Dylan’s Whodunnits Transcript

Guy: Golden Age detective fiction is known for its accessibility, its readability, its language that is immediately understandable: it doesn’t require you to spend time studying what the language means – you focus instead on trying to solve the murder. But at the same time, during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, modern poetry was often the very opposite — complex, obscure, difficult.

The poetry and detective fiction were written in the same period but they seem to be worlds apart. And yet some of those poets were at home in both of these literary worlds. Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, was one of those. Indeed, Dylan Thomas was a great devourer of detective fiction. Let’s delve into Dylan and detective stories.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Guy Cuthbertson, a professor of literature and culture, but more importantly, I’m also Caroline’s husband.


To begin at the beginning, Dylan Thomas was born in 1914 in Swansea, the town Thomas called ‘ugly, lovely’ situated on a beautiful bay, where industrial Wales meets wild Wales. He grew up there during the Golden Age of detective fiction. He later recalled the many interests of him and his Swansea pals, including ‘free love, free beer, murder, Michelangelo, pingpong, ambition, Sibelius, and girls’. Incidentally, an early girlfriend of his was Pamela Hansford Johnson who would write detective fiction together with her husband under the name Nap Lombard — the Shedunnit Book Club read their 1943 novel Murder’s A Swine back in November 2021.

Thomas moved to London then Cornwall and married Caitlin Macnamara in 1937. The couple lived in many places, including Oxfordshire, but they are most associated with Laugharne in Wales, where they lived at the Boat House and we wrote and read in a separate writing shed overlooking the estuaries.

If anywhere is Dylan country, though, it is Swansea where seagulls fight on the unconvincing Dylan Thomas statue and tourists tire themselves out walking up the hill to his birthplace. For a brief happy period, I taught a Dylan Thomas course at Swansea University – I have my guest today, John Goodby, to thank for that opportunity. John, a poet and renowned expert on Dylan Thomas, was on a sabbatical, so I stepped into that English department, that nest of singing birds. John is now Professor of Arts and Culture at Sheffield Hallam University – he’s editor of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, and author and editor of several books on Thomas, including a co-authored biography which is to be published in November 2024.

There were lots of stories about his addiction to reading detective novels. His daughter spoke about having to take train journeys with him where he would sit in a separate carriage and hide himself away with his Agatha Christie novels and his sweets.

And his wife spoke about having to hide his detective novels from him in order to make him do some work.

Could you begin by outlining Dylan Thomas’s interest in detective fiction?

John: Yes, certainly. To the examples you’ve just added, we could add the fact that he liked eating Dolly mixtures in the bath and reading Agatha Christie at the same time as well.

I think the point to start is the omnivorousness of his reading. He read horror fiction, he read gothic fiction, he read thrillers, he read magazines about film, about jazz, he read classical literature in translation, he read and re-read Dickens. He had an interest in just about everything. Popular science, you name it, he was munching his way through it.

And detective fiction just happened to be one of his favourite genres, I think. The consumption. And when he went to London in 1934, the end of 1934, and was hard up, he got a job basically reviewing the new imprints: horror, thriller, and detective fiction, spy fiction as well, that was supplied to him by Geoffrey Grigson, and he was reviewing for the Morning Post.

And this is how he hoped at least to partly fund his life in London, his existence. It wasn’t so much the fee that he was paid, but because these books were first edition hardbacks, once you’d done the review, they were yours and you could take them off to a kind of secondhand bookshop and sell them.

So you cashed in the review copy and that was one of the ways he hoped to make a living. He fell out with Grigson, so that didn’t last for very long, maybe a couple of years until the late thirties. But fiction, detective fiction rather crops up throughout his life. We know that he read other authors, you know, from the golden age period.

And also he had an interest in the more hardboiled kind of American genre of fiction. I came across an article called Idioms, which was to broadcast it, but it’s a contrast between American idioms and English idioms. And a lot of the American idioms, which he’s very, very fond of, obviously derived from reading the hardboiled version of detective fiction.

