Murder in a Heatwave Transcript

Caroline: Tempers flaring. Simmering tension. Anger boiling over. A lot of the language that we use to describe the bursts of violent emotion that can result in the murder for a murder mystery has to do with hotness and heat. It’s an image so common that I don’t think we even give it much thought. The association of a volatile or escalating situation with a rising temperature that makes everything feel out of control is automatic.

For crime fiction, where every story involves some kind of boiling over incident and then the investigation of its aftermath, I think it’s worth looking a little more closely at this association between heat, emotional volatility and violence. When the world itself is getting hotter and more and more places are extreme heat in summer, it feels rather appropriate.

And so, today, we’re experiencing murder in a heatwave.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is the second part of Shedunnit’s “Mysteries of Summer” trilogy, in which I will be taking a closer look at how writers from the golden age of detective fiction incorporated the classic elements of an English summer into their murder mysteries. Today, we’re looking at heat and heatwaves, but you can find the first episode, which was about cricket, in your podcast app now, where you can also subscribe so you don’t miss the last instalment.


The heat of summer has proved to be a very useful tool for the detective novelist. From Agatha Christie’s classic opening scene of sunbathers roasting themselves like so many pieces of meat in 1941’s Evil Under the Sun to the boiling hot murder scene set in 1950s Dublin in Benjamin Black’s A Death in Summer, there are plenty of instances where turning up the temperature has also resulted in turning up the tension and the drama in a mystery. And so to understand why this is such a common trope and why it works so well, we really need to go back to basics and think about why heat does such strange things to the human temperament. Being hot is a pretty unpleasant sensation, of course, and when we’re uncomfortable we act out beyond our usual behaviour. But there’s something peculiar to summer heat, and being hot in summer, that seems to have a particularly powerful effect. And of course, to dig into this, I had to enlist an expert.

Cecily: I think there’s something about heat waves and mystery stories that centre around summer and holidays and so on in general in that they’re times when we are taken out of our normal routine, and we are therefore either acting slightly differently, maybe we are not paying attention as much as we normally would. We’re in a holiday mood or slightly different from our normal selves. I think the hot and bothered English person, either in a heat wave or on holiday abroad is a real staple of the genre.

Caroline: This is Cecily Gayford, an Editorial Director at Profile Books and the editor of numerous anthologies of mystery stories. Her latest, Murder in a Heatwave, required her to think deeply about this combination of heat and crime fiction. Each story she picked for this volume, by authors including Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout and others, exhibits some facet of this trope — from the heat as the motive for the crime to the heat as the way the murderer tries to get away with it. I don’t want to spoil the solution to any of her selections, but the book is well worth getting hold of if you’d really like to immerse yourself in these ideas. One thing that she discovered, she explained, was that the way heat is handled by writers of literary fiction is slightly different to how it appears in crime fiction — but in both instances, the rising heat helps to create that narrative arc of action, reaction and resolution.

Cecily: I think there’s a kind of narrative heightening that happens in heat waves. They intensify things and in literary novels that often is used as a device to bring the narrative to a fever pitch. But I think in crime fiction, it’s often used as a way to suggest that someone’s gonna really lose it. And that makes sense to us because everyone’s had that experience of thinking, I’m so hot, something has to give. I cannot bear my family anymore. I cannot bear this tube carriage. I think the boiling over metaphor is a good one, right? You’re kind of heating what might have otherwise been a stable situation until something dramatic happens. And then at the end there’s going to be a thunderstorm and everything will be resolved.

Caroline: In literary fiction, Cecily says, heat is often used as a more general atmospheric tool — to make a novel feel tense and some kind of explosion inevitable. With crime fiction, though, the reader usually knows roughly what the pattern of the story will be. There will be a crime, it will be investigated, and it will generally be solved by the end of the book, so the heat element has to slot into that pre-arranged contract between writer and reader somehow. Occasionally, though, you get a book that seems to show the influence of both ways of using heat as a literary tool.

Cecily: There are novels like Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good, which follows a group of characters in a country house over the course of, I think, a week in a very intense heat wave in Dorset. And, you know, Murdoch’s concerns are certainly to do with the sort of relationships between the characters. She also has a as you’d expect a philosophical underpinning of the novel. It’s about the difference between being nice and being good and she explores that through the different characters. But there’s also it starts with a death, and then there’s this blackmail plot that underlies all of it and gives the narrative which might otherwise feel a bit like a number of somewhat self-obsessed people feeling too hot near the sea, gives it a propulsion and a sort of a sinister quality, which seems connected to the heat. It’s not just everyone’s hot and feeling a bit lazy and wishing it would rain. It’s oppressive and the pressure is rising. It is being brought to bear in the characters in the same way that it’s meteorologically there in their environment. She’s obviously an amazing novelist and an amazing plotter, but I think I would be very unsurprised if she wasn’t inspired by detective fiction in some way to create that synthesis.

