Caroline: Like a lot of people, I’ve really struggled with reading this year. Whereas once the words just seemed to flow off the page and straight into my brain, now a connection has broken somewhere. I’ve been distracted and anxious, picking up books that I think will suit my mood and then putting them down after a few dozen pages because they don’t immediately fix me. This slow down in my reading has bothered me a good deal: another item on the list of things that I worry about but can’t control.
There are a few books that I have still been able to get properly stuck into though, and almost all of them are whodunnits. There’s something uniquely comforting I think about the rhythms and patterns of a classic detective story from the 1918 to 1939 period, and those are the ones that I’ve gravitated towards in 2020. And I’m not alone in this. Booksellers have noticed even more Agatha Christies flying off their shelves than usual, and several of the most popular new crime novels published this year are ones in which the influence of classic crime fiction is very apparent.
The beloved conventions of golden age detective fiction were formed in the wake of global traumas, namely the First World War and the flu pandemic that followed it. In that sense, although this extraordinary year has brought so many new and strange experiences, our comfort reading habits are actually part of a very old tradition of convalescence via crime fiction. While you look forward to curling up on the sofa this Christmas with your favourite whodunnit and feeling a little better for a while, it’s worth understanding how stories about murder and violence became so associated with relaxation and recovery. In this episode, I’m exploring how crime became cosy.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
I’ve read and heard that ubiquitous two word phrase “unprecedented times” so often in the last nine months that is has become completely meaningless. But every time I speak to someone about their experiences of 2020, they will tell me something that sends me reaching for those words yet again. It was no different on a phone call I had a couple of weeks ago, just as the UK was nearing the end of its second period of national lockdown.
Shaun: 2020 has been by far the strangest year in the oddly 20 years in which I’ve run the shop and we were shut down in as everybody was in March and we were closed for 116 days. And normally we only close, we close on Sunday but other than that, it’s only really at Christmas and New Year that we’re closed for more than two days in a row. So it was an extremely unusual time.
Caroline: It’s the little details that get you, isn’t it? Not just the scary, swooping curves on the graphs of cases, but the fact that a shop that has barely closed in twenty years suddenly had to shut its doors for 116 days. By the way, I should let the proprietor of that shop introduce himself to you:
Shaun: My name is Shaun Bythell and I run The Bookshop in Wigtown, which is Scotland’s national book town. And I’ve written three books about bookselling.
Caroline: I must also just let Shaun describe his shop to you, because I think it’s such a lovely place to visualise, especially at Christmas.
Shaun: Well, the bookshop is it’s a huge, sprawling Georgian townhouse in the middle of Wigtown, and it doesn’t look like much from the front, but as soon as you go in, it just goes back and back and back. So we have about nine or ten rooms full of books and about a mile of shelving and we stock books on all subjects. It’s all second hand, well, all second hand works apart from copies of my books, which I sell new. But yes, it’s a second hand bookshop and all the shops in the town apart from one are second hand bookshops.
Caroline: Once Shaun was able to open his shop again when the UK’s restrictions were temporarily relaxed in the summer, he had a sudden rush of customers desperate for books.
Shaun: As soon as we reopened after the lockdown was lifted, we had the biggest explosion of trade that I’ve ever had. It was busier than it’s ever been.
Caroline: And there was one shelf in particular that people were frequenting.
Shaun: The one thing that I did notice was a massive surge in sales of Agatha Christie novels and Agatha Christie was always a good seller. But since lockdown, I haven’t been able to buy enough Agatha Christies to keep up with demand. It has been really phenomenal. And it’s not just people coming in and buying one or two novels. It’s people coming in and buying 10 or 15. And I think it’s partly due to the fact that I think people think or people after the lock down first thought, they appreciated the opportunity to go into a bookshop and and buy whatever they wanted. But I think Agatha Christie seems to have appealed to the lockdown mentality, and I don’t quite know why. They did so well that shortly after lockdown was lifted, I had to go and buy books from a house near Lockerbie. And thankfully, there was just about every Agatha Christie novel ever written there. And so that was about two days after the lockdown was lifted. So I brought them back, priced them up and put them on the shelves and the whole lot went within, I would say, a week.
