Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is the start of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War in 1939.
There are six episodes, each devoted to a different novelist who had made an impact during the heyday of the classic whodunnit. These stories combine the personal and the professional, because the war touched every part of these women’s lives, as it did for everyone else. Each week for the next six weeks, I’ll be telling you the story of what the queens of crime did when war arrived and utterly changed the way they and their readers thought about crime writing.
As Britain was heading towards war at the end of the 1930s, something other than just the post WW1 peace was coming to a close.
Martin: The war certainly marked in reality, the end of the golden age. I think some people identify certain books that appeared later, but really, I think the golden age is an inter-war phenomenon first and foremost.
Caroline: This is Martin Edwards, the author of, among many other excellent books, The Golden Age of Murder, which is a brilliant non fiction work about the popular crime fiction of the interwar period. I asked him to help me gauge the mood among the leading figures in what we now call the golden age of detective fiction as the political situation in Europe was worsening through the 1930s.
Martin: I think that crime writers probably reflected the general attitudes of the day that the majority, I would guess don’t know for sure, were fervently hoping that war wouldn’t return. But we do see signs in some of the books, reading between the lines, that there was fear.
There are of course references to the dictators — Hitler, Mussolini start to get name-checked in novels and you get this idea of the altruistic crime in the 1930s, this idea that in certain circumstances, very exceptionally murder can be justified if it is so-called “for the greater good”. That kind of idea is played around with, by a number of writers, including Christie and including Anthony Berkeley and John Dickson Carr.
But I think that there was this ambivalence, this feeling of what might happen that I think most writers were hoping that of course that it was never going to recur.
Caroline: This anxiety, and this shifting notion of justice, can be observed pretty overtly in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was first published in November 1939, a few months into Britain’s involvement in the second world war. But another famous Christie novel from a few years earlier exhibits similar tendencies: 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express sees Hercule Poirot confront the moral dilemma of whether the prior actions of a victim can ever justify their murder. This trend away from the easy, cut and dried notions of right and wrong that were prevalent in the crime fiction of the 1920s is, as Martin says, visible in the work of several prominent detective novelists from the 1930s. It’s part of what brings the golden age to its close: these writers are wrestling with ideas and forces that are much bigger than a clever trick at a country house party.
But, you might wonder, how can it be that the golden age comes to an end, when lots of the writers I’m referring to, including Agatha Christie, carried on publishing detective novels through the second world war and beyond? Well, I’ll let Martin straighten that one out.
Martin: It’s true, of course, that writers such as Christie, such as Lorac, such as Allingham, such as Marsh, continued to write for many years. But I think that broadly speaking they were no longer the innovators in the genre in the way that some of them had been in the twenties. Josephine Tey, another example who lived into the 1950s and I think some of the best books after the second world war, but the second world war really was a turning point.
And after that, the interest that you’d seen in psychological crime fiction on the part of people like Anthony Berkeley, Richard Hull and others, that developed further. Christie of course often refers to psychology, although not in an ultra sophisticated way but it crops up time and again, but after the second world war, you are getting the writers writing different kinds of books really exploring the nature of evil. And I think that that’s what happened after the second world war. There was a sea change in attitudes and preoccupations for many of the writers so that the golden age writers were no longer at the cutting edge.
Caroline: Golden age style detective novels didn’t go away — and still haven’t, people are writing them, to varying degrees of success, even now — but the golden age as an artistic and commercial phenomenon had come to an end. The new frontiers in crime writing were psychological and procedural, and it was a new generation of writers post 1945 that were breaking new ground. Agatha Christie’s legions of fans kept reading her new books until her death in 1976, but she was no longer at the cutting edge of crime fiction in the way that she had been in the 1920s and 1930s.
An interesting facet of examining this with the benefit of hindsight, though, is that we don’t always think too hard about what the readers in the moment wanted. It might not have been as easy to write a cosy country house murder mystery, but people didn’t magically stop wanting to read them when war was declared in 1939.