Caroline: The golden age detective novel being something that we associate very strongly with Britain in general and England in particular, there’s also something about making this heat that is rising an English heat that seems very effective. The English summer being famously a frequent wash out, the hot days when they come punch just that little bit harder than in places where people are more accustomed to the heat.

Cecily: Not all of the stories are set in the UK, but the ones that are, I think certainly use the sort of boiling hot English summer day as a kind of very English trope I think because if you live in Britain, you know that actually those days are quite far and few between and the summer fetes that is on a sort of blazing hot June day is much more likely to be actually on a kind of drizzly, cool, maybe I’ll bring a cardigan kind of day. So I think there’s a nostalgic aspect to it as well. I think, you know, it is definitely part of a kind of slightly created version of England’s which a loss of the novelists of the golden age were very, well, both very interested in themselves and kind of instrumental in creating for the rest of us in that I think, you know places like St. Mary Mead have really answered the sort of consciousness of the nation. And so I think that’s certainly a use of it as an understood sort of perfect backdrop.

Caroline: This idea of the perfect, sweltering, unspoilt summer’s day as the perfect backdrop for the most evil of all crimes — murder — is a very interesting one. It harks back to a very old idea in storytelling, that of the memento mori, the reminder that death always stands close, and connects to the notion of “et in Arcadia ego”, that even in Arcadia, an idyllic place, death still exists. And would there even be an Arcadia without the reminder that everything is finite and mortal? Detective fiction plays with these dichotomies, Cecily says.

Cecily: All fiction to some extent relies on pairs of opposites. But I think with crime writing that’s very pronounced. You have like the detective and the murderer and you have the secrets, and you have the reveal and then you know, you sort of also have the place of safety that is violated. And I think that’s very appealing to crime writers. The idea that you sort of, you take your characters to a place that seems kind of perfect and safe and, and kind of almost like a sort of Eden, really. And then you reveal the serpent who’s been there all along. And then at the end you’ve identified the canker in the rose, the kind of thing that has been secretly there undermining the perfection the whole time and you are able to sort of identify and expel it. And I guess the sort of assumption then is that actually everything is really, is now great. You know, like you can get to a place where evil can be neatly excised from your world and cast out. There’s a desire to create a cathartic loop for the reader and I think beautiful English summer days and church fetes and these kind of like cultural touch points are a part of that.

Caroline: The same is true of holidays, especially summer ones. That perfect getaway in the perfect place — how could something as awful as murder co-exist with so much wonderful peace and tranquility? Murder mysteries exist to show us exactly how, but then to neatly solve all of the problems so as not to completely undermine the impulses that lead us to idealise the holiday or the perfect summer day in the first place. It’s all very finely balanced, from a narrative point of view.

After the break: beware the seething mass of hatreds among the prize vegetables.

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Caroline: Although I do, of course, read a lot of full-length crime novels, sometimes I think you can’t really beat the short story as a form for quickly getting lots of different takes on the same idea or theme. And so it is with Cecily’s collection Murder in a Heatwave — ten stories, all working with similar elements, that each provide a distinct perspective on what can happen when the temperature rises and all those impulses that have been kept hidden start spilling out. It is the brevity of the short story, Cecily says, that makes it so satisfying as a form for crime fiction.

Cecily: Well, I think often they’re kind of vignettes in a way in that, I think one of the ones that I was really pleased that I found is called “Summer Show,” and it’s by Julian Symons. And it takes place over the course of the vegetable judge, sort of prize vegetable judging contest at a summer fete. And I think that’s a great example of, you know, how they take that kind of like summer holiday theme and then shrink it down to something you can do on a very small canvas. It takes place over the course of like two, two or three hours the story. And you don’t need a huge amount of narrative development. And they often kind of centre around one really clever idea. You know, there’ll be a small number of protagonists, an ingenious murder method, and the kind of key to the story is really just figuring out how, how that happened. It’s not kind of, there aren’t the things that you get in longer novels where you consider each of the suspects in turn and discard their motives and alibis and so on. It tends to be more of a how was this done type of thing.

Caroline: In shrinking the crime story down onto this small canvas, you do end up developing plot over character, but it is worth it when all the elements of the story snap into place in such a satisfying way.

Cecily: There’s also a story called “Fourth of July Picnic,” which is by Rex Stout, who I think is quite an underrated crime writer who hasn’t really had the same sort of renaissance as some of his contemporaries. But again, you know, that’s kind of a small canvas to paint on that he makes a lot out of. They’re almost just plot really. Any of the characters could be changed for somebody else, and the story would still really kind of unfold in the same way. But they have that very satisfying quality where everything just locks into place very quickly.

