Author: caroline

Poison Pen

Nothing could bad could possibly happen here, the inhabitants of the peaceful English village say to each other. Until the first poison pen letter arrives.

No major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below. Also, be aware there is a very brief mention of suicide.

Books and sources:
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
“The Lernean Hydra” in The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Policemen in the Precinct by E.C.R. Lorac
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton
Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth
Details of the James Forster poison pen case in Manfield, Yorkshire
“The Poison Pen Letter: the Early 20th Century’s Strangest Crime Wave” by Curtis Evans
Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White

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Poison Pen Transcript

The peaceful English village is the heart of so many classic crime stories that it’s really a character in itself. Especially pre 1945, a village can be the world in miniature, with its own class hierarchy and rumour mill. And most importantly, a sleepy country village comes with an expectation of calm and of untroubled innocence. Nothing could bad could possibly happen here, the inhabitants say to each other.

Until the village’s resident poison pen gets to work, that is, using their missives to expose the undercurrents of vice and malice hidden beneath the serene exterior. Such campaigns of anonymous letters are a staple of classic crime fiction, with writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Patricia Wentworth and plenty more using them as a way of ratcheting up the tension and psychological drama. But these letters are far more than just a convenient narrative device, and their damaging effects are not just confined to crime fiction. And that’s why today we’re diving into the murky, nasty world of the poison pen.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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On the surface, the poison pen letter appears to be a trivial thing. Or at least that’s how characters in detective novels usually react upon receiving their first one. They exclaim over it at breakfast, perhaps showing around to their companions and making light of it together. The text itself might be typewritten, or handwritten, or even made up of letters cut out of a newspaper or magazine, but the key thing is that it will be unsigned and lacking an easy way of identifying the author. The actual message will likely be an accusation of some kind — professional misconduct, perhaps, or personal duplicity. Adultery and corruption are popular recurring themes too.

In the case of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, published in 1942, the narrator receives an anonymous allegation that he and his sister Joanna are not, in fact, siblings but a couple masquerading as such for some nefarious reason. The pair have recently arrived in the quiet market town of Lymstock, hoping to lead a peaceful life while Jerry recuperates after a plane crash. Instead, they are quickly confronted by evidence that there is much more going on in the town than its virtuous appearance would suggest.

The poison pen letter was already a familiar enough device that Christie allows these two characters have a pleasingly meta conversation about how best to react to this first letter. “The correct procedure, I believe,” Joanna says, “is to drop it into the fire with a sharp exclamation of disgust.” When her brother proceeds to do so, she applauds him for doing it in a suitably theatrical manner. Yet as the plot unravels further and the extent of the poison pen’s activities emerges, it all begins to seem a lot less lighthearted.

The Moving Finger goes on to exhibit many classic facets of the poison pen campaign. Lots of people in Lymstock have been receiving these letters, it turns out, although many have been reluctant to speak about them openly. They destroy them in private instead, fearing that even a suggestion of impropriety will feed gossip that could tarnish their reputation. They’re also usually wary of involving the police, since making an official report comes with a certain amount of publicity and investigation. Although public image is a timeless concern of course, this preoccupation with one’s character or good name feels very typical of life in a small community pre Second World War to me. At a time when a lot of people lived in the same place, among the same people, for most of their lives, there was little chance of starting afresh and escaping a scandal.

“No smoke without fire” is a phrase that recurs a good deal in this book and many others with similar plots — the idea that the anonymous messages must be based on some kernel of truth, even if the writer is exaggerating or mistaken about some details. This is where we see the uglier side of human nature emerging, as neighbours begin to look differently at each other purely because of a sly, unsubstantiated suggestion.

Gossip and rumour are forces that a poison pen can harness very successfully. Nothing is so corrosive as suspicion. Christie tackled this topic directly in her 1939 Hercule Poirot short story “The Lernean Hydra”, in which the Belgian sleuth helps a doctor who is being targeted by an anonymous letter writer over the suggestion that he murdered his invalid wife so that he could marry his dispenser. The rumours grow like the monster from Greek mythology, with three new ones appearing every time one is cut off at its source. In both plots, Christie skilfully handles the psychological aspect of the poison pen campaign and how those words can become deeds. Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers from 1927 opens with a not dissimilar scenario to Christie’s short story, with sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey learning about the novel’s case after overhearing the grumbles of a doctor who has had his professional reputation decimated by rumours that he killed a patient. And ECR Lorac’s 1949 book Policemen in the Precinct contains another good example how powerful ill feeling can be, because it features the murder of a small community’s malicious gossip, Mrs Mayden. True, she didn’t commit her unkind insinuations to paper, but the sneaky verbal allegations she makes have a similar effect to poison pen letters. Those unpleasant but seemingly harmless letters that get tossed on the fire in disgust are a manifestation of dark, violent impulses, which will twist and grow if left unchecked.

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So that’s the psychological appeal of the poison pen letter writer to the detective novelist. It’s a way of threading something really horrible through a seemingly bucolic setting and that can allow for interesting interplay between motive and character. But that’s not the only reason why poison pens make regular appearances in detective fiction. There are practical points about these letters too which allow a writer to give their sleuth some good old fashioned clue following to do.

At first glance, an anonymous letter might seem like a clueless crime. That is, after all, what the writer intends, and they will have taken precautions to avoid detection. By the time the golden age of detective fiction dawned, the criminological implication of fingerprints was pretty well known, so the writer would wear gloves as a matter of course. Further forensic investigation was still in the future, though, so they need not worry unduly about skin particles or saliva.

The composition of the letter itself can be revealing in its obscurity, too, depending on where the cut out letters were sourced from or if the typewriter can be traced via some typographical idiosyncrasy. I like Christie’s little flourish in The Moving Finger of selecting a dreary book of sermons as the poison pen’s raw material — clever both because it’s a book nobody was likely to look in regularly and also because the book’s moralising content feels very appropriate to its refashioned form. Handwriting too can be recognised or analysed, although I think modern investigators are less inclined than the golden age’s writers to consider graphology a reliable source of evidence. However, this matters little in stories where the real frisson of the poison pen plot stems from the fact that the perpetrator is known to the victims: among us, indeed.

I think some of the best practical investigation techniques for a poison pen plot are to be found in The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton, first published in 1946. Yes, this is a book aimed at younger readers — it’s part of Blyton’s “Five Find Outers” series, which she wrote from 1943 to 1961 and which all feature the crack sleuthing team of Larry, Fatty, Pip, Daisy, Bets and Buster the dog. It’s also a great poison pen mystery and one that easily holds its own against plenty of stories aimed at adults.

The five find outers are drawn into this poison pen mystery after Gladys, the housemaid at Pip and Bets’s home, receives a letter revealing supposedly “shameful” information about her upbringing, which in turn causes her to resign from her job. Feeling that this is unfair, the five (and Buster) set out to track down who is sending nasty anonymous communications to the inhabitants of their village of Peterswood. A classic concealment job has been done on the posting of these letters by sending them from a nearby town, so the five focus their attention on the logistics of this in order to narrow down the suspects. The bus doesn’t run very often, so who could have caught it and post the letter in time for the midday collection? It’s a method that much older sleuths would do well to remember — when you know how, you know who, after all.

After the break: the real life poison pens.

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When poison pen letters appear in a detective novel, there seems always to be at least one character who asserts that they must be written by a woman. “Poison is a woman’s weapon” is a cliché of the genre. The same reasoning that lies behind this — that poison doesn’t demand the physical strength that other methods of murder require — is extended to the poison on the page. Women are the ones who do the gossiping, or so the thinking goes, so they must be the ones who spread the rumours and send the nasty letters about them. Ridiculous stereotypes, of course, but ones which have become embedded in the classic crime fiction milieu.

That idyllic English village that plays host to the poison pen plot always has its fair share of well to do spinsters, women of independent means who have nothing to do except call upon each other, do charity work and pass on the latest scandals. I talked about “surplus women” and spinster sleuths in the first ever episode of this podcast and I do think that phenomenon has some bearing here too. Ideas about repression and fixation are often connected to the outbursts of a poison pen, since illicit liaisons and other such misbehaviour are a common theme of such letters. This desire to expose the seedy underbelly of village life and see sinners punished points to a prudishness about sex that is associated with a certain kind of woman. Although not a poison pen novel, I think Ngaio Marsh’s 1939 novel Overture to Death about a village amateur dramatic society is quite informative on this point, with two older single female characters who exhibit passionate and warped emotional attachments to a vicar. A poison pen campaign brings to the surface a potent cocktail of shame, moralising, prying, spying and piety — is this really something that women are more prone to, or is it just revealing that we think so? Male criminals have certainly used this assumption to their advantage across the genre.

Dorothy L. Sayers tackled this issue head on with her 1935 novel Gaudy Night, which is set in an Oxford women’s college and features a long running poison pen campaign by an unknown person from within the institution. From the moment that recurring Sayers character Harriet Vane is asked to undertake the investigation discreetly, as a former student, she grasps the reputational damage this story would do to the college if it got out. “Soured virginity’–‘unnatural life’–‘semi-demented spinsters’–‘starved appetites and suppressed impulses’–‘unwholesome atmosphere’–she could think of whole sets of epithets, ready-minted for circulation,” Sayers writes.

The novel is a whodunnit, but it’s a discursive one that spends plenty of time debating all sides of the problem as well (as perhaps is apt for an academically minded mystery). Women’s education at Oxford was still a relatively new concept at the time of writing, with Sayers having been among the first cohort of women graduates to receive their full degrees herself, in 1920. Many of the poison pen’s efforts are aimed at undermining this newly minted status, via references to harpies and crude representations of celibate repressions. The status of the independent academic woman, who pursues her aptitude for scholarship rather than adopting the traditional roles of wife and mother, is still a precarious one. As the Warden says, on the question of women’s education “even in Oxford we still encounter a certain number of people who maintain their right to disapprove”.

Class plays a role as well as gender, with much debate about whether any of the college servants would have the vocabulary or inclination to berate the dons in Virgilian hexameters. This comes up a fair bit in poison pen mysteries, actually — in The Moving Finger, Mrs Cleat, a local wise woman and the wife of the village gardener, is accused amid questions over whether she is “literate” enough to be the true author of the anonymous letters. These presumptions often make for a useful smoke screen when the purpose of the poison pen campaign is actually to victimise one individual under the cover of terrorising a whole community. A writer who is genuinely unbalanced might send letters indiscriminately; a criminal impersonating a poison pen will be much more deliberate about it.

In Gaudy Night, as the poison pen is able to continue terrorising the college unchecked, Harriet sinks deeper and deeper into the psychological mire of the case. And with good reason, because Sayers develops the connection between vicious words and vicious deeds very ably, as the tension in college rises. A suicide is attempted, a common development in the poison pen mystery as the poisonous missives do their work upon a receptive mind. Something similar happens in Patricia Wentworth’s 1955 novel Poison in the Pen — it’s a suspected suicide that results in spinster sleuth Miss Silver being called in to investigate the poison pen outbreak in the village of Tilling Green. The parallel between anonymous letters and the notes sometimes left behind by suicides is neatly drawn. It all comes down to the words.

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Before I started researching this topic, I thought that poison pens were mostly a convenient trope used by detective novelists to the point of cliché. Like elaborate mechanisms that kill behind locked doors, I assumed they were more common in fiction than in fact. But a swift search through the newspaper archives proved me wrong — the first half of the twentieth century is absolutely full of accounts of real life poison pen mysteries. Here’s a few headlines to show you what I mean.

“Poison Pen Letters: Remarkable Story of Wrecked Homes and Society Victims” from Pall Mall Gazette, 12 May 1923

“New Poison Pen Mystery: Police Busy on Fresh Clues” from Sunday Post, 26 October 1924 (about an acquittal of a young woman in Berwick and renewed investigation)

“Mystery of Scottish Poison Pen: Glasgow Tenants Persecuted” from Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 February 1935

“Poison Pen At Work: Husband and Wife Threatened in Letter” from Northern Whig, 12 March 1928

“Padiham Poison Pen Letters: Vile Communications to Bench Chairman” from Lancashire Evening Post, 24 October 1938

You get the idea. There’s an excellent article by Curtis Evans that goes into more detail about the real poison pen outbreaks of the 1920s and 30s that I’ll link to in the show notes, so if you’re interested in all of the venomous details, I strongly recommend you read that. And the anonymous letter habit did not die out when the Second World War started, by any means. Even the quickest internet search reveals news stories about recent and even ongoing poison pen incidents. One that especially caught my attention was the case of Manfield in North Yorkshire, which for 12 years beginning in 1987 was beset by an anonymous sender of vile and threatening letters. The culprit, who was eventually convicted in 2001, was one Dr James Forster, a retired academic and local resident. Over those dozen years, it’s estimated that 64 of the 86 households in the village received some kind of letter or threat from him. He reportedly spied on his neighbours and pried into their private lives, then sending letters about matters that irked him such as the vicar marrying a couple where one partner had been divorced and the fact that the parish clerk did not actually reside in the village. But lest we be lulled into thinking this was some gentle mystery story, it should also be noted that Forster stalked one woman, sent pornographic material to a teenage girl and sent another woman a letter that threatened a bombing. In real life, the actions of a poison pen are not cosy at all.

