Here’s a full transcript of the eleventh episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: Some sleuths need no introduction. They are constantly re-incarnated on television, on stage, in films, in new novels. Fans pore over the books and stories in which they appear, passionately discussing and dissecting new interpretations. Characters like Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, Roger Sheringham, Jane Marple, Father Brown and others may have been created 80 odd years ago, but they feel just as alive and present as if their authors had only just set down their pens.
But the authors of this period frequently had multiple detective characters who they returned to in different novels and stories. These others didn’t necessarily attract the fame or following of their primary sleuths at the time, and so have since tended to fade into the background compared to their more ubiquitous colleagues. It’s about time they had some share of the limelight.
Today, we’re on the hunt for the other detectives.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is the first episode in what I expect will be an occasionally recurring sequence, where I delve into the backstories of some less well-known sleuths from the golden age of detective fiction. I bow to no one in my admiration of Miss Marple, but just for now, we’re going to spend some time with those creations that don’t receive multiple TV adaptations, and languish in undeserved obscurity.
The obvious place to start as we look for overlooked detective characters is with the work of Agatha Christie. She’s not called the queen of crime for nothing: she published 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as her other fiction and plays, during the course of her seven-decade writing career. While she is best known for creating Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, she also had other recurring sleuthing characters, including Tommy and Tuppence, Superintendent Battle, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite, and it’s a few of these that I want to talk about now.
Each of these characters allowed Christie to expand her range and develop her mastery of the whodunnit form. She tended to dip in and out of their stories, rarely publishing consecutive novels or stories featuring her lesser-known detectives, but just dropping in on them in between outings for Poirot or Marple. I find this fascinating with Tommy and Tuppence, for instance, who she created very early on in her career. They also age substantially from book to book, unlike her other sleuths, who stayed pretty much exactly the same over the decades.
They have received a few TV adaptations, by the way, most recently done by the BBC in 2015 starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine. Christie herself is so famous and such an acknowledged master of the detective genre that her ‘other’ detectives perhaps still get more attention than those of authors with a lower profile. The books, however, rarely appear in lists of her most popular works and I frequently find that even self-confessed fans have never delved into them.
Tommy and Tuppence first appeared in 1922’s The Secret Adversary, which was the second ever novel of Christie’s to be published. In that story, which leans heavily on espionage and thriller tropes as well as including detective elements, the titular characters are young, bored and searching for post First World War careers that will bring them money and adventure. It’s a bit of a romance as well, as we see them grow together over the course of the investigation (although I would argue that Tommy adores Tuppence long before the beginning of the book).
Then they next turn up in 1929’s Partners in Crime, which is a hilarious series of short story parodies in which Tommy and Tuppence are posing as private detectives. They solve each case in a style that imitates other authors’ famous sleuthing characters, from R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke to Baroness Orczy’s unnamed armchair detective from her novel The Old Man in the Corner to Christie’s very own Hercule Poirot. They’re still the incorrigible young people we recognise from the first novel, and their dynamic is very similar.
Over a decade then passed before their next outing in N or M?, a novel published in 1941. Time has skipped and Tommy and Tuppence are now middle-aged parents living through the Second World War. Once again their investigation is focused on espionage, with them going under cover and various slapstick escapades ensuing. Although the tone is still light, there is more shadow in this book. Tuppence particularly is dissatisfied with her life, and which she feels is less useful than it has been. This continues in 1968’s By The Pricking of My Thumbs, in which Tuppence is feeling quite old suddenly. It deals with themes of ageing and concealment, and although it’s a bit wacky in places, I still find this book deeply creepy. This is a feeling that isn’t helped by the fact that my cheap paperback copy has a drawing of what looks like the severed heads of babies on the cover.
Finally, the pair re-emerge for the last time in 1973’s Postern of Fate, which is the last book that Christie wrote before her death in 1976 (although not the last to be published, we’ll talk more about her posthumous publications in a future episode). They are elderly, and seeking a quiet retirement in an English village, only to be disturbed by a past case that resurfaces. It’s an uneven book, but still has moments of thrill in it. As far as I can work out, though, it’s never been adapted for film or TV — perhaps ageing detectives, especially when they aren’t the famous ones, aren’t quite so attractive. It’s an interesting literary trope, though, and quite rare for the genre, to have recurring sleuth characters whose lives continue between books, and whose ages are quite so integral to each plot. No doubt this was a big reason why Christie kept returning to Tommy and Tuppence. She couldn’t start allowing Poirot and Miss Marple to get any older (not least because their timelines don’t really work with how long their lives continue in the books anyway) but with these lesser-known characters, she could try her hand at writing a different kind of backstory for her detectives.
