Here’s a full transcript of the twenty-sixth episode of Shedunnit
Caroline: Towards the end of Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1930 novel Strong Poison, her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is feeling stumped. He’s tackled a tricky poisoning case with all the verve and enthusiasm that readers of the previous four Wimsey books had come to expect. He’s dashed about London, planting spies in crucial locations and chivvying Scotland Yard into tracking down the most obscure clues. But it’s not until he sits down at home in his flat in Piccadilly among his books that the crucial breakthrough comes.
I’m not going to tell you what his great revelation is — you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out — but it is interesting that Sayers is so specific about which books Wimsey has pulled from his shelves to help him crack this case. She tells us: “Strewn on tables and chairs lay the bright scarlet volumes of the Notable British Trials—Palmer, Pritchard, Maybrick, Seddon, Armstrong, Madeleine Smith—the great practitioners in arsenic”.
The rest of the story might be fictional, but these red books of Wimsey’s are real. The author has given her detective a tool that contemporary readers might well have recognised — volumes from a popular series of edited case reports from actual court proceedings, a kind of true crime recap that represents a crucial link between the fictional world of the detective story and the reality of famous murder cases.
Today, we’re delving into the Notable British Trials.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to learn about the background to this fascinating and widely-read series of legal histories, and look into how these books helped to shape the narratives around crime that end up in our favourite detective novels.
Before we get started though, I want to remind you that my first ever live show is coming up very soon. I’m doing a joint show with Conor Reid from the Words To That Effect podcast, and we’re going to be trying to do a complete history of detective fiction from Edgar Allen Poe to Tana French in about 60 minutes, it’s going to be a wild ride. There are two dates when you can see this. If you’re listening to this episode on the day it comes out, then you can still catch me at the Dublin Podcast Festival on 15 November at 7pm, but if you miss that, there’s another chance to see the show at the PodUK convention in Birmingham on 1 February 2020. Full details and tickets for both dates are available at shedunnitshow.com/events, and if you are coming to either event, do tweet me on @shedunnitshow to let me know, because I’d like to arrange some kind of post show meet up if possible. Hope to see you there.
To begin at the beginning, then. How did Wimsey’s “bright scarlet volumes” come into being, and how did they become so influential that even a fictional character had them on his shelves? To understand that, we’ve got to take a brief trip north of the border.
Victoria: The Notable Trials series was established by a Scottish publisher called William Hodge & Co. And actually, publishing was not their main line of business. The firm was originally set up to provide shorthand note takers for the courts in Scotland. And they then branched out into publishing as a sort of sideline, really. But the publishing is the thing that they’re most remembered for now. And they published various kinds of material, some related to legal matters, some relating to Scotland. So biographies of historical figures or travel books about Scotland. This kind of thing. But in 1905, they set up a series called Notable Scottish Trials. And the series did was it looked back to famous trials from Scottish history. So not recent trials, but 19th century and even earlier trials.
Caroline: This is Dr Victoria Stewart, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Leicester. She is particularly interested in the relationship between true crime narratives and detective fiction, and her 2017 book Crime Writing in Interwar Britain: Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age is the result of her work in this area.
Although trials are, then as now, generally open to the public, the creators of this series recognised that spending days on end in the public gallery was not necessarily a practical thing for everyone who might be interested in legal matters to do. Of course, there were plenty of newspaper reports of sensational cases, but it was harder to access the full facts of what occurred in court. The books were therefore put together with this in mind.
Victoria: What you got in each volume was an edited transcript of the trial where that existed, and sometimes they had to patch together different kinds of sources to produce that narrative. And each volume also included an introduction which would explain why this was a notable trial, what the key points of legal interest might be. Now, those introductions were sometimes written by people who were lawyers who had legal qualifications and they were aimed at quite a wide audience. The hope for this series was that they would be of interest to the general public, so it was an alternative to give people a sense of how the justice system worked, really.
Caroline: The series was popular, and in 1915 it was expanded to include trials from England as well and was renamed just “Notable Trials”. As well as looking back to key cases from history, it began to cover recent cases that readers would have been familiar with from news reports.
Victoria: In the 1920s and 30s, that’s when the series was really at its height. So at that period, what they were doing was partly continuing to publish historical cases. And in fact, some of the cases that had first appeared as Scottish trials were republished actually given fresh new introductions and appeared under the notable trials series. But they also started covering very contemporary trials and in some cases, a volume might be appearing 18 months or two years after the actual trial.