Chandler, Hammett, and so on. I mean, I could give you an example. There’s a poetry. There’s a sort of poetry in those phrases, about as subtle as a belt in the beezer with a baseball bat, but all the same tough and alive and inventive. And what can be lower than a snake’s chin? And who can be barmier than someone who’s nutty as a fruitcake?

You could put that screwball in the bug house any day. Americans, who think anyway that most of the English are flat tires and dim bulbs, blah faced and pickle pussed, and are always putting on the dog, say that nothing gives them a hoarser horse laugh than to hear an Englishman try to use American slang.

So, there’s that kind of interest in American slang, which I think comes from his love of American pulp fiction, particularly detective fiction. He was into science fiction as well. You know, just about every genre, to come back to your initial question. And he had an interest in the evolution of the genre as well.

Maybe I’ll read that out later, which is a passage in a review of an Eric Ambler spy novel in 1939, in which he deliberately goes off piste, as it were, to spend most of the article discussing the future of detective fiction. So he had a continuous interest in it. It was part of his omnivorousness, but it was one of his particular favourites.

And he actually contributes in genres. I’m sure you’ll know.

Guy: So part of that interest, actually, by the sounds of it is a linguistic one. He seems to be really interested in the language that’s being used in these genres.

John: I think so. Yeah. I mean, there are phrases like you know, Americanisms, like “on the lamb,” that he will use in his poetry.

They’re difficult to detect sometimes because his poetry is pitched at a very high level, and it doesn’t use everyday words, but there are poems which are about film, for example, and the film that Thomas is interested in are American gangster movies, cowboy films, and detective films.

Guy: So he’s also the author or co author of The Death of the King’s Canary, which is a detective novel of a kind.

Could you tell us about that book?

John: Yes, sure. This was a kind of joint, it was always a joint project for Thomas. He initially meant to write it with somebody who was a school friend and a fellow journalist on the Swansea Evening Post when he was a journalist in his late teens, Charlie Fisher, that fell through and he, he was very enamored of the idea still and he kept it and took it to other people and eventually it ended up with his friend John Davenport.

He stayed at Davenport’s house during the summer of 1940, the summer of the Battle of Britain, when they spent a lot of the time actually trying to craft this thing, The Death of the King’s Canary, which was never published. Partly because it was too libellous. It was felt that there would be lawsuits if it was ever published.

And so it didn’t finally come out until 1972 or 73, I think. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, but it does contain a series of spoofs and pastiches of various leading poets at the time. So the setup is this. The King’s Canary is the Poet Laureate, and the novel, a very short novel really, it’s only about 100 pages long, but then again it’s incomplete, opens with the Prime Minister having the job of selecting the new Poet Laureate, and you read through a series of verse collections, and there then follow a series of spoof poems by various poets of the time have been given pseudonyms, so Hilary Bird, for example, who becomes the new Poet Laureate, he’s the one who’s chosen, is C. Day Lewis. Albert Ponting is George Barker, Wyndham Snowden is W. H. Auden, Christopher Garvin is Stephen Spender, and Thomas works himself in there: Tudor Owen. These are all considered by the PM and he plumps for Hilary Bird, and then the novel moves to the classic setting of a country house murder mystery.

Hilary Bird is throwing a huge weekend party at his house in the country to celebrate becoming the laureate. And all sorts of hijinks and weird characters are brought in. There’s a dope smoking butler, for example. Various substances are doing the rounds. Everybody gets drunk. Bad speeches are being made, poems are being declaimed, people are going off into bedrooms with each other.

Eventually, a circus turns up and sort of camps in the grounds, and at the very end of the novel, Hilary, the new poet laureate, is discovered smiling with a knife through his throat. He’s been murdered. And this is really where the novel should take off. It’s the last page, that’s the last sentence. So really they never got round to writing it.

It’s all set up the first hundred pages and it doesn’t go any further. So it’s a fascinating little piece. I mean, it doesn’t really cohere. I got the feeling that you’d better if Thomas himself had done it. His collaborative efforts weren’t that great. But he did get to write these pastiches of various poets, and some of them are very good.

