Tag: Agatha Christie

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

6. Adaptations Transcript

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

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

Caroline: We think about murder mysteries as “page turners”. For lots of fans, the physical act of reading these books, of racing through the story and seeing the number of unread pages dwindling towards the solution is part of the joy. But for a great many people, their main contact with detective fiction — in particular the stories of Agatha Christie — is via film and television adaptations. For a huge global audience, Christie’s work is as often watched as it is read.

This is nothing new. The first film based on a Christie short story was “The Passing of Mr Quinn”, which appeared in 1928, and many more followed, throughout her life and afterwards. Interest in transforming Christie stories and novels for the screen is still as strong as ever. In the last few years, the BBC has produced a succession of new adaptations by the screenwriter Sarah Phelps, with a new one screened every Christmas. The national interest in these productions is so great that newspapers write stories about every aspect of them, and speculate endlessly as to what bits of the plot will remain the same and what will change.

Given the intense scrutiny and the vast existing canon, I decided to investigate this phenomenon further. What is it really like to adapt an Agatha Christie today?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Sarah Phelps is a British screenwriter with a long list of very well known credits — she has written dozens of episodes of the iconic soap Eastenders, and has adapted JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling for television. Adaptations are a bit of a speciality with her, with her versions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations broadcast by the BBC in 2007 and 2011. More recently, she’s become well known for her adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and short stories, starting with And Then There Were None, which aired in the UK over Christmas in 2015. That was followed by Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence, and for Christmas 2018 she has written a new version of Christie’s 1936 Point novel The ABC Murders.

Her process, she says, is all centred around the novel or story she is adapting.

Sarah: Oh I read the novel. I read the novel or the short story and I sort of go away and think about it a bit. So I tend to sort of at the moment because I’m filming something else, so my intent I’m working on something else at the same time. So over Christmas I’ll be doing a big read of the next one that we think the next or what next one is going to be and talk and we start talking in the new year.

Caroline: However, before she got the job of writing these adaptations, she wasn’t a big reader of Agatha Christie, and she’s deliberately not caught up on all the novels, because she wants to approach each story she is adapting as freshly as possible.

Sarah: So I because I came to this with very unfamiliar with Agatha Christie because I want to remain shocked and surprised by her I’ve decided to kind of limit my reading as it were so I can be really surprised so I don’t have a background of there’s this trope there or that happened somewhere else or because over the course of writing career of over 50 years you’re going to get things that are reiterations and I don’t want to do that thing where I go ‘oh I remember that from something that she wrote in 1927 and now she is writing in 1962’, I want to be kind of surprised by it and shocked and unnerved so I tried to limit what I try to limit what I read to the thing that I think we’re going to be working on next if that makes sense.

Caroline: The key for her, she says, is replicating that sense of shock she feels when first discovering the twist in Christie’s plot for the viewers of the TV adaptation.

Sarah: I want it to be for the thing that struck me and the thing that surprised and shocked and unnerved me I want I want to write about that I want the audience when they’re watching it go ‘oh God’, as if this story hadn’t been told before or as if this hasn’t been read before. That’s why I I really want to keep that sense of freshness and surprise and suddenness and unfamiliarity. I her want to be unfamiliar rather than to be ‘oh yes we know where we are we’ve been in this landscape before’ and I want it to feel like it’s the first time it’s ever been touched that it’s the first of the stories have ever been told.

Caroline: The temptation with adaptations, especially when working with a really well-known text like an Agatha Christie or a Charles Dickens novel, is to get dug into all the previous versions.

Sarah: I don’t want to know I just want books to speak to me. I’m adapting the novel not adapting other people’s other adaptations of that novel. [00:04:09] For example the first adaptation I ever did for TV was Oliver Twist. Now I don’t think there a book that’s been adapted more than Oliver Twist. I mean it’s lunatic how many various adaptations there were TV, screen, radio whatever, theatre,have been done on Oliver Twist and I just kept thinking what I don’t want to watch anything else apart from the musical Oliver because there’s no escaping that because my mum took me to see it but I didn’t watch any other adaptations all I read was the book and if you just read the book and you don’t look at anything else you don’t read anything else but that book I think you get something right to the essence of it because sometimes we’re familiar with the adaptations, we’re some familiar with those stories but we’re not so we’ve lost touch with the novel and the details of the novel and what the novel is actually about. And so that’s my rule of thumb for adaptation.

