Author: caroline

A Century of Whodunnits Transcript

Something I love about making this podcast is the space it provides for me to zoom right in. I can dedicate a whole episode to a single trope from classic detective fiction, whether that’s tropes like “the butler did it” or settings like “on a boat”.

I’ve narrowed the focus even further by putting a time limit on the books that I cover. They largely come from the golden age of detective fiction, that period between the two world wars when what we now think of as the “classic” whodunnit was at the height of its popularity.

And while I have no intention of setting aside this approach, something has been gnawing at me for a while. It’s this question. What would it look like if I zoomed out instead of in? What if, instead of tracking the development of the golden age detective novel within that short timespan, I considered the broad strokes of the murder mystery across a whole century?

Well, that’s what I’m going to do today. We’re going on a journey from 1900 to the year 2000. This is the twentieth century, according to its whodunnits.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It’s now been a century, at least, since the first whodunnits from the golden age of detective fiction were published.

I spend a lot of time reading the books that were published during that two decades or so because I love seeing the development of the “classic” whodunnit up close, and also because I make this podcast.

I know that round numbers are meaningless, but I can’t help it. Noticing that a hundred years has passed since some of my favourite books from the early 1920s were first released had more of an impact on me than when it was just 99 years, or 98. There are still so many books from that time that are new to me that it’s easy to forget that they are, objectively, quite old now.

As much as I might try to get into the mindset of a reader from 1923, for instance, reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ debut novel Whose Body? with fresh eyes just after publication and encountering her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey for the first time, I can’t switch off my knowledge of everything that comes after. I know that she would write ten more novels and dozens of short stories featuring this character, and that she would begin drifting away from writing detective fiction once the second world war began. Imagination can only take you so far.

Although I can’t abandon my vantage point in 2021 and the hindsight that comes with it, I decided to try reading my way through the crime fiction of the twentieth century from beginning to end, like I was one very long lived reader keeping up with what was new in my favourite genre.

To do this, I picked a book from each decade that seemed to me to be an important step forward for the form of the detective novel. Now, before I get into discussion these books, I just want to preempt any dissent about my choices by saying that they are just that, my choices. This is a personal journey through the twentieth century’s crime fiction, and it’s in no way intended to be a definitive reading list or statement. In fact, I’d love to hear what you would pick for a similar reading project — you can tell me about it on social media if you’d like, where the podcast can be found as @ShedunnitShow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Having said all that, I couldn’t start anywhere but with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories that Arthur Conan Doyle had published in magazines between 1903 and 1904, and which appeared in one volume for the first time in 1905.

This wasn’t Holmes’s first appearance in the twentieth century. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novel about Holmes and Watson’s adventures unravelling the myth of a diabolical dog on Dartmoor, had been published in 1902. But crucially, this story is a flashback — in the personal chronology of Sherlock Holmes, it takes place before he dies at the end of the short story “The Final Problem”, first published in 1893.

Conan Doyle really did intend that to be the last word on Sherlock Holmes. He was convinced he was destined for literary greatness beyond detective fiction, and that the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street was just holding him back. He even wrote to his mother about the decision, saying that “I must save my mind for better things”.

But it didn’t last long. First he relented to the pressure from publishers and the public with a tale from Holmes’s casebook in the form of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then in the first story from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”, he resurrected his sleuth properly. Picking up this book again for the first time in years, I tried to imagine how exciting it would have been, as a fan, to open the magazine containing the first new adventure for your favourite character in ten years. Today, we have become accustomed to the endless cycle of reboots and remakes, but I think that would have been genuinely thrilling.

Since it had been a while since I read these stories, I had forgotten quite how many of my favourites this collection contains. The characters of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are well established, and thanks to his work’s incredible popularity Conan Doyle is able to assume when writing in the early 1900s that his readers are conversant with the typical beats of a detective story. Therefore, he spends less time on the fundamental mechanics of “whodunnit” and starts riffing on the theme, exploring new avenues and possibilities.

Turning the pages, it felt a bit like I was reading a kind of source text out of which everything in the next couple of decades was going to expand. “The Adventure of the Empty House” is a clever locked room mystery. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is a case that turns on code breaking. “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” is an inheritance mystery. “The Adventure of the Priory School” features a criminal that deliberately tries to hoodwink the detective when it comes to forensic observation. “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” sees the detective act not only as investigator, but judge and jury too. I could go on. Each story contains at least one aspect that other writers would enhance and develop into entire plots and subgenres in the decades to come.

It really isn’t possible to understate the influence that Sherlock Holmes had on the crime fiction that followed. So many of the traits that we now just associate with the figure of “the detective, such as his eccentricity, or his detachment from a personal life, or his preoccupation with forensic evidence like ash and footprints, were first brought to wide attention in the form of Sherlock Holmes.

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I started with a bang, I know. Now we’re moving on to the next decade, the 1910s, and a book that I think is a little less well known today: Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, first published in 1913. Writers like GK Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley all regarded it very highly, and when the Detection Club was formed in 1930 Bentley was elected as a member based on the reputation of this one novel, and succeeded GK Chesterton to become the society’s second president.

I first came across the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley when I worked at the New Statesman magazine, as it happens. Bentley is probably best known today as the originator of a poetic form called after his own middle name — the clerihew. Supposedly, Bentley invented these four line biographical poems when at school in the 1890s, and he and schoolfriend GK Chesterton had great fun filling notebooks with them. The first line has to be just the person’s name, and then the following three lines (rhyming AABB) sketch the person’s life. Here’s an example, from Bentley’s 1905 collection of them, Biography for Beginners:

Sir Christopher Wren

Said “I am going to dine with some men.

“If anybody calls

“Say I am designing St Paul’s.”

The New Statesman ran competitions where readers sent clerihews in for years, and for the 2013 centenary issue the writer Craig Brown was commissioned to write some new ones. I got curious about how someone could make living in the 1900s from writing funny little poems, so I dug into Bentley’s bibliography and discovered his detective fiction. Anyway, the point of telling you this is to illustrate how that light, comic style was central to Bentley’s work and reputation, during his lifetime and after. If you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, then you have a fair idea of how he wrote.

Because that’s how Trent’s Last Case started out, as a kind of light comic parody or satire. He set out to write a detective novel that would simultaneously contribute to the genre while also undercutting the seriousness of detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown, who had first appeared in print in 1910.

Trent’s Last Case and includes lots of other very recognisable elements that would later become standard golden age tropes: an unlikeable victim, a comic amateur sleuth, an apparently perfect alibi and a brilliant twist ending. Philip Trent struggles against “the impotence of human reason”, but in making reason or logic the central theme of the book while marrying it with a lightness of touch and sparkling prose, Bentley was paving the way for Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and many others to follow. He prevented the detective novel from becoming too serious and self regarding. Even the title is a joke in itself — this is the first novel about Philip Trent, but it’s also announced as his last case because he’s not a good detective. In other words, E.C. Bentley made it OK to be funny while writing detective fiction.

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And now we’re in the 1920s — a decade of richness when it comes to detective fiction. What should I choose? Agatha Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Gladys Mitchell’s first novel Speedy Death, or Anthony Berkeley’s brilliantly referential and innovative The Poisoned Chocolates Case? No, I went for The Cask, first published in 1920, the first novel by Irish writer Freeman Wills Crofts.

Why? Well, it’s true that in part I wanted to read a book from this decade that isn’t quite as familiar to me as those others I mentioned, and also because I think what Crofts achieved in this novel is worth appreciating as an important way point on crime fiction’s journey through the century. Crofts was a railway engineer by profession, or at least he was until 1929 when he became a full time detective novelist, and he wrote this first book while signed off work sick in 1919.

His plot unites three strands that we’re going to revisit a lot in the rest of this episode.

Firstly, it is a police procedural. A cask containing a dead body is unloaded at the docks in London, and the police are summoned to investigate (the cask disappears again before they can take charge of it, but you’ll need to read the book yourself to find out why). The reader then follows the police detective through the process of chasing down clues until they arrive at the truth.

This relates to the second strand: the masterful way in which Crofts handles alibis. Every single one is worked out to the second. This was to become a trademark of his fiction going forward, but again I feel like it would have felt new to a reader cracking open the book for the first time in 1920.

And then finally, there’s an international dimension to the book, with the cask bouncing back and forward between London and Paris with the police detectives of both cities on its tail.

I find reading The Cask incredibly restful, which is an odd thing to say about a book centred around a murder, I know. But there’s something about the way the plot is constructed that makes it clear that Crofts is in full control, and I find it relaxing to know that somebody is else is in charge while I’m reading. His work absolutely deserves to be better known, so if you haven’t read one of his stories before I highly recommend seeking one out.

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Into the 1930s. Again, since we’re still in the golden age, I was spoilt for choice. I went for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is a book that I’ve reread a lot in the last twenty years. I didn’t choose it with this in mind, but I found that it followed on from The Cask very well, because the complex bellringing elements of Sayers’ plot — she did subtitle it “changes rung on an old theme in two short touches and two full peals” after all — married very well with Crofts’ detailed alibis.

Where The Nine Tailors feels like a step onwards is in its characterisation. The people of Fenchurch St Paul, the tiny Norfolk village where Peter Wimsey ends up by accident on New Year’s Eve, live and breathe. Their ideas and motivations are overlapping and complex; they don’t all line up neatly just for the purpose of a plot. Said plot also takes place over a number of years, which also helps to dissipate the feeling of artificiality that had begun to creep into some detective novels by this time. The events of the novel span a couple of decades, which feels a bit more likely than a case that can be tied up in a bow in three days.

When Sayers died in 1956 the obituary writer in the New York Times remarked that this novel was widely considered to be her finest literary achievement. I would agree – I think she invented better plots, but I don’t think she wrote a better novel. The presence of Wimsey feels almost incidental, as if he truly is there by accident rather than having to push the plot on with exposition. And some of her descriptive passages about the way the bells sound across the fens or the rising floodwaters in the dykes are truly brilliant.