So they are the highlights. Unfortunately, they come at the very beginning. The rest of the novel, in a way, is downhill from there.

Guy: So it’s a crime novel because it’s got a murder in it, but it’s not actually got a detective, because the detective hasn’t turned up.

John: Not got a detective. No, that’s right.

Absolutely right. I think the police will be sent for, you know, on the unwritten next page.

Guy: So there’s a book from 1967 called Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice, which calls itself “23 Stories of Crime, Mystery and Detection by World Famous Poets, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dylan Thomas.” And the Dylan Thomas there is a story, which they call “The Old Woman Upstairs.” In a note, it says originally “The True Story.” It’s a very short story, but we’re told by Ellery Queen that Thomas exposes a brutal murder. Could you tell us about that?

John: Well, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, Guy, True Story, it’s been mislabeled by Ellery Queen or his publishers in order to go on an American audience, I think. This story actually, it was unpublished in Thomas’s lifetime. It’s one of his very early short stories from something called The Red Notebook, which he compiled in 1934, a kind of record of all the short stories he wrote in that year. And it was originally titled Martha, and entered in the notebook on the 22nd of January, 1934.

And it is just a very short story, which is really a kind of psychodrama more than anything else. A girl who is a carer for an old lady up in her bedroom is frustrated, sexually frustrated, she’s socially frustrated, and she sees her way out as murdering the old woman; there’s presumably some kind of legacy.

Eventually, she does that, and she tries to co opt the serving boy who works in the house. with her by offering sexual favors. At this point, he runs away. And she, who has had a dream of flying throughout the short story, then jumps out of the window. So, it’s not a straightforward word of mystery story, let alone an exposure of a brutal crime.

This is how it ends. So Helen must fly, she said to herself. Fly out of the old woman’s room. She opened the window wider and stepped out. I am flying, she said, but she was not flying.

Guy: I think he’s somebody who never quite became a crime writer as such in the way that maybe some of the other poets we might look at became, but he’s somebody who’s playing with the idea and playing with crime and detection in order to create something uniquely Dylan Thomas, I suspect.

He also worked as a screenwriter though, was any of his work for the cinema, crime drama or whodunits, does it fit into that genre?

John: Yes, I think the closest he gets to proper crime fiction would be in his film scripts, that would be the closest. So, The Three Weird Sisters. It’s set in Wales, and it’s about, a wealthy, rather nasty coal magnate who becomes ill in his sister’s house and it transpires that the sisters have basically tried to bump him off and they try various methods so there’s poison going on and there’s straightforward attack going on. They all misfire and in the end, it’s very melodramatic, the house collapses killing the three sisters. But leaving the nasty magnate still alive, with his secretary, who he plans to marry, of course, his young secretary.

So, that’s The Three Weird Sisters, but still a rather weird Welsh murder mystery. Then there’s The Beach at Falesá, which is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson fiction. And again, I’m not quite sure how this would fit, but it does end with multiple murders. You know, there are several murders. There’s a sort of crazed missionary, and there are traders, and there’s a lot of tension on the South Sea island, and it ends up in several murders.

And then I think the best candidate or, you know, a fully fledged crime or murder mystery would be The Doctor and the Devils. This is a fully worked out script which was actually published as a book, published in book form. I think it was a year before Thomas’s death. It was well reviewed and it’s based on the Burke and Hare grave robbing cases in Edinburgh in the 1820s.

It’s very Dickensian and very gothic. It has a Dr. Rock at the centre of it. He is the anatomist who is trying to improve the loss of humanity, but confuses ends and means and ends up as it were encouraging grave robbers to murder. You imagine David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, it would have had that kind of atmosphere.

You know, we wonder where Dylan Thomas would have gone at the time of his death in 1953. And I think this is one of the directions he might have taken. The British film industry took a bit of a dip in the late forties, but if he’d hung around a bit longer, these films would have been made. And he was being paid far more from them, obviously, than writing poems or even doing the odd script for BBC.

