Category: Transcripts

A Century of Whodunnits Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Christopher Wren

Said “I am going to dine with some men.

“If anybody calls

“Say I am designing St Paul’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the break: what happens after the golden age?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swan Song Transcript

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/swansong. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cryptic Crimes Transcript

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Honkaku Mysteries Transcript

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline: I’ll let my guest introduce himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now, a brief intermission. As you might be able to tell, Shedunnit isn’t a quick or simple podcast to make — there’s a lot of research and production that goes into each episode, and that all takes time and resources. The reason I’ve been able to keep it going, and hopefully keep making it better, is because of the support of listeners like you who keep the show financially viable by becoming members of the Shedunnit Book Club. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and in return you get two bonus episodes a month, an ad free version of the main show, and access to the lovely community where we read and discuss a different detective novel every month. If you are in a position to contribute to the future of an independent creative project, then consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Whodunnit Transcript

Caroline: The world of detective fiction has recently passed an important milestone. It’s a hundred years since the appearance of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. First serialised in the London Times in 1920, it appeared in book form first in the US at the end of that year and then in the UK in January 1921. A whole century since Hercule Poirot first stepped onto the printed page, and he’s barely aged a day.

The various commemorations and reappraisals that this milestone provoked made me think, though. Although Styles was undoubtedly an influence on the way in which detective fiction would develop over the next two decades of its golden age, Agatha Christie didn’t really break any new ground with it. She didn’t invent the idea of the amiable narrator and his brilliant detective friend, nor was she the first to set a mystery story in a country house. Her work with poisons in this plot is unusual, but she didn’t originate the concept so much as turn it to her advantage. As much as I respect and admire the Queen of Crime’s work, she wasn’t really one for firsts. Her genius was for taking elements of what already already existed in the genre and synthesising it with clever character work to produce compelling, readable plots. Her huge and enduring success bears this out: it doesn’t matter if you’re the first if everyone likes you the best.

But the renewed focus on The Mysterious Affair at Styles during its anniversary made me wonder where it all began. I’ve come across so many different origin stories for detective fiction over the years that I’ve been reading it and this centenary finally made me want to investigate further. What was the first whodunnit? Let’s find out.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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You probably already think you know what the first whodunnit is. I certainly thought I did. Keep that title in the back of your mind, but don’t stop listening, because this is a much more complicated, and interesting, question than it first seems.

When you start any investigation, it’s always a good idea to know what it is you’re looking for and why you’re looking for it. So before we go delving through the shelves, let’s take a moment to think about our quarry and our motivation for chasing it.

I used the word “whodunnit” deliberately, because I didn’t want to specify that we are looking for either a full length novel or a short story or anything in between. I think “whodunnit” can refer to a work of fiction of any length that concerns the solving of a mystery, often but not exclusively a murder. And it’s the solving that really matters, because although plenty of other genres include works about deaths and crimes, centring the narrative around working out the “who” is really the core tenet of detective fiction. Everything else is immaterial compared to that: form, style, setting, period. All of it. The first whodunnit can be set in Ancient Egypt or in deep space, I don’t care. As long as there’s someone detecting who did a crime, it counts.

As for why I really want to know about the first whodunnit, I think there are two reasons for that. Firstly, it’s because of our culture’s general reverence for round numbers. Now that it’s been a century since the beginning of the golden age of detective fiction, we’re entering a period of anniversaries and reappraisals. A hundred years is a nice hook, so I think we can expect lots more coverage of the type that we’ve seen for the centenary of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Against all of that, I’d quite like to know where it all really began. And then my second motivation for this is because of how self referential detective fiction is, especially in the early to mid twentieth century. I’ve talked before on the show about how mystery writers love to incorporate real life cases in their books, and they also really enjoy referencing each other. Agatha Christie once wrote a whole series of short stories where she had her sleuths Tommy and Tuppence impersonate detectives created by other writers. This general propensity for borrowing and collaboration on the page shows how much of a cohesive tradition detective fiction is. And to understand a tradition, I think you need to know where it started.

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It’s 1886. A young British doctor has written a strange, bumpy novella about a deductive genius, a character partly based on one of his professors at medical school. He struggles to find a publisher for it, and eventually signs a terrible deal with a company that gives him £25 in exchange for all the rights, meaning that he can’t ever make any more money from it no matter how many copies it sells. But at least this company does find a home for the story, and in November of the following year A Study in Scarlet is serialised in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a publication run by food writer Mrs Beeton’s husband. The magazine doesn’t have a huge readership but the work receives some nice reviews, enough that it is republished as a standalone novel in 1888. The doctor will go on to write dozens more stories about this same character, building on the foundation he laid in this initial tale.

