Tag: Arthur Conan Doyle

Young Sleuths Transcript

Caroline: I can’t remember how old I was when I read my first detective novel, but I definitely wasn’t a teenager yet. I devoured my first Agatha Christie — the Miss Marple short story collection The Thirteen Problems — under the covers on a family holiday when I was 11 after finding it on the shelf at the bed and breakfast we were staying in. A satisfyingly sneaky point of origin for this whodunnit obsession of mine, but not really accurate.

It really depends how you define “detective novel”. Long before I came upon my first Christie by chance that summer I had been reading mystery stories written for children — principally Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven and Five Find Outers series, as well as Louise Fitzhugh’s seminal novel Harriet the Spy. I think the crime fiction bug must have bitten me around about my seventh birthday.

It’s only recently, though, that I’ve been thinking more critically about mystery fiction aimed at children and young people. Given the lengths that society goes to to make sure that kids don’t see films and television programmes with quote “inappropriate” themes, it seems incongruous that books where thefts, threats of violence and even murders are essential to the plot are not only available to younger readers, but actually written especially for them.

Yet such mysteries are a booming subgenre of today’s crime fiction publishing industry. Generations of writers, going right back to the golden age of detective fiction and beyond, have written whodunnits for younger readers. And these books aren’t just for children and teens, they are about them too. Today, we’re going to meet the young sleuths.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

A quick housekeeping note before I get into today’s episode proper: a Shedunnit related project that I’ve been working on for the last few months is going to be available for pre order very soon, along with a special early bird incentive for keen eared listeners to the show. To be the first to know all about what this and how you can get it, sign up for the podcast’s newsletter at the link in the shownotes or at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter, because as soon as I’m allowed to share the full details, that’s where I’ll be doing it.

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During the 18th and into the 19th century, literature for children gradually shifted from being dominated by religious and moralising texts to stories that aimed to entertain rather than instruct. Didacticism gave way to fun, and the mid 19th century saw the arrival of adventure stories, school stories and imaginative masterpieces like Alice in Wonderland that all aimed to give pleasure to younger readers.

There’s plenty of mystery in children’s literature that has little to do with detection; indeed you might argue that Lewis Carroll’s stories are mysteries, since Alice spends most of the books trying to work out what is going on. For instance Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best known books — Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden — all feature young protagonists embroiled in some kind of mystery, albeit a mystery more to do with their own identity and future than any sort of crime.

But the first book to feature a true child detective is generally considered to be Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, originally published in German and widely translated into other languages. Appropriately, it appeared during the golden age of detective fiction for adults that was going on between the world wars — Emil was published in Germany in 1929 and then in English in 1931. It’s really an extraordinary book and I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. It’s set in 1920s Berlin and sees 12 year old schoolboy Emil assemble a gang of other kids (the “detectives” of the title) to help him catch a mysterious thief who stole his money while he was sleeping on a train.

As an origin point for children’s detective fiction, Emil and the Detectives makes sense. Many of the tropes that became common in the genre are present, from the family troubles that see Emil sent, unsupervised, to stay with his aunt in Berlin, to the group of young sleuths that band together to solve the case. The contemporary, unsanitised setting also set it apart. Emil and his comrades inhabit a fairly accurate version of Berlin, a city where the Weimar regime was in its dying days and the Nazis were gaining ground. The book was instantly popular, selling millions of copies across Europe and America.

With Emil and the Detectives, Kästner hit upon the central tension that informs all young adult detective fiction: adults are a mystery to children and children are a mystery to adults. They inhabit different worlds. Grown ups create and enforce rules that kids then subvert, creating imaginative spaces where they can thrive without restriction. Although it’s not a mystery, you see the beginnings of this dichotomy in the work of J.M. Barrie, in which the technicolour world inhabited by Peter Pan and the rest stands in start contrast to the everyday greyness of normal life.

The next major development for young sleuths came from Enid Blyton. Over fifty of her books have the word “mystery” or “secret” in the title, a figure that gives you an indication of just how vital this format was to her output. In the first novel in her “secret” series, 1938’s The Secret Island, she focused in on what was to become a very important aspect of children’s detective fiction: the isolation of the young sleuths from the adults. In this story, the parents of Peggy, Mike and Nora have been killed in a plane crash, leaving them to be brought up by a disinterested and unpleasant aunt and uncle. In this instance the trio runs away to live in secret on an island in a lake where they have their adventures, but writers have found plenty of other means to leave their protagonists unsupervised — schools are popular settings for this reason, as are holidays and camps. Any scenario where a community of young people can plausibly exist with minimal intervention from adults will work.

