Author: caroline

Is Agatha Christie A Good Writer? Transcript

Caroline: Since you’re listening to this podcast, I feel fairly confident in saying that you think Agatha Christie wrote some good books. There’s a high probability that you decided to listen to me talking about detective fiction because you have, at some point, enjoyed a novel by the so called Queen of Crime.

But just because we enjoy her fiction doesn’t necessarily mean that Agatha Christie deserves to be crowned queen of the literary pantheon. In fact, it’s become a commonplace to say that although Christie’s plots are second to none, her prose and dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Leaden, humdrum, repetitive, samey — these are all words I’ve heard used to describe it.

I don’t want to just acquiesce to the prevailing view on this, though. Which is why, today, I’m going to investigate whether Agatha Christie is really a good writer.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, as you might imagine, but there are two pieces of writing specifically that prompted me to go deeper into the issue. The first is an article by John Lanchester titled “The Case of Agatha Christie”, published in the London Review of Books in December 2018.

It’s a long essay — nearly 6,000 words long — but the main thing you need to know about it is that from the start, Lanchester sets out his baseline assumption that Agatha Christie was not a good writer, and that he’s not the only person who thinks this.

“It’s not as if anyone, even her hardest-core fans, ever makes any claims for Christie as a writer per se,” he says near the beginning of the article. He continues: “Her prose is flat and functional, her characters on a spectrum between types, stereotypes and caricatures; so, you might well ask, what’s to like?” It’s worth reading this in full, of course, and I’ll link to it in the episode description, but suffice to say here that he goes on to find plenty of things to like about Agatha Christie’s work, but her actual writing isn’t among them. Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers are much better writers in a purely literary sense, he feels, even if they lack the certain je ne sais quoi that drives Christie’s popularity.

That’s the first data point. The second is a new introduction to a book of essays about Agatha Christie titled Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, which was first published in 1977 and edited by the writer HRF Keating. For the 2020 edition, Sophie Hannah wrote a foreword in which she explores why Christie is so easily and comprehensively written off as a writer in the purest sense of the word, when she (Sophie) finds the books to be full of depth and nuance and fascinating character work. It isn’t written as a rebuttal to John Lanchester, but it works very well in dialogue with his essay, since both critics address similar points from their opposite positions.

I found myself fascinated by Sophie’s insistence on claiming Agatha Christie as a literary genius. Sophie writes the official Poirot continuation novels, so she is both in a very good position to know Christie’s work well, and to be compared to it by readers of her own books that are set in the same universe and around one of Christie’s characters. It’s a brave writer who follows in the footsteps of a genius.

Sophie: Everyone in the world probably who’s heard of me — that’d be one of the first things they’d think — she’s a massive Agatha Christie fan.

Caroline: This is… Sophie Hannah, who was kind enough to come on the podcast and explain why she thinks Agatha Christie is too often unfairly written off as a literary writer.

Sophie: In the sort of world at large and in the literary world at large, there’s just a lot of people who sort of say, oh yes, well, she’s obviously brilliant at plotting and she’s obviously brilliant at storytelling, but there’s often a, but, and what interests me most is when that, but comes from people who actually love the books.

Caroline: This does come with a caveat, by the way — not everybody thinks like this.

Sophie: I have met other fans who are as passionate about Christie as I am, and they don’t do that. So they don’t praise Christie and then add a caveat. People like Dr. Mark Aldridge who wrote the brilliant book about Agatha Christie’s screen adaptations and he’s got a new book out about Poirot. He will happily admit that Agatha Christie’s a genius without a caveat. So, you know, there’s lots of, lots of superfans who do.

Caroline: Sophie’s ideas about this crystallised, she says, when she was on a panel at a literary event.

Sophie: So I’ve done lots of panels with other writers who have been chosen because they love Agatha Christie, so that they’re known to be fans, but even they, when asked questions, say everyone agrees don’t they that Christie’s a brilliant plotter, but she’s not very good. You know, her characters are a bit wooden or her prose style is a bit simple. I’ve heard a lot of self-declared Agatha Christie fans agree with those criticisms. And in particular there was one panel where everybody seemed to be saying, oh yes, well, of course she’s not got a great literary style, she’s not a great prose stylist. She’s not a great literary genius, but her plots and her stories are more ingenious than anyone else’s. And I just think that’s really interesting because, well, firstly, I don’t think it’s true. I think Agatha does characterization brilliantly. She does it in her own way.

It’s usually the case that in an Agatha Christie novel, what takes up most of the page space looks like plot. So if you just sort of flick through, you might see a conversation about Poirot or Miss Marple saying, so where were you on the night of whatever. And it looks like lots of plot is happening, but that doesn’t mean that characterization is not well handled in her books.

A good analogy, I think is the paintings of LS Lowry, you know, those sorts of matchstick men. So if someone were to criticize Lowry for not drawing or for not painting people properly, in my opinion, that would be silly. You don’t look at Lowry paintings and go, oh, he can’t depict people just because he doesn’t depict them in the way that Gainsborough depicted them.

So I think personally, that Agatha Christie conveys character and all kinds of layers of knowledge and wisdom about human nature extremely well. She just does it in a particular Christie ish way.

Caroline: What if the supposed failings of Christie’s writing, such as flat characters and less than sparkling dialogue, were actually all part of how she made her much lauded plots so good?

Sophie: People talk about her characters sometimes being two dimensional or some people say, oh yeah, the characters are very two dimensional, but that is actually a necessity of the genre because we see the characters initially as they present to our protagonist or our detective. And of course they’re presenting in a surface way because one of them is going to turn out to be hiding the secret that they’re the murderer. Others of them are going to turn out to be hiding the secret that they’re a jewel thief.

For example, there’s lots of jewel thieves running around and the ones who aren’t hiding anything sort of criminal might be hiding something else, something emotional. And so for a murder mystery to work in the best way that it possibly can, the characters need to be presenting at first their surface level.

And then we get to know about the third diamond and the deeper stuff about the characters as the book goes on. So I think, you know, when people say, oh, she’s not a great prose stylist or her characterization really is very basic, I just think they’re wrong.

Caroline: You can tell Sophie’s got the mind of a detective as well as that of a writer, though, because her next move was to wonder why people think this about Christie.

Sophie: It started to really puzzle me why this was just something that was said all over the place. And I knew it wasn’t true. I mean, in terms of actual prose style, it’s brilliantly simple and economical. It’s hugely elegant. It’s witty. It’s crisp. I do think she’s a great prose stylist. I think she is up there with the literary greats in every way, on every level.

She’s up there with Dickens and Virginia Woolf and all those people. And she has her own inimitable style just as they all do. And it’s a different style for each of them. So the mystery and the puzzle for me. Why does so many other people, even people who enjoy her novels not see that this is obviously the case.

And then the answer to that question just struck me while I was sitting doing this panel at this festival. And I thought, oh yeah, I know what it is. They think it, because they know that lots of other people think it. And so they assume it’s probably true. No, I don’t, I can’t remember whether it’s Poirot or Miss Marple that talks about, you know, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, but this seems like a perfect example of that, because once you really think about it, you think, of course, most people don’t care enough about really enjoyable crime novels.

I mean, they might read them and love them, but they don’t care enough about defending their honour or reputation to be bothered, to query this massively. Sort of you know, this, this massive sort of body of received lack of wisdom, you know, so if you’ve heard hundreds of people and read things and seeing things, and you just pick up ideas from the ether, don’t, you know, the society you live in and the ideas out there in the ether about Agatha Christie for a lot of people is she’s hugely talented at plotting. But she’s not really a great writer. And because the idea is out there in the ether, people pick it up.

Caroline: One of the biggest tells that there’s more to Christie than just plot, Sophie points out, is that we don’t just read her mysteries to find out what happened. As someone is pretty much always rereading at least one of her books, I found this quite persuasive.

Sophie: But there’s part of me that thinks it would be nice if people could just actually. Look at the received wisdom received lack of wisdom, then actually read few Christie novels and think is this true?

And can I find any evidence in this Christie novel I’m reading, but it might not be true because the minute you read it from that. You find all the evidence that she’s a brilliant writer and the most powerful piece of evidence of all, is that her novels, even when you know exactly who did it and why, and you’ve read every clue 50 times before her novels are still amazingly pleasurable and enlightening and entertaining to read.

And she’s one of the few crime writers who I, you know, I I’m just about to reread Cards on the Table. I know the entire plot, like the back of my hand, but I’m still going to thoroughly enjoy that experience because there’s so much richness on every page and most crime level, even most brilliant crime novels that I love.

I wouldn’t read them again because the main thing about them is finding out the solution to the mystery. So I mean that from my own sort of personal experience, and that is the overwhelming bit of evidence that she is great.

After the break: maybe we’re all just jealous?

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Caroline: You might be wondering why this matters at all. It’s not as if Agatha Christie is struggling to reach readers. She’s still selling millions of copies of her books and her stories are perpetually being readapted for the screen. But I think there is some point to clarifying whether we think all of this is being done in service of something with true literary merit, or if it’s all just an exercise in providing entertainment for the lowest common denominator. Here’s Sophie again.

Sophie: I don’t think it matters for her because she is the best crime writer who’s ever lived. She sells billions of books. So books are still selling amazingly well, TV and fill out film adaptations of her work is still happening. Like she’s doing absolutely brilliantly. I think it matters. You know, put it this way.

I would not want to be someone who thought or believed anything just because everyone else believed it. Or the majority of people believe it. So I. It may be, doesn’t matter. Like if you’re someone who’s happy to just read Christie novels and think, oh, that was a bit of enjoyable, you know, trashy crime fiction.

That isn’t proper lecture. If literature don’t mind thinking about, and you can still get enjoyment from it, then you can think whatever you want.

Caroline: This idea that there’s “proper” literature and then the rest is quite corrosive and frankly, snobby, and a big reason why these preconceptions about Agatha Christie — one of the best known genre writers in the world — are worth challenging. It’s about establishing the value of detective fiction in general, as well as her books in particular.

Sophie: So, you know, If people read a lot of detective fiction and they see that they’re in a society that reads a lot of detective fiction and they hear most people going, oh yeah, it’s just a bit of airport, trashy reading. I’ll read a proper book next, meaning, you know, a Booker prize winner. If they see that that’s how everyone’s carrying on, then it’s just much easier to fall into that same pattern.

And they probably fear that, that if they said, hold on a minute, what if there’s like a, for Christie novel is actually better than. Well, the Christie book that you’re, that you’re reading on a literary level they would fear that if they said that other people would think they were crazy or stupid, in fact, some of the most intelligent, groundbreaking forward thinking people in the history of the world.

Have been thought crazy or stupid when they put forward their idea, which is in fact more intelligent than the idea that disagreeing with that. So I think a lot of it is that it’s not just Kristi it’s everything. People think what they’re told to think, what they, the other people think about all kinds of literary genres and, you know, works of art.

All the people who, I mean, I can think of one person in particular who I know quite. She absolutely adores crime fiction. It’s almost all she reads. She’s a proper crime fiction addict. Like me, I’m the same, but I am proud of it. And I think crime fiction is as good as any other kind. And I don’t, there isn’t even a single part of my brain that thinks I probably should read some more literary novels.

To me. A novel is a novel. I like the ones with mysteries and those are the ones I read. But this, this person I know, feels terribly guilty. She regards it almost like a vice, like as if she’s got a sort of cocaine habit or something, I’ve read another full thrillers. I really must read a proper book sooner.

