Murder-on-Sea Transcript

Caroline: The seaside, especially an English coastal resort, is an iconic location for a classic murder mystery. We only have to browse quickly through some titles from the 1920s and 1930s to see this, with names like The Cornish Coast Murder, The Sea Mystery, Mist on the Saltings, The Cape Cod Mystery and plenty of others immediately making the point.

What could be more suitable, after all? The quintessential British seaside town is a place where lots of different types of people who would never otherwise meet mingle together in close quarters, all in high holiday spirits. And they spend their time near natural hazards that can easily be turned to the advantage of a murderer: the sea, with its currents and waves and tides, sands that can shift and sink, and treacherous, rocky cliffs.

I hope you packed your bucket and spade, because in this final instalment of Shedunnit’s “mysteries of summer” trilogy, we’re all going to the seaside.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. A warning before we get started: there is a brief mention of suicide in this episode. There’s more information about that and a list of books to consult for spoiler purposes in the description for the episode.


So many of the most popular writers from the golden age of detective fiction have at least one mystery that takes place at the seaside or by the sea. Agatha Christie has a few: And Then There Were None, of course, is set on a small island off the coast of Devon, but it is in books like Evil Under the Sun, The Body in the Library and N or M? where we really see her turn her attention to the English seaside resort. Dorothy L. Sayers sent Harriet Vane on a walking tour of the south coast of England after her traumatic debut novel; in follow up Have His Carcase, Harriet ends up finding a body and investigating a case with Peter Wimsey in a slightly faded seaside resort. Ngaio Marsh sent her Scotland Yard sleuth Roderick Alleyn to the south Devon coast after a famous barrister dies in what seems like a bizarre accident at a cozy pub in a small fishing village. John Dickson Carr set one of his best and most perplexing whodunnits at the seaside, The Seat of the Scornful, which includes a dead body with mysterious sand beneath it found shot in impossible circumstances in a holiday cottage. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley actually moves temporarily to the seaside in When Last I Died. Anthony Berkeley even sent Roger Sheringham, a polished, urbane sleuth if ever I saw one, to the seaside for a weekend break in a short titled “Razor Edge”. You get the idea — I’ve barely scratched the surface with this list.

This profusion of seaside mysteries makes sense when you consider that there are quite a few different reasons why this is such a good setting for a murder mystery. Authors have a variety of options and tropes to pursue. Some liked to take advantage of the anonymity it offers their characters. Everyone, or almost everyone, at the seaside is from somewhere else. Either they are a tourist, a holidaymaker, someone with a second home, or indeed now a permanent resident of the seaside town who originated elsewhere but always dreamed of retiring by the sea. Actors visit on tour and painters come in particular seasons to capture the light on the landscape. The potential for concealing awkward facts about one’s past life, or indeed for adopting an entirely new persona, is strong. In an era of policing without DNA testing, centralised databases of information or instant communication with other regions and countries, verifying that people are who they say they are is one of the major challenges for the golden age detective. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase from 1932 provides an excellent case study in this aspect of the seaside mystery — once the detectives are fully immersed in this tangled case, it becomes difficult to believe that anybody is who they say they are, and much checking is needed of backstories from elsewhere in the country and the world to straighten it all out. A later, post golden age novel, The Case of the Haven Hotel by Christopher Bush from 1948, shows that this problem of identity hasn’t been completely resolved after the Second World War — Bush’s series detective Ludovic Travers is attempting to take a holiday at a seaside hotel when he is confronted both by murder and by several fellow guests who seem not to be what they claim.

Beyond the question of identity, there’s the hazardous nature of the seaside itself. For all that these are places visited for pleasure and recreation — and we’ll hear more about how that came about a bit later in the episode — the sea and its surrounding landscape can be dangerous. When you start thinking about it this way, a coastal resort is a murder’s ideal playground. People can be swept out to sea, fall off cliffs, sink into sand, go missing from boats, drown while swimming and generally have accidents in a way that does not immediately arouse suspicion. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that the seaside has a historic connection to suicide, so that’s an easy assumption to make in these places too — Josephine Tey makes good use of this connection in her 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles, one of my favourite Tey books. It features a body found lying at the edge of the waves on a beach in Kent, and a confusion over whether it was murder, suicide or accident that placed it there.

Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade from 1933 showcases another of these environment-based deaths, with a body found out on the saltings near a Norfolk seaside village. The corpse has been both stuck in the mud and washed by the rising tide before it is found. Mystery at Lynden Sands by JJ Connington from 1928 exploits similar scenery to a murderous purpose too. The sea can also be the means of introducing a body to the novel in the first place, as in Freeman Wills Crofts’ aptly titled The Sea Mystery, also from 1928, in which a crate that washes up on a beach in South Wales is found to contain the body of a murdered man.

