Caroline: The recurring detective is a mainstay of the classic mystery novel. A character who readers can get to know book after book, who has certain traits or habits that become familiar. Part of the joy of following a series over the decades is seeing this well-known sleuth put into different situations, whether that’s a seemingly peaceful English village or an archaeological dig under the sweltering middle eastern sun. And if they have some kind of overarching personal story that runs across many books, that can also add to the cumulative pleasure of reading about their cases.
That’s all well and good. But what happens when a writer is ready to retire a detective, to stop including them in every book? This can be an unpopular move with readers, who have grown used to seeing their favourite character in each new mystery, and it can be a wrench from the other side, too, for a creator who has spent years crafting a sleuth only to let them go.
Today, we’re asking: how does a writer say goodbye to their detective?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It’s hard to think of a writer from the golden age of detective fiction who didn’t have at least one recurring detective character. Most of them had at least two: Agatha Christie, of course, wrote regularly about Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple throughout her career, and also sprinkled in multiple books featuring Tommy and Tuppence, Mr Sattersthwaite, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and so on. Dorothy L. Sayers had Lord Peter Wimsey and also Montague Egg, a wonderful character and a favourite of mine, who appears in a number of short stories. John Dickson Carr had Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merivale and Henri Bencolin, each with their own multi book series. Margery Allingham had Albert Campion, Anthony Berkeley had Roger Sheringham, Ngaio Marsh had Roderick Alleyn, Gladys Mitchell had Mrs. Bradley, Edmund Crispin had Gervase Fen, and so on. Regular appearances by the same sleuth was a literary technique that worked for everyone involved: readers got to see the evolution of a character through different mysteries, writers had some consistent material to work with for each fresh book, and publishers had a property they could market and for which they could generate popularity across a long series. More recently, these characters have become intellectual property in their own right, generating revenue for the estates of long dead writers through film, TV and videogame adaptations.
While some writers seem to have been happy to write about the same single detective for their entire literary career — Gladys Mitchell, for instance, wrote 66 Mrs. Bradley novels — others found that as they themselves matured and changed, being stuck with one particular character didn’t feel very comfortable. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie wrote that even while she was celebrating the publication of her very first detective novel in 1920, “there was a third party with us, though I did not know it. Hercule Poirot, my Belgian invention, was hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.” Poirot was to become Christie’s most popular character by far, and she struggled at times with the desire from readers and publishers for more stories about him, when she would rather have written other things. She knew that Poirot was her “bread and butter”, as her grandson Mathew Prichard put it in an interview with the Radio Times in 2010, but she also at times wanted to “exorcise herself of him”. We can see her trying to manage these two opposing features later on in her career, by which time Poirot had been a presence in her life for over 40 years. In books like Cat Among The Pigeons from 1959 and The Clocks from 1963, Poirot either enters very late or barely takes part in the investigation, but is still sufficiently present for the cover to advertise that this is a Hercule Poirot mystery. And of course, by this time she had the comfort of knowing that she had already written the “last” Poirot novel, Curtain, in the early 1940s and deposited it in a bank vault to be published in case of her death. I imagine that was privately very satisfying when people were asking her non stop about when the next Poirot adventure would be published. She already knew how the story ended. But there’s two other episodes of the podcast about how Christie wrote those last Poirot and Marple books: Swan Song and Agatha Christie Writes Alone. So you can go and listen to them if you’re interested.
But what about when a writer decides to end the story on their own terms, and retire their most popular detective so that they can focus on writing other things? Given how fundamental the recurring sleuth is the way that crime fiction is published and marketed, I find myself fascinated by how this would work. And so, I thought I would ask somebody who has just done it.
Elly Griffiths has just published the fifteenth novel featuring her recurring detective, the forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway. Ruth and the ensemble cast of characters that surround her at her home in north Norfolk have been a big hit with readers over the last decade and a half, with a number of books from the series hitting bestseller lists. Long time listeners might remember that I had Elly on the podcast back in the summer of 2020 to talk about the golden age inspiration behind one of her non-Ruth books, The Postscript Murders, and in that interview she shared with us her deep knowledge of and passion for golden age detective fiction. Although the Ruth Galloway books are very much set in the present day, they do have a whiff of the classic mystery about them, which I would guess is part of why people like them.