Sayers was always looking for ways to push the detective novel further and to release it from the restrictions placed on genre fiction. Given that, I think it’s the highest compliment I could pay this book to say that I really don’t care who did the crime by the end — I just want to keep reading about the village and the bells.

After the break: what happens after the golden age?

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The Second World War was something of a watershed moment for detective fiction. Some previously prominent writers, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, stopped writing whodunnits altogether after 1939. Others, like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and others, kept going with the characters and style that had made them popular during the golden age even as that period drew to a close.

It was really difficult to know at what point to drop in on Agatha Christie’s career on this journey. There are six different decades to choose from — she published whodunnits from the 1920s through to the 1970s. That’s over half of the twentieth century, just in her bibliography.

Although I think the 1930s probably represents her best hit rate — that is the period in which she wrote Peril at End House, The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None, after all — I eventually went for Five Little Pigs. I think this unsettling novel from 1943 is truly a tour de force, and I also think it shows signs of the way the crime genre is developing that are interesting to note after what we’ve read before.

My principle attraction to Five Little Pigs, though, lies in the fact that it is a cold case — something that Christie didn’t address often, preferring a more active murder scenario. In this one, Hercule Poirot reexamining a case from 16 years ago in which a painter was poisoned as he worked at a portrait of his mistress. The book is formally intriguing, too, with the events of his last day retold to the detective from five different perspectives as he interviews each of the five people who were present. It’s a formidable challenge of both plotting and detection, since Christie allows neither herself nor Poirot access to new clues or suspects beyond those included in the original case. It’s a book that carries the reader along on the drama of pure intellect and reasoning, and as such I think can fairly be described as a true high point of the golden age style.

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My next choice reflects the way in which the detective novel began to morph and change with the changing times after 1945. Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert has some of the key golden age characteristics, including a closed circle of suspects and an amateur detective, but is very different in setting and atmosphere. The plot takes place in a prisoner of war camp for British officers in northern Italy during the Second World War, and is based on Gilbert’s own experiences of being interned.

The camp inmates are working hard at covertly digging a tunnel so they can escape when they discover a dead body in their earthworks. Rather than alert the camp’s authorities to the murder and expose their escape attempt, they appoint one of their own number to investigate the crime. This element works very well as a classic murder mystery plot, but it enhanced by the addition of a wartime thriller, as the characters struggle to get out safely before the camp is turned over to the Germans.

Gilbert was an incredibly adaptable writer, who dabbled in many different styles and subgenres over his long writing career. I think he represents a bridge between the dominant style of crime writing in the 1930s and 40s and the more modern thriller found in bookshops today. He was reading crime fiction during the golden age, and even started writing a mystery novel in the late 1930s, but didn’t get to start publishing until after the war.

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We are a long way from Shedunnit’s usual stomping ground in the golden age of detective fiction now. Although our next writer was technically alive during that period — she was born in 1930 — her first book came out in 1964. That was From Doon With Death, the debut of Ruth Rendell, in which she introduced the character who was to become her recurring sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford.

This wasn’t the very first Ruth Rendell I had read, because I’ve picked a few up at the library at random over the years, but it was the first time I had read this book. I found it really impressive — I don’t think all the crime writers I’ve read for this episode managed such an accomplished debut. From Doon With Death is chilling and suspenseful, and I also think it looks both backwards and forwards in the canon of twentieth century crime writing.

The woman at the heart of the plot, Margaret Parsons, is a shy housewife in a quiet town. She is very clearly differentiated from the upper class, larger than life victims in whodunnits from the 1930s and 40s. Her normalness is strongly underlined. This makes the murderer’s attack on her all the more shocking — what on earth can she had done to justify such a thing? The emphasis on her home feels to me like it looks forward to the trend for domestic noir that is even now dominating the bestseller charts.

Yet there are aspects of this book that feel like they could be from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel, in particular Margaret’s secret cache of rare books. It is in the inscriptions to these that Wexford has to look for clues to unlock the case. Rendell’s use of the particular legal circumstances of the time to hoodwink the reader also reminded me of Sayers’ legal slight of hand in Unnatural Death. I found reading From Doon With Death a really interesting experience, perhaps I should read more modern crime fiction more often.

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I was really motoring through the latter part of the twentieth century now, in a period of crime fiction that is almost completely unfamiliar to me. My best book, from the 1970s, was [Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James](https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Death-of-an-Expert-Witness-by-P-D-James/9780571253395?a_aid=shedunnit). This was first published in 1977, and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I came across it during my research for my People’s Pathologist episode about the early forensics expert Bernard Spilsbury.

This novel came fairly early in James’s career, but her police detective character Adam Dalgliesh was already well established by the time it came out. Again, there are aspects of his character that seem to hark backwards even as the plot of this novel is modern. Dalgliesh is a kind of “gentleman” detective within Scotland Yard, and someone who enjoys poetry and reflection. He reminds me a little of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who first appeared in 1975’s Last Bus To Woodstock, but also of E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen from his novels in the 1930s — Owen being from a noble family yet choosing to work as a lowly police constable.

Death of an Expert Witness is set among the staff of a forensics lab, and this gives James plenty of scope to introduce lots of technicalities peculiar to that field. The focus on forensics is intriguing, but the motive she gives to her murderer was a bit disappointing to me, and felt like it fell into some of the exploitative traps that generally makes me dislike more recent crime fiction. Still, I’d like to spend more time with Adam Dalgliesh.

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My choice for the 1980s is a bit of a throwback — Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes, first published in 1986. I say that because this is actually the final book in a series that began during the golden age, with 1936’s Death at the President’s Lodgings. Innes was the pseudonym of literature academic J.I.M. Stewart, and in half a century he published almost fifty novels featuring his sleuth Sir John Appleby. I’ve read some of the earlier ones and liked them, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to drop in on the final instalment.

As is fitting for a detective of such long service, Sir John has retired from the police force by the time of this book. He goes for a cosy lunch at a country house called Clusters with Lord and Lady Osprey, and is then surprised to get a call days later to come and investigate the lord’s murder. The power dynamic between him and the officer actually in charge of this case is interesting, but overall I rather regretted my choice to read a late career book by such a long lived author.

It was rather like reading late P.G. Wodehouse, in that it felt nostalgic for a world of country houses and casual privilege that didn’t really exist anymore. The appearance of the N word in Sir John’s dialogue and some of the attitudes expressed around rape didn’t make this book especially comfortable reading.

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And now, we have arrived at the last of my ten books, the end of the journey. This is the only book on my list that is by a living writer, who is also coincidentally the only writer here I have actually met. My last choice is Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, his eight novel to feature his police detective Inspector Rebus, which was first published in 1997. Again, I’ve read a few Rankins here and there at random from the library, but this was my first time choosing one intentionally.

I had read that this title in particular was considered a seminal example of the “tartan noir” movement in modern crime fiction, and so decided to use it as the destination for this journey. It felt fitting that my meander through a century of British crime fiction, so much of which is very stereotypically English, should end north of the border.

In Black and Blue, Rebus is working on I think four cases at once. It’s action packed, with the detective flitting around Scotland in pursuit of a terrifying serial killer while at the same time handling some internal disputes within the police. There’s also a political and corporate corruption subplot. We’ve come a long way from the linear, laidback plot of Trent’s Last Case, shall we say.

But for all of its busyness and chaos, I liked Black and Blue a lot. It manages to be topical with all of its references to North Sea oil and the political clout that will bring while also having a timeless enough plot that reading it in 2021 didn’t feel like browsing old newspaper articles. I’m no expert in American noir, but I strongly suspect that Rebus’s high energy antics in this book have more in common with the work of Raymond Chandler, say, than that of Agatha Christie.

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And there we have it — that was my journey through ten decades of whodunnits, a book at a time. If you’ve previously been a dedicated golden age reader like me, I hope you found a reason somewhere in here to stray beyond the 1940s. And if you’re an aficionado of more recent publications, perhaps you’re now intrigued by Trent’s Last Case. I’m certainly going to be spending more time with Ruth Rendell and P.D. James in the future.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated 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/century. 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.

A Century of Whodunnits

Reading through the twentieth century, one murder mystery at a time.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but the opening plot scenario of each book is discussed briefly. There is a major spoiler for the Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem” from 1893.

The ten books I read for this episode are:

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley (1913)

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920)

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1943)

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert (1952)

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell (1964)

Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James (1977)

Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes (1986)

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)

Other sources:

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Bloody Murder: from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel by Julian Symons

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.

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

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 on a special deep discount through May, and you can find that through 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.

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

Swan Song

How do you say goodbye to a beloved detective? Agatha Christie, of course, made a mystery out of it.

Thanks to my guest, Mark Aldridge. You can find out more about his work at markaldridge.info and order a copy of his new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, from all good booksellers.

Spoiler warning: there are major spoilers for Curtain and Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie in this episode.

Books mentioned and other sources:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Curtain by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“The Dispenser” episode about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks by John Curran

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

“A Christie for Christmas” episode about Agatha Christie’s seasonal publication schedule

“Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective”: obituary in the New York Times, 6th August 1975

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction, also discussed on “The Rules” episode of the podcast

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.

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/swansongtranscript

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

Swan Song Transcript

Caroline: Detectives have to be fundamentally infallible. On their journey to a mystery’s solution they can be fragile, or flawed, or unreliable, or uncertain, but the reader has to be able to rely on the sleuth to find a satisfactory answer in the end. It’s a fundamental part of what makes a whodunnit work. After all, who is going to keep reading a type of story where the hero shrugs their shoulders on the final page and says “I dunno, maybe they did it with mirrors”?

Over time, pulling that rabbit out of the hat in a plausible yet surprising way becomes more and more difficult for the writer. Wearying of their creation, most detective novelists either move onto a different character or drift away from the genre altogether — writers like Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes who stuck with the same sleuth for five decades apiece are definitely in the minority. For the rest, a tricky question then arises: how best to conclude the career of a beloved detective? With the bang of a triumphant final case, or a whimper as they are never heard from again?