Martin: Well, I think given this general view that war was the last thing that anybody contemplated, there was a strong desire for the golden age to continue in fiction.
Readers were keen for escapism naturally. It was comparable in a way to the desire for escapism after the first world war. And of course we can see a parallel with the pandemic recently during lockdown. There is a flight to escapism if you like.
And of course we’ve seen best-sellers, Richard Osman I think you can see as part of that reaction, that feeling that people want books that are pleasurable, comfortable reads. And of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s entirely understandable at times of great social stress.
I think that you did have that in the second world war. There’s an interesting book that Harry Keating wrote, oh, back in the 1970s called Murder Must Appetise. Little book about golden age fiction and he refers to someone, a woman reader who talked about the comfort she got from reading Christie and others when she was cowering in the air raid shelters and that sort of thing during the Blitz. So I think that that desire for escapism, which is a very natural human characteristic was very, very powerful.
Caroline: And there was plenty to escape from. That image of a woman reading her favourite mysteries in an air raid shelter as the bombs fell has stayed with me while I’ve been working on this series — a reminder that while we dig further into the lives of these writers, there were readers on the other side of the page too.
Caroline: Now that we understand where crime fiction stood at the start of the second world war, it’s time to zoom in a little. Today, Agatha Christie’s reputation and legacy is titanic and unassailable. But in 1939, where did she stand?
Jamie: So by the time the second world war came around Agatha Christie was pretty much on top of the market. She was by far the best selling writer of the time. Her name was already synonymous with detective fiction. In 1939, we saw the publication of And Then There Were None which is now the best known crime novel and was at the time a huge, huge hit and success. So she was really at the top of her game. And the golden age, we talk about it being over by 1939 but at that time, people were talking about living in the golden age of crime fiction.
Caroline: This is J.C. Bernthal, an Agatha Christie scholar and expert. Some of you might remember him from the Queer Clues episode of the podcast — a fan favourite — and I’m delighted to welcome him back to the show to talk about Agatha Christie’s wartime experiences.
Although she would publish consistently for another 30 years after the war ended, many of the now iconic Christie novels had already appeared by 1939. Books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders and Death on the Nile had been some of her biggest hits in the 1920s and 1930s, helping to send her to the top of the pile and earn that signature moniker “queen of crime”.
Like many of her peers, Christie was worried about the approach of war. She had been 23 when the first world war began, and was quite old enough to have experienced the trauma and despair of it. Her anxieties crept into her fiction.
Jamie: Some of her books published at the very beginning of the war do talk about it almost as if it’s about to happen. So One, Two Buckle, My Shoe, which is called The Patriotic Murders in America, is really about someone who justifies killing with political ideology. And it ends with Poirot explaining why this is a dangerous approach to take and why it could be dangerous for the future. That was published in 1940, but it was written before, quite a few years before.
Caroline: But it is from Christie’s non fiction, rather than her fiction, that we get the clearest picture of her state of mind as war approached.
Jamie: Christie devotes whole chapters of her autobiography to the two world wars. She has one called war and another chapter called the second war. And these are highly personal chapters. You get to see a lot of the emotional impact of war and of loss and the impact on her family. And you can also sort of see how it’s affecting her creative processes. She talks about deciding to write a book set in London in the 1930s, she talks about deciding to embrace the theatre at a time when entertainment was needed, but not as practical as it had been before. It’s when she decides to adapt And Then There Were None for the stage in the 1940s.
Caroline: Agatha had been married to her second husband Max Mallowan for almost a decade when the second world war began, and they had travelled extensively together in the Middle East, spending months of each year at archaeological digs in Iraq and Syria. The escalating hostilities in the late 1930s made such excursions impossible. They were at Greenway, Agatha’s house in Devon, when war was declared, and Max was keen to volunteer for the armed forces straight away. He initially joined the local Home Guard, which Agatha recalls in her autobiography was at that time “like a comic opera” with about one gun for every eight men. Agatha’s own version of getting involved was to go back to the hospital in Torquay where she had worked as a dispenser in the first world war and renew her training so that she could take on that role once more. She gave Greenway over to strangers, first as a home for evacuated children and then to the Admiralty, who used it as accommodation for the US coast guard.
