Caroline: With detective novels from the 1920s or 1930s, I’m always conscious of the distance between when it was written and when I’m reading it. Not that I think you need to be immersed in the historical context to enjoy a murder mystery, that’s not it at all. Part of what makes these stories and characters so enduringly popular is how mobile they are. For the best of them, the process of working out whodunnit is as fun in 2020 as it was in 1930.
But reading them now is a different experience. The world has changed, and I’m not part of the reading public that Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers imagined that they were addressing when they put pen to paper all those decades ago. But what if we could hear from someone who grew up through the twentieth century alongside these books, reading them as they came out? That would really be something, wouldn’t it?
And that’s why, today, we’re going to hear from Renée.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Renée: I don’t know if you know anything about me, but I went out to work when I was 12 and where I was working I was closer to a large library, a city library.
Caroline: This is Renée. She was born in the town of Napier on the North Island of New Zealand in 1929. Her life was touched by death early on — when she was four years old, Renée’s father had shot himself, seemingly completely out of the blue. In her memoir These Two Hands, she quotes from a contemporary newspaper account of his death, which makes this inexplicable family tragedy sound rather like something from a 1930s murder mystery. It says:
“Stanley George Howard Jones left his home, ostensibly to go to Napier, purchased a .22 rifle there, caught a service car to Palmerston North and his body was found lying on the railway embankment in Wellington. How he covered the last stages of his journey – from Palmerston North to Wellington – is unknown. Beside his body were two unopened bottles of ale and in his pocket a broken glass.”
The death of Renée’s father completely changed her life, as you might expect, but in a way it also lead her to the literature that she still loves today. That awful event irrevocably altered her mother, and it put an end to any hope Renée might have had of staying in education. Because, when she was 12 years old, her mother told her that she needed to get a job to help pay for her two younger siblings to go to high school.
Renée lied and told prospective employers that she was 15, and secured herself work at a nearby woollen mill.
Part of the reason that she had wanted to study more was to do with her love of reading — something that she had inherited from her mother.
Renée: My mother was a great reader and and she read voraciously and and she taught me to read before I was five. And so I began reading her library books when I was about 10 because I got sick of Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables and books like that. I was a little bit supercilious about them, I think. Now I appreciate them probably more, at least I see the hard work involved in them, but with my mother’s books, which I read almost as quickly as she did. But of course, not quickly enough before she took them back.
Caroline: Working 40 hours a week in a factory at the age of 12 isn’t the childhood that characters in books generally get to have. But for Renée, it did have some benefits in terms of independence in what she got to read. Her work was near the bigger city library, and that mattered.
Renée: And so I used to go there in my lunch hour. And so a lot of the crime novels that I read, but not being able to read the end because my mother took them back to the library before I’d finished, I was then able to finish.
Caroline: Perhaps the most significant literary encounter that Renée had around this time was with the 1935 novel Gaudy Night.
Renée: Dorothy Sayers has always been my favourite because I think she can write as well, and she sort of talks about things that caught my attention. She talks about what a marriage should be, that a woman should be allowed to work in all of this. You know, follow her own career. Those kinds of things, which I really as a young girl, I was about 11 when I read first Gaudy Night. And that really interested me for some reason, which I don’t understand, because I was quite young, but I guess I was reading Vera Brittain as well. And Rebecca West.
Caroline: Now, long time listeners to this podcast will know how much I love this book too. It’s a mystery novel — although not a murder mystery, because it’s more of poison pen plot — but it’s also a treatise about love and relationships and work and how women can exist between them all. When I was talking to Renée, we had so much in common when we spoke about how this book had shaped us, even though she is 91 and read the book quite soon after it came out, and I’m 32 and read it decades after Sayers had died. But we’re both equally captivated by it, and return to it often.
Renée: I’m so pleased that it’s just so nice to know because I don’t know anyone else who really does that. And there’s something about you fall into that book that because it was the first one I read, I fell into it. And I don’t think I’ve ever quite come out.
Gaudy Night, and the other detective novels of this time that Renée devoured at the library, offered her a glimpse of a completely alien world. Here she was, a girl not yet in her teens who was working full time in a mill in New Zealand to help support her family, and on the pages of these whodunnits were lives and places that were completely unrecognisable to her.
Renée: I was like a little Gulliver looking in these strange new worlds. I mean, there were places that had a butler and maids and all those sorts of things which I had never entered my as sort of little world. And then Sayers’s Gaudy Night was the first novel I read of hers and she was at Oxford and which was fascinating for me, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know what a proctor was. For example, I found some of the terms quite difficult. But I was young. And so I just read it mainly for the pleasure and the surprise of hearing people, adult people actually talk about poetry or literature. And none of which I knew. But it was just another idea that that’s that could be a part of conversation was a. A really nice thing. I liked it.