The different kinds of people who are drawn to the seaside offer opportunities to the crime novelist too. There’s a strong presence for artists in the golden age seaside mystery, often people of a higher social class who live a more bohemian lifestyle and move to the coast for a cheaper existence and the benefits of being close to the sea. Margaret Erskine’s first novel, And Being Dead, from 1938 has just such a character — a philandering artists is the first victim of an apparent serial killer in a small coastal town. The Crime Coast by Elizabeth Gill from 1931 is set in a resort in the south of France rather than in England, but it has a great representation of an “artistic set” who inhabit a town also plagued by a jewel thief, a murderer and multiple missing persons. Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings from 1931 is set around a coast-adjacent area in Galloway in south east Scotland, where two rivers, the Fleet and the Dee, enter the sea. This book was Sayers’ attempt to write an “unbreakable alibi” story in the style that Freeman Wills Crofts had done so successfully in the 1920s and features six artists who live and work in the area as the principal suspects for the murder of a seventh painter. The painting of a picture of the watery landscape proves to be a crucial clue — was it painted by the dead man, or by his killer? Contrast and potential conflict between the artistic set and other inhabitants comes up in mystery novels too. A painter and a writer feature as part of a plot about bohemian incomers to seaside places in the aforementioned Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade. As ever with golden age detective fiction, class is a live issue. It isn’t just artists and writers who can end up in conflict with other inhabitants — these books are full of wealthy, upper class out of towners like judges, architects and aristocrats who come to the seaside looking for a relaxing getaway and find the reverse. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor from 1931 offers an American perspective on this usually very British trope, with many of her characters wealthy vacationers from New York and Boston who head to Cape Cod to escape a summer heatwave in the cities.

And of course, as with any discussion of a common golden age setting, we have to talk about the seaside’s potential for providing the closed circle of suspects so necessary to the fair play mystery. Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar is perhaps an extreme example of this, with her fictional fishing village of Ottercombe in south Devon accessible only by sea, via a narrow road or through a foot tunnel. These restricted points of entry allow her to treat the whole place as a closed circle for her murder, with the pub as the centre point of it all. Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun does something a bit like this too, with the Jolly Roger Hotel occupying its own private island off the coast, modelled after the real life Burgh Island in Devon. Visitors and guests have to use a causeway accessible only at certain states of the tide or come by boat, giving Hercule Poirot both a limited pool of suspects and an easy way of checking up on their movements. Even when the geography is not quite so dramatic as in these two examples, the classic seafront hotel or boarding house can provided similar restrictions, with doors locked behind the inhabitants at certain times or exists under observation by staff through the night. Even though the seaside seems to allow for an endless flow of random people, which is not helpful for a golden age murder mystery, there are handy ways of limiting it. The “it was a random stranger” is never a satisfying solution, and luckily I’ve never encountered a seaside mystery that uses it.

After the break: just why was the seaside so popular in the 1920s and 30s/


We’ve established that, for lots of reasons, the seaside is a great setting for a murder mystery and that crime writers in the first half of the twentieth century took full advantage of this. But there’s another reason why it crops up so much in books from the interwar years. We talk about that period as being a golden age for detective fiction, but it was a golden age for the seaside, too.

Kathryn Ferry: After the First World War really… there’s definitely an uptake in the number of people going to the seaside.

Caroline: This is Dr Kathryn Ferry, a historian of the British seaside. There were a few different factors that lead to the rise in popularity of the seaside holiday in the interwar period, she says, and one of the main ones was that more people were just able to take holidays.

Kathryn: Despite the depression in traditional manufacturing industries, living standards are going up for a lot of people, particularly in new manufacturing industries and people are being able to afford more leisure time. And there is this sense by the time you get to the mid thirties of what’s dubbed in the architectural press as ‘new leisure’.

This idea of a whole swathe of new people coming into the prospect of holiday time, and then in 1938, for the first time, there is legislation that actually gives people paid holidays, because prior to that, it was at the discretion of your employer. So there were many people, certainly the very poorest in society, could not contemplate having a holiday, but by 1938, there was the build up through unions and political campaigns to really try and get this as a permanent and a goal for everybody to be able to have some holiday. And partly that’s because I suppose there’s a recognition that the pressure of work is such and that manufacturing, people who work in factories, it’s a more mundane experience that people should have the right to at least a week, a year to let off some steam, and it’s the seaside that is the key beneficiary of that, because that’s where people go.

Caroline: At the same time, it’s also becoming easier to get to the British seaside than it ever has been before, thanks to the growing accessibility of motoring.

Kathryn: Up until the First World War, generally, you would go by train. And the train network is such that it sort of evolved out of urban centres connecting to their nearest resorts. So if you were in Sheffield, for instance, the train would take you to the resorts of Lincolnshire on that East coast. And so that’s where everybody went. So there was this sort of tradition that you went to your local resorts.

After the First World War, more people had experience of motor transport, driving, in the war, and there were all these big, sort of buses, I suppose they were, these kind of transport that then became used for leisure transport, converted into charabancs, you know, the precursors of coaches, and motor transport really begins to make inroads into the holiday market. There’s a boom.

I think it’s around 1920-21. They talk about this charabanc boom. It’s in the press that everybody’s getting into these motor coaches to go to the coast, and they’re not necessarily. Some of that will be taking people off the railways, but actually it’s opening up the countryside in particular to the prospect of seaside holiday.