Caroline: That period in the 1920s and 30s, of course, is what we refer to as the golden age of detective fiction and it’s when major novelists from the genre like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and so on were beginning to publish their best-known works. Given the public interest in reading about fictional crimes, it follows that a non fiction series with similar subject matter would also find an eager audience.
By this time, it was James Hodge, grandson of the original Hodge that started the company publishing Notable Trials, who was editing the trial transcripts and commissioning the introductions for new volumes. He started to look beyond the legal profession, deliberately crossing the boundary between those who dealt with murder only in fact, and those who worked with it in fiction, too.
Victoria: And what happens when the series expands is that the pool of people providing introductions expands. So more general authors and writers who have an interest in crime and criminology start to be brought in to provide introductions. So one person in particular who does this, who I’d mention has quite a long standing association with the series, is F. Tennyson Jesse. And if she’s remembered at all these days, it’s probably for her novel A Pin To See The Peep Show, which was published in 1934 and itself draws on elements of the Bywaters and Thompson case from the 1920s.
Caroline: I talked about that case in detail back in episode 7 of this podcast, titled “Edith Thompson”, if you’re interested to learn more about that sensational murder trial and the way F Tennyson Jesse imported aspects of it into her fiction. Tennyson Jesse — who by the way was a great nice of the nineteenth century poet laureate Alfred Tennyson — had worked as a war reporter during the First World War and lived, according to her biographer Joanna Colenbrander, a sometimes bizarre and itinerant life. Her husband had a very complicated personal life of his own, and for the first three years of their marriage they lived as if they were having an affair rather than husband and wife, sneaking around hotels in disguises. But despite all of her personal turmoil (and there was a lot, I recommend reading a biography of her) Tennyson Jesse produced crisp, original introductions for the Notable Trials series.
Victoria: She wrote introductions for half a dozen volumes from the 1920s right through until the late 1950s. The first one she did was actually to provide a new introduction to the volume on Madeline Smith. And the Madeline Smith case was a very high profile case that had taken place in Scotland in the mid late 19th century. And this was a case where a young woman had been accused of poisoning a man who turned out to be her lover. And this was very scandalous because she was from respectable family and she was put on trial. And the verdict that came back was the Scottish verdict of not proven, which essentially means we think you probably did it, but we don’t have enough evidence to say so beyond reasonable doubt. So it’s a verdict that leaves a shadow cast really over the defendant. And F Tennyson Jesse’s angle on this trial in the late 1920s is rather different from the angle when the volume first appears in 1905. And she’s quite interesting about what it might reveal about women’s positions in the Victorian period and how things have changed or not since then.
Caroline: Another important indication of how popular the Notable Trials series was came in the 1940s, when Hodge & Co did a deal with Penguin to produce anthologies of the case introductions that could be sold cheaply for the mass market.
Victoria: Now, Penguin had been founded in 1935 and from the outset had had a very strong crime list, mainly focusing on detective fiction. But they also published non-fiction books about crime as well, things like retired detectives’ memoirs, that kind of material. And quite early on in 1937-38, Hodge and Penguin start negotiating about Penguin maybe doing some kind of series of the trials, because up until this point, these were quite expensive books to buy and you’d be more likely to borrow them from a library, really. 1941, the first one appears and these are omnibus volumes. Each one contains four or five of the introductions from the Notable Trials volumes. So what you get is the little the familiar Penguin paperback and it has four or five essays. And for each one, they tend to choose a range of cases that there might be some historical ones and then some more recent ones and they produced in the end. In total, there were ten of those. And certainly when I first read them, I didn’t realise that each of those essays had originally been attached. To an actual trial transcripts. They didn’t have to do an awful lot of editing to make them readable as standalone essays. And there were a really interesting glimpse of what people at the period felt were notable criminal cases.
Caroline: Although the Notable Trials books were intended to be an objective account of a court case, there was a strong element in subjective curation in the way subjects were chosen. What made a trial “notable”, after all?
Victoria: One thing that Hodge was really, really keen on was to make sure that the cases that were chosen had some particular interest as trials, that there was some legal peculiarity about it. He didn’t just want to choose cases that had made the headlines because they were scandalous. So, again, his educative approach was very much the fore.
Caroline: The Notable Trials books, then, were intended to educate and inform readers, not entertain them — there were breathless, grisly newspaper reports for that. But how widely read were these somewhat dry count transcripts, really?
