Here’s a full transcript of the fifteenth episode of Shedunnit.
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The most recognisable thing about Golden Age Detective fiction — more than the murder weapons, the puzzles and all the other trappings of the classic whodunnit — is the time in which it is set. That two-decade period between the First and Second World Wars has become synonymous with the idea of the murder mystery, even though such stories were being written before 1920 and continued to appear long after 1940.
Plenty of the most famous sleuthing characters and tropes have their origins in this time frame. Sayings that are associated with detective fiction like “the butler did it” and “the game is afoot” are archaic enough to remind us of the genre’s origins in the 1920s and 30s, as is the inclusion of the fashion, music, decor and morality of this time that so often resurfaces in comedy sketches and adaptations as a shorthand for “classic crime”.
So before you don your flapper dress and your monocle for your murder mystery party, take a second to wonder: why is it that detective fiction is so closely associated with this period style?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into today’s show properly, a small update! I announced on the last episode that I had started the Shedunnit Book Club as a membership scheme for listeners who wanted to be more involved in the podcast and support its long-term existence. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many of you have signed up already — when I was setting it up, I whacked some goals up on the website almost as an afterthought, saying that when we hit 50 members, I’d make an extra exclusive episode, when we hit 100 I’d make two, and so on, and I’m very glad to say that we are, at the time I’m recording this, only one member away from the first goal, just in the first two weeks!
The club members have already chosen our first book — we’re going to be reading and discussing Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie this month. So if you would like to hear more of this podcast and get involved with reading your favourite detective novels along with the group, head on over to shedunnitshow.com/membership to read all about the other goodies you get and sign up. Now, on with today’s show.
One of the comments I hear most often from listeners is that they love the music that I use on the podcast. Music like. . . this, that you’re hearing in the background right now.
The reason I include this 1920s, ragtime style music is because a) I like how it sounds, but also b) because it helps to evoke the period that the books I’m mostly talking about are from, without me constantly having to say “this is about the 1920s! did I mention that already?!”. But by using it, I’m doing exactly what the person who buys a generic “murder mystery” halloween costume with fringed dress and feathered headband is doing, really. I’m making that connection between this genre of writing and this particular time period without really interrogating why they’re associated.
Of course, in some ways this association is completely natural, since some of the most famous books and characters of the classic “golden age” detective genre originated in that period between the first and second world wars. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, came out in 1920, and The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple’s novel-length debut was published in 1930. Lord Peter Wimsey first turned up in Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 novel Whose Body?, and Albert Campion put his specs on for the first time in 1929’s The Crime at Black Dudley. Plenty of other sleuths took their first steps towards popularity (or should I say notoriety) in this decade or the one that followed.
Since most of the time these authors were writing about their own time, or a version of it, rather than setting their stories in the past, it makes absolute sense that the technology, fashion and social mores of the day make an appearance, from telegrams to gloves to formal calls. There’s also a publishing dimension to why detective fiction (along with other popular, mass market literary genres) experienced such a boom in the years after the first world war: it coincides with a big expansion in the production of popular, cheap books, which meant that more people could read more stories for less money.
When Allen Lane founded his publishing house, Penguin, in 1935, it was with the intention of making paperbacks of high quality fiction and non-fiction so that they were accessible to more readers (and profitable for the company). The first ten titles selected to appear as Penguin paperbacks in their now-iconic triband coloured and white design perfectly represent this mission, from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to André Maurois’s Ariel, a fictionalised biography of the poet Percy Shelley.
But two of the ten titles will be very familiar to my fellow detective fiction fans — Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are in there too, in the green and white covers that soon became synonymous with Penguin crime fiction. Neither author was published long-term by Penguin, but Lane acquired the rights to these two novels specially for his new launch. Given how well the early Penguins sold with the 1930s reading public, it’s not that surprising that we think of those novels as so associated with this particular time period — it’s when they were really widely read and appreciated, after all.