She actually says she calls them proper books as opposed to crime novels. So like, that is just a perfect example. Yeah, and she’s an intelligent woman, but she just assumes that if so many people have these kind of hierarchies and rankings and attitudes, then there must be something in it.

Caroline: One facet of this that we haven’t mentioned yet but shouldn’t forget about is just old fashioned jealousy, especially from the kind of literary tastemakers that might look down on genre writing.

Sophie: I also think there’s probably an element, probably an element where people just don’t want to admit that as well as being the best ever at plotting that she might also have been the best ever everything, because then that might upset them in some way.

Like, it’s almost like, I mean, I guess I’m talking mainly about crime writers. Now, you know, if you would, if you were to say she’s the best, she’s the best at plotting. She’s the best at understanding human nature. She’s just the biggest genius the crime writing world’s ever had. I think a lot of crime writers would not want to concede that much because they will, there’s a certain desire to.

And I’m not saying in any, anyone in particular, but in, in the human brain, that’s maybe a bit of a kind of sharpen Freud, a desire to take things away from someone who’s seen to have too much. So she sold billions of copies. She’s made loads of money. She’s still easier to get onto the screen big or small than any other crime writer, as you know, she’s still so popular.

I think frankly, a lot of people, there’s a kind of schadenfreude, a jealousy thing that might prevent a lot of people from going and as well as ah, she is the best. Ah, I mean the other hilarious thing I think is if you’ve been to Greenway her holiday home in Devon, she’s also got the best holiday home out of any writer.

Like I, for me. I’m very happy to just like acknowledge all of this. I’m like, she’s the best plotter. She’s the best writer. She’s the best genius. She’s the best of everything, you know, she’s the most successful and she’s got the best holiday home. Like I’m happy for her to just be the best in every way, but I don’t think a lot of people are.

Caroline: Now, it’s all very well for someone like me to think that Agatha Christie is a truly great writer, because I’m not trying to write new books using her existing characters like Sophie is. I asked whether her belief in Christie’s genius had changed at all since she began her own work on the Poirot continuation novels.

Sophie: Not at all, because one of the things I did, one of the decisions I made very early on when I knew I was going to be writing the continuation novel was I decided to introduce a new character and narrator and sidekick for Poirot. So my character Inspector Edward Catchpool, who is the narrator of all four of my Poirot novels so far.

He is a new character that I’ve invented and for the purposes of my Poirot novels, he is Poirot’s sidekick. So what I try to do is write the best possible account of solving a mystery with Poirot that Catchpool could write and Catchpool is a very intelligent, sensitive police officer. But, I mean, he’s not a crime writer.

So when I’m thinking, how can Catchpool write a brilliant account of how we solve this case with Poirot, then I’m not at the same time thinking it’s a bit of a shame that Catchpool’s not as good a writer as Agatha Christie, and because the plot and the story is so important. I just trust that if I’ve thought of a good enough story and good enough characters and Catchpool’s a good writer. Then I think the book’s going to be absolutely fine. And I mean, I’m really, I have my favorites among my Poirot novels, but in particular, the latest one, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, I mean, of course it’s not Murder On The Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but I really love it. I really think that Catchpool did an amazing job of writing a gripping, entertaining mystery story.

Waterworks

I think we all experience that impulse to downplay what we really, really like. Earnest enthusiasm isn’t very cool. We instinctively want to go along with the idea that if something is very popular, it probably can’t also be of great lasting value. But since talking to Sophie every time I have these feelings I’ve been trying to examine why they’re there, and if they match up with what I actually think about my favourite books, especially the ones that I reread all the time.

Waterworks ends

Is Agatha Christie a great writer? Well, if she isn’t, then I don’t know who is.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Sophie Hannah — you can find all four of her Poirot continuation novels at all good booksellers and via the links at sophiehannah.com. Links to all the books and sources mentioned are in the description text for this episode and at shedunnitshow.com/isagathachristiegood. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence and independence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

Is Agatha Christie A Good Writer?

Her plots are second to none. But is the Queen of Crime a true literary great?

Thanks to my guest, Sophie Hannah. Her latest Poirot continuation novel is The Killings at Kingfisher Hill and is available from all good booksellers. Find out more about all of her books at sophiehannah.com and follow her on Twitter as @sophiehannahCB1.

There are no spoilers in this episode.

My new map and guide, Agatha Christie’s England, is available for pre order now in physical form at shedunnitshow.com/map or as an audiobook at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap.

Books mentioned and further information:

“The Case of Agatha Christie” by John Lanchester from the London Review of Books, December 2018
Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime edited by H.R.F. Keating with a new introduction by Sophie Hannah
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge
— There are two episodes of Shedunnit featuring Mark Aldridge: The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot and Swan Song
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Best Fiends. You can download Best Fiends free on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/isagathachristiegood

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

The Murder At Road Hill House Transcript

Caroline: If there is, then you might have come down with a case of detective fever. According to Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, these were the symptoms — along with a sudden passion for seeking out knowledge and gathering clues.

This story was a popular early appearance of detection as we know it today in fiction. It strongly influenced what came next in the genre and was greatly admired by some of the early 20th century’s biggest whodunnit enthusiasts. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “probably the very finest detective story ever written” and TS Eliot declared it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”.

But the ideas and tropes we find in The Moonstone didn’t appear out of thin air. Collins was drawing both on the real life development of detection in Britain, and on one particular murder case that had gripped the nation just a few years before. A case that so perfectly contains many of the main features of a golden age detective story that it’s difficult to believe that it even happened outside of a book.

Today, we’re exploring what happened at Road Hill House on 30th June 1860.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into the episode proper, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has pre ordered a copy of my new map and guide, Agatha Christie’s England. If you were among the first 100 people to order, you will now have received an email from the publisher confirming that you will get a free download of the audio version. The details of how to claim it will be in your package with your purchase. If you missed out, don’t worry — the audio version is now available to purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap.

It feels a bit strange to give a spoiler warning for something that happened in real life, but the Road Hill House case feels so heavily fictional to me that I’m going to do it anyway. We’re going to talk in full in this episode about whodunnit and why — if you’d rather read a book about the case without knowing its conclusion, I suggest you finish doing that first and then come back and listen to this. And as ever on this show, there will be some discussion of the books listed in the description for this episode but no major spoilers given without warning.

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On the morning of 30th June 1860, a small boy was found to be missing from his bed in Road Hill House in Wiltshire. Three year old Francis Saville Kent should have been waking up in his nurse’s room just as on any other day, but he wasn’t there. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, assumed that his mother must have taken him in to be with her; Mrs Kent assumed that the nurse must have already got him up. It was a while before the two women compared notes and realised that nobody had seen the child at all since putting him to bed at 8pm the night before.

A frantic search began, with the rest of the Kent family and their servants turning the place upside down looking for the little boy. Workers from the nearby village of Road hunted outside too, and eventually the body was found in the outdoor privy. Francis Saville Kent had been attacked with a sharp blade, his throat slashed and torso cut, and then shoved down under the seat of the outdoor toilet. A fragment of newspaper (from the Morning Star, which nobody in the house read), a blanket, and a piece of cloth worn inside a corset were found in the privy too.

It’s a tragic sequence of events; I think we can all imagine what it would have been like to wake up in the belief that just another day was beginning and then experience that slow slide into horrible chaos as the world tilted on its axis. And although the brutal killing of a child is not exactly an everyday thing, it isn’t actually the death of Francis Saville Kent that makes this case so remarkable. It’s everything that happened afterwards.

In the initial aftermath of the body’s discovery, chaos reigned. Saville’s father had ridden into a nearby town when he was found missing to tell the story to the local superintendant of police, while Mrs Kent (his second wife, and his children’s former nurse) had been running about in what she later termed “a state of bewilderment” trying to direct the servants’ search effort at home. It was William Nutt, the village shoemaker, and Thomas Benger, a farmer, who had found Saville in the privy. They carried his little body inside and laid it on a table in the kitchen, where the nursemaid and some rest of the family rushed to see.

Saville was the middle of the three younger children of Samuel Kent’s second marriage; also in residence at Road Hill House were his four older half siblings, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Constance and William. With Samuel Kent out of the house raising help, it was left to the teenage William as the only remaining “man of the house” to go for the doctor who returned with him to examine the body. The household kept the awful news from Mrs Kent until her husband returned, so he was the one to tell her what had happened to her missing son. The first thing she said was “Someone in the house has done it.”

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This is the first moment in which this real life murder case begins to feel like a fictional whodunnit. Mrs Kent had jumped to the same conclusion that the detectives would later confirm: that this was a murder that had its origins inside the house, not out. The convenient solution of a passing maniac was not going to be available here. The Kents would have to confront the much more uncomfortable notion that their three year old son had been killed not only by someone that he knew, but that this person was still within the household. But how could they be so sure that the pool of suspects was limited like this?

Robin: Because it’s been raining, they know that there are no footsteps around outside. There is one of the windows on ground floor open, but only a very little bit open, not open enough to seem very suspicious and all the other windows and doors were locked until they were opened by people rushing out and looking for this kid.

Caroline: This is Robin Stevens, and she’s the expert that I’ve enlisted to help me get to the heart of this case. She has a longstanding obsession with what really happened to at Road Hill House, wrote an entire thesis about its impact on golden age detective fiction while at university, and is now a successful crime writer in her own right. This is such a writerly mystery — from the tropes that were borrowed by the likes of Collins to a strange letter that added to the intrigue in the 1930s. Who better to guide us through it that a writer of whodunnits?

Right from the outset, we start seeing the fictional parallels everywhere with this case.

Robin: The dog didn’t bark in the nighttime, which is one of my favorite tiny facts. That is used in a Sherlock Holmes story. And that’s the Mark Haddon story. Now the idea of the dog that does, or doesn’t bark in the night is so ingrained in crime fiction. And this is basically where it comes from if the dog didn’t bark. So we know that nobody came in from the outside.

Caroline: Samuel Kent, father of the victim and six other children still living in 1860, was a factory inspector and seemingly very concerned about household security. His nightly routine before retiring to bed was to check that the house and grounds were secure from intrusion and to let the family dog loose in the garden. His servants closed windows and doors as they finished their day’s work and then opened them again when they rose to start the morning’s chores.

On the day that Saville was found to be missing, his father’s regular habits and the fact that nobody had been woken by the dog made it easy to narrow the field of suspects to those already within the house when it was locked up. A couple of witnesses who had been poaching in Samuel Kent’s river overnight reported hearing a few quiet yelps from the dog, but thought nothing of it because this dog was known to bark at the slightest thing. It certainly wasn’t the volume or duration of noise that would be expected if the dog had come across an intruder.

One ground floor window of the house was slightly open, but the absence of footprints outside or any sign that the gate had been breached made it far more likely that somebody had used this window to get out, rather than in. As the local police began questioning the members of the household in an attempt to work out how a three year old had been carried out of his bed and killed in the privy overnight without anyone hearing, they could already be fairly certain that they were dealing with a closed circle of suspects.

Their suspicion quickly fell on the children’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough. Her statements about when she had noticed that a blanket was missing from Saville’s bed were inconsistent, and it had also been at least two hours between her waking and noticing that he was gone, and giving the alarm. She said that she had been confused, and had thought that Mrs Kent — who was eight months pregnant — must have heard him fussing and taken him into bed with her in the early morning, and that she was reluctant to disturb her mistress before she woke up. The police, of course, were choosing to put a more sinister interpretation on these facts.

