Here’s a full transcript of the seventeenth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: The Thames is probably the most storied river in the world. Its 215 mile expanse, from its source at Kemble in Gloucestershire to the far reaches of the estuary where it joins the North Sea on the east coast, feature in countless poems, novels, songs, paintings and folk tales. The presence of the river has even become closely associated with patriotism and Britishness: it’s where royal pageants are held, and the most important buildings in the UK’s capital city stand on its banks.
But the Thames also has a dark side. For just as long, its fast-flowing, tidal waters have attracted those with something to hide or business to transact out of reach of the authorities. Beneath London’s famous bridges a parallel lawless city exists on the river, where bodies can be quietly disposed of or contraband goods smuggled away. For this reason, the river is also a popular character in detective fiction, with new stories constantly being added to its existing mythology. Of course, many of them centre on London, but there is also marvellous crime writing encompassing all parts of the river, turning its peculiar disposition and attributes into clever elements of a whodunnit’s plot.
So strap on your sea legs and hold on tight. Today, we’re going on the Thames.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
I want to start by explaining why this topic interests me so much, and why I’m making this podcast now. You see, for the past five years or so, I’ve been working on a book of my own. I’m sorry to say that it’s not a detective novel (although there is quite a lot about Harriet Vane in chapter one, I couldn’t help myself). It’s a narrative non-fiction book all about the Thames, in particular its estuary, and my own relationship to it — part memoir, part nature writing, part history I’d say is an accurate description of it. It’s called The Way to the Sea, and it focuses particularly on the myths and stories that have been woven around the Thames from source to sea over the centuries, from apocryphal tales of monsters and demons to verifiable accounts of shipwrecks and great floods. And as for why I’m sharing this with you now. . . Well, the book is finally published on 6 June, so I’m finally able to talk about it at a time when people can actually get hold of a copy to read for themselves if they’re interested. Check the show notes for links and more information on that.
During half a decade of reading every book I could find about the Thames, I naturally started to think about how what I was learning about the river and its power as a force for narrative intersected with other things I’m interested in, such as detective fiction. I began collecting crime novels that were set on the Thames, or which had something to contribute to the wealth of mythology around the river. The more I read in this area, the more I came to realise that the major events over the past three hundred years that shaped the way the Thames exists today, from the change in the way shipping was unloaded to the building of the flood barrier, also helped create the version of the river that works so well in detective fiction. But for there to be a successful detective, there needs to be a crime, so let’s start with why the Thames has always been so closely associated with law breaking.
It all comes down to the unique and strange physical characteristics of the river, you see. The Thames isn’t the longest river in the UK (that honour goes to the Severn) nor the fastest (the Spey, the Swale and the Arun all clock quicker times). But a complicated set of geological circumstances has created an extraordinarily long tideway on the Thames — twice a day, the tide flows a hundred miles inland from the North Sea all the way to Teddington Lock in the west of London. The tidal range is huge as well, with a difference of as much as seven metres between high and low water in some places at certain times of year. This, combined with all of the curves and switchbacks the river makes as it flows east, has made the Thames a complicated river to navigate, with strange currents, rips and swirls all over the place. It’s a dangerous place for amateur boatsmen to spend time, and this sense of peril, combined with the natural disposal characteristics of a fast flowing tidal river, always attracted a criminal element.
Then it’s also important to know that the most famous section of the Thames — the bit that runs through central London — used to be a lot wider than it is today. When the Romans arrived at the site where they would build Londinium in 43 CE, it is thought that it was roughly five times as wide as it is today. Deposited silt and sediment gradually narrowed the river over the centuries, but it was still broad and had gradual, silty foreshores on either side that inclined slowly up to meet the banks. Then in the nineteenth century when the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with cleaning up the incredibly polluted, diseased and disgusting river, he built artificial embankments that contained large sewers on either side, filling in the space behind to create reclaimed land for parks and promenades. But before this hard stone edge was built into the river, that foreshore was a major site of criminal activity, as people left everything from human remains to household rubbish at the tideline in the hope that the Thames would just wash it away. Out of sight, out of mind is a big theme when it comes to the river.
There was also a major problem of jurisdiction. Before the advent of organised, state-sponsored law enforcement, there was no one body that had authority over what happened on the Thames. For instance: if a crime was committed somewhere on the water west of the Tower of London, it was the City of London’s problem. Further east, and it was the county of Middlesex. Nobody could agree which entity owned the foreshore, or the bridges, or the river bed. This had implications for maintenance — part of the reason why the river was so fetid for so long in the mid 1800s was because all these bodies refused to bear to cost of cleaning it up — but it affected policing particularly acutely. And as we all know, when it comes to bureaucracy and officialdom, if something is difficult to work out, chances are absolutely nothing will get done.