Caroline: This is one of the main ways that Shaun gets hold of the secondhand books that he stocks in his shop is via house clearances.
Shaun: Normally for me the best deals are deals where somebody is, it’s a really sad thing to say, but where somebody has died and the house has to be sold and the collection of books, the library has to go and they just want rid of the lot. So, yeah, that’s that’s normally how I get hold of my stock. And I suppose it’s probably about one every 10 days. One day, every 10 days, I get called out to a house and I have to clear the books.
Caroline: So Shaun does a lot of these melancholy trips to clear out books. And there are certain trends that he’s picked up in the years he’s been doing it.
Shaun: Yeah, it’s funny, there are things that you find in almost every house clearance, and Agatha Christie is one of them, and it is just because she was so enormously popular in her day and has never really gone a fashion. I think she’s, if you look at the TV, dramatisations of her books always been incessant since since she died. So, yeah, I never turn down Agatha Christie because I just know I can sell them almost instantly.
Caroline: And in Scotland, there’s always Walter Scott’s Waverley novels too. Except Shaun isn’t quite so pleased to see those, because they’re impossible to sell, apparently.
So what was it that sent people dashing into Shaun’s bookshop as soon as lockdown lifted, desperate to buy Agatha Christie novels by the dozen? Well, he has a couple of theories.
Shaun: I think it’s possibly because they’re very readable, very short generally, and will come to a kind of neat resolution at the end and at a time when nobody quite knows or knew how long we were going to be locked down for or what the resolution was going to be, and we still don’t know, there’s something quite satisfying about that, that kind of I suppose it’s like a little enclosed safe space, an Agatha Christie novel.
Caroline: Whodunnits, especially from the golden age period between the two world wars, have a very distinctive format. Murder, investigation, discovery, denouement — there’s a rhythm to it that is always recognisable, even if it’s a book or an author that you’ve never read before. At a time when almost everything else about life is unknown and scattered, falling into those patterns can be very reassuring. This kind of crime fiction usually needs to feature a closed world, too, a defined set of suspects within which the detective can operate. The story has to have edges to it, and limits on how far the action can go, in order for the author to be really playing fair by the reader. By the conventions of the genre at this time, a writer can’t just reveal an entirely new character in the penultimate chapter and brand them the murderer, they have to have bee someone who has been there the whole time. And then, of course, we know that the detective will always triumph in the end. It all feels very controlled and safe, even though it’s about murder and violence. There will be a neat solution tying everything together in a satisfying way. Not like real life, where there are unforeseen plot twists and loose ends left lying around all the time.
And to all of this, Christie particularly brings that elusive quality of “readability”. I think some critics have sometimes used that word in a derogative sense, to deride a literary work that is merely comprehensible and nothing more. But I think it can be one of the best things about a book: the fact that you can read it in a single sitting without even noticing that any time has passed. Not all writers can craft prose that can be consumed in this way, and course it’s not the only thing that can make a book worth reading. But in Christie’s case, she turned out book after book after book that unspools so easily in the mind that the reader barely notices the pages turning beneath their fingers. I’ve read an Agatha Christie in a single sitting this year, and struggled to get more than fifty pages into basically everything else.
I also think that the reassuring predictability of crime fiction from this period has a lot to do with its associations with Christmas, too. On the surface, the two shouldn’t go together at all — why would we want to read stories about death and deceit at a time of year that’s supposed to be all about comfort, joy and goodwill? Corpses should have no place in that. But that contrast is key. Festive celebrations are all about disrupting our usual routines, eating things we would never normally eat, staying up late, giving special gifts, and (usually) travelling to be with people we don’t get to see for the rest of the year. After days of coping with your extended family and catering for 12 people at every meal, cracking open a whodunnit before you fall asleep can feel like settling into a nice warm bath. Order amidst the chaos. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
In that context, I don’t think it’s really that surprising after all that people have been buying all of the secondhand Agatha Christie novels that they can get their hands on, nor that Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, a book heavily influenced by the Queen of Crime, is one of the bestselling novels of this year by far. It’s not escapist fiction in the conventional sense, but it is a kind of escape to immerse your exhausted, strung out brain in the order and method of a well structured whodunnit. A good plot will start out by presenting many different plausible solutions to the mystery and then gradually whittle them away until only one remains. In a year full of spiralling hypotheticals, I’ve certainly found myself wishing for that kind of certainty.
