Category: Transcripts

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.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at  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.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


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.


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.


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.


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 I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at

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

Spoiler Warning Transcript

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

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

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


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Death Sets Sail On The Nile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: It’s mindbending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace At Last Transcript

Caroline: It was the bells that let lots of people in Britain know that the First World War was over. They had been silent for months on end, but on 11 November 1918 makeshift crews of ringers returned to their belfries, producing peals that made people stop in the streets and ask each other: “Is it peace at last?”

Beyond just its consequences as an unprecedented military conflict, the Great War was utterly transformative for every aspect of life in Britain, from politics to literature to work and more. It changed forever the place of women in society, for instance, and helped to create the conditions in which the golden age of detective fiction dawned in the decade to follow.

This much we know, looking back from our vantage point a century and more later. But what was the day like itself, when the bells began to ring and the future was unknown? That’s what we’re going to find out.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. A reminder: the Shedunnit Pledge Drive is in full swing, and I’ve been bowled over by the support so far — at the time of recording, we’re well over halfway to my goal of adding 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club before the end of 2020 already, and it’s only been two weeks! If you’re thinking about joining and haven’t already taken a look at the benefits on offer, please do head over to or click the link in the episode description. Members get early ad free listening, access to the secret club forum, discounts on merchandise and much more. This version of the podcast will always be free, but if you want to support my efforts to make independent murder mystery based entertainment in a sustainable way, your contributions are very much appreciated. Look out for some extra episodes on this feed in coming weeks, as an example of the kind of thing I’ll be able to make if we hit the goal. And with that, let’s get on with this episode.


I expect most of you listening will have some idea of how the end of the First World War is commemorated in Britain. At 11am on the 11th of November every year there is a two minutes’ silence, the Royal British Legion sells poppies for people to wear in memory of those who fell in Flanders Field, and on the second Sunday in November there are church services, parades and wreath laying ceremonies at war memorials all over the country. Of course, these practices have morphed and changed over the decades to incorporate the commemoration of other conflicts too, but the First World War is still very much at the fore in these solemnities.

But the way we mark this day now is very different to how things were done on that first 11th of November in 1918. For starters, it wasn’t really a silent or even a quiet day at all.

Guy: So, well, on the western front, there was, in a sense, the kind of silence that we would now associate with the 11th of November because, of course, the guns stopped back home in Britain. It was quite the opposite. And it was an outburst of noise, if you like, excitement, raucousness, bells going off, bells which had not been rung during the war on the whole. Even guns going off to celebrate the end of the war, kind of maroons, as they were sometimes known as in London, for instance, there was huge crowds forming all sorts of noise and jollity, singing songs of crowds drifting up and down the main thoroughfares in London. People did lots of kissing, of course, and taking over London buses and all of those kind of things, drinking where you could get hold of alcohol. That wasn’t always that easy due to restrictions during the war, even just the basic thing of the lights coming back on because the war had been conducted on the home front in a lot of darkness or semidarkness.  

Caroline: This is Guy Cuthbertson, and he’s rather uniquely qualified to be joining us to talk about this today.

Guy: I am, as it happens, the husband of Caroline from Shedunnit. But I also happened to have written a book about the armistice at the end of the First World War, a book called Peace at Last, which was entirely about the last day of the First World War, which is also, of course, the first day of peace, the 11th of November 1918, which came out with Yale University Press in 2018. 

Caroline: Yes, I did interview my own husband for my podcast, in our living room. Our dog was also present, although he slept through the whole thing. But anyway, back to 11 November 1918. Although there was definitely a carnival atmosphere to the celebrations, it wasn’t a completely happy day by any means.

Guy: So in amongst all the celebrations, there were also, of course, lots of people who are incredibly sad, or indeed those descriptions of lots of people wearing black mourning dress, women in the crowds and so on, wearing black because they had lost loved ones, but nonetheless felt that they had to be there to celebrate for other people’s good fortune, shall we say, or indeed to prove that those who died did actually not die in vain because a victory had to come in the end. Now, of course, they talked about it as victory. Then we might not use that term these days. We might not really want to dwell on the idea of we won. It’s more about remembrance now and then seeing the incredible loss. Of course, a hundred years ago or so, there was a bit of a different atmosphere. 

Caroline: This was a day of unprecedented celebration then, and collectively people weren’t really sure how to act. Feelings were unfettered, expressed in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Guy: At Berkhamstead school, for instance, where Graham Greene, the novelist, his father was the headmaster, drunken soldiers barged their way into the school looking to throw their headmaster into the canal. The headmaster escapes, but soldiers where school boys charged through the town. There’s all sorts of chaos then. And they take over a cinema and all sorts of mischief takes place, which then gets refashioned by the headmaster as being Bolshevism and revolutionary behaviour. 

Caroline: There was also a harking-back to traditions of bygone eras, as people reached for some structure with which to frame events.

Guy: There’s always a kind of pagan kind of almost kind of folk tradition element in a lot of these celebrations is a moment when local traditions, local old dances or festivities or songs re-emerge in the celebrations, partly because people don’t know exactly how to celebrate. So they turn to familiar old dances and songs and merrymaking for which they would be prepared. A.L. Rowse, the historian, talked about how he was in Cornwall at the time and they start doing a floral dance. He talks about it as a momentary return to the old ways, how most people don’t actually know how to do the dance properly, but it seemed almost instinctively like the thing they should be doing. Well, there’s plenty of examples of people doing ring a ring, a roses, actually, lots of grown adults going back to doing things they would have known from the playground and from childhood. In Kent, children danced around the old oak tree on the green, very kind of folky kind of way of responding to what would otherwise have been a very modern war and a very new thing, peace at the end of the First World War. They go back to the ancient, the rural. This kind of strangely organic Merrie England as a way of celebrating. 

Caroline: It was the same in the cities, at least in terms of the unbridled, chaotic spirit of the day.

Guy: The way that restaurants get taken over, all the dancing on tables. The smashing of crockery. The fact simply that the crowds were so vast that, you know, in a motor car or in a bus would have been just stuck in the crowd anyway. And so everything becomes a kind of outdoor theatre where people are watching other people. People are dancing and other entertaining other people with their dances. Lots of strange fancy dress. There’s people putting on military uniform, even if they’re not in the military, even children dressing up as soldiers, women putting on men’s military uniform, men dressing up as women, all sorts of topsy turvy ness, which is what a lot of people talked about in terms of the last day of the war. The day the world turned upside down, as one newspaper put it.

Caroline: The day the world turned upside down. That’s the point from which everything afterwards grows, the moment of chaos that the following decade will react to. The critic Alison Light has famously characterised detective fiction as a “literature of convalescence”, the idea being that people were so traumatised and exhausted by the events of the First World War that they were naturally drawn to the ordered, black and white world of the murder mystery where the detective has everything under control and in the end justice is done. After the horrors of war and then the emotional release of the first Armistice Day, it makes complete sense that a form of literature in which the violence was controlled and largely bloodless and the guilty were punished for their crimes would be popular.

After the break: what was Agatha Christie up to?

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Agatha Christie was 23 when the First World War broke out in July 1914. As I’ve covered previously on the podcast, she worked as a voluntary nurse and eventually trained as a dispensing chemist, a period of study that would go on to have a great influence on her use of poisons in her novels. She had married Archie Christie on Christmas Eve 1914, while her fiancé had a brief period of leave from his service in France, but spent the first years of her married life largely apart from her husband. In the autumn of 1918, though, Archive was posted back to Britain to work in the Air Ministry, and while they were in London Agatha was doing a course in book keeping and shorthand. She was sent home early from the college on Armistice Day, and on her way, she saw a sight that stayed with her always.

Guy: She actually says “I came upon one of the most curious sights I had ever seen. Indeed, I still remember it almost, I think, with a sense of fear.” And eventually they won’t because it’s actually about a woman confronting other women. It’s very kind of female experience, if you like, of the last day of the war. And she says: “Everywhere there were women dancing in the street. English women. I’m not given to dancing in public. It is a reaction, a more suitable to Paris and the French. But there they were, laughing, shouting, shuffling, leaping, even in in a sort of wild orgy of pleasure and almost brutal enjoyment. It was frightening. One felt that if there had been any Germans around, the women would have advanced upon them and torn them to pieces. Some of them, I suppose, were drunk. But all of them looked at the real lurched and shouted, I got home to find out you’re already home from his ministry. Well, that’s that, he said in his usual calm and unemotional fashion.”

Caroline: This sight obviously stuck with Christie, and Guy thinks it foreshadows some of the themes about the power of repressed emotions that she would go on to explore in her fiction.

Guy: An orgy of evil, perhaps almost in terms of the description, that kind of a sense of people losing their rationality, losing their normal sense of propriety, women dancing in the street, women drinking in public, women, as was often pointed out, letting their hair down or women not wearing hats. All of those ideas of how women should behave suddenly go out the window. Women, you know, grabbing strange men and snogging them in the street or even worse, in alleyways. There’s all sorts of descriptions of people just losing all sorts of normal propriety. So the Agatha Christie, a little anecdotal memory there. It’s a very interesting one, combining the sense of London crowds with also the sense of being a married woman recently married and also the idea of education here. She was taking some courses trying to improve herself and then the women out in the streets. In a kind of orgy and also then a sense of the potential perhaps for evil, for badness that might linger beneath the surface of normal English civilisation. So even in a little paragraph, you might get a sense of the world of Miss Marple or something that sense that, yes, we’re all nicely well brought up people, that we behave nicely, but we all have that ability within us to suddenly go strange and for things to turn upside down. 

Caroline: Christie had actually already written her first detective novel in 1916, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, although it wasn’t published until 1920. It does incorporate several aspects of her own wartime experience, from the inclusion of a character who works as a hospital dispenser, to the appearance of Hercule Poirot as a Belgian refugee recently arrived in Britain. But it’s actually in a Poirot short story that we see her tackle the end of the war in more detail. “The Affair of the Victory Ball” was first published in 1923 and subsequently collected in the anthology Poirot’s Early Cases. In it, Hercule Poirot investigates a murder that took place in an archetype social event of the post 1918 world: a victory ball.

Guy: Here is a sense that the celebrations went on beyond the 11th of November. Indeed, for the subsequent days, there was all sorts of things going on in London with different costumes and different forms of weirdness going on on the streets. But then on the twenty seventh of November, there was an event called the Victory Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, which received a lot of coverage. It was a chance for the bright young things if you like to dress up and show themselves off for the press. And then that was copied and followed by a number of other balls, which also called themselves victory balls in subsequent months and in subsequent years, it’s noted in the affair at the Victory Ball, the Poirot story, that after the war, every dance seemed to be calling itself a victory ball. But there was a sense that there was a proper one and then all these other copycat ones. 

Caroline: Costumes were a big part of the post war celebrations, and of course that is a central feature of Christie’s story, as much as dressing up for a night of unbridled revelry might seem like a strange way of celebrating the end of a war to us now.

Guy:  If we think about Remembrance Sunday and the solemnity of services and go into war memorials and so on, the idea of somebody dressing up as a donkey or as a court jester or as Britannia herself or a knight in shining armour and celebrating the end of the war, in those terms, it seems a million miles away. But that was often the common way of going about it. So there’s plenty of fancy dress on the day itself. As they said. But also at these balls, you get descriptions of court jesters dancing with backhands. Chinaman waltzing with Shepherdess is the comic cast with the elephant and the kangaroo. 

Caroline: The setting of that short story, then, would have been very recognisable to the reading public of the early 1920s. In writing about the victory balls in this way, Christie unites the post Armistice obsession with masquerade with the murder mystery’s ongoing preoccupation with disguise.


It was another of the Queens of Crime, though, who most directly tackled Armistice Day in her fiction. In her 1928 novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers actually sets the story around Remembrance Day, complete with ceremony at the new cenotaph. It is a story in which precise timings are very important, and so it’s fitting that the two minutes’ silence features heavily.