The biggest draw for criminals, though, beyond just the excellent waste disposal opportunities offered by the Thames, was the vast quantity of ships and goods it contained. Until the end of the 18th century when protected locked basins began to be dug in the river’s north bank, all the thousands of ships that arrived in London had to wait midstream for a wharf to be available for them to unload. It was said that at the busiest times it was possible to walk from bank to bank without getting wet just by hopping across their decks. As London expanded and yet more cargo turned up on every tide, this temporary waterborne city developed a terrible crime problem. Thames pirates in small boats would roam the river, stopping merchantmen on their way back out to sea and pinching valuable cargo, which could be instantly turned into cash at any of the dodgy riverside markets where buyers wouldn’t ask too many questions. Some of these thieves even used to masquerade as genuine dockers, convince sailors to lower cargo into their boat for delivery to a wharf, and then vanish with it into the murk. It was estimated that at least half a million pounds worth of goods disappeared like this in the year 1797 alone.
In an attempt to stem this crime wave, the social reformer Patrick Colquhoun produced a report entitled A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, in which he documented all the different ways that wrongdoing was happening on the water. Among the species of criminal he identified were “river pirates, night plunderers, river pilferers, fraudulent lumbers, scuffle-hunters, mudlarks, lightermen, artificers and crooked labourers”, and he argued that a dedicated unit of men patrolling the Thames at all times was necessary to curb all this illegal activity.
At first, various merchants of the West India trade route put up money to pay for Colquhoun’s “Thames River Police”. The officers were hired from among the ranks of ancient river professions like the watermen and the dockers, and they were an instant success — foiling robberies, preventing violence and acting as a deterrent. In 1800, the British government took over funding the unit and expanded it, making it the first official police force anywhere in the country, nearly 30 years before Robert Peel first put bobbies on the beat in what was to become the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829.
Of course, the Thames River Police, now known as the Marine Policing Unit, didn’t eradicate crime on the river altogether — far from it. And even if the large-scale thievery was reduced, the river was still a kind of no man’s land, running through London but not completely part of it, a grey area in which to conduct dark deeds. In the nineteenth century dead bodies washed up on every tide, and even today it is said that on average a corpse a week is found somewhere in the Thames. The river’s curves and quirks tend to deposit them in the same places over and over again, too, such as the “Dead Man’s Hole” just by Tower Bridge and the western foreshore of the Isle of Dogs. In many cases, it’s impossible to make an identification, or even work out the details of how the person died. Their life, and their identity, is obliterated by the waters. Is it any wonder that detective novelists have always been so drawn to the Thames? It’s a crime writer’s dream, a river that conceals gruesome secrets under the noses of the rich and powerful. More on that, after the break.
Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to strongly recommend that you join the Shedunnit book club, the membership scheme that I’ve started to give the show a sustainable future and to create a space for like-minded readers to enjoy their favourite whodunnits. This very day (if you’re listening to this on the day the episode comes out) the more than a hundred people who have joined so far will be gather in the secret members’ forum to discuss our very first book pick, Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie. For just £5 a month, you can be one of them — I can say honestly that the forum is now one of the highlights of my days, with people posting pictures of their dogs, chatting about audiobooks, and generally being lovely in a way you don’t often find on the internet. If you would like to find out more and join, visit shedunnitshow.com/membership, and I hope to see you in the forum soon. Now, back to the river.
The first detective novel in which I was really aware of the Thames’s presence was Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, her 1935 story about Harriet Vane’s return to Oxford to investigate a series of unpleasant anonymous letters at her old college. It’s an unusual story, this — I don’t want to say too much in case some listeners haven’t read it yet, but in many ways it’s more of a psychological study and a meditation on academia than it is an actual whodunnit. But the Thames is a constant presence in it, both as Harriet’s refuge where she bathes and punts when her memories of Oxford become to painful, and as a potential place of death later in the book. At the very end, Harriet faces a tough decision, and she takes it on the banks on the river, where she realises that quote “No one can bathe in the same river twice, not even in the Isis” (the Isis is the fancy name given to the Thames in Oxford, by the way, there’s more on that in my book). The river has been a temporary escape from her past, but it only flows onward, towards the sea. It’s there to teach her that even when solved, crimes cannot be undone, and words cannot be taken back. Actions have consequences.
Sayers isn’t the only author to have found the river near Oxford particularly inspiring, though. Another Detection Club member, and the author of that “decalogue” of rules for detective fiction that we enjoyed unpacking back in episode nine, published perhaps a more literally-minded idea of a Thames whodunnit in 1929’s Footsteps at the Lock. Ronald Knox has two cousins and erstwhile Oxford university students, Derek and Nigel Burtell, head upriver on a supposedly relaxing canoeing trip. Derek disappears, presumed dead, and then a couple of days later his apparently innocent cousin does too. All that’s left for private investigator Miles Bredon to go on is a series of strange wet footprints on a footbridge near the lock where Derek disappeared. The story is absolutely stuffed with clues and classic puzzle mystery devices, from imposters to secret codes, and I have to say I’m not a total fan of the wry tone in which Knox writes, or his frequent winks at the reader from the page.