Caroline: Suddenly, people have a choice about where they would like to spend their seaside holidays. And the seaside resorts start trying to cater to these new holiday makers, to attract them with facilities and amusements. There’s a lot of investment in development and building at the British seaside at this time, and it’s all focused on making the most of the sea and the coastline. But that’s actually a pretty new thing, in the overall history of the seaside. Here’s another seaside expert, Dr Allan Brodie of Bournemouth University, to explain more.

Allan Brodie: Now, believe it or not, until the 18th century, many coastal towns didn’t really face the sea. They tended to face the land or face the river around which they had developed, or they would face the harbour, but they didn’t really face the beach. So take somewhere like Weymouth, until the 18th century, they were dumping all their rubbish on the beach because nobody used it. But then gradually in the 18th century, people turned to look at the sea.

And then of course, through the 19th century and into the 20th century, you go from just a small handful of people coming to seaside resorts and therefore beginning to have an impact on the historic environment. Because they need new places to stay. By the time you go through the 19th and the 20th century, a handful of people from 200 years before has now become millions.

You’ve got huge sort of resort development, you know, new hotels, new flats, new houses. And the interwar period is very vibrant. There’s an awful lot of building activity going on. Some of it is sort of impressive art deco flats. A lot of it is the suburban bungalow and people just want to be beside the sea and live beside the seaside. And that’s a really important thing in the 20th century.

Caroline: Architecturally, this interwar period is best understood as a game of two halves, Allan says.

Allan: What’s interesting is that if you take the period between the two wars, they almost. It’s 20 years, but it breaks down into almost sort of roughly two 10 year periods. The first years after the end of the First World War, the architecture there seems to be wedded to our past. The houses that people want are cozy, a bit of mock Tudor, a bit of mock Elizabethan.

They want houses, they want a little garden, you know, it’s almost a kind of a rural idyll they’re looking to create on the peripheries of rapidly expanding seaside resorts. But by the time you come into the 1930s, you’re getting some people who wanting to go for something more radical, um, architecturally and go from sort of modern houses, modernist sort of blocks of flats and fantastic sort of art deco and modernist cinemas and entertainment venues.

And so this is a really profound change and it comes just right at the beginning of the 1930s, it filters through to the seaside, and some of the best sort of art deco and modernist buildings are actually at the seaside because there was a demand. People wanted things at seaside resorts, and the sort of the great expanses of glass and concrete seem to fit really nicely and give a modern feel to sort of seaside resort development.

Caroline: This is the kind of art deco, 1930s seaside you might associate with a David Suchet Poirot episode, with that modernist, nautical feel. Some of the buildings are still there to be admired today — the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, for instance, which readers of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders might recall. This was a period of tremendous pride in the benefits of the seaside, Kathryn says, which we can see by the scale of the building and provision being made for those who wanted to experience it — towns all around the coast were building promenades, piers, amusement arcades, cinemas, outdoor swimming pools and all manner of enticements for visitors.

Kathryn: You get to the 1930s and everybody gets terribly excited because it feels like it’s sort of new and fresh and then writers previously have said, well, and nothing really happened after that. And it’s such a sort of high point that you almost can’t see beyond it. And that isn’t actually true because the seaside continued to have quite a lot of investment after the Second World War, but that modern period, it sort of steps up through the 1920s and then the 1930s is really, feels like it is that sort of golden age period as well, you know, not necessarily in terms of visitor numbers, because they did pick up beyond that as well, but just in terms of the kind of investment and the, the kind of sense of, the sort of faith in the seaside, you know, as this wonderful place and the sort of confidence, I suppose, that’s what you really get a sense of from that era. The investment in these massive facilities that it would go on forever, that people continue to come forever. Which, sadly, they didn’t. And so lots of those places are now gone, you know.

Caroline: Detective fiction was a popular literary genre in the interwar period, intended to an extent to reflect the lives of those who read it. And if the readers were going to the seaside, so must their favourite characters. The overlap of these two golden ages, then, that of detective fiction and of the seaside holiday, makes absolute sense. But it is also good to remember, Allan says, that these places weren’t just two dimensional backdrops, built for holidaying and nothing else.

Allan: One of the important things about the British seaside is that they are real towns. They’re not just seaside resorts. They’re actually proper places where people live all year round. You go to a lot of Mediterranean resorts or French or European resorts. They sort of close down for all but the summer months.Whereas the British seaside resort, they’re all real places, they’re real towns with long and interesting history and long and interesting stories behind them.

Caroline: I think this is really why the seaside murder mystery lingered in the imagination. For all that it plays on the fantasy of the perfect holiday, we are always being subtly reminded that this is still real life — and a murderer can find you at the seaside just as easily as anywhere else.


This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Thanks to my guests, Allan Brodie and Kathryn Ferry. You can find out more about them and get links to their work 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 third in Shedunnit’s “mysteries of summer” trilogy; you can find the previous two also on this feed.

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. And if you join at the higher tier, I read a mystery short story to you once a month — in fact, the one for August 2023 is a seaside mystery, Murder! by Arnold Bennett. To hear that and get all the other benefits of belong to the club, 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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