In the central characters of the two Fentiman brothers, too, Sayers shows two different outcomes of military service during the First World War. Robert still loves the army, and indeed is still working as a soldier well into the 1920s, while his brother George has been disabled by the lingering after effects of the gas attacks he experienced in the trenches that now prevent him from working full time. Today, we would probably say that George is also suffering from PTSD, because he suffers from depressive episodes and is prone to nervous breakdowns, although at the time his condition would probably have come under the general heading of shell shock. This would also have been very recognisable  to the contemporary reader, and reflects the less celebratory aftermath of the Armistice Day celebrations, Guy says.

Guy: There’s a great sense of bitterness that very quickly emerges from people who think we’ve done all of that. We’ve gone through all of that. And actually we can’t even get a job when we come home or our wives can’t even put bread on the table for our children. After all the hardship. And you can get a sense of that coming through, I presume, then into a lot of the writing of the 20s and 30s, including detective novels. The war obviously lingering in the background and, you know, probably far more about that than I do. But there’s that sense of it being a justification in some cases for what people are about to do, but also providing a sense of bitterness, a sense the life has not worked out as you think it should be, and that you are, in effect, shaking your fist at God, really feel for the unfairness of things. 

Caroline: The antics of the public on the first Armistice Day in 1918 weren’t all about celebrating victory and shaking off the hardship of the war years. There’s was a substantial segment of the population who wanted to see some kind of retribution for all the losses they had suffered. They wanted vengeance, and this too feeds into to the fascination with justice and punishment represented by detective fiction, I think.

Guy: There was plenty of effigy burning on the 11th November and indeed on subsequent days. Now, of course, this is around the time of bonfire night, whereas it would be in Britain. American listeners might not know about that, but the 5th November when we traditionally used to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. So there is a sense that the bonfires that take place on the 11th November and the effigies they get burned on them are a kind of alternative for Guy Fawkes. But beyond that, though, there is a real desire for revenge and for justice. It’s not just no, it’s not just a bitter need for revenge, but a sense that this is only fair. So actually, if you look at the effigies, a lot of them are of the Kaiser and sometimes actually the kind of it’s quite like Guy Fawkes in terms of how a child might be represented in a kind of rushed way, using bits of old clothing and sacks and all sorts. Well, the effigies then represent this need to see that the person who was accused really of causing all of this, being responsible for millions of deaths, the Kaiser, the leader of Germany, should end up being punished. He should be hanged. Hang the Kaiser being something of a phrase that will be uttered not just on that day, but over the next weeks up to a general election. The sense of burning people might seem incredibly dark and a very strange thing to do when you’re celebrating the end of the war to immediately talk about causing pain or misery or hanging people and so on. Have we just done enough killing? Why do you need to start focussing on more of it? And indeed, some of it comes through the exuberance of schoolchildren who might not really be open to the nuances of political political circumstances or the idea of international law courts or any of that business. But it does actually fit in with detective novels here. In what context is murder justified in one context? In what context could killing or need for revenge be explained by things that you’ve gone through? 


Caroline: The writers who were at the forefront of the golden age of detective fiction, like Christie, Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell and others, were all shaped by the First World War in some way, either via their direct service or because of how it altered their life and education. It became part of their writing in the decades that followed, as they explored competing themes of good and evil, light and dark, victory and injustice.

Disguise, evil, passion, and closure. It was all there on that first Armistice Day.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at

A reminder that the Shedunnit Pledge Drive is still running, and we are over halfway there already. This podcast will always be free to listen to, but if you’d like to support my efforts to make independent entertainment, you can do that now at

I’ll be back on 25 November with another episode.

The Butler Did It Transcript

Here’s a riddle that you might find in a detective story: which character is ubiquitous yet invisible? Vital yet overlooked? At the country house party, he’s never out of sight, yet nobody ever really sees him.

The answer, of course, is the butler. Always in the background, anticipating the guests’ every need before they can voice it, commanding a platoon of servants below stairs to do the master’s bidding. He’s the true mastermind behind the highly choreographed social events that are regularly depicted in crime fiction from the 1920s and 30s.

But his status is not secure. When a crime is committed and a scapegoat outside the privileged family circle is needed, what could be more convenient than to point the finger at the butler? All of the class boundaries and snobberies of British society are there in the detective fiction from this time too, for better and worse. And pushing the blame onto the servants quickly became a cliche of the genre, avoided and toyed with by generations of writers.

Regardless, I feel I have to investigate further. Did the butler really do it?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

And this episode marks the start of what I’m calling the Shedunnit pledge drive! As some listeners may know, alongside the show I run the Shedunnit Book Club, a membership scheme where all the subscriptions go towards supporting the show — it works a lot like Patreon, if you’ve ever used that to make regular contributions to an artist or work that you like. Members get access to a special bonus feed with extra content, the super secret club forum, and of course the monthly book club where we read a different classic detective novel together every month. Making every episode of this show takes many, many hours of research, writing, recording, editing and mixing, and I have hosting costs and so on to pay too, so every single member’s contribution helps to make it better and easier to make. Put simply: without them, I would not still be doing this.

Shedunnit has come along way since it launched at the end of October 2018 — two years and fifty episodes ago. Thanks to all the wonderful members who have signed up so far, the podcast is now almost at a tipping point where I can afford to make it a core part of my actual job, rather than something I do in my non existent spare time and in the middle of the night. I have so many ideas for new things I want to do: I want to be able to bring out episodes more often, I want to make mini audiobooks for you, and I want to expand into covering TV and film adaptations of detective fiction as well as the books.

And that’s where the pledge drive comes in. If I can add 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club by the end of 2020, I’ll be able to forge ahead with these plans to grow and deepen what the podcast offers. So, if you’d like to be part of that and feel able to offer some support, please visit to find out about all the ways you can help take the show to the next level. There are new rewards on offer, new tiers at which you can join the club, a special offer for giving the gift of a membership to a friend, and much more. There’s also new merchandise coming very soon, as well as some exciting bonus content on this feed to give you a taste of what would be on offer if we hit the target by the end of December.

So, head over to to make your contribution — I’m so grateful for your help and excited to see what we can do next.

Now, let’s get into today’s episode.

Oh wait, before I do — this is a rare occasion when I’m going to give a proper spoiler warning from the very start. I usually do my best to avoid revealing the solutions of the books I talk about, but this is a subject where it’s just not possible to talk about it and also keep all the endings a secret. After all, when covering whether the butler did it… I really have to be able to say whether he did or not. There is a full list of all the books mentioned in the description of this episode, so please do check it and come back later if there are any titles there for which you don’t want to hear any major plot details. Consider yourself warned!


Like a lot of cliches, the origins of “the butler did it” trope in mystery writing are tangled and subjective. To understand where it came from, we need to go back a little before the true “golden age of detective fiction” between the two world wars and look at the work of Mary Roberts Rineheart, an incredibly prolific American writer who began publishing mystery stories with The Circular Staircase in 1907. By the time Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and the rest were forming the Detection Club in London, Rineheart was a household name, with her books selling thousands of copies and many of her stories adapted into silent films.

Her 1930 novel The Door is often considered to be one of the worst she ever wrote, but I’m afraid it is there that our butler-hunt takes us. A few external factors contributed in the creation of this overly long, plodding tale: Rineheart was just recovering from a bout of illness when her two sons launched a new publishing house, Farrar and Rineheart, and were relying on their mother to provide them with an early commercial success, which was all the more important for their business because of the economic downturn brought about by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Mary Roberts Rineheart therefore bashed out The Door very quickly while still convalescing in hospital, and it doesn’t have any of her usual careful plotting or interesting characters. If you’re interested in trying out her work, it isn’t where I would recommend that you start.

However, it is worthy of our attention today, because The Door is one of the rare straightforward examples of a plot in which the butler does really turn out to be the murderer — in this book, the butler literally did do it. It doesn’t include the precise phrase “the butler did it”, which is sometimes also attributed to Rineheart, but there is no doubt that she did write a novel in which the butler… well you get the picture. The fact that it is a slapdash, mostly uninteresting novel also played a substantial role in cementing the idea that this was a lazy solution and one that mystery writers aspiring to originality should avoid.

That all seems fairly straight forward, doesn’t it? Except it just isn’t accurate to say that Mary Roberts Rineheart is entirely to blame for the idea of “the butler did it”. I draw your attention to number 11 of the American mystery writer SS Van Dine’s 20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories, published in 1928:

“A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.”

Admittedly, he says “servant” not “butler”, but the idea is very similar. Van Dine, which was the pseudonym of art critic Willard Huntington Wright by the way, was essentially saying that picking a butler or any other kind of servant as the murderer was breaking the rules by which any “respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries” should abide. And he said that a full two years before Mary Roberts Rineheart published The Door.

Butlers, then, were already considered far too obvious to be the culprits in clever, original whodunnits. And we don’t have to look too far to find the stories that might have inspired Van Dine to include this prohibition in his list. Indeed, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself had dabbled in this trope back in 1893 with the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, which features a dastardly butler by the name of Richard Brunton who hatches a plot to steal a valuable family treasure. There were more recent examples when Van Dine was writing too, such as the 1921 short story “The Strange Case of Mr Challoner”, a locked room mystery in which Jenkins’s detective Malcolm Sage eventually works out how an apparently respectable butler had worked the trick in order to kill his master.

Jenkins has another butlerish connection that we should not ignore. As well as being a writer, he was also a publisher and entrepreneur, and in 1912 founded his own publishing company called Herbert Jenkins Limited. In 1918, he began publishing the works of P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of arguably the most famous butler of them all, Jeeves. Although Jenkins himself died in 1923, his company carried on working with Wodehouse for decades, and even published the 1958 novel Something Fishy, which was brought out in the United States under the alternative title of The Butler Did It.


Mary Roberts Rineheart can’t be held entirely responsible for originating “the butler did it” , then, although there can be no doubt that large readership and the poor quality of the novel in question helped to cement the idea of this trope as an easy get out for a lazy plotter of mystery stories. To better understand how it became such a staple cliche of detective fiction, it’s worth thinking about pop culture’s long running and ongoing obsession with depicting the wealthy and privileged, because that explains some of the power dynamics we find between masters and servants in crime fiction.

Historically, so much of literature has been about the middle and upper classes, both because those were the social backgrounds of the people who could afford to be writers and because those lives were just deemed more worthy of depiction. And although that has changed substantially in the past century and more, I still don’t think we’re free of this cultural obsession with the lives of the very wealthy. Look at Downton Abbey, or The Crown, or the constant flow of period dramas on our screens. This fascination is not one that we can talk about in the past tense. And with these portrayals of wealthy people come depictions of their servants. It’s ying and yang, upstairs and downstairs, gentleman and valet. You can’t have one without the other, it would seem.

Murder mysteries, especially those published by British writers in the first half of the twentieth century, are obsessed with order. It’s one of the reasons why we like them so much, and why it has been argued that they are a fundamentally conservative form — the detective brings order to chaos and restores the status quo by solving the crime. The prevailing social order and class distinctions bleed into these books, because that is the system in which they were written and read. While some writers did poke fun at these conventions, as I’ll explain later, the servants in golden age detective novels are as subservient and powerless as their real life counterparts.

The British census of 1891 records that 1.3 million women and girls were working as domestic servants, and in 1900 domestic labour was the country’s biggest single employment. There were fine distinctions below stairs just as there were above them. The butler, of course, is the omniscient leader of the servants’ hall, and then there is a hierarchy beneath him right down to the lowliest scullery maid. Everyone knew their place, and that’s the kind of structure in which classic detective fiction thrives.

The First World War upended much of this. Hundreds of thousands of domestic servants left their positions to serve in the forces or to work in factories, and when the war was over they didn’t want to go back to a life of poorly paid drudgery and powerlessness in private service. The “servant problem”, which was the shorthand name for the difficulty getting and keeping servants in a society where people had more options for work, is a constant background anxiety in golden age detective fiction, and I think it’s part of why we see employers so suspicious of their servants in some stories. They could no longer count on the absolute loyalty engendered by a total lack of life chances enjoyed by generations past. There’s plenty of academic research today that shows that one sign that a society is becoming more equal is the decline in the number of domestic workers, as more employment options and social welfare programmes offer people from poorer backgrounds alternative ways of life. Post 1918, there was a reasonable chance that your butler would be better read than you and have a better war record. No wonder it was so easily assumed that they would take revenge upon their masters.