Enid Blyton wrote several mystery series concurrently: the Famous Five first appeared in 1942 with Five on a Treasure Island, then the Five Find Outers arrived in 1943 with The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and then the Secret Seven turned up in their eponyous debute in 1949. Although it’s the Five Find Outers books that arguably most closely conform to the tropes and ideals of golden age detective fiction, in all of these strands Blyton has the essential ingredients for a young sleuthing mystery — a group of child detectives, free to investigate in the adult world with minimal supervision, who inhabit a recognisable world and aren’t afraid to take on the criminals themselves.

Detective fiction for adults from this time was flourishing, of course, but rarely included children in its plots in a major way. Agatha Christie did write a school-based mystery with school girl characteres — 1959’s Cat Among the Pigeons — but it’s still the adults who do most of the heavy lifting in the plot and Hercule Poirot who ultimately solves the case. More interesting in this regard is Gladys Mitchell, who began writing crime fiction during the golden age and is known today for her 66 whodunnits featuring reptilian sleuth Mrs Bradley. However, beginning in 1936, she did write a series of standalone books for younger people, several of which straddle the divide between mystery and adventure. These are mostly out of print now and difficult to get hold of, but I do own a copy of 1948’s Holiday River and it is a very fine Norfolk Broads mystery starring a cohort of teenagers on an unsupervised boating holiday. I believe Mitchell mostly wrote these books as a money-spinning enterprise, probably inspired by the success of the Famous Five and co earlier in the decade. Indeed 1949’s The Seven Stones Mystery and 1950’s The Malory Secret sound like they could have been written by Enid Blyton herself.

The children’s librarian Eileen Colwell once famously mocked the premise of Blyton’s mysteries for children, saying “What hope has a band of desperate men against four children?”. And of course, there is some suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the way in which 11 year olds over and over again confront armed smugglers and escape unscathed. But I think what this question gets at is the way that classic, cerebral detection can level the playing field for young sleuths. Yes, they are physically outmatched by the adults they investigate, but the knowledge that they gather gives them power. Young sleuths keep secrets from grown ups, withholding and revealing what they know accordingly to get what they want — whether that’s to keep their guardians off their backs or to convince the police that they really have caught a gang of criminals. There’s also safety in numbers. Blyton and most other creators of young sleuths don’t tend to write about solo detectives. Like Emil, they always have a group of friends to back them up, and they have a corporate identity together that is much stronger than that of an individual child.

Above all, the young sleuth’s most powerful weapon is their marginalisation. Children are outsiders in the adult world, able to move about undetected and eavesdrop on conversations in a way that someone older would never be able to manage. Adults tend to underestimate and dismiss young people’s ideas, too, which can also be very useful for detecting. It’s no accident that young sleuths often pick up cases that the police have disregarded, or investigate problems that conventional detectives don’t consider suspicious. The imaginative leaps that kids make place them in opposition to the rule-following of their older counterparts. In the very first episode of Shedunnit I talked about the idea of “surplus women” and how the invisbility of spinster sleuths like Miss Marple create the perfect conditions for detection, and there’s something very similar at work here. Outsiders of all kinds make for good detectives — consider the “foreignness” of Hercule Poirot — and young people are no exception.

After the break: how do you create a young sleuth today, in the age of the internet?

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It’s all very well marooning your young sleuths on an island in 1938, when even using the telephone to call for help was a bit of novelty. Is it even possible to create a plausible and readible young detective character for today’s world? Although there are plenty of mystery boks aimed at younger readers published these days, lots of them get round the issue of smartphones and TikTok by setting their plots in the past. One of the best known series of this type is by Robin Stevens, who has been a guest on the show a couple of times before. Her Murder Most Unladylike books are set at a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s and star a pair of exemplary young sleuths — Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells — who fight crime with their wits and a notebook.