And he’s stuck at film writing from 1942 through to about 1949. It’s just one of those ‘might have beens’ that surrounds Dylan Thomas. But as I say, it’s the most fully fledged version of a crime fiction that he ever wrote.

Guy: He’s clearly somebody who’s working in film, he’s interested in detective fiction.

In fact, from what you say, he’s interested in all sorts of popular literature and popular culture. But he’s also a poet who’s regarded as being difficult, often. Someone who’s complex, someone who needs to be deciphered. As such, it might be seen as something very different from detective fiction. But is there a connection between the poetry and detective fiction and the idea of being a reader of detective fiction?

Is there some connection perhaps in the idea of mystery or puzzle?

John: Yeah, I think there is. Many modernist writers were interested in crime fiction and murder mysteries and so on. It wasn’t just Dylan Thomas. That period, the 1920s and 30s, was the golden age of such fiction. And I think there is a connection.

I mean, if you look at “The Waste Land,” for example, you could treat that as a kind of murder mystery, with plenty of clues in the end notes, never enough to really solve the mystery. And I think that whole idea of something hidden that has to be uncovered, which is there in a poem like “The Waste Land,” is there in Thomas as well.

Thomas makes you work. He makes you sweat, doesn’t he? For a sense in the poem, and that’s part of the fun. It’s part of the game. So you, as a reader of, you know, a poet like Dylan Thomas, are put in the position of a sleuth, of a gumshoe, if you like, a literary gumshoe, who has to kind of unravel the clues and trace out the the lines of arguments of illusion and reference and try to assemble something.

And his poems do that over and over again. I mean, you mentioned puzzles, and another thing that Thomas was very interested in, and clearly quite good at, because he did them regularly, was crossword puzzles. And again the golden age of the crossword puzzle, birth of the crossword puzzle, is the late 1920s and into the 1930s.

He did the Times and the Telegraph crosswords with his father later in life, every day, virtually, at one point. So, this was something else that he was interested in. Making the reader think about language is, in a way, imposing a labor of detection on the reader. I think it runs through, although they’re very different poets, it runs through Eliot, it runs through W. H. Auden. And it’s there in Thomas as well, very much so. You can’t make a direct connection, I don’t think you could say, well, here’s a poem that is actually set out like a murder mystery. But you can say that there is a similarity of work being placed upon the reader to get something out of this particular text.

I mean, Thomas would go out of his way sometimes to say something about detective fiction. There’s a review of an Eric Ambler spy novel that he wrote for the New English Weekly, 1938, where he goes away from the review in order to say something about the state of detective fiction at the time. It does actually bear on The Death of the King’s Canary because in writing about The Death of the King’s Canary he uses some of the language in this review.

So this is what he has to say:

“It has been realised lately by a few writers, English Anthony Berkeley for instance and American McCabe, that the detective story, the story where all is knocks above the belt, which has at least two murders and four suspects, which lays out its clues fairly, which introduces no Chinamen, secret passages, missing wills, or marriage licenses, holy relics stolen from Eastern tombs, or supernatural agency, has reached a last sterile point of efficiency. More than new tricks are needed to save a detective story from a lengthy suicide, more than new variations on the old thing ‘who did it’, more than new types of detectives, and certainly more than style. It has been realised that all the cramping rules must be broken. That the ideas of good taste and clean play must be done away with.

That the day of the individual detective, good or bad, official, unofficial, dictatorial, non committal, painstaking, lackadaisical, intuitive, scientific, is over. Holmes, Thorndyke, Poirot, Hanno, Wimsey, Watson, Kourados, Travers, Sheringham, Masters, Warp, Story, Branch, Carter, Pointer, Vance, Mason, Mayo. Death in the library, the house party, or the sealed room has been done to death.

The surprise has gone out of the surprising discovery that the murder is, as one expected, the last person one would expect. We know too well the first person, or Ackroyd, murderer, And we have grown tired of the kind of story that begins, ‘On December 25th, I decided to kill auntie’. Just as the straight modern novel needs formal tightening, So the modern detective story should be formally loosened up.

