About a year ago, many months into being stuck inside because of the pandemic, I embarked on a reading project. I read a crime novel from every decade of the twentieth century — ten whodunnits that spanned the years between 1900 and 2000. It both helped me to get out of a reading rut where I couldn’t stick with any one book long enough to finish it, and it gave me a zoomed out perspective on this genre that I usually think about only in relation to the short period between the two world wars that we call “the golden age of detective fiction”.
I shared the results of my experiment with listeners in an episode called “A Century of Whodunnits“, and to my surprise it’s become one of the most popular instalments of the podcast I’ve ever made. Months later, people are still emailing me to tell me that they’ve tried their own version of this experiment, picking books from across the century to read and reflect on as they go deeper into their understanding of crime fiction. It really is an excellent way of seeing how the genre developed from decade to decade, and of getting closer to the experience of readers who encountered these books as new publications, free of our modern-day context.
As 2021 was drawing to a close, I found the reading slump creeping up on me again. Nothing I tried reading seemed to be what I wanted and the unfinished books started to pile up on my floor again. So, I turned to the same technique again and decided to complete a second century of whodunnits. I’m not sure if it’s the restriction of only being able to read one book from each decade, or if it’s because connections start emerging between authors I’ve never previously thought of as having anything in common, but I tore through my list and had a great time.
And that’s what I’m going to share with you today: my second century of whodunnits.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
For my last century of whodunnits, I read ten books that were publshed between 1900 and 2000, picking one for each decade. That enabled me to run into the golden age of detective fiction, as it were, and to read a couple of books that were held in high regard by the crime fiction fans who became the major authors in the genre during its heyday in the interwar period. And that was a good decision — it made me revisit Sherlock Holmes properly for the first time in ages, and also lead me to take a closer look at Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley, a book from 1913 that the leading lights in the Detection Club still held in such high regard by 1930 that its author was elected as a founder member on the strength of this one novel alone.
But this time, rather than repeat myself exactly, I decided to do things slightly differently. Over twenty years have elapsed between my previous cut off point in 2000 and today, and it’s not as if crime writing has been languishing unappreciated in that time. Listeners constantly tell me about their enthusiasms for new and recently published crime novels, and then express astonishment when they find out that I really almost never read anything published after 1955. So, for this century, I decided to start in the 1920s and finish in the 2020s. It’s about time I brought myself up to date.
To begin in the 1920s, then. The first world war is over and the reading public’s craving for detective fiction is growing ever stronger. There are lots of excellent titles from this decade that I might have picked to remind myself where it all began — so many of my favourite authors published their first books during these years. But ultimately, I decided to go with Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers, for the reason that although I’ve read it before, several times, my understanding of this book has been recently enhanced greatly by a podcast guest, and I was keen to reread it in that light.
Clouds of Witness was first published in 1926 and was Sayers’s second detective novel, her second outing for Lord Peter Wimsey. For those familiar with the character’s development over the course of the 11 full length books in which he appears, at the point of this story, he’s still very much in “silly ass” mode. The action mostly takes place in Yorkshire, at a remote country house rented by Wimsey’s brother the Duke of Denver for the shooting season, and concerns the shooting of one of the Duke’s guests — his sister’s fiance, Dennis Cathcart.
Until I made The Murder at Road Hill House episode of the podcast with Robin Stevens late last year, I thought that Clouds of Witness was a fairly standard, if enjoyable, country house murder mystery. But Robin really opened my eyes to the extent to which Sayers was drawing on the facts of that particular case, and also how heavily she was referencing the work of Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Rereading Clouds of Witness with all of this in mind was a highly rewarding experience, and it certainly made me more aware of the way that 19C crime and gothic fiction was still having an impact on murder mysteries well into the golden age.
For my next choice, I skipped forward five years for a book written by Sayer’s Detection Club co-founder, Anthony Berkeley. Except he didn’t write it under his own name: Malice Aforethought came out under the pseudonym of Francis Iles, which is a name he found in his own family tree — it belonged to a notable smuggler ancestor of his mother’s.
The remarkable thing about this book is how well it sits alongside the whodunnits that were all the rage in the early 1930s, even though Berkeley gives away the murderer’s identity in the opening line. It’s part of a sub tradition within detective fiction that I will at some point get round to making a full episode about: this is a “howdunnit” or “inverted” detective story. It begins: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Doctor Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” What follows is a narrative that tracks this protagonist closely, following him as he plots the murder of his wife and neighbours. All the tension arises from the reader’s desire to know how he’s going to do the deed and whether his plan is going to work — is he going to get away with it?