The prominent role played by servants in golden age detective fiction can be explained in part just by the period in which these books were written. But it also has a lot to do with the mechanics of the whodunnit itself. Colin Watson ably makes this point in his 1971 work of criticism Snobbery with Violence — detective writers need the servants, because they function as boundaries and checks on the plot. Just as country houses or remote islands make for great whodunit settings because they physically isolate the circle of suspects, so do competent servants aid the mystery writer because they are the eyes and ears of a household. Maids, footmen, cooks, charwomen and butlers can all be called upon to reliably bear witness to when a body was discovered, or whether a room has been accessed, or if a suspect’s habits have changed suspiciously. The domestic tasks they perform that are so far beneath a novel’s well to do protagonists, like clearing out a grate or cooking a meal, can suddenly be elevated to matters of great significance by a murder plot, and only the servants can speak on them with expertise.

There are countless stories that use servants as observers or obstacles, but I just want to highlight two that I think are very typical of the period and the technique. Firstly, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman from the early 1940s sees the footman of the title provide the “impossibility” that detective Roderick Alleyn must overcome to solve this crime at a remote country house. The footman confesses to doing a surreptitious and rebellious dance to a song on the wireless in the hall outside the room where the murder takes place, thereby implacably cutting off route to the murder victim. It’s the servant-as-obstacle idea taken to ridiculously brilliant extreme — he’s literally standing outside the room doing the “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-Daisy” dance while someone is being killed.

The second book I want to draw your attention to is The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie’s debut novel from 1920. It’s also a country house mystery, and sees Hercule Poirot the recently arrived Belgian refugee solve a gruesome poisoning. One of the crucial breaks in the case comes from the parlourmaid Dorcas, who Christie describes as being “the very model and picture of a good old-fashioned servant” and who by fixing the exact time of a quarrel provides Poirot with key intelligence about what has really been going on in the house, never mind what stories its inhabitants spin. She is a crucial ally to the detective, who can search the house without arousing suspicion and observe the family without making them feel like they are under constant surveillance. But even though Poirot is very respectful when he speaks to her, even he does not acknowledge how much his successful resolution of the case owes to her efforts. She is just a servant, after all, and his attitude is inflected with a kind of patronising paternalism.

After the break: Search me. I insist.

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A domestic servant in 1920 occupied a peculiar position. They were simultaneously trusted with immense responsibility and sensitive information, such as a butler having control of a household budget and a priceless collection of wine or silver or a lady’s maid helping to undress her mistress every day and knowing all of her most intimate fears and secrets. But at the same time, they were completely powerless. If a servant was dismissed in questionable circumstances without a reference, their career was over, and there would be very little inquiry into whether they actually deserved this fate or not.

In all manner of short stories and novels we see servants who have been accused of theft or murder demand that they and their possession be searched immediately, so that their innocence can be proven straight away and there will be no lingering doubt about their reputation. Another interesting dynamic to pay attention to is how authority figures treat butlers and other servants. Hercule Poirot tends to be sympathetic and polite to servants who are afraid that they will be unfairly dismissed once a murder has been committed in the household, but many of the police characters across golden age detective fiction are much more likely to jump to the conclusion that the butler, or housemaid, or chauffeur must have done it.

To give some credence to that point of view, there are examples of real life cases where the butler or another servant was the culprit. It was his valet who murdered Lord William Russell in 1840, and there are a number examples of female thieves in disguise getting jobs as lady’s maids and housekeepers in order to rob their employers. Of course, we rarely get to hear the servants’ side of the story today, but it is possible to see why the police in crime fiction are always so keen to jump to this conclusion.

In the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, one of the ways that the reader can tell which police detectives are good at their jobs and which aren’t is by looking at how they treat servants — in 1923’s Whose Body?, Inspector Sugg is very unpleasant to a maid called Gladys, whereas the far nicer and more talented Inspector Parker does his very best to patient and kind to domestic workers.

I think part of the reason why “the butler did it” became a cliche so quickly is because it’s just such an obvious example of punching down unnecessarily. In a world where a butler might get summarily dismissed over a minor and arbitrary disagreement, it’s just too plausible that they might also become the scapegoat for a murder to be a fun part of fiction.


The near-total agreement that having the butler actually commit the murder is way too obvious and easy provided mystery writers with the opportunity to subvert and twist this trope in interesting ways. Since readers would assume that the butler didn’t do it because that would just be too gauche, those expectations could be toyed with to complicate and improve the plot. Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy from 1934 contains an excellent example of this, because the murderer is a posh actor who almost gets away with his crimes because he successfully impersonates a butler. Christie plays with the idea of the butler as a double bluff or red herring in her 1930 play Black Coffee and the 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, too. In the latter, the butler John Parker is a dodgy character with blackmail in his past — is that enough upon which to suspect him of murder, too? That’s the possibility that she dangles in front of the reader.

Georgette Heyer’s second detective novel, Why Shoot a Butler? from 1933 is also a playful take upon this trope, because the butler is not a suspect but one of the victims. The question of the title also alludes to the so-called servant problem, because the butler in this story is a loyal family retainer of many years’ standing, and surely only the most hard hearted murderer would deprive an estate of such a resource?

Although he isn’t officially a butler, I think Peter Wimsey’s manservant Bunter is an excellent example of a writer taking the stereotypes about servants and turning them upside down. Sayers writes Bunter often with seemingly more love and attention than she gives to her hero. There is nothing he cannot do and no situation he cannot rise to, from photography to cookery to espionage to hand to hand combat. Probably one of my favourite scenes in fiction full stop is the section of her 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon in which Bunter overcomes the domestic difficulties moving his gentleman into a rural farmhouse with no heating or hot water with total aplomb. Unlike in the time of Sherlock Holmes, it’s no longer the detective himself who has that seemingly divine omniscience and ability, it’s his servant. Critics have sometimes alleged that Sayers was “in love” with Lord Peter Wimsey, but I think it’s much more plausible that she harboured a passion for Bunter — and I wouldn’t blame her. Sayers was famously plagued by domestic disasters, sometimes claiming household disruption as the excuse for delivering a manuscript late. Why wouldn’t she create the ideal factotum in her fiction, who could make all of those problems go away?


As British society was altered by the two world wars, so did the detective fiction change too. Through the 1940s and 1950s, it became far more common for aristocratic characters to complain about a lack of funds to pay servants, rather than to inhabit a fully-staffed country house. And some less well off characters, like Miss Marple, make do by training up young and inexperienced maids and then sending them out to find better paid positions with the benefit of her wisdom. Through servant characters, we also sometimes see major world events intrude upon the sheltered world of the murder mystery. I always think of Mitzi, the Jewish refugee housekeeper in Agatha Christie’s 1950 novel A Murder is Announced, who is entirely reasonably terrified that the police who have come to investigate the murder are also going to take her away because of who she is.


Crying “the butler did it” is a fun, light hearted way of poking fun at one of the more hoary tropes of classic detective fiction. But if you dig a little under the surface, you find all the class prejudice, snobbery and social history lurking within that one simple statement.

Once I started thinking about the lack of agency and freedom that many domestic servants endured in the early twentieth century for the sake of a regular wage, I began to wonder why we don’t see more plots in which the butlers take maters into their own hands.

And after all, who would suspect them if they did?


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at

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The Psychology of Anthony Berkeley Transcript

Caroline: The writers of detective stories can be as much of a mystery as the plots they create. During the 1920s and 30s, this attitude was especially prevalent. Some authors, grudgingly or not, accepted the publicity duties that often go with literary success — Dorothy L. Sayers, with her day job in advertising, was even quite good at generating column inches when she wanted to. But others actively hid from the limelight, refusing to supply photographs for book jackets and publishing under strictly guarded pseudonyms.

Anthony Berkeley was one such author. He had an outsize influence on this period of crime writing that we all love. He was the founder of the Detection Club as well as an innovative novelist fascinated by the whodunnit’s potential for psychological development and the way it could reflect real life murder cases. But during his lifetime he was reluctant to court attention, and since his death in 1971 there has been far less revival or adaptation of his work than other long lived golden age authors like Agatha Christie, say, or Ngaio Marsh.

Let’s get to know him a little better, shall we?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before I start today, I want to tell you about a new feature I’m adding for members of the Shedunnit Book Club, the membership scheme that keeps the lights on for the show. Earlier on this year, during the period of strict lockdown in the UK, I ran some weekly livestreams where we watched TV adaptations of detective novels together. I’m now bringing that back as a regularly monthly date, so that on the last Sunday of every month we can get together to watch something mystery adjacent. The first one will be on 25 October and, appropriately enough, we’ll be watching Suspicion, an Alfred Hitchcock film based on an Anthony Berkeley novel. If you’d like to enjoy that with me and other members, as well as getting access to all the other benefits of the club including episodes without advertising, extended versions of interviews, and the monthly book discussion, sign up now by visiting or by clicking the link in the description of this episode.


Anthony Berkeley Cox was born in 1893. He was one of those unlucky people born into a family of overachievers. His father was a doctor who was involved in pioneering early X-ray research. His mother had been one of the first women to study at Oxford University and came from an aristocratic family with connections to the Earl of Monmouth. Although Anthony was educated at private school and Oxford, he managed only a Third in classics, while his younger brother dazzled everyone at Cambridge with his mathematical brilliance and his younger sister got her doctorate in musical theory. He grew up in a comfortable, even grand, upper middle class household, but was perhaps always aware that he wasn’t the star of the family.

Why does this matter? Well, as a writer Berkeley often explored characters with inferiority complexes of one kind or another. He even wrote one book, 1939’s As For The Woman, in which the put-upon protagonist is outshone by a younger brother who is a Cambridge scholar and a younger musician sister. Berkeley might have been secretive about his personal life when it came to publicity or biographies, but he put at least some of his feelings on display in his fiction.

Anthony Berkeley volunteered to fight in the First World War, graduating from university in 1914 and going straight into the army. He didn’t have a “good war”, if there is such a thing. He was gassed while on the front in France and had to be invalided home to recover, with his health never the same again. A series of desk jobs followed, and in 1917 he married his first wife, Margaret. Upon leaving the army after the Armistice in 1918, he helped to manage the family finances and tried out various business ventures, although nothing really stuck for long. He began to get into writing, contributing humorous sketches to Punch magazine alongside his brother Stephen.

And then in 1925, he published his first crime novel, The Layton Court Mystery, which was dedicated to his father. This somewhat immature story is nevertheless crucial to understanding him better as a writer, both because it introduces his regular amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, and also because it was published entirely anonymously. For this first work, Berkeley didn’t even come up with a pseudonym — on the cover of the first edition it literally says “The Layton Court Mystery” by… question mark. From the very beginning, then, he was private and closed off about his literary endeavours.

I’ll just give you an idea of how Berkeley’s first novel fits into what else was going on in detective fiction at the time. 1925 also saw the publication of Agatha Christie’s fifth novel, The Secret of Chimneys, and she’d also published one short story collection already. Freeman Wills Crofts was also already five novels into his prolific writing career. Dorothy L. Sayers had published her own first effort, Whose Body? in 1923, and would follow it up with Clouds of Witness in 1926. 1925 was also the year that John Rhode, Ronald Knox, and husband and wife writing team GDH and Margaret Cole had their first full length detective novels published. Berkeley was joining a movement very near its beginning.


The following year, he followed this first novel up with The Wychford Poisoning Case, again an outing for Sheringham. This is a much more original plot. It actually draws some aspects from the real life Maybrick poisoning case that I’ve covered on the podcast before, with the central character of Mrs Bentley being arrested after her husband’s death because there’s just too much arsenic everywhere. Roger Sheringham, however, is convinced that the evidence against her is just too conveniently overwhelming, and sets out to find another explanation for the crime.

