Tag: Agatha Christie

12. Round Robin Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Today, we’re delving into the round robin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out how that went, after the break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time on Shedunnit: Ngaio Marsh.

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.

9. The Rules Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

9. The Rules

A good detective story has a recognisable rhythm and plot points. But how did these tropes come about? And what happens when you break the rules?

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/therules. 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 Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
T. S. Eliot on detective fiction
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
S. S. van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Ronald Knox’s Decalogue
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
—”Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” by Edmund Wilson
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

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

8. Dining with Death Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Rules

8. Dining with Death

Food matters in books. It helps to set the scene, build up characters and evoke a period, and it also symbolises comfort, security and domesticity. Yet in detective fiction, food can also be a method for murder. Everything is lovely at the family dinner, until somebody clutches their throat, turns blue in the face, and falls face forward into the soup.

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

Contributors:
—Kate Young, author of The Little Library Cookbook. Follow her on Instagram @bakingfiction and find out more about her work at thelittlelibrarycafe.com.

Books mentioned in order of appearance (please be aware that there are minor spoilers for some stories in this episode):
At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
The Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers
A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
“The Thumb Mark of St Peter” and “The Tuesday Night Club” in The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
Crèmes & châtiments : Recettes délicieuses et criminelles d’Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti
The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J Eakins
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

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

7. Edith Thompson Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.

7. Edith Thompson

On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, E.M. Delafield, Dorothy L. Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
Bella Donna by Robert Hichens
Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson by Rene Weis
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
As for the Woman by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
The Anatomy of Murder by the Detection Club
The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
A Pin to See the Peepshow by Fryn Tennyson Jesse
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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