Here’s a full transcript of the fourteenth episode of Shedunnit.
Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.
Caroline: Authors’ names and personalities loom large when we think about detective stories. It’s enough to say “I’m reading an Agatha Christie”. You don’t need to give the title or summarise the plot for someone to know what you kind of book you’re enjoying. Just saying the name is enough.
Of course, writers don’t always use their actual names when they’re publishing books. For a whole lot of different reasons — some of them personal, some of them professional — they might choose a pseudonym to go on the cover with the title. And that’s the name that readers will get to know them by, perhaps never realising that it’s a name invented only for this purpose.
Pseudonyms have always been a feature of genre writing, with crime and detective fiction in particular overflowing with them — some writers even maintain multiple professional names, publishing as two or three or even more personas. But why go to all this trouble to craft a pseudonym? And what makes a good one, anyway?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into today’s episode properly, I have two very exciting bits of news to share. The first is that Shedunnit has been nominated at this year’s British Podcast Awards in the “smartest podcast” category, which is a really lovely thing to happen and not something at all I expected to happen. It’s also something that I owe very much to you listeners, literally, since I used the money that listeners have been donating to pay for the entry, so thank you very much for that. The other nominees are all really impressive and excellent podcasts, so do go to britishpodcastawards.com and check them out if you’re looking for something else to listen to in between episodes of Shedunnit.
The second is that I’ve made some decisions about how I’m going to keep making Shedunnit, mostly based on what listeners told me they wanted in the recent survey about the podcast’s future. And. . . I’m starting a book club for the podcast! It costs £5 a month to be a member, and for that you get access to the secret members-only forum where we’ll discuss our chosen detective novel each month, at least one extra bonus podcast episode a month, and early access to the main show without adverts or interruptions.
I hope this is going to be a really fun way to spend more time talking about the detective novels that we all love, and a sustainable way for the show to continue. If you’d like to find out more and sign up, you can do that at shedunnitshow.com/membership. I’ve also written an article that explains why I’m choosing to focus most of my attention on the podcast’s community and its own website, rather than using an external platform like Patreon or seeking lots of sponsorships, so if you’re interested in understanding more about that do have a read, I’ve linked it in the show notes. And of course, if you have any questions about the book club or encounter any problems getting set up, please do drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to help. Same goes if you’d like to contribute but circumstances make it difficult at the moment — do get in touch and we’ll work something out.
Right, enough of that. On with today’s episode.
I first became interested in the relationship between crime writers and their pseudonyms because of Josephine Tey. I think the first of her novels that I read was The Man in the Queue from 1929, coincidentally also her first detective novel to be published, in a reprinted edition that I found in a charity shop when I was a teenager. I still have this copy somewhere, and it definitely names “Josephine Tey” on the cover. I assumed that Josephine Tey was just the name of a writer of detective fiction from this period just like others I was familiar with, such as “Agatha Christie” and “Dorothy L. Sayers”, and set about tracking down copies of Tey’s other novels featuring Inspector Alan Grant without giving a thought to the idea that there might not actually be anybody called Josephine Tey at all.
It wasn’t until I read a biography of Josephine Tey many years later that I learned that it was actually the pseudonym of an Elizabeth MacKintosh, known to her friends as Beth. She was Scottish, born in Inverness in 1896. She didn’t come from a family of writers or academics — her parents ran a fruit shop, and before their marriage her mother had been a teacher. Beth trained as a physical education teacher after school (a setting she would reuse to great effect in her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes) and worked at various schools and clinics around the UK before and during the First World War. In the early 1920s she was working at a school in Tunbridge Wells in Kent in the south of England when her father asked her to come home — Beth’s mother Josephine was very ill, and indeed she died in 1923 when Beth was just 26. She decided to remain in Inverness to keep house for her widowed father, and it was during this time that she first began writing in earnest. She made friends with a soldier a couple of years her senior, Hugh Patrick Fraser McIntosh (no relation, despite the similar surnames) who also had literary leanings, and they encouraged each other to submit their short stories and poems for publication.
It wasn’t the works of Josephine Tey that poured out from her pen, though. Beth was the first of the pair to be published, with a poem in the Weekly Westminster Gazette in August 1925. It appeared under the name of “Gordon Daviot”, which was the pseudonym that Beth had chosen for her nascent writing career. She had serious literary ambitions, hoping to write novels one day and publish her verse in the best London journals, and she felt that the best way of accomplishing that was with an explicitly male-sounding name. This isn’t that surprising — three years later in 1928, Virginia Woolf would deliver the lectures upon which her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” is based, detailing all the ways in which true literary and academic success were denied to women because of prejudice and inequality. As an unknown Scottish woman with few connections in the London literary scene, it make complete sense that Beth would want to take one reason for editors to turn her down — her gender — out of the equation. I don’t know where the first name Gordon came from, but Daviot is the name of a village just outside Inverness, where the MacIntosh family used to go for holidays.