Over the next few days, the local police continued to investigate, paying particular attention to the fact that even though the murder would have produced a lot of blood, no bloody clothing had been found anywhere in the house. One of Constance Kent’s nightdresses was missing, though, according to her laundry list, and much effort was put into examining where it might have got to. Much later, during an inquiry, it was revealed that in the early days of the case the police had found what they called a bloody shift hidden in the boiler hole, and put it back in the hope that they would be able to catch its owner red handed returning to destroy it. The officer standing observing it left his post for half an hour, though, and when he came back it was gone. The local force then kept this information quiet, no doubt because it didn’t exactly reflect well on them.

On 6 July, Saville Kent was buried in the family vault, alongside his father’s first wife. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was detained for questioning but no offered no further revelations that explicitly confirmed her guilt. The case was becoming more and more confused as more parallel investigations began — as well as the local police, family friends were beginning to conduct their own inquiries — and all of this hunting for clues and constant interviewing of witnesses was obscuring, rather than revealing, helpful details. Finally, two weeks after the murder, Scotland Yard was called in.

Here again, Robin says, we encounter something very familiar from the detective fiction that was written after the Road Hill House case.

Robin: One of my favorite things is that the detective who has sent down from London, Jack Whicher, really is one of the first British detectives. And he is this very imposing figure. He’s got these beautiful blue eyes. And then you look through the rest of detective fiction and there are so many sort of tall handsome with piercing blue eyes.

And that is, that is Jack Whicher everybody is thinking about this kind of fantastic very sort of authoritative figure who is still a little bit of an outsider because that’s what the police were, they were a figures of suspicion. People didn’t really believe they could solve cases and they weren’t, they weren’t nice.

They weren’t respectable men. They were digging around in secrets and they were often from a middle-class lower middle-class working class background coming into these houses or in this case, he came into this house of wealthy people and biggest uncovering all of their dirty laundry, literally and figuratively.

And that kind of fascination with and distrust of the police — that’s in every single detective novel you could possibly read. Every aspect of this case has turned into a book convention in a way that’s almost unbelievable.

Caroline: The Detective Branch at Scotland Yard had been founded in 1842 and Whicher was one of the original eight officers recruited to it. He is a proto detective both in the sense that he was helping to create the role a detective would play in mid 19th century society, and because many of the fictional detectives that quickly appeared on the page drew on his character and cases. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote journalistic articles about the new detective branch, and both also created detective characters in their fiction soon after. Inspector Bucket in 1852’s Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone both contain a great deal of Whicher and his colleagues from that first cohort of Scotland Yard detectives.

And as Robin says, being a detective was not an especially respectable profession. In the Victorian era, the idea of a plainclothes or undercover officer who pryed into people’s domestic and private lives was considered grubby and unpleasant. Interviewing servants about their employers, for instance, was very frowned upon. In 1845, the Times ran an editorial about this that stated “there always will be something repugnant in the bare idea of espionage”. At the same time, the public loved the idea that a detective could reveal the hidden truth of everyday life and find significance in seemingly unimportant details. Letters poured into Scotland Yard offering theories about the Road Hill House murder, and Whicher had to go through them all.

There was a pronounced class dimension to this distrust of the detective too, and this played a big part in Whicher’s investigation. The Kents were a well to do family living in a large house with many servants. Whicher was the son of a gardener from Camberwell in London, and had worked as a labourer before joining the Metropolitan Police as a constable. The suspicions that he formed about the case soon after his arrival at Road House — which centred on Constance’s missing nightdress and the tensions that he detected within the family around the demise of the first Mrs Kent — were not taken seriously in part because his accusations were perceived as vulgar. Indeed, a barrister later described Whicher as “the detective, who is vulgar, greedy and rapacious in his destruction of a young woman’s life”.

After the break: the confession and beyond.

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Detective fever gripped the public in the wake of the murder at Road Hill House. The flames were fanned by the involvement of Scotland Yard, the violence with which Saville Kent had been attacked, the vast number of newspapers in existence at the time that could run sensational reports about it, and a general prurient curiosity about what had been going on inside this middle class home.

This last aspect manifested itself in an obsession with the physicality of Road Hill House, which in turn had an impact on the detective fiction that followed. Newspapers were desperate to publish an accurate floorplan of the house, but — perhaps understandably — Samuel Kent didn’t want reporters with tape measures crawling all over his house while his very pregnant wife and children were coming to terms with what had happened. The lack of access whipped up a frenzy, though, and the day after Saville’s funeral a reporter from the Bath Chronicle disguised himself as a detective and sneaked in, managing to make notes on the house layount before he was discovered and ejected. Five days later, the plans were published in the paper and became an indelibe part of the way the public consumed this case.

Think about all the times you have opened a new murder mystery, turned the first few pages, and examined the map of the country house where the story is set. That’s exactly what was happening here — the public of 1860, like the readers of golden age detective fiction in the 1920s and every decade since, wanted that anatomical diagram of the setting so they could feel themselves involved in what had occurred there.

The map of Road Hill House made such an impression on Robin that it helped her solve the problem of not being able to get out to look at potential settings for her new book during Covid.

Robin: It was just so funny. I couldn’t work out what to do about the map. And then I was like, what case do I know really well?

Caroline: What case indeed? The physicality of Road Hill House is so present in the way we think about it, all this time later, that when constructing a new country house murder mystery it’s the obvious place to turn for inspiration.

Robin: I like mapping out the house that I’m writing about the place I’m writing about. I can’t do that. So I’ve just had to get my copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and look at the map there. And that’s the map in the house that I’m writing about. And again, you know, I’m sort of thinking about this case as I’m writing.

Caroline: If you read Robin’s next book, The Ministry of Unladylike Activity out August 2022, keep in mind that she was thinking about Road Hill House while writing it.

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If you already know anything about the Road Hill House case, there’s a strong chance that you learned it from The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a non fiction book from 2008 by Kate Summerscale that was subsequently adapted into a television drama. I mention this both because it’s a good place to go after you listen to this episode if you want more granular details about the investigation than I can include here, and because the very title of the book hints at its interaction with detective fiction.

Summerscale’s book reads like a detective novel itself, even though it relies only on verified accounts and sources about the case. The creepy sense that the murderer is still inhabiting the house, even as the detectives are scouring it for clues comes through strongly, as does the claustrophobic sense of Road Hill House as a trap in which all the suspects are caught.

Whicher did get the chance to act on his suspicions. In what would probably be the mid narrative climax of a real detective novel, he was permitted by the legal authorities to arrest and detain Savile Kent’s 16 year old half sister Constance, and given seven days to gather enough evidence to build a case against her for murder.

In addition to his concerns about Constance’s missing nightdress, Whicher had also broken through the “happy family” facade of the Kent household and realised that the emotional tension had been running high for years. The first Mrs Kent had given birth to ten children in 15 years, only four of whom are still alive by 1860. Constance and William are the youngest, born in 1844 and 1845 respectively. Shortly before Constance was born, a 23 year old farmer’s daughter named Mary Drewe Pratt joined the Kent household as a governess to the older girls. Mrs Kent was, by this time, in poor physical and mental health, and her husband had consulted doctors who declared her “weak minded”. She could barely care for Constance when she was born, so the baby was handed over to Mary Pratt.

The situation had worsed when William was born the next year, and it wasn’t long before the governess was running the household in the place of its mistress. Rumours circulated among Samuel Kent’s colleagues that he was having an affair with Mary Pratt while his “deranged” wife was still in the house; the family actually relocated several times to get away from these persistent whispers. In 1852, when Constance was eight years old, her mother died of “an obstruction of the bowel”.

The next year, her father married her former governess. The servant who had cared for Constance in place of her mother had now literally taken her mother’s place. The former Miss Pratt soon had children of her own, and she favoured them over her older step children. At Road Hill House, they had nicer bedrooms on the same floor as their parents, while their older half siblings slept upstairs on the floor usually reserved for servants. When Constance acted out, she was published strictly, with physical blows or by being locked up for hours, and she both she and William were sent away to school.

By delving into this backstory, Whicher discovered what he believed to be a motive for Constance’s attack on her little half brother — revenge upon the former governess who had supplanted her mistreated mother. He also learned of a previous incident that seemed to suggest that Constance was much more resourceful and independent that she had appeared during the investigation.

Robin: Constance and her brother William actually run away. I think the year before the crime happened, she cuts off all her hair, pretends to be a boy, and runs away because they hate living there so much but they’re caught and brought back. So, she’s having a miserable time. All of the kids from the first marriage were having a terrible time. And that is going to be important.

Caroline: Although these points are logically consistent with the events around Saville’s death, Whicher failed to find any material evidence — like a bloody garment or a weapon — that definitely connected Constance with the crime. But, believing his theory to be correct, he presses ahead.

Robin: He decides that it was her and he accuses her, on the basis of the nightgown, on the basis of her running away, her being unhappy. And everybody’s horrified because Constance is upper-class, she’s a young lady she’s important and Inspector Whicher is less important than she is, and he’s accusing her.

The public is outraged on her behalf. They’re all taking up her cause and then actually the jury at the inquest say it wasn’t her. It couldn’t just be her she’s too much of a lovely young lady. Elizabeth Gough was arrested again and released. And so it’s this ongoing thing that you just sort of, can’t get to the truth for years and everybody is fascinated.

Caroline: The backlash against Whicher for seemingly falsely accusing a young woman of high status like Constance is intense — he ends up leaving Scotland Yard and working as a private investigator because of it. The impact of the furore around the case is lasting, too — the novelist Margaret Oliphant complained that it had inculcated a kind of “detectivism” in the reading public, and ushered in the “police court aspect of modern fiction”. The case faded from the headlines, but nobody forgot what had happened — the influence of those few weeks in Wiltshire in July 1860 were everywhere in the culture.

Robin: And then in 1865 so five years after the case Whicher has left the police force the year before in disgrace because he never managed to catch the killer. His name is mud and then Constance comes forward and confesses that she actually did do it.

Caroline: This is the twist that ultimately sets the Road Hill House case apart from all the others. Constance Kent had been sent to a school in France, and then came back to England to be a boarder at a kind of Anglican convent in Brighton. There, in April 1865, she told one of the priests during confession how she had committed the murder of her half brother Saville. Two weeks later, the Reverend Arthur Douglas Wagner accompanied her to London to make a formal confession to Scotland Yard. She pled guilty at her trial, so never had to give evidence of exactly what had happened that night, and was sentenced to life in prison, later altered to twenty years in light of her youth and cooperation with the police after the confession.

Not only does the Road Hill House case have a proper ending, it’s an ending that a novelist would be proud to craft. The hard working detective was right after all; the murderer really was in the house all the time, moving the incriminating bloody nightdress around from hiding place to hiding place until she could burn it in secret. The apparently perfect Victorian family really was a hotbed of hate and unhappiness, just as Whicher had suspected.

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When writers like Wilkie Collins, and then decades later Dorothy L Sayers, were transforming the Road Hill House case into a literary murder mystery, there were certain aspects of it that attracted them more than others. The idea of the hysterical women, as typified by the first Mrs Kent, is certainly present in The Moonstone, as is the class dynamic between the family being investigated and the detective that we saw with the Kents and Inspector Whicher. Aspects of the domestic life at Road Hill turn up in The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — both lean into the idea of a perfect-seeming domestic setup that conceals untold horrors. The key difference, though, is to do with the crime itself.

Robin: The Moonstone and Clouds of Witness they both go certain ways to cleaning up the case to making it less horrendous, because I think there is something about it that even though we love it, we want to fictionalize it, we can’t quite face it. And we don’t want to really think about the reality of what actually happened because it’s so grim.