Maureen: I think people go back largely because it’s fun. Also: no phones, no cell phones and no internet. The internet ruins a lot of things in terms of being able to easily access information or just call someone if you’re in trouble. So there’s a lot of phone destroying that I think sometimes has to happen in stories.

Caroline: This is Maureen Johnson. She’s a lifelong fan of classic detective fiction and was a successful writer of non mystery fiction before she began publishing the Truly Devious series about teenage detective Stevie Bell in 2018.

Maureen: The first book full book I ever remember reading was The Hound of the Baskervilles. I had a children’s edition of it, and I was so entranced by the first image of the reflection in the teapot that that was sort of it for life. I was taken from that moment and I got my hands on every mystery I could possibly get my hands on.

And I always meant to write a mystery — I’ve written YA for, for years and years — and I didn’t do it because I think I thought it was too good for me, or it was what I enjoyed the most. And so I didn’t do it. It’s very hard, I think sometimes maybe we avoid the thing that’s too close to the thing that we love.

Caroline: When she set out to write the first Stevie Bell book, Truly Devious, Maureen worked hard to engineer the scenario that would allow a teenager from today to plausibly investigate a crime. This meant building a school — one which was haunted by a cold case from the 1930s that a new student in the twenty-first century, raised on detective fiction and true crime podcasts, would be desperate to investigate when she arrived.

Maureen: I created the rules of Ellingham for her. I created the architecture of the school for her, the location of the school for her, because I had to explain why she was 16 years old and a detective, which is difficult. As a frequent listener of this show, I love how you break down where the various detectives come from and their background.

So they’re either kind of unusual people, they’re always older, they’re ex detectives. They’ve been personally roped in there, I guess, ti’s rare that they’re personally roped into a case. But I built a school that could accommodate and allow a student detective to flourish and investigate a cold case from 1936 to her heart’s content.

And I built it absolutely along classic mystery lines. I built the manor, I put it in a remote location. I put a detective in there.

Caroline: Although Ellingham Academy was established in the late 1920s and Maureen is drawing on the country house murder mysteries of that period, Stevie is very much a teenager of today. So how do you slot those two very disparate things together to make one readable whodunnit?

Maureen: It doesn’t make any sense, but I think it makes more sense now than it ever has because there’s so much citizen detective work that’s going on because of cold cases, the internet, podcasts, things where people are actually taking part in investigations who are complete amateurs in a way that was only written about and are solving them or helping to solve real life cases. So I’m sure at this point, a 16 year old with a very active interest in a cold case could get involved in it. It’s makes a lot more sense now than it ever did in the past, which is helpful.

Caroline: This is a really important point, and one which plays a large role in the latest Stevie Bell book, The Box in the Woods, which has just been published this month. Although there are lots of reasons why our greater connectivity makes it harder to create a compelling young sleuth, the way media is changing also provides opportunities. In her latest adventure, Stevie is invited to a summer camp by a wealthy true crime enthusiast who wants her to solve a mystery from 1978, when four young workers at the camp were found brutally murdered in the woods. But she’s not being called in because her backer wants justice for the victims; no — he wants to make a hit true crime podcast about the story that might get optioned as a movie, and he thinks it will have a greater chance of success if they can, exclusively, reveal whodunnit. As well as this clever justification for why an adult would consult an internet-famous teenage detective, Maureen’s choice of location is also her answer to one of the fundamental problems of writing a young sleuth: how do you get them out from their family home and out there taking risks?

Maureen: It was the summertime, something where I could gather the characters back in one location again that gave me the right atmosphere that gave me the right kind of location. Gathering young people together is hard. So you have a few options. You have to think places like schools or camps and later on you’ll have universities.

But they can’t just get up and go. They don’t have jobs. They have to go where they’re told in a lot of ways. So this was a way of gathering people in one place. And it’s a very, always anything that happens in the dark, you know, dark woods. And certainly there’s an air of danger with the summer camp.

They’re really not very dangerous. They’re fine. But you know, it’s the spooky nature of the summer camp and the stories around the campfire.

Caroline: The parallel narratives between the crime in 1978 and Stevie’s present day investigation of it allows Maureen to bring out the differences in the way young people are treated then and now. The relative freedom of the 1970s, when teenagers could slip off into the woods and nobody really worried about it, vs the constant check ins required of today’s young people, are leveraged for the plot.