Caroline: Sarah’s adaptations are often really dark, and with the way she handles the plots she really digs into the vicious motives that lie beneath the polite veneer of Christie’s characters. These depths came as a surprise to Sarah, she says, when she first started looking in detail at Christie’s writing.

Sarah: I did think she was rather kind of cosy and rather kind of here’s a village green or here’s the big house. Somebody is on the floor. Was it a poker. Was it somebody with a candlestick. But what really surprised me when I read And Then There Were None was just how savage it was and it was utterly remorseless. It was very very cruel and strangely subversive with this weird gallows humour. And I I loved it and I kept thinking actually what this is is this is about the rhythms of Greek tragedy where action begets action begets action and then you are heading towards your end or judgment and nothing you do or say is going to help. And I felt really excited by that and I felt that you know it was pretty much written and published in the same year which was 1939. I kept thinking ‘God if there was ever a story which reflected what it might be like to stand on the brink of the edge of the world as we plummeted again into another world war then And Then There Were None felt like that story’.

Caroline: Her adaptation of And Then There Were None emphasises the isolation and horror of its setting, with ten strangers marooned on an island, being picked off one by one by a foe identified only as “UN Owen”, or “unknown”. It’s a deeply creepy book about morality and justice, as well as containing a really clever murder mystery plot. It’s Christie’s bestselling novel, and indeed, one of the bestselling books of all time. When she came to start adapting it, it showed Sarah a whole new side to Agatha Christie, the supposedly staid author of pleasing little puzzles.

Sarah: So I kind of took that shock and now nightmare quality and and wrote that. That was so I wrote that surprise and that shock and that thrill of going ‘God, you’re really actually you’re not who I thought you were at all’ your. There’s a real this is we are why isn’t this in the modernist canon and you are actually quite subversive and tricksy writer, that’s what I thought about her. [00:09:43][87.6]

Caroline: If you’re interested in this secretly difficult and even radical side to Christie’s work, I recommend you check out episode three of this podcast, which is all about the queer subtext of classic crime fiction.

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Caroline: For Christmas 2018, Sarah Phelps has adapted The ABC Murders, a Poirot novel from 1936 in which the Belgian sleuth has to pit his wits against a serial killer slaying people with alliterative names in alphabetical order. In her approach to it, she decided to set it in a particular moment in 1930s British history, which has a lot of resonances with today.

Sarah: The book is written and set in the 1930s and I put it very specifically in 1933 which is the rise you know is when the British union of fascists started to gain serious political traction and I just felt that without even forcing anything those contemporary resonances were there. Here is the famous Belgian Francophone detective who arrived in Britain as part of the um the exodus from Belgium whether during the German invasion in 1933 when the feeling towards people who had been refugees, it changed really violently and the language when I was doing my research the language is absolutely that of Brexit and Trump and I did lots of deep dives into and into a lot of into you know into my historical research and into some really very strange websites which I wouldn’t want anyone to go and look at because it was nightmarish really. And I found these exposed extraordinary details in the language of the posters and the kind of the lyrics to the BUF marching songs and they really put a shiver up your back that these were chanted you know Britain’s streets when we know they were. So it just gave that background for my Hercule to have to fight his fight his way through it to find this serial killer who taunts him endlessly with these letters. It just felt like it created this really dangerous world and to be reminded it it is a dangerous world there is danger everywhere. Somebody hears you speaking in the wrong accent and they could hurt you and it felt really timely and really relevant and absolutely of its time but absolutely of ours because these things are cyclical they you know these moods these belches of horror don’t go away they just lie dormant waiting for the next economic crisis to bring them alive again. [00:12:24][141.9]

Caroline: The character of Hercule Poirot is introduced in Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. The book is set around 1916, and Poirot, who had been a police detective in Belgium before the First World War, has recently arrived in England as a refugee after the German invasion of his country. Throughout the following 32 novels he appears in, he is frequently belittled and dismissed by other characters as a mere “foreigner” — an insult that he usually brushes off or turns to his advantage when detractors underestimate him. The plight of the outsider and its possibilities for a detective was a theme Christie returned to often. Her adaptation of the The ABC Murders is the first time that Sarah Phelps has worked with one of Christie’s recurring sleuths, and she took great care in how she approached the character, given how familiar he is and how many existing recognisable portrayals of him there are.