After the break: a century of comforting crime fiction.
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The idea of crime fiction as a kind of salve for a scattered mind is not a new one. We didn’t suddenly discover it in 2020, although it has certainly been greatly in evidence this year. In fact, I’ve really been telling this story the wrong way round. It wasn’t that detective novelists in the 1920s wrote crime novels that readers then found comforting. It happened the other way round: people needed comforting things to read, so more and more crime novels were written.
The traumatic events of the First World War created a population that by 1918 was dazed and exhausted, more in the mood for light hearted distraction than heavyweight intellectual pursuits. By the early 1920s crossword puzzles, jigsaws, treasure hunts and word games were suddenly all the rage, with people throwing themselves into anything that could keep them pleasantly occupied and engaged for a while. I expect lots of that might recognise this desire for inconsequential diversions from 2020, too — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that simple but absorbing pastimes like baking bread, taking part in quizzes and doing puzzles have been popular this year.
At the same time as the puzzle craze was gripping people after the First World War, the detective novel was evolving. It was moving away from the dashing, melodramatic, thrilling stories made popular by Arthur Conan Doyle and others at the end of the nineteenth century, and turning towards what critic Stephen Knight has aptly dubbed the “clue-puzzle” format. Anyone with enough skill and persistence can win a crossword competition in a newspaper, and the new breed of fictional detectives follow clues that are also made available to the reader rather than relying on their own omniscient intelligence as Sherlock Holmes had done. The puzzle craze had spread to crime fiction too, and people couldn’t get enough of it.
Although Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles from 1920 is sometimes cited as the book that kicked off the so called golden age of detective fiction, I think it’s worth looking back to 1913 and Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley as an origin point too. Bentley set out “to write a detective novel of a new sort” and includes a lot of very recognisable tropes in pursuit of that aim. His central character, Philip Trent, is a journalist turned amateur sleuth, the murder victim is a millionaire who nobody likes very much, the action takes place at a rural country house, there are perfect alibis, servants and friends who have quarrelled with the dead man, a conveniently closed circle of suspects, and so on.
But the most significant thing about Trent’s Last Case is that Bentley is making fun of the idea that a detective can be all knowing and infallible in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. His sleuth tries very hard and follows all the clues yet still draws the wrong conclusions, raising the question always to the reader: can you do better? After going through a devastating world war and then a horrific global flu pandemic, bereaved people were tired of the idea that there were definitive answers to big questions or some kind of preordained order to events.
Although published just before the First World War, Trent’s Last Case really laid the foundation stone upon which the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley would build. It was largely in recognition of this achievement that Bentley was invited to become a member of the Detection Club upon its formation in 1930, and then to succeed G.K. Chesterton as its president after the latter’s death in 1936. Trent’s Last Case was, in a sense, the beginning of it all.
But why mysteries about murder? It would be logical to conclude that the survivors of a world war and a global pandemic would have had enough of death in any form, yet it was largely stories about investigating fatalities that formed the backbone of the increasingly popular detective fiction genre in the 1920s. The explanation lies partly in the inherent safety of reading about fictional crimes — what isn’t real can’t hurt you, and so on. But I think this question is mostly answered by the fact that the murders in most golden age detective fiction are barely violent at all. Of course, victims do get hit over the head or shot stabbed or strangled or pushed down stairs, but there’s very little description of it. Writers expend very few words on how blood pulses from wounds or what what someone looks like right before life is extinguished. In fact, the actual murder quite often happens “off screen”, with the corpse merely discovered after the fact and the person’s end reconstructed secondhand, as it were. A notable exception to this can actually be found Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which features an usually bloody death scene, and I think she included this deliberately to underscore the rarity of gore in the genre, especially in a book so squarely aimed at a festive audience.