Also in 1886, on the other side of the world, a young legal clerk working in Melbourne, Australia is feeling frustrated because no theatrical producers would even look at the plays he was writing, let alone produce them for the stage. Feeling desperate, he asks a bookseller what kind of book he sells the most of. He learns that the detective novels of the French writer Emile Gaboriau are what’s flying off the shelves at the moment, so he resolves to write something in the same vein. The resulting book is turned down by every publisher who sees it, but when he publishes it himself in October of 1886, 5000 copies sell in the first three weeks. By the end of the year, it’s estimated that every literate adult in Melbourne has read it.

That young doctor, of course, was Arthur Conan Doyle and his deductive genius is Sherlock Holmes, a character who was to become so popular that all subsequent fictional detectives have arguably had to define themselves against him as the archetypal sleuth. But that first story, A Study in Scarlet, isn’t as convenient an origin point for the whodunnit as we might want it to be: it wasn’t very successful upon publication, and the entire second half of it is about Mormonism in Utah in the 1840s. If you haven’t slogged your way through the book itself you might not be aware of that – most subsequent adaptations rather conveniently leave that part out.

The second writer I mentioned there is more intriguing, though. That thwarted playwright was Fergus Hume, and his book was called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. It has a fairly recognisable plot and structure, without any Mormonism tangents. A corpse is found in a cab in the early hours of the morning and a police investigator called Detective Gorby is given the task of identifying the victim and tracking down the murderer. Gorby has something of Holmes’s quick habits of deduction, although this facet of his character isn’t quite so codified and emphasised. The story is also interesting for the glimpse it provides of poverty in late nineteenth century Melbourne, with Hume noting in a later edition that much of this side of the book came from his own observations.

Above all, though, what makes me interested in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab in relation to our search for the first whodunnit  is its runaway popularity. After the book sold tens of thousands of copies in Australia, a consortium of English investors bought the copyright from Hume so it could be published in the UK. He made the colossal error of accepting only £50 for the full rights, meaning that when the book then sold 200,000 copies in its first six months of availability in London, he didn’t make any extra money.

There is an argument, I think, for saying that The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is the first whodunnit to become a global bestseller, and that is significant. When something is so ubiquitous that dozens of parodies and rip offs are published and it’s selling 3000 new copies a day, it’s clear that it has had an impact. Arthur Conan Doyle himself was aware of the book, but didn’t like it at all — in a letter to his mother just before his own first story was published he described it as “one of the weakest tales I have ever read”. While it’s certainly not the worst nineteenth century detective novel I’ve read, I would agree that The Mystery of a Hansom Cab isn’t a literary triumph.  But so many people read it that I think it should forever have a place in our understanding of how the whodunnit developed. Hume certainly never equalled its impact. He moved from Australia to Britain and wrote another 130 books, but none of them took off in quite the same way. His isn’t the first whodunnit, by any means, but it is a waypoint on our journey to it. Sometimes, to make your mark, you don’t need to be first. You just need to be really, really popular.

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Stepping further back in time, there are some other good suspects for our investigation to be found in the 1860s and 1870s. The big hitter of these decades is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which you will find mentioned as “the first detective story” all over the place. The poet TS Eliot felt strongly that this was the foundation stone — he called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels” and said that Collins had invented the genre.

First published in 1868, The Moonstone is a book that contains multitudes. It concerns the looting of the famous diamond of the title from an Indian shrine and then its subsequent theft from the person of the young woman who has inherited it from her corrupt uncle. There are protofeminist themes, elements of the Gothic and a discussion of class within the plot, as well as its detective elements. Collins based Sergeant Cuff, the competent and efficient Scotland Yard man who takes the case, on the real life Inspector Whicher who worked on the infamous Constance Kent murder case in 1860. There’s an amateur sleuth on the case too, and the two approaches are constantly compared and contrasted. It has a lot of recognisable aspects of a whodunnit, from the physical reconstruction of the crime to the red herrings Collins strews throughout the plot.

The Moonstone is definitely a detective story, but was it first? I don’t think so — I think Collins was following on from several other significant whodunnits from the 1860s and 50s. L’Affaire Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau is one such. It was first published in French in 1865, and was a big success — this was one of the books that Fergus Hume was trying to emulate with The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. It, too, follows a police investigation into a murder and introduces an amateur sleuth alongside the official investigation. Gaboriau’s focus on building the case using evidence through the book feels significant, too, as a move away from the sudden, unsupported revelations prevalent in the sensation or supernatural fiction of the time. Similarly, we might look to Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, first published in 1862, which also features elements of the Constance Kent case as well as an amateur sleuth. And then there’s Charles Dickens’s Bleak House from 1852, which I think can also be read as a detective story, with Inspector Bucket gradually picking his way through a complicated mass of chancery and secrecy to solve a murder.