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One of the earliest poison pen mysteries that I’ve come across is Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White from 1932. It’s also one of the best, in my opinion, and that’s mostly because of how well drawn its idyllic village setting is: “A perfect spot. Viewed from an airplane, by day, it resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case.” It looks perfect, but the serpent is already in the garden. The poison pen transforms the postman into “the herald of disaster” and the cosy certainties of village life unravel as the murders begin. It’s the archetypal poison pen mystery.

The popularity of the poison pen as a plot device coincides neatly with the golden age of the detective fiction, peaking in the years between the first and second world wars. Although writers did continue to use it post 1945 — and of course the real life poison pens carry on to this day — the true classics of this niche came in the 1930s and early 1940s. As a literary device it feels tied to the fate of the tightly knit village communities in which it flourished, and which were to be altered forever by the social changes wrought by the war and a more mobile population. Everybody no longer knew everybody.

Because the chilling aspect of the poison pen letter is that it is written by a faceless other who is also somebody you know: an influx of strangers rather dilutes the effect.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated and edited by me, Caroline Crampton. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/poisonpen. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.  Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two with another episode.

A Christie for Christmas Transcript

Caroline: Like a lot of people, I’ve really struggled with reading this year. Whereas once the words just seemed to flow off the page and straight into my brain, now a connection has broken somewhere. I’ve been distracted and anxious, picking up books that I think will suit my mood and then putting them down after a few dozen pages because they don’t immediately fix me. This slow down in my reading has bothered me a good deal: another item on the list of things that I worry about but can’t control.

There are a few books that I have still been able to get properly stuck into though, and almost all of them are whodunnits. There’s something uniquely comforting I think about the rhythms and patterns of a classic detective story from the 1918 to 1939 period, and those are the ones that I’ve gravitated towards in 2020. And I’m not alone in this. Booksellers have noticed even more Agatha Christies flying off their shelves than usual, and several of the most popular new crime novels published this year are ones in which the influence of classic crime fiction is very apparent.

The beloved conventions of golden age detective fiction were formed in the wake of global traumas, namely the First World War and the flu pandemic that followed it. In that sense, although this extraordinary year has brought so many new and strange experiences, our comfort reading habits are actually part of a very old tradition of convalescence via crime fiction. While you look forward to curling up on the sofa this Christmas with your favourite whodunnit and feeling a little better for a while, it’s worth understanding how stories about murder and violence became so associated with relaxation and recovery. In this episode, I’m exploring how crime became cosy.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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I’ve read and heard that ubiquitous two word phrase “unprecedented times” so often in the last nine months that is has become completely meaningless. But every time I speak to someone about their experiences of 2020, they will tell me something that sends me reaching for those words yet again. It was no different on a phone call I had a couple of weeks ago, just as the UK was nearing the end of its second period of national lockdown.

Shaun: 2020 has been by far the strangest year in the oddly 20 years in which I’ve run the shop and we were shut down in as everybody was in March and we were closed for 116 days. And normally we only close, we close on Sunday but other than that, it’s only really at Christmas and New Year that we’re closed for more than two days in a row. So it was an extremely unusual time.

Caroline: It’s the little details that get you, isn’t it? Not just the scary, swooping curves on the graphs of cases, but the fact that a shop that has barely closed in twenty years suddenly had to shut its doors for 116 days. By the way, I should let the proprietor of that shop introduce himself to you:

Shaun: My name is Shaun Bythell and I run The Bookshop in Wigtown, which is Scotland’s national book town. And I’ve written three books about bookselling. 

Caroline: I must also just let Shaun describe his shop to you, because I think it’s such a lovely place to visualise, especially at Christmas.

Shaun: Well, the bookshop is it’s a huge, sprawling Georgian townhouse in the middle of Wigtown, and it doesn’t look like much from the front, but as soon as you go in, it just goes back and back and back. So we have about nine or ten rooms full of books and about a mile of shelving and we stock books on all subjects. It’s all second hand, well, all second hand works apart from copies of my books, which I sell new. But yes, it’s a second hand bookshop and all the shops in the town apart from one are second hand bookshops. 

Caroline: Once Shaun was able to open his shop again when the UK’s restrictions were temporarily relaxed in the summer, he had a sudden rush of customers desperate for books.

Shaun: As soon as we reopened after the lockdown was lifted, we had the biggest explosion of trade that I’ve ever had. It was busier than it’s ever been. 

Caroline: And there was one shelf in particular that people were frequenting.

Shaun: The one thing that I did notice was a massive surge in sales of Agatha Christie novels and Agatha Christie was always a good seller. But since lockdown, I haven’t been able to buy enough Agatha Christies to keep up with demand. It has been really phenomenal. And it’s not just people coming in and buying one or two novels. It’s people coming in and buying 10 or 15. And I think it’s partly due to the fact that I think people think or people after the lock down first thought, they appreciated the opportunity to go into a bookshop and and buy whatever they wanted. But I think Agatha Christie seems to have appealed to the lockdown mentality, and I don’t quite know why. They did so well that shortly after lockdown was lifted, I had to go and buy books from a house near Lockerbie. And thankfully, there was just about every Agatha Christie novel ever written there. And so that was about two days after the lockdown was lifted. So I brought them back, priced them up and put them on the shelves and the whole lot went within, I would say, a week.

Caroline: This is one of the main ways that Shaun gets hold of the secondhand books that he stocks in his shop is via house clearances.

Shaun: Normally for me the best deals are deals where somebody is, it’s a really sad thing to say, but where somebody has died and the house has to be sold and the collection of books, the library has to go and they just want rid of the lot. So, yeah, that’s that’s normally how I get hold of my stock. And I suppose it’s probably about one every 10 days. One day, every 10 days, I get called out to a house and I have to clear the books. 

Caroline: So Shaun does a lot of these melancholy trips to clear out books. And there are certain trends that he’s picked up in the years he’s been doing it.

Shaun: Yeah, it’s funny, there are things that you find in almost every house clearance, and Agatha Christie is one of them, and it is just because she was so enormously popular in her day and has never really gone a fashion. I think she’s, if you look at the TV, dramatisations of her books always been incessant since since she died. So, yeah, I never turn down Agatha Christie because I just know I can sell them almost instantly. 

Caroline: And in Scotland, there’s always Walter Scott’s Waverley novels too. Except Shaun isn’t quite so pleased to see those, because they’re impossible to sell, apparently.

So what was it that sent people dashing into Shaun’s bookshop as soon as lockdown lifted, desperate to buy Agatha Christie novels by the dozen? Well, he has a couple of theories.

Shaun: I think it’s possibly because they’re very readable, very short generally, and will come to a kind of neat resolution at the end and at a time when nobody quite knows or knew how long we were going to be locked down for or what the resolution was going to be, and we still don’t know, there’s something quite satisfying about that, that kind of I suppose it’s like a little enclosed safe space, an Agatha Christie novel.

Caroline: Whodunnits, especially from the golden age period between the two world wars, have a very distinctive format. Murder, investigation, discovery, denouement — there’s a rhythm to it that is always recognisable, even if it’s a book or an author that you’ve never read before. At a time when almost everything else about life is unknown and scattered, falling into those patterns can be very reassuring. This kind of crime fiction usually needs to feature a closed world, too, a defined set of suspects within which the detective can operate. The story has to have edges to it, and limits on how far the action can go, in order for the author to be really playing fair by the reader. By the conventions of the genre at this time, a writer can’t just reveal an entirely new character in the penultimate chapter and brand them the murderer, they have to have bee someone who has been there the whole time. And then, of course, we know that the detective will always triumph in the end. It all feels very controlled and safe, even though it’s about murder and violence. There will be a neat solution tying everything together in a satisfying way. Not like real life, where there are unforeseen plot twists and loose ends left lying around all the time.

And to all of this, Christie particularly brings that elusive quality of “readability”. I think some critics have sometimes used that word in a derogative sense, to deride a literary work that is merely comprehensible and nothing more. But I think it can be one of the best things about a book: the fact that you can read it in a single sitting without even noticing that any time has passed. Not all writers can craft prose that can be consumed in this way, and course it’s not the only thing that can make a book worth reading. But in Christie’s case, she turned out book after book after book that unspools so easily in the mind that the reader barely notices the pages turning beneath their fingers. I’ve read an Agatha Christie in a single sitting this year, and struggled to get more than fifty pages into basically everything else.

I also think that the reassuring predictability of crime fiction from this period has a lot to do with its associations with Christmas, too. On the surface, the two shouldn’t go together at all — why would we want to read stories about death and deceit at a time of year that’s supposed to be all about comfort, joy and goodwill? Corpses should have no place in that. But that contrast is key. Festive celebrations are all about disrupting our usual routines, eating things we would never normally eat, staying up late, giving special gifts, and (usually) travelling to be with people we don’t get to see for the rest of the year. After days of coping with your extended family and catering for 12 people at every meal, cracking open a whodunnit before you fall asleep can feel like settling into a nice warm bath. Order amidst the chaos. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

In that context, I don’t think it’s really that surprising after all that people have been buying all of the secondhand Agatha Christie novels that they can get their hands on, nor that Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, a book heavily influenced by the Queen of Crime, is one of the bestselling novels of this year by far. It’s not escapist fiction in the conventional sense, but it is a kind of escape to immerse your exhausted, strung out brain in the order and method of a well structured whodunnit. A good plot will start out by presenting many different plausible solutions to the mystery and then gradually whittle them away until only one remains. In a year full of spiralling hypotheticals, I’ve certainly found myself wishing for that kind of certainty.

After the break: a century of comforting crime fiction.

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The idea of crime fiction as a kind of salve for a scattered mind is not a new one. We didn’t suddenly discover it in 2020, although it has certainly been greatly in evidence this year. In fact, I’ve really been telling this story the wrong way round. It wasn’t that detective novelists in the 1920s wrote crime novels that readers then found comforting. It happened the other way round: people needed comforting things to read, so more and more crime novels were written.

The traumatic events of the First World War created a population that by 1918 was dazed and exhausted, more in the mood for light hearted distraction than heavyweight intellectual pursuits. By the early 1920s crossword puzzles, jigsaws, treasure hunts and word games were suddenly all the rage, with people throwing themselves into anything that could keep them pleasantly occupied and engaged for a while. I expect lots of that might recognise this desire for inconsequential diversions from 2020, too — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that simple but absorbing pastimes like baking bread, taking part in quizzes and doing puzzles have been popular this year.

At the same time as the puzzle craze was gripping people after the First World War, the detective novel was evolving. It was moving away from the dashing, melodramatic, thrilling stories made popular by Arthur Conan Doyle and others at the end of the nineteenth century, and turning towards what critic Stephen Knight has aptly dubbed the “clue-puzzle” format. Anyone with enough skill and persistence can win a crossword competition in a newspaper, and the new breed of fictional detectives follow clues that are also made available to the reader rather than relying on their own omniscient intelligence as Sherlock Holmes had done. The puzzle craze had spread to crime fiction too, and people couldn’t get enough of it.

Although Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles from 1920 is sometimes cited as the book that kicked off the so called golden age of detective fiction, I think it’s worth looking back to 1913 and Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley as an origin point too. Bentley set out “to write a detective novel of a new sort” and includes a lot of very recognisable tropes in pursuit of that aim. His central character, Philip Trent, is a journalist turned amateur sleuth,  the murder victim is a millionaire who nobody likes very much, the action takes place at a rural country house, there are perfect alibis, servants and friends who have quarrelled with the dead man, a conveniently closed circle of suspects, and so on.

But the most significant thing about Trent’s Last Case is that Bentley is making fun of the idea that a detective can be all knowing and infallible in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. His sleuth tries very hard and follows all the clues yet still draws the wrong conclusions, raising the question always to the reader: can you do better? After going through a devastating world war and then a horrific global flu pandemic, bereaved people were tired of the idea that there were definitive answers to big questions or some kind of preordained order to events.

Although published just before the First World War, Trent’s Last Case really laid the foundation stone upon which the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley would build. It was largely in recognition of this achievement that Bentley was invited to become a member of the Detection Club upon its formation in 1930, and then to succeed G.K. Chesterton as its president after the latter’s death in 1936. Trent’s Last Case was, in a sense, the beginning of it all.

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But why mysteries about murder? It would be logical to conclude that the survivors of a world war and a global pandemic would have had enough of death in any form, yet it was largely stories about investigating fatalities that formed the backbone of the increasingly popular detective fiction genre in the 1920s. The explanation lies partly in the inherent safety of reading about fictional crimes — what isn’t real can’t hurt you, and so on. But I think this question is mostly answered by the fact that the murders in most golden age detective fiction are barely violent at all. Of course, victims do get hit over the head or shot  stabbed or strangled or pushed down stairs, but there’s very little description of it. Writers expend very few words on how blood pulses from wounds or what what someone looks like right before life is extinguished. In fact, the actual murder quite often happens “off screen”, with the corpse merely discovered after the fact and the person’s end reconstructed secondhand, as it were. A notable exception to this can actually be found Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which features an usually bloody death scene, and I think she included this deliberately to underscore the rarity of gore in the genre, especially in a book so squarely aimed at a festive audience.