Caroline: Around the same time that Renée was immersing herself in the world of Sayers like this, she had a very fortunate encounter with a neighbour that set her on the path to a greater understanding of the literary world.
Renée: When I was going to work one day, I must have been about 13. I was walking to the bus, a new couple had come to live in our street and the man walked to the bus at the same time as me, caught the same bus. And he was English. And he wore tweed coat and he carried a briefcase and he was well-dressed and stuff like that. And we either walked, I walked ahead of him or he walked behind me. And we both walked very quickly. And one day he came up alongside me and he’d noticed on the bus that as soon as I got on the bus, I sat down and opened a book and read. And so he said to me, You like reading? And I didn’t really know how to speak to adults. And so I just said yes. And he said, what do you like reading? And I said something ridiculous, like books. He was meaning the writers, I guess. And then he said to me. And this was the thing. He said, My mother sends me copies of John O’London’s Weekly, when I finished with them, would you like to look at them? Would you like to read them? So I said yes. I didn’t even know what he meant. But from then on, on different days, he would give me a copy of the latest John O’London. Well, the latest New Zealand copy of it. And so I read. You know, everything, every word on the pages. And I discovered that people wrote reviews about books and all those sorts of things. My eyes were totally opened like they were opened the first time I read Gaudy Night. And so I began to have a little bit of background, so I read some of the writers in them. So guess I had that. As well. And every time I reread Gaudy Night, say, I had more. I brought more to it because I understood more about the literary scene in Britain. You know?
Caroline: If Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night had cracked open the door to the literary world a little, then this kind stranger pushed it a little wider for her.
Renée: And because adults, well, I don’t know what they’re like now, they’re probably better now with children. But I mean, even though I going to work, I was still a child, really. And but in those days, they didn’t really bother. And no one else, apart from my mother, I didn’t know anyone else who read so voraciously as we did. And yet here was this man, a grown man. You know, I don’t know how old he was, say, thirties and he was thinking highly enough of reading to hand me a weekly. There aren’t any other circumstances I would never, ever have seen. It just wasn’t in my, we were working class, poor people, you know, it just wouldn’t have been in the lexicon of my life. And, yeah, so that was a lovely thing to have happened. And that is why I grew to know some of the writers, or at least know their work.
Caroline: When Renée was in her late teens, she met Laurie, an apprentice mechanic. They were married for 31 years, during which time Renée worked, had children, finished her education and gained a degree from Auckland University. Like Dorothy L. Sayers, she loved the theatre, and found inspiration in it.
Renée: I did about 25 years and community theatre. And then I started writing plays and some of that. And I did a lot of feminist revues. We travelled around and some of the plays that I wrote. I mean, all of them were, they had productions, but some of them have had lasted. And one in particular is a highly regarded piece.
Caroline: She’s referring here to her 1985 play Wednesday to come, which looks at the experiences of a family during the 1930s Depression in New Zealand and features three generations of women. Her first play, Setting the table, is dated to 1981, which is also the year that Renée left her husband Laurie for the woman that she had fallen in love with. She writes about this turning point in her life in her memoir as if it is a scene in a play, assigning dialogue to herself and Laurie as if they are characters she had created. During the 1970s, she had become very involved in feminist organising, and she is often now described as “a lesbian feminist with working class ideals” — a bio that she goes along with, even if she didn’t choose it herself.
After the break: Renée takes on the Queen of New Zealand crime fiction, Ngaio Marsh.
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Renée read many of the great crime novels as they were coming out. Her mother was an Agatha Christie fan, so the latest Christie often turned up in their house from the library when she was a child.
With the exception of Sayers, who didn’t publish any more full length crime novels after Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937, the other three queens of crime — that is Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham — all carried on putting out whodunnits throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. Seeing their writing develop and the detective novel itself alter as the world changed has been a great joy to her.
Renée: It’s one of the pleasures of following the same writer, isn’t it, to see how from their first novel over time how, well, I guess there’s an assurance isn’t there that comes with if you sell well and you get some good reviews and people enjoy your work, then there’s a certain assurance that benefits the writing, isn’t there?
Caroline: Before I spoke to Renée, I took it for granted that she would be a big Ngaio Marsh fan. After all, to the rest of the world and certainly to those interested in crime fiction, Ngaio Marsh is one of the most famous writers to come out of New Zealand. Marsh was also a very enthusiastic participant in the theatrical world, so I felt sure that Renée would be a disciple.
But once I’d got to know Renée a little, I realised that I should have known better. I highly doubt that Renée has ever been predictable, and therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she has her problems with Marsh’s writing.
Renée: Some of them are quite, well, crude’s the wrong word, but what I mean as crude in the way they put together or in the puzzle or both, and certainly. Like some of the characters are just kind of, there’s nothing really to them is there, they’re just little walk ons that she like little puppets she pushes on. In a Ngaio Marsh, they’re all very restrained and. Yeah, just seemed unlike real life to me. But maybe it was for her. I don’t know. Yeah. As we say before, anyway, she she was inclined to be to keep things under wraps. She was very restrained and she kept a real rein on herself where emotions were concerned. I sort of feel there a bit. Now, I do know you can sort of see or at least I think I can see her restraint. Was she kept a real grip on her own emotions. And so her characters seemed to do the same, perhaps.