Caroline: By replacing the murder of a defenceless child with the theft of a jewel, Collins tempers the tragedy and releases the reader to feel fascinated by the story free of any sense of prudish guilt. The surrounding elements of the mystery do stay similar.

Robin: And there is a night dress that gets dirty and it’s, one of the key clues of the case, but it gets dirty with paint not blood.

Wilkie Collins takes all of the blood and all of the best sort of death and murder. I mean, there, there are deaths in that story, but he takes the original moment of horrible, bloody murder and turns into this very bloodless theft of a jewel.

Caroline: I hadn’t even spotted that Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers is a version of the Road Hill House case until I read Robin’s thesis, but once she had pointed it out, I was seeing the similarities everywhere. Again, Sayers changes the central crime — a grown man is found shot in the garden of a remote country house — but the surrounding details are striking in their similarity. A lower class detective, a vital stained garment, a motive buried in the private affairs of wealthy people — it’s all there. As a confirmed fan of both The Moonstone and an obsessive researcher of the original case, Sayers played her part in perpetuating the myth of Road Hill House.

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After serving her twenty years in prison, Constance Kent was released at the age of 41. She emigrated to Australia where her brother William was already living, and lived out the rest of her life there, having changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye in an attempt to guard against inquiries from anyone who still remembered what had happened in the 1860s. She never publicly elaborated on her confession or identified anyone else who was involved in the murder, although in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale makes a compelling case that her brother William was an accomplice and her confession was prompted by the need to divert attention from him so he could inherit his portion of their mother’s money and gain his independence the next year at the age of 21.

Constance lived a very long life, and was still alive when the golden age of detective fiction began in the early 1920s. In 1936, seven members of the Detection Club — including founders Sayers and Anthony Berkeley — published a book titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which they each wrote a chapter about their favourite real life crime. John Rhode, or to give him his real name, Cecil John Street, chose the Road Hill House case, since he had previously published a whole book about it in 1928 for the Famous Trials series.

As Rhode recounts in his chapter of The Anatomy of Murder, after that volume came out, he received an anonymous letter from Sydney, Australia, that gave a great deal of extra detail about the personality and early life of Constance Kent. Rhode believed that it had been written “if not by Constance Kent, at least by some person having a very intimate knowledge of her childhood and history” although a handwriting expert consulted at the time disagreed. It gave excrutiating detail about how the governess Miss Pratt had punished William and Constance as children by locking them up and giving them only dry bread to eat, and how Constance had frequently escaped by daringly climbing out of upstairs windows. It also vehemently disputes the suggestion in Rhode’s Famous Trials book that the first Mrs Kent was insaneIt’s an extraordinary document, and I agree with Rhode that it seems far too detailed to be entirely fabricated.

Rhode donated the letter to the Detection Club’s library, and when it was reexamined in the 1970s by true crime writer Bernard Taylor it was felt to be a genuine narrative from Constance Kent or someone very close to her, since it matched up with her location and life story. The original letter has now sadly been lost since, along with several of the club’s other treasures, but fortunately Rhode had typed up a copy that was discovered among his papers after his death in 1964.

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Constance Kent died in 1944 at the age of 100 in Sydney, Australia. Living so long would have made her a witness to unprecented change anyway; the fact that she was at the centre of one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated murder cases as well merely singles her out further. Hers is a story that has captivated people for over 150 years, and if the extent to which I fell under her spell while making this episode is anything to go by, her power is undiminished.

But did she really do it? I think we’ll always have our suspicions.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Robin Stevens — you can hear her on two previous episodes of the show, Back to School and Death Sets Sail on the Nile, and her new collection of short stories about schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells is called Once Upon A Crime and comes out in August 2021. Links to this and all the other books and sources mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/themurderatroadhillhouse. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence and the creation of more long, detailed episodes like this one, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

The Murder At Road Hill House

This sensational case from 1860 ignited a wave of detective fever that we still haven’t recovered from.

Thanks to my guest Robin Stevens — you can hear her on two previous episodes of the show, Back to School and Death Sets Sail on the Nile, and her new collection of short stories about schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells is called Once Upon A Crime and comes out in August 2021.

We do discuss the outcome of the Road Hill House case, so if you want to read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or any other account without knowing what happens at the end, do that before you listen to this.

My new map and guide, Agatha Christie’s England, is available for pre order now in physical form at shedunnitshow.com/map or as an audiobook at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap.

Books mentioned and sources used:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers
— “Constance Kent” by John Rhode in The Anatomy of Murder
“Miss Kent and Major Street: The Case of Constance Kent” by The Passing Tramp

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsors:

— Best Fiends, you can download Best Fiends free on the Apple App Store or Google Play.
— Girlfriend Collective, get $25 off your $100+ purchase of sustainable, ethically made activewear at girlfriend.com/shedunnit.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/themurderatroadhillhousetranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

Agatha Christie’s England

Where is St Mary Mead, anyway?

My guide to Agatha Christie’s England is now available to pre-order from the publisher at shedunnitshow.com/map (ships 19th July 2021). It’s also available to order from Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwell’s and other booksellers. An audio version is available for purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap (if you are entitled to a free copy from your pre-order, you will have received an email from the publisher about this).

There are no major spoilers either in this episode or the guide.

Books mentioned:

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
Peril at End House by Agatha Christie
N or M? by Agatha Christie
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Third Girl by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, The Box in the Woods  by Maureen Johnson. It’s available now wherever books are sold — get your copy today.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesenglandtranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

Agatha Christie’s England Transcript

Caroline: When you close your eyes and imagine the setting of an Agatha Christie story, what do you see? A grand country house, perhaps, or an idyllic English village complete with its own spinster sleuth. For all that the Queen of Crime is lauded for her plots, she deserves praise for her settings, too.

Beyond the more exotic locations featured in books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, there is a whole network of interconnected, seemingly ordinary, places that lie behind Christie’s fiction. It interacts with her biography too — the more you read her work, the more you realise that her characters’ lives are superimposed upon her own.

If you’ve ever walked into a hotel lobby or a village hall and thought “this looks like it should be in an Agatha Christie novel”, then this episode is for you. Because today, we’re exploring Agatha Christie’s England.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This episode marks a very special occasion. Over the last few months I’ve been working on something behind the scenes, and now it’s finally being released out into the world. It shares the title of this episode — Agatha Christie’s England — and is a map and a guide to the real life locations that appear in Christie’s fiction. I’ve scoured every novel and short story, as well as the Queen of Crime’s own life and autobiography, to find the most interesting places to include. As well as my writing, it also includes period-inspired illustrations and a postcard, so that you can send a loved one your best wishes from somewhere you discover on your travels with the map. It’s being published by Herb Lester Associates, an independent publisher that produces lovely literary guides and gifts, and is now available to order directly at shedunnitshow.com/map. I have also made an audiobook version of it, for those who really like to hear me talking about Agatha Christie. The first 100 people to pre-order the map will get the audiobook for free, and then after that it’s available for purchase. This has been a really fun project to work on, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you already know that I’m someone who really, really loves to research. Amassing information is something I’m pretty good at — I’m arguably better at that than knowing what to do with it once I have it. It won’t be any surprise to you, then, to know that the initial list of places I gathered for the map was a lot longer than the ones that we could actually fit. There are I think 45 entries in the guide, and my initial list had at least double that. Agatha Christie wrote a lot of books, stories and plays, and she sent her characters to a lot of different places.

In this episode, I’m going to talk about the sense of place in Christie’s books, her own favourite locations, and some of the trends that I observed while putting together the map. We’re also going to look into a surprising mystery connected to one of Christie’s most famous places.

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Agatha Christie was a very well travelled woman, both by the standard of her time and even compared with how much most people move around today. She attended a finishing school in Paris for a year in her teens and then spent the winter after she turned 17 in Cairo. This trip was supposedly organised for the sake of her mother’s health, but there was an ulterious social motive to it. The family was comfortably off but not so wealthy that they could afford to give their second daughter a “season” as a debutante in London. By wintering in Egypt, Agatha was able to go to lots of dances at a fraction of the cost and there was a ready supply of British suitors from the colonial regiments and administrative services stationed there.

Then in 1922 Agatha and her husband Archie Christie were invited to join a tour to promote international participation in the upcoming British Empire exhibition. This was a ten month trip that required them to leave their small daughter Rosalind at home with her grandmother, and took them to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. And of course, towards the end of the 1920s Agatha began to travel to the Middle East, and her subsequent marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan made her familiar with parts of Syria and Iraq where they travelled for excavations. The locations for some of her best known books, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, were drawn from her personal experiences of travel.

But our focus here is Agatha Christie’s England, not her adventures overseas. Where I do think the two are connected is in her powers of observation — a seasoned traveller often possesses the ability to imbibe the atmosphere of a place quickly and accurately, and I think that’s part of the skill on display in Christie’s writing about place. She doesn’t devote lengthy passages to the description of landscape, but she makes sure that the reader is aware of how bumpy the road is or what the house feels like when you first walk into it.

Something that I became very aware of while working on the map and guide is how much Christie’s personal orbit influenced the places she included in her fiction. She was born in Torquay in Devon, in the south west of England, and retained a connection to that area all of her life. Although she moved away when she first got married and later sold her childhood home Ashfield in 1938, she always had a residence in Devon. It’s easiest to write what you know, and she was very familiar with the seaside resorts of Cornwall, Dorset and the English riviera (as the coast of south Devon is sometimes called). Torquay, Salcombe, Dartmouth, Sidmouth and others all make repeated appearances in novels throughout her career, from the fictional Cornish resort of “St Loo” in Peril at End House to Tommy and Tuppence’s trip to Bournemouth in N or M?. Specific seaside hotels, such as the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, even turn up multiple times, sometimes in disguise, and sometimes – as in the case of Sleeping Murder, just as themselves.

This is a regular trick of Christie’s — the places that she knew best are reused over and over again. Her own house in Devon, Greenway, makes numerous appearances in novels as different as Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence, with different aspects of the house and grounds emphasised as the plot requires. Realism in the setting for whodunnits is so established in the genre that the inclusion of maps and floorplans is standard, so it makes sense that being able to pace out the distances in a real place when working out an alibi would be a big help to an author.

Aside from the south west, London is another area where Christie’s locations are clustered thickly together. She lived in London on and off throughout her adult life, from the time immediately after the first world war when she and Archie were first setting up home together, though to her time working in a hospital there during the second world war, and beyond. Perhaps because her readers were more likely to be familiar with the city’s geography, I found that in London she was less likely to play fast and loose with the layout. The Ritz Hotel, for instance, crops up whenever a flashy American character needs to be introdued, such as in the case of Julius P Hersheimer in The Secret Adversary. It is sometimes poorly disguised as “the Blitz”, but it’s always the same luxurious establishment on Piccadilly. Christie’s characters, too, rarely stray from central and west London — again, the places that she would have been familiar with herself. She had a variety of London addresses over the years, but they were all in west London — Kensington, Chelsea, St John’s Wood, Hampstead, and so on. And thus, I found, rarely if ever do her characters stray into east London or south of the river.

