Caroline: Detective novelists have always been loyal to their sleuths. Some, like Gladys Mitchell, created a character and devotedly returned to them again and again. Other authors, like Dorothy L. Sayers, had a main detective character — in her case, Lord Peter Wimsey — but also worked with at least one other secondary sleuth who appeared more infrequently (like my beloved Montague Egg).
In both scenarios, both writer and reader could enjoy the comfort of returning to a familiar detective in book after book. The characters could develop across multiple stories, maturing through their lives and giving fans a reason to pick up the book beyond just the pleasure of a new puzzle. Never forget how angry everyone got when Arthur Conan Doyle decided that he was fed up of writing about Sherlock Holmes and threw him over a cliff. Readers like what they know.
There are times, though, when a writer might conceive of a character who fits perfectly in one plot, but who can’t reasonably be inserted into other situations. They’re more unusual, these one-off detectives, but there is an author who created them fairly regularly, even though she’s best known for her recurring characters.
Today, we’re going to meet Agatha Christie’s competent women.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It is in Agatha Christie’s second published novel, The Secret Adversary from 1922, that we get our first glimpse of a competent woman. Miss Prudence Cowley has spent the First World War in a blizzard of activity, serving successively as a hospital kitchen skivvy, a ward maid, a military driver and a worker in a government office. “I had intended to become a land girl, a postwoman, and a bus conductress by way of rounding off my career—but the Armistice intervened,” she says in the first chapter. Despite the circumstances, she has enjoyed herself immensely. Unfortunately, the end of the war has brought waves of returning soldiers requiring their jobs back, making even the most efficient of young women surplus to requirements again. Only an healthy fear of having to return to the vicarage where she grew up — where skirts must be worn long, cigarettes are banned, and there is plenty of unpaid drudgery awaiting her — has enabled her to survive in London on no income.
This character, who is also known Tuppence Beresford, does recur in three more novels and a short story collection spread out across Agatha Christie’s long career, so she isn’t completely the type that we’re seeking. Yet seen in this first appearance alone, she is an excellent blueprint for the one off competent women characters that are peppered through the rest of Christie’s fiction. Tuppence is bursting with energy and talent, but circumstances aren’t allowing her to exercise her abilities. She’s completely broke too, and is thus readily talked into pursuing amateur detective work as a means of seeking her fortune. This is vital: these characters usually need some kind of seismic life change or moment of adversity to impel them to turn their talents towards mystery-solving. A desire for adventure, which Tuppence also has in spades, is a common attribute too. These competent women want more than the domestic toil or humdrum conventionality that seem to be their lot. Together with that comes a certain desperation, combined with fearlessness. Tuppence would risk pretty much anything to avoid becoming a spinster skivvy back at her parents’ vicarage.
The moment when all of these factors come together — i.e., when Tuppence turns to her childhood friend in a crowded teashop and says “Tommy, let’s be adventurers!” — isn’t just an exciting evolution of a character. It’s also the kickstart to a plot, and I think perhaps the reason why most of Christie’s competent women were one-book wonders. Even Tuppence ages substantially between each of her appearances in fiction, because I think it’s too implausible even for a 1920s detective author to pull off this kind of trick book after book. Besides, I think a big part of the appeal of these characters for Christie was how ephemeral they were. They were free of the pesky details that plagued her with her recurring sleuths — I mean, how old is Hercule Poirot by the end? 120? I think these one off women have a lot of the attraction of Mary Poppins about them. They turn up, have and adventure, sort everything out, and then disappear over the horizon at the end of the story.
Christie’s first full-blown competent woman, by my definition, is Anne Bedingfield from 1924’s The Man in the Brown Suit. She is the central protagonist and also the main narrator of a story that is as much a thriller as it is a detective story, really — if it weren’t for Anne’s constant efforts to uncover the truth behind the mad adventures she is having, we might not think of this book as a whodunnit at all. She starts out with a dreary, domestic life, as a kind of housekeeper slash secretary slash general factotum for her father, who is “one of England’s greatest living authority on Primitive Man” but apparently cannot do things like remember to pay the grocer or type his own manuscripts. Anne runs her father’s life with ease, but is very bored with her lot in life. She says early on: “I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility.” Having already met Tuppence, I’m sure you can see how Anne is a competent woman with an adventurous spirit and an inquiring mind constructed along the same lines.