Maureen: They have tools to help them know where they’re at. But sometimes they don’t work. The GPS doesn’t necessarily work correctly in the woods or they lose their phones and I think it’s much more frightening now to lose your tether, to not have that machine to help you out, you know, or the one that we even just wear on our wrist that says you can call for help. I can tell you where you’re at. There’s a striking contrast there. I hopefully try to bring out the striking contrast between these two times.

Caroline: Another challenge is that Maureen’s books aren’t just about young sleuths, they’re written for them too. The Truly Devious series is officially classified as “Young Adult”, a publishing category that usually means it’s pitched at readers aged 12-18. I’ve been using the terms “children’s literature” and “younger readers” fairly interchangeably in this episode so far, but it is worth nothing that different publishing industries around the world do separate books into fairly specific categories like this according to the age of the imagined reader. For instance, in the US, the age range below YA is called middle grade, and it’s for readers aged 8-12. Anyway, the point is that Maureen is writing a character who is meant to be at roughly the same age and stage as many of her readers, and that’s not easy when you’ve left your own teenage years behind you.

Maureen: I’ve been doing it for a while. And one thing you have to accept, I think right off the bat, is that anything that you’re writing now, the second you commit it to paper it’s dated. So anything that exists in terms of technology will be old very, very quickly. And that’s okay.

Actually, it’s okay to have a little timestamp on that. I think the trick is a little bit to keep it general — there are cameras, that there are phones, but listing really specific apps or techniques is going to give you a little less shelf life, or it will very clearly date where you are.

Caroline: This is one of the things that really make the Stevie Bell books breathe, I think. Technology does play its part — in The Box in the Woods, Stevie and her friend Janelle make very good use of some internet enabled home security cameras — but ultimately the plots are constructed along classic lines. The case is solved because of Stevie’s deductions, not because of the apps on her phone.

As I alluded to earlier, mystery fiction for younger readers has to grapple with notions of what is “appropriate” — whether it’s acceptable to introduce violence and gore into a story that a child put pull off the library shelf and read before an adult can intervene. I was keen to hear Maureen’s take on this, and learn whether there were any restrictions on what she can and can’t include in Stevie’s cases.

Maureen: There really aren’t and somebody asked me recently, they said, ‘oh, YA’s gotten darker and you can do more now’. No, it’s, it’s always been okay to write fairly dark young adult stories. I mean, there was one when I was growing up called Killing Mr. Griffin, which came out in 1978 by Lois Duncan, who wrote many very dark young adult books.

That that’s about a group of teenagers who killed their English teacher and dump his body. I mean, it was genuinely a terrifying book.

I don’t think there’s ever been a limit on what you can discuss. I think they’re more technical now. And I think the technical aspect comes from people’s interest in true crime. And just that you’re used to hearing that cases are solved through DNA or something like that through a digital monitoring of some kind.

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Caroline: The Box in the Woods, and the other Truly Devious novels, then, manage something that feels rare: they’re books written now, set in the present, that are squarely built on the foundations of the classic 1920s puzzle mystery. The characters have phones, it’s true, but they haven’t forgotten how to use their brains. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. How does Maureen do it?

Maureen: Remembering that it’s not just, you know, the body on the ground, even though I’ve got a lot of respect for the body you find in the library, that’s in the body, you find in the sarcophagus and, and under the bed. And of course, like all of us, I just want to find one someday.

Caroline: No matter how old we are, we’re all young sleuths at heart.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Maureen Johnson — her latest young adult detective novel, The Box in the Woods, is out now in the US and the UK, and available from all good booksellers. Links to this and all the other books and sources mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/youngsleuths. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Young Sleuths

Young detectives, and young readers, play an important part in the history of detective fiction.

Many thanks to my guest, Maureen Johnson. Her newest YA mystery, The Box in the Woods, is out now. Find out more at her website www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @maureenjohnson.

There are no major plot spoilers in this episode, but we do talk about the general set up of Maureen’s four Stevie Bell novels: Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair, The Hand on the Wall and The Box in the Woods.