Almost as interesting the places that Christie does include in her fiction are the ones that are absent. Since the map and guide are about “Agatha Christie’s England”, I was keen to put in locations all around the country, both just for interest’s sake and because it visually makes for a better map if the dots are nicely spread out. However, Christie really didn’t make this easy for me. There are two hotspots in the south west and in London, as I’ve said, and then a smattering of other places in the south east — such as the real house and swimming pool on the south Downs that inspired the house in The Hollow. But then there’s a big gap in the Midlands, and a much sparser spread of locations in the north of England. With a few exceptions that I’ll talk about in a second, her northern places also tend to be much less defined. Even I, who love digging through footnote after footnote late at night, had to admit defeat on a few where I just couldn’t find any real life analogue for a place in a book. I suspect that Christie just wasn’t as familiar with the north in general, and as such was much vaguer about her descriptions. Sir Bartholomew Strange’s country house in Three Act Tragedy, Melfort Abbey, particularly haunted me — it is only described as being “in Yorkshire”, and has no distinguishing features beyond the basic requirements of four walls and a door that might help to plot it on a map.

The exception to this northern vagueness, however, is to be found in Christie’s familiarity with the area around her brother in law’s estate at Cheadle near Manchester. Agatha’s older sister Madge married James Watts, heir to Abney Hall, in 1902 and the writer stayed with them often. Country houses such as Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and Stoneygates in They Do It With Mirrors were inspired by her stays at Abney, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — another country house murder mystery — is dedicated to Watts.

After the break: what actually is Miss Marple’s address?

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Agatha Christie’s writing career began in 1920, and her last full novel was published after her death in 1976. England changed a lot during the six decades in which she was writing, and we can track that through the way she writes about the settings of her stories. In her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we have a very typical English village of the early twentieth century. Styles St Mary, the village near the country house Styles Court, is meant to be in Essex, but it could really be anywhere in southern England within easy reach of London. The big house has an expansive park around it, and the lady of the house does good works in the village – mostly in aid of the war effort, since this book is set during the first world war. There’s a land agent who helps to take care of the estate and a home farm where tenants work the land. Part of the mystery that Christie weaves is to do with the shock people experience when this template is disrupted, and how much this impedes their ability to disentangle what is real and what is not. Mrs Inglethorp’s marriage to an inappropriate and bearded younger man is tantamount to a declaration of war on a way of life.

Compare this to a book like Third Girl from 1966, which revolves around a flatshare in west London and takes in the much freer, looser social mores of the time in which it was published. Norma Restarick, the main character, is 19 or 20 and doesn’t really know what to do with her life, but she certainly craves a kind of independence that would have been unthinkable for her counterparts in the Christie novels of three decades earlier.

Agatha Christie has a reputation for portraying an idealised version of England, in which everyone knows their place and the perfect village is untouched by progress. I don’t think she really does this, though. I think it’s a perception imbibed from serial television adaptations, in which screenwriters flatten the chronology in order to get around the problem of how Poirot or Miss Marple might age. There’s a cosy “forever England” aesthetic to Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead in the various TV series that isn’t there in the books. After all, Miss Marple is always telling the reader that there is nowhere so vicious and dangerous to live as a small village. She derives all of her detective skill, she says repeatedly, from having observed all of the worst vagaries of the human character in such a small, rural idyll.

And that village is not static either. When we first visit St Mary Mead, there is a certain sense of permanence about it — that everyone knows everyone else inside out. But then in post WW2 Miss Marple novels such as A Murder is Announced, things are changing. St Mary Mead is expanding with new houses and new people are moving in. People who don’t come with formal letters of introduction and who haven’t got grandparents who have always lived in this village. It’s a destabilising force that is woven into the mystery, but it’s not something that really comes through strongly on television, where all of Miss Marple’s cases seem to occupy a kind of timeless state somewhere between 1935 and 1955.

Speaking of St Mary Mead — where actually is it? I get asked this fairly regularly by listeners, likely confused by all the different references to its location in various books and adaptations. It’s a regular mystery, and one that I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to solve. Sometimes it seems like it’s in the west country, such as in 4.50 from Paddington when the village is clearly on a train line that heads west out of the capital. At others, it seems to be near the Hampshire or Dorset coast, as in The Body in the Library. On occasion, Christie unhelpfully defines its location in relation to other entirely fictional places that she’s invented, such as in Nemesis when we are told that it is 12 miles from Danemouth, 12 miles from Loomouth and quite near Much Benham.

Miss Marple’s house itself, Danemead, is modelled on Christie’s own house near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which in turn serves as the pattern for the recurring location of Market Basing in books like Dumb Witness and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. But St Mary Mead itself remains elusive.

Just to complicate matters further, St Mary Mead actually first appears in a Poirot novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train as the village from which heiress Katherine Grey departs for the south of France. Then, it’s in Kent, but in later stories it moves variously to the fictional counties of Downshire, Radfordshire and Middleshire. The BBC used the Hampshire village of Nether Wallop as the setting for the Joan Hickson Miss Marple adaptations, that being both a good filming location and also a decent guess at where a St Mary Mead type village might be.

At a certain point, awash with all of the contradictory distances and locations for St Mary Mead, I became convinced that Agatha Christie was teasing her readers. As the fanbase for her books increased, more and more companion texts were published that sought to expand and explain the universe of her works — I even came across one very patronising guidebook that tried to explain to Americans how small England is by comparison to the US. Perhaps by refusing to give St Mary Mead a real world location, Christie was resisting the force that was turning her work into a miniature tourism industry in its own right. Or maybe it was just more convenient to keep Miss Marple’s village firmly in the realm of the imagination, where it could be moved about southern England as plots required.

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So while there are plenty of real life locations from Agatha Christie books that you can visit, from the grand hotels of the English riviera to the chilly hills of the Isle of Man, the most famous place in her fiction, St Mary Mead, isn’t on any maps. The fact that it is so real to her readers, though, is testament to her skill as a writer. There’s more than one way to travel, and paging through a smart whodunnit is certainly a good one.

Even if you can’t travel very far in real life at the moment, I hope you can still open up your map and get lost in Agatha Christie’s England.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. My guide to Agatha Christie’s England, published by Herb Lester Associates, is now available to order at shedunnitshow.com/map. Links to this and all the other books and sources I mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesengland. On the website I also publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

Young Sleuths Transcript

Caroline: I can’t remember how old I was when I read my first detective novel, but I definitely wasn’t a teenager yet. I devoured my first Agatha Christie — the Miss Marple short story collection The Thirteen Problems — under the covers on a family holiday when I was 11 after finding it on the shelf at the bed and breakfast we were staying in. A satisfyingly sneaky point of origin for this whodunnit obsession of mine, but not really accurate.

It really depends how you define “detective novel”. Long before I came upon my first Christie by chance that summer I had been reading mystery stories written for children — principally Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven and Five Find Outers series, as well as Louise Fitzhugh’s seminal novel Harriet the Spy. I think the crime fiction bug must have bitten me around about my seventh birthday.

It’s only recently, though, that I’ve been thinking more critically about mystery fiction aimed at children and young people. Given the lengths that society goes to to make sure that kids don’t see films and television programmes with quote “inappropriate” themes, it seems incongruous that books where thefts, threats of violence and even murders are essential to the plot are not only available to younger readers, but actually written especially for them.

Yet such mysteries are a booming subgenre of today’s crime fiction publishing industry. Generations of writers, going right back to the golden age of detective fiction and beyond, have written whodunnits for younger readers. And these books aren’t just for children and teens, they are about them too. Today, we’re going to meet the young sleuths.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

A quick housekeeping note before I get into today’s episode proper: a Shedunnit related project that I’ve been working on for the last few months is going to be available for pre order very soon, along with a special early bird incentive for keen eared listeners to the show. To be the first to know all about what this and how you can get it, sign up for the podcast’s newsletter at the link in the shownotes or at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter, because as soon as I’m allowed to share the full details, that’s where I’ll be doing it.

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During the 18th and into the 19th century, literature for children gradually shifted from being dominated by religious and moralising texts to stories that aimed to entertain rather than instruct. Didacticism gave way to fun, and the mid 19th century saw the arrival of adventure stories, school stories and imaginative masterpieces like Alice in Wonderland that all aimed to give pleasure to younger readers.

There’s plenty of mystery in children’s literature that has little to do with detection; indeed you might argue that Lewis Carroll’s stories are mysteries, since Alice spends most of the books trying to work out what is going on. For instance Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best known books — Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden — all feature young protagonists embroiled in some kind of mystery, albeit a mystery more to do with their own identity and future than any sort of crime.

But the first book to feature a true child detective is generally considered to be Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, originally published in German and widely translated into other languages. Appropriately, it appeared during the golden age of detective fiction for adults that was going on between the world wars — Emil was published in Germany in 1929 and then in English in 1931. It’s really an extraordinary book and I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. It’s set in 1920s Berlin and sees 12 year old schoolboy Emil assemble a gang of other kids (the “detectives” of the title) to help him catch a mysterious thief who stole his money while he was sleeping on a train.

As an origin point for children’s detective fiction, Emil and the Detectives makes sense. Many of the tropes that became common in the genre are present, from the family troubles that see Emil sent, unsupervised, to stay with his aunt in Berlin, to the group of young sleuths that band together to solve the case. The contemporary, unsanitised setting also set it apart. Emil and his comrades inhabit a fairly accurate version of Berlin, a city where the Weimar regime was in its dying days and the Nazis were gaining ground. The book was instantly popular, selling millions of copies across Europe and America.

With Emil and the Detectives, Kästner hit upon the central tension that informs all young adult detective fiction: adults are a mystery to children and children are a mystery to adults. They inhabit different worlds. Grown ups create and enforce rules that kids then subvert, creating imaginative spaces where they can thrive without restriction. Although it’s not a mystery, you see the beginnings of this dichotomy in the work of J.M. Barrie, in which the technicolour world inhabited by Peter Pan and the rest stands in start contrast to the everyday greyness of normal life.

The next major development for young sleuths came from Enid Blyton. Over fifty of her books have the word “mystery” or “secret” in the title, a figure that gives you an indication of just how vital this format was to her output. In the first novel in her “secret” series, 1938’s The Secret Island, she focused in on what was to become a very important aspect of children’s detective fiction: the isolation of the young sleuths from the adults. In this story, the parents of Peggy, Mike and Nora have been killed in a plane crash, leaving them to be brought up by a disinterested and unpleasant aunt and uncle. In this instance the trio runs away to live in secret on an island in a lake where they have their adventures, but writers have found plenty of other means to leave their protagonists unsupervised — schools are popular settings for this reason, as are holidays and camps. Any scenario where a community of young people can plausibly exist with minimal intervention from adults will work.

Enid Blyton wrote several mystery series concurrently: the Famous Five first appeared in 1942 with Five on a Treasure Island, then the Five Find Outers arrived in 1943 with The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and then the Secret Seven turned up in their eponyous debute in 1949. Although it’s the Five Find Outers books that arguably most closely conform to the tropes and ideals of golden age detective fiction, in all of these strands Blyton has the essential ingredients for a young sleuthing mystery — a group of child detectives, free to investigate in the adult world with minimal supervision, who inhabit a recognisable world and aren’t afraid to take on the criminals themselves.

Detective fiction for adults from this time was flourishing, of course, but rarely included children in its plots in a major way. Agatha Christie did write a school-based mystery with school girl characteres — 1959’s Cat Among the Pigeons — but it’s still the adults who do most of the heavy lifting in the plot and Hercule Poirot who ultimately solves the case. More interesting in this regard is Gladys Mitchell, who began writing crime fiction during the golden age and is known today for her 66 whodunnits featuring reptilian sleuth Mrs Bradley. However, beginning in 1936, she did write a series of standalone books for younger people, several of which straddle the divide between mystery and adventure. These are mostly out of print now and difficult to get hold of, but I do own a copy of 1948’s Holiday River and it is a very fine Norfolk Broads mystery starring a cohort of teenagers on an unsupervised boating holiday. I believe Mitchell mostly wrote these books as a money-spinning enterprise, probably inspired by the success of the Famous Five and co earlier in the decade. Indeed 1949’s The Seven Stones Mystery and 1950’s The Malory Secret sound like they could have been written by Enid Blyton herself.