The critic Alison Light has a good phrase for this general lack of violence, concluding that the “bloodlessness” and “anaemia” of fictional crime between the first and second war “can be seen as a revolt against the sanguinary rhetoric of 1914”. In other words, people had had enough both of death and of the ways of talking about death that had prevailed during the First World War, and the lack of gore in detective fiction was a reaction to that feeling. In this way, murder becomes merely a narrative device, a way of starting a story and giving sufficient impetus for an investigation. I think we can also extend that same explanation to cover why crime fiction is so popular at Christmas, too. It’s a time of year that is not traditionally an especially bloodthirsty one, but one at which broadcasters compete for our attention with darkly rendered crime fiction adaptations and during her lifetime Agatha Christie used to prop up a large segment of the publishing industry with her tradition of a bestselling “Christie for Christmas”. And yet the crimes that appear in your favourite festive whodunnits are so bland as to be almost polite. Nobody wants to read about or indeed see a Christmas tree decorated with splashes of blood, but we are perfectly in the mood for an investigation that is just distracting enough to mean that we don’t have to think about anything else for a while.

In her 1991 book Forever England, Alison Light expands on this theory of crime fiction as a “literature of convalescence”. Whodunnits were “the literature of emotional invalids, shock absorbing and rehabilitating, like playing endless rounds of clock patience,” she says. Anyone who has spent any time being unwell will know exactly the feeling that she’s describing — that itchy period after you’re no longer so ill that you can’t move or sit up, but before you are well enough to get out of bed and resume normal life. On the occasions when I’ve had to convalesce from something, I’ve struggled to read a bit like I have this year, picking up books and putting them down again because I just don’t seem to have the mental strength to engage with anything for more than a few pages.

Repetitive activities like knitting, word puzzles or card games fit this moment perfectly, seeming to use just enough of your brain and no more. In the context of the post First World War period, Light calls this “that lack of capacity for concentrated thinking which plagued the returned solider” and suggests that those at home who endured years of waiting and assuming the worst were equally afflicted with it. The cure was “pitting their quits in a struggle that was cerebral without involving strain”, and that’s just what detective novels provided. They’re “the mental equivalent of pottering”, she says, which relieve anxiety rather than generating strong emotion. This is all very recognisable from the perspective of 2020, I think, when our fragmented attention spans have been further attacked by the onset of doom scrolling, tragedy and the iterative creep of bad news.

The confinement of lockdown is not dissimilar to the limitations experienced while recovering from an illness, so perhaps it’s no wonder that those Agatha Christies have been flying off the shelves of Shaun’s bookshop at a great rate. I think W Somerset Maugham had a rather good take on this in his essay “The Decline and Fall of the Detection Story,” in which he describes how he discovered the convalescent power of detective fiction while literally in bed convalescing. He spent part of the first world war receiving treatment in a “sanatorium for the tuberculous” in the north of Scotland and there “learnt how pleasant it is to lie in bed”. He writes: “With aspirin, a hot-water bottle, rum toddy at night and half a dozen detective stories I am prepared to make an ambiguous virtue of an equivocal necessity.” The whodunnits are just another kind of prescription.

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The classic whodunnit, then was formed by a moment when people were hurting and distracted, desperate for something that could take them out of themselves for a while. And that’s why I think their popularity has been renewed again this year, when many of the same feelings of anxiety and exhaustion have surfaced once more. People have been using these books as a kind of healing balm for a hundred years. There’s something very reassuring about being part of that tradition, knowing that plenty of readers before you have also used stories about people in the 1930s bumping each other off in exotic ways because of esoteric wills to escape from their problems for a bit.

And if that’s not a good excuse to spend some time with your favourite detectives this Christmas, then I don’t know what is.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Shaun Bythell for joining me. You can find links to his books and more information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/achristieforchristmas. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

This is the last episode of the podcast that I’m making this year, and I’d like to thank you all for listening and supporting me throughout 2020. Members of the Shedunnit Book Club can still look forward to a couple of bonus episodes before I take a break, though, and if you’re listening to this on the day that it comes out the Shedunnit shop will still be open for orders one more day before closing on 17th December. There is still a selection of mystery-related gifts on offer if you’re still in the market for some last minute presents or just looking to treat yourself, and all proceeds go towards supporting the podcast in 2021.

That’s it from me here, though. I’ll be back with another episode in January.

A Christie for Christmas

The original golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s followed on from a devastating global pandemic. Is it any wonder, then, that we’ve read so much crime fiction in 2020? And why do we find murder mysteries a comforting choice for Christmas?

This festive season if you’d like to support the podcast and buy a gift for a murder mystery loving friend at the same time, you can purchase a discounted gift subscription for the Shedunnit Book Club at shedunnitshow.com/giftoffer or until 17th December shop the restocked merchandise collection at shedunnitshow.com/shop.

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

Books and sources:
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (UK version / US version)
—”The Golden Age” by Stephen Knight in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley (UK version / US version)
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Forever England by Alison Light (UK version / US version)
—”The Decline and Fall of the Detection Story” by W Somerset Maugham in The Vagrant Mood

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

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The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr 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/achristieforchristmastranscript.

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

The Christie Completists Transcript

Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. I talk a lot on this show about the work of Agatha Christie. I mean, how could I not? She’s the best known writer of whodunnits and published her first book in 1920, right around the beginning of the period known as the golden Age of detective Fiction that I cover on this podcast. Over the course of her long life, she published 66 detective novels and numerous short story collections, many of which will be well-known to listeners, I’m sure.

But although I think I’ve read all of her works now, I’ve done so haphazardly over the 20 years or so that I’ve been engaged with her writing. My first Christie was one that I found on a shelf at a bed and breakfast while on holiday, and I picked up others at random as I came across them in charity shops or in libraries before I eventually started collecting them for myself. What I’ve never done is read them all in order. I’ve never had the experience of observing how her work matured and changed over the decades that she was publishing, nor seeing how her whodunnits gradually documented the changes in life and attitudes from the 1920s to the 1970s. But as it happens, I know two people who have done this Catherine Brobeck and Kemper Donovan, hosts of the All About Agatha podcast. And since 2016, they’ve been reading their way through Agatha Christie’s bibliography in order episode by episode. I’m delighted to welcome them to Shedunnit today to share some of what they’ve learnt about the Queen of Crime on the way, the good and the bad.

Caroline: What drew you to Agatha Christie in the first place?

Kemper: I was always an avid reader when I was younger, and we’ve actually joked about this quite a bit on the podcast that Agatha Christie is an author that a lot of avid readers find quite early on, almost using as a bridge from children’s literature, so to speak, to more adult things, because Agatha Christie is very much not children’s literature. She was actually very adamant about that. She did not like when people called her books, you know, juvenilia or Y.A. or anything like that. But I think that a lot of younger readers who are, you know, really keen on just reading do find her because she’s so available. And I suppose that’s why I just, you know, initially gravitated toward these texts and started reading them. And then I found them as irresistible as two billion people apparently have. And the rest is history.

Caroline: Catherine, what was your Christie origin story? What was your first one?

Catherine: My mother loves Agatha Christie and also she loved PBS, so our public television station in the United States. And so as a very, very little girl, I would sit on her lap and watch Poirot. And so I was a pretty early reader. And so I read a lot of Nancy Drew. And when I could graduate from that, I graduated to my mother’s massive collection of like 1970s paperback copies of Christie.

Caroline: And do you remember which was the first one was or was it more of a general immersion?

Catherine: It was probably something quite bad, to be completely honest, Caroline. It was probably, you know, something from that 60s period. It was probably like an Elephants Can Remember kind of situation.

Caroline: Yes, that’s often the case I find with people who come to it very young because obviously you’ve got no prior information to tell you where to go. And also by that point, she was so famous that those were kind of the most ubiquitous books because they were printing so many of them.

Catherine: Right. And so, of course, they were copies of them. And so I’m sure I’m sure it was something. It was that or maybe, um, maybe Hallowe’en Party. I mean, something like that was definitely one of the earliest ones. And I just literally pulled them off the bookshelf. I mean, there was no order in mind, which makes our project especially odd, given that I don’t think either company or I read them in any particular order whatsoever.

Caroline: So as you alluded to there, Catherine, you know, your project of reading everything Christie wrote in order, when did that first come to mind and how did you decide to embark on it?

Catherine: We know exactly where we were. That’s the funniest thing about it. It’s not just some harebrained scheme. Like, I bet you I could describe what we were eating. Don’t you think Kemper?

Kemper: Yes, absolutely.

Catherine: We were sitting in a restaurant in Beverly Hills and I had been noting to Kemper that I would like to start a podcast and he didn’t want to do the topic that I had wanted. But he was very keen on the notion sort of based around it, which is, again, a transitional reading. And what is really influential to you when you’re young. And for both of us and we know that it’s Christie. And so Kamper basically said, well, I don’t want to do your idea, but we could do Christie.

Kemper: I remember it a little bit differently, actually. I remember talking about the fact that I was telling Catherine that she should do a podcast, because I think that Katherine has a fantastic and distinctive voice. And I remember her saying, well, you know, maybe but I don’t even know what I would do it on. And then we were sort of and we had obviously developed this little like side pocket part of our relationship in which we would talk about how good the Christie and mysteries end and that I kind of grew organically from there. So somewhere in between those two origin stories.

Caroline: And so the idea of Christie was established. And where did the idea of reading her in order come from?

Catherine: Well, start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

Caroline: For sure. And as you’ve been doing it for years now, is there a sense that you’re getting to know Christie differently than you had prior to this project?

Kemper: Oh, yes, absolutely. And a lot of different ways, yeah.

Catherine: I mean, I find no I don’t know, we’ve talked about this, obviously, and, you know, there’s no bigger fan of Christie’s autobiography than Kemper Donovan. But I would say that I have found it. This is probably going to sound a little bit silly, but as a woman I have found it really interesting to read her in order because there is a sort of hopeful joie de vivre at the beginning, especially in some of the short stories, in Tommy and Tuppence and even in something like The Secret of Chimney’s, and that ends up vanishing, you know.

Caroline: Yes, I suppose that’s right. She does, her characters anyway, become more world weary, perhaps, and experienced as she did herself.

Catherine: Mm hmm. Don’t you think, Kemper?

Kemper: No, I do. I think that in general, because so many people experience Christie in this one off sort of a way where, you know, you pick up a book at random or nearly at random, you read it, you enjoy it, you put it down. Then maybe a few months or a few years later, you pick up another book. You might not even be aware of where it is in the chronology. That’s certainly how I read Christie before doing the podcast and doing it in any sort of systematic way. I think for that reason there’s often a sort of static or even flattened nature to Christie settings, or at least that’s how they’re perceived by a lot of readers. And I think the other major reason that that happens is a lot of people experience Christie first, if not foremost, through the at the many, many adaptations of her novels that exist. And many of those adaptations are very purposely set in a static time period. We talk a lot about this on our podcast, but the David Suchet series, which is quite beloved by us and so many others, you know, is set pretty much in 1936 or thereabouts for the entire series. And when you read Christie in order, as opposed to just picking up a novel here and there, you really, I think, gain an appreciation for how much her novels are not set in a, you know, a pretend sort of place that doesn’t exist, which again is a sort of popular conception, but they’re very much set in the real world. And because of that, her settings do change. And the tone of the books changes very much from the bubbly 1920s. You know that it’s such a contrast, those books, when you’re comparing the post-war but the post-World War Two books are just remarkable for how much she’s really commenting on the erosion of the servant class. And this notion that the well-ordered lifestyle in which every neighbour knew every other neighbour is just gone, and she leaves that into the very mysteries that she is telling, which is, you know, so brilliant. So I’m constantly struck as we’re reading them in order by just how anchored Agatha Christie’s books, in fact, are in the real world. And I think that’s something that’s a statement that I think would shock a lot of a lot of true fans of Christie, because if you’re not reading it that way, that that just may not come across.

Caroline: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I definitely remember I think it’s A Murder is Announced that really triggered that for me. When it’s all about before the war, we would have known everybody who lived in this village because we would have known that parents and grandparents and now people just arrive and they don’t bring letters of introduction from other people that we’ve known and who who knows if anyone is who they say they are. That’s the that’s the big one that I think does it most brilliantly.

Kemper: Also Taken at the Flood.

Catherine: Yeah, no, I think that you really see that and there but I think that when you read them chronologically, you get something like a comparison that can be made between a Peril at End House and Hickory Dickory Dock and her viewpoint becomes so odd by Hickory Dickory Dock. I mean odd from our perspective in 2020. I think that she was trying to be inclusive and perhaps not doing it so well. But there is a notion also of the bright young things having sort of fallen apart, you know.