However, the most recent Ruth novel, The Last Remains is going to be the last one for the foreseeable future, Elly has said.
Elly: I don’t want to fall out with Ruth. So we’re parting for a short time on very good terms.
Caroline: Elly has been writing a Ruth book a year for the last 15 years, alongside her other series and her standalone novels, and has come to realise that this isn’t how she wants to spend the rest of her working life.
Elly: I love writing. It’s what I love doing. And goodness, it’s nice to think there are people waiting for your books out there, but I think it’s something that can’t go on forever. I think that’s really the theme of our chat, is nothing can go on forever. Nothing in the world is hidden forever, as Wilkie Collins says. Nothing can go on forever. And I would like to take a bit more time now. I’ve got loads of ideas for other books, but I think I would like to take a little bit more time writing them.
Caroline: Of course, this is very reasonable — I think sometimes we expect writers to maintain a level of consistency and stasis in their careers that we would never demand from someone in a different line of work. Imagine if a chef kept producing slightly different versions of the same dish over and over again, or an artist the same painting. It would seem extremely strange, and probably wouldn’t cultivate a fanbase clamouring for them to never, ever change a thing.
So to understand how Elly came to choose this point to bring Ruth Galloway’s series to a close, I think we need to go back to the genesis of this character and learn a little more about how she, and her very first adventure, The Crossing Places, came to be.
Elly: I’d become interested in archeology because my husband, Andy, who was a lawyer had recently changed careers to go back to university and study archeology. So the genesis of Dr. Ruth Galloway came on the North Norfolk marshes.
We are walking across the marshland, me, Andy, and our twins who, who are I guess about five then. And it’s quite a long walk, you know, along the marshes and, and it’s a beautiful place, but it can be quite desolate. It’s very flat.
Walking along this marshland and Andy happened to say that prehistoric people thought marshland was sacred because it’s neither land or sea, but something in between. They thought of it as a bridge to the afterlife. Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. A liminal zone, an in between place. And he was saying that’s why you find bodies buried there, the so-called bog bodies. And something about that gave me the idea for The Crossing Places.
This doesn’t always happen to me. Sometimes it’s quite a slow growing, a book idea, but immediately a whole plot came into my head. I know I’ve said this before and I always sort of cringe slightly when I say it, but it was actually true that I did see sort of Dr. Ruth Galloway walking towards me, and I kind of knew everything about her.
I knew she would be a forensic archeologist because Andy had been telling me about forensic archeologists and the interesting work they did with buried bodies and buried bones. So I knew that she would be my protagonist.
Caroline: Of course, with hindsight, we know that this meeting on the marshes was going to spawn a series that would carry Elly through the next decade and a half. But when The Crossing Places was first published in 2009, she didn’t know if she’d even get to write a second Ruth Galloway novel.
Elly: I hoped there would be another one. And I did leave The Crossing Places on a bit of an emotional cliffhanger. Really hoping that there would be another one.
I knew that there would be a complicated relationship and it got more complicated by the end of The Crossing Places. And I also did know, just from knowing Norfolk and knowing a bit about archaeology, that there was potential for lots of stories there. Norfolk’s been inhabited a very long time, so there’s lots of folklores, lots of archeology, there’s lots of history. So I knew there was enough there, but I just didn’t think I would get the chance to write them, really.
Caroline: And although Ruth Galloway did appeal to readers from the start, it was far from clear, even several books in, that Elly had a bone fide hit on her hands.
Elly: For an author to write 15 books, it does involve a lot of trust and faith from the publisher really. And, you know, blind hope, because unless, of course they’re massive successes right away, like Richard Osman or something like that, but it wasn’t like that with me.
They were really slow burning. They started to be taken up by libraries and independent bookshops, places where people really knew their clientele and they’d say, well, you know, I think if you like Ann Cleeves, you might like this. And so it was a slow thing. I mean they didn’t hit the bestseller list till about six or seven books in. So really, Quercus were very, very good to keep faith with me.