Agatha Christie, the best known and most widely read of the authors to come out of detective fiction’s golden age, grappled with this issue in perhaps the most unexpected way of all. Join me, then, as we delve into the surprising story of her sleuths’ swan song.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Today’s episode merits a rare overall spoiler warning from me. I generally try to keep my episodes free of major plot revelations, as I’m aware that some listeners use the show as a way to discover new mysteries to read. However, it’s not possible to do this particular topic justice without discussion of what happens in Sleeping Murder and Curtain by Agatha Christie, so if you want to read either of those books for the first time without prior knowledge of how they end, I recommend choosing a different episode to listen to for now and returning to this one once you’ve finished them.

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By the time the Second World War began in 1939, Agatha Christie had been publishing mysteries for almost two decades. All of her major recurring characters had already appeared in print somewhere in her canon. Hercule Poirot, of course, first stepped onto the page in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1921. He was followed by Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Miss Marple came into being for the short stories that were serialised separately and then collected in 1932’s The Thirteen Problems. Secondary sleuths like Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle had also all appeared in at least one novel and story by the mid 1930s. Her most productive and innovative writing years were arguably already behind her.

Poirot was, of course, by far her most popular character, and has had a life far beyond the books, as discussed on the previous episode of the podcast. At this point, Miss Marple had only appeared in one full length novel — 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage — but she was certainly second only to the little Belgian with the egg shaped head in readers’ hearts.

Although she carried on writing at a great pace during the war, Agatha Christie’s life was greatly changed by it. Her husband Max Mallowan worked for the Air Ministry and was posted abroad to North Africa. Their home in Devon, Greenway, was requisitioned by the US Navy (who installed a great number of extra lavatories in the house, much to Christie’s dismay post 1945). The author herself removed to London, where she refreshed her chemist’s training from the First World War and once more volunteered as a hospital dispenser. Many years later, she wrote in her autobiography that this period didn’t seem real at all — the war years were “a nightmare in which reality stopped”.

It was a furiously productive nightmare, however. Christie later put this down to the fact that she had no social life at all, and instead spent her days at the hospital and her nights at her desk, turning out whodunnits. She published thirteen novels between 1939 and 1945, including acclaimed classics like Evil Under The Sun, Five Little Pigs and The Body in the Library.

Those weren’t the only books that she worked on, however. Two more novels flowed from her pen during this time. Apart from her literary agent and a few trusted friends and family members however, nobody knew of their existence. Curtain and Sleeping Murder were destined to spend decades in a bank vault under the greatest secrecy. Their author intended that they would only see the light of day after she was dead.

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Agatha Christie was not shy about discussing her own demise. Perhaps fittingly for someone whose livelihood depended on inventing clever ways for people to die, in her autobiography she expresses her surprise that her agent always looked so upset when she brought up the question of what might happen to her characters and her work if she were to pass away. She didn’t feel that it was a subject to be embarrassed about at all.

It seems to be this practicality about mortality that lead her to begin work on Curtain in the early 1940s. Although the manuscript isn’t precisely dated, her notes for the story are mingled in with those for the stories in The Labours of Hercules that were published around this time and she sent a draft of the finished book to her agent in 1941, so we can make a reasonable guess that she was mostly working on it in 1940.

This was to be Poirot’s swan song — his final outing. There is some evidence in her notebooks that the idea for this story came to her several years before she actually began to write it, but the circumstances of life past 1939 are perhaps what pushed her to get it finished. Every aspect of the plot reeks of finality. It sees Poirot return to the setting of her very first novel, Styles Court, now come down in the world from country manor to genteel guesthouse. It rekindles his partnership with the Watson of his early adventures, Captain Hastings, who last appeared in 1937’s Dumb Witness and would not show his face again in Christie’s canon until Curtain came out. And most importantly of all, it is Poirot’s last case in every sense of the word, because the detective does not survive the investigation. It’s a book hemmed in by death on all sides.

Mark: So this was during the war, when Agatha Christie didn’t know how long she was going to live for — nobody knows, you don’t know what’s happening.

You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by a bomb, which indeed one of her houses was in Sheffield Terrace. So there’s all sorts of reasons to be thinking about your future. So it wasn’t that she was necessarily thinking ‘when I die at a great old age, this will be something’, but for all she knows, she might never have written another Poirot afterwards because you know, people did die in bombing attacks.

So it sort of comes down to that, this posthumousness. I guess it makes sense that if you’re really wanting to kill Poirot off, that’s the one that you can write and put to one side for later.

Caroline: That’s Mark Aldridge, the Agatha Christie historian and author of a recent book about Hercule Poirot. Christie always intended Curtain to be the last Poirot novel to be published, whether she was to be killed in the Blitz or, as actually happened, live for several more decades. It was to be the punctuation at the end of his story, the hard stop that would prevent other unauthorised uses of her most popular and valuable character. And it was also something of a financial insurance policy. The rights to the book were legally gifted to her daughter Rosalind, meaning that any proceeds from sales or subsequent adaptations belonged to her. The reason for this? Well, they do say that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life…

Mark: The intention was that along with various other things that she distributed to lots of people, but that actually it’s very difficult to tax-wise whilst you’re still alive to gift things to people. And so it was basically designed to be a posthumous gift that meant that Rosalind would be able to reap the rewards of this.

Caroline: Christie wrote later that she understood very little of what she’d been told about death duties, but that she did grasp that her demise was going to cost her relatives a great deal of money in inheritance taxes and so on. Gifting the rights to her works, then, was a way of distributing her success to friends and relations while she was still alive. And Curtain was undoubtedly going to be the jewel in the crown — even in 1940, I think she would have had a fair idea about how popular a book with the subtitle “Poirot’s Last Case” was going to be. Rosalind would be well taken care of.

Christie’s second husband Max received the rights to Sleeping Murder in a very similar way. This was a last outing for Miss Marple, although it differs from Curtain in several important regards. Firstly, Miss Marple doesn’t die in this book and she doesn’t even seem to have aged substantially — unlike Poirot, who is quite infirm by the time of his final visit to Styles and of course passes away there. Christie also doesn’t seem to have had quite such a clear vision for Sleeping Murder, because the story went through various different iterations in the planning, at one time with Poirot attached at detective, and then Tommy and Tuppence, before it eventually found its final form as a Marple story.

Historians have long thought that it must have been written around the same time as Curtain, since it had a similar purpose in insuring Max against Christie’s death, and the author herself does bracket both books together in her autobiography. However, some detective work by John Curran, the editor of Christie’s notebooks, suggests that Sleeping Murder came together in the mid or even late 1940s. It contains a reference to the “poison pen trouble down near Lymstock” which is an allusion to The Moving Finger, published in 1943, and its planning is closely intertwined with that of Taken at the Flood, which came out in 1948.

Regardless, both books eventually ended up in the bank vault, heavily insured, to be published after Christie’s death. Even though she would go on to write many more outings for both characters, Agatha Christie had already had the final word on Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.

After the break: How Poirot kept breaking rules, right to the end.

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Agatha Christie may have been more relaxed about contemplating her own death than her friends and relatives expected, but that didn’t mean that she had any idea when it would happen, and thus when her two secret novels would see the light of day.

In the event, Curtain actually appeared a few months before Christie passed away in January 1976. She had published a Miss Marple in 1971, Nemesis, and then a Poirot, Elephants Can Remember, in 1972, but things really came to a stop with 1973’s Postern of Fate, a Tommy and Tuppence novel that isn’t really up to the quality of what she had done with the characters before. And so her daughter Rosalind, who owned the rights to Curtain, had an idea.

Mark: It was quite a complicated thing for them to work out by the end, but it was actually Rosalind’s suggestion. By the time it was obvious that Agatha Christie wasn’t going to be able to write another novel, certainly, she actually suggested that perhaps it could be published, obviously you don’t know how long, you know, Agatha Christie is going to live, there’s no way for them to know that.

But she did say, well I’m going to surprise you, I think as the way she phrased it, when she wrote to her that her agent and publisher, Agatha Christie’s agent and publisher and said, and I think that we would quite like to publish Curtain. And then she spoke to Agatha Christie who seemed quite happy with it because I think Agatha Christie, by the end of her life, all I know from what she writes, that she felt a great deal of responsibility for the Christie at Christmas as it was by this point.

Caroline: And so to keep up that tradition of a new Christie for Christmas, Curtain was published in 1975. It caused a global sensation, and earned Hercule Poirot a new and surprising accolade — he became the first fictional character to receive a front page obituary in the New York Times. “Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective” the headline announced on the 6th August 1975. “His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, his creator, was one of the most illustrious in fiction,” the article declared.

Curtain was actually one of the earlier Agatha Christie books I read when I was discovering her work as a teenager. I just got it out of the library and had no idea that it had been written getting on for 40 years before it was published. When you think about this, it’s rather marvellous — somehow Christie in 1940 managed to write a novel that didn’t feel anachronistic or out of place in 1975.

Mark That was a deliberate choice that she says that in her letters that she had deliberately done that. And she also said that she gave permission to Rosalind or whoever to make any changes to it before publication that they felt was necessary. Bear in mind she’s probably thinking at this time that it might be, you know, 30 years in the future, not necessarily 36 or whatever it ends up being.

So it’s quite a long, old time and so much changes in that time that you can’t envision that, can you, so she was probably thinking along the lines of, you know, whether it’s the brands of coffee or something could come in and out of fashion. In the end, it is still a sort of period piece because the tone of it is different to how she is writing in the sixties.

In particular, I would say that it goes back to this sort of country house feeling. But yeah, absolutely, you wouldn’t know. I mean, now we’re so far away from it again, now that you’ve read it and it’s 45 years and is it really that different reading a book that’s 45 years than one that’s 75 years, maybe a little bit, but the further away we get, the more these, these periods seem to condense in history a little bit don’t they?

Suddenly things that felt massively distinctive about them they sort of start to get mixed a bit so in our sort of cultural memory. So I think that that over time most people will approach it like you did.