Books and sources mentioned:

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
Harriet The Spy by Lousie Fitzhugh
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
The Secret Island by Enid Blyton
Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage by Enid Blyton
The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Holiday River by Gladys Mitchell
The Seven Stones Mystery by Gladys Mitchell
The Malory Secret by Gladys Mitchell
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
Mystery in Children’s Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural edited by Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge

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Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/youngsleuthstranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

A Century of Whodunnits Transcript

Something I love about making this podcast is the space it provides for me to zoom right in. I can dedicate a whole episode to a single trope from classic detective fiction, whether that’s tropes like “the butler did it” or settings like “on a boat”.

I’ve narrowed the focus even further by putting a time limit on the books that I cover. They largely come from the golden age of detective fiction, that period between the two world wars when what we now think of as the “classic” whodunnit was at the height of its popularity.

And while I have no intention of setting aside this approach, something has been gnawing at me for a while. It’s this question. What would it look like if I zoomed out instead of in? What if, instead of tracking the development of the golden age detective novel within that short timespan, I considered the broad strokes of the murder mystery across a whole century?

Well, that’s what I’m going to do today. We’re going on a journey from 1900 to the year 2000. This is the twentieth century, according to its whodunnits.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It’s now been a century, at least, since the first whodunnits from the golden age of detective fiction were published.

I spend a lot of time reading the books that were published during that two decades or so because I love seeing the development of the “classic” whodunnit up close, and also because I make this podcast.

I know that round numbers are meaningless, but I can’t help it. Noticing that a hundred years has passed since some of my favourite books from the early 1920s were first released had more of an impact on me than when it was just 99 years, or 98. There are still so many books from that time that are new to me that it’s easy to forget that they are, objectively, quite old now.

As much as I might try to get into the mindset of a reader from 1923, for instance, reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ debut novel Whose Body? with fresh eyes just after publication and encountering her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey for the first time, I can’t switch off my knowledge of everything that comes after. I know that she would write ten more novels and dozens of short stories featuring this character, and that she would begin drifting away from writing detective fiction once the second world war began. Imagination can only take you so far.

Although I can’t abandon my vantage point in 2021 and the hindsight that comes with it, I decided to try reading my way through the crime fiction of the twentieth century from beginning to end, like I was one very long lived reader keeping up with what was new in my favourite genre.

To do this, I picked a book from each decade that seemed to me to be an important step forward for the form of the detective novel. Now, before I get into discussion these books, I just want to preempt any dissent about my choices by saying that they are just that, my choices. This is a personal journey through the twentieth century’s crime fiction, and it’s in no way intended to be a definitive reading list or statement. In fact, I’d love to hear what you would pick for a similar reading project — you can tell me about it on social media if you’d like, where the podcast can be found as @ShedunnitShow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Having said all that, I couldn’t start anywhere but with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories that Arthur Conan Doyle had published in magazines between 1903 and 1904, and which appeared in one volume for the first time in 1905.

This wasn’t Holmes’s first appearance in the twentieth century. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novel about Holmes and Watson’s adventures unravelling the myth of a diabolical dog on Dartmoor, had been published in 1902. But crucially, this story is a flashback — in the personal chronology of Sherlock Holmes, it takes place before he dies at the end of the short story “The Final Problem”, first published in 1893.

Conan Doyle really did intend that to be the last word on Sherlock Holmes. He was convinced he was destined for literary greatness beyond detective fiction, and that the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street was just holding him back. He even wrote to his mother about the decision, saying that “I must save my mind for better things”.

But it didn’t last long. First he relented to the pressure from publishers and the public with a tale from Holmes’s casebook in the form of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then in the first story from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”, he resurrected his sleuth properly. Picking up this book again for the first time in years, I tried to imagine how exciting it would have been, as a fan, to open the magazine containing the first new adventure for your favourite character in ten years. Today, we have become accustomed to the endless cycle of reboots and remakes, but I think that would have been genuinely thrilling.

Since it had been a while since I read these stories, I had forgotten quite how many of my favourites this collection contains. The characters of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are well established, and thanks to his work’s incredible popularity Conan Doyle is able to assume when writing in the early 1900s that his readers are conversant with the typical beats of a detective story. Therefore, he spends less time on the fundamental mechanics of “whodunnit” and starts riffing on the theme, exploring new avenues and possibilities.

