Here’s a full transcript of the nineteenth episode of Shedunnit.
Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.
Caroline: School is enclosed world. Perhaps you finished your education just a handful of years ago, or perhaps it’s been decades. But either way, I bet you can still remember the claustrophobic atmosphere of the place: its cliques, its gossip, its competitiveness, its feuds. Memories of our schooldays are inexorably intertwined with our feelings about being young, and then leaving that time behind to join the grown up world. Recalling it in too much detail can be a melancholy exercise.
For a lot of these reasons, schools have long been a popular setting for fiction — there’s a well defined set of characters, the emotions can easily boil over, and the rumour-mongering power of such a closed community can be a very useful plot device. Boarding school stories in particular have a history going back a couple of centuries at least, as authors have enjoyed imagining adventures for children and teens relatively free of adult supervision.
You might have spotted, though, that a lot of the factors that makes schools and colleges great settings for fiction in general also make them a perfect backdrop for detective stories. Everything from the strict adherence to a timetable to the application of school rules can help build a rigid structure for a sleuth to subvert. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that plenty of authors from Agatha Christie to Dorothy L. Sayers to Nicholas Blake and more have experimented with whodunnits set in the world of education, and that the tradition continues to this day.
Today, we’re going back to school.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
The very first school story is generally considered to be a set of linked short stories by the writer Sarah Fielding, published in 1749 under the title The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Fielding’s schoolmistress, who was brilliantly named Mrs Teachum, is “a gentlewoman who undertook the education of young ladies”. She has nine pupils at her little school, and one day after lessons they start fighting over who should get the biggest apple in the basket. The subsequent chapters are all about how the girls begin to grow up and learn to be less selfish, interspersed with fairy stories and fables with clearly relevant morals. It’s a very early example of a full-length work written to be read by children, and appeared at a time when it was only beginning to be appreciated that children had their own tastes and interests separate from adults.
Up until this point, the few books for or about children that had been published were generally very transparently aimed at moral or religious education — thinly disguised versions of the catechism or Bible stories. But through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, middle class children were more and more seen as a profitable market for publishers, and more and more authors began to include school-based plots in their works — whether they were aimed at adults or children. After all, school should be a pretty universal experience, and we start to see that in fiction, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from 1847 to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield in 1850, and then perhaps the most famous nineteenth century school story, Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which was published in 1857. The wild popularity of this last book made this subgenre of books set in schools a fixture.
In England, boarding school — also sometimes called public school — was a popular educational route for the very rich who could afford to pay the fees. Through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it was residential schools that inspired some of the most famous school stories. Since there were different schools for boys and girls, different authors were writing different stories on each side. Some of the most famous girls’ school stories come from Angela Brazil, who published her first one A Terrible Tomboy in 1904, and Enid Blyton, who began her school-writing stories with The Naughtiest Girl in the School in 1940, quickly followed by works in her other school series St Clare’s and Mallory Towers. For boys, the Billy Bunter stories by Charles Hamilton and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, also both from the first quarter of the twentieth century, dominate.
I was a huge fan of all of these series when I was a child, but my absolute favourite was the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I devoured those books, reading them over and over again, and to be quite honest I often do open them again when I feel like my brain needs a rest or I want to feel cosy and safe. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to see the connection between the closed world of the early twentieth century boarding school story and the classic whodunnit. Yet crime is a popular theme in these stories, albeit mostly of a “who took the last biscuit from the tuck box” kind, and pupils often take on the mantel of impromptu amateur detective to solve the puzzle. Long before Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery set partly in a girls’ boarding school, authors like Blyton and Brent-Dyer were experimenting with what it could mean to introduce a sleuthing element to a school story.
A really good example of this crossover can be found in a popular comic strip for girls called The Silent Three which ran in a comic for girls called School Friend from 1950 to 1963. Here’s Moira Redmond, a long time fan, to tell you more:
Moira: Most of the girls reading the comic would not have been as gone to a boarding school. So there was Bunty, there was School Friend Crystal — they all changed names over the time. The particular favourite was The Silent Three, who were in School Friend and they were girls who dressed up in robes and cowls and masks to solve crimes. I mean they were quite extraordinary but we loved them we thought they were wonderful. They were at St. Kitts and they nobody knew who they were. They were was hidden amongst the schoolchildren everybody knew that the silent three would solve crimes and they would find a justice and they would fight it but nobody knew who they were. Well any any seven eight nine year old girl worth her salt is just going to a door There’s a classic one with a maid has been is being fired because she’s thought to have broken something or stolen something they will find out who really did before the crime it’s nearly always somebody is wrongly accused and they go to help her. I think there was also cheating in exams stealing from the top boxes and all that kind of thing. The usual stuff.
