Something I love about making this podcast is the space it provides for me to zoom right in. I can dedicate a whole episode to a single trope from classic detective fiction, whether that’s tropes like “the butler did it” or settings like “on a boat”.
I’ve narrowed the focus even further by putting a time limit on the books that I cover. They largely come from the golden age of detective fiction, that period between the two world wars when what we now think of as the “classic” whodunnit was at the height of its popularity.
And while I have no intention of setting aside this approach, something has been gnawing at me for a while. It’s this question. What would it look like if I zoomed out instead of in? What if, instead of tracking the development of the golden age detective novel within that short timespan, I considered the broad strokes of the murder mystery across a whole century?
Well, that’s what I’m going to do today. We’re going on a journey from 1900 to the year 2000. This is the twentieth century, according to its whodunnits.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It’s now been a century, at least, since the first whodunnits from the golden age of detective fiction were published.
I spend a lot of time reading the books that were published during that two decades or so because I love seeing the development of the “classic” whodunnit up close, and also because I make this podcast.
I know that round numbers are meaningless, but I can’t help it. Noticing that a hundred years has passed since some of my favourite books from the early 1920s were first released had more of an impact on me than when it was just 99 years, or 98. There are still so many books from that time that are new to me that it’s easy to forget that they are, objectively, quite old now.
As much as I might try to get into the mindset of a reader from 1923, for instance, reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ debut novel Whose Body? with fresh eyes just after publication and encountering her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey for the first time, I can’t switch off my knowledge of everything that comes after. I know that she would write ten more novels and dozens of short stories featuring this character, and that she would begin drifting away from writing detective fiction once the second world war began. Imagination can only take you so far.
Although I can’t abandon my vantage point in 2021 and the hindsight that comes with it, I decided to try reading my way through the crime fiction of the twentieth century from beginning to end, like I was one very long lived reader keeping up with what was new in my favourite genre.
To do this, I picked a book from each decade that seemed to me to be an important step forward for the form of the detective novel. Now, before I get into discussion these books, I just want to preempt any dissent about my choices by saying that they are just that, my choices. This is a personal journey through the twentieth century’s crime fiction, and it’s in no way intended to be a definitive reading list or statement. In fact, I’d love to hear what you would pick for a similar reading project — you can tell me about it on social media if you’d like, where the podcast can be found as @ShedunnitShow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Having said all that, I couldn’t start anywhere but with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories that Arthur Conan Doyle had published in magazines between 1903 and 1904, and which appeared in one volume for the first time in 1905.
This wasn’t Holmes’s first appearance in the twentieth century. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novel about Holmes and Watson’s adventures unravelling the myth of a diabolical dog on Dartmoor, had been published in 1902. But crucially, this story is a flashback — in the personal chronology of Sherlock Holmes, it takes place before he dies at the end of the short story “The Final Problem”, first published in 1893.
Conan Doyle really did intend that to be the last word on Sherlock Holmes. He was convinced he was destined for literary greatness beyond detective fiction, and that the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street was just holding him back. He even wrote to his mother about the decision, saying that “I must save my mind for better things”.
But it didn’t last long. First he relented to the pressure from publishers and the public with a tale from Holmes’s casebook in the form of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then in the first story from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”, he resurrected his sleuth properly. Picking up this book again for the first time in years, I tried to imagine how exciting it would have been, as a fan, to open the magazine containing the first new adventure for your favourite character in ten years. Today, we have become accustomed to the endless cycle of reboots and remakes, but I think that would have been genuinely thrilling.
Since it had been a while since I read these stories, I had forgotten quite how many of my favourites this collection contains. The characters of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are well established, and thanks to his work’s incredible popularity Conan Doyle is able to assume when writing in the early 1900s that his readers are conversant with the typical beats of a detective story. Therefore, he spends less time on the fundamental mechanics of “whodunnit” and starts riffing on the theme, exploring new avenues and possibilities.
Turning the pages, it felt a bit like I was reading a kind of source text out of which everything in the next couple of decades was going to expand. “The Adventure of the Empty House” is a clever locked room mystery. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is a case that turns on code breaking. “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” is an inheritance mystery. “The Adventure of the Priory School” features a criminal that deliberately tries to hoodwink the detective when it comes to forensic observation. “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” sees the detective act not only as investigator, but judge and jury too. I could go on. Each story contains at least one aspect that other writers would enhance and develop into entire plots and subgenres in the decades to come.