Turning the pages, it felt a bit like I was reading a kind of source text out of which everything in the next couple of decades was going to expand. “The Adventure of the Empty House” is a clever locked room mystery. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is a case that turns on code breaking. “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” is an inheritance mystery. “The Adventure of the Priory School” features a criminal that deliberately tries to hoodwink the detective when it comes to forensic observation. “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” sees the detective act not only as investigator, but judge and jury too. I could go on. Each story contains at least one aspect that other writers would enhance and develop into entire plots and subgenres in the decades to come.

It really isn’t possible to understate the influence that Sherlock Holmes had on the crime fiction that followed. So many of the traits that we now just associate with the figure of “the detective, such as his eccentricity, or his detachment from a personal life, or his preoccupation with forensic evidence like ash and footprints, were first brought to wide attention in the form of Sherlock Holmes.

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I started with a bang, I know. Now we’re moving on to the next decade, the 1910s, and a book that I think is a little less well known today: Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, first published in 1913. Writers like GK Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley all regarded it very highly, and when the Detection Club was formed in 1930 Bentley was elected as a member based on the reputation of this one novel, and succeeded GK Chesterton to become the society’s second president.

I first came across the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley when I worked at the New Statesman magazine, as it happens. Bentley is probably best known today as the originator of a poetic form called after his own middle name — the clerihew. Supposedly, Bentley invented these four line biographical poems when at school in the 1890s, and he and schoolfriend GK Chesterton had great fun filling notebooks with them. The first line has to be just the person’s name, and then the following three lines (rhyming AABB) sketch the person’s life. Here’s an example, from Bentley’s 1905 collection of them, Biography for Beginners:

Sir Christopher Wren

Said “I am going to dine with some men.

“If anybody calls

“Say I am designing St Paul’s.”

The New Statesman ran competitions where readers sent clerihews in for years, and for the 2013 centenary issue the writer Craig Brown was commissioned to write some new ones. I got curious about how someone could make living in the 1900s from writing funny little poems, so I dug into Bentley’s bibliography and discovered his detective fiction. Anyway, the point of telling you this is to illustrate how that light, comic style was central to Bentley’s work and reputation, during his lifetime and after. If you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, then you have a fair idea of how he wrote.

Because that’s how Trent’s Last Case started out, as a kind of light comic parody or satire. He set out to write a detective novel that would simultaneously contribute to the genre while also undercutting the seriousness of detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown, who had first appeared in print in 1910.

Trent’s Last Case and includes lots of other very recognisable elements that would later become standard golden age tropes: an unlikeable victim, a comic amateur sleuth, an apparently perfect alibi and a brilliant twist ending. Philip Trent struggles against “the impotence of human reason”, but in making reason or logic the central theme of the book while marrying it with a lightness of touch and sparkling prose, Bentley was paving the way for Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and many others to follow. He prevented the detective novel from becoming too serious and self regarding. Even the title is a joke in itself — this is the first novel about Philip Trent, but it’s also announced as his last case because he’s not a good detective. In other words, E.C. Bentley made it OK to be funny while writing detective fiction.

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And now we’re in the 1920s — a decade of richness when it comes to detective fiction. What should I choose? Agatha Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Gladys Mitchell’s first novel Speedy Death, or Anthony Berkeley’s brilliantly referential and innovative The Poisoned Chocolates Case? No, I went for The Cask, first published in 1920, the first novel by Irish writer Freeman Wills Crofts.

Why? Well, it’s true that in part I wanted to read a book from this decade that isn’t quite as familiar to me as those others I mentioned, and also because I think what Crofts achieved in this novel is worth appreciating as an important way point on crime fiction’s journey through the century. Crofts was a railway engineer by profession, or at least he was until 1929 when he became a full time detective novelist, and he wrote this first book while signed off work sick in 1919.

His plot unites three strands that we’re going to revisit a lot in the rest of this episode.

Firstly, it is a police procedural. A cask containing a dead body is unloaded at the docks in London, and the police are summoned to investigate (the cask disappears again before they can take charge of it, but you’ll need to read the book yourself to find out why). The reader then follows the police detective through the process of chasing down clues until they arrive at the truth.

This relates to the second strand: the masterful way in which Crofts handles alibis. Every single one is worked out to the second. This was to become a trademark of his fiction going forward, but again I feel like it would have felt new to a reader cracking open the book for the first time in 1920.