The children’s librarian Eileen Colwell once famously mocked the premise of Blyton’s mysteries for children, saying “What hope has a band of desperate men against four children?”. And of course, there is some suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the way in which 11 year olds over and over again confront armed smugglers and escape unscathed. But I think what this question gets at is the way that classic, cerebral detection can level the playing field for young sleuths. Yes, they are physically outmatched by the adults they investigate, but the knowledge that they gather gives them power. Young sleuths keep secrets from grown ups, withholding and revealing what they know accordingly to get what they want — whether that’s to keep their guardians off their backs or to convince the police that they really have caught a gang of criminals. There’s also safety in numbers. Blyton and most other creators of young sleuths don’t tend to write about solo detectives. Like Emil, they always have a group of friends to back them up, and they have a corporate identity together that is much stronger than that of an individual child.

Above all, the young sleuth’s most powerful weapon is their marginalisation. Children are outsiders in the adult world, able to move about undetected and eavesdrop on conversations in a way that someone older would never be able to manage. Adults tend to underestimate and dismiss young people’s ideas, too, which can also be very useful for detecting. It’s no accident that young sleuths often pick up cases that the police have disregarded, or investigate problems that conventional detectives don’t consider suspicious. The imaginative leaps that kids make place them in opposition to the rule-following of their older counterparts. In the very first episode of Shedunnit I talked about the idea of “surplus women” and how the invisbility of spinster sleuths like Miss Marple create the perfect conditions for detection, and there’s something very similar at work here. Outsiders of all kinds make for good detectives — consider the “foreignness” of Hercule Poirot — and young people are no exception.

After the break: how do you create a young sleuth today, in the age of the internet?

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It’s all very well marooning your young sleuths on an island in 1938, when even using the telephone to call for help was a bit of novelty. Is it even possible to create a plausible and readible young detective character for today’s world? Although there are plenty of mystery boks aimed at younger readers published these days, lots of them get round the issue of smartphones and TikTok by setting their plots in the past. One of the best known series of this type is by Robin Stevens, who has been a guest on the show a couple of times before. Her Murder Most Unladylike books are set at a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s and star a pair of exemplary young sleuths — Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells — who fight crime with their wits and a notebook.

Maureen: I think people go back largely because it’s fun. Also: no phones, no cell phones and no internet. The internet ruins a lot of things in terms of being able to easily access information or just call someone if you’re in trouble. So there’s a lot of phone destroying that I think sometimes has to happen in stories.

Caroline: This is Maureen Johnson. She’s a lifelong fan of classic detective fiction and was a successful writer of non mystery fiction before she began publishing the Truly Devious series about teenage detective Stevie Bell in 2018.

Maureen: The first book full book I ever remember reading was The Hound of the Baskervilles. I had a children’s edition of it, and I was so entranced by the first image of the reflection in the teapot that that was sort of it for life. I was taken from that moment and I got my hands on every mystery I could possibly get my hands on.

And I always meant to write a mystery — I’ve written YA for, for years and years — and I didn’t do it because I think I thought it was too good for me, or it was what I enjoyed the most. And so I didn’t do it. It’s very hard, I think sometimes maybe we avoid the thing that’s too close to the thing that we love.

Caroline: When she set out to write the first Stevie Bell book, Truly Devious, Maureen worked hard to engineer the scenario that would allow a teenager from today to plausibly investigate a crime. This meant building a school — one which was haunted by a cold case from the 1930s that a new student in the twenty-first century, raised on detective fiction and true crime podcasts, would be desperate to investigate when she arrived.

Maureen: I created the rules of Ellingham for her. I created the architecture of the school for her, the location of the school for her, because I had to explain why she was 16 years old and a detective, which is difficult. As a frequent listener of this show, I love how you break down where the various detectives come from and their background.

So they’re either kind of unusual people, they’re always older, they’re ex detectives. They’ve been personally roped in there, I guess, ti’s rare that they’re personally roped into a case. But I built a school that could accommodate and allow a student detective to flourish and investigate a cold case from 1936 to her heart’s content.

And I built it absolutely along classic mystery lines. I built the manor, I put it in a remote location. I put a detective in there.

Caroline: Although Ellingham Academy was established in the late 1920s and Maureen is drawing on the country house murder mysteries of that period, Stevie is very much a teenager of today. So how do you slot those two very disparate things together to make one readable whodunnit?

Maureen: It doesn’t make any sense, but I think it makes more sense now than it ever has because there’s so much citizen detective work that’s going on because of cold cases, the internet, podcasts, things where people are actually taking part in investigations who are complete amateurs in a way that was only written about and are solving them or helping to solve real life cases. So I’m sure at this point, a 16 year old with a very active interest in a cold case could get involved in it. It’s makes a lot more sense now than it ever did in the past, which is helpful.

Caroline: This is a really important point, and one which plays a large role in the latest Stevie Bell book, The Box in the Woods, which has just been published this month. Although there are lots of reasons why our greater connectivity makes it harder to create a compelling young sleuth, the way media is changing also provides opportunities. In her latest adventure, Stevie is invited to a summer camp by a wealthy true crime enthusiast who wants her to solve a mystery from 1978, when four young workers at the camp were found brutally murdered in the woods. But she’s not being called in because her backer wants justice for the victims; no — he wants to make a hit true crime podcast about the story that might get optioned as a movie, and he thinks it will have a greater chance of success if they can, exclusively, reveal whodunnit. As well as this clever justification for why an adult would consult an internet-famous teenage detective, Maureen’s choice of location is also her answer to one of the fundamental problems of writing a young sleuth: how do you get them out from their family home and out there taking risks?

Maureen: It was the summertime, something where I could gather the characters back in one location again that gave me the right atmosphere that gave me the right kind of location. Gathering young people together is hard. So you have a few options. You have to think places like schools or camps and later on you’ll have universities.

But they can’t just get up and go. They don’t have jobs. They have to go where they’re told in a lot of ways. So this was a way of gathering people in one place. And it’s a very, always anything that happens in the dark, you know, dark woods. And certainly there’s an air of danger with the summer camp.

They’re really not very dangerous. They’re fine. But you know, it’s the spooky nature of the summer camp and the stories around the campfire.

Caroline: The parallel narratives between the crime in 1978 and Stevie’s present day investigation of it allows Maureen to bring out the differences in the way young people are treated then and now. The relative freedom of the 1970s, when teenagers could slip off into the woods and nobody really worried about it, vs the constant check ins required of today’s young people, are leveraged for the plot.

Maureen: They have tools to help them know where they’re at. But sometimes they don’t work. The GPS doesn’t necessarily work correctly in the woods or they lose their phones and I think it’s much more frightening now to lose your tether, to not have that machine to help you out, you know, or the one that we even just wear on our wrist that says you can call for help. I can tell you where you’re at. There’s a striking contrast there. I hopefully try to bring out the striking contrast between these two times.

Caroline: Another challenge is that Maureen’s books aren’t just about young sleuths, they’re written for them too. The Truly Devious series is officially classified as “Young Adult”, a publishing category that usually means it’s pitched at readers aged 12-18. I’ve been using the terms “children’s literature” and “younger readers” fairly interchangeably in this episode so far, but it is worth nothing that different publishing industries around the world do separate books into fairly specific categories like this according to the age of the imagined reader. For instance, in the US, the age range below YA is called middle grade, and it’s for readers aged 8-12. Anyway, the point is that Maureen is writing a character who is meant to be at roughly the same age and stage as many of her readers, and that’s not easy when you’ve left your own teenage years behind you.

Maureen: I’ve been doing it for a while. And one thing you have to accept, I think right off the bat, is that anything that you’re writing now, the second you commit it to paper it’s dated. So anything that exists in terms of technology will be old very, very quickly. And that’s okay.

Actually, it’s okay to have a little timestamp on that. I think the trick is a little bit to keep it general — there are cameras, that there are phones, but listing really specific apps or techniques is going to give you a little less shelf life, or it will very clearly date where you are.

Caroline: This is one of the things that really make the Stevie Bell books breathe, I think. Technology does play its part — in The Box in the Woods, Stevie and her friend Janelle make very good use of some internet enabled home security cameras — but ultimately the plots are constructed along classic lines. The case is solved because of Stevie’s deductions, not because of the apps on her phone.

As I alluded to earlier, mystery fiction for younger readers has to grapple with notions of what is “appropriate” — whether it’s acceptable to introduce violence and gore into a story that a child put pull off the library shelf and read before an adult can intervene. I was keen to hear Maureen’s take on this, and learn whether there were any restrictions on what she can and can’t include in Stevie’s cases.

Maureen: There really aren’t and somebody asked me recently, they said, ‘oh, YA’s gotten darker and you can do more now’. No, it’s, it’s always been okay to write fairly dark young adult stories. I mean, there was one when I was growing up called Killing Mr. Griffin, which came out in 1978 by Lois Duncan, who wrote many very dark young adult books.

That that’s about a group of teenagers who killed their English teacher and dump his body. I mean, it was genuinely a terrifying book.

I don’t think there’s ever been a limit on what you can discuss. I think they’re more technical now. And I think the technical aspect comes from people’s interest in true crime. And just that you’re used to hearing that cases are solved through DNA or something like that through a digital monitoring of some kind.

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Caroline: The Box in the Woods, and the other Truly Devious novels, then, manage something that feels rare: they’re books written now, set in the present, that are squarely built on the foundations of the classic 1920s puzzle mystery. The characters have phones, it’s true, but they haven’t forgotten how to use their brains. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. How does Maureen do it?

Maureen: Remembering that it’s not just, you know, the body on the ground, even though I’ve got a lot of respect for the body you find in the library, that’s in the body, you find in the sarcophagus and, and under the bed. And of course, like all of us, I just want to find one someday.

Caroline: No matter how old we are, we’re all young sleuths at heart.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Maureen Johnson — her latest young adult detective novel, The Box in the Woods, is out now in the US and the UK, and available from all good booksellers. Links to this and all the other books and sources mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/youngsleuths. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Young Sleuths

Young detectives, and young readers, play an important part in the history of detective fiction.

Many thanks to my guest, Maureen Johnson. Her newest YA mystery, The Box in the Woods, is out now. Find out more at her website www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @maureenjohnson.

There are no major plot spoilers in this episode, but we do talk about the general set up of Maureen’s four Stevie Bell novels: Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair, The Hand on the Wall and The Box in the Woods.

Books and sources mentioned:

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
Harriet The Spy by Lousie Fitzhugh
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
The Secret Island by Enid Blyton
Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage by Enid Blyton
The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Holiday River by Gladys Mitchell
The Seven Stones Mystery by Gladys Mitchell
The Malory Secret by Gladys Mitchell
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
Mystery in Children’s Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural edited by Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge

Thanks to today’s sponsors. You can get $5 off mail based Victorian mystery game Dear Holmes at dearholmes.com/shedunnit using code “shedunnit” at checkout.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

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Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/youngsleuthstranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

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Golden Age Inspiration

How do you write a 1920s style detective novel that’s set in the 2020s?

Thanks to Elly Griffiths, aka Domenica De Rosa, for joining me today to talk about her love of golden age crime fiction and how she put that into her award winning novel The Postscript Murders. She also writes the Ruth Galloway series and the Brighton Mysteries series — find out more at her website ellygriffiths.co.uk and follower her on Twitter @ellygriffiths.