Caroline: Moira was also an avid reader of school stories growing up, and credits Enid Blyton’s miniature whodunnits with inspiring her love of detective fiction as an adult.
Moira: I still wonder if my great love of crime fiction as an adult in fact dates from First Term at Malory Towers where there is a very memorable plot line where Darrell Rivers who’s the heroine of the books she’s been wrongly accused of breaking another girl’s pen heaved a very important piece of kit and she is being sent to Coventry by the other girls because it seems clear that she must have committed the crime. Now another girl shy Mary Lou who hero worship ships. Darrell decides that she knows that drill could not have committed this crime so she has to find out who did it. She thinks about it and she thinks I’m somebody. I’m gonna be able to find this through someone’s shoes a stamp stamped on the pant and there’ll be ink on the shoes. And brave Mary Lou goes down in the middle of the night and such as the cupboards till she finds the shoes which have been hidden the ink stained shoes. And that means she can prove to everybody who committed the crime and the really embarrassing thing is that I haven’t had to check that or look that up. I remember every detail of this plot. It’s not embarrassing. That’s just that’s just really a rather large number of years I haven’t had to check any of that. I know that that’s what happens in first time a man retires. And I was so struck by this the fact that Darryl was wrongly accused the fact that someone else could go forward and solve this crime. I loved it and that was the start.
Caroline: There are lots of other examples of this — a suspected thief is caught stealing the supplies for a midnight feast at St Clare’s, numerous instances in different stories of pupils found stealing from their peers so that they can give the items back and thus gain social standing, even a hunt to find a crucial alibi in a castle guest book in the brilliant if eccentric novel The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb. Within the world of the school story, it seems plausible that pupils would take matters into their own hands and solve their own mysteries, because parents aren’t involved and teachers are merely remote cyphers, there to have pranks played upon them. Indeed, some of the schools, like the Chalet School and the unusually progressive boarding school in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series actively encourage the students to dispense their own justice. The latter has a kind of school tribunal, where miscreants are investigated and then, if guilty, punished with no involvement from the teachers.
This is the special attraction of the boarding school setting, really, Moira says.
Moira: The boarding school is great because it’s a closed world, there’s no parents. There are teachers but you’re allowed to ignore those to some extent. So you’ve got those aspects which will make the story interesting and I think also that children reading them. You can imagine yourself in that situation and you’d think suppose that everybody thought that I’d stolen Jane’s sweets and it wasn’t me. What would happen. I think we like the idea that actually somebody would believe in us because the very striking thing is that in the injustice ones is the people’s certainty that the person who’s been accused wasn’t guilty which is a personal knowledge thing and that I think is quite an important trait in these.
Caroline: It’s that naturally enclosed, unsupervised world, which is just so perfect for detective fiction. And we’re going to find out all about how mystery writers have used it, after the break.
Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about the Shedunnit book club, the membership scheme that I’ve started alongside the podcast that is both helping to fund the show and proving to be such a lovely, supportive community. If you’re listening to this episode on the day it is released, the members will be gathering in the secret club forum to discuss our June book, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I can’t wait to get on to the July title, because it’s going to be the first time reading Josephine Tey for some. If you’d like to be introduced to new detective novels and make some new online pals while you do it, you can join now for just £5 at shedunnitshow.com/membership. Now, back to the episode.
When I think about true golden age detective fiction that has effectively utilised the school setting, the most school story-ish title that comes to mind is Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof from 1935. As we heard in episode 14, Blake was the pseudonym of the British poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis, and this was the first of over a dozen detective novels he wrote featuring his amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. In this story, Strangeways is called into a boys’ boarding school by a friend who is a teacher there, after one of the pupils has been found strangled inside a haystack on the school sports day. As he gently probes into the various goings-on at the school, he brings to light all kinds of tensions among the staff, including illicit affairs and workplace bullying, as well a brilliant, mysterious secret society run by the boys. The rigid framework of everyday school life proves invaluable to Blake in constructing the plot too, which Strangeways able to rule people in or out of the frame by testing where they really were against where the school timetable required them to be. It’s a smart, only mildly improbably story that, in my opinion, far outshines the rest of the Strangeway novels, just because it makes such good use of its boarding school setting.
Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night was published the same year as A Question of Proof. Although it isn’t strictly a murder mystery — there’s no actual body — it does concern a spate of more minor crimes including vandalism and a vicious campaign of anonymous letters happening over a couple of terms in a women’s college at Oxford University. The students and dons all live in the college, so it’s an awful lot like a boarding school, with a set routine, uniform and controlled entrance and exit points to give the writer some restrictions around which to mould her plot. There’s a lot to say about this book that isn’t strictly relevant to this theme, since it’s mostly a novel that tackles issues of women’s education and societal role, plus some stuff about academia vs so-called real life and so on, but as a pure school story, I think it’s very nearly perfect.