There are two levels to reading Malice Aforethought, I realised on this time through it. There is that purely mechanical pleasure that comes from known who and how, but what makes the book so good and extremely disturbing is that Berkeley tells you from the start that Dr Bickleigh is a selfish horrible murderer and then proceeds to make you root for him. Every time, I read the trial scene at the end with breathless speed, as if he’s a hero I want to see delivered from an unjust sentence rather than a killer who absolutely deserves everything that he gets. Berkeley created the Francis Iles pseudonym in order to experiment with a more psychological strain of crime writing than was generally acceptable in the 1930s, and he succeeded first time. The really uncomfortable thing is that by the end, the reader realises that it is their own psychology that has been delicately played by the author, rather than that of the characters in the book.
When I was making the “Queens of Crime at War” series last year, all about what the Queens of Crime did and wrote during World War Two, I read a lot of mysteries from the 1940s. And while I think I will eventually go back to wartime whodunnits, especially those of E.C.R. Lorac, when it came to my choice for this project, I wanted a book from this decade that isn’t centred around the blitz or the blackout. I also wanted something new to me, since my first two choices were things I’d read before.
This lead me to Laurels Are Poison by Gladys Mitchell, first published in 1942. I was drawn to this book in part because Mitchell herself named it as her favourite of all her dozens of books she had written, saying that it “recalls the college years which I enjoyed so much”. I was also curious that she had used a women’s teacher training college as her setting, since there are two other novels with a broadly similar setup that I like very much — Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers and Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey. Mitchell was a teacher for her entire career, so such an establishment and the people it contained were very familiar to her. Then finally my curiosity was aroused by the fact that several recurring characters I’m familiar with from later Mitchell books are introduced in Laurels Are Poison — her assistant Laura Menzies and family connection Deborah Cloud.
Mitchell’s detective Mrs Bradley is, I think I can confidently say, a divisive figure. Some readers revel in her strangeness, her cackling, her seemingly supernatural powers of perception, and her brazen unlikeability. Others find her repellant and will, I’ve found, often loudly protest their inability to read any of the 66 books that feature her. I’m not a diehard Mrs Bradley fan, but I do like her and always find Mitchell’s work surprising. And I enjoyed Laurels Are Poison greatly, and would recommend it to any Mrs Bradley sceptics. The college setting, the practical jokes, the frisson of dangers as an intruder seems to be staying concealed on the grounds, all make for a good mystery. Mrs Bradley is also on top form, repelling multiple attempts to put her out of action and generally running the show. It’s great fun.
Speaking of that Queens of Crime at War series, something else I gained from the frankly quite stressful experience of putting that all together, was a great sadness at how early Josephine Tey’s life was cut off. She died in 1952 at the age of just 55, her liver cancer having been discovered too late for effective treatment. Her last few years, between the end of the war and her death, was an incredibly fruitful one in terms of her detective fiction, and it’s hard not to think what might have been if she’d lived as long as Mitchell or Christie. One of the last novels to be published during her lifetime was The Daughter of Time, which came out in 1951, and right from the start has been her most popular work.
In it, she takes the idea of the “armchair detective” to an extreme, with her sleuth Alan Grant confined to bed convalescing from an operation. His friend gives him some material about the deaths of the princes in the tower in the 15th century almost as a joke, saying he should try and solve this famously unsolvable mystery to keep himself from getting bored. And so he does. What Tey crafted is an ingenious combination of a bibliographic mystery and historical fiction, and even though this wasn’t my first time reading it, I got completely sucked in. I still remember the thrill the first time I read this as a teenager and I believed implicitly in her exoneration of Richard III; I’m no historian but I am a bit wiser about the facts now, but I still find the book very persuasive. Even though we’re now in the 1950s and the golden age is long behind us, I think this has to be considered one of the crowning achievements of that style of writing.
The tricky job of bringing the golden age mode of writing into the writer’s present day is something that novelists grappled with from this point onwards. There’s a balance to be struck, I think, between writing historical fiction set in the period of Christie’s most famous novels, and crafting a new kind of story that pays due homage to those familiar tropes. And from here on in with this project, I felt like I was assessing the books I read in relation to how well they stood up to this challenge — to honour rather than abandon the legacy of the golden age without resorting to pastiche.
I first encountered Julian Symons as a writer of non fiction — his book Bloody Murder is an excellent critical study of crime writing and he was a prolific reviewer of whodunnits as well as a president of the Detection Club. But as well as being a critic he wrote his own novels too, and several have recently been reissued by the British Library Crime Classics imprint. I gravitated towards The Belting Inheritance from 1964 mostly because I was working on The Tichborne Claimant episode when I reached this point in my century, and I was obsessed with novels that dealt with inheritance and assumed identity.