Victoria: It’s always very difficult to try to establish what the readership was for books in the past. And so you have to go about it in a slightly roundabout way. So my sense of how widely read these books were is really gleaned from when people mention them in other books or looking at things like how prominent the advertisements are for them in literary journals from the period, that sort of thing. So trying to deduce how well-known and how widely read these books were using that material is obviously not scientific way of going about things. But for instance, I’ve certainly seen it mentioned in memoirs of lawyers that they’ve had a whole set of them in their offices, for instance. So they do seem to have got a legal readership. But I suppose another example that I turn to is fiction.
Caroline: In one instance, a detective novelist was actually writing a fictional version of one real life case alongside an essay about another one for a Notable Trials volume.
Victoria: So around the time that F Tennyson Jesse was writing A Pin To See The Peep Show, the novel that draws on the Bywaters and Thompson case, she was also writing the introduction to the volume on Alma Rattenbury. So Rattenbury and Stoner, which is another case involving the murder of a husband and an affair and the Rattenbury and Stoner case caused a certain amount of scandal because of the age gap between Rattenbury and her lover. And Jesse is actually relatively sympathetic towards her and certainly the way that she was treated by the press. The fact that Rattenbury actually took her own life at the year after the sorry Jesse shows a certain amount of sympathy towards how Alma Rattenbury was treated by the press, really. And you can’t help thinking that while she was working on that case and she was also thinking about the Bywaters and Thompson case, there are some similarities there, and particularly to do with attitudes towards marriage, attitudes towards adultery, and particularly towards the women in those cases being demonized to an extent, especially by the popular press.
Caroline: The Rattenbury case from 1935 was of great interest to another detective novelist too. In The Anatomy of Murder, a collection of non-fiction essays about real life crimes written by members of the Detection Club and published in 1936, Anthony Berkeley under his pseudonym Francis Iles writes about this case too. The relationship between adultery and murder was a theme that Berkeley came back to many times in his fiction, such as in 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case and the 1931 Francis Iles novel Malice Aforethought.
In her book, Victoria posits the existence of what she calls a “shared canon of ‘classic’ crimes”, which the Notable Trials books helped to fix in the public mindset, and with which writers like Berkeley, Sayers, Tennyson Jesse and others were in dialogue, in both their fiction and their non fiction writing. Others made this connection too: in his 1946 essay “Decline of English Murder”, George Orwell identifies what he calls “our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period”, referring to the years between 1850 and 1925. The famous crimes from this time are the “murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels”, he says, making explicit that connection between accounts of real events and crime fiction. Orwell is partially writing about sensationalist newspaper coverage here, but he does also refer to “verbatim” accounts of trials too — it’s clear that text like the Notable Trials books have contributed to the creation of these “famous murders”.
As we’ve already seen with Peter Wimsey reaching for a volume from the series to help him solve a case, these books were thought to be well enough known by the general public to merit casual inclusion in detective fiction. As well as in Sayers, there’s a reference to them in Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera from 1934, when a victim is described by a colleague as “just the sort of woman you read about in the ‘Great Trials’ series – you know – morbid and quiet, with all sorts of repressions and complexes”. In other words, she was the type of woman who would get herself murdered in a way that will attract a lot of attention, some of it of an unwholesome nature. And the Great or Notable Trials rubric provides an excellent shorthand for that.
The best illustration of Victoria’s thesis, though, is in undoubtedly in Sayers’s Strong Poison. There’s an added layer of connection there, since Harriet Vane — the woman accused of poisoning her former lover — is a detective novelist herself. A large part of the case against her is that she admits to purchasing arsenic, the poison used in the murder. She says she bought it in order to test how easy it is to acquire such a substance as part of the research for a new novel. She also freely admits to having accounts of famous poisonings on her bookshelves, also as research material for her writing, she says. As a defendant in the dock, she becomes the subject of much media attention, a lot of it negative. As Mitchell’s character says, perhaps Vane is also “the sort of woman you read about in the Great Trials series’ — she seems to have all the potential to be the tragic star of a famous murder case that will be committed to paper and bound in that distinctive red livery, and it will be all the more shocking because of the fictional frisson of her chosen defence.
It’s therefore all the more apt that Wimsey uses accounts of real-life cases, in the form of his Notable Trials books, to crack the invented mystery that Sayers has concocted for him. Fact and fiction meld together, until it’s difficult to say whether it’s art imitating life or the other way around.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/notabletrials. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to see me doing this as well as hearing it, you can come to one of the upcoming Shedunnit live shows in Dublin or Birmingham. More details and tickets at shedunnitshow.com/events.
I’ll be back on 27 November with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Competent Women.