And what of Edgar Allen Poe, who I think is most often credited with writing the first whodunnit? I bet that’s the name that first came to mind for lots of you when you heard the theme of this episode. Well, I think there’s a very strong case to be made. His story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from 1841 features a lot of the tropes that some of the later nineteenth century works like The Moonstone, The Mystery of the Hansom Cab and A Study in Scarlet that I’ve mentioned would go on to develop more fully. His detective, C Auguste Dupin, espouses a method of deduction called ratiocination, broadly understood to mean reasoning based on logic and observation. The story is narrated by his friend, inhabiting the role we would now, post Conan Doyle, call that of the “Watson”. The reader is mislead, just enough, that Dupin’s solution is a surprise despite his friend’s seeming transparency. It’s all very familiar — indeed, it has been said that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” constitutes in itself almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice”. It’s the obvious answer. Case closed.

But I’m not completely satisfied. Was there really no whodunnit before 1841? Did Edgar Allen Poe really invent a whole genre with a few short stories and then go back to the spooky stories and verse that made up the bulk of his output? I must admit, I was hoping for a more satisfying origin point.

After the break: It turns out, we are following in the footsteps of Dorothy L. Sayers

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I tell you about a way that you can support the continued existence of the podcast. Sometimes that’s by listening to an advert and maybe clicking on the sponsor’s link (just clicking makes a big difference, by the way, even if you don’t want to buy anything, because it demonstrates that you heard and understood what I said). Today, I’d really love it if you’d pause this episode right after I finish this sentence, and spend ten seconds doing two quick things. Firstly, check if you’re subscribed in your app, and if you aren’t, hit that button. By doing that, you’re telling your platform that you like the show and want to be notified every time I publish a new episode. Then, pull up a text or a new social media post and recommend the show to a friend who you think will like it. Old fashioned word of mouth is still the absolute best way to introduce new people to podcasts, and without the backing of a big publisher or company I rely solely on you, listeners, to help me get the word out about Shedunnit. So, off you go. And now that you’ve done that, let’s get back to our search for the first whodunnit.

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It was when I was investigating the claim of Edgar Allen Poe to be the author of the first whodunnit that I found that Dorothy L. Sayers had already walked down this path ahead of me. In her introduction to a 1929 anthology of mystery stories called The Omnibus of Crime, she had also tried to establish what the earliest example of this genre was.

In doing so, she separates out three different branches within the tradition that make it easier to assess what belongs and what doesn’t. These are: detection, mystery, and horror. The first is self explanatory — the story must include some element of detection. Books like The Moonstone and Bleak House easily pass this test because of the presence of professional police detectives, but you might say that Lady Audley’s Secret doesn’t because we have a character trying to find things out who has no prior history as a sleuth. Debatable, that one, but it’s useful to think about. The detective is, Sayers says, “the latest of the popular heroes, the true successor of Roland and Lancelot”. I really like this allusion to the heroes of medieval romances and Arthurian legends, with the detective the modern equivalent of the knight on a quest. It places the searching, inquiring requirement of the mystery genre within a larger and much longer literary tradition.

The second of Sayers’ three branches is mystery. This also seems obvious once you say it out loud: of course the first whodunnit must be a mystery. There must be a problem to solve, a knowledge gap that must be closed. It can’t be immediately obvious what the outcome is going to be. Well, yes.

The third is more interesting: horror. There’s a lot of cross over in the early nineteenth century between Gothic fiction, sensation fiction and proto detective fiction, with horrifying events being woven into a narrative of investigation. The work of Edgar Allen Poe is a notable example of this. The vast majority of his output was firmly within the Gothic, exemplified by stories like “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But in addition to the Dupin stories I’ve already mentioned, there are others that seem to infuse their horror with elements of mystery, such as “The Imp of the Perverse”, in which a narrator boasts of having got away with an undetectable crime.

Standing alongside Poe in this regard is the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, the master of sensation fiction. Sayers was very keen on him herself, and gave her obsession to a character in her own whodunnits, Harriet Vane. In Gaudy Night, Vane spends a great deal of time on researching a possible biography of him, and in the Sayers continuations written by Jill Paton Walsh, she has become quite a noted expert on his work.