Sarah: Well all detectives have a backstory. You’ve got a huge canon of Poirot and Poirot’s familiarity to the reading public to the viewing public. I mean that silhouette, that name , that sort of essence is so familiar. I mean it’s it’s part of our cultural landscape and because I like to say I was unfamiliar with him I thought that that felt really useful to me because all the questions that the killer asks of him were the questions that I was asking of him which is ‘who are you, I am going to come and find me and I am going to just keep nudging you to get at the truth of you are and this public persona of Poirot and behind that is Hercule the private man and I wanted to write about Hercule the private man to kind of bring it bring a different not a different but perhaps bring the you know and we all have public personas and I was just interested in who he might be as Hercule. Right down to the fact that when in the script I never whenever it was his character heading it was never Poirot it was always ‘Hercule’. So he gets called, in the same way that a killer addresses him as Hercule, I addressed him as Hercule all the way throughout the script.

Caroline: John Malkovich plays Hercule in Phelps’s adaptation, and it’s a mark of how beloved and familiar Christie’s character is that rumours of his lack of the distinctive moustache and accent received a lot of coverage in the weeks before Christmas. In reality, she says, a great deal of thought went into exactly how to present these well known characteristics in a new and interesting way to the TV audience.

Sarah: I did try to kind of wind some people up when they went ‘ah god what do you mean Poirot hasn’t got an accent?’. Yeah no, I completely changed it, he comes from Macclesfield. . . just because he is a Francophone Belgian he’s gonna have an accent he’s not going to sound like he’s from Texas or Padstow or something. I think what we were what we were trying to do we had a lot of conversation myself and Alex Gabassi the director with John and it was I was very keen to do something really organic with the accent because I wanted to, I wanted it to feel like that it was a kind of out there accent but that it was actually somebody who had learned English as a new language and they had those precisions and those hypercorrections but underneath you could feel the rhythm of the original French and that was what informed the accent.

Caroline: Agatha Christie’s work is so well known, and a lot of people are really interested in the decisions that Sarah makes as she turns the original books into new TV series. At times, she does choose to diverge from the source material — most notably in Ordeal by Innocence, where her adaptation has a different ending to Christie’s novel of the same name. The intention is always, she says, to produce something fresh and entertaining for the viewer, whether they are a long time Agatha Christie fan very familiar with the canon, or entirely new to the work just switching on after a big Boxing Day tea. Either way, she feels great pressure and responsibility to get it right.

Sarah: Pressure and responsibility — yes of course I feel huge pressure and huge responsibility to be entertaining. Bring something that people enjoy, bring something which is satisfies me as a writer that I’ve got a really good story in a really emotional story that I’ve told the essence of the story, that the spirit of Christie is absolutely alive that I know those preoccupations all the things that she was chasing throughout decades and decades of really long writing career are there but do you know any writer that tells you that they don’t feel pressure or responsibilities is lying, every single page every single line of dialogue every single new scene is absolutely terrifying.

Caroline: The first part of The ABC Murders airs this evening, if you’re listening to this episode in the UK and on the day it comes out (if you’re elsewhere, it’ll be available on demand very soon I’m sure). I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I found it really atmospheric and very evocative of the time that Christie was writing about. If the novel is new to you, I highly recommend going and reading it after you watch the series, especially if you’re interested in more details about how the railway aspect of the plot works.

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Caroline: Even as we’re enjoying this one, though, Sarah is already gearing up to get to work on the next Agatha Christie adaptation for next Christmas. It’s such a big part of the schedule that multiple years are already planned out, and there’s a very distinct lifecycle to the work.

Sarah: By the time were in this sort of process I’m reading for potentially the next one, and once it’s sort of gone out at the beginning of the new year, then I go and say ‘Look, this is what I think I’m going to do’ and then we kind of well people sort of discuss it and I say ‘no, that’s what I’m going to do’ and then I go off and write it and then I write it again and then we start working on it and geting the cast together. So it sort of takes the kind of year life cycle to it which sort of starts pretty much round about this time just as we’re. . . It sort of starts as we come to the end of filming where we start loosely talking and then I generally sort of start writing when when weve when you know the current broadcast is sort of done because I don’t know about other writers but I kind of like find it very difficult to concentrate when I’ve got something that’s about to go out and I sort of pace and worry and dither so I can’t really concentrate until it’s done. So that’s the sort of life cycle. And then we film over the course of the summer into the autumn and then we’re in the edit, and then we’re all ready for roundabout this time of the year.