After the Second World War, some detective novelists allowed the changing times and social attitudes to influence their writing, while others, like Agatha Christie, mostly kept delivering roughly the same, 1920s-esque but also fairly timeless backdrop for her whodunnits. This isn’t to say that she completely buried her head in the sand and avoided all mention of modernity, because novels like 1966’s Third Girl (which is about a young woman who lives in a flatshare with her peers and has an unsuitable boyfriend) and 1969’s Halloween Party do incorporate later ideas. But she did keep writing about the landed gentry and country house weekends long after plenty of these establishments had been broken up and sold, partly because it’s what she knew her public enjoyed, and partly because it’s what she knew she was good at. I also think it’s notable that although Dorothy L. Sayers lived until 1957, she didn’t write any more Lord Peter Wimsey stories after the start of the Second World War. His time was done.
Another reason why the 1920s and 30s seem to go on for ever in detective fiction is a very practical one, to do with forensics. While detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Albert Campion are happy to take advantage of what a police surgeon can tell them about a time of death or a fingerprint expert can discern from a smudged print, they are primarily characters who work with deductive reasoning, rather than microscopes and bloodstains, in order to find the solution. In some of my favourite stories from the golden age, it’s a big leap for the police to even be able to say for certain that the blood on a weapon is actually human blood, never mind being able to identify which human it came from. The kind of advance forensic techniques that appear in today’s police procedurals, where near-infallible DNA identifications can me made from minute strands of hair and entire crime scenes must be swabbed down in exacting detail just don’t fit with the kind of story that turns on Poirot finding a partially burned piece of paper in the grate and being able to say ‘aha, this is probably part of someone’s will!’. I don’t for a second subscribe to the idea that forensic technology “spoils” crime fiction, far from it, but I do think that scientific advances have inevitably lead to a different kind of plotting and writing that creates something quite different to the murder mysteries of the golden age. Therefore, it makes sense that for authors who came along long after this period was over who wanted to write in the classic whodunnit form, it’s easiest to set their stories back in those decades between the First and Second World Wars, to remove the need for any convoluted explanations for why their detectives don’t use mobile phones or advance blood analysis.
After the break: we hear from a bestselling contemporary author who writes mysteries set in the golden age.
This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. This is a new Hercule Poirot story, set in 1930s London, and a stylish, clever mystery. From the start, the world-famous Belgian detective is puzzled — he returns home from lunch one day to find an angry woman waiting outside his door, demanding to know why he sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of a “Barnabas Pandy”. Of course, Poirot has no idea what she’s talking about. But inside his flat someone else is waiting with a very similar story, and it quickly become clear that something very sinister is going on. The little grey cells must be called into action once more, if Poirot is to get to the truth before anyone is harmed.
The Mystery of Three Quarters is a Sunday Times bestseller, and the Sunday Telegraph said that “what Sophie and Agatha have in common is a rare talent for fiendish unpredictability”. If like me you’ve enjoyed Poirot’s previous adventures, you’ll definitely want to get stuck into a copy of this too. The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah is out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook, so get your copy today. You can also enter a competition to win your very own copy of The Mystery of Three Quarters — just send a quick email to email@example.com and you’ll be in with a chance of getting your hands on one. There’s no special phrase or question required, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll be entered.
So I’ve talked about why murder mysteries might have this strong association with the 1920s and 30s, and why writers today who want to write this kind of low-tech puzzle whodunnit might set their stories in that time period for expedience. But writing a novel with a period setting, especially a very well known one like this, is easier said than done. That’s why I wanted to talk to someone who had done it, time and time again, to great success.
Jacqueline: My name is Jacqueline Winspear and I’m the author of the Maisie Dobbs series.