Also published anonymously, this book is notable because of how Sheringham’s character develops — he becomes, unlike the Sherlock Holmes archetype, a human and fallible sleuth who sometimes gets overexcited and jumps to incorrect conclusions. I think in this plot we also start to see Berkeley’s keen interest in psychology begin to surface — indeed, The Wychford Poisoning Case is sometimes credited as being the first psychological crime novel. Even at this early stage, when other crime writers were delivering canny plots that satiated the public’s endless demand for puzzles, Berkeley was interested in exploring the “why” of a murder mystery as well as the “how” and the “who”.

While Berkeley certainly isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, he does have one rather notable fan to whom I’d like to introduce you now.

Martin: I’m a great admirer of Berkeley, not because I think he’s always successful, because I think he wrote a number of books that were very unsuccessful in various different ways. But he’s very interesting. He’s an innovator. He is ambitious as a writer. And he did unusual things and sometimes did them very, very well. And I think that writers who show ambition with the work, even if they don’t always succeed. And I think that’s something to be admired as well as enjoyed. And there’s a lot to admire in Anthony Berkeley as well as one or two things to shake your head at.

Caroline: That’s Martin Edwards, president of the Detection Club and a very experienced crime writer in his own right. He’s written a biographical study of Berkeley that is woven through his non fiction account of 1920s and 30s crime fiction The Golden Age of Murder. One of the things that Martin really highlights in that book is the way that Berkeley drew inspiration from real life cases.

The particular case from 1889 that The Wychford Poisoning Case draws on also indicated a future preoccupation for Berkeley, in which a woman was tried for a murder that nobody could prove she had done, and then still imprisoned for it after a barely legal trial. Issues of justice and morality engrossed him, especially when the murder cases were augmented by issues of adultery and divorce. The execution of Edith Thompson in 1923 and the death of Alma Rattenbury in 1935, both accused of murders they said they hadn’t done, were also pivotal moments in the development of Berkeley’s thoughts on how the law treated women who tested the boundaries of marriage at the time.

Again, we can look to incidents in Berkeley’s personal life to partly explain this obsession with doomed love triangles and marriages that didn’t conform to contemporary norms. He and his first wife Margaret divorced in 1931, at a time when ending a marriage in public still wasn’t a particularly common or “respectable” thing to do. She shortly afterwards married the man cited as her lover or “correspondent” in the proceedings. Berkeley and his ex wife seem to have remained on good terms, though, with Berkeley’s biographer Malcolm Turnbull recording that the author left Margaret 1,000 pounds in his will.

The following year Berkeley married Helen Peters, the former wife of his own literary agent, having daringly named some of his characters in his 1927 novel Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery after the protagonists in this real life love triangle (or if you include Margaret too, square?). Berkeley had other, less successful, passions too — he was very keen on his brother’s wife Hilary for a while, and he also had a very intense friendship with the novelist E.M. Delafield, who shared his interest in the Edith Thompson case. She even wrote a novel about it herself, 1924’s Messalina of the Suburbs. Delafield, of course, married an engineer who became a land agent in Devon, and her semi fictionalised account of her life there as “the provincial lady” is perhaps what she is best remembered for today.


Judging by what he shared in his writing, I’ve always thought of Berkeley as quite a gloomy personality with a somewhat twisted sense of humour. There is certainly a slightly a darker side to the way he threads hints about gender, sex and sexuality into his books. The Wychford Poisoning Case stands out in my mind mostly for Roger Sheringham’s misogynist rants about women as the weaker sex: at one point he says “women are are fundamentally incapable of reason and their one idea in life is to appear attractive to men.” This book also includes several spanking scenes — whenever the 18 year old “flapper” character Sheila gets a bit above herself, her older male relatives publicly spank her, seemingly with the full approval of her parents. Roger Sheringham even swats her with a magazine himself at one point. I think these scenes would have raised the eyebrows of readers in 1926 — after all, it’s not like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers were including such things in their books — and to the modern reader they are truly strange and distasteful interludes to find in a detective novel. And this unsettling effect isn’t just confined to this one book — you’ll find it wherever you dive into the Berkeley canon, Martin says:

Martin:  I think that Berkeley is one of those writers who will always be a bit of a Marmite writer. He’s just a bit of a Marmite individual, I think. You like him a lot or you don’t really get him. And I think that that was probably true in the thirties. It’s certainly true now. But I think if you’re interested in ingenuity, clever ideas, a touch of darkness because there’s certainly a touch of darkness in his personality that comes through in books.

Caroline: I hope you can begin to see from what we’ve said so far that Berkeley is a complex, difficult figure in detective fiction. I think sometimes today the stories from the 1920s and early 30s sometimes have a reputation for being vintage and “wholesome”, but that most certainly isn’t true of his work. Nor do I really think this is an impression that is justified more broadly either, but absolutely not when it comes to Anthony Berkeley, who is also the author of the titilatingly titled The Silk Stocking Murders.

In The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards reveals a tantalising clue to the cause of Berkeley’s reticence about being more of a public figure, when he quotes from a biographical note that Berkeley wrote about his detective Roger Sheringham, who also writes books. It says that “Privately, he had quite a poor opinion of his own books, combined with a horror of ever becoming like some of the people with whom his new work brought him into contact: authors who take their own work with such deadly seriousness, talk about all the time and consider themselves geniuses.” I don’t know who these self aggrandising writers were, but it’s hard not to read this sentiment as coming straight from Berkeley himself rather than just being something he invented for his detective to say.

Distant as he was, Berkeley had already found that crime fiction in the late 1920s was a far more lucrative endeavour that the comic sketches he had been writing earlier in his post war career. And in 1929, he published a book that for many was his crowning achievement: the one that cemented his status among the greats.

After the break: The Poisoned Chocolates Case.


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The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a masterpiece: there’s no two ways about it. It once again stars Roger Sheringham, but he is far from the only sleuth we see in action in this plot. Sheringham here is the President of the “Crime Circle”, a group of half a dozen amateur sleuths who like to meet and talk about cases over dinner. The book opens with such an evening, only the guest of honour is a Scotland Yard inspector, and he gives them the particulars of a high society poisoning case that has the official detectives completely stumped. The Crimes Circle members decide that they will each investigate separately and then take it in turns to reveal their solutions one evening at a time, and see if any of them can succeed where the police have failed.

What you get, in essence, is a whodunnit with six different solutions. Each detective works from the same initial information and then goes out to investigate for themselves, following their own chosen methodology. Each solution that they arrive at demonstrates the benefits and limitations of a different approach to detection, as well as the character’s personality and prejudices. In a way, Berkeley is making fun of the murder mystery’s conventions at the same time that he’s pushing them to their limits. If the fundamental question of a book like this is “whodunnit, then the answer here is “this person, no that one, no somebody else!” and so on. It’s a great book for those who like to try and beat the detective to the solution themselves, too. I don’t mind telling you that the first time I read it I was feeling very smug through solutions one to four, only to have my version appear as number five, not number six. There have been two more possible solutions added since Berkeley published this book, by the way — in 1979 Christianna Brand published another one, and in 2016 Martin Edwards added his own for the British Library reprint.

Berkeley wasn’t the first to write a whodunnit with multiple solutions, but he certainly brought wider attention to the idea that there could be more to a crime story than just murder, investigation, denouement.

Martin: He really was very influential. The classic detective story in many ways is The Poisoned Chocolates Case with the multiple solutions. The idea of the multiple solutions was used a lot by John Dickson Carr, Christianna Brand and other writers, but Berkeley did it very brilliantly in that book. And that was a book that was hugely admired at the time. And it inspired many other writers. But he also wrote the book, which I as far as I know, I stand to be corrected, was the first murder mystery novel where the identity of the corpse is deliberately withheld from the reader, although it’s known to the detectives. So it’s an additional puzzle. The who-was-done-in. That’s a book called Murder in the Basement. And you see that idea used successfully even in very recent times, Lucy Foley, The Hunting Party. There’s an element that story. It’s not just a whodunit, but there’s a mystery about who the victim was. So so that was an innovation which he’s not had much credit for. But I think it’s also quite significant.

Caroline: The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Berkeley’s innovation in the genre more generally, earned him the admiration of his peers, even if as a person he wasn’t always the most friendly.

Martin: Well, I think as a crime writer, he was hugely admired. Agatha Christie, I think, particularly admired his detective novels and she was a big fan. Dorothy L Sayers, too in the early days, although I also think that their personal relationship, had a few setbacks during the 1930s. He was a difficult customer and Dorothy probably wasn’t the easiest either. So they had a slightly mixed time as friends. But I think that generally there is a huge amount of critical admiration for his work.

Caroline: Around the time that The Poisoned Chocolates Case was published in 1929, Berkeley also began to work on bringing one aspect of that story into being. In the book, his sleuth is part of a Crime Circle and clearly derives great pleasure from having colleagues, and so in life Berkeley began to bring together crime writers for dinners where they could talk shop, make friends, and otherwise share their enthusiasm for all aspects of detection. By 1930, these gatherings had become formalised and the group became known as the Detection Club, with Berkeley as one of the prime movers. I covered this in much more detail on a previous episode, in which Martin — who is the president of the present day Detection Club — talked us through that history, so do go back and listen to that if you haven’t already.

Around the same time that the Club was getting started, Berkeley was also at work on a new literary project. He had ideas about how the detective novel could incorporate more psychological tension, and how the reader’s sympathies could be manipulated to blur the boundary between good and bad, guilty and innocent that had been so black and white in the genre to date. In 1931, he published a novel that embodies these ideas, Malice Aforethought. But for at least a year afterwards, nobody knew that it had been written by Berkeley. He had gone digging back through his mother’s aristocratic family tree and found an ancestor called Francis Iles, a black sheep and a smuggler. That was the name he chose for this novel, and the identity of Iles was a secret he kept very closely. Victor Gollancz, his publisher, smartly leaked that Iles was the pen name of an already well known writer, which threw literary London into a frenzy of guessing. According to Berkeley’s biographer Malcolm Turnbull, popular choices included EM Forster, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, EM Delafield and Rose Macauley. Although it seems that at least some critics had worked it out sooner, it wasn’t until his non fiction book O England was published in 1934 that Berkeley confirmed that Francis Iles, AB Cox and Anthony Berkeley were all the same writer.

Malice Aforethought stands out among the plethora of detective novels published in the early thirties because of the way it turns the by now familiar conventions of the genre on their head. It is narrated by the murderer, who reveals his identity to the reader in the novel’s opening line. Berkeley’s great achievement with this book is making it compulsive reading despite that fact that you know who did it right from the start — he even makes you root for the murderer at times, as he plays with ideas of blame and guilt alongside the unravelling of a crime. Francis Iles’s follow up book, 1932’s Before the Fact, similarly confounds the exceptions we have for a murder mystery story, albeit in a different way — in that one, you never really find out who did it, after all.


The remarkable thing about Anthony Berkeley is that he only wrote crime novels for about 15 years. His first came out in 1925 and his last in 1939, which compared to the careers of Christie, Marsh, Allingham and Mitchell that spanned decades is extremely short. He lived until 1971, too, but something stopped him in his tracks after the onset of the Second World War.

Martin: I think were probably a mix of reasons. He said that he wasn’t making enough money from the crime fiction. I’m slightly sceptical about that as an excuse. I think he lost his gusto. He wrote a letter in the late 50s or early 60s to a writer called George Bellairs, who’s also published in the British Library series. And he said to Bellairs, in that letter, hang on to the gusto. Believe me, it goes and I think that that came from the heart. I think he just lost his enthusiasm, the desire, the energy that had kept him working very frenetically almost in the second half the twenties and through the 1930s when he did write a lot of books. And then I suspect mainly because of issues in his personal life, he just lost that zest and maybe had an extreme case of writer’s block that’s been suggested to me by a family member. That was the impression that that person had. And it’s hard to tell because he was quite secretive. But I think that one way or another, he lost his enthusiasm for writing fiction. Although he continued to enjoy reading it.