Harriet Vane, an alumna of the college, is asked by the dons to take up residence again on the pretext of doing research for a new novel, and so be on the spot to investigate the antics of the “poison pen” without having to face the kerfuffle of calling in the police or university authorities. There are numerous incidents where the socially and physically closed environment of the college is brought to the fore, such as when the malefactor is dashing around the college at night removing all the fuses so that nobody can turn on an electric light, and Harriet pursues her, trying to use it as an opportunity both to unmask her villain but if not that, then at least remove some people from the suspect list who she can see are still in their rooms and thus can’t be the miscreant. This is very useful to the plot, but only possible because of the traditional quadrangle style college buildings, where a sleuth can stand on the lawn in the centre and see all the windows on all four sides. With so many bright women, all with their way to make in the world and their worth to prove over and over, in such close proximity to each other, is it any wonder that things begin to go off the rails? That’s the central question of the book, and it underlines again and again how vital the setting is to the subject.
Josephine Tey also chose a further education establishment as the setting for her “school” based mystery, Miss Pym Disposes, which was published in 1947. Leys is a physical training college for young women who want to work as sports teachers, and the titular Miss Pym is a psychologist and a friend of the head of the college, who visits to give a talk. Almost all of the book is taken up with Lucy Pym’s observations of college life, of how the young woman cope with the stresses of the extremely rigorous course they are taking, and of how they interact with each other. She sees how tightly scheduled their time is and how all-consuming all of the studying and practising they have to do is, and then when there is a death, all of that factors very heavily into the way she thinks about the case. This rigid timetable, as well as the enclosed world at Leys make Miss Pym Disposes a classic school mystery, even if the pupils are a bit older. I’ve actually talked about this book before with Moira Redmond on the queer clues episode of this podcast, episode 3, so if you’d like to hear more about it from another perspective do go back and check that out.
Perhaps the most famous detective novel set in a school is actually the one that has the least to add to a discussion of the setting. Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons was published in 1958, arguably too late to be truly from that golden age between the world wars, and it’s also got elements of espionage and thriller that move it away from being a classic whodunnit. There are several chapters set in a fictional middle eastern country called Ramat before we even arrive at Meadowbank school, although that is then where the actual murders take place. Although there’s plenty of tension and drama between the staff, most of the pupils don’t have much character, other than the two who take centre stage in the mystery and eventually bring in Hercule Poirot to look at the case. As a school story, then, Cat Among the Pigeons has very few of the classic tropes of the genre, although once again the closed setting and the reputational difficulties caused by a murder at a high end girls school are both strings that Christie pulls on to get her plot running. It’s still a great read though — we read it in the Shedunnit Book Club in May and I think it went down pretty well.
So we’ve established why schools are popular settings for detective novels, and looked at a few examples of how writers have handled them. But something I’m very aware of with this topic is that authors are still tackling it today. Just in the last few years there have been some great examples of school or college-based crime stories, such as Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun, Tana French’s The Secret Place, and — most significantly for me, because I’m a big fan of hers — Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series. This last is probably the most classically-inspired school-based detective story since the golden age. It’s set in the 1930s, at the fictional girls boarding school Deepdean, and follows the adventures of two pupils, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, as they solve the murders that seem to happen fairly regularly in their vicinity. Here’s Robin, explaining how she got the idea to combine these two kinds of story:
Robin: when I was 13 I was sent to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies College in Cheltenham which is of course one of the very big very old very fancy British boarding schools. And I turned up there as I mean I grew up in England. I was born in America but I was raised very American my mother gave me old American food American holidays American accent as you can hear. So I turned up at Cheltenham and I just was bewildered by it. There are all these rules but nobody told you but you just had to know like there was a staircase. You could only go up if you were a fifth former or above. But I didn’t know that. And I went up it and I got told off and I just kept being brought up short by all these strange things that everyone acted like were normal. And I thought then it would just be such a great place to set a murder mystery because it’s so enclosed It’s so weird. Everybody knows each other very well it’s got ticks all the boxes for a perfect setting and I also really wanted to write a story about my own experience of boarding school because I had been a big fan of Enid Blyton and all her school stories and I was really thrilled to go off to boarding school. And it was sort of like that but it was different in this small but crucial ways. I wanted to put those differences down into a book. And so just the idea floated in my head I think even while I was at Cheltenham thinking it would be so great to write a story about my experiences it was so great to write a murder mystery it is so great to write a murder mystery at boarding school. And so even though I didn’t sit down actually start to write murder most unladylike till I was 22 and I left school about four or five years. I’ve been out of school I’ve been through university. I think I was thinking about it from a very early age. I added in some thing that I wished had been at my school but wasn’t. So at Cheltenham there was a bricked off blocked off little passageway that it used to go from I think it was from the hall to this to the west wing of the school and girls used to go under there to go hide from rain while they went between lessons and the whole. And I wish that that had been open. I thought that was it a cool creepy thing. And so in my deep dream it is open. It is still there and as it heads off get into it at one important point of murder most unladylike.