After her father dies, Anne is liberated from housekeeping and also inherits an amount of money that her solicitor thinks is completely insufficient for a woman to live on, but which Anne is excited by because it’s the most she’s ever had. This is the spur that begins the plot: Anne goes to London and at the end of the platform at Hyde Park Corner tube station, she sees a man fall to his death, apparently after recognising someone behind him. She follows the doctor who examined the body out of the station and picks up a piece of paper he dropped, which seems to be in some sort of code. Her suspicions about this death send her on a madcap journey to South Africa and then Zimbabwe, during which she gets almost killed several times before eventually unmasking the villain.
At the end of chapter two, Anne permits herself a moment of self mockery, imagining what title a sensationalist newspaper would give her account of these events. “Anna the Adventuress,” would be sufficiently silly, she decides, before declaring that “girls are foolish things”. Much to Agatha Christie’s own amusement, when the London Evening News serialised the novel, they changed the title to “Anna the Adventuress”, seemingly completely missing the element of irony with which Anne utters that phrase. But given that the paper was paying £500 for the rights, which according to the National Archives currency convertor would be about £20,000 in today’s money, Christie didn’t make a fuss. In fact, she bought her first car with the money and rejoiced over the independence it gave her.
It’s Anne Bedingfield’s competence that stops this novel from descending completely into farce — although she does walk into her fair share of traps, it’s always her quick thinking and sensible attitude that gets her out of them again. Much of her adventures are based on the world tour that Agatha Christie undertook with her then husband Archie in 1922 (she, like Anne, bought too many souvenirs including an unwieldy giraffe). It’s easy to imagine that there’s an element of wish fulfilment in Anne Bedingfield’s character. She has no family, no domestic ties, and no husband who spends too much time playing golf. She can travel the world and give her talents free rein.
After the break: the stakes get higher for the competent women.
For Emily Trefusis, the competent woman at the heart of Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel The Sittaford Mystery, what tips her over into the risky occupation of sleuthing is rather more than just a desire for adventure. We meet her at the point in the story when her fiance is being detained by the police as a very likely suspect in his uncle’s murder. Emily reassures him as he is taken away that he can leave it all to her, and proceeds to turn detective in order to prove that her Jim couldn’t have done the crime. Because Emily isn’t the narrator of the story, we get another character’s description of her when she first enters. Inspector Narracott gives a very able summary of her as a competent woman. She was, he says “a very exceptional kind of young woman. She was not strikingly beautiful, but she had a face which was arresting and unusual, a face that having once seen you could not forget. There was about her an atmosphere of common sense, savoir-faire, invincible determination and a most tantalizing fascination”.
Chapter 11 of The Sittaford Mystery is called “Emily Sets To Work”, but that could really be the title of the whole book. She travels to the scene of the crime, recruits a journalist as a sidekick, interviews witnesses, checks alibis and generally bustles about trying to find out who the murderer is, having reasoned that uncovering the real culprit is the best way of getting her fiance off the hook. In the politest, most appropriate way, she won’t take no for an answer. As her assistant Mr Enderby observes: “Emily had the kind of personality that soars triumphantly over all obstacles.”
Emily is a very satisfying character to read. I think of her as the embodiment of how all readers want to feel during a whodunnit — she’s clearly smart and very capable, but even she doesn’t tumble to the solution of the mystery until near the end of the book. There’s also a decent amount of graft involved in her deductions. She goes places and speaks to people and thinks hard. The right answer doesn’t just come to her out of nowhere.
As with Tuppence and Anne before her, there is a romantic element to the way Emily’s character operates in the novel. Of course, she’s motivated to get involved in the case at all because of her fiancé, but then the sidekick she recruits also seems to develop feelings for her, so she has to maintain the delicate balance of keeping him onside but also not doing anything she might regret later, which adds interest to her exploits for the reader. I think the constant presence of at least one love interest is another reason why so few of these competent women get a second outing — Christie does like to marry them off where she possibly can. Of course, Tuppence is the exception, because her husband then appears in the subsequent stories alongside her. Much to my regret, we never hear any more of Emily Trefusis after she solves The Sittaford Mystery. But her forthright intelligence and practical acumen place her firmly among a distinguished lineage of such women — a character who leaves us wanting more.