Caroline: Jacqueline is the author of lots of novels, beginning with 2003 with Maisie Dobbs, and has won prizes and appeared on bestseller lists for them. She’s written 15 stories now in the Maisie Dobbs series, all about her titular heroine – a private detective based primarily in 1920s and 30s London, but who also travels around the UK and internationally for her cases. Maisie’s stories bring in lots of different elements we’re familiar with from the golden age of detective fiction, from the milieu of her world to her methodical approach to detection. She even has an assistant, Billy Beale, who I think bears some resemblance to Albert Campion’s right hand man, Lugg.
For Jacqueline, the period almost came before the characters.
Jacqueline: I’ve always been interested in that period of time between say just before the Great War. The lead up to the Great War and right up to say the end of rationing in Britain following the Second World War. So let’s say end of 1954 and I think what drew me to it even as a child is it’s it’s so much happened during that period time there were so many societal changes wrought by war itself and also that everything the same. There was so much on the face of it so much chaos and yet life went on. So it’s really an interesting period altogether.
Caroline: Maisie has direct experience of lots of dramatic and tragic events, from her time as a nurse in the First World War and the Spanish Civil War to her experiences of the Blitz in London in Jacqueline’s most recent novel, The American Agent. This is another reason why this period appealed to her as a writer, though, she says — there’s lots of possibilities for testing her characters.
Jacqueline: And of course periods of chaos really do lend themselves to to storytelling to fiction and indeed to an exploration of the human condition. What is it that makes us who we are how do we act when life goes away from what we expect of the ordinary to become extraordinary. What do we do about that. Because we’re just ordinary people and it’s it. It makes for a good good basis for telling a story.
Caroline: She also saw a great opportunity for fiction centred on women’s lives in this period, since it was a time of such tremendous social and political change for women (which is something I covered in more detail in the very first episode of this podcast, actually, so do go back and listen to that if you haven’t already). During her research of this period, Jacqueline found some extraordinary testimony about how the real women who lived through the time that Maisie Dobbs does in the books had their lives changed by all the chaos and conflict.
Jacqueline: I was listening to some audio of that generation speaking about their experiences. And I think this was mainly recorded probably in the late sixties into the seventies when it was obviously realized that that generation was going to be lost pretty soon, they were getting on. Anyway there was this one woman who was speaking and obviously being interviewed by a young woman maybe a student, I don’t know and probably been asked the question ‘how did the Great War change life for you’. Because suddenly you heard this woman say well very clipped tones ‘Well my dear let me tell you the Great War opened the stable door and we women bolted and once we had bolted there was no going bac’k. And you could imagine her this very correct straight back lady saying well no we’re not we’re not having any of that anymore we don’t want our corsets we’re wearing you know if you think of the close of the Twenties how clothing changed to be much more I think kinder to women and women’s opportunities changed.
Caroline: Research is something that Jacqueline takes very seriously — she’s been on multiple trips to the battlefields of the First World War in France and Belgium, she’s spent time in the archives at the Imperial War Museum in London, and she reads a lot of non-fiction about the period. But she’s also been absorbing the details of this time, in a way, her whole life without realising, she says. She even used to collect the china and pottery of the art deco period when she was in her twenties.
Jacqueline: And this goes back to when I was a child you know and being very curious about my granddad who had been he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shellshocked gassed and had horrible leg wounds. So I was very you know I was interested in that you know and had the questions are why does granddad breathe like that and so on and so forth and and also so knowing that there were a number of women in our small community who were Miss this Miss that I miss the other. And you know as one of the few small children in the place where I lived I was often invited round for tea or lunch with one of the ladies. It was in later years that I came to realise that one of the great tragedies of that generation of women was that so many were rendered childless because there were not enough men to go around to. There was that marriage and children would never happen and so as a little girl in the neighbourhood I was invited along for tea as I said or lunch and for each one there would be that. That sepia photograph on the mantelpiece of a young man lost to war. And so as I grew older that childhood sort of curiosity just became more adult interest and inquiry. So I was always interested in women and particularly women and war and what war did to the lives of women. So when it came to writing Maisie Dobbs and when I wrote Maisie Dobbs. I mean literally I didn’t plan to write a novel because I was writing non-fiction at the time I was writing articles essays. I didn’t think I’d ever write fiction. I know it sounds weird. I didn’t think I could tell a story. And then this idea literally came to me while I was on my way to work. It was one of those moments you know I figured that you know J.K. Rowling got sort of several more more than one Harry Potter on a train. I can get a lazy toffs but you know those moments don’t happen in a vacuum. And I think it was that intense interest in that era that that you know inspired Maisie Dobbs.