Caroline: Berkeley continued to review crime fiction and by no means abandoned his interest in the genre. He just didn’t publish any more stories of his own. Part of that was personal, no doubt, but Martin also thinks that the fading fortunes of the golden age detective novel had something to do with it too.

Martin: The Second World War did change everything. And of course, one of the things it did as that the books that had previously been enormously fashionable were no longer of such interest, much less appealed to the critics who were looking at the new writers like Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons and others, and therefore perhaps of less interest to the publishers. So there were a number of golden age type writers not least in the United States who simply couldn’t get their books published at all. Christie, of course, is an exception to every rule. And Ngaio Marsh was high profile and very successful. But the Golden Age, although books of that type continued to be written and of course still continue to be written in one way or another. The Golden Age as a period of burning intensity and innovation seems to me to have come to and with the war.


Caroline: Anthony Berkeley was a key part of that innovation. His passion for true crime, his interest in pulling psychology into the puzzle plot, and his insistence that every book should push the genre in a new and different way should mean that there is no appreciation of crime fiction in the 1920s and 30s that excludes him. But his personal reticence and the darker aspects of his personality make him a difficult writer to love in his entirety. There’s absolutely nothing cosy about Anthony Berkeley, but his work is still fascinating in all its bleak, dark angularity.

As the nights draw in, you can do worse than to delve into the pages of an Anthony Berkeley book and plumb the depths of his mind.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. Join now at

I’ll be back on 28 October with another episode.

48. The Telephone Call Transcript

The most sinister and disturbing crimes bloom from moments so mundane that they’re barely noticeable. A spontaneous break in a long held routine, a friendly smile to a stranger, a spur of the moment decision on a warm evening to take the long way home: those are the points where the splinters of tragedy begin to pierce an otherwise peaceful existence.

That’s how it was in the case of Julia Wallace, found brutally battered to death in the sitting room of her home in Liverpool on the evening of 20 January 1931. A crime seemingly without a motive or a solution, it has haunted the imaginations of crime writers ever since. Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, P.D. James — they all spent time submerged in the overlapping and contradictory mysteries of this one 48 hour period in 1930s Liverpool, baffled as to how this real life case could be stranger than any fiction.

And it all started with a telephone call.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before I start today, I want to remind listeners that this is a very research intensive and completely independent podcast. If you enjoy listening to it and feel able to support what I do, the best way is to become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club, where in return for your contribution you get to hear the show without advertising, listen to extended versions of interviews, and join the community in reading and discussing a different golden age murder mystery every month. Find out more and sign up by visiting or by clicking the link in the description of this episode.


The telephone call was for William Herbert Wallace, Julia’s husband. On Monday 19 January 1931, the day before her death, William set out as usual from their home on Wolverton Street in Anfield, a neighbourhood that lies to the north and east of Liverpool city centre, to go to his weekly chess night. The Liverpool Central Chess Club meet at the City Cafe, and William had entered his name in advance for the tournament that was to be played that evening. He left home as usual about 7.15, expecting to arrive in time to start playing around 7.45.

At 7.20, the telephone at the cafe rang.

sound of ye olde phone ringing

A waitress answered and upon learning that the caller wanted to speak to a member of the chess club, she called over the club’s secretary, Sam Beattie, to deal with it. In evidence later, Sam said that the caller was someone with a “strong, rather gruff” voice and that they asked for William Herbert Wallace. They were disappointed to learn that he had not yet arrived for the meeting, because they had hoped to catch him to make a business appointment. The caller also mentioned that their daughter was about to turn 21, which was relevant because William worked in insurance, and it was customary at the time to give someone coming of age an endowment policy as a gift, since it would pay them out a lump sum at a later date. Sam inferred therefore that this call could lead to a nice bit of extra work for his fellow chess enthusiast, and therefore suggested that the caller ring back a bit later in the evening when William would have arrived for the club meeting. Strangely, the caller declined, preferring to leave a message for Sam to pass on. The substance of this was that Wallace should come to 25 Menlove Gardens East in Mosseley Hill at 7.30pm the next day in order to meet the caller, who gave the name of R.M. Qualtrough before ringing off.

Sam Beattie’s later evidence suggested that in the moment, he just thought this caller was a business acquaintance of William Wallace’s. He passed on the message in that spirit when Wallace did arrive to play chess about 15 minutes later. William had not heard the name, nor did he know where the address was, but he wrote it down anyway, and even apparently consulted some other members about the best way of getting to Menlove Gardens East. They decided that his best bet was to take the tram out towards Menlove Avenue, which is a major road running south east from the city centre, and then explore to see if he could find the precise street there. William Wallace played chess for about two hours that evening, eventually winning his game, and then set off home. There was nothing, yet, to suggest that anything strange was afoot.


To understand why the case has bewitched so many over the decades, I think it’s necessary to introduce the key characters properly. Julia and William Wallace had been married for 18 years. They had met in 1911 in Harrogate in Yorkshire and got married on 24 March 1913. He had been working as a political agent for the Liberal party, but when the First World War started all political activity was suspended so he instead got a job as a clerk in the Liverpool office of the Prudential Assurance Company. The couple moved to the city and settled down at number 29, Wolverton Street. As far as any of their neighbours, colleagues and friends were able to say after the tragedy, they were happy. William described their relationship as very close: “Neither of us cared very much for entertaining other people or for being entertained; we were sufficient in ourselves,” he wrote.

The Wallaces had no children and plenty of hobbies. Julia played the piano and painted, while William dabbled in amateur chemistry and enjoyed reading about philosophy as well as playing chess. They had lived in the same house for 16 years and seem to have been very settled in their habits. Of course, nobody can ever really know what goes on behind closed doors or inside someone else’s marriage, but all of the evidence presented at the time and uncovered since suggests that they were a financially comfortable, devoted middle class couple. The unexplained violence of Julia’s death that January night in 1931 becomes all the more horrific when contrasted with her life beforehand.

Now, let’s run through the facts as it is possible to verify them. On Julia’s last day, 20 January, everything seemed to be as usual. A policeman saw her husband William mid afternoon not far from the Anfield area, wearing a tweed suit and a light raincoat, and was able to confirm that the insurance clerk seemed to be going about his business in the normal way. Several insurance customers gave evidence that he had visited them to collect their payments that afternoon and seemed in good spirits, cracking jokes and accepting a cup of tea at one house. He finished work about 6 and popped home to join Julia for his tea, in anticipation of going out again to keep his 7.30 appointment with person who had called the chess club the night before, R.M. Qualtrough of Menlove Gardens East.

The last person to see Julia Wallace alive was a 14 year old milk delivery boy, who dropped off the evening pint some time between 6.30 and 6.45, and said that he spoke to her as she fetched it in. The exact time was hard to fix after the fact, because there were contradictory statements about how long his milk round had taken. Julia could still have been alive as late at 6.45, as the evidence of a 16 year old newspaper delivery girl nearby suggested. As you’ll see later, this is the crucial window where the murder seems to have taken place — and one of the inconsistencies that drew Dorothy L. Sayers to the case.


The next time that it is possible to be sure of William Wallace’s movements is ten past seven, when he was at the tram junction on Smithdown Road, three miles away from his house, asking a conductor the best tram to take to Menlove Gardens East.

Wallace asked several different tram conductors for help in finding Menlove Gardens East as he travelled through the city, repeating that he was a stranger to this part of Liverpool. He was directed to get off where a small street called Menlove Gardens West intersects with the larger thoroughfare of Menlove Avenue, which he seems to have done.

This is where that telephone call the evening before starts to seem more sinister than mundane, because Wallace could not find the caller’s address. He ran into a clerk called Sydney Herbert Green near the tram stop and asked for help, and was told that while there was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, there was no Menlove Gardens East. These three streets make a triangle, not a square, around a small park.

Wallace tried knocking on the door of number 25 Menlove Gardens West, but was told by the woman who answered the door that there was no R.M. Qualtrough at that address. By 7.45, Wallace had wandered further south to a road called Green Lane, where he met a policeman and asked for the address he was seeking, only to be told again that it didn’t exist. He explained why he was hunting for it, and the constable suggested he look it up in the directory at a local newsagents. And that is what Wallace did next — he spent about ten minutes hunting through a directory in a nearby shop, and still had no luck. Eventually, he gave up the search about 8.20 and set off home again from the nearest tram stop.

About 8.45, the Wallaces’ neighbours, the Johnsons, reported hearing someone knocking on the back door of the next house. They were on their way out anyway, and as they left they found Wallace trying to get into his own house. He explained that both the front and back doors of his house seemed to be locked against him, even though his wife had a cold and he did not think she would have gone out. The neighbour offered to get his own back door key and try that — they were terraced houses, and presumably the theory was that the doors would be similar. Wallace explained that the back door lock was quite sticky, and he did eventually manage to get it open while his neighbours were standing there talking to him.

William Wallace was inside the house for about a minute and a half. Then he came running out and said “come and see, she has been killed”. Mr and Mrs Johnson later gave evidence that they had come through with William into the front sitting room, and there found Julia lying dead upon the floor, her head bashed in and blood splashed everywhere. Crumpled up underneath her body was a Macintosh that William later identified as his own. He had been wearing it that afternoon, but had changed into a thicker overcoat before going out to keep the bogus appointment at Menlove Gardens East.

Mr Johnson went out to fetch a policeman, and while Wallace waited with Mrs Johnson, he sobbed a couple of times but mostly kept control of himself, she reported. Once the police arrived, everything proceeded as you might expect — a search was made of the house, the Macintosh under the body was identified, and everyone present when the body was discovered was asked to account for their movements. William Wallace explained about the mysterious telephone call that had sent him on a wild goose chase to the other side of the city.

A medical examination of the body around 10pm found that Julia Wallace had been dead not more than 4 hours, which fits in with the milk delivery boy’s evidence of having last seen her alive around 6.30pm. No weapon could be found. Indeed, no weapon was ever found, but the Wallaces’ weekly cleaning lady didi give evidence that the kitchen poker and an iron bar kept in the sitting room for cleaning under the gas fire had gone missing since her last visit to the house a few days before. There was blood splashed over half of the sitting room and all over the Macintosh under the body, but no stains were discovered elsewhere in the house, nor was there any evidence that anyone had cleaned themselves there recently — no wet towels or anything like that.

William Wallace’s mental state and his expression of emotion that evening became a very important part of the case. As I’ve already said, his neighbour Mrs Johnson later testified that he seemed upset but in control, but she was the only one to think that. Professor MacFall, the doctor who examined the body that night, later said that he felt that William was far too composed given the shock he had just experienced. “He was too quiet, too collected, for a person whose wife had been killed in that way that he described,” MacFall said later. “Why, he was not so affected as I was myself!” Wallace’s explanation for this, by the way, is amazing: he responded to the assertion that he was stiff and emotionless in the face of his wife’s death by revealing that he was merely a disciple of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Wallace was quoted as saying “For forty years I had drilled myself in iron control and prided myself on never displaying an emotion outwardly in public. I trained myself to be a stoic”.

After the initial police investigation, William Wallace was allowed to spend the rest of the night at his sister in law’s house nearby. He spent the whole of the next day being questioned again, spending nearly 12 hours at the station. The officers went into everything in great detail, including the whole story of that telephone call to the chess club the night before, and from the start of the investigation seemed to have a clear theory in mind. The case was already attracting a lot of press attention because of the violence of the attack on a completely respectable middle class house wife. Ten days later, on 2 February, the whole world found out who the police thought was responsible, when William Wallace was arrested for the murder of his wife.

After the break: who made that telephone call?

