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Detection Club

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

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.

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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