Caroline: These adaptations have been a great success for the BBC, and seem set to stay at the heart of their Christmas commissioning for years to come. Agatha Christie herself wasn’t always quite so positive about the screen adaptations of her work, though — she disliked it when the intricate plots she had worked so hard to create were simplified, and she often felt that the new dialogue given to her characters wasn’t plausible. In 1952’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, the character of Ariadne Oliver, herself a detective novelist bearing a striking resemblance to Christie, expresses what has often been read as the author’s own distaste for adaptations, saying to her friend Hercule Poirot: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things they never would have done.”

Who knows what Agatha would have thought of John Malkovich’s Poirot, or any of the other versions of her stories that have appeared in the last nine or so decades? There’s no way of knowing, and endless speculation about this detail or that doesn’t really advance anything. Some people prefer Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple to Geraldine McEwan’s, and David Suchet’s Poirot to Kenneth Branagh’s — and others still prefer to read rather than watch.

Whatever your favourite is, there’s still something rather wonderful about tuning in at the darkest time of the year, full of good food and festive cheer, and knowing that the rest of the nation is also watching a twisty, impossible plot play out on the screen.

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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 events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/adaptations. There, you can also read a full transcript.

That’s it from me in 2018: I wish all my listeners a merry festive period and a good start to the new year, and you’ll hear from me again in 2019. If you feel moved to show your appreciation for the podcast before then, do spread the word to friends and family you like mystery stories, so that they can get all caught up before the next episode comes out. And of course, if you want to leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, that also helps the show be more visible to new listeners.

I’ll be back on 9 January with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: the tragic tale of Edith Thompson.

6. Adaptations (with Sarah Phelps)

For many people, their main contact with detective fiction is via film and television adaptations. For a huge global audience, Agatha Christie’s work is as often watched as it is read. Any new production is greeted with intense scrutiny, so what is it really like to adapt these stories? Screenwriter Sarah Phelps, the woman behind the recent BBC versions of And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and now The ABC Murders, explains.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/adaptations. 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:
—Sarah Phelps, who is on Twitter as @PhelpsieSarah.

Books and stories mentioned in order of appearance:
The 1928 film “The Passing of Mr Quin” is based on the short story “The Coming of Mr. Quin”, which part of the Agatha Christie collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
“Witness for the Prosecution” by Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie on Screen by Mark Aldridge

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

5. Crime at Christmas Transcript

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

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

Caroline: The classic Christmas traditions are all about comfort. Blazing fires, mulled drinks, vast quantities of food — it’s all intended make the darkest time of year that little bit brighter. Much of the entertainment we enjoy over the festive period tries to do the same thing. The books, films and TV series themed around this time overflow with heartwarming adventures and happy endings.

But there’s one tradition that bucks this trend: the Christmas murder mystery. The depths of December inspired authors like Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and more. Their Christmas novels and stories have vicious murders and ingenious thefts committed and investigated against the backdrop of cosy festive fun.

Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century and watching television adaptations of these books is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most appropriate festive activity.

So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

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One of my absolute favourite murder mystery novels is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers. It was published in 1934 and sees her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigating a theft and murder in the Fens in East Anglia. The first few times that I read it, I was — like most readers — caught up in the detailed study of bellringing that the plot includes. It was only by chance that I happened to open it one year on 24 December, and on rereading came to appreciate that it contains some extraordinary writing about the dark bleakness that accompanies the bright joy of Christmas and New Year.

After that, I began to find similar passages in plenty of other detective novels from this period. Some of them address Christmas directly, such as Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in which a millionaire is found with his throat slit in a locked room on Christmas Eve, and others more obliquely like The Nine Tailors and Gladys Mitchell’s Groaning Spinney from 1950, in which a corpse is discovered the night before Christmas, but Mrs Bradley’s investigation continues well into the spring. The latter was actually republished in 2017 with the new title of Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery to really tie into the festive murder mystery reading trend.