Le Fanu very much straddled the boundary between horror and mystery. Many of his stories are full of demons, vampires, ghosts and hellfire, but he also wrote an early locked room mystery called Uncle Silas, which shares many features with the work of Wilkie Collins. More than twenty five years before The Moonstone, Le Fanu published a short story called “A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess“,  in which a body is found in a locked room with no sign of how the murderer can have escaped. But there’s no detective figure and no scheme of deduction at all, so as much as I enjoy Le Fanu’s work, we will have to look elsewhere for the first whodunnit.

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There is a common theory that the reason that detective fiction didn’t flourish until the late nineteenth century is because society needed an established system of real life detectives for the public to appreciate them in fiction. It is certainly the case that official state police detectives didn’t come into being in places like Britain and France until the mid nineteenth century, but I’m less and less convinced that this is a good argument for Edgar Allen Poe or Wilkie Collins as the author of the first whodunnit. Investigators existed prior to the official police ones, and anyway the genre abounds with examples of canny amateurs who take up the mantle of sleuth when circumstances demand it.

If you follow this line of reasoning, then suddenly a much longer lineage exists for the whodunnit. And in this vein, Sayers included in The Omnibus of Crime four stories which she terms “the primitives”. There’s the tale of Hercules and Cacus, which is repeated in one version in Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s part of one of the twelve labours of the mythical hero Hercules — later retold by Agatha Christie as cases for her sleuth Hercule Poirot. A fire breathing giant called Cacus is terrorising the area around the river Tiber and steals some of the cattle that Hercules has just won. In order to disguise the crime, Cacus pulls the cows backwards by their tails to his cave lair so that the hero won’t be able to follow their footprints and recover them. Keen Sherlockians might notice that Conan Doyle borrowed this plot for one of his short stories. Anyway, this legend displays a very early recorded example of an author including the fabrication of false clues that the detective hero must then overcome to find the true solution to the mystery. Also in the anthology are two biblical stories that similarly demonstrate unmistakeable aspects of the whodunnit: the history of Bel and the history of Susanna. The former sees the biblical hero Daniel analysing ash as evidence to determine who committed a crime, and the latter interrogating the testimony of witnesses to arrive at the real truth. The earliest story in this volume is from the Greek author Herodotus, and it is thought to date from around 600 BCE. Not only is the tale of Rhampsinitus and the thief an undoubted mystery, it’s also a locked room mystery. Sayers declared it to be an example of “the psychological method of detection: plot and counter plot”.

Another favourite suggestion of mine is one of Aesop’s fables, “The Fox and the Sick Lion”, in which an elderly predator pretends to be too sick to hunt in order to lure sympathetic animals into his cave so he can eat them. The fox, though, is too smart to fall for this ruse because he notices that the footprints of others who have come to the lion’s aid lead only into the cave, not out, and thus deduces that the lion is not as harmless as he seems. “Sherlock Holmes could not have reasoned it more lucidly,” Sayers says.

But we can go still earlier than Aesop, Herodotus, or the Bible. The Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is thought to have been first performed in the fifth century BCE, and sees the titular king trying to solve the murder of his predecessor in order to appease the gods and stop a plague. Step by step, this king/detective follows the clues and analyses the evidence until he can eventual reveal whodunnit in an explosive conclusion worthy of Agatha Christie herself. Aristotle was a fan: he wrote in the Poetics that “of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles”. I read that as an argument for fair play in the detective story: like the writers of the golden age in the early twentieth century, Aristotle wants the clues to be laid out for all to see so that the audience has a chance of reaching the conclusion for themselves. This play also belongs to the minority of whodunnits that not only portray the solution to the mystery but also the justice dispensed afterwards — in a way, Oedipus belongs to the same tradition as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, a sleuth who sees not only clues but sin and its consequence.

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I think every fan of detective fiction, or indeed of genre fiction more broadly, has been told at least once that the books they love are not “proper” literature. There’s long been this persistent assumption that if something is enjoyable to read and popular with a lot of people, it must somehow be lesser. But by tracing the whodunnit’s lineage all the way back to Sophocles, we see just how ridiculous this is. Detection is a fundamental part of the way stories are told. It’s a basic building block of narrative.

To enjoy the first whodunnit the way its writer intended then, we’ll just need to brush up on our Ancient Greek.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thefirstwhodunnit. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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

The People’s Pathologist Transcript

The murder mystery is a form that brings forth certainty from uncertainty. The job of the detective is to sort through the chaotic mass of clues and testimony to create an ordered, coherent narrative of how a crime was committed. Medical evidence forms a vital part of this process, often creating the parameters for a murder investigation with an estimation of the time of death.