Caroline: The best short crime fiction taps into that memento mori idea, taking something seemingly perfect and revealing with a few strokes the horrible reality. Julian Symons’ story “Summer Show” is a great example of this, in that it focuses on something that seems trivial and unimportant which becomes a big enough to be a motive for murder.

Cecily: I love that idea of something that in the grand scheme of things is not a big deal, but when you kind of get into the sort of granular detail of people’s lives, can come to seem like a sort of life or death issue. And I think a lot of, again, those kind of classic English crime stories do that very well and that they go to places where it seems like people don’t really have problems. And then they sort of reveal that underneath it’s just a seething mass of like hatreds and regret and resentment and like that, that it has all of the kind of dark side of human nature that you would expect to find in Raymond Chandler or kind of, you know, sort of the more modern crime novels or noir from the same period that is set in like big cities where, you know, kind of glamorous things happen and, and, and actually it, it is not unlike, it’s not dissimilar in these kind of like tiny English villages where everyone’s retired.

Caroline: One of the core tenets of golden age detective fiction is this idea of fair play — the notion that the prime suspect needs to have been present in the story all along, rather than introduced just at the end for a big surprise reveal. As readers, we want to know that we had a fighting change of working out the solution to the mystery, even if it happened to elude us this time. And setting a story in a hot summer atmosphere can bring some of this fair play quality to a plot. All of those motivations were already present in the scenario, the writer is saying, and the heat just exposed them for everyone to see.

Cecily: I think also a point that is made over and over again in summer themed crime fiction is that a lot of this stuff is kind of there, but people don’t have the opportunity. But when circumstances change a bit, suddenly you have the option and and people take it. And that, that holidays are often, you know, sort of, we think of them as as times of relaxation and enjoyment. But actually there’s often quite, they’re often quite dangerous. You know, you have big bodies of water and clifftop walks and lots of people who you don’t know very well hanging around and, you know, you are out of your own comfort zone and you are maybe not paying very much attention. And that sort of makes you vulnerable. So I think there’s a kind of, I can totally see that. As a writer, it’s great because you suddenly have all these like new murder methods, ways of kind of play, like sort of explaining why somebody who has, you know, been a begrudging stepdaughter for 15 years is going to take action today.

Caroline: There’s a really great example of this from the collection, by one of the all time greats of the short story form.

Cecily: One of the stories in the collection is called “The Borderline Case,” and then that is a Margery Allingham story. That’s set in London and I think is a, just a brilliant evocation of this, the sort of heat wave in a city experience, which you know, I’m in London at the moment and, and you know, in some ways there’s a kind of holiday atmosphere, but also like the heat reflects off the buildings, it reflects off the pavements, you know, kind of you really do feel like millions of people are being kind of heated, heated up every day to boiling point. And that’s, that story is kind of the, it in a way, it’s a clever kind of locked room mystery that actually takes place outside in a street. And there’s a kind of very ingeniously constructed scenario where there’s a murder, but it doesn’t make any sense and no one can work out how it happened. And I think it’s not giving away too much to say that the solution hinges on someone having just got too hot and had enough, you know, and sort of try to just get rid of a problem and instead make it a thousand times worse for themselves.

Caroline: But not every heatwave story shows the evidence of the temperature rising in the way people lose their judgement or their cool. Sometimes, the heat provides a clue to the detective when people act as if they aren’t experiencing the height of summer at all.

Cecily: One of the stories that I love from the collection is called “The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran.” And that’s the Dorothy L Sayers story. And the murder weapon ends up being hidden inside, I think a roast chicken and the clue to the detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is that like nobody would be doing a roast in a heat wave. So this is inherently suspicious and they have to kind of run upstairs and, and and like pull the, pull the skewer or knife or whatever it is out that they can get the blood evidence from it. And I thought that was such a, a sort of such, such a great, like coup de théâtre because it’s kind of, you know, like not what you’re really expecting to happen, but also really clever use of the heatwave to kind of slightly wrong foot the reader, you know, because it does seem weird that they’re doing this big meal, but you don’t think, oh, that’s inherently suspicious. You think that’s just kind of weird.

Caroline: So whether you are sweltering in unseasonably high heat this season, or just thinking longingly of the summer that is yet to reach you, I hope you will spare a thought for the heatwave mystery — a highly proficient and entertaining little niche within classic crime fiction that is well worth exploring. Well, that, and keeping your eye out for suspicious characters who use their ovens when the temperature is soaring.


This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Thanks to my guest Cecily Gayford — you can find more information about all the mystery anthologies she has edited, including the one we discussed today, via the website for Profile Books, in the description for this episode or at I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at This episode was the second in Shedunnit’s “mysteries of summer” trilogy; listen out for the final one on coming this feed soon.

If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to hear more from me beyond the fortnightly episodes on this feed, join the Shedunnit Book Club, where I make extra bonus episodes every month for supporters. Find out more and sign up now at

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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