Christie’s other detectives each provide her with a different realm of experimentation. Superintendent Battle allows her to work with an active policeman (rather than a retired one in as in Poirot’s case). Ariadne Oliver is herself a detective novelist and approaches cases from a sometimes muddled literary perspective — some have even argued that she’s a thinly veiled version of Christie herself. Parker Pyne is an amateur armchair sleuth who describes himself as a ‘detective of the heart’; and the mysterious Harley Quin is a quasi-supernatural being who appears at opportune moments and works mostly through dialogue his ’emissary’, the unusually observant Mr Satterthwaite. In her autobiography, Christie said that the latter pair were her favourite to write, which I can understand — their stories are so weird and imaginative compared to her more mainstream popular work that it must have been a delight to vanish into Mr Quin’s multi-coloured universe for a chance.
After the break: I introduce my most cherished other detective of all.
Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really love it if you’d pause this episode right after I finish this sentence, and spend five seconds either leaving a review for the show in your podcast app, or texting a friend to tell them to download it. If you include the link shedunnitshow.com in your message, they can start listening right away! I don’t have a team or a marketing budget or anything, so I really rely on you, dear listeners, to help me spread the word about Shedunnit. Done that? Right, let’s get back to the sleuths.
It’s no secret that I love the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve already talked about it a lot on previous episodes of this podcast, and if you go and take a peek at the Shedunnit instagram (the username is, um, @ShedunnitShow, seamless plug there), you’ll see how often I post pictures of Harriet Walter playing Harriet Vane while gently sighing to myself. Peter Wimsey is by far Sayers’s most famous detective creation, and justly so — the stories that feature him are funny, innovative, gripping and varied. She takes advantage of his aristocratic status to move him seamlessly from situation to situation, so that for one case he can be undercover at a London advertising agency, and then in another short story he’s pretending to be a religious prophet in a small Basque village. His life is as improbable as it is enjoyable.
Her other detective, though, is completely different, and I love him no less dearly. His name is Montague Egg and he appears only in 11 short stories and no full length novels, yet I reread his cases more often than anything else. He’s a travelling salesman working for a wine merchant called “Plummet and Rose”, and he doesn’t identify as a detective in any way. Rather, he’s just a very observant person who travels a lot for his job, and who happens to end up mixed up in a murder case in the places that he stays.
I think that, as with Christie’s other detectives, Montague Egg gave Sayers the opportunity to try out a different way of crime writing without jeopardising the consistency and popularity of her bread-winning character. The character gives her some of the structure and restrictions that were lacking in the way she had created Wimsey — Egg is of a lower social class and he has a job, so he can’t just go swanning off abroad or deploy his limitless resources and staff to get a case solved. He stays in pubs in provincial towns and doesn’t socialise extensively. His cases really need to happen right under his nose, because he isn’t going to go looking for them. He also has a very specific and narrow field of expertise — that is, wine and spirits — so his plots mostly either need to have some element of alcohol involved or to turn on the fact that he has to travel around in order to sell said beverages. A lot of crime writers say that rules and restrictions enhance, rather than impede their creativity; after all, that’s partly where the so-called ‘rules’ for detective fiction in general came from, which I talked about in episode nine.
The advertising side of Montague Egg’s character comes from Sayers’s own experiences working at the agency S.H. Benson’s Ltd in London as a copywriter between 1922 and 1931, before she became a full time writer of fiction, plays and essays. She also used this personal knowledge in the 1933 Wimsey novel Murder Must Advertise, which was published in the same year as the first batch of Egg stories. She liked her job and was good at it — her clients included Colman’s mustard and Guinness beer, and some of the campaigns she worked on for the latter brand still appear today, including the one with the toucan (I’ll put a picture on instagram so you can see what it looks like). She’s also credited with coining the phrase “it pays to advertise”, and found the discipline and restrictions that copywriting put on her as a writer stimulating.