At the same time as detective fiction was growing in popularity in Britain in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the field of medical jurisprudence was undergoing a quiet revolution. From the disordered, contradictory mess of Victorian toxicology was emerging the new field of forensic pathology, which proposed a scientific and evidence-based approach to the problem of understanding death. The pathologist is now a permanent fixture of any kind of crime drama, from CSI to Silent Witness and more, and that can all be traced back to one man who was forging his reputation in the mortuary while the golden age of detective fiction was just getting started.

Today, we’re going to meet Bernard Spilsbury.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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There is nothing in Spilsbury’s background or early years that hints at what he was to become. This man who would at the height of his powers be described as “England’s modern Sherlock Holmes” was born in 1877 in Leamington Spa. Little Bernard’s father James was a chemist in the town, and since childhood had nursed a frustrated ambition to be a doctor. James passed this cherished aspiration on to his son. It was with this end in mind that Bernard went to Magdalen College Oxford in 1895, and then on to St Mary’s Hospital near Paddington in London in 1899 to complete his medical training. He had not been an especially distinguished student at Oxford and intended to become a general practitioner once getting through his qualifications.

That was not to be, however. Once arrived at St Mary’s, Bernard Spilsbury’s life was forever altered by the trio of mentors that he encountered there. Dr A. P. Luff and Dr William Wilcox were toxicologists to the Home Office and Dr A.J. Pepper was an eminent pathologist. Together, this trio had pioneered a new approach to forensic medicine based on close attention to morbid anatomy and pathology. Spilsbury, who already preferred to work alone, began to specialise in this new field and eventually received his medical degree in 1905.

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, these forensic investigators were still hampered by something that had happened in the 1850s. In 1859 a doctor called Thomas Smethurst had been put on trial for the murder of a woman named Isabella Bankes, who he had married bigamously. Smethurst claimed that she had died of a gastric illness, but the circumstances were suspicious enough for an autopsy to be conducted and for her medicines to be tested. An eminent toxicologist and lecturer in medical jurisprudence, Professor Arthur Swaine Taylor, was called in to do the analysis. He found no trace of any toxins in Isabella’s body, but did detect arsenic in one bottle of medicine, referred to in the case as bottle 21. Since Smethurst had been treating his wife, he was arrested and tried for her murder.

Here’s where it all goes wrong for the proto Victorian scientists. Very reluctantly, Taylor took to the stand during Smethurst’s trial as an expert witness. Under oath, he was forced to admit that he had made a mistake with the tests and that the arsenic in his results for bottle 21 had actually come from the copper gauze in his equipment, not the medicine inside. Taylor continued to insist that although his methodology was flawed, Smethurst was still guilty of poisoning Isabella, but he just couldn’t prove it. The professor’s muddled testimony  was still sufficient to cause the jury to convict Smethurst of murder, even though many in the legal profession felt that the case had not been proved beyond the “reasonable doubt” required by English law.

Medics throughout the UK and Ireland were outraged by Taylor’s blunder and there was much correspondence in the press about it, which eventually resulted in the Home Office taking the rare step of pardoning and releasing Smethurst from jail. The ramifications of this one trial were felt by the medical profession for decades. In the eyes of the public, expert medical witnesses like Professor Taylor were not reliable and their so called science could not be trusted. Subsequent trials, like that of Florence Maybrick which I have covered in two episodes in 2019, were a complete mess of expert medical witnesses disagreeing with each other and confusing jurors. Oddly, Taylor himself seems to have emerged relatively unscathed even as his field was so maligned. His 1865 book Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence became a standard text in criminology and remained in print for a century. Indeed, it was such a well known work that both Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley reference it in their fiction.

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When Bernard Spilsbury was appointed to a lectureship in pathology at St Mary’s in 1907, then, forensic pathology was still recovering its reputation for reliability in the eyes of the justice system and the wider public. As an indication of the move towards a more forensic approach to detection, it’s worth noting that it was in this same year that R. Austin Freeman published The Red Thumb Mark, his first novel featuring the medical jurispractitioner Dr John Thorndyke. Thorndyke is a medical doctor who has also qualified as a lawyer, and he practices a kind of detection that relies heavily on detailed observation and analysis, often using the laboratory that he has set up at his chambers in the Inner Temple. This particular story is about a jewel theft where the criminal has left a single bloody fingerprint at the crime scene, which the police have used to identify a principal suspect. This man protests his innocence, but his lawyers advise him to plead guilty because no defence could succeed against such cut and dried evidence. Thorndyke agrees to take up his cause, and via his method of observation without assumption is able to demonstrate how this same piece of evidence can lead to a completely different conclusion.