It really isn’t possible to understate the influence that Sherlock Holmes had on the crime fiction that followed. So many of the traits that we now just associate with the figure of “the detective, such as his eccentricity, or his detachment from a personal life, or his preoccupation with forensic evidence like ash and footprints, were first brought to wide attention in the form of Sherlock Holmes.
I started with a bang, I know. Now we’re moving on to the next decade, the 1910s, and a book that I think is a little less well known today: Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, first published in 1913. Writers like GK Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley all regarded it very highly, and when the Detection Club was formed in 1930 Bentley was elected as a member based on the reputation of this one novel, and succeeded GK Chesterton to become the society’s second president.
I first came across the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley when I worked at the New Statesman magazine, as it happens. Bentley is probably best known today as the originator of a poetic form called after his own middle name — the clerihew. Supposedly, Bentley invented these four line biographical poems when at school in the 1890s, and he and schoolfriend GK Chesterton had great fun filling notebooks with them. The first line has to be just the person’s name, and then the following three lines (rhyming AABB) sketch the person’s life. Here’s an example, from Bentley’s 1905 collection of them, Biography for Beginners:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said “I am going to dine with some men.
“If anybody calls
“Say I am designing St Paul’s.”
The New Statesman ran competitions where readers sent clerihews in for years, and for the 2013 centenary issue the writer Craig Brown was commissioned to write some new ones. I got curious about how someone could make living in the 1900s from writing funny little poems, so I dug into Bentley’s bibliography and discovered his detective fiction. Anyway, the point of telling you this is to illustrate how that light, comic style was central to Bentley’s work and reputation, during his lifetime and after. If you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, then you have a fair idea of how he wrote.
Because that’s how Trent’s Last Case started out, as a kind of light comic parody or satire. He set out to write a detective novel that would simultaneously contribute to the genre while also undercutting the seriousness of detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown, who had first appeared in print in 1910.
Trent’s Last Case and includes lots of other very recognisable elements that would later become standard golden age tropes: an unlikeable victim, a comic amateur sleuth, an apparently perfect alibi and a brilliant twist ending. Philip Trent struggles against “the impotence of human reason”, but in making reason or logic the central theme of the book while marrying it with a lightness of touch and sparkling prose, Bentley was paving the way for Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and many others to follow. He prevented the detective novel from becoming too serious and self regarding. Even the title is a joke in itself — this is the first novel about Philip Trent, but it’s also announced as his last case because he’s not a good detective. In other words, E.C. Bentley made it OK to be funny while writing detective fiction.
And now we’re in the 1920s — a decade of richness when it comes to detective fiction. What should I choose? Agatha Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Gladys Mitchell’s first novel Speedy Death, or Anthony Berkeley’s brilliantly referential and innovative The Poisoned Chocolates Case? No, I went for The Cask, first published in 1920, the first novel by Irish writer Freeman Wills Crofts.
Why? Well, it’s true that in part I wanted to read a book from this decade that isn’t quite as familiar to me as those others I mentioned, and also because I think what Crofts achieved in this novel is worth appreciating as an important way point on crime fiction’s journey through the century. Crofts was a railway engineer by profession, or at least he was until 1929 when he became a full time detective novelist, and he wrote this first book while signed off work sick in 1919.
His plot unites three strands that we’re going to revisit a lot in the rest of this episode.
Firstly, it is a police procedural. A cask containing a dead body is unloaded at the docks in London, and the police are summoned to investigate (the cask disappears again before they can take charge of it, but you’ll need to read the book yourself to find out why). The reader then follows the police detective through the process of chasing down clues until they arrive at the truth.
This relates to the second strand: the masterful way in which Crofts handles alibis. Every single one is worked out to the second. This was to become a trademark of his fiction going forward, but again I feel like it would have felt new to a reader cracking open the book for the first time in 1920.
And then finally, there’s an international dimension to the book, with the cask bouncing back and forward between London and Paris with the police detectives of both cities on its tail.
I find reading The Cask incredibly restful, which is an odd thing to say about a book centred around a murder, I know. But there’s something about the way the plot is constructed that makes it clear that Crofts is in full control, and I find it relaxing to know that somebody is else is in charge while I’m reading. His work absolutely deserves to be better known, so if you haven’t read one of his stories before I highly recommend seeking one out.
Into the 1930s. Again, since we’re still in the golden age, I was spoilt for choice. I went for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is a book that I’ve reread a lot in the last twenty years. I didn’t choose it with this in mind, but I found that it followed on from The Cask very well, because the complex bellringing elements of Sayers’ plot — she did subtitle it “changes rung on an old theme in two short touches and two full peals” after all — married very well with Crofts’ detailed alibis.