Caroline: Robin’s books, like most early twentieth century school stories, are written to be accessible to younger readers, but she’s also very conscious of working within the traditions of detective fiction. As such, she keeps both the Deepdean school rules she’s invented and the rules of detective fiction in mind when creating her plots.
Robin: I take rules seriously. I like thinking about them I like working within them and playing with them and choosing which ones to break careful and then breaking them as hard as I can. So yeah I’m definitely an observer of fair play like Agatha Christie. I like to drop all of the hints possible. I like to make sure all the suspects are really well defined. So I’m thinking about the the 10 Rules that Father Knox put in place and I’m sort of problematising them. I’m playing with them and I’m using them
Caroline: Beyond her characters and plots, something that makes Robin’s stories great fun for grown ups who like detective fiction to read is how referential they are within the genre. Daisy is a huge fan of detective novels, and tries very hard to conduct her investigations with Hazel along the lines of her sleuthing heroes. This has a function beyond just adding fun easter eggs to the books, though, Robin says — it helps to embed her stories in the detective tradition.
Robin: All of the books that Daisy reads are my favorites. And you can I hope that readers can track her reading list and read read it themselves and get a really good grounding into my favorite Golden Age detective stories and the stories that influence me but I also think that it’s quite a golden age detective trope to have the detective. Oh quite self-aware and aware of themselves as being in a story that is slightly fictionalized slightly weird like detectives will say quite a lot. They’ll be like. Good thing we’re not in a detective story. Or like if this was a detective story. The murder of walk into the room right now. And so I kind of love that self knowing this and the richness of it. And so I’m trying to give Daisy and Hazel a little bit of that of that kind of consciousness. [
Caroline: As a nice bonus, Robin is also training up a new generation of detective fiction fans.
Robin: A lot of children say that they read my books and then they move on up to Agatha Christie which is exactly what I was hoping for. And you know partly I created the books to be in the space between Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie which of course there wasn’t that space when I was younger and the fact that there is now is so great and especially lovely. They read my third book first class murder which is obviously based on murder on the Orient Express by the Christie. It’s very influenced by that in terms of its setting and then they go and read or watch murder on the Orient Express and that’s how they get into Agatha Christie. So it’s all working perfectly as I hoped.
Caroline: Robin has now written seven full length Deepdean novels and some short stories, and the eighth instalment, Top Marks for Murder, is out on 8 August. However, she’s not tired yet of working with the school setting — it’s endlessly interesting to her.
Robin: I think boarding school particularly is just so fascinating because it’s got the element of being enclosed being separated off from the rest of the world and all of the people inside a boarding school are in some way separate in some way special I mean partly special you know because they’ve sort of been selected in some way by wealth or attainment or some other characteristic. But it does make them make them different makes them interesting and it makes them really weird and I think that any setting where you’re in a small enclosed space with people all around you you become you get your own slang you get your own way of thinking and you will talk to each other in a way that you sort of forget isn’t the way that everyone else in the rest of the world talks. And so you can get very sort of then very narrow focus and sort of start forgetting the wider world exists and myself as well. I remember from my boarding school days that all that mattered were the girls around me and how you know whether what we were friends whether we were arguing who had been mean to who. What you heard about this teacher that teacher you know it was all just so precise and so narrow. And I think that it breeds resentment it breeds tension and suspicion and stress. And also I do remember at my boarding school there was a lot of pressure there’s pressure to get good marks and exams there was pressure to behave. There was pressure to be the best and the most important and brightest and that kind of pressure does it breeds this stress and confusion and jealousy which is great for a mystery writer. That’s what you want.
Caroline: The heyday of the pure boarding school story and the golden age of detective fiction might both be far in the past now, but it’s reassuring to know that the tropes that first attracted writers to them remain a strong draw. The school setting just works too well for mysteries for it to be left behind.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned in today’s episode at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/backtoschool. There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guests, Moria Redmond and Robin Stevens. You can find links to Moira’s blog about schoolgirl detectives and Robin’s books in the description for this episode.
I’ve been a bit rubbish recently about updating the podcast’s social media accounts, but I’m determined to get back on it — follow me at ShedunnitShow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see pictures of the books I’ve discussed and plenty of other detective fiction trivia.
I’ll be back on 10 July with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Detective.