Caroline: I recommend rereading both of these novels, actually, and thinking about their long sojourn in a bank vault as you do so. It really seems extraordinary that they worked for readers at the time of publication, stripped of all of the detail of setting and place that would have situated them in the 1970s rather than the 1940s. But perhaps it’s because the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie was so well established by this time that readers barely noticed anything out of the ordinary. These stories happen in a kind of alternate whodunnit universe, and time doesn’t work in quite the same way there.

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Caroline: Miss Marple’s final full length novel Sleeping Murder, was actually published posthumously as planned. It appeared later on in 1976, and had a slightly more troubled gestation period than Curtain. Twice during the decades between the novel being written and her death Christie had to change its title. Originally she wanted to call it “Murder in Retrospect”, which is a good representation of the plot’s focus on crimes of the past that resurface in the present, but then her American publishers used this title when they brought out Five Little Pigs in the US. It was then renamed Cover Her Face, which is a quotation from the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster — the full line being “Cover her face — mine eyes dazzle — she died young”. P.D. James used this title for a novel in 1962, though, so Christie once more had to think again, and eventually plumped for Sleeping Murder.

It’s a strong story, with some extremely creepy moments, but it in no way climbs to the heights that Curtain does.

The best thing about Curtain, I think, is the way that it brings together several of Christie’s best moments with Hercule Poirot while also working as a story in its own right. This is no greatest hits album that rests on its laurels. This is a story about a canny, unlikely murderer, who goes about his crimes in such a way that even Hercule Poirot is — for a while — at a loss as to how to bring him to justice. Back at Styles and in the company of his loyal friend Hastings once more, Poirot eventually has to perpetrate a break in the rules of classic golden age detective fiction even more dramatic than the one Christe pulled off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. “The detective must not himself commit the crime,” Ronald Knox declared in his famous ten commandments for the genre, but Poirot ends up taking matters into his own hands and executing the murderer before gently allowing his own illness to end his life.

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John Curran writes that “[Curtain] is the most dazzling example of literary legerdemain in the entire Christie output, and I agree. Christie has hinted at Poirot’s egotism when it comes to the dispensing of justice before — most notably in Murder on the Orient Express — and it is that certainty and command of every situation that readers love. Hastings and Japp might roll their eyes as he extols the superiority of his little grey cells, but they, and we, know that he’s right.

In this final case, Agatha Christie makes the detective’s power over life and death practical rather than just theoretical. Hercule Poirot is infallible, to the last.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated 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/swansong. 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.

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot

There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

Thanks to my guest, Mark Aldridge. You can find out more about his work at markaldridge.info and order a copy of his new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, from all good booksellers.

There are no major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below.

Sources and further information:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by Maurice Leblanc
“The Dispenser” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
“The Lady Vanishes” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s 1926 “disappearance” and divorce
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Murder in Mesopotamia 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.

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

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

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot Transcript

Caroline: There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

The beloved Belgian detective made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair At Styles a hundred years ago, and today it seems impossible to remember a time when he wasn’t a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

But Agatha Christie’s sleuth, for all that he is obsessed with neatness and order, isn’t a straightforward character. Even in print there are all sorts of inconsistencies in his portrayal, and at times even his creator seemed less than enthusiastic about his little grey cells. The cinematic success and beloved television adaptations are a relatively recent phenomenon. There were entire decades of the twentieth century where Poirot barely appeared on screen at all.

In fact, we might say that there isn’t one Hercule Poirot, but many, jostling for position on page and screen. And today, we’re going to meet some of them.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Hercule Poirot came to be because of an argument that Agatha Christie had with her sister. In her autobiography, Christie described herself and Madge as “connoisseurs of the detective story”, saying they had enjoyed all of Sherlock Holmes as well as the work of Gaston Leroux and the Arsène Lupin stories. They were disputing whether it was easy or not to write a detective story — Madge thought it would be difficult, whereas Agatha thought she might be able to do it if she tried. She didn’t put pen to paper write then and there, but as she put it “the seed had been sown”.

She began to think about it more seriously in 1916 when she was working as a dispenser at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. Snatches of plot and character came to her in idle moments, and apparently thinking about it made her quite distracted at home. Those idle wonderings eventually became The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which was published in 1920.

But before it got that far, she had to make a key decision for a detective novelist. She had to create a detective.

Mark: Well, she had this thing and I think it shows how she was already able to think like an author in a very practical sense, even before she had anything substantial published that when she was writing Styles or when she was planning that she was going to write Styles, she was like, well, I need a detective, and she was very sort of pragmatic about it.

Caroline: This is Mark Aldridge, a historian of Agatha Christie and the author most recently of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. This book is a study of all the different ways Poirot has been written and portrayed over his century of existence, and the context behind both Agatha Christie’s work and that of all the other writers and actors who have had a hand in his appearances. That origin point, when she was pulling together her ideas for The Mysterious Affair At Styles, is crucial to Mark’s book, so I’ll let him explain Christie’s thought process.

Mark: I need a detective, they probably have to have some sort of quirk, you know, she didn’t want an inspector from Scotland Yard. So she started to think about what else you could have. So she thought about things like a school boy investigator or scientist.  But she, she settled on. Yeah, a Belgian refugee, but she immediately says, and she says this in her autobiography. Well, I didn’t know them but there was several were housed near Torquay or in Torquay.  And actually there still is. You can still see where, where they, they used to be held  or housed and  So what you can actually get a sense of from that is that she was like, Oh, well, here’s somebody, who’s a bit interesting distinctive, even though I don’t know much about Belgians or indeed refugees perhaps necessarily, but she still felt that that would be somebody who was, was very appealing.

Caroline: When Christie was giving her detective his distinguishing characteristics for this first story, she could have had no idea that she would still be working with this character five decades later. She had never had any writing published before — and indeed it would take several years of trying even to get The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. She certainly wasn’t designing Poirot with a long running series in mind, in the way that a professional writer embarking on a new project might. As a result, Christie had some regrets about how Poirot turned out.

Mark: So she did say that she, she regretted making him so old initially and possibly regretted making him for her quite annoying. But she seemed to soften on that as she got older as well. But yes, it, I think that if she’d known that she was having a recurring detective, I suspect that that Poirot isn’t who she would have gone for

Caroline: Poirot’s age is the obvious issue that Christie herself, as well as all the playwrights and screenwriters who have engaged with her work, have had to grapple with. He’s introduced as a retired policeman in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which suggests he’s at least in his sixties. By the time a book like After the Funeral was published in 1953, he must be at least into his nineties, which isn’t ideal if you think about it for too long. And that wasn’t the only thing about Poirot that Christie regretted.

Mark: The things that she found quite difficult to stick with, the things that are work on a superficial level.

And then don’t, if you think about them too much  and actually most, we just don’t mind these things, but she would even get annoyed with things like that. He had an egg shaped head. It’s just like, what is the next shape? Ted says, people would ask me which way round is the egg. Can I say, no, I just said an egg shaped head and you’re stuck with that already.

He limps in the first one, which goes out pretty soon. So we can assume that that’s a passing    sort of problem.  But, but things like, she seemed to get quite annoyed with his, his tidiness and his fastidiousness because she said herself that did I create him because I’m wildly untidy myself, so says perhaps subconsciously she was writing someone who was a complete contrast to herself.

And I guess that’s quite fun, once or twice, but then if you’re writing somebody who’s whole sort of attitudes to life perhaps is quite different to yours in terms of the him, his neatness,  his desire for order, which really was, were not Agatha Christie type traits  in her own life. Then you can understand why she would then find him quite annoying over time.

Caroline: Like Poirot himself, Christie’s relationship to her creation did not remain fixed. In the introduction to the Daily Mail serialisation of Appointment with Death in 1938 she wrote that “there are moments when I have felt why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” That line is often quoted, but doesn’t really reflect her true feelings to her little Belgian sleuth, Mark says.

Mark: If you keep reading that, that quote, which is in the introduction to appointment with death serialization?  She, she says, Oh, but actually, I, I think he’s won because actually he, he has sort of won me over by this point and, and I feel much more warmly towards him. So even by the late thirties, she didn’t seem to mind him that much, but.

You know, it’s like with colleagues, isn’t it, you can really enjoy working with a work colleague, but they can still annoy you every now and again.  And I think this was the same for her. That Poirot was her work colleague and it was all right when he was bubbling in the background and when she had a good idea for him, but when suddenly you’re stuck together, it’s not so much fun.

Caroline: Christie used another of her sleuthing characters, Ariadne Oliver, as a way of relieving her feelings about this a little. She admitted in an interview in 1956 that Ariadne, a popular detective novelist who appears in a string of novels beginning with Cards on the Table in 1936 and ending with Elephants Can Remember in 1972, contained “a strong dash” of Agatha Christie herself. Ariadne’s detective character is a Finn, Sven Hjerson, who has a number of quirks that are frustrating to his creator, including vegetarianism, cold baths in winter, and raw foods. She also complains of how difficult it is to create a realistic and consistent backstory for a character from a country she knows nothing about — in Ariadne’s case, Finland, but for Agatha and Hercule, of course, it was Belgium.

Ariadne Oliver was also useful for Agatha as a way of acknowledging or correcting her past mistakes. For instance, in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne admits to having got the length of a blowpipe completely wrong and receiving a lot of reader letters about it — which refers to a similar error Christie made in a Poirot novel from the 1930s.

Poirot might have had his annoyances for his creator, but there were circumstances in her own life that meant he had to endure. Readers loved him, and especially after the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, there was an increasingly large audience for new Poirot adventures. That year also marked a turning point for Christie herself, as I’ve covered before on the show, which culminated in her divorce from Archie Christie and her need to support herself with her writing.

Mark: She was having to then really write professionally because she needed the money, which before her divorce, she hadn’t really needed.  But she wanted to then obviously have her independence afterwards.