Caroline: Even once she had done half a dozen Ruth books, Elly was very clear that these are still discrete mystery novels, rather than just instalments in a larger story.
Elly: Each one has its own arc, and I always was clear in my own head that there would be a mystery in each one. And it would be solved. I was listening to a really interesting podcast of yours about whether it needed to be a murder in a mystery story. And I think in some of them, it’s not even exactly a murder. The Outcast Dead maybe is one that isn’t exactly a present day murder, or A Room Full Of Bones maybe. But anyhow, I knew there would be a mystery within each one that, that Ruth would solve together with Nelson, I also knew I’d introduced the character, Cathbad, who’s a druid in the first book, and just really as a another suspect in the first book. But he kind of took over. So I knew that he was going to be there, but also was very clear in my own head that I wouldn’t break Ronald Knox’s rule two, and the solution would never be supernatural. So, although there are little hints of the supernatural here and there, each book does have an absolute solution in the real life.
Caroline: Those two additional characters that Elly mentioned there — her police detective Harry Nelson, and the druid Cathbad — I think contribute significantly to the enduring appeal of the Ruth Galloway books. The former, particularly, in his role as a potential love interest for Ruth. The presence of romance in detective fiction has been a controversial topic for at least a century. According to rule three of S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” from 1928, “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the altar.” But I’m sure you can think of dozens of popular and successful detective novels that do include an element of romance — many Poirot novels end with a bit of pairing off, and of course Dorothy L. Sayers made it a major element of Peter Wimsey’s broader narrative arc.
So, after the break: will they, or won’t they?
Lots of things about publishing can feel random, and trying to work out why some books or characters take off and others don’t can be a futile exercise. And so I was interested whether Elly had a theory as to why Ruth Galloway has attracted so many fans.
Elly: I really don’t know exactly what it is about Ruth that people have liked so much and why people have taken her to their hearts. I’m just very grateful that they have. But I think maybe, and what I hope it is, is that she does seem like a real person. I don’t think it’s true about crime fiction at the moment, but possibly in the past there was a slight tendency to have these sort of amazingly beautiful heroines who ran 25 miles before breakfast, then came back and cooked a gourmet meal and everybody in the entire book, you know, villains, police, everyone was in love with them. So you know, I think she was a little bit of reaction against that and that she’s an ordinary person.
She’s kind of a bit overweight. She doesn’t really have much confidence in her appearance. She has a lot of confidence in herself as an archeologist. But she’s never quite sure that she’s wearing the right clothes, for example. But then she doesn’t care enough to go and change, you know? So there, there, I think people have responded to that. She lives alone with her cats until, until she has her daughter and she’s quite happy with that. She loves cats, she loves Bruce Springsteen. I think that has struck a bell, luckily, with a lot of people who also read a lot of books.
Caroline: In addition to Ruth’s fundamental ordinariness, another, more technical choice that Elly made, also helps the reader feel closer to her protagonist.
Elly: I wonder as well if something to do with the books are written in the present tense, which when I started writing them was a little unusual for crime fiction. It’s a little more usual now I think, but we never discover anything before or after Ruth. We always discover everything at the same moment with her in the books. We are living it with her. We are looking at most things through her eyes, so maybe that’s why people have related to her so much.
Caroline: When a writer is working with a recurring character, one of the most important questions they have to answer for themselves is this: is the detective going to age? Most really long running series characters don’t, or if they do the concept of time becomes rather flexible. This allows them to live much longer than the chronological span in which their books were published, and to let the writer ignore major world events if they so choose. Poirot, for instance, is already a retired policeman when we first meet him in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, so if he had aged accurately he would have been surely at least 120 by the time Curtain was published in 1975. Elly decided to do things differently, however, and this was to have far-reaching consequences for how her series character would behave.
Elly: I made the decision quite early on that they would age in real time. Which I know some writers don’t and that’s absolutely fine. Everyone does, does their own thing, don’t they? I chatted to Peter James recently and I said, how old is Grace now? And he said, oh, he’s only aged three years in the last ten.