Caroline: Yeah, that’s something else I wanted to ask you about as well, actually, because I think from having done this, reading through in order, you’re very well placed to comment on Christie’s prejudices and her description of prejudice and how that’s changed as well. I know this is something that you cover a lot on the podcast as well, but tell me a bit about that.

Kemper: Well, yeah, I mean, I think it’s impossible if you’re going to read Christie in 2020 and do any sort of a thorough analysis of what that experience is like not to address the sometimes jarring experience of of reading Christie when it comes to depictions of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, religion, et cetera, et cetera. And for that reason we really don’t shy away from it. And when when we’re ranking the books, which is, you know, more just supposed to be a fun exercise than anything else, because we do realise what a subjective sort of thing this is. But when we, too, are ranking the books, we do sometimes deduct points from books if those elements, which we call “stuck in its time” elements, mar the reading experience. And sometimes they really do. Sometimes they don’t. Actually, it really depends on the book. But, you know, one thing I would say is that I think the reason why those elements are often there is that Christie actually was grappling with a lot of different themes and interests beyond just the murder plot that she was telling. So I think, you know, it’s important to give her credit for the fact that she was actually biting off a lot in these books and more than she is often given credit for. And sometimes she quits herself better than others. And then, of course, there’s also just the fact that it’s very unusual to have, you know, written books as long ago as she did, but still but to still be, as you know, vigorously and vibrantly in print as she is and to be as widely read as she is, I think there are a ton of other authors who simply just aren’t read who were writing exactly as she did in her time. And she’s the one that we get to judge because we still read her books.

Catherine: I mean, I think that if you make a point about the largest read mystery novelists say you can also look at Arthur Conan Doyle, obviously, and he has a much lesser breadth of work than Christie did over a much shorter amount of time, and it’s much more contained. So she is writing about social aspects that don’t necessarily come up in other works. And she is trying to cover, I think, an expansive space that obviously lasted, you know, decades. And clearly people’s viewpoints change. I mean, I think that we can even acknowledge that about ourselves. And, you know, I I think that part of the pleasure of reading them chronologically, as we’ve done, is to explore that because it gives you a better understanding about how perceptions change over time and about how that also might impact your own reading.

Caroline: I’m really interested in what you said there about how sometimes those stuck in their time elements really marred the reading experience and sometimes they don’t. I wonder if you could give us an example of when that’s been true and when it hasn’t?

Kemper: Well, I think Hickory Dickory Dock as an easy example of a mystery in which stuck in its time elements mar the read. I mean, as Catherine alluded to, I think she really actually was. I think there are good intentions behind Hickory Dickory Dock. I think that, you know, this was Christie setting a mystery in what we, at least in the States, would call a student hostel, a sort of a short term living space in which college age or university age or slightly older people live a little bit more communally perhaps than full fledged adults, which is a great space in which to have a mystery because there are a lot of, you know, intricacies amongst the relationships that would exist in such a space. That’s great. And Christie didn’t shy away from the fact that within these hostels in the 50s, there were a lot of non-white people. A lot of these students came from abroad, they came from Africa, they came from India. And she includes a lot of those characters in the novel. But she does so in a way that reads problematically, I think, to a typical 21st century reader in that she often focuses almost obsessively on their appearance. There’s a lot of joking that happens not just amongst the characters, but even from the narrator as to some of the beliefs and and just the the kind of habits and mores of these characters, that just feels a little, you know, kind of what’s what’s the word I’m looking for, Catherine?

Catherine: Well, it feels a little bit reductive. And like one of the things Caroline, I don’t know how it was in the U.K. exactly, but we had a trend probably when I was in high school ish about multiculturalism. As in that should be the raison in learning and it’s all obviously fallen out of popularity because it was reductive. And I think that you see that where she’s trying, it’s like there are a bunch of boxes being ticked and none of them are being ticked very well. And so instead, you get this sort of mishmash of Christie’s version of England as she knows it, and then trying to pop in these other characters and it doesn’t really work honestly.

Kemper: It feels as though those characters are being belittled. And I think if we wanted to make an even stronger statement, you could even say that there’s it almost feels as though there’s a little bit of kind of contempt in the way that they are being portrayed. And I don’t think that that is intentional at all. But I do think it’s because there’s a bit of a superficial aspect to the way that those characters are created as opposed to the white characters in the mystery. And we are constantly talking about the fact that even though some will claim that Christie created cardboard characters or they were just stock types and they didn’t actually have any depth to them, you know, I will deny that to my dying day. I mean, I think if you read the text, it’s just not true. In some of the novels. It’s true. There are some novels that are better than others. But in some of the some of her best, she has characters that are just as three dimensional as characters in any literary novel you you could pick up. So she can do it. It just it it felt as if this was an exercise and one in which she she just wasn’t giving the same space and depth and breath to the those characters. And the overall experience is just definitely disturbing.

Catherine: And it’s ironic because if you think of her most well-known creation is one Hercule Poirot who is Belgian, he is a refugee. He is kind of has mysterious past. You know, we get bits and pieces of it over the course of all the novels. And he’s uttered in a particular way. Right. Because he you know, and it’s to his benefit at some level to a greater degree. You get it with her understanding of ageism, Miss Marple. And they’re both sort of operating outside of systems because they are othered. And so, I mean, I think that if you’re reading that, there’s some actually very kind of progressive ideas happening there, but then you put them in context of, you know, again, I feel so bad for Hickory Dickory Dock because we don’t like it very much and we use it as the go to.

Kemper: Flogging horse.

Catherine: Yes.

Caroline: Well, let’s switch to what would you say is a book or a story where you get one of those sort of stuck in time moments, but it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of it?

Kemper: Well, I think there are a lot of books actually in which the stuck in its time elements are throwaway, for lack of a better word. You know, there are some novels and like a Hickory Dickory Dock in which it really just is, you know, it subsumes the book. It’s present in such a thoroughgoing way that it’s impossible to escape to a certain extent. A novel that we just covered, Ordeal by Innocence, has a similar kind of issue, you know, in that its preoccupations with blood ties.

Catherine: I find that Kemper to be almost more offensive, you know?

Kemper: Oh, no, no, no. I’m saying that yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Like, I think that the Ordeal by Innocence, with this obsession with blood ties and, you know, like the viability of adoption as a way of creating a family is another one where it’s inescapable. And yeah, I mean, I actually find even though I think Ordeal by Innocence is a much better mystery and just a much better overall novel than Hickory Dickory Dock, I find it every bit as disturbing in terms of the stuck in its time elements as Hickory Dickory Dock. It’s easier, I think, to use Hickory Dickory Dock because it’s also just not as strong of a mystery. So it’s kind of just firing on no cylinders, so to speak. But there are a lot of books, a lot of her books in which you might get a you know, I guess Lord Edgware Dies is one that comes to mind where there are moments of anti-Semitism in it that are searing in the moment in the in, you know, down to the sentence in which you read it. So it feels like a pinprick almost as you reading where you’re like, oh, oh, that was awful. But it doesn’t you know, it doesn’t colour the overall read in the overall sense of the mystery or the reading experience.

Catherine: Well, I mean, I think that the worst example, which we rank very highly and which I think both of us love and which we’ve obviously just mentioned, is Peril at End House, because it is like this wonderfully rendered depiction of these. It’s like it’s a little bit A Secret History sort of thing long, long before Donna Tartt wrote that. And it really, really falls in line with the changing sort of views of the world on society, whatever, you know. Long story short, the very end of the novel is basically like, oh, I’m also, you know, this Jewish character cheated everybody out of a bunch of money on paintings else. And it’s just it’s terrible because you read the entire thing and the very end of it is that.

Caroline: It’s like the little throwaway gag at the end, isn’t it? It’s like a kind of if it was a television show, it would be like the little smile before the credits.

Kemper: And I think some of it obviously I mean, this is a pretty obvious thing to say. But some of it also comes down to, of course, what your own personal experience and biases are. As a reader, you know, neither Catherine nor myself is Jewish. So perhaps some of those, you know, novels in which there are even what we would term throw away anti-Semitic references, maybe they don’t seem to throw away to someone, you know, who who might be affected by them more than we I you know, we talked a bit in our Ordeal by Innocence episode why we particularly and personally were as affected as we were by, you know, some of the stuff in his time element in that novel.

Caroline: After the break, which is the best Agatha Christie, really?

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I also want to alert listeners to the fact that there is a limited amount of the new Shedunnit merch still on sale at shedunnitshow.com/shop. I launched the new tote bags and book gift selections on the podcast social media last week and was very surprised that they sold out pretty fast. But I’ve got a limited restock going up when this episode as and there’s still time to grab a gift for yourself or others before the holidays.

Caroline: I wanted to ask you, can you tell me about your ranking system, because this fascinates me and I think it’s so interesting.

Kemper: It’s a bit rudimentary, I’m always, for some reason, a little embarrassed when we actually have to talk about our, you know, our ranking categories, because I think they’re pretty basic. But, you know, we essentially break down each of the novels into some pretty standard, you know, sort of aspects of writing and reading a book. So there are there are five of them. And the first two have to do with plot. Plot is obviously key to mysteries and then to Christie. And our first is just plot mechanics. So it’s kind of, you know, the workings of the plot. How elaborate is it? Does she pull it off? Is everything sort of are the loose ends tied up or is it all is it all kind of working the way that it should? You know, often Christi’s plots are just absolutely brilliant. Sometimes they’re a little bit less. So she wrote 66 novels. So there’s going to be some variation there. The next category is, is plot credibility, which is where we tend to be able to do our nit picking that I think Mr. Mystery readers love to do in which we talk about whether or not this mystery plot would actually happen in real life. And, you know, I we do realise that verisimilitude is not necessarily what a mystery writer and especially a mystery writer like Christie is going for. Sometimes half the fun is that this never would have actually happened in real life. And, you know, the mechanisms of the plot.

Catherine: Are you saying are you saying no. That not a bunch of random strangers would travel to an offshore island via a random strangers request? Is that not typical with normal life? Because I’ve been doing things I’ve been doing things wrong, clearly, if that’s the case.

Kemper: Well, funnily enough, I believe I don’t have the grid in front of me, but I believe that on plot credibility And Then There Were None actually did quite well because this isn’t really spoiling anything but the the murderer in that novel is a psychopath and it’s this outlandish psychopathic scheme. And, yes, it’s quite believable that the murderer would have come up with this plot and actually even been able to enact it and and kind of orchestrate matters to get everyone on to that island. So, yeah, I mean, we were often kind of, I think, approaching that category with a little bit of a wink. But it is kind of fun to just suss out whether or how the plot would have would have actually happened within real life.

Then we have two character categories. The first is series long characters. So that’s often our detective character, especially if it’s a Poirot or a Marple or a Tommy and Tuppence or a Superintendent Battle or a Colonel Race. They’re actually more serious long characters in Christie than just Poirot and Marple. And then our second character category just has to do with characters within that specific book. And we’re just in those categories talking about the strength of characterisation. And again, I think Christie gets a bad rap for her character work. And quite often I think she is superb in how she creates characters and not only just creating characters on the page, but using character as a means of creating obfuscation and then ultimately solving a mystery. And I think in her very best mysteries, that’s something that I think I’ve been able to clarify as a result of this project we’re doing. That is something that I think is often happening in the very best of her mysteries. Character is integral to the solving of the mystery. It’s certainly the case in Five Little Pigs, for example, Evil under the Sun is another one I often use as an example.

Catherine: I think also we also just like randomly like we love Sad Cypress. And that’s one I think that she’s doing something truly original with with character, work and structure and does not get enough credit, right?

Kemper: Absolutely.

Caroline: So Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress, Evil under the Sun. What are the novels of hers have come highly in the system so far?

Kemper: Well, we I mean, our top 10 is consists of and then there are Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Hollow, Death on the Nile is is right up there. Orient Express, obviously, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder at the Vicarage, as well as actually another another favourite, I think, of both of ours.

Caroline: It’s interesting because I think there is also a tendency as a stereotype about Christie to think that most of the good ones came quite early on and that what happened from sort of the fifties onwards was just a sort of steady decline. But your ranking would suggest that that’s not entirely the case.

Kemper: Yeah, it’s funny. When I was thinking about what we were going to talk about when you said, oh, I want to you know, I want to ask you about what’s your experience reading Christie as completists. I think the most obvious answer is that there’s this narrative, this sort of meta narrative built up amongst Christie readers that, yeah, she was she was brilliant. She was pretty much a genius. But then she really had a decline that started somewhere in the 50s through until the early 70s, which was when she stopped writing original material, you know, and then passing away in 1976. And it’s just not true. I think that, again, obviously our experience of the novels is subjective, but I’ve been struck by the fact that in every single decade there are gems of novels and stinkers of novels.

