in fiction in the form of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 by Emma Orczy (who is more famous as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel). Lady Molly is a professional detective with the Metropolitan Police, and she relies heavily on what she calls her “feminine intuition” to solve cases, although a lot of the time it’s more owing to the fact that she can disguise herself as a charwoman and work in the house of a suspect to gather intelligence that a male detective would never get just by asking for it in the official manner.

Maud West was rather fond of a disguise, both for her publicity stories and her real cases. But who was she really? And what would make someone want to devote themselves to the life of a private detective, which was still considered a rather shady and seedy profession? Susannah has spent an awfully long time trying to find out.

Susannah: She was very elusive for quite some time and it was only when I started to find out that she was very elusive quite some time because as I found out she actually wanted to be. She had a sort of another persona hidden away which I eventually sort of found out. And it was only when I sort of managed to dig beneath the Maud West persona which is an absolute who I mean she would dress up as Charlie Chaplin and to show off her disguise skills and at one point she threatened to shoot a ghost. To say on such a publicity set as a publicity stunt to prove that it wasn’t real. But beneath that it was only when I managed to get beneath that that veneer theatre. Yes she did. I start to get a real sense of her as a person and of her her real life.

Caroline: We’re not going to say much more about this, because Maud’s story is a great whodunnit in itself and you should read the book to find out more. But something I am still curious about is how her life and work intersects with the detective fiction of the period — she was a professional, after all, not an amateur, and as a result her work differed quite a bit from that of Miss Marple, say. There’s a bit less murder and a bit more routine missing persons cases in Maud’s casebook.

Susannah: Well I would say that you do find her type of work in those things but there subplot subplots you know it. And private detectives rarely dealt with murder mainly because that was the police’s job. But then when you start talking about private detectives and the police it gets very tangled. Because the majority of private detectives in London during that time were in fact Scotland Yard inspectors who had retired set up their own agencies and then hired ex bobbies you know from the beat. So almost it’s sort of that apart from the fact that one was official and one wasn’t — it’s a real old boys network. Maud and Katie Easton also both employed ex police on their staff and everything. So there was there was that connection between police and private detectives. And I think when it came to murder cases I would be amazed if they weren’t consulted you know in some sort of swift pint after work kind of way. And but it would have been very much sort of behind the scenes and not something that would’ve ever come up in court which is one of the main ways that we can trace what was happening at this time because private detectives records very very rarely exist now because they just destroyed the confidentiality

Caroline: This last point is a good one: the reason why Maud West isn’t somebody that lots of people, even diehard fans of detective fiction know about, is because she was deliberately trying to fade into the shadows. That made Susannah’s job all the harder — Maud trod very lightly through the pages of history, and what traces Susannah has been able to find were very difficult to winkle out. In a way, she had to become a lady detective herself, tracking down a missing person.

Susannah: I think if I had known what it was going to be like I probably wouldn’t have started it. It was thrilling and hilarious. I mean I haven’t laughed as much doing any other research before. It is just wonderful things come. But there is one thing I like the fact this is the first quote in the book you find it which absolutely sums up how I feel at the end of writing this book. And it is something that Maud West wrote in 1914. “In all good faith to other women who would become detectives, I would utter one word of advice: don’t”. And she is spot on.

Caroline: You have been warned, aspiring lady detectives. Sleuthing isn’t quite as easy as the stories make it seem.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theladydetective. There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guest today Susannah Stapleton, and to The Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our recording.

Just a reminder, you can get the audiobook with Susannah reading her book about Maud West for free if you sign up for a trial with Audible, and by doing this you’re also making a £5 donation to the podcast. Head to shedunnitshow.com/audible to do that right now. I’ll be back on 24 July with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Murder Goes On Holiday.