Soon, Max got a post at the Air Ministry in London, and Agatha joined him in the city in a succession of rented flats until their own house at 58 Sheffield Terrace became available again when their tenants left. In 1941, it was bombed while they were away for the weekend, prompting another move to a flat on Lawn Road in Hampstead. Shortly afterwards, Max was posted overseas, first to Egypt and then Libya, and Agatha stayed behind in London. The couple were separated for much of the war, a state of affairs that was to have a profound impact on Agatha’s literary output.
More on that, after the break.
Agatha Christie was tremendously productive during the second world war. She worked two or three days a week in the dispensary at University College Hospital, observing in her autobiography that the job was much simpler than it had been during the first world war, because so many drugs now came prepared as pills, compared with the onerous task of mixing and preparing medications from scratch twenty years before. She often took her friend Carlo’s dog James with her to the hospital, too, where he lay under her desk and made friends with the cleaners — Carlo was working in a munitions factory and couldn’t take him there, of course.
In addition to this, Agatha had to deal with the problems thrown up by the war itself. After her house on Sheffield Terrace was bombed, she had tremendous difficulty finding somewhere to store her furniture. Warehouse space was, understandably, in short supply with the Blitz both destroying commercial property and ruining people’s homes. Eventually, she managed to arrange to have their things, including her beloved Steinway piano, taken to her house in Wallingford. The house was lent out for the war as well, but she was able to get everything stuffed into the squash court to be dealt with once Max came home.
And of course, she had books to write. For the first couple of years of the war, novels and short stories that she had completed prior to 1939 were still coming out, including One Two Buckle My Shoe as Jamie mentioned, Sad Cypress, and Evil Under the Sun. That latter book was published in June 1941, and was her last that had been finished before the outbreak of war. What came next was the work that she had done in those first hectic years of the conflict, during which time Britain had been anticipating an invasion, the bombs had been raining down on London, and there had been the devastating retreat from Dunkirk.
In times of adversity, I think that writers tend to go one of two ways. Some find it difficult to settle down to write anything, feeling constantly distracted and purposeless. Others find that the surrounding catastrophe catalyses their imagination, and they can barely write quickly enough to get all of their ideas down on the page. The last 18 months of pandemic have made this very clear — I am definitely of the first type, and have struggled to finish anything during this period even while others have produced entire novels during lockdown. Agatha Christie was definitely the kind of writer who thrives in difficult circumstances, Jamie says.
Jamie: Christie always maintained at least one book a year throughout her career. During the war she was much more prolific than in later years, averaging around two books a year, but she was also writing articles and contributing to various things, short stories and plays of course.
Caroline: In the early period of the war, Christie actually decided to write two books at once, to avoid the problem of one of them “going stale” on her as she got into the difficult bits of the plot.
Jamie: So N or M? and The Body in the Library. And that’s fascinating because they couldn’t be more different in the sense that The Body in the Library is very nostalgic, very fun. It’s essentially a parody of 1920s detective stories. And it’s set in the early 1930s. It’s Miss Marple at a seaside hotel, whereas N or M? is about fifth columnists. It’s directly about the second world war and it directly engages with it. This only caused one problem in that there is a guest at a hotel in N or M? who also suddenly turns up in one chapter of The Body in the Library.