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Dorothy L. Sayers always maintained a lively interest in real life murder cases alongside her detective fiction. As I covered on the Nurse Daniels episode of this podcast, in 1927 Sayers and her journalist husband had even gone to France to try their hand at investigating a case for themselves. Her 1930 novel, The Documents in the Case, also draws inspiration from another real life mystery I have covered on the show in the past — the case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, who were executed in 1923 for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. In addition, Sayers was one of the contributors to The Scoop, a collaborative radio serial that was aired in 1931 and written by members of the Detection Club. That story, too, was based on an actual murder case – the so called Crumbles Murders from 1924.

All of which is to say: Sayers was no stranger to the interplay of fact and fiction when it came to murder and crime writing. When the Detection Club decided to put together a volume of essays by members about real life cases, she volunteered to write about the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931. This was a case, she wrote, that “could only have been put together by the perverted ingenuity of a detective novelist”. The whole book, by the way, was called The Anatomy of Murder, and it was published in 1936.

In that essay, Sayers lays out why this case above all others held such fascination for her. It “provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation,” she wrote. Everything that happened between William Wallace leaving home to go to his chess club meeting on the Monday evening and returning from his wild goose chase on the Tuesday night to find his wife murdered is “susceptible of at least two interpretations,” she said. It’s the crime writer’s dream: all the clues can be twisted to fit one of several different solutions according to who you want to think committed the crime.

When William Wallace was put on trial for the murder of his wife in March 1931, the level of interest in the case was so high that the legal establishment was concerned that he would not get a fair hearing. When summing up the case to the jury, the judge therefore heavily emphasised the need to come to a verdict that fit the evidence presented and no other. “Can you say, taking all this evidence as a whole… that you are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was the hand of the prisoner and no other hand that murdered this woman?,” he said.

It was not the job of the jury, in other words, to solve the case. They just had to decide whether the prosecution’s case against William Wallace was strong enough to find him guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” or not. Sayers, however, sees a different role for herself. She isn’t a juror, but a detective novelist. Therefore, it is her job, she says, to ask “if the prisoner did not do it, then who did?”.


Let’s take a closer look at the case the police had built up against William Wallace. Their theory right from the start was that he had committed a pre meditated and calculated attack upon his wife. In this version of events, he had made that pivotal telephone call himself in order to establish a plausible reason to be out of the house at the time when the crime was committed. As avid readers of detective fiction from this period will know, it was not usually possible to trace a call from a public telephone box after the fact, but in this case the police got lucky: there happened to be a fault on the local telephone exchange at the time, so as part of the repair work the staff were manually logging the origin point of every call. As such, there was a record of the call to the chess club at the City Cafe on the Monday evening, and it showed that it had been placed from a telephone kiosk about 400 years from the Wallaces’ home.

The idea was, then, that William Wallace had left home to go to the chess meeting and made the call on the way, disguising his voice sufficiently so that whichever of his friends there answered would not recognise it as him. Having left the fake message that would take him out of the house on Tuesday night, William then proceeded into town as normal and arrived about 20 minutes after his own phone call. Then the next day, he went home for tea after work and killed his wife with the poker shortly after 6.30 before going out to make sure he was seen by plenty of people on the other side of the city, looking for an address that did not exist, so that when the doctor gave an approximate time of death of around 7pm, he could show that he was already out. And then when he came back, he banged loudly on the already open door of his house to attract his neighbours’ attention, and then used them as witness to him “finding” the body of his wife for the first time.

In a way, it was fortunate for William Wallace that the police suspected him so strongly from the beginning, because it meant that they paid a lot of attention to whether there was any blood on his clothes or body. He was searched very thoroughly and not a single speck was discovered on him, which given the amount of blood all over the sitting room was a substantial point against him having committed the crime. This is where the Macintosh that was found under the body comes in, though.

The police suggested that William had told Julia to set up the sitting room for one of their regular music evenings — he played violin and she piano — and gone upstairs to take off all of his clothes and putting on the Macintosh over his naked body. Then, he crept up on his wife while she was bent over lighting the gas fire and killed her with the iron bar, having previously removed that to be handy for his use. The blood would have spattered all over the Macintosh, but he removed that and stuffed it under her body before cleaning himself, redressing in the clothes he had left upstairs, putting on his overcoat and going out. He carried away the weapon with him and disposed of it on the way to the tram in such a way that it was never found.

Although it probably sounds a bit like something that a novelist would make up, the “do a murder naked to avoid bloodstains” method had actually been used before — it had been employed in a couple of high profile nineteenth century murders. In 1840, the MP Lord William Russell was murdered at his London home by his valet Francois Courvoisier, who apparently whispered to the executioner on the scaffold that he had committed his crimes in the nude to avoid bloodstains that would lead the police to suspect him. And again in 1892, the American Lizzie Borden was thought to have killed her father and step mother while naked, for the same reason. Before the arrival of more advanced forensic techniques, this was… just about plausible.

So, that’s how the prosecution explained their choice of William Wallace as the murderer in this case. It just about works as a theory, but there is very little evidence that actually confirms it. The weapon was never found, there are no corroborating fingerprints or bloodstains, there were no witnesses to prove the jiggery pokery with the telephone call. That’s why the judge tried to direct the jury to be cautious in his summing up, but they still quickly returned a guilty verdict. William Wallace was sentenced to death.


But that isn’t the end of William Wallace’s story, as it is with so many of these cases that I cover on the podcast. He was just very lucky in his employer, shall we say. Before he stood trial, when public opinion in Liverpool had already decided that he must be guilty, his solicitor travelled in secret to London to consult the executive council of the Prudential Staff Union. William and Julia had been fairly well off, but there was no way he could afford to pay for the hefty defence he was going to need, let alone any appeals afterwards. So his solicitor put it to the union that they should help him with these costs.

And the union did something very strange. So strange, in fact, that another detective novelist, Margery Allingham, was moved to write an essay about just this aspect of the case, although it remained unpublished during her lifetime and has only recently been brought to light by the Crime Writers’ Association. In “The Compassionate Machine”, Allingham looks at the mock trial that the Prudential Staff Union council conducted in absolute secrecy. Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour we should expect from people who assess risk for a living — they essentially put their colleague on trial for themselves so they could work out whether he was likely to be found guilty or not, and therefore whether he would benefit from their assistance. Allingham remarks that this is a rare example of the “machine” of the law being put to compassionate use.

In the mock trial, William Wallace was found not guilty. And so the union funded his defence, and then when the jury found him guilty, the funded his appeal. On 19 May, almost four months to the day after Julia had been killed, The Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the guilty verdict on the grounds that it was “not supported by the weight of the evidence”. This was the first time that a conviction for murder had been overturned on these grounds. Usually, appeals succeed when there has been some prejudice from the judge or because new evidence has come to light, but here the Court was essentially saying that the jury had got it wrong.

The Prudential Assurance Company gave William Wallace his job back after the appeal, and he tried to return to some semblance of normal life. But to the people of Liverpool, he was still a murderer, no matter what the court down in London had said, and it became impossible for him to stay in the city. He moved to a small cottage on the Wirral, on the other side of the river Mersey to Liverpool, and lived there quietly. Just under two years later, on 26 February 1933, he died of kidney disease in hospital.


In Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon, her sleuth Lord Peter repeatedly asserts that in solving a crime, motive matters far less than method in determining who the culprit is. “When you know how, you know who,” he says over and over again. And that was definitely the maxim followed by the police in the Wallace case. They made very little effort to suggest what William’s motive was for murdering his wife of 18 years and instead focused only on how he might have done it.

But in her account of the case, Sayers exercises her right as a detective novelist to stray beyond the limits of what a mere detective can do, and looked more deeply at the psychology of the characters involved. Nobody came forward to attest to any conflict or grievance between Julia and William Wallace, nor was there any suggestion of extra marital affairs or an end to their relationship. Unsurprisingly, given her husband’s profession, Julia’s life had been insured for £20, but that was a relatively small amount compared to the £90 she had in her savings account, and the £152 that William had in his. He had no financial difficulties or secret debts that would make it worth him committing murder for such a sum. As Margery Allingham put it, “Wallace stood to gain nothing but loneliness from his wife’s death.”

Sayers was also dissatisfied with the police explanation for the timeline. The window between Wallace supposedly committing the murder and being on the tram to Menlove Gardens was just too narrow, she felt. Even if you take the earlier estimate of the last Julia sighting, ie 6.30, Wallace only had about 20 minutes to kill her and completely clean and redress himself in order to be on the tram in time. And again, no blood stains were found in the bathroom or indeed anywhere else in the house, so if this was how it happened, he did a very quick but thorough job, and it would have been close run thing.

And then there was the telephone call, which made clear that the murder was pre-meditated. This couldn’t be an argument turned violent or a chance attack, because someone had tried to mess around creating alibis 24 hours beforehand. This lead Sayers to the conclusion that William Wallace was either “An innocent man caught in a trap or a guilty man pretending to have been caught in a trap.”

There are a couple of aspects that point towards it being the former rather than the latter and suggest that the point of the telephone call was to set William Wallace up for a crime he did not commit. Firstly, he was a regular attendee at the chess club, which always met on Monday evenings and started about 7.45, so anyone who had been observing his habits could easily have gleaned this. Then on that particular evening, he had registered to take part in a tournament, and the list of participants was advertised on the noticeboard of the cafe, so his attendance that night could also have been confirmed in advance.

The club secretary who took the message said that it “would be a great stretch of imagination” to suggest that the caller had sounded like Wallace, too. Sayers takes this further, suggesting that if indeed the call did come from a murderer who was trying to set things up to frame Wallace, they could well have been someone he knew, since in setting this trap they went out of their way to make sure they had no direct contact with him. They could have called when he was there, or sent a note, but they chose to time the message so that it would be passed on by a third party, suggesting that their voice or handwriting would have been recognisable to him. There’s no way to prove that, of course, but it’s a smart deduction on her part.


Sayers was far from the last person to delve deeply into the murder of Julia Wallace. Writers, layers and doctors alike have been fascinated it by it for decades, and there have been plenty of further investigations and mock trials trying to determine what really happened. Several amateur sleuths over the years have identified Richard Gordon Parry, a junior colleague of William Wallace’s at the insurance company, as a more likely suspect. The theory runs thusly: William had discovered that Parry was stealing from their employer and was considering turning him in.

Therefore, Parry makes the bogus telephone call and either he or an unknown accomplice kills Julia in a way that they think will result in William going to prison, or at the very least being completely discredited and fired. It’s a more plausible motive, even if there’s virtually no practical evidence to back it up. Another, less dramatic version, suggests that Parry decoyed William away so that he could break in and steal the money he had been collecting from insurance clients that day, and that the murder was the result of Julia interrupting the burglary. But then that doesn’t really account for the Macintosh, or the fact that no money was missing. You begin to see what Sayers meant when she said that every incident was open to multiple interpretations.

Several novelists incorporated elements of the case into their plots. Winifred Duke published a thinly veiled account of the case as Skin for Skin in 1935, a novel that Sayers reviewed very positively. John Rhode returned to it twice: firstly in the brilliantly titled novel Vegetable Duck from 1944 and then again, more explicitly, in The Telephone Call from 1949. Then there are plenty of other detective stories where the fortuitous telephone call and the false appointment play a major role, such as Agatha Christie’s radio play Personal Call and the Sayers short story “Absolutely Elsewhere”. In that last one, Inspector Parker has a line which I think sums up the perennial appeal of this as a fictional device: “So you see,” he says. “All the obvious suspects were elsewhere at the time.” As the instrument that can make that so, the telephone was as powerful a weapon for the detective novelist as any blunt instrument.


Interest in the murder of Julia Wallace has never dimmed. In 2013, P.D. James wrote an article for the Sunday Times in which she claimed to have “solved” the case at last: her theory was that William Wallace was guilty, and it was only because his colleague Richard Gordon Parry had coincidentally chosen the same night for a prank phone call that the matter had become so muddled. Whether or not you find that to be a likely explanation, it was certainly proof of James’s own decades-long obsession with this case — she included elements of it in her 1982 novel The Skull Beneath The Skin and also in 2003’s The Murder Room.