The British Library Crime Classics, a publishing project to bring lesser known or out of print works back to readers also includes its fair share of Christmas stories, including The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay and Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith, as well as several festive themed short story collections. Both of these novels feature the discovery of murdered corpse in the midst of Christmas festivities — indeed, in the former, the victim is actually discovered by a guest dressed as Father Christmas. You couldn’t get a clearer example of murder intruding on cosy Christmas celebrations. But why is this such a popular trope?

Cecily: I think that the particular thing about Christmas is that you have such a strong contrast between the crime that occurs and the context in which it’s occurring.

Caroline: This is Cecily Gayford, a senior commissioning editor at Profile Books. She is also the editor of several anthologies of festive murder mystery stories, including most recently A Very Murderous Christmas, which includes work by Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell and GK Chesterton. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about why murder is such a popular Christmassy subject.

Cecily: You have a time of goodwill, a time that families are supposed to come together, it’s supposed to be about joy and generosity and safety and cosiness and the contrast between the warm inside and the cold outside. But then you bring that darkness, the sort of feeling underneath the Christmas tree of the Christmas dinner, and you have a disaster or an act of violence — a sort of damage to the social contract right in the centre of what is essentially the most safe and warm time of the year.

Caroline: This contrast is a heightened version of the effect murder mysteries have all year round: we like reading them partly because they make us feel safe. In the books, the murders happen in a controlled, ordered way and are solved by clever detectives, unlike the chaotic unresolved fears we might have in real life. At Christmas, this sense of danger resolved is all the greater. There are two ways this works, Cecily says.

Cecily: I think probably the most important is really that there is something about the mood of Christmas which means that we crave a kind of counterpoint to all that comfort and joy. It can feel a bit cloying and actually we fancy a bit of murder and mayhem to offset it. And I think that there’s something about the Christmas mood which obviously is itself a kind of contrast to the dark, miserable time of year and that feels a bit artificial because as a society we know that there’s both light and shadow in the world and if we insist on everything being all comfort and joy and goodwill to all men then there’s a sense in which the other side of life bursts back into being.

And then I think the second reason which is connected to is partly to do with why we like detective fiction in general which is that as well as being a good story it’s a way of working through anxieties that we have about the world and how safe it is for us.

Caroline: These stories are building on one of the fundamental tools of storytelling, she says.

Cecily: Now a lot of detective writers I think, most notably Dorothy L. Sayers, drew a line between Greek tragedy and detective fiction and talked about how the crime itself is a kind of cathartic moment. It allows us to address what happens when society breaks down and we’re no longer safe in places that we should be and of course there’s something about Christmas which is particularly cosy and safe you know we’re usually home with our families or inside brightly lit places at a time of festivity and so that intensifies that feeling of the worst has happened and so we had that cathartic release of addressing what could go wrong and then the resolution of it being solved and things being put back and returned to sort of prelapsarian safety essentially where detective sweeps in from outside.

Caroline: Different authors used the Christmas setting to explore different aspects of human nature.

Cecily: There’s some really great Agatha Christie stories, there’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” which is one in which Poirot’s invited to a country house and finds I think it’s a ruby in the middle of a Christmas pudding. Agatha Christie was someone who was particularly preoccupied by a certain kind of middle class, safe very ordered world. So I think she does it very well.

Margery Allingham was interested in I suppose the more upper class kind of country house side of things. They often have Albert Campion turning up in these slightly fraught noble families having to entertain a large group of country house guests but one of them is a blackmailer and there’s a disreputable uncle and in another corner an heiress with a secret. So I think people addressed it in different ways.

Caroline: Cecily also pointed out to me that there’s a slightly more mundane explanation for the profusion of Christmas murder mystery stories. Readers really like them, so publications pay authors to write them.

Cecily: I mean one of the reasons why there are so many Christmas crime short stories is that it was in a lot of these people were professional writers and it was a good opportunity for them to place a story. I think it had a partly reflects the fact that there were often special Christmas editions of magazines and it was a professional opportunity as well as a creative one.