Where The Nine Tailors feels like a step onwards is in its characterisation. The people of Fenchurch St Paul, the tiny Norfolk village where Peter Wimsey ends up by accident on New Year’s Eve, live and breathe. Their ideas and motivations are overlapping and complex; they don’t all line up neatly just for the purpose of a plot. Said plot also takes place over a number of years, which also helps to dissipate the feeling of artificiality that had begun to creep into some detective novels by this time. The events of the novel span a couple of decades, which feels a bit more likely than a case that can be tied up in a bow in three days.
When Sayers died in 1956 the obituary writer in the New York Times remarked that this novel was widely considered to be her finest literary achievement. I would agree – I think she invented better plots, but I don’t think she wrote a better novel. The presence of Wimsey feels almost incidental, as if he truly is there by accident rather than having to push the plot on with exposition. And some of her descriptive passages about the way the bells sound across the fens or the rising floodwaters in the dykes are truly brilliant.
Sayers was always looking for ways to push the detective novel further and to release it from the restrictions placed on genre fiction. Given that, I think it’s the highest compliment I could pay this book to say that I really don’t care who did the crime by the end — I just want to keep reading about the village and the bells.
After the break: what happens after the golden age?
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The Second World War was something of a watershed moment for detective fiction. Some previously prominent writers, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, stopped writing whodunnits altogether after 1939. Others, like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and others, kept going with the characters and style that had made them popular during the golden age even as that period drew to a close.
It was really difficult to know at what point to drop in on Agatha Christie’s career on this journey. There are six different decades to choose from — she published whodunnits from the 1920s through to the 1970s. That’s over half of the twentieth century, just in her bibliography.
Although I think the 1930s probably represents her best hit rate — that is the period in which she wrote Peril at End House, The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None, after all — I eventually went for Five Little Pigs. I think this unsettling novel from 1943 is truly a tour de force, and I also think it shows signs of the way the crime genre is developing that are interesting to note after what we’ve read before.
My principle attraction to Five Little Pigs, though, lies in the fact that it is a cold case — something that Christie didn’t address often, preferring a more active murder scenario. In this one, Hercule Poirot reexamining a case from 16 years ago in which a painter was poisoned as he worked at a portrait of his mistress. The book is formally intriguing, too, with the events of his last day retold to the detective from five different perspectives as he interviews each of the five people who were present. It’s a formidable challenge of both plotting and detection, since Christie allows neither herself nor Poirot access to new clues or suspects beyond those included in the original case. It’s a book that carries the reader along on the drama of pure intellect and reasoning, and as such I think can fairly be described as a true high point of the golden age style.
My next choice reflects the way in which the detective novel began to morph and change with the changing times after 1945. Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert has some of the key golden age characteristics, including a closed circle of suspects and an amateur detective, but is very different in setting and atmosphere. The plot takes place in a prisoner of war camp for British officers in northern Italy during the Second World War, and is based on Gilbert’s own experiences of being interned.
The camp inmates are working hard at covertly digging a tunnel so they can escape when they discover a dead body in their earthworks. Rather than alert the camp’s authorities to the murder and expose their escape attempt, they appoint one of their own number to investigate the crime. This element works very well as a classic murder mystery plot, but it enhanced by the addition of a wartime thriller, as the characters struggle to get out safely before the camp is turned over to the Germans.
Gilbert was an incredibly adaptable writer, who dabbled in many different styles and subgenres over his long writing career. I think he represents a bridge between the dominant style of crime writing in the 1930s and 40s and the more modern thriller found in bookshops today. He was reading crime fiction during the golden age, and even started writing a mystery novel in the late 1930s, but didn’t get to start publishing until after the war.
We are a long way from Shedunnit’s usual stomping ground in the golden age of detective fiction now. Although our next writer was technically alive during that period — she was born in 1930 — her first book came out in 1964. That was From Doon With Death, the debut of Ruth Rendell, in which she introduced the character who was to become her recurring sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford.
This wasn’t the very first Ruth Rendell I had read, because I’ve picked a few up at the library at random over the years, but it was the first time I had read this book. I found it really impressive — I don’t think all the crime writers I’ve read for this episode managed such an accomplished debut. From Doon With Death is chilling and suspenseful, and I also think it looks both backwards and forwards in the canon of twentieth century crime writing.