Caroline: There is such a thing as being too accurate, though.
Jacqueline: I don’t belabour the details and by that I mean I believe that that research should be like an iceberg and that only 7 percent of it is visible above the surface but all the other research you do it informs every single word you write. So I’m not one of these people who thinks my goal golly I all this research you bet I’m gonna get it in. Otherwise I might as well not be writing a story. The story absolutely comes first. Absolutely before everything else and if I had to love what Susan Isaacs the writer Susan Isaacs always said that if you read the acknowledgments to her books she says something along these lines in the annoyance of every books she lists all the people that have helped her. You know that the local judge the police chief rabbi lawyers or whoever. And then she says where their facts don’t mean my meat my fiction. I have jettisoned the facts so my facts will never take over from the story. They are there to give a sense of time and place and to underpin the story in certain places.
Caroline: The thinking behind her new novel The American Agent, which just came out in March 2019, is all about look back over this period as well as forward. What happens when you make it through one world war, only to find that another is beginning?
Jacqueline: I’m looking at the character of Maisie Dobbs but also those around her but someone like Maisie Dobbs who saw Death of a most terrible kind at an impressionable age. She lied about her age to serve on the Western Front as a nurse. And she was herself wounded and she comes through that. And I think by Book 3 people will realise that Maisie is a shell shocked as any man who ever fought in a battle. But then how does it feel for her to see another war on the horizon and to know that as people did to have a sense that there would be another war how does that feel and that feeling and that sense of wanting to go through another period of war and to take the characters into that time was you know thinking about my grandfather. And how did he feel this man who had been so horribly wounded in 1916. How did he feel when he saw his sons in uniform. You know my father 18 years old and an explosives expert working in a year in Germany blowing up bridges and things. How did he feel when he saw that and I don’t know the answer to that question because though that generation never talked rarely talked about what they saw and what they experienced. But I wonder about that what did how did he feel seeing his sons go off to war. And so I’ve I wondered that about Maisy. How does it feel. And that’s what I’m exploring at the moment once it is right at the start of the Blitz.
Caroline: So with all of the thinking and researching and plotting that she does in the 1920s and 30s, I had presumed that Jacqueline would be a big fan of golden age detective novels. But, I’m afraid to say, she won’t be joining the Shedunnit Book Club any time soon — at least not until she’s finished writing the Maisie Dobbs series.
Jacqueline: I do not read fiction set in the era I’m writing about. I’m saving it all up for and I don’t write about that era anymore. People so have you read this set in the First World War. Have you read this said in the Second World War and now I do not read it at all.
Caroline: I suppose it make sense that in order to write good fiction set during the golden age of detective fiction, you have to steer clear of all those famous novels and plots that might influence your work. Regardless, I don’t think that writers’ fascination with setting mystery stories in this time is going to diminish any time soon. It’s just too chaotic and hypnotic a period for sleuths and their creators to leave alone.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributor, Jacqueline Winspear, at her website jacquelinewinspear.com. For more information about the topics we discussed plus links to all the books mentioned check the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/periodstyle. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget: there’s still time to join the Shedunnit book club and start listening to the podcast without adverts, as well as get your hands on the bonus episodes and the extra book club material. You can join up at shedunnitshow.com/membership. I’ll see you in the secret book club forum, where this week we have been sharing pictures of our dogs and discussing the relative merits of different audiobook narrators. I’ll be back on 15 May with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Arsenic, Interrupted.