And so when actually you’re having to write, because you’ve got to put Poirot in a story because he’s commercial  because  you know, you need to sell these copies, sell it to magazines. That was a big thing that they love Poirot in this era. Then you can start to feel a bit tied to him can’t you and feel a bit like you’re, you’re stuck in this, this sort of dependence between yourselves that, that, that perhaps isn’t something that is going to be very gratifying to you as an author, but commercially and for your readers will be very successful.

Caroline: Agatha Christie was a keen reader of Arthur Conan Doyle. She writes in her autobiography how instrumental Sherlock Holmes was to her own ideas about how to write a detective, and in The Sittaford Mystery she created a brilliant homage to his 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle had of course, famously, tried to kill off his detective when he got fed up of writing him, even though the public were desperate for more stories, and then had to humiliatingly revive him. Christie came up with a much more subtle way of relieving her feelings around Hercule Poirot’s end while keeping her public happy — and I’ll be talking more about that in another episode soon.

After the break: Hercule Poirot is ready for his closeup.

Now, a brief intermission. The style that I use to make Shedunnit means that what you hear in these final episodes is a bit like an iceberg — it’s only the visible tip of a great big mass of interviews and research that goes unseen underneath. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Shedunnit Book Club, because I can put some of that extra material into bonus episodes and extended interviews for those dedicated paying supporters. If you would like to hear full length versions of my conversations with the guests you hear on the show — such as On Nomoto from the Honkaku Mysteries episode, say, or Hamish Symington the crossword setter, or indeed Agatha Christie historian Mark Aldridge, become a member today to get access to the show’s bonus feed. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and you’ll be helping to keep the show financially viable. To hear more from Shedunnit, consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Caroline: Agatha Christie had a somewhat tense relationship, at times, with the stage and screen versions of her characters. Her clearest of expression of this, again, comes via Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, when she says: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things they never would have said”.

1931’s Alibi was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot on film, and that came to the big screen via the theatre. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been adapted by Michael Morton into a stage play called Alibi that was performed in 1928, and it was that version which was subsequently produced as a film. Christie had disliked Morton’s early suggestion that her Belgian sleuth should become “Beau Poirot”, be 20 year younger and be a heartthrob to young ladies. This didn’t make it into final version of the script and he remained Hercule for both the play and the film of Alibi. But he was played in the first three Poirot films by the young actor Austin Trevor, who was 33 when Alibi was made — introducing yet another confusing element to the question of “how old is Hercule Poirot”. That film, by the way, is now completely lost, so you can’t go back and watch it — all we have to go on are the contemporary reviews and material that survives.

While I was talking to Mark about all the different incarnations that Hercule Poirot had and Christie’s attitude to the adaptation of her work, it reminded me of something that Victoria Stewart said on an episode last year when she was talking about how the students on her detective fiction course first encounter murder mysteries. Let’s hear it:

Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television.

Caroline: Reruns of the various Poirot and Marple films and TV series are so common on British daytime television that the young people who come to Victoria’s classes quite often had their first encounter with the characters on screen, rather than in books. That is completely normal and expected these days, but it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon.

Mark: We’re so used to seeing lots of Poirot now. And you go look at this such a long period where there’s no Poirot whatsoever. If we are to, you know, perhaps ignore a single West German adaptation and possibly some unofficial ones in Russia, then actually between 1934 and 1965, he is not onscreen at all for 31 years at the peak of his success, there is no real Poirot.

There’s like an American TV pilot. So, so there’s 25 minutes shown once  in like the early 1960s. But other than that, very, very, you know, there’s no great mainstream Poirot. There’s no actor who people are readily associating with him beyond those who’ve played him on stage and screen in the late twenties and through to the thirties.

Caroline: As Mark says, there were a handful of film and TV projects through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but they often focused on other characters from her canon, rather than Hercule Poirot.

Mark: Poirot was always seen as the, sort of the crown jewels as, as the absolute sort of    the, the thing to be protected above all else, I guess, in, in Agatha Christie. And that goes for during her lifetime and, and afterwards. And then there is this sort of slight relaxation when Murder on the Orient Express happens in, in 1974 the film. And then there seems to be a bit more relaxation, but even then they would test the waters usually with other things. So when there were noises about television adaptations again  which they had been constantly been asked about and denied their response was, well, you can have Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, which is, you know, it doesn’t have Ms Marple doesn’t have Poirot  is, is  is a very decent mystery, but is I would say, not generally regarded as, as one of the handful of masterpieces. You know, it’s not very, very top tier, I would say  And so it was slightly a safe bet that you could say why? Well, let’s see how they get on with this one. And then we’ll see. And then, then that they’re sort of starts really in the sort of fishing line a little bit and go, okay, you can have Tommy and Tuppence that? See what happened to Tommy and then there’s miss Marple. And then so 10 years after Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? happens, we’ve got David Suchet as Poirot.

Caroline: This idea of “protecting” Poirot, of keeping Agatha Christie’s most popular character “safe” from clumsy screen adaptation is one that has its origins in the author’s own caution, and which was carried on by her relatives as they took bigger roles in her literary estate. But it isn’t always quite as simple as that, as Mark has discovered during his research.

Mark: One of the great surprises was about  murder by the book, which is this, this  one off a television film ashes, about 50 minutes long, which was made and shown in the eighties. And that is all about Agatha Christie played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft meeting Poirot, played by Ian Holme and having a discussion about let’s say her plans for him.

And, and, and  how well Poirot, I was going to come out of all of these plans and, and what, how what’s my plan for him might be. And my assumption had always been well, they must’ve just sort of done this and not worried about. You know, the Christie estate and stuff, because it’s everything that they don’t like.

You know, it says they really didn’t like Agatha Christie herself being depicted on the screen, particularly  and Poirot was fiercely protected at this point. So imagine my surprise in learning, not only through paperwork, but also speaking to Matthew that actually they really liked it and they were really supportive of it.

Caroline: That’s Matthew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie.

Mark: And they, they allowed the use Poirot for a pound. So they didn’t even like make money out of anything. They just saw. It was a rather nice idea. So are I often, I think I’m probably guilty of this more than anybody else of, of sort of really reinforcing this over-protective idea that I think some people get the impression of that being, but actually there are so many of these exceptions that it just shows actually, if you had them right approach, if you were doing things that happened to coincide with what either Agatha Christie Limited or the sort of family wanted to do, then actually there was quite a lot there. That’s that they would allow you to do. So it’s just always full of surprises.

Caroline: Adaptations, especially popular ones like the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and the more recent films, certainly help to give a character the university that makes them instantly recognisable from even the smallest hint or phrase. But Hercule was a household name long before David Suchet started twiddling his moustaches on television. There’s something intrinsic to the way Christie wrote him that makes him stick in the memory.

Mark: I think that there’s something immediately definable about him in a way that even Miss Marple isn’t quite there. He’s got some very strong traits and of course  is, is very well known as well. But I think that because Poirot has particularly got this thing about being an outsider that makes them much more immediately identifiable. She basically describes him in the same way. In dozens of books  that she will describe him in precisely the same way, you know, with the egg shaped head and with the fine moustaches and with the little grey cells all the ways that he’s described.

And so it almost becomes a description that, that is so heavily ingrained in your head that, that he’s right there. And I think it’s a bit of a gift to a good actor to be able to, to, to bring that to the screen.

Caroline: But lots of characters have recognisable physical traits. The moustaches alone aren’t enough.

Mark: I actually would suggest that the reason he’s endured is because the mysteries he’s in are brilliant. And I think that’s the big thing is it’s a Poirot’s around because he solved really good cases  in a really interesting way with completely satisfying  conclusions for the most part — Murder in Mesopotamia, there’s one or two exceptions — but what we’ve got really is, is somebody who, who it’s great to revisit and go back.

I mean, there are loads of brilliant characters who have completely forgotten in detective fiction because perhaps they’re their mysteries aren’t that great. Poirot has got this great thing of being both a very strong and identifiable character and somebody who is in some of the greatest pieces of detective fiction ever written.

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Caroline: That’s what it comes down to, as I think it often does in discussions of Agatha Christie’s work. You can dissect her prose style and her settings, her focus on a particular class of people and set of attitudes, her over reliance on a few stock ideas about how people lived. But you can’t argue with her plots, or with most of them, at least. That’s what gave Hercule Poirot life a hundred years ago, and it’s why he’s still alive today.

Mark: Poirot is bigger than any of us, once you’ve created him, there’s no stopping him and you can’t, you can’t contain him.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated 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/themanyafterlivesofherculepoirot. 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.

Cryptic Crimes Transcript

Caroline: Classic detective fiction has rules. Codified as the genre grew in popularity in the 1920s and early 30s, these conventions mostly feed into the idea of “fair play” between author and reader. The art of writing a good murder mystery, then, is sticking to this framework while also subverting it. There’s a great skill to putting the secret out in the open and at the same time manipulating the reader into never looking at it long enough to guess the answer.

But whodunnits are not the only form of entertainment from this time that rely on clues, misdirection and twists to bewitch and delight. Another kind of mystery entirely grew out of the so called “puzzle craze” of the early twentieth century, and there’s a surprising amount of intersection and dialogue between the two. Both have their rules, their traditions, their famous creators, and their devoted fans.

Grab your pencils and put on your thinking caps, because today we’re going to solve some crosswords.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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The first crossword was published because it was almost Christmas and a newspaper editor had run out of ideas. It was 1913 and Arthur Wynne, the journalist in charge of the New York World’s weekly colour supplement titled FUN, had more space available than he had words to fill it with. The order had recently come down from management that the paper should be including more puzzles and games, so Wynne decided to make one up to fill his extra space. He created a diamond shaped grid of squares accompanied by a list of riddles that corresponded to the numbered rows and columns.

As the reader filled in the answers, the intersections provided letters that could help solve other clues. That first time, on 21 December 1913, it appeared under the title of “Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle”. Two weeks later, a printing error reversed those two key words and it became “Fun’s Cross-Word Puzzle”. The name stuck and it was an instant hit. After seven weekly puzzles had appeared, readers even started sending in ones that they had constructed themselves, and two years in Wynne was complaining that “the present supply will last until the second week in December, 2100.”. That quick puzzle that he had dashed off last minute became an institution and quickly gathered thousands of fans.