But Ruth hasn’t quite aged, she’s younger than me now, for example. I think we start at the same age but there have been a couple of books that have taken place in the same year, that sort of thing. But I think when you make the decision for your characters to age in real time, of course their lives are going to change.
Caroline: Elly has always included her characters’ major life events in the background of her mysteries: over the course of the series, Ruth has a child, changes jobs, meets new partners, works on her relationships with family members — just like a real person might. And in a choice that felt particularly bold at the time, in the penultimate Ruth Galloway book, The Locked Room, Elly also showed us how Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad and the rest coped with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. This also proved to be a turning point for the whole series.
Elly: People who are in the lucky position of having time during lockdown. I am not, you know, a frontline job or anything. People like me, we had a bit of time to think and people like Ruth as well. So I think Ruth and Nelson had time to think. I had time to think and that made me realise how it was going to end. But you know I, I know obviously you’re an expert in the Golden Age, and I love the Golden Age too, and that there’s so much talk isn’t there, about whether you should have love interest in a crime novel. But of course, lots, lots of people did. And there’s a lot of love in Agatha Christie really, even though it’s not Miss Marple or Poirot. They’re, they’re very quick at, at spotting when other people are in love, aren’t they? So there is love in, in good crime mysteries, but I hadn’t, I suppose I didn’t set out to have a ‘will they, won’t they’ thing, but that’s what I ended up with. And in book 15, you’ll find out.
Caroline: In fact, the Ruth-Nelson storyline almost came to an end much sooner…
Elly: I had always known that it was kind of inevitable and I had first thought it might be book 10, which also has a kind of dilemma. It’s a sort of key moment between Ruth and Nelson. But having written book 10, I did immediately have an idea for book 11, and so I did carry on. I sort of knew after book 10 that I was kind of on borrowed time. And I have actually really enjoyed the books since then. But I always knew it was coming up to the end game, but it was in book 14 that, that I thought: no, the next book, I’m going have to solve all this and try to bring everything together, which was a real challenge and one that I did enjoy a lot, but I tried also to tie up a few loose ends from the series in general. So that was all a bit of a challenge, but I hope people will think that I’ve done it.
Caroline: In fact, eagle-eyed Elly Griffiths fans might have got a hint of what was to come last year, when Elly’s contribution to the new Marple short story collection was published. In her story, “Murder at the Villa Rosa”, a crime writer travels to Italy with murder in his mind: that of his long-running and beloved detective. In writing about this, she was aligning herself with the long tradition of golden age crime writers who have struggled to know how to retire a long-running character.
Elly: It is about a writer who wants to end a long-running series, and it certainly did come from the heart and from some of the thoughts I was having about Ruth. I thought it was also quite a Christie-esque idea because I know she had her issues with writing a long running series, especially with Poirot. And also she has the wonderful sort of fictional detective writer Ariadne Oliver, who grows to loathe her protagonist. Well, I dunno if she loathes him, but she did insufficient research and I think we got all sympathised. She makes him a Finn and she knows nothing about Finland and she’s got this, this, this Finnish main character and she wants to get rid of him, really.
Caroline: After all of this reflection and fifteen years of writing, in The Last Remains, Elly really does give Ruth Galloway a proper ending. The ‘will they, won’t they’ question is definitively answered, and so are lots of the other queries left hanging from previous books.
So all that remains is to check in with the writer: how does it feel to part from a character that you’ve spent such a significant chunk of your life with?
Elly: I don’t quite know how I’m going to feel. And it will be quite different when it’s out in the world. But actually I just think this break is the right thing for me and for Ruth really, if I can decide what’s right for Ruth, which I suppose I can. So actually, I do think, although it will be strange not to think what’s next, I think this, the break is at just at the right time for me. So I, I want to have a little bit of a think about, you know, I’ve got ideas for other things. Another series actually. So I want have a bit of a go at doing that.
Caroline: And of course, there is one last question that anyone who ends anything has to deal with. Will there be a comeback? Well, Elly is leaving her options open.
Elly: I’ve certainly not said this is the last Ruth book ever.
Caroline: So it’s farewell to this detective. But perhaps, just for now.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/adetectivesfarewell. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.