Caroline: N or M?, which was first published in 1941, is a fascinating book because, as Jamie says, it’s really the only one that Christie wrote during the second world war that actually engages with what’s going on in real life. It features her married sleuths Tommy and Tuppence, first seen in The Secret Adversary in the early 1920s and then again in the Partners in Crime short stories later that decade. In this book, they are older and feeling disillusioned about their uselessness during the war — a feeling that perhaps Christie and some of her readers could relate to. They get drawn into an espionage plot and assist British intelligence in a hunt for traitors and spies. It’s a romp of a story that plays out against the backdrop of wartime restrictions, and as such is a rare example of those conditions being captured in Christie’s fiction at the time they were happening, rather than remembered later.
One curious wartime event that arose from the publication of this book was that MI5, the British intelligence agency, investigated Christie. One of the characters in N or M?, an ally of Tommy and Tuppence’s, is named Major Bletchley. Now, Bletchley Park is the name of a country house near Milton Keynes where top secret British codebreaking efforts were headquartered during the war. Since Agatha Christie happened to be a good friend of one of the top cryptographers there, Dilly Knox, the concern was that he had somehow leaked information to the author and she had then put it in a book. Knox was tasked with the tricky job of trying to find out why Christie had hit on the name Bletchley without actually telling her why it was significant. According to a history of the world war two codebreaking work, Bletchley Park: The Codebreakers of Station X by Michael Smith, In true British fashion, Knox went about his mission by inviting Christie to tea and just… asking her. Her response was that she had once been stuck on a train between Oxford and London at Bletchley station, and had named her somewhat dull character after that place as a form of revenge. Reassured, the spies left Christie alone after that and she presumably only found out the significance of the name many years later.
That wasn’t her only brush with the authorities during the war, though.
Jamie: Christie was approached by Graham Greene to write propaganda for the British government during the war, but she declined it and later on during the cold war, she was also approached to write propaganda for the Russians and responded, ‘why should I?, so she never wanted to get directly involved with that sort of thing despite being very much, almost a symbol of national unity, almost a symbol of Britishness during these times. So she was very involved in the war effort but she didn’t want to write propaganda in her fiction. She wanted her fiction to stand on its own terms in its own world. And that’s a important bond of trust between the reader as well who wants to know they’ve got that contract with the author. You don’t want to read crime fiction with a sense of duty.
Caroline: Looking back on the war after it was over, Christie attributed her incredible rate of literary output to the fact that she was lonely. With her husband away overseas and many of her friends either evacuated from London or absorbed in their own war work, she had little or no social life during her years at the Hampstead flat. She almost never went out in the evenings, and once she had returned from the hospital dispensary or whatever other chores she was doing during the daytime, she had nothing to do in the evenings except cook for herself and then write.
After the experiment of writing two books at once, Christie seems to have gone back to producing novels sequentially, but at a terrific rate. Other than in 1943 when she had just one novel come out, The Moving Finger, in every other year of the war she published two. And she wrote even more than she published. It was in the early 1940s that she produced the “final” Poirot and Marple novels, Curtain and Sleeping Murder. These were prompted by her fears that she would not survive the war — one was for her husband Max, and the other for her daughter Rosalind, so that they would have the proceeds of these books should she die with other work incomplete. Once finished, both were put away carefully by her agent and publishers to be brought out again in the event of her death. Of course, this didn’t occur for several decades, but Christie had no way of knowing that. She wrote those two books so that she could insure her loved ones against her untimely demise. I did a whole episode about this extraordinary measure, actually, so if you’re interested go and listen it — it’s called Swan Song.
And death did feel very near for her, as it did for everybody who lived through the war, especially in a big city like London that was bombed so much. Christie absolutely refused to go to a shelter during air raids, because she had an absolute horror of being trapped underground if the building collapsed. She preferred to stay in her own bed and take her chance, and wrote later that she got so used to the noise of the raids that she could sleep through them. Death and fear became the background to everyday life. It was “natural to expect that you yourself might be killed soon, that the people you loved best might be killed, that you would hear of deaths of friends,” she said.
Given how preoccupied Christie was with the war in her everyday life and how much she was writing during that time, it does seem a little odd, then, that N or M? is her only novel from this period that really mentions the war in any substantial way. There’s a good reason for that, Jamie says.