The crossword was a peculiarly trans-Atlantic invention. Arthur Wynne was born and brought up in Liverpool, the port city in the north west of England where I live, but emigrated to Pittsburgh in the United States when he was 19. Newspapers were in his blood — his father had been the editor of the Liverpool Mercury, and Wynne started out on the Pittsburgh Press before he transferred to the New York World. Although he is remembered fondly now as the originator of these puzzles, he didn’t create them in a vacuum. Going back to the nineteenth century, word games such as acrostics had been a popular element of newspapers and magazines, and the early Fun Crosswords have a lot in common with the “riddle boxes” popular in British children’s magazines when Wynne was growing up. And 23 years before Wynne in 1890, an Italian journalist called Giuseppe Airoldi had published a puzzle he called the parole incrociate or “crossed words” in a Milan magazine. This was a four by four grid where each row and column was the solution to an accompanying definition. The Italian reading public weren’t especially keen on it, so it didn’t take off. It was the puzzle-hungry readership of the New York World, a couple of decades later, that really set the crossword puzzle in motion, and it quickly caught on in Britain too, with the first crossword puzzle appearing in Pearson’s magazine in 1922. American and British crosswords are different, though, it should be noted. The former is often based on general knowledge and definitions, while the so called “cryptic” style popular in the UK is built on wordplay, puns, anagrams and the like. The first cryptic crossword was published in the Observer in 1926, and the setter Torquemada is generally credited with originating the form.

But what does any of this have to do with murder mysteries? Well, these two forms of puzzle — the crossword and the classic fair play whodunnit — were exploding in popularity at the same time and this collective passion had a common source in the so called “puzzle craze” of the period immediately following the First World War. I’ve talked before on the show about the “convalescent” qualities of whodunnits and how people exhausted and traumatised by years of conflict found comfort in this genre, and the same dynamic was at play with all kinds of distracting, puzzle based entertainment. Jigsaws, treasures hunts and parlour games all surged in popularity and the crossword was right up there too. The critic Alison Light has described the effect of murder mysteries in this post war period as “the mental equivalent of pottering”, and the same could be said of word puzzles. Even the genre’s detractors saw the similarities — in his famous 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, the critic Edmund Wilson says that “the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere be­tween smoking and crossword puzzles”. People love whodunnits and crosswords alike because they’re absorbing and distracting but not disruptive.

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I feel like I should issue a disclaimer at this point. I am not good at crosswords, especially the cryptic ones that really passionate fans of these puzzles adore, and I’ve never devoted any time to learning their ways. I’m not sure why — I’ll happily spend hours and days thinking about the nuances a 1920s  murder mystery, but when confronted with a crossword clue like “One may take issue with rising fish stocks”, nine letters, my brain just glazes over.

In order to understand the connection between crosswords and crime fiction more deeply, then, I needed to call in an expert.

Hamish: There is a particular type of crossword clue for that one where, um, the, the solution is actually hidden in the in the clue itself. Here’s one I wrote a while back. “Put an end to staying in hotel, I’m in a tent”, and if you look at the words “hotel, I’m in a tent”, Ignore the H O T  of hotel and then you’ve got. E L I M I N a T E N T for tents at the end of it. And that spells eliminate, but it’s actually in “hotel, I’m in a tent”. So it’s staying in hotel, I’m in a tent and it means put an end to. So in that, in that case, the solution is literally staring you in the face. If you care to read the clue in the right way.

Caroline: This is Hamish Symington, a plant science phd student and cryptic crossword enthusiast. I’m afraid even after this excellent explanation the solution to that particular clue is still not staring me in the face. But that’s just me — there’s nobody better to guide us through this cryptic world: Hamish sets crosswords for the Guardian and elsewhere under the pseudonym “Soup”, and he even takes commissions to create custom puzzles for birthdays and other special occasions.

I knew in principle that cryptic crosswords and crime novels shared many features, but it wasn’t until I talked to Hamish that I realised quite how much they have in common. For starters, crosswords have rules that setters are supposed to follow, very much in the way that the writers of classic whodunnits were too.

Hamish: A clue should contain two things. It should contain the definition and it should contain wordplay to give you the answer to that definition and nothing else. And that is a really difficult thing to stick to. There are some times where you want to include a few extra words, just because it would really make the surface of the clue look like something else, but it doesn’t contribute to the actual meaning of the clue. It’s extra cruft, which you’re putting in just to make it look good. That is not allowed.

Caroline: And then there’s the dynamic between the setter and the solver, and the way that clues have to be both transparent and opaque at the same time.

Hamish: This is the joy of cryptic puzzle, as opposed to general knowledge or something like that. The clue that is split into two parts, you have the definition, which is a synonym of the word which you are looking for, then there’s wordplay. And the wordplay is really, really clever because it gives you the puzzle of how to get to the solution while looking like it means something completely different. And that is the art of the setter is making it look like something completely different.

Caroline: And then there’s the fact that setters write under pseudonyms.

Hamish: Everyone has a pseudonym. They don’t publish under their real names, I’m not entirely sure why this came about, but it’s how it always is. So Araucaria was the monkey puzzler, he was always called the little monkey when he was little, apparently. So they kind of make sense. Araucaria is the monkey puzzle tree.

Caroline: Araucaria was the pseudonym of the Reverend John Galbraith Graham, who was a popular cryptic crossword compiler for the Guardian from 1958 until his death in 2013. He was a crosswording mentor of sorts to Hamish, who also succeeded Araucaria as the editor of 1 Across magazine. Setters like this who publish puzzles over many decades develop a certain style and way of doing things that fans recognise, just as a favourite author might have a distinctive flair or a recurring character.

Hamish: [20:26] I can’t workout how to explain it you just, you just get to know the setter. Um, Some setters are witty, some like Shakespearian characters more than others. There’s a setter called Boatman who will always include the word “boatman“ in one of the clues. That could mean sailor or tar or A.B. for Able Seaman or it could mean I or me for the setter. There’s a setter called Paul who is often a bit more smutty. So you’ll probably get a bum joke in every one of his crosswords. There are some whose puzzles you just look at in complete awe. There’s a setter called Brendan, who is amazing. He set a puzzle in which nowhere in the grid was that the letter E, which is the most common letter setting that as a grid is actually relatively straightforward, but nowhere in the clues was the letter E either. And that sort of stuff is amazing. Araucaria had his own style. He was very much anything goes as long as it’s fair. There are rules, which you have to follow. He didn’t always follow the rules, but he knew what he was doing when he was breaking them. And you could tell that from the clues, you would always think that the clue was fair.

Caroline: That sounds rather familiar to the mystery fan, doesn’t it? A group of clever writers, often working under knowing pseudonyms, who play with the rules of a form that first became popular in the 1920s to baffle and delight their readers. The more I learned from Hamish, the more I began to see all of the parallels between the golden age of detective fiction and the world of cryptic crosswords. It was almost enough to make me want to try and solve one for myself. Almost.

After the break: what happens when you put the crosswords in the crime fiction?

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Now, a brief intermission. They say that the pictures are better on radio, but sometimes it can be helpful to actually see what I’m talking about with your eyes rather than building the image in your mind alone. To this end, I want to recommend the podcast’s Instagram account to you — I’ve got really into sharing pictures of books and adaptations on there, as well as talking to listeners directly, and I’d love for you to join us. It’s @ShedunnitShow, and following the show there is also a good way to stay in touch with what’s coming up, because I share some behind the scenes stuff as well as sometimes running quizzes and giving away copies of my favourite murder mysteries. Last year, I “soft launched” some new merchandise on Instagram and it all sold out in the first day, so it’s a good way of staying in the loop about that sort of thing. Take part in the podcast in between episodes by following now — @ShedunnitShow on Instagram.

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The practice of putting crosswords actually in crime stories goes almost all the way back to Arthur Wynne and that first “Word-Cross” in the New York World in 1913. After that puzzle series became so popular that the paper was inundated with reader submitted solutions and puzzles, Wynne was assigned a secretary to help him manage it. Margaret Petherbridge, a highly educated woman who had her own ambitions to become a writer, initially saw this as a dead end job, but found herself sucked into the world of the crossword regardless, especially after she realised how much of the mailbag for the page was readers complaining about Wynne’s shoddy setting and frequent mistakes. Once she had tried some of Wynne’s puzzles for herself and realised that they were technically unsolvable, she vowed to fix it.  She took the whole thing in hand and put it on a more professional footing. She became a crossword enthusiast herself, and when she left the New York World, she was one of the editors of the first books of crosswords, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1925. It was incredibly popular, with 350,000 copies selling in the first year, and booksellers and libraries reported a sudden decline in sales and borrowing, because everyone was just doing the crossword book instead. Petherbridge joined the New York Times in 1942 as its first puzzle editor, and was described by the New Yorker as “probably the most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle”.

But from our point of view, Margeret Petherbridge’s most significant contribution to the intersection of crime fiction and crosswords was a series of 21 short stories that were published by Mystery Book Magazine in the 1940s. They starred a sleuth called “Inspector Cross” and included a crossword puzzles that readers had to solve in order to fill in the gaps in the mystery story. This is a formal experiment that has been repeated down the twentieth century, demonstrating just how closely the puzzle and the puzzle mystery are intertwined. For instance, an author called Nero Blanc — actually a pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team — throughout the 2000s published a dozen instalments of a series called “the crossword mysteries”, which are whodunnits which come with downloadable crossword puzzles that the reader can fill in to augment the story.

Detective novelists have long dabbled with crosswords in their fiction, and puzzles can have narrative uses beyond this more literal method of “solve these clues to reveal elements of the story”. The Dorothy L. Sayers short story “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will”, published in the 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, is an excellent example of this, where the crossword is for the characters to solve, not the reader — although Sayers did kindly include a grid and the correct answers in the back of the back of the book for anyone who wants to try. A friend of Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister is struggling to track down a rich uncle’s will, and the sleuth helps her to uncover that the answer lies in a set of riddles with answers that must be slotted into the tiled grid of an indoor fountain. I asked Hamish to take a look at these clues, and he reported that while this isn’t a true cryptic crossword — he described it as a riddle — they are well written and much better than the usual standard of puzzle to be found in fiction.