Caroline: An awful lot of detective fiction from the 1920s and 30s is focused on posh people — that’s where that old cliche about the genre, that it’s “snobbery with violence” is rooted. For Renée, some of that comes out more strongly in Ngaio Marsh’s work than it does in that of other authors, although her positions clearly develop over her career.
Renée: Ngaio Marsh is quite slavishly adoring of the British upper classes and. Yes, and all of them. Didn’t do well with working class characters. That was it. And as a child, of course, I didn’t really know what a lot. I didn’t know what a manor house was.
Caroline: Renée has recently acquired a new perspective on crime writing, because at the end of her ninth decade she wrote her own detective novel. As a result, she’s been delving a little more deeply into modern crime fiction rather than revisiting favourites from decades past, and noted some important differences.
Renée: I’ve read two books recently who’ve been which have been highly lauded, and I can see why, but I just couldn’t I couldn’t finish them because they involve a kind of torture of a young woman. And I couldn’t I just can’t do it. And also I find now that I’m old as well, quite a few people start their books with the murder of an old woman. Have you noticed that? Well, perhaps I’m just noticing that because I’m old. And I just immediately don’t want to read on. I just think it’s a kind of trope and who cares? It gives me that impression. So, yes, I think there’s something, I don’t know what the word is, is it fairer about Sayers and Christie and all those? You know, that they were a little bit more general in their crimes and maybe we didn’t get the gory details that maybe are expected now.
Caroline: Renée’s novel, The Wild Card, is a story that encompasses several of its author’s main interests. Its heroine is Ruby, a thirty something woman trying to solve the mystery of her friend Betty’s death two decades before. To do so, she must investigate the children’s home where they both grew up, and that means delving into the systemic racism that Māori children in state care have long faced. Renee, who on her mother’s side is of Māori descent, wove topical issues of New Zealand’s bicultural heritage into her book as well as exploring feminist themes. Plus, Ruby is also involved in an amateur theatre company, so there’s a nod to her theatrical experience in there as well.
Renée: It’s really sort of cosy in a way that the crime is historical. And so it’s a matter of finding out who was responsible for that. And, of course, it’s got theatre in it, running through it. The production of Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Caroline: Although her book deals with a historical or cold case, it’s still very much set in a recognisable today, although Renée still isn’t sure that she is cut out to be a modern crime novelist.
Renée: I’m writing another one at the moment, which is a little bit grimmer. I don’t really have that splinter of ice in my heart that you’re supposed to have. Also I like happy endings, which it kind of works against someone who wants to write crime novels.
Caroline: By including the theatrical plot in The Wild Card, Renée is very much working in parallel with Ngaio Marsh, who was passionated about theatre and set many of her novels in that space — more on that in a future episode. Although she isn’t Renée’s favourite golden age novelists, there’s no escaping the comparison, it seems, especially when you live and work in New Zealand.
Renée: I think she’s regarded quite highly. I think I’m in the minority. It may just be like she’s regarded extremely highly for her theatrical work, and I regard her highly for that as well. She was a great Shakespearean director and she did a lot of work with university students who had no experience in theatre, but under her tuition and her direction, she did some absolutely — I didn’t see one, but I am told by people whose opinion I trust that they were totally the best theatre that I’ve ever seen in their lives. She was in love with Shakespeare as much as she was in love with Roderick Alleyn, I think. And I think she was a very talented woman and she was a painter. She was an artist and and was good at that as well. I think for me, her main fault is her slavish adoration of a particular class.
Caroline: The Wild Card has actually been shortlisted for New Zealand’s highest honour in crime writing — the Ngaio Marsh award — so perhaps Renée is destined always to be associated with her as a writer.
That said, there will really only ever be one golden age novelist for Renée.
Renée: I can see how one particular writer can endear themselves to you so much that writing and finding out about them is while it looks to outsiders like, you know, don’t you really get sick of this sort of thing, there’s there’s a kind of deep, deep interest, isn’t there, there’s something about the writing that touches you in some deep sort of way, which I suspect is the reason I’ve never, ever got bored with Sayers.
Caroline: She has loved Dorothy L. Sayers’s work since she was 11 — that’s 80 years of rereading and rethinking and reappraising. I might think of myself as pretty committed to my love of detective fiction, but I’ve got nothing on Renée.
She is truly a lifelong fan.
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 Renée’s book The Wild Card at shedunnitshow.com/lifelongfan, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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 the full version of my conversation with Renée — and we talked for over an hour — book club members will shortly be able to do that. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
I’ll be back on 16 September with another episode.