There’s a little of Sherlock Holmes about Dr Thorndyke, who shares the Baker Street sleuth’s obsession with analysing small portions of ash, mud and fabric in order to bring clarity to a crime scene. Where they differ, however, is in character and patience — Thorndyke has none of Holmes’s brio or instability. Freeman later wrote that he had deliberately not based Thorndyke on any particular individual but that “in a professional sense he may have been suggested to me by Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor”, thereby making the connection with forensic science explicit.

Bernard Spilsbury got his own chance to take centre stage in an investigation in 1910, three years after Thorndyke’s debut. On 13 July that year a Scotland Yard detective named Walter Dew had found a mass of mutilated, partly decomposed human remains hidden under the floor in the cellar of a house inhabited by an American dentist named Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dew had been investigating the apparent disappearance of Crippen’s wife Cora, who performed on the music halls under the name Belle Elmore, and had already interviewed him several times. By the time the remains were discovered, Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve had fled, leaving Dew with a potential murder scene, a lot of body parts, and an international manhunt to conduct.

The amazingly named Dr Augustus Pepper, the pathologist from St Mary’s Hospital, was called in to do what he could with the remains in the cellar. He brought Bernard Spilsbury onto the case with him to act as his assistant, and together they removed the mass of dissected human remains  to the mortuary. Their challenge was twofold: identification and cause of death. In order to build a case for murder against Crippen, prosecutors first needed to know that it was actually his missing wife buried under the floor, and second they required some idea of how she had been killed.

The cause of death proved easier to establish — Pepper’s colleague the analyst Dr Luff was able to detect the presence of high levels of hyoscine in the tissues, a drug used for a variety of purposes including anaesthesia. The identification was more difficult. It all hinged on one piece of skin, about 5 and a half inches across and 7 long. On it, Pepper identified what he thought was a horseshoe shaped scar from a surgical operation, consistent with the hysterectomy the missing woman was known to have had while still a teenager in New York.

Others wondered if this scar was just a crease from how the body had been mutilated and buried, but Pepper was certain enough to put his idea in the report that went to the police. Spilsbury had made a special study of scarring and scar tissue as part of his pathology apprenticeship at the hospital, and as a result he was set to work on confirming that the skin tissue was from an abdomen and that the scar was surgical. He spent eight weeks on this analysis, eventually confirming Pepper’s hypothesis. This finding was cross referenced with Cora Crippen’s medical records and the identity of the body in the cellar was established.

By rights, it should have been Dr Pepper who appeared as the expert witness in the trial to explain these conclusions. He was the senior medic and had more experience of the justice system. But eighteen months before, he had been severely shaken by a different case in which he appeared to give evidence for the prosecution against a mother accused of slashing her own son’s throat. He had reported his findings about blood splatter patterns and the police had considered a conviction virtually guaranteed, but somehow the jury’s scepticism of medical evidence won out and the woman walked free. Because of this, and because of Spilsbury’s work on identifying Cora Crippen’s scar, Pepper pushed for his junior to be the one who spoke at Dr Crippen’s trial.

This was the court appearance that was to change Bernard Spilsbury’s life. In contrast to his chief’s uncertainty and equivocation on the stand, Spilsbury spoke confidently, giving testimony that was, according to biographer Colin Evans, “clear, resonant and without any trace of uncertainty”. The young scientist was succinct and sure of his ground. Apparently “Spilsbury never used three words where two would do.” Asked by the judge if he had any doubts at all about the nature of the scar, Spilsbury said “absolutely none at all”. He offered to let the judge look at the slides through his microscope, which he had brought with him to court just in case. He exhibited this evidence to the jury, allowing them to look in turn, in an act of apparent transparency that was unprecedented for an expert witness. The prosecutors were unsure how helpful this was, but it was this act that instigated Spilsbury’s reputation as “the people’s pathologist”.

The prosecutors had no evidence that directly proved that Crippen had either killed or mutilated his wife, nothing that actually put the weapon in his hand. But it didn’t matter. After just 27 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Bernard Spilsbury’s evidence had done the trick.

After the break: a near death experience in the bath.

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Bernard Spilsbury was 33 at the time of the Crippen case. The combination of his decisive manner on the witness stand and the crucial nature of his evidence in an already-famous trial lead to a lot of media coverage of this young pathologist and he quickly became a household name. He was offered a position by the Home Office in the aftermath of the verdict, meaning that he could be called upon by Scotland Yard much more frequently in future. He continued to work and teach at St Mary’s as well, but from now onwards he was a semi-public figure, regularly consulted by detectives and called upon to do autopsies of both victims and criminals.