So she’ll often crank out a masterpiece followed by a clunker, followed by a masterpiece, followed by a clunker. All relatively speaking, of course, we cherish even the clunkers within the Christie canon. But yeah, and I mean, I could point to good and bad novels in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and we haven’t gotten to the 60s yet. But, you know, I can say that I’m very much looking forward to The Pale Horse, Endless Night. You know, those are two novels that are in the 60s that I think are just wonderful.

Caroline: Before we leave rankings, one last thing I want to ask you was what’s wrong with The Secret at Chimneys?

Catherine: So funny. So funny you should ask. It’s funny you should ask. Kemper hates it more than me, which is funny because I had one of the worst experiences writing it. I was like in a particularly bad work position at the time and had an awful time reading it. Just awful. It was one of those things Caroline like I would have, you know, rather bash my head against a wall than keep reading it and Kemper somehow in that context somehow dislikes it more than me.

Caroline: So Kemper?

Kemper: It’s well, you know what, The Secret of Chimneys for me is one of those books where the stuck in his time element significantly mar the read because it is an extremely xenophobic anti and anti Semitic book and it is meant to be light-hearted and frolic some and frivolous and fun. And I find that contrast to be really distasteful. So I think that that’s one area in which the book, I’m sure, worked a lot better when it was published, because I think, you know, the the depictions wouldn’t have, you know, obviously wouldn’t have jarred as much for a contemporary reading audience.

And otherwise, it’s the thing I think that also a lot of people forget when it comes to Christie is that she didn’t just write mysteries. She also wrote these thrillers. Right. And they really are peppered throughout her career. I mean, she did she was doing thrillers even in the 50s. We covered They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown, those were both written in the 50s and in the 60s. Well, we’ll have one or two as well. But she wrote a lot of them in the 20s early on, and one of them is actually one of our favourites. We it’s become just a running joke on our podcast that we are the biggest Man in the Brown Suit stans. We just can’t get enough of it. We just want to talk about it all the time like we love Anne Bedingfield she’s our jam. But Secret of Chimneys just just doesn’t work for me in the same way. And I think with those kinds of, you know, linearly constructed thrillers, either the story really works for you or it really doesn’t. There’s not a whole lot to, you know, sort of hold on to is there sometimes is in mysteries where you can at least point to, oh, well, I really like that clue because that was so clever or the twist didn’t work for me. On the way there, everything about the resolution, you know, I was very gripping, et cetera, et cetera. I think it just either sometimes it’s a little bit more black and white and that’s just one word. The Secret of Chimneys just does not work for me. And I just found it to be a miserable reading experience, but not not the most miserable reading experience out of any Christie.

Caroline: And I want to ask you as well about the perspective of reading these books as Americans, because I think they will, you know, hit different people differently wherever they are and whoever they are, but specifically from your perspective on the other side of the Atlantic, how does Agatha Christie strike you?

Catherine: Um, I think both of us have, like, basically been brought up reading. British novels. And so I actually find that a little bit hard to even parse because I think that, you know, I just think of even like Jane Austen as part of my DNA, like if I’m going to think about something, I’m going to, like, bring up a reference to Šamaš or, you know, understandability ability. And and so Christie falls under the same camp. It’s just part of my DNA. And I don’t know that, um. I mean, society wise, of course, there’s a difference between America and the U.K., but I don’t think. I don’t think that changes my reading at all. I don’t know. What do you think?

Kemper: No, I think we’re definitely both Anglophiles. So it’s true that we we’ve grown up. And I think I think actually, again, this this kind of dovetails with your first question or at least my answer to your first question in that I think a lot of readers of Christie in the US specifically are readers who tend to read a lot of literature that comes out of the U.K. And I think there is there’s a you know, there’s just a danger with any sort of love from afar of potentially fetishising or misperceiving elements of a culture that you’re not a part of.

But that’s not Christie specific, you know. And again, I think because Christie is so widely read, perhaps it happens for more people vis a vis Christie than other authors simply because they’re reading her more. But, you know, I think as we’ve been discussing these these novels a little bit more deeply and thoroughly on the podcast, we do often have to remind ourselves that when it comes to elements of race or class, there’s just a different history and a different kind of, you know, cultural standpoint from which Christie and anyone within the U.K. is attacking those those topics than in the U.S., which has its own extremely specific context for race and for class, especially for race. Right. It’s very difficult to talk about race for race between, you know, from as an American about race in general. And and just to not specify, well, where is this happening and who is involved and what you know, you really if you don’t get specific, I think the conversation loses a lot of its value. So, you know, we often just have to remind ourselves of that and get specific.

Catherine: You know, we had we had a joke. We were interviewing our dear friend, Sophie Hannah. And this was about a year ago, I guess. And she had said the denoumoent of her last book in Florida. And we had to explain to her the concept of the Florida man and why Florida is a problem in the United States. And it’s so specific. But like any American would know that immediately. And, you know, there are elements of that, right. That it’s a specific regionalism that you would not fully necessarily understand. Like, I don’t think Kemper and I can fully comprehend the nuances of Devon.

Caroline: No, true, and Cornwall as opposed to Devon and so on.

Kemper: Exactly right.

Caroline: And yeah. So I think that that comes up and, you know, colonialism. Well, the United States is certainly responsible for its own share of foreign exploits. It’s not the same history as, you know, Britain. And so that comes with a different context that we can’t quite probably understand.

Caroline: And there are sort of smaller and more light-hearted examples as well. I will never forget the hundreds and thousands.

Catherine: Nobody, Caroline, nobody will ever forget that.

Caroline: Well, yeah, we should explain for listeners, this was to do with a short story in the Thirteen Problems. Yes. And hundreds and thousands are a well-known British sort of confectionery item. Turns out they’re not very well known on the other side of the Atlantic.

Kemper: Not not by that name. They’re not.

Caroline: What do you call them?

Kemper: Sprinkles. That is probably our you know, our our most commented on.

Catherine: It’s our bete noire. Sometimes we get new listeners and they’ll just be trying to be very helpful.

Caroline: And they’re still telling you about it.

Kemper: Oh, always. Because you have people are constantly discovering the podcast and they’re working their way through our back catalogue. And we’ll we’ll get Facebook posts, we’ll get tweets, direct messages, emails. We’ve had people you know, we’ve we’ve seen so many pictures of little bottles of hundreds and thousands from the U.K. We now know that fairy bread is a very specific children’s birthday party treat that is served in Australia, which involves basically like Wonder Bread, like cheap white bread with butter, and then hundreds and thousands sprinkled on it. It looks fantastic. I don’t know exactly how good that would taste, but, you know, no, judgement.

Caroline: My mother is a South African. That’s the thing in South Africa as well. She used to do that when we were children. It does not taste good. I don’t like it.

Catherine: Why would it why would it taste good? It’s a wonder bread and basically flavourless like sugar drop flavourless sugar mixed with lard.

Kemper: We also one of my favourites. I mean, at this point, I just whenever I have to pronounce any proper noun, like any place, name or or non obvious person’s name on the podcast, I’m just going to mention Rattle that I that I mispronounce it. No, well, I bought it. I mean, two things. We also spend an entire episode. There’s an Agatha Christie short story titled Death on the Nile, actually, which is a Parker Pyne short story, not the more much more famous novel Poirot novel. And there she mentions Bovril in that story. And we spent our entire episode pronouncing it Bovril because the derivation of the word has to do with like like cow bovine. I think it makes perfect sense that it would be pronounced Bovril. So many people also, you know, let us know, like, it’s driving me insane, you say it like fifty times in the episode and it’s so wrong.

Caroline: You’re right. That does make perfect sense in terms of pronunciation. But when has good sense ever got in the way of how British people talk?

Kemper: Of how just the English language in general, when when has the English language ever made any sort of sense?

Catherine: I love the Rathole one because we kept joking the entire episode about a place called a rat hole in Cornwall and Cornish pronunciation. Right. Kind of like slurs down the letters. And so people, it’s not a real place, but there are other places that are similarly named, right. And so people just kept massaging us over and over and over again. Oh, I’m sure it’s called Rattle, you know.

Kemper: On the light-hearted front, when you’re an American and you read Christie, at least I always noticed the fact that when she does have American characters, they tend to have really outlandish, elaborate names like their first name is something super weird, like not super weird, but just like kind of, you know, grandiose sounding and often has a van in front of it. So it will be like Cyrus Van Helsing, you know, or just the names are just often ridiculous and they’re nine times out of ten extremely rich as well.

Catherine: And it’s also like Caroline have you seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

Caroline: Yes.

Catherine: Where he says he’s Abe Frommer the sausage king of Chicago? I figure every single American character in the Christie novel is basically Abe Frommer the sausage king of Chicago.

Caroline: Yes. Yeah, you’re right. That is definitely it. They’re always described as being, you know, big in wheat or big in oil or something like that.

Kemper: One of them is a it was a rare Christie reference to California. He was the cucumber king from California. That was a favourite.

Caroline: That is excellent. I don’t even know how you are a cucumber king.

Catherine: You know, I have to imagine it’s a little bit rare.

Caroline: So, yes, also, you’re right, no one of any other nationality is ever a king or.

Catherine: You get quite a number of like Russian ballerinas.

Caroline: Yes, definitely. We might be undermining all of Kemper’s good points about how Christie doesn’t do stock characters.

Kemper: Well, that’s the great thing about Christie, though. I mean, it’s kind of the joy of our podcast. But just I think her readership in general, when you write as much as she did, it’s sort of like the Bible. The Bible’s really long. There’s a lot to pick and choose from. So if you want to make a point or you want to prove, you know, a certain hypothesis or something, you can cherry pick whatever you want. And if you pretty much want to make any point about Christie, you can because there’s something there in the text. So if you want to find an example of a character poorly drawn, of course you can find that. But you certainly can find many examples of the opposite as well.

Caroline: And just to finish up, I wanted to ask, would you recommend this chronological and completist approach to Agatha Christie’s work?

Catherine: I don’t think I don’t think that the recommendation to be made you should read books for pleasure. And unless you are doing something as a grand scale project, I don’t think it necessarily matters, especially because she does not have a serialised detective or really I mean, Poirot and Marple, you could read them out of order and it would be fine, you know, I mean, I guess at the end of the day, like reading should be both for, you know, illumination and education in some ways, but also to just be for joy, and if you want to just pick up, you know, some. By the 60s, you know, again, like Hallowe’en Party or something, let’s not not bad per say, but, you know, if you just want to pick that up, if you’ve never read a single other one, I’m sure you would actually just enjoy it. You don’t have to be pedantic about it. And I don’t think that’s necessary at all.

Kemper: I think that the important point to make is that it’s not necessary to enjoy and appreciate Christie to read it, to read Christie the way that we are. So I certainly have gotten a lot more out of my readers on Christie doing what we’ve done. But what we’re doing is also a little insane and a little obsessive. So it’s not something that I think, you know, we would expect a lot of other readers to do. I think you do gain a much deeper insight into what she’s doing and in particular, the kind of writer that she was. So that, you know, the fact that she did create characters with a ton of depth and complexity and the fact that even though in some of these novels, she is essentially recycling the same plot but but seeing and gaining an appreciation for the fact that she what she was able to do there was create an entirely different world and an entirely different setting with an entirely different feel and tone to it. Like for me, that gives an appreciation that this is someone who did more than just create complex and intricate plots. She’s so much more than that. So it gives me, you know, I think a deep sense of satisfaction to be able to point to that as the reason why I love Christie as much as I as I do, because I think that’s also at the heart of why we’re doing this. We love Christie so much that it’s almost that itself is a mystery. Like why is this this one author and her novels? Why do I love them as much as I do? Because I really love them so much more than other mysteries. And I love mysteries in general. But there’s something about Christie specifically. Nothing gives me as much comfort and pleasure and satisfaction as Christie. And why is that? Because it’s not obvious. You know, it’s not obvious. And I think because it’s not obvious. A lot of people just kind of shrug their shoulders and say, I don’t know, I guess, you know, and then they think up answers that aren’t really based on textual evidence where they say, well, I guess it’s because she said everything and dreamy, faraway places that don’t really exist. So this is just wish fulfilment and escapism and that’s it. And, you know, that’s not really true. So I think for for us, you know, our experience of Christie has certainly been greatly enhanced by by the project and perhaps for other people, because I think a lot of people feel that way about Christie that that it is Christie in particular that who who speaks to them? You know, these texts speak to them somehow, especially at times like what we’re going through a hard year, like 20, 20. So to that extent, I you know, I would recommend doing this. But I think that to appreciate Christie the way most people do, you can certainly just pick up a book, you know, at at pretty much.

Catherine: Right. I mean, I think that you also they’re just part of that is that they’re just easier to read because they’re immensely readable. That’s not that’s not condescending at all. I think it’s a massive skill that she has to make book that eminently readable, you know, but it’s it’s like you could pick up Great expectations and not read David Copperfield right or not read Bleak House. That doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t particularly matter with christie, unless you’re looking at a really comprehensive viewpoint and actually, frankly, we’re probably taking less time to read a giant chunk of Christie than it would to read Bleak House.