The writer E.R. Punshon went one better than Sayers in 1934 and published a novel titled Crossword Mystery, which sees his sleuth Bobby Owen sent to provide protection to a jittery stockbroker whose brother has recently died in a seemingly innocent swimming accident. A crossword devised by one of the victims in this story provides pivotal clues that lead to the eventual solution, and again Punshon “played fair” by the reader by including the grid in the book so that everyone could have a go, again pointing to the similar skills required to solve a murder and a crossword puzzle. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one myself, and I have read others say that it is particularly hard, so I don’t feel too bad about that.

We find this same trope of a dead person leaving a crossword behind to illuminate their demise in Close Quarters, a novel by Michael Gilbert that was published in 1947 but demonstrates many of the characteristics of the previous decade’s whodunnits. It’s set in a cathedral close, with the various resident clergy rocked by a spate of poison pen letters that accuses one of their number of negligence. A crossword puzzle devised by a previous victim is eventually discovered, and in a memorable scene two characters solve it on the spot to reveal a vital clue that moves the plot towards its conclusion. In this way, the puzzle is being used as a kind of personal code, with the setter pitching it a level that they knew their friend and fellow enthusiast would be able to manage, but which wouldn’t be accessible to a curious stranger. Gilbert’s novel can be read a little like a check list for the major tropes of golden age detective fiction, with the closed circle of suspects confined within the walls of the cathedral close, some fascinating stuff around footprints and time of death, a major red herring and a dramatic denouement. The crossword is really just the final touch that confirms this novel as being very much of the golden age, despite it’s slightly later publication date.

The crossword, then, can both provide clues itself and also work as an expression of its setter’s or solver’s personality. This latter attribute is very much on display in a short story called “The Clue” by the Anglo Irish writer Lord Dunsany. This is a very brief piece which turns on the idea that an apparently perfect murder can be solved by unravelling the crossword that the killer filled in while waiting for their victim to arrive at the deadly rendezvous. The sleuth divines a lot about the solver by looking at which clues they went for first and which solutions they missed entirely — you can learn a lot about a person, it turns out, based on which obscure facts they know and which they don’t.

And lest you think that it is only golden age authors who dabbled in crossword based murders, I must just point out that Patricia Moyes published one in 1983 called Six Letter Word for Death. This one is rather more convoluted and leaves me yearning for the stark simplicity of a grid on the page, but since the the sleuth is initially tipped off to the murder by mysterious crossword clues that arrive anonymously by post, I think it has to be included in the crossword mystery canon.

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After all that I’ve said, it should come as no surprise to you that mystery writers throughout the last 100 years have been among the foremost fans of crosswords. Whether it’s Ronald Knox having to give them up for Lent as a penance, or Colin Dexter naming all the characters in a Morse novel after his fellow regular competitors in a newspaper crossword competition, it’s clear that the skills involved in plotting a murder mystery and those required to solve a cryptic are very similar. And the tradition continues with today’s crime novelists — one of Hamish’s proudest custom crossword commissions was for Anthony Horowitz, who I’m told is a rare author who writes genuinely high calibre clues into his fiction.

I’ve always found crosswords intimidating — they seemed to have so many rules and conventions that I didn’t understand — but now that I know that they’re essentially just murder mysteries in grid form, I’m rather more inclined to give them a go. Whether it’s crime or cryptics, we’re all just searching for the solution, after all.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. My thanks to Hamish Symington, aka Soup, for sharing his crossword expertise with me — we actually spoke for a long time and he did his very best to make me understand how cryptic clues work, and members of the Shedunnit book club will be getting to hear that full interview soon as a bonus episode, sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you would also like to hear it. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/crypticcrimes. 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.

Cryptic Crimes

If you can solve a crossword, you can solve a murder.

Thanks to my guest, Hamish Symington. You can find out more about his work at hamishsymington.com and order a custom cryptic crossword from him at customcrypticcrosswords.com.

There are no major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below.

Sources and further information:

Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars by Alison Light
“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” by Edmund Wilson, first published in the New Yorker on 20 January 1945
The Crossword Mysteries by Nero Blanc
“The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will” in Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers
Crossword Mystery by E.R. Punshon
Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert
“The Clue” in Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories by Lord Dunsany
A Six Letter Word For Death by Patricia Moyes
Last Puzzle and Testament by Parnell Hall
Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures With Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them by Adrienne Raphel
—”Clues: Crosswords and Detective Stories” by John Curran in Crime and Detective Stories 79, December 2018
Cracking Cryptic Crosswords by Colin Dexter
— Two episodes of The Allusionist podcast about crosswords: #8 Crosswords and #62: In Crypt, Decrypt

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

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

The Honkaku Mysteries Transcript

Caroline: It’s over a hundred years now since the golden age of detective fiction began in Britain. Some writers who were key to the popularity of the whodunnit between the two world wars are still household names in the UK and the US today — Agatha Christie, of course, but the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and others have their dedicated fanbases too. And in the last decade, there has been a great revival of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, with authors whose work has not stayed in the limelight quite so well now being brought back to mainstream availability.

But a neglected part of my own reading, and I think that of many other fans of detective fiction from this time, is what was happening beyond the Anglophone world. While it is true that what we now refer to as the “golden age” style of detective novel did find many of its initial practitioners among British and American writers, they were not the only ones trying their hand at it. Japan also has a deep and intriguing tradition of twentieth century crime writing, and thanks to a recent spate of translations, those of us who aren’t able to read these stories in their original language can now enjoy whodunnits from a different culture and tradition.

Today, we’re going to delve into the honkaku mysteries.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we start this episode, a brief note on pronunciation. While I’ve made every effort to try and say the Japanese words and names in this episode as accurately as I can, I’m not a Japanese speaker and I’m sure I’m making mistakes. If you are interested in learning more about the language and translation side of this topic, I’ve linked to some interviews and resources in the show notes.

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What is a honkaku mystery? That word is going to be very important in this episode, so let’s look closely at it for a moment. “Honkaku” can be translated as “orthodox”, and during the golden age period it became a term that writers used to describe a distinct style of crime story. The writer Haruta Yoshitame defined a honkaku story as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning.” A lot of the conventions that grew out of this initial definition are very similar to those expressed in the so called “rules” espoused by British and American golden age writers, with the idea of “fair play” and logical deduction key to both.

Under his Koga Saburo pseudonym, Yoshitame was one of the pioneers of this style in Japanese fiction, publishing short stories in the 1920s and contributing an essay on Arthur Conan Doyle to a collection published in Japan in 1934. However, the honour of writing the very first honkaku detective story in Japanese is usually given to Taro Hirai, who published “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” in 1923. Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, which was a rough transliteration of the name “Edgar Allen Poe”, and his Tokyo based private detective Kogoro Akechi has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes. Older writers like Ruikō Kuroiwa and Kaita Murayama had published works that married elements of detection with sensational and Gothic tropes before, but it was the stories that appeared in the 1920s that are really the first recognisable whodunnits.

As you can already see, there are a lot of links between the detective stories of the US and the UK and those being written in Japan. But as I read more about the work of Hirai and Yoshitame, it struck me that this influence runs in one direction only. The Japanese writers were reading Poe, Conan Doyle, Gaston Leroux and, when they came along, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne and others. The honkaku writers’ novels are peppered with references to the English language crime fiction of the time, as you’ll hear later in the episode. But there was no transmission in the opposite direction, as far as I’ve been able to determine. A lack of communication, a snobbishness about translating fiction, prejudice against Japanese people — for whatever reason, there was no way that Agatha Christie could read the honkaku writers’ work like they were devouring hers, even if she had wanted to.

The writer I really want to introduce to you came along slightly after Hirai and Yoshitame, and would go on to become the most popular honkaku writer of all. Born in 1902, Seishi Yokomizo would write 77 detective novels over the course of his long career, many of them with a locked room element. He created an iconic detective character who has appeared in numerous film and TV adaptations, and he had sold over 55 million books by the time of his death in 1981. Just to give you a small idea of how big a deal he is in Japan: there’s a Seishi Yokomizo museum in Tokyo and an annual parade in his home town where participants dress up as his detective.

A really challenging thing when exploring books that are now nearly a century old is that there’s very few people left who have first hand memories of the writer. So it’s a rare pleasure to be able to hear from someone who at least witnessed Yokomizo at work — a member of his own family, in fact.

On: He passed away when I was a 10. Absolutely. I remember a lot of times spend with her with him. But I always have a question what he was doing in his office all the way, the corner of the house.

Caroline: I’ll let my guest introduce himself.

On: My name is On Nomoto. I’m the grandson of Seishi Yokomizo who is the one of the two leading figures of Japanese golden age detective mystery fiction.

Caroline: On has lived in America for over twenty years now, but grew up in Japan and in normal times would be going back every year to visit family. His grandfather grew up in the early twentieth century in Kobe, a port city to the west of Tokyo.

On: That’s Kobe shogo. That’s one of the major trading hubs in the history of Japan and then he was supposed to succeed his father’s business or other medical How do you call about medical field? Small business, but of course he have a desire to be writer, so he suddenly quit that. And then he came to Tokyo because of his friends or mentor by  that’s another one of two major leading figures of Japanese sort of golden age, a detective fiction author.

Caroline: It was because he grew up this port city, which saw a constant influx of people from elsewhere in the world, that his grandfather was able to get his first taste of western mystery writing, On says.

On: I believe strongly believe that there’s a lot of many trading items all over the world. And there are many, you know, foreigner left the magazine or books or paper bags to get something to drink. They sell sodas in the old bookstore. And then he has a great friends. To hopping around the town, use the bookstore after the school, and then they grabbed any kind of detective mystery magazine or journals. And then that’s how he actually getting into this field.