These are very much the twin themes of The Belting Inheritance, which takes the golden age, gothic-tinged country house murder mystery and updates it for a post second world war reality. It’s a slightly darker and less lighthearted book than those from the 1930s upon which it draws, but I think it’s a very creditable effort to bring that era up to date in a subtle and clever way.
After the break: the last gasp of the queens of crime.
And so we plunge onwards into the 1970s. For one of these post-golden age books, I wanted to acknowledge the fact that several of the queens of crime lived very long lives, and were still publshing books featuring their ageless golden age sleuths well into the 1970s and 1980s. I landed on Ngaio Marsh, in part because I just like her fiction, and also because I think she too tried to move with the times a bit while also giving her readers the comforting familiarity of Roderick Alleyn’s early adventures.
Tied Up in Tinsel, which was first published in 1972, gets a lot of attention as Marsh’s only festive mystery. It sees Alleyn’s artist wife Agatha Troy stationed at a country house as Christmas draws near, painting an eccentric rich man’s portrait. Alleyn himself is away in Australia at the start of the book and joins once the action is begun.
I don’t love this book, I have to admit. I think Marsh is trying too hard both to have her younger characters seem “modern” while also piling up the golden age tropes to reassure readers that she hasn’t lost touch with what makes her books good. The aspect that tipped it over the edge for me was that all the servants in the house are paroled murderers from a prison based on a nearby loney moor — it just seems too contrived, even for a highly formulaic murder mystery. I’d say this is a book worth reading for the festive feeling and very little else.
After leaving Ngaio Marsh in the rear view mirror, I finally cut all first hand connection with the golden age of detective fiction, and for the 1980s selected a book from one of the new generation of crime writers who shepherded the genre into the last quarter of the twentieth century. My choice was A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine, a pen name used by Ruth Rendell. Like Anthony Berkeley before, she went hunting in her own family tree for the pseudonym: Barbara was her own middle name and Vine was her great grandmother’s maiden name. Rendell used the Barbara Vine books to break away from the Inspector Wexford procedurals that had made her name in the 1960s and 1970s, and to explore more psychological writing with a social justice element.
A Fatal Inversion was her second Vine novel, and it brings together several of these elements. It’s a cold case mystery, which begins when the owner of a country house discovers the skeletons of a dead woman and a baby buried in the grounds. The process of discovering who was buried there and how immerses the reader in the events of ten years before, in 1976, when Britain was experiencing an unprecendented heatwave and a group of young people were staying at the country house and treating it in a highly cavalier fashion.
There are Victorian elements to the story, but there’s something very modern in how Rendell handles the transition to and from the narratives in the 1970s and the 1980s — the flashbacks aren’t labelled, and you have to keep paying attention to work out where you are in the story. It’s highly suspenseful and a bit disturbing, and as someone who doesn’t read a lot of more recent crime fiction, I was thoroughly impressed.
I felt like I couldn’t get this far into my highly subjective survely of twentieth century crime fiction without acknowledging the success of the so called “Scandi Noir” movement. And who better to include for this than Kurt Wallander, the most famous brooding Scandinavian detective of them all? I’d seen some of the TV adaptations, both British and Swedish, but I’d never read a Henning Mankell novel. So for the 1990s, I picked up Faceless Killers, the first novel in the Wallender series, which appeared in Swedish in 1991 and English in 1997.
Right from the start of this book, I felt very aware that I wasn’t reading my usual type of crime novel. The crime that sets off this investigation sees an elderly man in a remote farmhouse bludgeoned to death and his wife left to die with a noose around her neck. Her final word was “foreigner”, a fact which is leaked to the press and provokes a frenzy of anti immigration sentiment. Meanwhile, Wallander the detective is getting divorced, drinking too much, and falling in love with a married woman. Agatha Christie, it is not.
But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book. The gloomy, dark landscape is if anything more evocative in the novel than it is in the TV adaptation, and although there is more violence described than in your average golden age novel, the pages aren’t dripping in gore as they are in some modern thrillers (I once read three chapters of a Dean Koontz book, so I would know). I did at times feel like I was reading a parody of a Scandi crime novel, even though this is the real thing, but I think that’s just testament to how well known and how often imitated Mankell’s style and subject matter has been in the twenty years since Faceless Killers was published.