The woman at the heart of the plot, Margaret Parsons, is a shy housewife in a quiet town. She is very clearly differentiated from the upper class, larger than life victims in whodunnits from the 1930s and 40s. Her normalness is strongly underlined. This makes the murderer’s attack on her all the more shocking — what on earth can she had done to justify such a thing? The emphasis on her home feels to me like it looks forward to the trend for domestic noir that is even now dominating the bestseller charts.
Yet there are aspects of this book that feel like they could be from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel, in particular Margaret’s secret cache of rare books. It is in the inscriptions to these that Wexford has to look for clues to unlock the case. Rendell’s use of the particular legal circumstances of the time to hoodwink the reader also reminded me of Sayers’ legal slight of hand in Unnatural Death. I found reading From Doon With Death a really interesting experience, perhaps I should read more modern crime fiction more often.
I was really motoring through the latter part of the twentieth century now, in a period of crime fiction that is almost completely unfamiliar to me. My best book, from the 1970s, was Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. This was first published in 1977, and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I came across it during my research for my People’s Pathologist episode about the early forensics expert Bernard Spilsbury.
This novel came fairly early in James’s career, but her police detective character Adam Dalgliesh was already well established by the time it came out. Again, there are aspects of his character that seem to hark backwards even as the plot of this novel is modern. Dalgliesh is a kind of “gentleman” detective within Scotland Yard, and someone who enjoys poetry and reflection. He reminds me a little of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who first appeared in 1975’s Last Bus To Woodstock, but also of E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen from his novels in the 1930s — Owen being from a noble family yet choosing to work as a lowly police constable.
Death of an Expert Witness is set among the staff of a forensics lab, and this gives James plenty of scope to introduce lots of technicalities peculiar to that field. The focus on forensics is intriguing, but the motive she gives to her murderer was a bit disappointing to me, and felt like it fell into some of the exploitative traps that generally makes me dislike more recent crime fiction. Still, I’d like to spend more time with Adam Dalgliesh.
My choice for the 1980s is a bit of a throwback — Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes, first published in 1986. I say that because this is actually the final book in a series that began during the golden age, with 1936’s Death at the President’s Lodgings. Innes was the pseudonym of literature academic J.I.M. Stewart, and in half a century he published almost fifty novels featuring his sleuth Sir John Appleby. I’ve read some of the earlier ones and liked them, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to drop in on the final instalment.
As is fitting for a detective of such long service, Sir John has retired from the police force by the time of this book. He goes for a cosy lunch at a country house called Clusters with Lord and Lady Osprey, and is then surprised to get a call days later to come and investigate the lord’s murder. The power dynamic between him and the officer actually in charge of this case is interesting, but overall I rather regretted my choice to read a late career book by such a long lived author.
It was rather like reading late P.G. Wodehouse, in that it felt nostalgic for a world of country houses and casual privilege that didn’t really exist anymore. The appearance of the N word in Sir John’s dialogue and some of the attitudes expressed around rape didn’t make this book especially comfortable reading.
And now, we have arrived at the last of my ten books, the end of the journey. This is the only book on my list that is by a living writer, who is also coincidentally the only writer here I have actually met. My last choice is Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, his eight novel to feature his police detective Inspector Rebus, which was first published in 1997. Again, I’ve read a few Rankins here and there at random from the library, but this was my first time choosing one intentionally.
I had read that this title in particular was considered a seminal example of the “tartan noir” movement in modern crime fiction, and so decided to use it as the destination for this journey. It felt fitting that my meander through a century of British crime fiction, so much of which is very stereotypically English, should end north of the border.
In Black and Blue, Rebus is working on I think four cases at once. It’s action packed, with the detective flitting around Scotland in pursuit of a terrifying serial killer while at the same time handling some internal disputes within the police. There’s also a political and corporate corruption subplot. We’ve come a long way from the linear, laidback plot of Trent’s Last Case, shall we say.
But for all of its busyness and chaos, I liked Black and Blue a lot. It manages to be topical with all of its references to North Sea oil and the political clout that will bring while also having a timeless enough plot that reading it in 2021 didn’t feel like browsing old newspaper articles. I’m no expert in American noir, but I strongly suspect that Rebus’s high energy antics in this book have more in common with the work of Raymond Chandler, say, than that of Agatha Christie.
And there we have it — that was my journey through ten decades of whodunnits, a book at a time. If you’ve previously been a dedicated golden age reader like me, I hope you found a reason somewhere in here to stray beyond the 1940s. And if you’re an aficionado of more recent publications, perhaps you’re now intrigued by Trent’s Last Case. I’m certainly going to be spending more time with Ruth Rendell and P.D. James in the future.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/century. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.