Caroline: But a big impediment to Seishi Yokomizo’s writing, and that of the other honkaku writers of this time, was Japan’s political regime and its conflicts abroad. From 1937 the country was at war with China, and it then officially entered WW2 in 1940. Literary censorship became the norm, albeit with writers often choosing not to write out of fear of the possible consequences rather than direct enforcement, although that did happen too — in 1939 Taro Hirai was ordered to delete every word from his already published work as Edogawa Rampo because it was deemed “injurious to public morals”. Seishi Yokomizo, like many others, refrained from publishing any mystery fiction during this time.

On: In the1930s already the Pacific war so called, generally called world war two, had started. And then government censorship against to the western style culture, of course, literature included was actually the subject to be banned. So he was completely refused or denied to write any type of his desire for detective mystery. So that was a really hard time for him.

Caroline: It wasn’t until after the war, therefore, that Yokomizo published his first detective novel. The Honjin Murders was originally serialised in a magazine in 1946, and marks the first appearance of the character that Yokomizo would go on to write into 76 other books: his detective Kosuke Kindaichi.

In a 1946 essay titled “Detective Fiction and the War”, Yokomizo wrote that the “Japanese find themselves in this atrocious predicament because they do not read enough detective fiction”. He argued that the logic required to solve the puzzle of a honkaku mystery was a quality his country should prize more highly, and in his subsequent novels he wrote a great deal about the pre and post Second World War changes to Japanese society.

That first novel is littered with references to other mystery writers, from Japan and beyond. This was entirely deliberate, On says — a way of his grandfather finding his place in the honkaku or golden age canon.

On: So as you might aware, there’s a lot of European authors name on, in the book, as well as the Japanese his colleagues. Listed on the book. So I think that’s kind of more of a promotion to that field. You know, he really wants not just, he wants to show how he knowledgeable, but that rather than that, he wants to read those books or all Japanese people to change their, you know, open their mind. Not just only the small islands mindset, but also opened the mind to the other country.

Caroline: Honkaku mysteries were part of Japan’s changing culture, a homegrown answer to a literary genre popular elsewhere in the world. And Seishi Yokomizo was absolutely at the forefront of this movement.

After the break: Why did it take so long for honkaku mysteries to appear in English?

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The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo’s first novel, was first published in 1946. It is set, however, in 1937, and its unnamed Watson-style narrator seems to be writing from some unspecified point in the early 1940s. This chronological positioning allows Yokomizo to write about a segment of Japanese society that is on the cusp of seismic change, while at the same time perfecting a classic locked room scenario.

The “honjin” of the title is a kind of historic lodge, used by aristocratic and important travellers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The families that ran these establishments were themselves considered part of an elite, and it is within such a family that Yokomizo sets his mystery. The novel represents a clash between traditional and modern values, embodied in the couple who are getting married at the start of the book: the groom, Kenzo, is the heir to the honjin lineage, while Katsuko comes from a newly mobile family of agricultural workers, who have made their fortune in America and are climbing quickly up the social ladder. She herself is an educated woman who works as a teacher, and her unfamiliarity with some of the traditions that Kenzo’s family wants to include in their wedding day is one of the ways that Yokomizo shows the class differences between the couple.

When the newlyweds are discovered violently murdered in their beds on their wedding night, with seemingly no way that a murderer can have got in or out of their room, Katsuko’s uncle takes matters into his own hands. The local police are investigating, but he calls in Kosuke Kindaichi, a strange young man of his acquaintance, who is fast gathering a reputation as a private detective. Kindaichi is in his mid twenties and dresses sloppily in a shabby outmoded jacket, wooden clogs and socks with holes in. His hair is always tangled underneath his wide brimmed hat and he speaks with a stutter. He is, in short, the perfect golden age detective, with enough eccentricities to make him an outsider in every situation and the steely intellect to deliver the shocking denouements that readers desire.

The Honjin Murders is very engaged with the familiar tropes of golden age detective novels, even to the point where there is a whole shelf of them on display in the victim’s house. This story is, in a way, a country house murder mystery, albeit one that has none of the superficial cosiness that some stories in this subgenre exhibit. The area around the village of Okamura is bleak and cold, and there’s a claustrophobic quality to the landscape that bleeds into the story. The combination of this setting, the larger themes about class and transgression and the locked room trope are what makes Seishi Yokomizo’s first book so enduringly popular, On suggests.

On: Generation to generation I believe that we need to, you know, see back to what, how Japan used to be. And then his story is not just a, of course he is a devilish twist man . But his  book, always have some little taste of the Japanese old  culture, also in a history perspective, be employed. That I’m glad that the, some, you know, young generation you know, pick up those books and then, you know, yeah.

Caroline: The Honjin Murders won the inaugural Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948, and helped to establish Yokomizo as one of the leading proponents of the honkaku style. As he continued to write about Kotsuke Kindaichi’s adventures through the 1940s and 1950s, he returned often to themes of inheritance, tradition and modernisation, keeping pace with the way his own country was changing.

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Given how influential and popular Seishi Yokomizo’s work was, it seems incredible that his novels didn’t appear in English until 2019. But that is indeed what happened — there were a couple of French translations in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until very recently that you could read any of his honkaku mysteries in English.

To dig a little further into why that might be, I spoke to Daniel Seton, commissioning editor at Pushkin Press, who was instrumental in getting The Honjin Murders translated. I asked him how he came to be interested in Japanese crime fiction:

Daniel: So we at Pushkin Press we started our crime and thrillers imprint Pushkin Vertigo in 2015. So it was a bit prior to that we started researching looking for the best classic and contemporary crime and thrillers from all over the world that we could publish in the UK and, you know, bring to readers of English. And very early in that process, which was very fun, I have to say, you know, as a fan of especially classic crime myself growing up and my whole life really liked Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle, it was so much fun to try and, you know, scour the globe to find out what other traditions of crime writing were like. And very early on what we discovered was that you know, the Japanese tradition of crime writing is so rich and so popular. It’s really a treasure trove of crime. And Seishi Yokomizo was one of the biggest, if not the biggest writers in that world of crime.

Caroline: There was just one problem, though — not being a Japanese speaker, Daniel couldn’t read Yokomizo’s work to see if he liked it.

Daniel: Even though it’s extremely highly regarded as a mystery, it never been translated into any languages. Whereas some of his other mysteries have been translated into French, for example, which we were able to read. So, but based on, you know, his reputation, what we could read, we just knew straight away that it just seemed like a massive oversight that he’d never been published in the UK before.

Caroline: Pushkin have now published two Yokomizo books in English, The Honjin Murders translated by Louise Heal Kawai and The Inugami Curse translated by Yumiko Yamakazi, with plans for more in the future. And the response seems to bear out Daniel’s initial hunch that non Japanese readers would love the honkaku style.

Daniel: Well, the response to all Seishi Yokomizo’s books has been really amazing so far and especially The Honjin Murders. It got rave reviews and has been our best selling title since we published it at the end of 2019. And that’s across our whole list, not even just the crime list. I wasn’t really surprised at all because I’m a huge mystery fan myself and I absolutely love it. It’s really fiendish, expertly, plotted mystery. It’s packed full of all the elements that thrill fans of golden age classics. [00:27:00]

Caroline: Pushkin have also expanded their reach into Japanese fiction beyond the 1940s and 1950s, and published in English work by contemporary writers like Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji. This is the fascinating thing about the honkaku style, and where it really differs from what happened in Britain and America. Apart from a short period in the 1970s and 1980s when Japanese readers seemed more interested in police procedurals and thrillers, the classic honkaku puzzle mystery has never really fallen out of favour.

Daniel: What the mysteries that we publish do especially well i s  that they take the fair play puzzle mystery element that’s present in so many golden age mysteries and they just, and they just take that and run with it developing really interesting, creative, new ways. The perhaps in the West people have kind of given up on the elements of crime more or less and focus more on the the you know, the social commentary side or the character development side, which is just great, but I mean, I love a good old fashioned puzzle and I think our readers do as well.

Caroline: This new generation of writers describe call their style shin honkaku, or the “new orthodox”, and they’re very active in exploring all of its possible facets — whether that’s crossovers with the supernatural, newer forms like graphic novels and anime, or just stretching the locked room form as far as it can possible go. Soji Shimada, author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, has described it as “not only literature but also, to a greater or lesser extent, a game,” and this playful energy seems to reinvigorate this now very old genre.

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In an echo of the Detection Club, in the year 2000 a group called the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan was founded, and they publish annual anthologies and rankings of the best puzzle mysteries, as well as running a literary prize. Being described as a shin honkaku writer today is something Japanese crime writers aspire to — it’s a badge of honour. Unlike contemporary crime writing in English, which has moved a long way away from the influence of John Dickson Carr and Gaston Leroux, in Japan that style is still thriving, a century on.

It’s a good thing, then, that the honkaku mysteries from a century ago are finally starting to appear in English. There are still 75 Kosuke Kindaichi novels that I haven’t read yet. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thehonkakumysteries. 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.

The Honkaku Mysteries

Exploring the thriving tradition of classic Japanese whodunnits.

Thanks to my guests, On Nomoto, grandson of honkaku writer Seishi Yokomizo, and Daniel Seton, commissioning editor at Pushkin Press.

No major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below.

Sources and further information:

The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro by Edogawa Rampo
“The Spider” by Koga Saburo, translated by Ho-Ling Wong and John Pugmire
Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shiimada
—“A Brief Introduction To Honkaku And Shin Honkaku Mysteries” by Tara Cheesman
—“The King Of The Golden Age Crime Novel In Japan: Seishi Yokomizo” by Paul French
Detective Fiction and the Rise of the Japanese Novel, 1880–1930 by Satoru Saito
“Inheriting the Nation: Seishi Yokomizo’s Kindaichi Novels” by Chiho Nakagawa in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Volume 32, Number 2, Fall 2014, pp. 90–99
— Interview with translater Louise Heal Kawai on the In GAD We Trust podcast

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.

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