Beth, as “Gordon”, continued to publish poetry and short stories over the next few years, as did her friend Hugh. In fact, Beth’s biographer Jennifer Morag Henderson has speculated that if he had lived, a romance might have developed between Beth and Hugh. But he was in Inverness because he had tuberculosis, contracted no doubt after the horrendous conditions he endured in the trenches during the First World War. He died in 1927, and if there was any secret romantic connection between them, Beth couldn’t express it publicly. She never married anyone else.
Hugh didn’t live to see it, but Gordon Daviot’s literary career went from strength to strength. In 1929 she had two novels published, the literary piece Kif: An Unvarnished History, and the first Inspector Grant novel The Man in the Queue, which also initially appeared under the Daviot pseudonym, despite the fact that latter editions have attributed it to Josephine Tey instead. Just to make things extra confusing, Beth dedicated her first detective novel to “Brisena, who actually wrote it”, which was actually her nickname for her typewriter, but does make it seem like she’s pointing to the fact that the author is not writing under her real name. Gordon Daviot also wrote plays, and one of them, a historical piece about Richard II, was performed in London’s West End in 1932.
It wasn’t until 1936 that she published another crime novel, this one called A Shilling for Candles and also featuring Inspector Grant. But this one appeared under a new pseudonym, that of Josephine Tey. Josephine was Beth’s mother’s name, and she believed that “Tey” was the surname of her English great-great-grandmother, although Jennifer Henderson writes that she couldn’t the name in any family records and wonders if actually Beth misread the name “Fry” to find her pseudonymous surname. However she came upon it, it was clearly a division of authorship that worked for her — she continued to write more literary fiction and plays as Gordon Daviot, and her detective novels as Josephine Tey, and she even had separate literary agents for each one. Plenty of writers around this time used pen names to kept different types of writing distinct like this. Cecil Day-Lewis, father of the actor Daniel and Britain’s Poet Laureate between 1968 and 1972, published around 20 detective novels under the name Nicholas Blake, which he started writing in order to make money (because poetry didn’t pay that well). Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote under a few different names, including Anthony Berkeley, Frances Iles and A. Monmouth Platts, trying out different formal experiments with detective fiction for each. Others just used one pen name for everything, as in the case of Clemence Dane, real name of Winifred Ashton, who wrote plays, detective fiction, literary fiction and non fiction all under that same pseudonym.
If fans of Gordon Daviot’s The Man in the Queue recognised Inspector Grant when he popped up in the Tey novels in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, they didn’t make a big deal of it — it does seem like to most people, the different names and works weren’t obviously connected. This impression was bolstered too by the fact that Beth was a very private person, who kept her life very compartmentalised between family, friends from her teaching days, Scottish friends, and literary friends in London. Perhaps that’s a vital characteristic of an author who wants to work with different pseudonyms, in order to keep them all straight.
Pseudonyms are certainly no less popular or prevalent in today’s crime fiction than they were when Elizabeth MacIntosh was working. One of the biggest literary news stories in decades broke in 2013 when it was revealed that the crime author Robert Galbraith was actually the pseudonym of Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. Like Beth before her, Rowling had wanted to use a different name for her adult crime fiction to escape the pressure of publicity and expectation, and a male one at that to circumvent any speculation or prejudice that she might face as a woman writing hardboiled noir-style stories. Very little seems to have changed in this regard.
After the break: a contemporary crime writer explains how she went about creating her pseudonym.
This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. In it, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is once more on the scent of a new case, fresh from his most recent adventures in The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket. This story is set in 1930s London and quickly unfolds into a stylish, diabolically clever mystery. The legendary Belgian sleuth is baffled when he keeps being confronted by angry people who have received letters, supposedly sent by Poirot himself, accusing them of the murder of someone called Barnabas Pandy. All of the little grey cells must be harnessed to find the truth of this strange situation, though with the greatest caution, yet lives be put in danger. 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”. I know there are plenty of Poirot fans listening, and you’re definitely going to want to check out his latest adventure. 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.
Although the motivation for a woman novelist to publish at least some of her crime fiction under a pseudonym might be unchanged since the early 20th century, the practicalities of doing it have changed somewhat. An author’s name is now their personal brand, to be nurtured through website, social media and personal appearances, so it’s much harder to keep everything separate and secret the way Beth MacKintosh did with Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.