Before I get onto the last of the trio of competent women that I wanted to talk about in detail today, let’s take a moment to consider the honourable mentions — competent women who certainly belong in this category, but who for a variety of reasons have never quite made it to the front rank in my mind. There’s Bundle Brent from The Secret of Chimneys, who gets a Tuppence-like recurrence in The Seven Dials Mystery. Katharine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train has the potential to conduct the investigation herself, in the manner of Emily Trefusis, but is somewhat stymied by the fact that Christie also put Poirot in this book and he dominates the whole affair. There’s also Lady Frances Derwent in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, who I like a lot but is really part of a sleuthing double act with Bobby Jones.
Those books are all from the 1920s and 30s, but there are two instances of competent women from much later on in Christie’s career — Victoria Jones in 1951’s They Came to Baghdad and Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 1957’s 4.50 From Paddington. The former is one of the weaker novels, in my opinion, but the latter is an absolute triumph to my mind. In fact, I like it so much that during the Q&A after my live show in Dublin last week, a listener expressed surprise that I didn’t name it as my favourite ever detective novel (it is up there, for sure, but that particular night I was feeling more inclined towards Strong Poison, in case you are curious).
Although Lucy Eyelesbarrow has a lot to do with why this book works as well as it does, there are two other elements that make it stand out too. One is the sheer originality of Christie’s murder setup — as indicated by the title, someone travelling on that particular train witnesses a murder during the few seconds that her carriage is running alongside a train on a different line, but is then powerless to investigate further as the two tracks diverge. The second factor is something that Christie and other novelists used many times, but which never fails to provide interesting complicating elements to a plot — the large dysfunctional family warped by a matter of inheritance.
The witness to the murder is Elizabeth McGillicuddy, and she is on her way to visit Miss Marple when she sees a woman being strangled on the other train. That lady immediately sees the possibilities of a train as a venue for a crime, as long as the body disposal had been planned beforehand, but regretfully is too old to go poking about on railway embankments herself. This is why, early on, she enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who she had got to know when her nephew hired her to look after Miss Marple’s house during a bout of illness.
Lucy is described as possessing “in addition to scholarly brilliance, a core of good sound common sense”. Despite having taken a First in Mathematics at Oxford, Christie says, Lucy prefers to work as a kind of freelance short-term domestic help, and has cultivated a stellar reputation for her services. She never wants for clients or for money, and can pick and choose her jobs as they interest her. I imagine her as a bit like a cross between Mary Poppins and Bobby from Queer Eye: she’ll turn up for a bit, teach you some lessons you’ll never forget, and then leave your house looking unrecognisably clean and organised. I don’t know whether such a job ever existed, but Lucy is certainly Christie’s imagined solution to the change in the social order after the Second World War, when domestic help was in short supply, people began to relocate much more readily, and the wealthy who ran stately homes were going bankrupt.
She might be nearly 30 years on from Emily Trefusis, but Lucy Eyelesbarrow has the same sense of adventure.
She takes up that challenge with vim, and in between scouring scrubland for traces of a corpse, she scrubs and cooks her way into the heart of her new employers. There are lots of brilliant descriptions of the food she makes, from crispy Yorkshire puddings to an unfortunate yet delicious sounding curry, and I also very much enjoy her rationalisation for doing what she does. “Cooking satisfies my creative instincts, and there’s something in me that really revels in clearing up mess,” she says. She’s brainy and highly educated but also good at baking: one can’t help feeling that Christie, who never go to have much formal education at all and whose domestic life was far from conventional for her time, might be indulging in a bit of a personal fantasy.
Lucy is the ultimate competent woman. She tracks down murderers and feeds hungry schoolboys with equivalent aplomb. Best of all, she seems to enjoy herself. Indeed, this is what all of these characters have in common, along with their doughty personalities and their desire for adventure. After dozens of stories, there’s never much sense that a recurring sleuth like Poirot or Marple gets much of a thrill from what they do — they more often act out of necessity, because they’ve been employed, or because it feels like the moral thing to do. Lucy Eyelesbarrow, though, takes up detective work because it sounds like fun and proceeds to enjoy it to the full. Who wouldn’t want to do the same?
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/competentwomen. There, you can also read a full transcript.
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I’ll be back on 11 December with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Let It Snow.