There isn’t time in a single episode to talk about all of the fascinating cases that Spilsbury was employed upon in his long career. I would recommend reading one or more of the biographies I’ve cited in the show notes if you’d like to dive into them all. I do, however, want to highlight two in particular that I think are relevant for understanding how formative he was to the role of pathologist in crime fiction.

The first is that of George Joseph Smith, the “brides in the bath” murderer. I’ve done a full episode about all his victims before, which I recommend looking up to learn more about this extraordinary Edwardian conman and serial killer. Smith was eventually arrested in 1915 after nearly two decades of preying on women because one of his murders was covered widely enough in the press that the father of a previous victim saw the story and was able to help the police connect the deaths. Spilsbury was called in three days after the arrest and given the task of proving that the three women who had died in their baths — Margaret Lofty, Alice Burnham and Bessie Mundy — had all been killed by violent means rather than drowning by accident.

Spilsbury conducted exhumations and post mortems, and found that all three bodies showed minimal signs of violence or even much sign that they had drowned. He requisitioned the bathtub from each crime scene and studied them in tandem with the victims’ bodies, trying to work out how three apparently healthy women could all have so conveniently died in the same way.

He eventually hit upon the theory of drowning via vagal inhibition, which occurs when a sudden flood of water into the nose inhibits the vagus nerve causing near instantaneous unconsciousness. It’s the same way that a chop to the throat in just the right place can kill. This effect with the water up the nose can happen by accident if someone jumps feet first into a pool, but Spilsbury’s theory here was that Smith had achieved the same effect by suddenly jerking the woman’s legs upwards with a hand under the knees and simultaneously forcing her head under the water so as to propel the water suddenly into her nose. In this circumstance, Spilsbury estimated that there would be no sign of a struggle and very little evidence of asphyxiation, because unconsciousness and heart failure happens so quickly.

To test his idea, Spilsbury recruited Inspector Neil, the detective on the case, who in turn lined up three expert women swimmers about the same size as Smith’s victims. On the pathologist’s instructions, Neil tried various methods of drowning them by submerging them in the baths, but the women were always able to struggle free enough to escape his clutches. Then, Neil suddenly tried Spilsbury’s leg-yanking idea on one of the women without warning. It worked perfectly — she slid under the water unconscious immediately — and the experimenters had an anxious few minutes trying to resuscitate her once they got her out of the water.

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I think Bernard Spilsbury was a bit of a showman. Biographer Colin Evans records that the pathologist was “an impressive figure, an inch or two over six feet, conspicuously well dressed, and endowed with a haughty, aristocratic bearing that many found intimidating”. This, combined with his confidence in his own findings, made him an excellent courtroom performer. On top of that, he seems to have had an instinct for communicating complicated medical jargon in terms the layperson could easily comprehend. During the George Joseph Smith trial, he had one of the baths set up in the court room so that he could show the jury exactly how vagal inhibition would occur, and he was quite unmoveable on it when cross examined by the defence.

Smith was convicted and the news temporarily pushed the First World War off the newspaper front-pages, with Spilsbury coming in for the lion’s share of the credit. In the years that followed, the phrase “Spilsbury called in” became popular media shorthand for “this is a big case”. He became something of a minor celebrity, with the press reporting on his outings to West End theatres as well as his cases. His imposing and decisive demeanour completely restored then public’s faith in medical evidence.

Spilsbury’s critics, however, have argued that he was a little too decisive at times, and that the unwavering trust that jurors had in his authority as an expert witness had a detrimental effect on justice at times. This brings me to the other case from his long and varied career that I wanted to talk about: that of Norman Thorne in 1925. He was a chicken farmer in Crowborough, Sussex, and in December 1924 his fiancé Elsie Cameron had come down from London to stay with him for the weekend. She was never seen again, and a month later police discovered her dismembered body and personal belongings buried on Thorne’s farm. He was arrested and charged with her murder, but he maintained that he had found Elsie dead in one of the farm’s outbuildings, having committed suicide, and had buried her body in a panic.

Spilsbury was called in to perform a post mortem on Elsie’s body, and reported that he had seen bruising consistent with violence on the body. However, on the witness stand he admitted that he had seen this bruising only at “tissue level” and that there were no visible bruises on the surface. Thorne successfully applied for an exhumation and a second autopsy was performed by another pathologist, Dr Robert Brontë, with Spilsbury observing. The latter claimed that the body had deteriorated so much that no proper conclusions could be drawn by this time, but Brontë gave evidence that cast doubt on the initial assertions about the victim’s bruises. The two pathologists contradicted each other on the witness stand continually, but it didn’t seem to matter — the jury found Thorne guilty after only half an hour of deliberation, and after a failed appeal he was hanged for Elsie Cameron’s murder.