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Caroline: In the decades since Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Mitchell were working, a new Christmas murder mystery tradition has emerged: that of the TV special. I’m going to be talking a lot more about screen adaptations of these books in the next episode, by the way, so make sure you refresh your feed on 26 December, because you’re not going to want to miss it. In the last few years, the BBC has been running new versions of Agatha Christie stories in the days between Christmas and New Year, and they’ve been a huge ratings hit. Why do we like watching something so dark and violent just when we’re all snuggled up on the sofa with a tin of quality street, though? These stories are not necessarily what you would first jump to as “good family viewing”.

Anna: It’s such a good question because obviously when you think about murder mysteries you’re mostly thinking about kind of hysterical violent deaths which doesn’t seem like the most cozy thing off the bat but I think there’s so much about them that’s comforting and I think part of what I originally found comforting about murder mysteries was kind of the way that they make a silly theatre out of death which you know a lot of us struggle with fear around death.

Caroline: This is Anna Leszkiewicz, a cultural critic and the deputy culture editor at the New Statesman magazine. Some eagle eared listeners might recognise her as my co-host from the now discontinued pop culture podcast SRSLY, which we hosted together for two and a half years. I’ve known Anna for a long time now, and one of her most beloved pastimes is watching murder mystery adaptations on ITV3, all year round, but especially near Christmas. She likes series like the David Suchet adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but her real obsession is with series like Morse and Midsomer Murders, which although they are modern use many of the tropes and styles of the golden age of detective fiction. This, she says, is precisely what is so comforting about them.

Anna: For me I started really getting into murder mysteries when I was a student and I was watching Lewis which is set in and around the university I was studying art in Oxford and I really liked the way a that it made such a kind of ridiculous theatre out of death but by the way it kind of dramatised the absurdity of caring too much about academia because a lot of the villains would be like Oxford professors or students with like maniacal revenge against their tutors and it made it so clear that to care too much about your essay deadlines was just so absurd. And I found it really comforting but I think what Lewis also has is a is a kind of fairly derivative template. It’s a mix of very familiar either down to earth or eccentric characters very kind of lush grand or period settings and then these kind of contained wild plots that you just watch over the course of one episode or maybe two episodes if they’re two parter structures of this kind of like melodramatic easy to follow murder plot line. So they’re kind of that combination of familiar and wild and crazy but all in this very kind of like safe contained old fashioned space. So I think it’s that combination of things that makes them quite compulsively watchable and quite comforting because it’s that familiarity without it being boring is what makes it so comforting for me.

Caroline: As with detective novels, there are certain key aspects that a comforting murder mystery adaptation has to have for it to work, she say.

Anna: But for me the things that they need to have are they have to have the identity of the murderer being withheld from the audience for kind of the whole of the episode. I don’t like these murder mysteries like Luther and stuff where you know what’s happening and you’re just waiting for liefer to figure it out. I like I like being surprised at the end I like being able to make my best to make my guess. And then you have this recurring and probably very brooding detective figure. But they don’t have to be a detective. They can be as we know a hot pathologist or a hot vicar. Grant Chester and other shows. Each episode has to explore like a brand new case. So you could just pick up whenever you don’t have to watch the series kind of in order. I think that’s a big part of their accessibility. And then you have to have this you know ridiculous staged grand reveal where the detective figure somehow manages to persuade them the murderer to just explain everything they did in front of a whole room full of like people gasping. You know that’s kind of key. And then I think you have to have that tone of kind of absurd death implausible twists.

Caroline: A wintry, Christmassy setting really amplifies the comforting nature of these shows, she says.

Anna: They’s not really any kind of summer glorious summer set murder mysteries there’s a lot of these kind of twee English villages which really come into their own at Christmas these sorts of settings. I do think part of that is the kind of fairy opulent period setting which really just lends itself to kind of the lushness of festive decor and you know in mazing coats on and I think yeah it’s just the more comforting a program the more you want to watch at Christmas like Christmas is a time of comfort watching. You also want it to be something accessible and though murder mystery is often aren’t really suitable for tiny children they are quite family appropriate especially you know once once the kids are a bit older a grown up it’s kind of the kind of thing I mean I watch a lot of Midsomer Murders growing up with my family. Here was a big thing that we would all sit round and watch as family we’d laugh at the theme tune we’d laugh as Martine McCutcheon was bludgeoned to death with a giant wheel of cheese. That’s something very accessible and family watch about those programmes so I think that’s a big part of why they have such an appeal at Christmas as well. And also I think Christmas because it’s a kind of creepy time — the days are short, the nights are long — ghost stories are a big part of Christmas and murder mysteries often especially the Christmas ones come with that kind of like supernatural edge that’s eventually you know especially something like Jonathan Creek which is all about this kind of guy. He disproves the paranormal that’s kind of his whole role as a detective. They often can try and incorporate these ideas that you know Poirot’s seen a ghost or whatever it might be. And so I think they’ve just got all these little boxes that they tick you know period setting tick alignment with the supernatural tick easy to watch tick it just really means that they’re kind of perfect Christmas viewing.