To the devil and the book clubs with rules and good tastes. Let the detection, if necessary, be wild and woolly. The clues be faked or withheld. The red herrings be whales. And, as a final insult to the conventions, let the murderer turn out to be, on the last page, an entire stranger who hasn’t appeared in the story at all. I’m indebted to Mr. Cyril Connolly for this last suggestion.”

Guy: So we’re still deep in the golden age of detective fiction at that point, but he’s already seeing it as a genre that is in need of change and which has run out of ideas by that point.

John: I think so, and yet he still continues to read Agatha Christie, who’s the chief target, I’d say, of that diatribe.

And then it goes on that the detective story has become snug and self satisfied, is being realized slowly, and a few writers are attempting to liberate it and to use what is basically a very fine medium with humour, experimental violence, and no respect. And I think because this comes just before the collaboration with Davenport on King’s Canary. You could see it as, in some ways, a sort of response to his dissatisfaction with the standard English Golden Age detective story.

And then he goes on to make a recommendation I should like here to recommend to anybody fed up with the usual sort of mechanical crime fiction, a book which came out a few years ago, but which attracted too little attention, Laurence Vail’s Murder! Murder!. Now I’ve tried to track that one down and I can’t find it.

It’s not in Barry Foreshaw’s Crime Fiction, A Reader’s Guide, which is pretty comprehensive. So it’s pretty recherché and he must have been doing quite a lot of reading I think to have come across it.

Guy: So, all I do know is that Laurence Vail was an artist and I think he was married to Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector, and it might be a reflection of the difficulties of their marriage.

But like you say, it is a book that’s completely disappeared. So it’s just interesting that Dylan Thomas has picked a book that seemingly nobody else picked because it’s never been in print again, as far as I can see.

John: Yeah, I think so. I mean, he read omnivorously and he read continually, despite the stories of him spending most of his time in pubs.

And, I think detective fiction was one of the two or three favourite genres

Guy: That might lead us interestingly to thinking about Philip Larkin, a slightly later poet — although he was a poet of the 1940s, he became much better known from the 1950s onwards — because he wrote, for instance, an essay called “The Pleasure Principle” in which he complains about poetry, having essentially ceased to think about pleasure. He was an avid reader of detective fiction, but he has this sense that poetry during the course of the 20th century moves away from being the equivalent or the natural bedfellow of detective fiction or the cinema and moves into another world, which is the world of the classroom, the world of the university, so that poetry becomes something to be studied, not just to be consumed for pleasure in the way that Dylan Thomas was consuming detective novels and sweets.

I mean, Larkin probably blames Eliot and Ezra Pound most of all for that. But does Larkin’s analysis make sense? I mean, Dylan Thomas surely disrupts that because he might be a difficult poet, but he’s also a poet who is certainly interested in pleasure and has provided a great deal of pleasure to many people.

John: Yeah, in some ways, he’s an exception that proves the rule, isn’t he, Thomas? And that’s one of the reasons why he’s still quite an anomalous figure, difficult to deal with, difficult to place in any particular canon. But to go back to Larkin, I mean, we’re academics ourselves, and yet we would surely agree that the academicization of poetry has not necessarily been a good thing.

We’d agree with Larkin. Did you not mention at one point being ragged by hordes of little elitists? I think that’s not quite the quote, but you know what he means. Poets are being absorbed into the academy anyway, at the moment, because one of the few places where they can make a kind of regular crust is by becoming creative writing tutors.

So that’s another twist, which I’m sure Larkin would have had something to say about. I take his point in that essay. But, as poetry’s language and interests have become more and more straightened and focused and have had to draw more on experimental traditions, because that’s been the dominant kind of movement in the 20th century, so they’ve become alienated from a popular reader.