Caroline: Very true. Well, it has been absolutely brilliant to talk to you both. Thank you very much, Kemper and Catherine, for talking to me today. You can find their podcast All About Agatha in all of the places that you already listen to this one.

Kemper: Thank you so much, Caroline. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Catherine: A pleasure. And we love Shedunnit.

Kemper: Big, big, obviously big fans of your podcast ourselves.

Caroline: This episode was done, it was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Kemper and Catherine for joining me. You can find shownotes at shedunnitshow.com/christiecompletists where there will be links to their work and further reading suggestions on the topics that we covered. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast to find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening and I’ll be back next week with another episode.

The Christie Completists

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie, but I’ve never read all of her books in order. What insights are there to be had by doing so? Christie completists Catherine Brobeck and Kemper Donovan of the All About Agatha podcast join me to talk about the Queen of Crime’s clever way with characters, the “stuck in its time” elements of some of her plots, and how they rank her novels from best to worst.

This festive season if you’d like to support the podcast and buy a gift for a murder mystery loving friend at the same time, you can purchase a discounted gift subscription for the Shedunnit Book Club at shedunnitshow.com/giftoffer or (if you’re fast!) shop the restocked merchandise collection at shedunnitshow.com/shop.

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

Books and sources:
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Halloween Party by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Peril at End House by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Hollow by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Endless Night by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie (UK version / US version)

Please note that some of the links here are affiliate links — if you buy from an independent bookshop via bookshop.org or secondhand through AbeBooks the sale price remains the same but the podcast receives a small commission.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Dear Holmes, a mail-based Victorian mystery game in which you can pit your wits against Sherlock Holmes. Get $5 off your first order by visiting dearholmes.com and use code Shedunnit at checkout.

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

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr 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/christiecompletiststranscript.

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

Download the mp3 of this episode here.

Spoiler Warning (No Spoilers)

Is it still worth reading a whodunnit if you know… who done it?

Thanks to my guests Jim Noy of The Invisible Event and Kate Jackson of Cross Examining Crime. Jim is on Twitter @invisible_event and Kate is @ArmchairSleuth.

Thank you to everyone who supported the Shedunnit Pledge Drive, we did it! You can still join the Shedunnit Book Club if you’d like of course — and I’ll keep the discounted gift offer valid through until the end of the year — but the threshold is already met and there will be more regular episodes coming in 2021.

NB: Despite the title, there are no major spoilers in this episode. However, there is some structural discussion of the books listed below.

Books and sources:
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
The Julius Caesar Murder Case by Wallace Irwin
Post Mortem by Guy Cullingford
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Please note that some of the links here are affiliate links — if you buy from an independent bookshop via bookshop.org the sale price remains the same but the podcast receives a small commission.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Dear Holmes, a mail-based Victorian mystery game in which you can pit your wits against Sherlock Holmes. Get $5 off your first order by visiting dearholmes.com and use code Shedunnit at checkout.

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

The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr 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/spoilerwarningtranscript.

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

Download the mp3 of this episode here

Spoiler Warning Transcript

Caroline: It can come at any time, the revelation that ruins everything. Maybe you’re scrolling through social media. Perhaps you’re idly chatting with a friend who has a similar taste in books. You might even be reading a different novel or story when you chance across a reference to the plot of another work that gives too much detail. No matter how careful you are, you can still end up knowing too much.

For lovers of the classic whodunnit, this problem can be particularly acute. It’s all there in the title, after all. We read these books, for the most part, to find out who done it. And if that key information has already been shared with you… Well, there’s a case for saying the whole purpose of that book has just been undermined. But is it that simple? Is there really no reason to read a murder mystery beyond learning who did the murder?

To find out, today we’re going to talk about spoilers.

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into this episode, a brief update on the Shedunnit Pledge Drive. If you’ve listened to the last couple of episodes you’ll know that I’ve been trying to meet the goal of adding 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club by the end of 2020. And I’m delighted to say that we smashed through that goal in less than a month — exceeding all my expectations. At the time of recording, the total stands at 115 members, which is truly wonderful. I know it’s been a hard year for many of us, so it means all the more that you’ve chosen to support the podcast in this way. I want to thank everyone who contributed to this, whether by joining themselves, buying a gift for a friend, or by spreading word of the show. I’m incredibly grateful for all your efforts, and I’m delighted that I’m going to be able to make more regular episodes for you going forward. There was a bit of a preview of what that could look like on this feed last week, with the Death Sets Sail On The Nile episode, and I hope you’ll stick around for what’s to come. There will be more updates coming before the end of the year as well as a Christmas-themed bonus as a thank you, so make sure you’re following the podcast on social media to stay informed about that — I’m @ShedunnitShow everywhere.

Music

I feel like it’s only appropriate that we should start this episode with a spoiler warning. Contrary to what the title might indicate, there are actually no major plot spoilers in this episode. But as always, if you’re concerned please consult the list of books in the episode description before going any further and return later if any of them are ones that you don’t want to know any details about at all.

That’s also a good place to start because it’s specifically the issue of spoilers on this podcast that has prompted me to make this episode at all. Long before I actually started making Shedunnit, when the podcast was just a twinkle in my overworked eye, the question of spoilers was one that perplexed me. Was it going to be possible to write and talk about murder mysteries in a way that was engaging without having to reveal every detail of their plots? And if I did end up always having to include major revelations and therefore warn listeners of the presence of spoilers, would I be able to grow any kind of audience for the show? As I started putting out episodes, this concern remained. I’m aware that there is a minority of listeners for whom almost all of the books I mention are already familiar, but as the podcast has grown it’s become clear to me that a lot of people regularly find new authors and titles to try from the show. Finding the balance between being interesting and avoiding spoilers is something I’m constantly working on, and I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

I think it’s also necessary at this point to clarify exactly what I mean when I say “spoiler”. Part of the reason that this whole issue has become very contentious is because it’s a somewhat elastic term, encompassing everything from an utterly unexpected and frank description of exactly what happens at the end of a story in a review or podcast to a fleeting reference to the fact that a work contains a surprising twist, even if that twist isn’t described. My personal definition falls somewhere near the former than the latter — I would consider it a spoiler to identify the murderer in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, say, but I would not consider it spoiling anything to say that that novel features Hercule Poirot as principal detective. But as that’s just my personal feeling, as we explore this topic in details I thought it was worth seeking some expert advice from people who have been navigating spoilers for murder mysteries for quite a while now. What is a spoiler?

Jim: Generally, my feeling about this is if you have read a book and there is an element of that book which, if you knew about it in advance, would legitimately upset part of the experience of reading that book, I think that is enough to constitute a spoiler. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s. I do think it’s a spoiler to say you won’t believe the death that occurs at the end of chapter seven in such and such a book, because that sets up a certain expectation.

Caroline: This is Jim Noy, who has been writing about classic crime fiction on his blog The Invisible Event for over five years now. You might recognise him from the recent Locked Room episode of this podcast, where he acted as our guide into the world of impossible crime stories. And given that Jim particularly enjoys such tales where a seemingly impossible event is ultimately explained by rational means, he has had plenty of cause to think about spoilers in relation to classic crime fiction.

Jim: The identity of the killer, the motive, sometimes the working of the crime, if the working of the crime isn’t immediately obvious, those sorts of things have obviously been interwoven one hopes delicately throughout the plot, they’re arguably the raison d’être of these sorts of books. And so you are spoiling that book if you are referring to something that is essentially the key purpose of the telling of that story, right? Which in golden age detection, the entire point is most of the time who the killer is, why they killed, how the killing was achieved, when the killing was achieved, or in the case of an inverted mystery where all of that is known the key thing is typically what the detective uncovers, what the detective’s surprise is that enables them to then prove the guilty party guilty.

Caroline: There’s no getting away from it: the whodunnit is a solution orientated genre. As such, spoilers just carry more weight than they do in historical fiction, say, when there’s a strong chance that a reader might know the basic background outline of the plot anyway because it’s drawn from real events. That said, with murder mysteries it isn’t always just the identity of the murderer and their actions that can constitute a spoiler. When writers get a little more experimental with the form, there can be more revelations to accommodate.

Jim: If I tell you who who the murder victim is in Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, now murder victim isn’t actually settled on until I think halfway through or possibly even half over halfway through that book. If you go into that book knowing who the victim is, I would argue it paints a lot of the decision made by the killer in that book in a very different light, because you’re like, oh, we’re just waiting for them to trawl through this until they get to this particular person. It really affects your reading of the book, I would argue. There’s a an Anthony Berkley novel, same thing where a murder plot is planned and then is upset and then upset again. And eventually it’s about the third or fourth victim who is settled upon. But if you know that going in then you’re just like I can’t believe he’s wasting time with this now. And I think it’s Berkeley playing around with this idea of victimhood. Whereas if you go in and you know what, they’re going to kill Mrs. X and it happens in Chapter 15, then you spend 14 chapters going, oh, just just can we just get to the bit where he kills Mrs. X?

Caroline: This is getting into the realm of what I would call a “structural spoiler”, as opposed to a straightforward plot spoiler. Even if you don’t know who that mystery victim turns out to be, the fact that you know there is a mystery around their identity at all is going to give you a different reading experience than if you arrived at the novel without any prior knowledge at all. It’s the same as if someone tells you that a story has a twist in it. Even if you don’t know what the twist is, being on the alert for it will colour your perceptions of the work. Alongside that, there’s what I’m going to call an “emotional spoiler”, which I think is when you get a revelation about the tone and atmosphere of a book before you start reading it. If you know that something is going to be scary or sad ahead of time, for instance, the emotional beats that the author has worked into the plot are going to hit differently. During our conversation about this, Jim alerted me to the existence of a website called doesthedogdie.com, which has an interesting take on emotional spoilers. If there’s a certain theme that you want to avoid in pop culture, such as animal cruelty or body dysmorphia or a whole host of other categories, you can check out the book, series or film that you are thinking of consuming there and it will tell you what to expect without giving away any plot or structure points. That strikes me as a really excellent channelling of the spoiler question towards something positive rather than negative.

Another spoiler issue that is peculiar to the classic whodunnit is the question of age. Many of the books that I talk about on the show were first published eighty, ninety even a hundred years ago. Is there such a thing as a statute of limitations on spoilers? If a book has been around for that long, is it reasonable to expect that most people will have read it? Well, no, I would argue, and Jim agrees with me.

Jim: I mean, we know the genre started about 100 years ago, the majority of the titles in 80 odd years old, this doesn’t mean that people have had 80 years to read more than everyone has had 80 years to read them. I’ve only had about 35 years to read them. I’ve only been reading them for probably about 15 or 16, there is a lot of stuff in this genre which I have not yet read, that I would be incredibly annoyed if somebody were to spoil for me.

Caroline: A book might not be new in any sense of the word, but it might be new to you. And for that reason, I don’t think there is any statute of limitation on spoilers for these books, or really for any other element of pop culture. There’s a lot of TV I haven’t seen for instance, and might one day want to watch without already knowing what happens. I think anyone who wants to get into classic detective fiction should have the option of doing so without being bombarded with spoilers from the very first time they type “whodunnit” into Google.

After the break: The internet ruins everything. Because, of course it does.

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The issue of spoilers feels that much more pressing now because of how much easier it is to communicate. Of course it was perfectly possible to have a whodunnit spoiled for you fifty years ago in conversation or via a review or another book, but the peril was perhaps less omnipresent. Now, involuntary revelations are everywhere, and it’s because of the internet.

Kate: So I think in the Internet age, there’s so many more ways of having things spoilt, because obviously in the era that the books you tend to talk about coming from the 20s, 30s and 40s, you didn’t have that problem, though. I have been sort of thinking about they still have the issues of spoilers just in different ways because sometimes writers, if they’re doing a series and it’s like no book six, they have to have a character happily referring to how they solved a case in books one to five, like who did it something. So you feel like you’ve told me that I haven’t read that one.

Caroline: This is Kate Jackson, who writes the Cross Examining Crime blog, and who has — like Jim — been handling the question of how to write about whodunnits on the internet for quite a while now.

And this brings us to the title of this episode. In the last decade or so of mass communication about pop culture on the internet, a certain etiquette has evolved to deal with the problem of people consuming content at differing paces. It’s not perfect — you can still have a book spoiled for you just by innocently googling its title sometimes — but in the majority of cases, a simple warning ahead of time in an article of podcast will allow people who don’t want to know more to duck out in time. This is what Kate does on her blog:

Kate:  I think whenever I am going to give a spoiler, I usually have a very big warning in bold in large letters saying, please do not read the next two paragraphs if you haven’t read it or if the whole post is going to have a lot of spoilers, might say, don’t read this if you’ve not read such and such. So people have the choice to keep on reading and just be brave and reckless and potentially find out spoilers or people can, sometimes people just say, I’ve gone away, I’ve read it and I’ve now come back and I’ve enjoyed your posts and not had anything spoilt.