She gave this love of a pithy phrase to Montague Egg, who is constantly quoting maxims from his favourite book, The Salesman’s Handbook, as he goes about his rounds and solves his cases. They’re all sing-song bits of doggerel with a universal message, such as “A cheerful voice and cheerful look put orders in the order-book”. They’re a useful character tell for Egg, though, who is described by Sayers as “a fair-haired, well-mannered young man”, and is generally inclined not to put himself forward in a showy way. He considers that his quite exceptional powers of observation and deduction are just normal, practical common sense, and can be quite diffident about putting his ideas forward to the police, since he often feels that the solution he’s arrived at is so obvious everyone must already know whodunnit. Of course, this is never the case: Montague Egg might think that the basic tenets in The Salesman’s Handbook would help anyone become a good deductive reasoner, but he seems to be the only one for whom it works.
Another way in which I think Montague Egg was a relief for Sayers to write was his almost total lack of backstory. In many of the Wimsey novels, she spends as much time evoking the scenario of the story and detailing his relations to it (such as in The Nine Tailors) as she does on the actual detecting. And of course, there’s the romance with Harriet Vane and Wimsey’s trauma from his First World War experiences to include as well. Balancing all those different elements is a big challenge, so I’m sure it was very calming to write a story with a central character who has virtually no interior life beyond his advertising jingles. We’re told that Egg served two years at the Western Front during the First World War and we can assume from his life of constant travelling that he probably doesn’t have a partner or a family, but beyond that he’s a two-dimensional being, just existing quietly until a murder to happen in the pub where he’s staying so he can save the day. In some ways, he reminds me of an android in a sci-fi story that you can power down when you don’t need it. Sayers just wakes him up at the start of the story. It doesn’t matter at all where he was or what he was doing when she wasn’t writing about him.
I think this might also be why I like reading the Montague Egg stories — they’re just the right amount of bland for a tired brain at the end of a long day. The plots, though, are good and mostly well-formed, in my opinion. There are plenty of classic tropes in there, including false confessions, complicated inheritances, impersonations, multiple likely suspects and misleading clocks, but there are some surprising elements too, such as the story that focuses primarily on cats. Of course, Egg’s knowledge of wines and spirits surfaces quite often, but we also get a few other glimpses into his personality and preferences. He doesn’t like violence of blood, he’s a bit reserved and even pompous sometimes (he really isn’t up for bantering about the smutty photographs a colleagues tries to show him at one point), but he’s not above a bit of mischief sometimes, as he shows by explaining to a shocked policeman a very well-worked out plan for dodging a train fare.
There have been relatively few critical assessments of Montague Egg and sadly very few adaptations exist — I can find one radio version and no screen efforts. However, the philosophy academic Dr Robert Zaslavsky did publish a paper in 1986 about the theological connections of detective fiction, and it includes a fascinating theory about Montague Egg in a footnote. He’s a godly figure, Zaslavsky argues, because he “is a traveller in spirits (pun intended)”, works for a company with a name that suggests death and resurrection (Plummet and Rose) and eggs are associated symbolically with Easter and therefore the passion of Christ. It’s a far-fetched but rather delightful idea, lent weight by the fact that Sayers was deeply interested in theology herself and published several books and essays on religious themes. In the story ‘Murder at Pentecost’, which is set in an Oxford college, Montague Egg does meet a character suffering from a sort of religious mania, and his cool common sense is by comparison very soothing. Perhaps on some level Sayers considered Egg a kind of travelling justice-dispenser, selling wine but also protecting the innocent wherever he went.
Characters like Montague Egg are worth seeking out both for the sheer enjoyment to be had from reading them, but also for what they can tell us about the writers who shifted gear from their more popular sleuths in order to create them. Both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers used these interludes to refresh their writing and push the boundaries of their form in new and interesting directions. And it isn’t just these two — lots of authors from the golden age of detective fiction had other characters they returned to in between their main series. I highly recommend seeking them out, not least because it can be a nice change to read something that doesn’t have such a burden of previous interpretation and adaptation on it. I sometimes feel like reading a Poirot novel now comes with a lot of baggage, whereas a Montague Egg or a Parker Pyne is refreshingly free of other people’s opinions, allowing me to just enjoy it as I like.
And who knows, maybe Montague Egg’s moment in the limelight is still to come.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theotherdetectives. There, you can also read a full transcript.
I’m in the midst of coming up with a plan for how I can turn this podcast into a sustainable, long-term project, and even start making episodes every week instead of every fortnight, as a lot of you have requested. If you’d like to be the first to hear about that, sign up for email alerts about the show at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Thanks for listening this far and for all your support.
I’ll be back on 20 March with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Round Robin.