Caroline: This issue of the wheel of cheese is an important one, because although these stories are violent, we don’t often actually see the gore, or even the actual moment of killing. For tales of death, they can be oddly bloodless. Plenty of the Christmas short stories I’ve read in Cecily’s anthologies and elsewhere don’t even include a murder, but focus rather on theft or deception. (My favourite of this kind, in case you were wondering, is “The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s in the 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, and you should definitely get hold of it to read on Christmas Eve.) This lack of explicit violence in these murder mysteries is a key part of why they’re enjoyable at Christmas, Anna argues, although there is some sign that that is changing.

Anna: Over the last four years there has been a trend to make these particularly the Agatha Christie adaptations more dark more gritty I guess because that’s where a lot of TV has gone. But I kind of prefer them with without but the real darkness and violence and as you say like I don’t I love watching murder mysteries and actually they don’t feel like a pity a place that’s full of violence against women even though obviously women are murdered so they literally do it involve violence against women it’s done in such a such a way that you never feel like it’s particularly depressing or realistic or likely to to happen you know it’s often the motives are not oh well he was domestically abusing his wife. It’s like well she had the ruby opal or whatever.

Caroline: Ultimately, we want just enough violence so that the peril feels real and the resolution convincing, but not so much that we actually feel scared ourselves.

Anna: That’s part of what makes them enjoyable is that they’re safe because it’s kind of taking all the things like you know death mud sexual affairs and all these things and putting them in such a soft twee and distant often context you know whether it’s the village of midsummer or 1920s London or whatever it put it puts it at a distance from reality and hams up everyone’s motives so much that it’s just that the melodramatic element takes it away from reality and it makes it quite as safe space to kind of engage with things like that without it feeling terrifying or horrible.

Caroline: As ever, murder mysteries take our anxieties about the world and reflect them back at us. At Christmas, a time that is meant to be all about plenty and goodwill, but which is often cold and difficult for many, they help us remember that not everything is comfort and joy, and give us a way to process our own feelings about safety and violence.

The firelight might be bright, but the shadows in the corners are darker than ever.

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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 events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. There, you can also read a full transcript.

A reminder that this was just the first of two festive specials – the second one will be out on 26 December. If you head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and sign up, you’ll get an alert when it comes out so that you can pretend to your family you have a very important work email and go off to another room to listen in peace.

I got a really nice surprise this week when the podcast leapt up the Apple Podcasts chart, thanks to all of the lovely reviews and ratings that listeners had been leaving. We peaked just outside the top 50 in both the UK and Ireland, which is completely amazing and you’re all very kind. If you’d like to keep spreading the word, who knows how high we can go. Regardless, I’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Adaptations, with special guest Sarah Phelps.

5. Crime at Christmas

Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most festive thing to do. So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. 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:
Cecily Gayford, senior commissioning editor at Profile
Anna Leszkiewicz, deputy culture editor at the New Statesman. Read her article about cosy murder mysteries here.

Books and stories mentioned in order of appearance:
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery by Gladys Mitchell
The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith
A Very Murderous Christmas edited by Cecily Gayford
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie
Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L. Sayers (includes ‘The Necklace of Pearls’)

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

4. The Lady Vanishes

On 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in the southern English county of Berkshire just after 9.30 in the evening. She drove away, taking a small suitcase and a fur coat with her. The following morning, the car was found 15 miles away on the edge of a lake called Silent Pool. The headlights were still on and her luggage was inside, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. The lady had vanished.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/theladyvanishes. 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
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers
Agatha Christie: A Biography by Janet Morgan
Agatha by Kathleen Tynan
Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days by Jared Code
Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait by Andrew Norman
A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott

Sources:
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopaedia by Matthew Bunson
The British Newspaper Archive

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