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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

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