Caroline: That point about choice is the vital one, to my mind. Spoiler warnings give readers or listeners the option whether or not they want to keep going and hear the information, making it a matter of individual preference. Whereas when there is an unannounced spoiler in a review, or in the blurb on the back of a book, or even in the cover design because yes, that does happen sometimes, the reader doesn’t have any agency. And that’s when tempers flare up. People can get a little bit strange about this kind of thing, shall we say. Jim had one incident with his blog that I thikn shows the lengths people will go when they feel wronged.

Jim: In the top right hand corner of my blog, I typically post the image of the book. I will be reviewing the following Thursday and for about four or five books in a row, somebody would email me spoilers about the books that I had flagged up. So they like sent me spoilers with some of your email with things like the book titles, So-and-so is the Killer or the book title, this is How The Murders Done or something like this. I mean, the joke was on them because they sent them through a variety of mail of email address, hiding software things, and so when it came through to my email, it immediately bounced into spam. And I checked my I checked my spam about once every six months, as everybody does. So it was six months down the line. And I was like, what the hell is this? Why someone sent me an email about it was The Julius Caesar Murder Case by Wallace Irwin. And it’s like, so, so and so. And I was like, oh, oh. And then there were yeah, I think some of them, however many, which was obviously somebody trying to weaponize spoilers against me, which was I mean amusing. I know who it was.

Caroline: For me, I think the most extraordinary thing about this incident is the fact that Jim’s correspondent put the spoiler in the subject line of the email, so that he wouldn’t even have to click into the message to get the information. It comes back to that issue of choice again — if you really want to be malicious with this, you have to give the recipient of the spoiler no choice at all.

Needless to say, I don’t advocate behaving like this, even to your worst enemy.

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There is another side to the spoiler question, though, which is where that balance I talked about at the start comes in. What if in order to say why a book is worth reading, we have to give something vital away about its plot? Here’s Kate again:

Kate: For everyone who hates having anything spoilt, the flip side is everyone who is really passionate about book and they want to share why it’s so brilliant. But the very reasons why it’s brilliant are things which are classed as spoilers, like your hands are somewhat tied. I think I came across this book called Post Mortem, which was written in the 50s by Guy Cullingford, and obviously that’s a big piece of information. It lands on page twenty five. So it’s very, very early on. But is the sort of information a lot of people will say, whoa, you’ve told me this now. Now I feel like it’s been ruined for me. It makes it very, very challenging to review.

Caroline: In this situation, the only option as a writer is to tread carefully, add whatever warnings seem appropriate, and trust readers or listeners to use their common sense. But what if you do still see a spoiler for something that you were keen to read. Given that, as I said earlier, whodunnits are all about the solutions, is it still worth reading that book at all?

Kate: I do think that perhaps there’s a misconception that mysteries or traditional whodunnits are all about the plot and the ending. So if you take away the surprise of the ending, there’s nothing else left, which obviously I think the fact that your podcast has been going on is really popular or the blog post. And it even like a conference in the British Library of kind of shows that isn’t just there’s a lot of entertaining events and interesting solution at the end.

Caroline: I definitely subscribe to this view. I reread my favourite whodunnits all the time, and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night at all that I know the solution to the mystery already. I reread murder mysteries for the characters, for the settings, for the details about how people lived in a different time. For me, if it’s a well written and appealing book, it won’t matter if I know when the denouement is about to start.

That said, that is my choice, and I usually reread after I’ve already had the experience of reading for the first time without any prior knowledge. And if you want to have that option, there really is only one way of making sure of it.

Jim: I have a policy that if I know there is a book, I am definitely going to read. But I have not yet read if it’s somewhere on my TBR and I see a post on it or I see a review of it on somebody else’s blog, regardless of the esteem in which I hold that reviewer. I do not read that review because all it takes is one person to be very careful and not say one thing and another person to be very careful, to not say another way. And suddenly, potentially the two things come together and you realise the gap that they’re trying to navigate around. So my take on this is I just typically try to avoid reading about anything that I haven’t read that I know I want to read. Obviously, you can’t avoid everything you haven’t read because how are you going to find out if you want to read about something?

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Caroline: In all of the thinking about this that I’ve done over the course of making the podcast and this particular episode, I’ve come to a few conclusions. I don’t think spoilers are a trivial issue — it really is very frustrating if someone deliberately or carelessly takes away your choice to read a book for the first time without any prior knowledge of its plot. However, I do think that in this internet age the responsibility for preventing this is shared. I, or Jim, or Kate, or anyone who writes or talks about whodunnits, should take the trouble to include spoiler warnings when relevant. But readers and listeners should also apply common sense. Check for warnings, use contextual clues, and if in doubt, you can always do as Jim does, and just avoid all mention of that book until you’ve read it for yourself.

And if you feel the need to exact a complicated revenge plot on the person who spoiled a whodunnit for you… well — just hope that there isn’t a sleuth on the spot in that case.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Kate Jackson and Jim Noy for joining me today. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/spoilerwarning, where there will links to my guests’ work and further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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

Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links — if you buy from an independent bookshop via bookshop.org the podcast receives a small commission.

Death Sets Sail On The Nile

NB: There is some discussion of the plot of both Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie and Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens in this episode, but no major plot points are revealed.

Caroline: So we’re here today to talk about Death on the Nile, which was first published in 1937.

It’s the story of a bitter and ultimately tragic love triangle, which all plays out on a cruise up the river Nile in Egypt. Hercule Poirot just happens to also be a passenger on that steamer and gets drawn into the shipboard murder mystery. It’s become one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and celebrated novels and has been adopted many times.

The author herself turned it into a stage play. There was a star-studded film adaptation in 1978, starring Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, and Mia Farrow. And then the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot tackled the story in 2004 with David Suchet leading a cast that also included Emily Blunt, Francis De La Tour and James Fox.

And of course there’s another big budget film adaptation on the way, starring Kenneth Branagh and Gal Gadot. We just can’t get enough of this waterborne whodunnit, it would seem. So why has this story, bewitched so many readers down the decades, making it popular, even by the standards of Agatha Christie celebrated canon.

Well, in order to find out, I thought it would be worth talking to another mystery writer who has recently published a Nile based detective novel, Robin Stevens. Robin is the author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, which are set in the 1930s and follow the cases of schoolgirl detectives, Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells.

In August 2020, the ninth and final book in the series was published, Death Sets Sail, which sees her sleuths take a cruise up the river Nile for a story that is very much in dialogue with Death on the Nile itself.

Welcome Robin. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Robin: Thank you for having me. It’s really nice to be here.

Caroline: So what is it about the Nile, do you think, that makes it work for a murder mystery?

Robin: I think it’s the perfect combination of glamour and the excitement of travel and, a beautiful setting. It’s a little scary, it’s a little unknown. It’s enclosed, you’re included on the boat and at the same time you’re looking out on these beautiful vistas of the Egyptian Nile-side countryside. So it’s the perfect mix of extreme enclosure, beautiful, expansive space, glamour, excitement, mystery. It’s perfect.

Caroline: And you mentioned the enclosed space – boats work quite well for whodunnits, I think. Why do you think that is particularly?

Robin: They do. Whenever I’m explaining to people how to construct a mystery story, I always say that, choosing, transport, as your setting is really useful, you know, a train, a boat, a plane. You get on them. And you’re basically stuck in there with the other people who have paid to travel until you get to your destination. So it’s the ultimate, totally enclosed setting that you literally cannot get off because it is moving.

Caroline: So when you are putting together a story like that, presumably knowing where everybody is in that enclosed space is really important.

Robin: It is and it becomes more fiddly to deal with because you’re using much less space in terms of square footage. You have to be very careful in the way you’re moving your pieces around the board. You’re moving your characters but at the same time, there’s just so much room to play around with different people being in different locations and just missing each other and just sneaking past each other so it really dials up the tension as well. I think.

Caroline: And you’ve done a book, obviously, set on a boat, Death Sets Sail, but you’ve also done one set on a train, First Class Murder, that was similarly in dialogue with an Agatha Christie novel in that case Murder on the Orient Express. What’s it like, working with a setting and a location albeit a moving one that is so famous to mystery readers?

Robin: I find it a joy. When I write my books, I’m always in dialogue with, golden age mystery writers, especially Agatha Christie.  I don’t always agree with their worldview, their outlook. But I grew up on their stories. I am heavily indebted to them. I write the books that I do, the Murder Most Unladylike mysteries as an homage, a critical homage, but an homage to those books.

So I find it just so much fun to play with a setting that older readers, readers who like me have grown up on Christie , Sayers, Marsh, settings that those people will recognise while at the same time creating stories that if you haven’t read the Christies, you’ll read my books and then hopefully move on to them and be delighted and thrilled to see a setting that you really recognise and  speaks to you and they’re such glamorous, exciting settings. I think that is one of the keys to Christie’s  ongoing popularity. Her mystery novels are places you’d want to visit, even though you wouldn’t want a murder to happen. You want to be on the Orient Express, you want to be on a Nile river cruise boat. And you can do that when you read her books. It’s so much fun to take one of her settings and put my own spin on it. My books are totally different in terms of the mystery that my detectives are solving, but the setting is the same. And I think that that is just a really fun thing to play with. The actual setting of my boat the Hatshepsut on Death Sets Sale is literally the same as Death on the Nile, I looked at the map in Christie’s book and slightly tweaked it, but  it was using the same thing. So very much follow Christie in my outline for the book.

Caroline: And as well as looking to Christie for Death Sets Sail, what else was involved in the research process in putting together that book?

Robin: Quite a lot. I’m a huge fan of research and I do a lot. And as the series has gone on, I’ve done more and more. And for this book, I read a lot about Egypt. Egypt’s history, especially focusing on the 1930s, I interviewed several people whose families, are Egyptian or who have lived in Egypt,  to understand what it’s like to be there and be from there now.

I read Death on the Nile repeatedly, very, very important research. I watched the 1978 movie again and again. That’s my favorite. And I went to Egypt and I went, this year I went in January, which is kind of astonishing to think now that we’re, we’re where we are. But, I went on a Nile river cruise,  as close as I could get to what Agatha Christie’s describing, because of course, where she’s describing on Death on the Nile, you can’t actually take a cruise there anymore. Because all the dams have sort of stopped cruises going that far down. She starts in Aswan, and I had to end at Aswan and do a slightly different part of the river. But, yeah, I really went as close as I could to the, the Nile river cruise  experience that Poirot has in the book. And it was, it was incredibly helpful. You forget so much stuff when you’re just reading books when you’re just looking at movies, like the fact that when you’re sailing down the Nile you’re sailing up or the other way round, you know, the whole world is flipped as to what you think it is. because you’re moving down the African continent as you’re sailing up the Nile, which is really discombobulating. So, in my first draft, before I went to Egypt, I had the sun rising and setting on the wrong side of the boat, which would have been a problem if I published it that way.

Caroline: As someone who has also written a book about a river, I can say that it’s pretty difficult. I thought I caught all of the problems like that in mine, but still after the hardback came out, someone did write to me and said, I think you meant west here when you said east. Yes, I did.

Robin: It’s mindbending.

Caroline: It really is. I didn’t know that about the dams either that, make the setting different. I think when we read Death on the Nile, we sort of like to imagine that if only we could be there, it would all be the same, but obviously the world is not like that.

Robin: It isn’t and it’s funny because it took me until I was really at Aswan and I went to the, you know, Elephantine Island, which she describes at the beginning of the book and the old Cataract Hotel. I realised I was like, but they’re talking about sailing down further. And then I looked at the massive dam there now. And I was like Oh, I couldn’t retrace her steps. But, yeah, it was an interesting thing of being there and sort of seeing, what I can sort of still recreate and what I can’t.

Caroline: And the beginning part of your books, with the maps and the drawings and so on is always really, really enjoyable. At what stage in the process do you sort of bring that in? Is that something you have sketched in your notebook, right from the beginning where everybody’s cabin’s going to be?

Robin: I did actually for this one because, I’m a horrible map drawer. I’m not an artist at all. And so even though I have my locations very clear in my head, I will be thinking about a particular house or school or boat or train. I won’t normally draw the map for myself. I’ll sort of try to use something that already exists.

And so in this case I used Agatha Christie’s map, from Death on the Nile and I rejigged it, but I scanned it. And then I wrote in where all my characters would be in and sort of kept moving them around until I had the right room locations to make the story work. I’m definitely an author who really needs to be able to see the place I’m writing about like a film in my head, be able to do a walk through.

And so my first draft was not successful, but the one that I wrote before I went to Egypt and then when I was in Egypt, when I was on the cruise, we were there for almost a week and you know, I just sat on deck every day and I wrote, and it just changed everything about the book because I suddenly could imagine what it was really like to be there. I could do the walkthrough finally and that just really helped. So yeah, no, I, I can’t draw but I, I really do rely on that.

That’s amazing, so Death Sets Sail was actually written on the Nile.

It was, it really was. Oh, I should say that the maps in my books, are by my illustrator, Nina Tara, who takes my horrible drawings and turns them into beautiful, beautiful illustrations.