The Shedunnit Book Club is reading The Postscript Murders in June 2021 — if you’d like to join us you can become a member at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but there is some reference to the plot outline of The Postscript Murders.

Books referenced:
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
Cinderella Goes To The Morgue by Nancy Spain
A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths
Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
— The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
— The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsors. You can get $5 off mail based Victorian mystery game Dear Holmes at dearholmes.com/shedunnit using code “shedunnit” at checkout. The audiobook of Laura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is available at your audiobook retailer of choice.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/goldenageinspirationtranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

Golden Age Inspiration Transcript

Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Golden age detective fiction is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with hard to obtain titles receiving new editions and new TV and film adaptations in the works.

But it isn’t just in the books from that period that we see this effect. Today’s crime writers are turning more and more to the details and tropes of the classic whodunnit. Whereas just a few short years ago a publisher might have looked askance at a manuscript for a mystery laden with references to the golden age, it’s becoming positively desirable for authors to show off their knowledge of the genre’s origins.

It’s in recognition of this fact that the Shedunnit Book Club has this month taken a break from reading books published in the first half of the twentieth century, and is instead in June tackling a contemporary novel that grapples with the traditions of the golden age. The Book Club is the community that supports this podcast’s continued existence — paying members help the show remain independent and financially sustainable so I can keep making new episodes for everyone. Each month, club members vote on what book they would like to read and discuss together. Other perks of joining include getting access to the two bonus episodes a month that I make for just for members, ad free episodes of the main podcast, and access to the community forum where all things mysteries are discussed. There’s more information at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you’d like to check it out.

Anyway, this month, the club has chosen to read The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths. This novel, published in the last year, is absolutely steeped in the traditions and tropes of the golden age of detective fiction, and so is perfect for considering how these ideas are being refashioned by today’s writers. It follows four sleuths — one police detective and three amateurs — on their quest to discover who killed their friend Peggy, an elderly woman who loved reading murder mysteries. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like anyone can have had a motive to kill a charming and inoffensive old lady, but the closer the quartet look, the more it seems like the solution to the case lies in Peggy’s collection of classic crime novels.

Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica De Rosa, a writer based in Brighton who is the author of two separate mystery series — the Ruth Galloway novels about a forensic archaelogist slash sleuth in present day Norfolk, and the Brighton Mysteries series, which are set in Domenica’s hometown in the 1950s. The Postscript Murders reprise a detective character, DS Harbinder Kaur, from her standalone novel The Stranger Diaries, which won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Domenica to Shedunnit to tell us more about how The Postscript Murders came together, and about her own love of golden age detective fiction. There are no major plot spoilers in this episode, by the way. And don’t forget, if you’d like to join me to discuss the book at the end of the month, visit shedunnitbookclub.com/join once you’ve finished listening to become a member of the book club.

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To start with the premise of the book all revolves around this character, Peggy, who is a murder consultant. And I’d be fascinated to know where the idea came to you from. Have you ever encountered someone with that kind of role?

Elly: Well, actually there is a real life model for Peggy and it’s my Aunt Marge.

So I’ve got an Aunt Marge. Since I’ve started telling people the story, I realise so many people have it an Aunt Marge. Harry Potter did, didn’t he? So I have an Aunt Marge and she used to live in Norfolk where she was a great help with the Ruth books, actually, she has a boat and she was very helpful in researching those, but then she moved to the south coast, quite near me and something, so like Peggy she had a lovely flat, which looks out over the sea and the promenade just a little bit along the coast from me, I live in Brighton. Something about the new house, I don’t know what it was, whether it was the setting or the fact she could look out at the sea, maybe it was the sea air. I don’t know, but it just made her kind of obsessed with murder plots. And she kept thinking of new plots. She would look out the window and look up and down the promenade, she’d see two people meet here, think who are they?

And then she’d ring me up. And she used to always ring me, often still does, on a Sunday. And it’s like, ‘oh, hello love. I’ve just, I’ve just seen a priest and I was just thinking, could you kill someone with a thurible?’, you know, and all that. So I started to think about what if there was somebody whose job was to think up crime plots for crime writers, because Marge would always want me to put these plots in my book and I’d sometimes say to her Marge, why don’t you write books?

And she’d say, no, no, no, love, I couldn’t write the book, but I want you to put it in. And I did once use one of her murders in a Ruth book actually earlier on. So she’s got a bit of form. And one of the reviewers, I think it was the Financial Times said that it was the nastiest use of a stairlift they’d ever heard of, and Marge was so happy with that she framed it. She was so happy with that review, so she wanted me to put them in my book. So I thought, what if there was an elderly lady, very respectable, my aunt’s a retired maths teacher, very, very respectable. But what if her job was thinking up murders for crime writers? And then what would happen if she was murdered?

I did have to, it’s not giving anything away because Peggy is murdered in the first chapter, first page, I think. And I did have to square it with Marge and she didn’t mind the character getting killed off quite early. And she was fine about that being a true mystery fan. So really that’s where the idea came from.

Caroline: Amazing, because is that something that as someone who’s written a lot of books now that you struggle with that part of the process that I need yet, another way for someone to die before I can set this plot in motion?

Elly: I suppose so in a way, it might sound strange from a crime writer, but the plot is always kind of the hardest bit for me because I really like the characterisation. And then what was fun in this book was writing about four very different characters, all from their viewpoints.

I really liked that bit. I love the location and atmosphere and I, that’s where I always start as a writers with the place and with the atmosphere of the place. So sometimes the who killed who and why is a little bit the last thing to appear. And I guess my murders aren’t very gory, so don’t have a kind of, lots of blood and gore in my books.

So it often is a sort of a puzzle, you know, who did what, when and why? So I guess that’s right. I am a little bit squeamish about killing people in horrible ways. And I think apart from the stair lift, I’ve never done anything too horrible, I think not, anyhow. So yeah, maybe that is the bit that I struggle with most.

Caroline: Is it helpful to have some external feedback, perhaps?

Elly: Yes. Yes, it is. It is really.

Caroline: When you were putting together this book, cause another thing that is remarkable and sort of makes it stand out, is the fact that you’ve got a collective detective group, as opposed to, you know, in your Ruth Galloway series, you’ve got an amateur and a professional, let’s say working in tandem, which is quite a classic mould.

But in this case, you’ve got a little gang of four haven’t you. Is that different? Does that feel differently when you’re writing?

Elly: Yes. I mean, it was, it was quite a challenge because yeah. So I’ve got the four characters, cause I’ve got Harbinder, who is Harbinder Kaur, who is the official detective.

She’s the Detective Sergeant who appears in The Stranger Diaries as well. So she’s kind of doing the police procedural bit. So I wanted to have three characters who weren’t doing that. So there’s Natalka who is the Ukrainian carer of Peggy, Peggy’s 80 year old neighbour, Edwin, and there’s Benedict who runs the coffee shop.

So I wanted to have sort of very different characters and the challenge, which I did quite enjoy, actually, was of course they would all notice different things and they’d see different things and Benedict’s very much a crime fan. And he loves some TV, crime and reading about crime and all sorts of things.

So he sees a certain thing, whereas Edwin is maybe a different generation and he sees different things, but he’s also very good sleuth and the Natalka’s quite dashing and takes risks. So I quite enjoy doing all those things, but it was quite hard to remember who’d seen what, who’d remember what, and there’s quite a lot about there quite a lot of clues in this book that are kind of literary, like sort of anagrams and wordplay and things like that.

And of course who’d noticed that and who wouldn’t and things like that. So that was quite a challenge, but I did enjoy it. I have to say really, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a book more.

Caroline: Well, that definitely comes across and something that I really, really liked about it and why I think it’s going to really, really appeal to the fans of the podcast is that it is so literary.

And so referential of the genre and not just the genre today, although you do have the period at the Aberdeen crime festival where there are contemporary writers, but it’s very referential of crime fiction in the past as well. So is that something that you’re a fan of as well?

Elly: Yes. You know, and I’m so happy to have found your podcast.

It’s going to be one of my happy places because yes, I love classic crime and golden age crime. And yes, one of the clues is about a golden age book, which is a made up, which is a made up writer, Sheila Atkins. And I had so much fun making up all her titles, because I love thinking of titles for books.

And I have to say quite often my publishers sort of say what a great title. No, we won’t have that. Yeah, because it’s like too, too silly or it’s a quote from Shakespeare or something. So I actually gave rein to all my what I think of a fantastic crimey titles and my editors would have to, like, you’ve got those all out of your system and I probably have as, so yes, there’s a golden age writer at the center of this.

And I do really like this, this sort of genre of writing. I teach creative writing and I just, but I do particular like, and also I think it’s a very sometimes quite overlooked, how kind of dark some of these books are and how sort of bleak they are. And some that they, one of my favorite golden age writers, I just think she’s almost out of print now, is Nancy Spain.

And I love her books. I mean, who would it love a writer who has a book, talking of titles, called Cinderella Goes To The Morgue. I mean, that’s such a good title. But you know, there’s a book of hers called R In The Month, which is set a sort of, rather than run down sort of seaside town in winter and it’s all atmospheric and brilliant.

So yes, that’s definitely an era that I like and I did very much enjoy sort of making up a few golden age plots. I suppose, in The Stranger Diaries, I’ve made up a Victorian short stories that I love the Victorian era. I’m a huge fan of Wilkie Collins. I see quite a lot of your listeners are also Wilkie Collins fans, so yeah. Yes. So I really did enjoy that.

Caroline: What do you think someone who’s writing crime fiction today, what do you like to take from that golden age period and what is sort of fresh and new do you think, is, are there things that you enjoy imitating?

Elly: Yes. Well, I do think golden age can teach us quite a lot about the power of understatement and what’s not said, and, and there, there are some, you know, it’s very spare.

I was re reading Agatha Christie the other day and this just pages and pages of dialogue. And you don’t even know who was saying what although you can guess Poirot cause he keeps saying, ah mon ami. You know, that’s why she keeps doing that so you can tell that it’s him, but, but there’s just lots of dialogue and it’s a very understated, but all the clues are then of course it’s very difficult in a short novel, like an Agatha Christie, I mean they’re sort of about 60,000 words. On average I think a book now is about 90,000 words. So with so little padding to do such a good plot it’s very, very hard. And to, and to not, to not cheat at all. And to really keep you guessing to the last minute. I write a series of novels for children actually — middle grade it’s called, so it’s like nine plus and they’re called A Girl Called Justice, and there are three books in the service now. And it made me think by that writing those words. Cause it goes, when you’re writing books for children, maybe it’s a little bit like a golden age novel, clearly there’s not going to be any gratuitous violence, there’s not going to be any sex. There’s not going to be much description of the countryside. So it’s all plot and, and that’s actually very hard to do something that’s kind of all plot. Having said there’s no sort of description. I do think that a lot of those writers are very good at, you know, what’s that wonderful Ngaio Marsh book, Opening Night, the set of theatre and the very, very good at atmosphere, I think.

But again, without too many words, not using too many words.

Caroline: We’ll hear more from Domenica, including how she keeps up with her two books a year schedule, after the break.

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And now, back to The Postscript Murders.

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Caroline: Because place and atmosphere, as you said, is something that’s very important to your books. And you’ve got two very distinct landscapes in your different series. And in this one, all of the stuff about, you know, Peggy and Edwin in the block of flats, looking out to sea and reflecting on old age and all that sort of thing.

It’s very evocative. And where did that come from? Is that also from your aunt?