The critic Alison Light has a good phrase for this general lack of violence, concluding that the “bloodlessness” and “anaemia” of fictional crime between the first and second war “can be seen as a revolt against the sanguinary rhetoric of 1914”. In other words, people had had enough both of death and of the ways of talking about death that had prevailed during the First World War, and the lack of gore in detective fiction was a reaction to that feeling. In this way, murder becomes merely a narrative device, a way of starting a story and giving sufficient impetus for an investigation. I think we can also extend that same explanation to cover why crime fiction is so popular at Christmas, too. It’s a time of year that is not traditionally an especially bloodthirsty one, but one at which broadcasters compete for our attention with darkly rendered crime fiction adaptations and during her lifetime Agatha Christie used to prop up a large segment of the publishing industry with her tradition of a bestselling “Christie for Christmas”. And yet the crimes that appear in your favourite festive whodunnits are so bland as to be almost polite. Nobody wants to read about or indeed see a Christmas tree decorated with splashes of blood, but we are perfectly in the mood for an investigation that is just distracting enough to mean that we don’t have to think about anything else for a while.
In her 1991 book Forever England, Alison Light expands on this theory of crime fiction as a “literature of convalescence”. Whodunnits were “the literature of emotional invalids, shock absorbing and rehabilitating, like playing endless rounds of clock patience,” she says. Anyone who has spent any time being unwell will know exactly the feeling that she’s describing — that itchy period after you’re no longer so ill that you can’t move or sit up, but before you are well enough to get out of bed and resume normal life. On the occasions when I’ve had to convalesce from something, I’ve struggled to read a bit like I have this year, picking up books and putting them down again because I just don’t seem to have the mental strength to engage with anything for more than a few pages.
Repetitive activities like knitting, word puzzles or card games fit this moment perfectly, seeming to use just enough of your brain and no more. In the context of the post First World War period, Light calls this “that lack of capacity for concentrated thinking which plagued the returned solider” and suggests that those at home who endured years of waiting and assuming the worst were equally afflicted with it. The cure was “pitting their quits in a struggle that was cerebral without involving strain”, and that’s just what detective novels provided. They’re “the mental equivalent of pottering”, she says, which relieve anxiety rather than generating strong emotion. This is all very recognisable from the perspective of 2020, I think, when our fragmented attention spans have been further attacked by the onset of doom scrolling, tragedy and the iterative creep of bad news.
The confinement of lockdown is not dissimilar to the limitations experienced while recovering from an illness, so perhaps it’s no wonder that those Agatha Christies have been flying off the shelves of Shaun’s bookshop at a great rate. I think W Somerset Maugham had a rather good take on this in his essay “The Decline and Fall of the Detection Story,” in which he describes how he discovered the convalescent power of detective fiction while literally in bed convalescing. He spent part of the first world war receiving treatment in a “sanatorium for the tuberculous” in the north of Scotland and there “learnt how pleasant it is to lie in bed”. He writes: “With aspirin, a hot-water bottle, rum toddy at night and half a dozen detective stories I am prepared to make an ambiguous virtue of an equivocal necessity.” The whodunnits are just another kind of prescription.
The classic whodunnit, then was formed by a moment when people were hurting and distracted, desperate for something that could take them out of themselves for a while. And that’s why I think their popularity has been renewed again this year, when many of the same feelings of anxiety and exhaustion have surfaced once more. People have been using these books as a kind of healing balm for a hundred years. There’s something very reassuring about being part of that tradition, knowing that plenty of readers before you have also used stories about people in the 1930s bumping each other off in exotic ways because of esoteric wills to escape from their problems for a bit.
And if that’s not a good excuse to spend some time with your favourite detectives this Christmas, then I don’t know what is.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Shaun Bythell for joining me. You can find links to his books and more information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/achristieforchristmas. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
This is the last episode of the podcast that I’m making this year, and I’d like to thank you all for listening and supporting me throughout 2020. Members of the Shedunnit Book Club can still look forward to a couple of bonus episodes before I take a break, though, and if you’re listening to this on the day that it comes out the Shedunnit shop will still be open for orders one more day before closing on 17th December. There is still a selection of mystery-related gifts on offer if you’re still in the market for some last minute presents or just looking to treat yourself, and all proceeds go towards supporting the podcast in 2021.
That’s it from me here, though. I’ll be back with another episode in January.