Again, that’s a cliché, but we know what Larkin’s talking about. Byron sold 13,000 copies, didn’t he, of a book of poems in two days and worked to become famous, as he put it. And Tennyson could rely on tens of thousands of sales of some of his rather turgid epics. So yeah, the 19th century did see poetry still enjoying popular, almost mass, circulation status.

And so he’s banging on in the pleasure principle about the student audience and the circularity of it. The poet writes. He’s interpreted. Students write about it. It all goes round in a kind of vicious circle, I think.

Guy: I think he refers to the dutiful mob that signs on each September as the new audience for poetry, isn’t it?

It’s students.

John: Yeah, and the whole thing is terribly ironic, isn’t it? Because he was a university librarian. So his own basis, you know, his own living was based in the student mob signing on every September. He wants to have his cake and eat it. The movement modernism dichotomy says that you can’t really have both, you have to choose, doesn’t it?

And I think this is what Larkin’s dilemma there is; there’s a mainstream there, and there’s an avant garde, and poets are going to be pulled between them. You mentioned Thomas, the anomalousness of Thomas is due to the fact that he inhabits both of those, not necessarily at the same time, but in different time periods of his career, certainly.

So “Fern Hill,” for example, has voted the fourth most popular poem on poetry please at one point. He’s also written “Altarwise by Owl Light,” which gives “The Wasteland” a run for its money in terms of obscurity. So he does seem to have his cake and eat it, albeit at different times in his career, and therefore suffers from it.

I think Larkin’s articulating the same kind of dilemma in a different way in that essay. I think Larkin also understands the dilemma as it was posed to Thomas, because although he goes along with Kingsley Amis, who had a real downer on Thomas’s work, and parodies and lampoons him in at least two novels, I think, and writes about his poetry being a form of, you know, being sick in the sink at one point.

You should have stuck to spewing beer, not ink, I think is the specific line. Although he goes along with Amos in his correspondence, in secret you can tell he’s actually still in love with Thomas, who was a stylistic model for some of his early poetry. And when it comes to putting the Oxford book of English verse together, he includes loads of Thomas in it.

So I think he’s aware of this sort of split, this cleavage that runs down the middle of a lot of 20th century British poetry, but he doesn’t know how to resolve it. Who does?

Guy: Yeah, I certainly think Larkin’s got a lot of admiration for Dylan Thomas. As somebody who manages to. A much wider audience through poetry than most of the more obscure poets of the 20th century, someone who also got to live the life that he wanted to live in a sense and didn’t have to become a university librarian, I suppose.

And would have been a fairly terrible one if he’d ever been forced into that job. But yes, Larkin’s a very interesting case because he does go on to be a very popular poet and people got quite puzzled when he repeatedly referred to enjoying detective fiction. They thought he was joking. They made assumptions that as a poet, he must have very highbrow tastes.

So when he talked about liking Dick Francis and Gladys Mitchell and so forth, they thought he was doing it in order to just make a joke or annoy people. But I think he genuinely did enjoy reading those books and Dylan Thomas has, seems to genuinely enjoyed reading detective fiction and you can do both.

You can write very difficult, complex poetry and also enjoy reading a thriller in the bath. And Larkin was at home with that idea and liked the fact that you didn’t have to just simply choose one side or the other.

John: Absolutely. I think they’re both ahead of their time in that sense. I mean, it’s the 21st century now and we don’t balk so much at a high art-low art crossovers and probably would have used terms like high arts and low arts, but in the mid 20th century there was still that distinction and it was seen as a huge chasm by most people, I mean the terms lowbrow, midbrow, highbrow, come in specifically in order to try and categorize that sort of issue.

But now, film, games, and so on, popular culture generally avidly feeds off the high arts and vice versa. You know, you look at Philip Guston’s great paintings, for example, which are cartoonish. You could take hundreds of examples, thousands of examples of musical composers, visual artists, writers who will use popular culture.

Maybe the 60s was the turning point, which was too late for Larkin, famously, you know, 1963. He had to wait for sex to begin, and he’d been formed in the period before that. And Dylan Thomas didn’t live to see it. He died 10 years before 1963 and The Beatles’ first LP. So, you know, I think this is maybe a hinge on which the relationship between high art and low art turns.

