Tag: Agatha Christie

21. Brides In The Bath

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. But three times? Three women dead in identical circumstances is highly suspicious. This is the story of the brides in the bath.

Find links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/bridesinthebath.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

Books and sources in order of appearance:
The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins
Notable British Trials: George Joseph Smith
British Newspaper Archive
Murder on the Links  by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death  by Dorothy L. Sayers
Busman’s Honeymoon  by Dorothy L. Sayers
A Caribbean Mystery  by Agatha Christie
The Bath Mysteries  by E.R. Punshon
“Three Is A Lucky Number” in The Allingham Casebook  by Margery Allingham

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The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/bridesinthebathtranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

19. Back To School

School is an enclosed world that breeds tension and suspicion and stress. No wonder it’s such a perfect setting for a murder mystery.

Find links to all the books mentioned and more details about my guests at shedunnitshow.com/backtoschool.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

Contributors:
Moira Redmond, author of the Clothes in Books blog
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike book series

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Governess, or The Little Female Academy by Sarah Fielding
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
David Copperfield  by Charles Dickens
Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes
A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil
The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton
The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer
Moira’s blog about The Silent Three
First Term at Mallory Towers  by Enid Blyton
The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb
A Question of Proof  by Nicholas Blake
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser
The Secret Place by Tana French
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
First Class Murder  by Robin Stevens
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/florencemaybricktwotranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

15. Period Style

Murder mysteries: if you believe the clichés, they all happened in the 1920s and 1930s, surrounded by flappers and butlers.  But let’s take a second to wonder — why is it that detective fiction is so closely associated with this period style?

Find more information about my guest Jacqueline Winspear and the Maisie Dobbs books at her website jacquelinewinspear.com and get links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/periodstyle.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Ariel by André Maurois
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
Third Girl by Agatha Christie
Halloween Party by Agatha Christie
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Sponsor:
The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah, published by HarperCollins. Enter the competition to win a copy by sending an email to competition@audioboom.com.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/periodstyletranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

14. Pseudonyms

Authors’ names loom large when we think about detective stories. Yet many of them are pseudonyms, created just to appear on book covers. But why go to all this trouble? And what makes a good pen name, anyway?

Find more information about my guest Helen Fields / H.S. Chandler at her website helenfields.co.uk and get links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/pseudonyms.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

Read about why I’ve started the book club here.

Subscribe to The Allusionist podcast by Helen Zaltzman to catch Caroline on her pseudonyms episode next week. Find it at theallusionist.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Man in the Queue  by Gordon Daviot / Josephine Tey
A Room of One’s Own  by Virginia Woolf
Josephine Tey: A Life  by Jennifer Morag Henderson
Kif: An Unvarnished History by Gordon Daviot
Richard of Bordeaux, a play in two acts by Gordon Daviot
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey
Degrees of Guilt  by H.S. Chandler

Sponsor:
The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah, published by HarperCollins. Enter the competition to win a copy by sending an email to competition@audioboom.com.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/pseudonymstranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

13. The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh Transcript

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

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

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

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

Now, on with the show.

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that, after the break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Pseudonyms.

13. The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh

By any definition, the New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh lived an extraordinary life. But who was she really, this globetrotting blockbuster author who divided her life between opposite sides of the world?

Find more information about my guest Joanne Drayton and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/ngaiomarsh.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Things mentioned in order of appearance:
The Lonely Palette podcast
Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime by Joanne Drayton
A Man Lay Dead  by Ngaio Marsh
Murder at the Vicarage  by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Crime at Black Dudley  by Margery Allingham
Murder on the Orient Express  by Agatha Christie
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Died in the Wool  by Ngaio Marsh
Colour Scheme  by Ngaio Marsh

Further reading and sources:
Ngaio Marsh: A Life  by Margaret Lewis (the authorised biography from 1991)
Black Beech and Honeydew  by Ngaio Marsh (her autobiography)
The Golden Age of Murder  by Martin Edwards

Sponsor:
The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah, published by HarperCollins. Enter the competition to win a copy by sending an email to competition@audioboom.com.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ngaiomarshtranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

12. Round Robin Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Today, we’re delving into the round robin.

Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out how that went, after the break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time on Shedunnit: Ngaio Marsh.

12. Round Robin

Writing is usually a solitary pastime, yet a group of detective fiction authors in the early 1930s decided to work together on murder mystery stories. Is it possible to construct a compelling whodunnit this way, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

Fill out the audience survey and have your say in the future of the podcast at shedunnitshow.com/survey.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/roundrobin.

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Books and articles mentioned in order of appearance:
The Scoop  & Behind the Screen by members of the Detection Club
The Floating Admiral by certain members of the Detection Club
The Fate of Fenella by Arthur Conan Doyle and others
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Ask A Policeman by members of the Detection Club
The Anatomy of Murder by members of the Detection Club
Six Against the Yard by members of the Detection Club
The Sinking Admiral by members of the Detection Club

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/roundrobintranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

11. The Other Detectives

Some sleuths need no introduction. But other characters, also created by famous authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, lurk in obscurity. In this episode, we’re on the hunt for the other detectives.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/theotherdetectives. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Books and articles mentioned in order of appearance:
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie
The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy
N or M? by Agatha Christie
By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie
In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L. Sayers (first collection with Montague Egg stories)
Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L. Sayers (second collection with Montague Egg stories)
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
“The Divine Detective in the Guilty Vicarage” by Dr Robert Zaslavsky

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theotherdetectivestranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

11. The Other Detectives Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time on Shedunnit: Round Robin.