Elly: I suppose. So I think it’s a move isn’t it? That maybe one takes at a certain point in life to maybe move from a flat into an apartment. And Edwin is quite sort of scathing about the apartments they’re called Seaview House and he calls them in his head Preview House.

It’s like a preview of death sort of thing. So he’s quite gloomy about it. I get the impression that sort of Peggy, so, so it in a different way. She saw it just as a new opportunity. And so I think it is a part of your life where when you are thinking of, yeah, you’re thinking of the next stage, this stage, it might be your last home, I guess.

So I think you would look at it, I suppose I did look at it a bit like that, you know, but, but Marge moved in, but also she loved it. You know, she really loves the view and she loves seeing the sea and she loves that such and a seaside town is actually a very good place for crime novel because it does a lot of the things that you need.

Like you really need a sort of range of people, is that usually a range of people in a seaside town, people sort of wash up next to the sea and sort of stay there. So you’re often have very grand houses in this book. There’s a millionaire’s row, which there is in Brighton, you know, where there is massively grand houses, but also you have quite grotty accommodation, you have a big range, but also if you have something near the sea, there’s always a way of escaping, you know, and actually Shoreham, this book is based in Shoreham by Sea, there’s even an airport, which is a lovely little 1930s airport, so people can, and they do in this book even get a plane. So I think the ideal setting for a crime novel is somewhere like that somewhere quite evocative. Somewhere where there’s a range, a social range, and also people with different backgrounds and histories and also a way of escaping.

Caroline: Hmm. Yeah. That’s a really good point. I suppose. You’ve, you’ve got two detective characters now on two different coasts of the UK.

Elly: I do. Yes. I do wonder about that. Obviously it’s something, and I know some of my Brighton books is set in the 1950s, I do seem to a friend to my William Shaw is really good crime writer writes the Alex Cupidi series. He, when he was a journalist, did an article about people who live near the sea and there was some studies done. I would have to ask him that showed that people got more eccentric the nearer they got to the sea. And you could always see that. So you get out of the station of Brighton station around Brighton station the sort of accountant’s office is a bit like that. And as you get near the sea, you get to tattoo parlours, you get the funny stranger shops and nearer to the sea, the slightly odder and stranger things are. So I think that might be why I’m drawn to the sea.

Caroline: And you’re absolutely right about the sort of social mix at a seaside town because people move there for all sorts of different reasons don’t they? And one thing that I am, I’m sort of in my head thinking about as a trend, but I don’t know if it is one yet, but I feel like there’s more and more crime novels. And these days that feature older characters of which The Postscript Murders is one and it’s such a fascinating thing to do, and you don’t see it perhaps quite so much in golden age stuff with the exceptions of Miss Marple and so on, people tend to be sort of middle-aged and active when they’re involved in a crime novel, but there’s a whole hidden history to a life that you can reveal as you do in this book. I wondered if you had any reflections.

Elly: Yeah, that’s so true. As a matter of fact I did think when I wrote this book, gosh, this will be really unusual group of old people solving the crime.

And older people solving a crime. And of course it came out at exactly the same time as Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, which I really, really enjoyed, which of course is about group of old people in an old people’s sort of complex solving crimes. So very, very similar plot though actually I think they are quite dissimilar books, but it is, it is something that happens all the time, isn’t it? You think this is a great idea and somebody else has it, but you’re so right about the golden age. I recently re-read, Agatha Christie’s By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which is a, it’s a Tommy and Tuppence novel, which they often a bit ignored aren’t they? But it’s very good. Again, very good on atmosphere, very creepy, but it starts off in an old people’s home and they keep saying that well, poor old soul needed to put her in an old people’s home.

She was 60. And you think, oh my goodness, that is young now, you know, maybe it’s because I’m in my fifties, I’m thinking that, but you know, and then there’s another, oh, well she’s 70. So it’s nowadays 70 year olds are Joanna Lumley aren’t they and glamorous people going around the world. And it really does make you think.

As you say, apart from Miss Marple who was kind of ancient throughout. It has been actually having said that By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, is Tommy and Tuppence in their later years, I guess they were in their fifties and they do muse quite a lot on that. And the fact that, you know, they had that exciting, wartime past.

And what do they do now? What does Tuppence do now as a woman? So actually there was a little bit of that in the books, if you look hard enough for it, but I guess I think like a lot of people as I get older, my idea of what is old gets older and older. So Peggy is 90 you know, she’s quite a spring chicken.

Caroline: Another nice improvement you’ve made on the form with this book is by making Peggy’s carer a really fully realised character I mean there’s several carer characters in the book. And I think there is perhaps a tendency to make those people invisible in fiction and in TV and so on. And you sort of done the opposite.

Elly: Thank you. I’m glad do you like Natalka. My mum was looked after by carers in her last years and they were just such wonderful people. And again, it’s an interesting job because people come to it from such different places and life experiences. They’re doing it for all sorts of different reasons.

Yet they are doing to something that is hard work and you do very hard work, but it’s also caring so that they are particularly interesting people I do think. And, but you’re quite right about it in a way, the golden age. And I always think of Miss Marple often says about some poor dead maid, poor silly girl, you know, and that’s all she gets.

That’s all the epitaph she gets . Yes. You want to bring out the figures, the hidden figures who might be overlooked in that genre of fiction, definitely. I like Josephine Tey, I’m a fan of The Daughter of Time, huge influence on me, but there’s an awful line in Brat Farrar where the sort of sympathetic character says, can your latest idiot take a telephone message? So yes, there’s snobbery there that is in some of the books I have to say, which I hope modern crime fiction doesn’t have that.

Caroline: Yes. I think definitely the I’ve been looking into this a lot recently, the kind of the way servants are just part of literally furniture is definitely not how people write today and that’s a definite upgrade. I suppose in a way that this is , as you say, a sequel to The Stranger Diaries, because Harbinder carries over, are we going to meet any of the characters again in the future, do you know?

Elly: I had thought it would be a standalone though I do think that Harbinder will appear again. So she, as you said, she appeared in The Stranger Diaries and she appears again here, so I feel she’s got one more adventure in her at least, and there are a few things I’d like her to do. I think it will be interesting to follow her doing, let’s say.

I had thought that they, I wouldn’t write about them again, but I’ve never missed characters as much as I miss Edwin and Benedict and Natalka. So I don’t know. I’m obviously quite bad at standalones, because I keep bringing my characters back, so I wouldn’t say never . But my idea is that the next Harbinder book will be a whole new cast of characters and the only one we’ll know will be Harbinder.

That’s the idea, but you never know. I can see them teaming up to solve more crimes and I’m also quite taken with maybe a short story about Peggy before, because you know, as we’ve said, she is sort of central to the novel, but she does die quite early on. So maybe a short story about her would be fun.

Caroline: Yes to visit her pre the events of The Postscript Murders?

Elly: Yeah.

Caroline: Well, you’re in charge.

Elly: I suppose I am!

Caroline: I’d love to ask you to a little bit about your sort of writing habits and your writing process, because you’re a very regular, and as a fan I can always rely on a new Ruth book and so on. How do you manage all of your different characters in your different series?

Elly: Well, I usually, thank you. I mean, I’m quite last couple years, I’ve published two books a year and you know, that, that didn’t stop in lockdown. In fact, I felt very lucky to have that to escape, to, to be honest with you. And I try and write every day. I’m very lucky my children are grown up and I do a bit of teaching, but, but that’s it really.

I’ve got a little writing shed in my garden, which is where I’m talking to you from. Yeah. So I try and write every day. I’m very lucky, usually I can do some, it’s usually just me in here with the cat writing away. I do usually just write one book at a time. So I wouldn’t say write a Ruth book in the morning or the Brighton Mystery in the afternoon.

So I have to be sort of in that place, I guess when I write it, the only exception is my children’s series A Girl Called Justice, cause I sometimes write your a of that on Friday to cheer myself up because I just really, really enjoy writing those books. So that’s like a little treat I give myself sometimes on a Friday, but, but usually, so I obviously have notebooks I’ve written, you know, when Ruth was born, when Nelson was born, but when the events of the books happened, because of course now I’m writing Ruth 14, actually at the moment, it’s called The Locked Room, and there are 14 years of stuff, you know, to remember.

And I usually I’m quite good at it. But sometimes I can be, oh, sometimes you think, did I say that, you know, in this book I’m writing at the moment she actually has goes to a school reunion and I knew I talked about her school friends somewhere that took me quite a long time to find it, but I had, so I was able to sort of, and luckily I put quite a sort of teasing little thing in about one of them. So I was quite pleased with myself.

Caroline: So, yes. Thanks to your past self. So how long would you say it takes you to write to write one of your novels?

Elly: It’s sort of like everything, isn’t it really? So as I say, I’ve been contracted to write two a year. So it basically takes six months.

I usually start one in January and sort of finish in July and start the next one in August and finish in January. So it sort of works itself out like that. I’m often editing one while I’m writing another, but that’s okay. It’s just the kind of creative, getting the story down that I feel I can’t do two at once.

So so that’s more or less what it takes me. But I’ve got like everything when I wrote one a year, it took me a year. And if I gave myself, you know, at some point I will take myself off this treadmill and then it will probably take me five years, who knows. But at the moment it doesn’t seem, it doesn’t seem to treadmill-ish actually.

Caroline: I was doing some research recently about what Agatha Christie did during the second world war and she wrote two books a year throughout the war. And in one case she wrote three. And she says in her autobiography that she found she had so much more time. Once you know, her husband was away with the armed forces and there was no social life.

She was actually living in London, but there was no social life because everyone had left. So she had nothing to do apart from write. And that made me think that that’s a little bit like the last year.

Elly: Interesting. Yeah. Did those novels feature the war? I’m trying to think.

Caroline: I think a couple of the later ones did, I think the sort of ones that come out in 44, 45 sort of reference it, but largely not.

And actually the year that she wrote three, one of them was Curtain, which then wasn’t published until the seventies, but she wrote it in 41 they think, and then had it put away as the last Poirot

Elly: That’s such a good book. God, that’s very interesting. I guess you forget really Third Girl is the sixties, isn’t it?

You know, she just did sort of keep writing. But at that point I do think there are similarities. So funny enough, the Ruth book I’m writing at the moment, which is Ruth 14, called The Locked Room, it is set in 2020, because I couldn’t really get away, get away from that because I’ve been writing one every year. So she is locked down.

With Nelson, without Nelson? In this book at the same time, I’m thinking of the next Justice book, which will be in the second world war it’ll be 1939. because that’s where I’ve got to in that series. And there are sort of similarities, you know, I think you’ve just described the school with a gas mask and, and school suddenly seeming sort of different and having different rules.

And I am seeing similarities there, definitely. Yes. So like, Agatha Christie I think writers are very lucky because we can escape can’t we, you know, you can escape the what’s happening in your own world.

Caroline: And process it into whatever is helpful. Yes, I was very struck by what she said about how well, I just had nothing to do apart from work, which I think is probably what many of us have found.

Well, I think that that’s everything that I wanted to ask you.

Elly: Well, it’s been lovely to talk to you and just to say I’m so flattered that people wanted to hear about The Postscript Murders and there probably will be another Harbinder book at some point, but the next book for me will be the next Ruth book, which will be in February. And it’s called The Locked Room.

Caroline: Wonderful.

Music

Thanks very much to Domenica, aka Elly Griffiths, for joining me. The Postscript Murders is available now at all good booksellers, and if you’d like to discuss it with other members of the Shedunnit Book Club community at the end of June, sign up now at shedunnitbookclub.com.

This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/goldenageinspiration. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

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