Caroline: Yes, I think I’m the same. I definitely can’t draw. So it’s good to have the experts take that over. So as well as, you know, just being in Egypt and being able to finally visualise anything. Was there anything else that you gathered from your research about why the 1930s in Egypt particularly was so fascinating to people?

Robin: I think there are a number of reasons for that. I do think that there is really something about travel and how Egypt was a country, I guess that was quite open in the 1930s. They had a revolution in 1922. And so it was a very sort of open period, sort of outward looking. But also an interesting period because in that revolution, of course, moved them further away, from British empire.

So it was suddenly becoming, a country that was sort of less tied to the West and looking, to other Islamic countries. So you know, it was easy to get to, you could fly there. I mean, it was still expensive to fly. I tracked the way that, Daisy and Hazel go, they go on a plane and they sort of hop across Europe and then into Africa and that was based on how you would really travel. You know, it’s very expensive, but doable for, for sort of more people. And it’s interesting when you look at the characters in Death on the Nile, they’re all, you know, basically rich, but they’re at different income levels and they’re at different levels of economic importance.

And you can see how, travel really had opened up and people, even if they weren’t super rich, like Linnet Doyle they could still go on holiday in Egypt. So that is sort of interesting to think about it as a destination, that was your fun, but achievable. But I also think, you know, it is a place, where Christie is kind of putting a lot of her, you know, sort of prejudices as a white, British traveller on, and the idea of Egypt being scary and coarse, and kind of dangerous land, I think is it’s interesting. and disturbing to read, you know, now, and always, and I think there’s a lot in there about the prejudice of travelers. And definitely. I wonder whether the fact that the revolution had just quite recently happened made British travellers also a little bit more scared and a little bit more sort of uncertain and fearful.

And I think that really plays into why it’s a great place to set a murder because, Oh, it’s a dangerous country where anything might happen, you know? I think it’s a book that really reveals white travellers prejudices, which is, again, something that I played on a lot in Death Sets Sail, a lot of my, white travelers I have a whole group of people, the Breath of Life society who believe that they are incarnations of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, even though they are, you know, white and from England and have no connection to Egypt. And I kind of wanted to use that to talk about the way that British people in the thirties and now feel an ownership over Egypt you know, we have so many artifacts and museums. I grew up in Oxford, my mother worked at the Ashmolean Museum and, you know, there are just these stunning, priceless artefacts that have been there for generations and, you know, should they be there? No but that’s what we all grew up with and we go to museums and we see that. I go to the British museum and all those beautiful statues, and we feel connected to that culture that actually white British people have nothing to do with and I think it’s very interesting and strange and disturbing phenomenon and something that I enjoyed writing about.

Caroline: It’s fascinating. You’re absolutely right as well, the extent to which just as someone who grew up in Britain, you know, doing primary school history projects about Egypt and pharaohs and so on. Whereas if I compare that to the amount of time we spent say learning about Ireland a country much closer and that has a much greater connection and interplay with Britain, there’s just no comparison. I did way more Egypt history than I did Irish history or Welsh history or anything.

Robin: Exactly and it’s really interesting to look at, you know, when I was doing my research I read history books that were written about Egypt by white, British historians in the thirties. And the idea that there was this great civilization and then it went like the dark ages and nothing happened. And, you know, they ignore all the Islamic culture and the sort of 2000 years of, civilization that was going on right up until, you know, when they were writing, they sort of blank that all out. And it’s just the ancient Egypt that they’re focusing on and again yeah, that was a really interesting thing to see how we rewrite history and how we rub out the stuff that we don’t want to think about to fit this narra tive that Ancient Egypt was great. And that’s it.

Caroline: Yeah. And there’s also the sort of acceptable mystery around ancient Egypt in that sense isn’t there? I’m thinking of the episode in Death on the Nile where, a boulder falls and nearly crushes Linnet and it’s all part of this kind of mystery of the pharaohs and you never know what’s going to happen.

And that in itself is I think quite a biased and partial view isn’t it, of that culture because as people have learned more and more sensitively about it, there’s a lot to do with ancient Egyptian rites that actually makes total sense. Like there’s nothing mysterious or unknowable about it.

Robin: Exactly. And the idea of Egyptian magic and yeah, that kind of strange view of it. I think that moment in the 1978 movie when Mia Farrow pops up in, oh, I can’t think where it is, the, the huge, statues, and there, they made that whistling noise that she comes out during the whistling. And it’s this moment of her being almost witch like, being so creepy and kind of hounding Linnet and again, the same thing of the sort of white travelers hooking into the creepy mystery of ancient Egypt and using it for effect.

Caroline: And your creation, the Breath of Life society feels very of the 1930s and it’s something I’ve really, really liked about the Murder Most Unladylike books is how as the 1930s have gone on, even though, you know, these are children and teenagers, your main characters, more and more of what’s happening in the world around them is seeping in and the Breath of Life society feels like it’s part of that.

Robin: I mean, it’s not directly based on, but I took the concept from a very real society called the Panacea society, who existed in Bedford in the 1920s and 1930s, run by a woman who called herself Octavia and believed that she was the daughter of God. And it was a British, homegrown society where they really thought that she was the second coming and she was here to sort of bring about a new world.

And it’s a really fascinating, group of people and sort of part of history. You know, I love thinking about female power Women in control and Daisy and Hazel, my two characters are by this point, the ninth book in the series, they are sort of 15, almost 16, and thinking about their own power in society, their power as young women.

And I thought it was interesting to bring them together with these group of mostly women, who again have, you know, a high opinion of their own power, misguidedly or not. and you know, so they are in control of their lives. Yeah, the Panacea Society, I think is interesting because it was born out of world war one.

And all of these women lost their husbands, they lost their sons, they had this huge  crushing grief in their lives. And they use that to create this sort of utopian society, they all lived together and they believed they were immortal. And I think it’s really interesting about the panacea society as sort of a symptom of the 1930s at large, which is a time that’s all about burying grief.

And you know, everyone in Britain comes into the 1930s with these huge scars from the people they lost in world war one, that you don’t really talk about it anymore. It’s not really sort of in the forefront of what’s going on, but it’s all we found or the surface, even when you’re having fun. And it’s a jolly time, there’s just this huge collective grief isn’t being discussed. And I think that just such an interesting thing about that time period, and one of the reasons I love it so much that it is this very jazzy, fun time when everyone is secretly really sad. And I think that’s the sort of key to the popularity of murder mysteries in the 1930s.

Caroline: One of the other dynamics that I really liked about Death Sets Sail particularly was as you say, Daisy and Hazel are older than when you started writing about them. And they’ve started discovering that they can’t go unnoticed in the way that they used to. And this is something thrown into really sharp relief by Hazel’s younger sister who is still managing to slip by without adults realising that she’s there and therefore find things out.

And that’s actually something you’re going to be writing about in your next series of books. But I wondered how that changed how you wrote about them, the fact that your characters had matured to that point.

Robin: Yeah. So when I wrote Murder Most Unladylike, all the way back in 2014, I definitely didn’t think that I was going to have a nine book series that was not in my head. We had planned three books initially. I mean, I’d written one book and then I got a book deal and it became three books. You know, at that point, they’re 13 and I aged them up slightly in every book.

They sort of age about three months in each book. And I initially thought when I was pitching the series, when I was imagining it, that the series could go on forever. I imagined it like a Poirot or a Miss Marple where you follow the characters, you care about those characters and those people get plonked down to different locations and that is the impetus for the murder mystery. They’re in the Caribbean or they’re on a boat or something. And that’s the mystery. But as I was writing and I got to sort of the seventh book, Death In The Spotlight. I started realising that my little kids, my 13 year olds were now sort of 14 coming up to 15. I remember being that age so clearly and feeling such a huge gap in how old I was sort of each moment you grew up so quickly at about that time in your life. And I knew I wanted to be writing about that and showing them growing up and aging, maturing  and that meant that they had to get older.

You know, unlike the Famous Five, Daisy and Hazel definitely age. and I started to realise at that point they were sort of aging out of these cute little kids who could hide under tables and, and listen in and spy. They were turning into young women and young women are very much looked down on in society now as well as then. but they are noticed more than little girls. And that is one of the most difficult things about being a teenage girl. People start noticing you and looking at you in ways that you can’t control and you don’t always enjoy and I wanted to write about that and I did in Death in the Spotlight and I want to show them growing up and sort of being more confident.

But I also knew that I couldn’t keep writing a children’s series anymore with these teenagers. So that was really when I decided that Death Sets Sail needed to be the last book in the series. And it was a real wrench, you know, deciding it, it was a real wrench to say goodbye. but I think definitely the right call and I’m really pleased that I finished it where I did. I feel like I sort of wrapped up their plots and their character development, and left them in a place that I been imagining for a while, but it was, it was very sad. I did cry when I wrote, the end of Death Sets Sail. It was a hard thing to do.

Caroline: And was taking them to Egypt and the Nile, was that something that you wanted to be able to do before you said goodbye to them?

Robin: Definitely.  The third book in the series was the book that was my homage to Murder on the Orient Express. And that was First Class Murder. And I enjoyed that so much that at that point I started thinking someday, I want to send them on an Nile cruise. I want to do my Death on the Nile with them.

And I didn’t know when, until I decided, okay, I’m going to finish the series at that point, I thought the big finish, the ending has to be on the Nile because it is one of the most iconic settings for a mystery story. When we think about murder mysteries,  golden age murder mystery, you think about Death on the Nile. So it was a really obvious choice. And I think because I’m in such a sort of beautiful dramatic country in that book, I could do big dramatic, shocking things for the final hurrah for the series. So, yeah, definitely very calculated choice to send them to Egypt.

Caroline: And I suppose  a place that’s very associated with death and life and rebirth and reincarnation, and so on makes sense for an ending that is also a beginning in that way?

Robin: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So having May, Hazel’s little sister in the book, was sort of my way of bridging the gap  because in Death Sets Sail she’s uh six years old, very little but my next series is going to be set during world war two and she’ll start off as 10 years old then and be one of the main characters the main three detectives. So, I used her as a bridging character to show that there’s a next generation coming in, who will continue to be detectives, even after Hazel and Daisy have moved on.

Caroline: And just before we go, I wanted to ask you about the 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, because you told me before we did this, that that was your absolute favourite and having done all this research into the book and its surrounding, I feel like you’re pretty qualified to say that. So why is it that that one stands out to you?

Robin: I think partly everything it’s when you watched it first, you know, every generation has their Poirot and you know, Suchet is, is mine, but that Ustinovfilm was one of the very first I ever saw. And it just completely thrilled me. I think I loved its campness. Such a camp production. It’s so dramatic. I think the clothes are gorgeous everyone’s sort of yelling and screaming and crying and just being absolutely 110% at all times, it’s such a great cast, which I only appreciated that as I got older, but, I think even for the first time I saw Mia Farrow playing Jackie I was just sort of mesmerized I think it’s such a fantastic, eerie performance.

And I also, I think I really love how precise it is and how it goes into the central thing that I think a good murder mystery adaptation patient needs to do, which is play with the idea of there being a multitude of possible endings, play with the idea of there being a multitude of truths. But at the end show that there’s only one truth. That could be the real one that you’re only aiming for one perfect point. It does all of its wonderful kind of recreations where it Poirot says, if you were there at this point, then you could have been there and this could have happened. And it’s. Just this incredible, sort of prismatic effect of all these possible different movies, different endings. you know, what the ending is gonna be, Poirot knows what the ending is going to be, and he’s always leading you to that point. And I think the movie does so beautifully, sort of show that he’s always got the idea in his head, but he just playing with all these different possibilities.

I love it. I just think it’s ridiculous and beautiful and dramatic.  And, the boat is perfect as well. that was what I was thinking of. Even though I had the map from the book when I was sort of turned it into 3d in my head, it of course looked like the boat from 1978 movie. That was the one.

It’s perfect and I rewatched it and rewatched it and rewatched it for this book,  and, enjoyed it every single time.

Caroline: I’ve never thought of this before, but I guess the boat in Death on the Nile is kind of a character in its own right.  So it’s very important that you should be able to visualise it. Yeah. Well, thank you very much for coming on Robin to share all of that with me. It was lovely to have you again.

Robin: It’s really nice to talk to you. Thank you.

Death Sets Sail On The Nile

To get to the bottom of why the Nile is a murder mystery location that has bewitched readers for decades, I decided to talk to an author who has just published an Egypt based whodunnit: Robin Stevens. We talk about how she finalised the plot of Death Sets Sail  while on a Nile cruise, what it was about 1930s Egypt that held such a fascination for white British writers,  and why the boat in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is a character in its own right.

NB: There is some discussion of the plot of both Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie and Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens in this episode, but no major plot points are revealed.

You can follow Robin on Twitter and Instagram @redbreastedbird. Her latest novel is Death Sets Sail and there are eight others in the Murder Most Unladylike series, plus a book of short stories coming in 2021. To keep up to date with her forthcoming work, see her website robin-stevens.co.uk.

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Music by Audioblocks. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

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