And they weren’t formed in time to take advantage of it, but they were prophets in a sense of that coming crossover. I mean, Dylan Thomas does appear on the cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, designed by Peter Blake. There’s another good example of that sort of crossover, that pop artist.

Guy: And he’s the person that Bob Dylan took his name from as well, if that’s true.

John: I think it is true. Yeah. I can’t see any other source because of the way it’s spelt partly. So he’s definitely trying to cash in on the popularity of Thomas in late fifties, early sixties America when, you know, his LPs were selling, I think he sold about 400,000 by the 10th anniversary of his death, 400,000 LPs, which would have kept him in beer and cigarettes pretty easily if he’d managed to live past 1953. Wouldn’t have had as many financial worries as he suffered during his life. And yeah, I think Robert Zimmerman did pick up on that and use it. And Thomas went mainstream and in a different way, 1960s. Although again, you know, it was already there in an embryo even at the time of his death. He’s probably the only poet who’s had an obituary and Daily Mirror and the Times.

Guy: Dylan Thomas achieved great fame, he became a cultural phenomenon, as famous as Agatha Christie. Interestingly, After the Funeral is the name of a famous poem by Thomas and a famous novel by Agatha Christie: Thomas came first. Thomas’s poem was begun in 1933, and published The Map Of Love in 1939, 14 years before Christie’s novel which was published a few months before Thomas died in New York aged only 39.

We should also remember the ‘play for voices’ “Under Milk Wood” with the cobblestreets and ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, ‘fishingboatbobbing sea’. Llareggub has fewer than five hundred residents – it’s a backwater but its inhabitants possess a salty individuality of their own. Murderous thoughts in a small remote quaint community of strange individuals is the premise for many a detective story, a good number of which Thomas read.

There is a murder story of a kind in Under Milk Wood, among the small community of unusual characters, because Mr Pugh reads a book called Lives of the Great Poisoners, and dreams of killing his wife.

“Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr Pugh minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mrs Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel.”
“Sly and silent, he foxes into his chemist’s den and there, in a hiss and prussic circle of cauldrons and phials brimful with pox and the Black Death, cooks up a fricassee of deadly nightshade, nicotine, hot frog, cyanide and bat-spit for his needling stalactite hag and bednag of a pokerbacked nutcracker wife.”

All of Thomas’s own forays into detective fiction seem unusual or unfulfilled: the book reviewing that didn’t last long – characterised by Geoffrey Grigson as misreviewing with a gay improbable wordage – the incomplete Death of the King’s Canary which ends at the very point when the murder happens, the piece called True Story, which is very short, and involves no detection, uncategorisable film scripts that often didn’t become films, and Under Milk Wood where the murder is elaborately imagined but never takes place.

Had he
lived longer perhaps Thomas would have finished Death of the King’s Canary — which was supposed to be the detective story to end detective stories — or perhaps he would have written a more serious detective novel. But writing a detective novel is harder work than reading one, and reading them was a distraction. As his wife said, ‘He loved detective stories. If ever I went up past the shed and heard no sound from within, I knew he was reading: he always read if he couldn’t work’.

I wonder how many great poems were never written because of his addiction to Agatha Christie? And like detective fiction his poetry is full of killing and dying. Dylan Thomas is a great poet of death, with famous poems like:

“Deaths and Entrances”
“Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”
“And Death Shall Have no Dominion”
“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”


“Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred”

His radio broadcast Return Journey ends with six deads:

‘Dead … Dead … Dead … Dead … Dead … Dead.’

This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Guy Cuthbertson, and produced Caroline Crampton. My guest was John Goodby.

You can find a full list of the books we mentioned in this episode at shedunnitshow.com/dylanswhodunnits. We publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. John and I recorded much more discussion than we were able to fit in this episode: if you’d like to hear the bonus episode that contains the rest of our conversation, including details about poet detective novelists and fans like Cecil Day Lewis and W.H. Auden, become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

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