But I do really like how much detail there is in the book about the traditional way of life on the upper Thames that was just about still there in the 1920s, embodied in the character of Burgess, the gardening obsessed lock keeper. There’s also lots of great bits about the canoes and punts visitors could hire to camp in as they beetled about on the beautiful stream, overhung with willows and inhabited by herons, in the manner of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat from three decades before. Knox even acknowledges how unlikely a setting it is for a murder, having Bredon say part way through “The Upper River is the last place where your’e likely to meet an old acquaintance with a grievance and a shot-gun.” Unlike the sometimes seedy character of the Thames downstream in London and beyond, here in the upper reaches death cannot touch its pastoral wonders.
Perhaps the most directly Thames-related whodunnit, the most perfectly rivery mystery, is to be found in a short story by another Detection Club member, the Irish novelist Freeman Wills Crofts. “Dark Waters” was actually published long after the so-called golden age of detective fiction had come to a close with the advent of the second world war, since it first appeared in the London Evening Standard in September 1953. Yet since Crofts published his first novel in 1920 and was a contemporary of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, taking part in several of the collaborative works I mentioned in episode nine, I think this story belongs with his golden age work. It’s a deceptively simple and short tale, showing Crofts’ genius for cunning plot construction, with a thriller-esque twist to it that I don’t want to spoil by giving more details. But it’s a brilliant example of the place the Thames holds in the collective psyche as the taker-away of all awkward problems. As the central character says: “The Thames! What was the river for, if not to meet the problems of those who lived on its banks?”
Gladys Mitchell was also inspired to explore the possibilities of the Thames for detective fiction a bit after the interwar period. Her 1943 novel Sunset Over Soho does a wonderful job of skipping between different locations on the river, reminding the reader always that no matter how different Soho might be from Kensington, and Chiswick from rural Gloucestershire, it’s all still the Thames, and the water flows through it all. It is a war novel, interestingly: Mitchell’s recurring sleuth Mrs Bradley is volunteering at a Rest Centre in Soho during the Blitz when a strange coffin appears in the Centre’s cellar containing the body of someone who was poisoned with arsenic, albeit a couple of years ago. Through a slightly tenuous leap of deduction (she recognises a dressing gown pattern in the corpse’s wrappings), Mrs Bradley then unravels an extremely tall tale that takes in trans Atlantic sea adventures, Spanish sailors, Dominican nuns, awkward sex scenes and secret trapdoors. It’s a divisive book this, with even some Mitchell fans admitting that they can’t get on with it, but I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt because of how much I like the river-based encounters between the hero David Harben and the strange, nymph-like woman Leda who swims up to his boat one night and sets him on a path that contains murder and adventure.
The final Thames mystery that I want to talk about today is Josephine Tey’s 1936 story A Shilling for Candles. This one is vastly different to what Gladys Mitchell came up with in response to the river, and indeed some would probably say I’m stretching a point to even say that it is about the Thames. The main plot focuses on the murder of a film actress on the beach near the cliffs in Kent, a seemingly impossible crime since there are no traces of anyone coming near enough to drown her. Tey leads readers and her detective Alan Grant on a wild goose chase all across the county and beyond, having him zip up and down to London by road and rail. But it’s only much later that it occurs to him that there’s a major route out of the city and down to the coast that he has neglected: the river. It was there all the time, hiding in plain sight.
Since my own book focuses particularly on the estuary end of the Thames, since that’s where I grew up, Tey’s take on the river is particularly gratifying to me. She grasped what so many others missed: the river is a single living entity, carrying water and knowledge and memories out to sea. There’s so many ways that it can play host to mysteries — I’ve just scratched the surface here and I’ll include a longer list of river-based titles you might like to try in the show notes. After reading them, I hope you’ll agree with me that the depths of the Thames are most definitely worth exploring.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books I’ve mentioned in today’s episode in the show notes at shedunnitshow.com/onthethames. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Just a reminder that my very own book about the Thames, The Way to the Sea, is out next week, i.e. on 6 June! If you are interested in getting a copy, there is information and links to various retailers in the show notes or at carolinecrampton.com/book. And if you want to do me an extra favour, consider pre-ordering a copy! You get your book at a slightly better price, and it helps show booksellers that this is a book they should be paying attention to. That’s it for today — I’ll be back on 12 June with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Florence Maybrick, Part Two.