Jamie: Some of it was that she chose not to write too much about the war, but also there were publishers demands and her publishers were very clear that people did not want to read about the war that was going on around them. They wanted to escape.
If you look at letters between Christie and her agent and her publisher, you can see there’s a very clear, don’t mention the war aspect to it. But of course she wrote about the war. She just didn’t mention it directly because how could you not write about what’s going on around you?
Caroline: Another factor in this was that in one instance when Christie did write directly about the war, it was refused for publication. Beginning in November 1939, the Strand magazine was due to serialised 12 monthly stories from Christie, which would later be published together in one volume as The Labours of Hercules. Each one saw Hercule Poirot take on a different case that corresponded to the legendary labours of Hercules. Except the Strand declined to publish the twelfth one, “The Capture of Cerberus”.
Jamie: So she had a short story that was essentially about the assassination of Adolf Hitler turned down by the Strand magazine and she had to rewrite it at very short notice. Later on, she wrote a different version of the story for the book, but that story with a character called August Hertzlein, which was her version of Hitler remained unpublished for decades.
Caroline: The story directly references the Nazi party and concerns the assassination of a Hitler-like figure called August Hertzlein, but in 1940, that was deemed not suitable for publication. And so Christie put it away and wrote books during the war that in large part did not address what she and her contemporaries were experiencing.
That changed once the war was over, though, when she felt able to start incorporating in her fiction.
Jamie: So we get books like Taken at the Flood published in 1948, which directly deals with the blitz and bombing and with a family trying to reconstruct itself after its linchpin has died, but also after it has been shattered by war and people are starting to come out of the woodwork claiming identities that they may or may not be entitled to. And we see that reach its zenith in the wonderful A Murder is Announced in 1950, which is so post-war, it’s set in the world of rationing and illegal meat markets. And we have this very traditional village community still leaving their doors unlocked and having a neighbourhood watch type communication through the local newspaper. And we find out nobody knows their neighbours because people have just come to this village after the war and taken on a range of identities. So you can’t trust your neighbours anymore suddenly after the war.
Caroline: It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Christie was in anyway nostalgic for the years of the war.
Jamie: The thing about nostalgia for the war is it doesn’t tend to be people who experienced it, who have it. So with Christie, the war is a horrible thing and the nostalgia is for a period before it or an inter-war period. And what she does brilliantly is challenge our nostalgic visions of the Edwardian times, or the times before the first world war. But I’m not sure she engages in the way that some of the adaptations do, in the nostalgic provision of everyone pulling together in the second world war. There isn’t really blitz spirit in Christie.
Caroline: Christie herself was changed by the war, as was her family. Her daughter’s husband was killed in action, having only met his newborn son, Christie’s grandson, very briefly while on leave. The world was irrevocably changed too, and demanded a new kind of crime fiction.
Jamie: This is something we often miss about Christie is that she didn’t write the same thing throughout her career. So after the war, we see a real change in tone and approach in her books. In fact, as we’re getting towards the end of the war, we see that the books are getting less jaunty. They’re getting more introspective and sad. We’re getting novels like The Hollow and Five Little Pigs, which are both looking back to the past, but also dealing with some quite strong emotional issues around families and marriage and the emotional impact of a traumatic event.
Caroline: I think when we read Agatha Christie’s books from the late 1930s and early 1940s today, it’s easy to separate them from the context in which they were written. We’re used to her work being labelled as cosy or comforting, and to adaptations that situate it in a nostalgic vision of a Britain that never existed. But I hope now that you know a little more about what Christie was really doing and experiencing during world war two, you might think of her writing alone in her London flat in the long, empty, blacked out evenings, and marvel at how the novels we love were born from such a time of fear.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, with guests J.C. Bernthal and Martin Edwards. You can find out more about them and their work in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. The next episode in the Queens of Crime at War series will be out in a week’s time.