For me, as for so many others who have pored over the facts of this case, it all comes back to that telephone call. The undeniable fact that somebody lured William Wallace out of the house the night that his wife was murdered makes it very unlikely that the attack on Julia was random or spontaneous — somebody planned it. It forces William Wallace into one of two roles, as Sayers puts it: “If guilty, he was the classic contriver and alibi-monger that adorns the pages of a thousand mystery novels; and if he was innocent, then the real murderer was still more typically the classic villain of fiction.”

Either way, he was a character straight out of a murder mystery.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at
If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. Join now at

I’ll be back on 14 October with another episode.

47. Locked Room Transcript

Caroline: The line between crime fiction and the supernatural can get a little blurry at times. Although the “rules” of fair play in detective fiction popular in the 1920s and 30s prohibited the inclusion of ghosts, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, writers still enjoyed teasing their readers with murder scenarios that, at first glance, appeared impervious to rational explanation.

The best expression of this facet of the classic whodunnit is the locked room mystery. A body is found in a sealed chamber, definitely murdered, but there is no way the culprit can have got in or out. How did the murderer reach the victim and then escape again? Right from the very beginnings of detective fiction in the nineteenth century, this scenario has fascinated writers and readers alike.

That’s why, today, we’re going to learn how to solve impossible crimes.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


Like a lot of things about detective fiction, the origins of the locked room mystery can be traced all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe.

Jim: I think there’s a common conception that the first impossible crime story was also probably the first crime story, which is widely accepted to be “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe from 1843. I think this comes about because of the need for investigation being so key to the impossible crime, to have somebody to actually look into it, to come to some degree of rationalisation why this problem is involved.

Caroline: This is Jim Noy, an impossible crime enthusiast and the author of the detective fiction blog The Invisible Event. He’s something of an expert on this subject, which is why I’ve called him in as our consulting detective on this case. Before we go any further with Poe and the rest, though, I think we need to work out exactly what we mean when we say “impossible crime” or “locked room”. Luckily, Jim is much better at defining these phrases than I am.

Jim: I think there are a couple of phrases they are used interchangeably, I think people talk about locked rooms and they talk about impossible crimes and they also talk about miracle problems. And I tend to refer to them as impossible crimes. I think a locked room is a type of impossible crime web, something occurs inside of a locked room, but typically an impossible crime is usually a crime, a criminal act. It’s usually a crime has been committed in such a way that upon its initial presentation to the characters in the story and certainly to the reader, it doesn’t seem physically possible. And I suggest that beyond that, it also needs to remain to appear physically impossible for a very basic level of investigation and so to a very sort of key initial appearance there must also be that element of bafflement of how it has been committed.  

Caroline: So a locked room murder and a miracle problem are both types of impossible crime — the latter being a situation that appears physically impossible but that isn’t actually a crime like a murder or a theft, such as a sudden manifestation or disappearance. And, as Jim says, it isn’t enough for a writer merely to construct an impossible-seeming scenario, if as soon as the detective steps through the door, they’re going to immediately understand how it was done. The impossibility needs to withstand at least some investigation to really earn the label. So, back to Poe, who did this first. Or did he?

Jim: I mean the earliest cited example is from the Book of Judges in the Bible, where an incredibly fat man is run through with a sword in such a way that their assailant finds it impossible to remove the sword from the wound. And so when people enter the room it would appear to be someone is found killed in a locked room, there’s no sign of the weapon. It just so happens that the weapon is lost inside of the oversized body. There’s also from the writings of Herodotus from about 440 B.C. There’s a story called Rhampsinitus and the thief, which is about a thief who has found a way to gain access to a very rich man’s store of gold. From the reader’s perspective, we know how the access is achieved, but from the man being stolen from it it appears to be impossible.

Caroline: Plenty of Gothic and sensation fiction also dabbles with seemingly impossible incidents, but the crucial point is that it’s not until Poe in the mid nineteenth century that we get the character of C. Auguste Dupin trying to solve these impossibilities in a manner that we now recognise as a kind of detection.

Although it’s been more than a century and a half since “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published, I don’t want to spoil its solution for you — I strongly recommend you go and read it, and I’ve put a link to a free online edition in the show notes. In many ways, it’s a foundational text of detective fiction, even if Dupin doesn’t call himself a detective or describe what he’s doing as “detection”. In fact, the earliest citation for the word “detective” in the Oxford English Dictionary is, like Poe’s story, from 1843. The concept of rational investigation as a part of either professional policing or private sleuthing was really in its infancy.

Over the next few decades, detectives in both real life and fiction proliferated. In detective stories, locked rooms and other kinds of impossible crime became gradually more common, with more and more writers starting to experiment with them.

Jim:  By that point you’ve also got the work of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace starting to come out. Robert Eustace is possibly best known to Golden Age detective fans as the man who wrote the Documents in the Case with Dorothy L. Sayers. But he and L.T. Meade wrote a series of short stories, I believe, under the title The Master of Mysteries, some of which are impossible crimes, some of which are incredibly auric, most of which are incredibly hoary.

Caroline: Meade was an incredibly prolific Irish writer who produced over 300 books in her lifetime. For those who enjoyed the Victorian Pioneers episode of the podcast about early lady detectives, Meade is also worthy of note as the co-creator of several significant female sleuths and villains, including Florence Cusack and Madame Coluchy. Through her work with Eustace, she made a substantial contribution to the emerging impossible crime subgenre, too.


1892 is an important year for locked room mysteries. There were two publications this year that matter to the investigation we have at hand — one of which I expect a lot of you will have heard of, another that I suspect might be a little more obscure.

Jim: There is the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle from 1892, where a woman is found killed in what is essentially a locked and sealed room. You also have from 1892 The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill, which is another incredibly famous example, which is probably rightly famous because of, again, the fact that it comes up with a very interesting and I believe at the time original solution. But also what it comes up with is a false solution. And so Zangwill arguably in the history of impossible crimes, introduced the idea of a false solution, where what you have is a series of events that would appear to explain away the situation, which are then shown typically in the final chapter to be inaccurate for whatever reason.

Caroline: Arthur Conan Doyle might be by far the most famous late Victorian detective writer, but he was by no means the sole practitioner of the impossible crime story.

Jim: So certainly by the time Doyle is writing these with Holmes, it’s not as if he’s alone in it and it’s not as if nothing has been done in the subgenre by that point. I think it again, in much the same way that Poe and Rue Morgue is so incredibly famous and so it’s seen as the star of the genre. Holmes is so rightly incredibly famous that is often seen as the next logical step of really anything post about 1850.  

Caroline: In the early twentieth century, several writers notably picked up the thread of the impossible crime and tried to experiment a bit further with it.

Jim: In the early 20th century, you’ve got Jacques Futrelle who wrote to say, I mean, Futrelle died on the Titanic in 1912, so probably about 1904, 1905, you got Jacques Futrelle writing his Thinking Machine stories. You’ve got Edgar Wallace writing The Four Just Men around about the same sort of time.

Caroline: The thing about Futrelle, Wallace and other very early twentieth century impossible crime writers, though, is that when you read their stories now, they don’t seem that impossible. Sometimes, it’s even downright obvious what the big reveal is as soon as you’ve read the initial setup. And that’s because these solutions often rely on a general lack of understanding of scientific, medical or technological principles in the reading public of the day.

Jim: And what happens in this era is the rationalisation of the seemingly inexplicable by things which I think at the time weren’t necessarily appreciated by the populace. So we now in 2020 are broadly able to take for granted a lot of scientific principles, a lot of medical principles that I don’t think 100 hundred years ago would have been quite as appreciated by the man and woman in the street

Caroline: As writers sought to outdo each other and their readers with more and more outlandish impossible crimes, the plausibility of what they were writing about started to fall away. For instance:

Jim: Wallace, when he wrote The Four Just Men was he was relying on a scientific principle, which was relatively new at the time, but which if you had a certain amount of insight and understanding, you could actually anticipate. You go back to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — there’s been some fantastic critiques of Murders in the Rue Morgue where the physical space just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not physically possible for what is supposed to have occurred in that space to actually have occurred. It relies on, amongst other things, the existence of a secret hidden catch to seal the window from the inside. It would only exist if the person putting that window in the building knew that in some point in the future, that window was going to be featured in a baffling locked room murder like there is a meta element to it that just becomes so, so incredibly preposterous.

Caroline: The boundary between what is an impossible crime story and what is a science fiction story has always been a bit porous — and that’s something we’ll talk about in more detail a bit later in this episode. But before the locked room murder mysteries of the 1900s and the 1910s could any more implausible, an important shift occurred. And the pivotal writer here? Well, it’s G.K. Chesterton.

Jim: You get to someone like Chesterton and we’ve gone through an era of a lot of bogus, false, scientific, in inverted commas, reasoning, being used to explain away impossible crimes. You go through a lot of principles of, you know, weird physical spaces may be or may not have the properties that describe the fact that, you know, we just accepted that every single building older than a certain age has at least eleven hidden passages leading into any particularly spooky room. But crucially, what Chesterton does and this is one of the things I really love about his writing, is that Chesterton starts to move away from the scientific principles, from the physical principles, and starts to move into the psychological principles. And so it starts to look at the reason that something might be apparently impossible, not necessarily being because there’s something about the physical space or because there’s some scientific principle that people are ignorant of, but fundamentally because that there is a key human blindness in the way that people perceive situations.

Caroline: Chesterton was, in a way, a literary godfather to golden age writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and many others. As I mentioned in the recent episode about the Detection Club, this status was confirmed when he was asked to be the club’s first president in 1930. The first story featuring his priest-detective Father Brown, The Blue Cross, was published in 1910, and he wrote over fifty more over the next two decades. And there’s one from 1911, that expresses his psychological take on the impossible crime better than any other.

Jim: Now, there’s one story in particular that leans into this very heavily, “The Invisible Man“. And I detest that story with every fibre of my being. But it’s fascinating from the perspective of how heavily it leans into a psychological principle. He started to use these psychological principles and started to expand up from just the use of physical space and just the use of what you can physically see in a room to this point of you don’t see this not because of the physical space, but because of you, because there is an inherent flaw in the observer in the way in which these events are interpreted by people in the narrative.

Caroline: The invisible man isn’t invisible because of some special serum he’s drunk or because of some clever trick with a mirror, but because the unreliable, flawed people observing him are can’t see him. I’m not a huge fan of Chesterton or Father Brown either, but there can be no doubt that by popularising the idea of the unreliable narrator and witness, he helped move the impossible crime story into its next, and arguably greatest, phase.

After the break: the golden age of locked rooms, and beyond.

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The impossible crimes of the golden age are at once both simpler than their predecessors and more complicated. There’s far less reliance on elaborate window catches, fake panels in the wall and untraceable poisons, and instead the author has to construct the impossibility so that it exists in the eye of the beholder, as it were. No more physical slight of hand or improbable trickery.

Jim: It’s this idea that you want your reader to engage and so you almost want to be able to hold up to them the physical evidence almost verbatim. I think that became the key principle of what we now talk about as the golden age. 

Caroline: This where we can consider impossible crimes as part of the bigger trend for fair play that is so fundamental to the mechanics of golden age detective novels. It’s not fair if the solution to the impossible crime turns out to be a previously unmentioned secret passage; it’s also much more fun if the reader has known the secret passage was there the whole time but just didn’t work out what it had to do with the plot. This need to lay out all the physical restrictions up front is also where we start getting one of my favourite things about crime novels from this period: the maps in the front of the book.

Jim: The understanding of the physical geography of the space really had to improve, and so you start to see an upswing in the use of maps. And there is a story, “The Round Room Horror” by A Demain Grange from about 1911, which is slightly pre golden age. But this is the earliest example I’m aware of where the precise physical measurements of a space really matter. But because something has a particular dimension, a physical act is is possible inside of that space, then explains away the impossible crime. It’s the first example, the earliest example I’m aware of of a diagram of the space being provided in such a way that the exact arrangement of things in that space really matters.