For my 2000s choice, I was back on more familiar territory with Death in Holy Orders by PD James. This novel from 2001 comes fairly let in her run of Adam Dalgliesh novels — he first appeared in 1962’s Cover Her Face and by the time of the events in this book is a Commander of the Metropolitan Police. This book evokes his childhood, though, some of which he spent unsupervised at an anglo-catholic theological college on the windswept coast of East Anglia. After a student is found dead on the beach there, he is called in in a discreet private capacity to work out if there is a murderer at large.
I absolutely loved this book — I think was more engrossed in this one than any other title I read for this episode. The remote college provides a handy closed circle of suspects made up of staff, students, priests and visitors, and the politicking of the Anglo-Catholic clergy alongside the hidden lives of the other people present all makes for a nicely confusing cocktail of motives. There is something slightly Dickensian about the way the whole thing is structured, and I think Ronald Knox might have slightly raised his eyebrows at some of the coincidences that assist Dalgliesh in arriving at the truth. But overall, an excellent read that does a good job of marrying some traditional whodunnit elements with the modern police procedural.
As you might imagine, because of what I do I get recommended books a lot. And most of the time that’s an absolute joy and one of the best parts of making this podcast. But occasionally, people mention a particular title so often and emphasise how much I will definitely love it, that something within me rebels, and I just don’t read it because I don’t want to be confronted by how very predictable I am.
This very thing happened with the 2011 novel Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It ticks off so many of my interests: it’s centred around the mythology of the river Thames (for those who don’t know, I wrote a whole book about the Thames a few years go), it’s a murder mystery, it has magical elements, it’s funny… And yet I just didn’t read it. I met people at my book events who enthused about it, and I nodded politely. Stupid and stubborn, I know, but I just kept avoiding it.
Until now. I wanted a book for this reading project from the recent past that embodied the cross genre breadth of crime fiction, and this one fell into my hand while I was browsing in the library. So I read it and… everyone who ever suggested it to me was right. I did love it, and I’ve since read four of its sequels. Part of my hesitation came from the fact that I think it’s very difficult to pull off mixing styles and genres like this — rather than writing one good novel, you end up writing two bad ones, and so on. Not in this case, though. I enjoyed the adventures of Peter Grant, apprentice wizard and Metropolitan Police detective very much, and will be sticking with the series.
For my final choice, I didn’t have a vast selection to pick from, since the 2020s have just begun. There is one crime novel, though, that has already made a splash and set some records, and it also just so happened to be another one that I had been resisting reading for no good reason. That book is… The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. An instant bestseller when it came out in September 2020, this book has now sold over a million copies and spent the best part of a year at the top of the charts. Its runaway success has also started a mainstream conversation about the influence of golden age detective fiction, with lots of reviewers and commentators comparing Osman’s gentle thriller about a group of old people at an upscale retirement community solving a murder to Agatha Christie and other writers of that earlier era.
I must say, I don’t really see the similarity myself, and I think it’s worth noting that I don’t think the author himself has ever made this comparison. The plot of The Thursday Murder Club is enjoyable but convoluted, and again coincidence plays a fairly large role in it. I listened to this book as an audiobook, and there was an interview with Osman at the end in which he said that he’d cut quite a few threads from the book after his first draft, which given how many still remain means he must have a brain that can think in five dimensions or something.
The real achievement of this book is in the characters, which is something that lots of golden age authors either neglected or ignored, peopling their books instead with two dimensional stereotypes and focusing purely on the puzzle. By contrast, the members of The Thursday Murder Club are fully realised, fascinating people, and I must admit that I immediately listened to the sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, just so I could spend some more time with Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim. That book, by the way, is barely a mystery at all — it’s a spy thriller, if it’s anything — but the characters continue to deepen and develop in a way that I found very satisfying. It’s certainly not a golden age puzzle mystery, but that doesn’t really matter — a lot of people, me included, found this book very fun, and that’s a great achievement in itself.
This is the part where I should make some profound statement about what I learned from my 11 book trip through the last hundred years of crime writing. The golden age came and went quickly, relatively speaking, but its effects are still being felt now. Every successful mystery writer will be likened to Agatha Christie for at least another century to come, no matter how justified the comparison is. As well as observing the incredibly long shadow that that short period still casts, I did come to realise something about the narrowness of my own reading habits, and how I almost always enjoy myself when I have a structure that pushes me out beyond what I usually read, no matter how much I might resist in the moment. Trying something new is never a waste of time.
I hope after listening to my second century of whodunnits that you might feel inspired to construct your own, and see what unexpected places it takes you too.
This episode was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/asecondcenturyofwhodunnits. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.