Just before his execution, Norman Thorne wrote a letter to his father, which was subsequently published in the press. “Never mind, Dad, don’t worry,” Thorne wrote, “I am a martyr to Spilsburyism.” What he meant by this, I think, was that the cult of the great pathologist was by now so intense that it transcended facts — once Spilsbury had suggested that there was cause to consider him guilty, Thorne had no hope.

The Law Journal was similarly critical of the verdict at the time. Even Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, who happened to live near Thorne in Sussex, expressed uncertainty. He gave an interview after the trial, and said: “Thorne is entitled to feel that he has been condemned by a tribunal which was not capable of forming a first hand judgement but followed the man with the big name.”

The first wave of Spilsbury biographers were inclined to dismiss this idea that he became a personality rather than purely a scientist, but more recent appraisals of his work have taken into account the performative nature of his court appearances and how the attention he received in the press shaped perceptions of what forensic pathology was capable of.

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The Thorne case seems significant with hindsight, but at the time it barely dented Spilsbury’s reputation. He went on to serve as an expert witness in a string of high profile investigations over the next 15 years, including that of Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the Hay Poisoner, and Tony Mancini, the so called Brighton trunk murderer. During the Second World War he continued his worth in London while also working for the government in a highly secret and grisly capacity, performing autopsies on the German spies executed under the Treachery Act. He also examined some of the artefacts Allied troops found in concentration camps, confirming for the authorities that objects such as lamp shades and knife cases had indeed been manufactured from the human skin of the Nazis’ victims.

The 1940s were increasingly difficult for Bernard Spilsbury. In 1940 his son Peter was killed when a bomb hit the hospital where he was doing his medical training. The last of his original colleagues from St Mary’s, William Willcox, died suddenly of a stroke in 1941, and his own health began to fail. His wife Edith had moved out of their London home at the start of the war to be in the country during the Blitz, and they never lived together again. Then in 1945 another son, Alan, died suddenly from tuberculosis.

On 17 December 1947, Spilsbury went for dinner at his club and then returned to his lab in Gower Street and turned on the gas. He was found dead, slumped over his work bench, by a colleague and the janitor later in the evening. Like so many of the cases he had worked on, his own end was front-page news, even meriting coverage in other countries. The New York Times called him the “nemesis of slayers” and described him as “a living example of the characters that writers of detective stories conjured out of their imaginations”. The paper also made an allusion to his supposedly instinctive powers of deduction, as if he was Dr Thorndyke himself: “It was said of him that he only had to see a body to know its cause of death.”

It is suggested by several of his biographers that Bernard Spilsbury had been planning this ending for a while. He usually ordered his post mortem forms in batches of 500, but in 1947 his last order was for only a hundred. By mid December he had used them all up, and had written a letter to his friend Dr Eric Gardner in Switzerland saying that by the time he read this missive “it would be all over” and that he would no longer be a burden to anyone.

I think part of the reason that Bernard Spilsbury looms so large in the popular history of twentieth century murder is because his media profile was his chief legacy. Despite his exalted reputation during his lifetime, he left behind few academic publications or students to carry on his work. He is now lauded for taking a role as a lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women as a way of breaking down prejudice against women becoming pathologists, but he doesn’t seem to have had any proteges among the students.

In 2008 the Wellcome Collection acquired a collection of the index cards upon which he kept notes during post mortems, which you can now view online. They read like penny dreadfuls, with headings like “poisoning from rhubarb”, “mummified baby in left luggage office” and “electrocution in the bath”. There is some evidence that he was trying to organise this mass of information so that he could write a forensics textbook, but the day to day work never seems to have let up sufficiently for him to make progress. Some historians have suggested that his ego and his obsession with working alone left Spilsbury professional isolated, others that it was just the sheer demand for his services that kept him rushed off his feet.

Whichever it was, he was quickly superseded by the next generation of forensic pathologists, and the next. They distanced themselves from his showmanship, from his absolute certainty, and from his infallible reputation, but their profession was profoundly shaped by him, nonetheless.

Even now, whenever I see a pathologist in a TV crime drama in their full protective outfit, I think of Bernard Spilsbury in his big apron over his high collard suit and spats. He set the scene for everything that was to follow.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thepeoplespathologist. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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

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.

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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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.