Caroline: As with all detective fiction that abides by the precepts of fair play, the whole point of this era of impossible crime stories is that the writer gives the reader everything that they need to guess whodunnit, but then still managed to fool them in the end. In that sense, writer and reader are competing with each other, tussling over who is going to triumph by the time the denouement rolls round.

Jim: There’s no longer any fun setting a puzzle that no one else but me can solve. Authors really wanted it to be solvable. You know, John Dixon Carr called the writing of impossible crime fiction, the grandest game in the world. And I mean, the whole point of a game is that you want people to be able to play it. 

Caroline: It’s impossible to talk about golden age impossible crimes without talking about John Dickson Carr. Although born and raised in the United States, Carr is usually grouped in with the mostly British group of writers who dominated detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s. In 1932 he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, and they settled in London, where Carr set to work publishing mystery novels at a great rate. In 1933 he published his first novel featuring the academic and amateur sleuth Dr Gideon Fell, Hag’s Nook, and then in 1934 under the pseudonym Carter Dickson he published The Plague Court Murders, a brilliant locked room murder mystery featuring amateur sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. He carried on working with both of these pen names and detectives for several decades, publishing dozens of novels.

Jim: John Dixon Carr is the greatest practitioner of impossible crimes in the golden age. He wrote an astonishingly large number of brilliant crimes, came up with some brilliant solutions, came up with some brilliantly original solutions, came up with some brilliant twists on extant solutions, really folded the machinations required for the impossibilities into his plots incredibly well. Used Chesterton’s principles of psychology brilliantly. I mean, read something like The Problem of the Green Capsule, which is also known as the The Black Spectacles from 1939. I think that is pretty much the pinnacle of the impossible crime in Golden Age detective fiction, I think, is probably the pinnacle of golden age detective fiction. 

Caroline: That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and Jim definitely knows what he’s talking about. Carr was constantly innovating, looking for new takes on the already well known tropes of the impossible crime. In that book The Problem of the Green Capsule from 1939, a wealthy man sets up an experiment to prove that there’s no such thing as a reliable eyewitness. He stages a number of scenarios before a group of witnesses and also films the whole thing on a movie camera. One scene involves him being fed a large green capsule containing poison, and even though everyone saw the whole thing, nobody can agree on exactly what happened or who committed the murder. Gideon Fell has to use the supposedly objective film footage to prove what really happened. Or take The Problem of the Wire Cage, also published in 1939, in which the locked room is not a room but a tennis court. An obnoxious young man who was taking advantage of a wealthy young woman is found dead in the centre of a clay court, and the soft clay only shows one set of footprints going towards the body – the victim’s own. And yet he did not die by his own hand. How was it done? That’s the mystery.

But Carr’s take on the impossible crime didn’t come out of nowhere — his work was only possible because of everything you’ve already heard about in this episode.

Jim: Carr did so much inside of the subgenre with how he mixed together all of the pre-existing ingredients. Everything brought in by Poe and everything brought in by Doyle, everything brought in by your Gothic writers, by LeFanu, everything brought in by Chesterton,  this incredible melting pot of these wildly diverse ingredients and turned out these hugely creative plots and these hugely creative characters that are also incredibly well-written 

Caroline: Carr slyly acknowledged his debt to his predecessors in plain sight too, in the character of Dr Gideon Fell, who shares some of the Father Brown creator’s physical attributes and opinions — “Fell is G. K. Chesterton, of course,” Carr once said.


Another writer who was active towards the golden age and contributed a lot to the impossible crime canon was Christianna Brand. She’s perhaps more often remembered by the public at large today for writing the Nurse Matilda series, the basis for the Nanny McPhee films. She didn’t write nearly as many novels as John Dickson Carr, but some of the ones from the 1940s featuring Inspector Cockrill are truly inspired, Jim feels.

Jim: Green For Danger, Tour de Force, Death of Jezebel. Have these magnificent casts. These magnificent uses of psychology inside of the crime. I think Brand did a lot of stuff that she doesn’t necessarily get credit for, for instance, people talk about The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen as being this incredible story where the killer’s identity is revealed in the final line. Now I mean that’s true. Anybody paying attention can deduce who the killer is before the final line of The French Powder Mystery. But if you just want to wait and be told, then you can be. You can just be told. In the 1940s, Brandreth a book called Suddenly At His Residence, also known as The Crooked Wreath, where the fine line reveals not just who the killer is, but how they worked the particular crimes. Well it’s, it’s this very pithy, wonderful moment where you realise everything has been kind of funnelling down and it’s it’s arguably a far more accomplished. Distillation of what Queen was doing in The French Powder Mystery

Caroline: And of course, we should touch on the Queens of Crime in relation to this subgenre. Actually the only one of those four famous authors to try out the impossible crime in any serious way was Agatha Christie, who did it twice in full length novels: Murder in Mesopotamia in 1936 and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas in 1938. In the former, a woman is found bludgeoned to death in a locked room within a courtyard that nobody can have entered or exited unobserved. In the latter, a wealthy old man is heard fighting with an assailant in his locked room and when his children break down the door, he’s dead in a big pool of blood and there’s no way anyone else can have got in to fight with him or to cut his throat. I think both of these are among her top rank of plots, but they’re good more because of her skill with character and dialogue than because the plots really push the boundary of the impossible crime in any meaningful way. But then there is one that she wrote which is really like nothing else at all.

Jim: The one exception to that being somewhat debated as to whether it qualifies as an impossible crime, of course, being and then there were none, which is just one of the finest novels written ever, regardless of genre. I would personally consider that an impossible crime. I included that in a list of my fifteen favourite and impossible crime novels. Some people debate whether that technically follows is an impossible crime. But if you’ve got 10 people on an island on all 10 of them have been murdered and there’s no opportunity for the murderer to escape, then. That strikes me as an impossible crime. 

Caroline: Alongside English language impossible crime practitioners like Christie, Brand and Carr, there are lots of other authors that often get overlooked in these discussions because their work hasn’t, until now, been very widely translated.

Jim: Also, let’s not forget, there was a certain amount of stuff done in the impossible crime during the Golden Age that wasn’t done in English. There are French authors such as Noel Vindry or Marcel Lanteaume or Pierre Boileau or just before the Golden Age, of course, Gaston Leroux with The Mystery of the Yellow Room, that those of us who are not intelligent enough to speak a second language are only just starting to learn about because there are new translations of these coming out. There’s the Honkaku stuff that was written in Japan in the in the 1930s and 40s, Seishi Yokomizo and things like that that are just being published. I mean, there are some incredibly inventive examples of this that can be found, not necessarily Anglocentrically that people who have had an understanding and a knowledge of these cultures have known about for the intervening 80 or 90 years. And some of us are only starting to learn about now and starting to get very excited about it as well. 


Caroline: The creativity and innovation behind some of the best golden age impossible crime stories burned fiercely during the 1920s and 1930s, but what happened to this subgenre when the classic murder mystery began to fall out of favour after the Second World War?

Jim: There’s no doubt that there was a period where the detective novel certainly started to lose its lustre and start to fall from favour. And I think, as I said earlier, the impossible crime and the detection concept was so key, they grew up together and so they fell out of fashion together. 

Caroline: John Dickson Carr was still publishing Gideon Fell novels into the 1960s, but even he had slowed down and was experimenting with historical melodrama alongside it. And new crime writers who were emerging at that time weren’t interested in reshaping what had by now become the pretty tired old trope of the locked room mystery. P.D. James, who published her first novel in 1962, was writing police procedurals, as was Ruth Rendell, who debuted in 1964.

Mainstream crime fiction, then, had turned away from the playful puzzles and the fair play obsession of the golden age, but there were other kinds of genre fiction that could be stretched to incorporate elements of the impossible crime, for those who still felt it had some mileage. But constructing these intricate plots was definitely a niche activity.

Jim: There were a couple of examples written into the 50s and 60s and 70s, a lot of them by authors, interestingly, who then went on to write just pure science fiction. So you’d get someone like John Sladek, who wrote a couple of absolutely brilliant impossible crime novels, Invisible Green and Black Aura. I believe it was Sladek who said one could go hungry from just writing detective novels because they simply weren’t popular at the time. Or someone like Mack Reynolds, who wrote a novel, The Case of the Little Green Men, I believe it was called, in which a series of supposedly impossible events happened, the only explanation of which appears to be aliens. So someone wakes up and finds that wall burned by a laser beam. Someone is found having been dropped from a great height, as if having been thrown off a flying saucer. 

Caroline: The great American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov also wrote some straight detective fiction about a group of mystery solvers called the Black Widowers. But in 1968 he published a short story collection called Asimov’s Mysteries that are crime stories with paranormal or sci-fi backgrounds, and in the introduction he reflected on the compatability between the two genres.

Jim: And he said in the introduction, people seemed to see science fiction and detective fiction as entirely non sympathetic genres, because you could just say, I want to find out who the killer is, well, I’m going to point my Liar-Tron 500 at everybody and ask them if they killed them. And then my Liar-Tron 500 will tell them, will tell me sorry if if they’re lying. And he said, that’s actually fine, you can do that. But then why not write a universe which contains a Liar-Tron 500 and come up with a reason why that then can’t be used and fall back on scientific principles for your detection.


Caroline: In a way, the impossible crime story came full circle, because by the end of the twentieth century, writers were doing something quite similar to their counterparts at the end of the nineteenth century. They were experimenting at the edges of plausible science and technology to create scenarios that would baffle and delight readers. And of course, as real world science advances, some of these stories date rather badly.

Of course, people are still trying to write impossible crime stories and locked room mysteries, but things like forensic science and advanced surveillance don’t make it very easy to create plausible yet impenetrable plots. As a result, Jim says, a lot of the locked room mysteries published today aren’t very good.

Jim: There’s a lot of so-and-so was stabbed outside of the room and then fell into the room and locked the door after them to protect them. There’s a lot of oh, yeah, they just happened to consume a poison an hour before and then they fell down dead at a time that it made a pair as if it was impulse. Was a lot of sort of very hoary late Edwardian, early Victorian stuff, which is a shame. That’s some good work being done. Adam Roberts wrote a very interesting, again, science fiction crossover novel called The Real Town Murders, where a body, a dead body turns up in a car manufacturing plant where no human actually has any access. It’s a fascinating idea.

Caroline: That, I think, is a stroke of genius — what better setting for a contemporary locked room mystery than a full automated factory where no humans ever go?

Jim: There are some authors doing some interesting work with it these days, but they are definitely in the minority. Someone like James Scott Burnside has self published two extremely good impossible crime novels Goodnight, Irene. And The Opening Night Murders, both of which have a real understanding and a real desire to go back to what the classic era detective fiction novel was, was trying to achieve. 

Caroline: It’s no surprise, then, that most of the authors still trying to write locked room mysteries today are writing historical fiction or speculative fiction.

Jim: But I find it interesting that they do tend to exist either in broadly speaking, either in people setting books back in the eighteen hundreds or early nineteen hundreds or people setting books in the 22 hundreds of the future.

Caroline: Part of what made the golden age the perfect period to incubate brilliant impossible crimes, it turns out, was that there was just enough of a popular understanding of science to make these plots plausible, but not so much that the writers had no wriggle room. Add to that the sense of interactivity and fun that the fixation on fair play provided, and you had the perfect conditions for this subgenre to flourish.


But even though we’re now almost a century on from that, I do think you can still detect traces of the human obsession with apparently unsolvable puzzles that made the impossible crime such a force in crime fiction. It’s there in the 1990s British TV show Jonathan Creek, or the mass popularity of escape room experiences.

We might not have someone like John Dickson Carr writing today, but we’re still desperate to work out whodunnit behind the locked door.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes and links to Jim Noy’s writing about impossible crimes at, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get early access to every episode of the podcast with no advertising, as well as the chance to join the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. For instance, if you’d like to hear a much longer version of my discussion with Jim and get lots more detail about impossible crimes and locked rooms, book club members will be able to do that via their monthly bonus episode. You can join now at

I’ll be back on 30 September with another episode.