Helen: I write crime fiction which is police procedurals as Helen Fields and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. That series is ongoing and a little while ago I agreed that I would write a different book for a different publisher. That’s not a police procedural it’s slightly different it’s part legal thriller and part psychological thriller. We discussed this with my agent and publishers and we reached an agreement that there would be a different name. And I went away and I gave them three different names.
Caroline: This is Helen Fields, a former barrister and now crime fiction author. She has a new book out on 16 May, but it won’t be appearing under her own name. Instead, her novel Degrees of Guilt will have the name “H.S. Chandler” on the cover. Part of the reason for that, she says, is just because it’s coming out with a different publisher to her Helen Fields novels. When it actually came to choosing the new pseudonym, Helen didn’t get the final say, although she did draw up the shortlist:
Helen: I went back to them with three names. I’ve kept my initials but they are initialized. That’s not my full first name. And it was actually the publishers who chose which of the three they wanted me to use. That wasn’t my decision. I did give them all names that had some meaning to me. So I didn’t just kind of pluck them out of thin air. And for example I give an example of one that if we didn’t use but I gave them the name Blakelock which I thought was great. I thought it was all kind of a psychological thriller and kind of dark whatever but that’s my husband’s family’s original name from a couple of centuries back. And I think that’s amazing. That was the one they went for. I think they were after something a little bit more kind of up to date. So it’s it’s Chandler which actually is my mother’s maiden name so it’s a family name that has some resonance to me I’m not. So they’re going to be sat on a panel withsomebody calling me by a name that I’ve just made up and I can’t recognize.
Caroline: Helen was pleased that her new writing name uses initials rather than a first name, and so comes across as more gender neutral.
Helen: I suppose to an extent we initialize because of that age old thing about there being some men who don’t like buying books by women that is still true I still have men come up to me at events and say I don’t read women’s books and I politely say that’s completely fine that’s up to you. So in that you know following the amazing footsteps ofJ.K. Rowling sometimes it’s easier to initialize than actually putting the initials in rather than a full first name meant that if it was a element myself I could keep the same but private so I am HS, that’s real. And that was quite useful to me. But there are also other, more aesthetic considerations. Publishers are trying to think of very way in which the author’s name might affect whether someone chooses to buy the book or not, Helen says.
Helen: And it starts with the book concept and it’s on the cover and it’s also about layout on the book. So they’ll look at how you know H.S. Chandler works written along the bottom of the book is it neat as it does it stay balanced with the title layouts hugely important. How does it look down the spine because it could be really difficult to get a very long name on a spine along with a long book title. So it’s it’s hugely carefully managed and carefully thought out. So none of that happens by accident.
Caroline: Helen isn’t keeping her pseudonym a secret — hence the fact that’s she’s telling us about it now — but she is keeping the two “brands” distinct, with separate social media presences. They’re also already distinct in her writing styles and in her head, interestingly.
Helen: It’s funny sometimes I kind of slip over into the Helen Field’s writing when I was writing as HS Chandler. And I feel it immediately. It helps what really helps me and this is just a quirky thing to do with me is that the Helen fields books are set in Scotland. And when I write them literally every word my my brain voice as I write right to a Scottish accent it does it all the way through and H.S. Chandler is is kind of English and more of a me voice but I I physically hear the voice I hear the words out loud as I as I write it. And that’s quite a good separation technique for me because I could feel when I’m slipping from one style of writing into another.
Caroline: So there you have it, two women working in crime fiction almost a century apart, still grappling with the same issues around their gender and the names they choose to associate their work with. A pseudonym can be part of a fun game that a writer is playing with their readers, or it can conceal a more serious need to avoid prejudice and retain some modicum of personal privacy.
Whatever the reason, it makes the detective writers of the 1920s and 30s like Josephine Tey feel very close to us now. I mean, it’s almost as if nothing has really changed at all.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributor, Helen Fields, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/pseudonyms. There, you can also read a full transcript.
It’s also part of a collaboration with my friend Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist podcast. If you go and subscribe to that show now — search “The Allusionist” wherever you get your podcasts or click the link in the show notes — and next week you’ll be able to hear another episode all about pseudonyms and names featuring yours truly.
A reminder that if you’d like to join the Shedunnit book club and start listening ad free to extra bonus episodes of the podcast in between main releases, you can join up at shedunnitshow.com/membership. I look forward to chatting with you in the forum and picking our first book to read together.
I’ll be back on 1 May with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Period Style.