And then finally, there’s an international dimension to the book, with the cask bouncing back and forward between London and Paris with the police detectives of both cities on its tail.

I find reading The Cask incredibly restful, which is an odd thing to say about a book centred around a murder, I know. But there’s something about the way the plot is constructed that makes it clear that Crofts is in full control, and I find it relaxing to know that somebody is else is in charge while I’m reading. His work absolutely deserves to be better known, so if you haven’t read one of his stories before I highly recommend seeking one out.

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Into the 1930s. Again, since we’re still in the golden age, I was spoilt for choice. I went for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is a book that I’ve reread a lot in the last twenty years. I didn’t choose it with this in mind, but I found that it followed on from The Cask very well, because the complex bellringing elements of Sayers’ plot — she did subtitle it “changes rung on an old theme in two short touches and two full peals” after all — married very well with Crofts’ detailed alibis.

Where The Nine Tailors feels like a step onwards is in its characterisation. The people of Fenchurch St Paul, the tiny Norfolk village where Peter Wimsey ends up by accident on New Year’s Eve, live and breathe. Their ideas and motivations are overlapping and complex; they don’t all line up neatly just for the purpose of a plot. Said plot also takes place over a number of years, which also helps to dissipate the feeling of artificiality that had begun to creep into some detective novels by this time. The events of the novel span a couple of decades, which feels a bit more likely than a case that can be tied up in a bow in three days.

When Sayers died in 1956 the obituary writer in the New York Times remarked that this novel was widely considered to be her finest literary achievement. I would agree – I think she invented better plots, but I don’t think she wrote a better novel. The presence of Wimsey feels almost incidental, as if he truly is there by accident rather than having to push the plot on with exposition. And some of her descriptive passages about the way the bells sound across the fens or the rising floodwaters in the dykes are truly brilliant.

Sayers was always looking for ways to push the detective novel further and to release it from the restrictions placed on genre fiction. Given that, I think it’s the highest compliment I could pay this book to say that I really don’t care who did the crime by the end — I just want to keep reading about the village and the bells.

After the break: what happens after the golden age?

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The Second World War was something of a watershed moment for detective fiction. Some previously prominent writers, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, stopped writing whodunnits altogether after 1939. Others, like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and others, kept going with the characters and style that had made them popular during the golden age even as that period drew to a close.

It was really difficult to know at what point to drop in on Agatha Christie’s career on this journey. There are six different decades to choose from — she published whodunnits from the 1920s through to the 1970s. That’s over half of the twentieth century, just in her bibliography.

Although I think the 1930s probably represents her best hit rate — that is the period in which she wrote Peril at End House, The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None, after all — I eventually went for Five Little Pigs. I think this unsettling novel from 1943 is truly a tour de force, and I also think it shows signs of the way the crime genre is developing that are interesting to note after what we’ve read before.

My principle attraction to Five Little Pigs, though, lies in the fact that it is a cold case — something that Christie didn’t address often, preferring a more active murder scenario. In this one, Hercule Poirot reexamining a case from 16 years ago in which a painter was poisoned as he worked at a portrait of his mistress. The book is formally intriguing, too, with the events of his last day retold to the detective from five different perspectives as he interviews each of the five people who were present. It’s a formidable challenge of both plotting and detection, since Christie allows neither herself nor Poirot access to new clues or suspects beyond those included in the original case. It’s a book that carries the reader along on the drama of pure intellect and reasoning, and as such I think can fairly be described as a true high point of the golden age style.

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My next choice reflects the way in which the detective novel began to morph and change with the changing times after 1945. Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert has some of the key golden age characteristics, including a closed circle of suspects and an amateur detective, but is very different in setting and atmosphere. The plot takes place in a prisoner of war camp for British officers in northern Italy during the Second World War, and is based on Gilbert’s own experiences of being interned.

The camp inmates are working hard at covertly digging a tunnel so they can escape when they discover a dead body in their earthworks. Rather than alert the camp’s authorities to the murder and expose their escape attempt, they appoint one of their own number to investigate the crime. This element works very well as a classic murder mystery plot, but it enhanced by the addition of a wartime thriller, as the characters struggle to get out safely before the camp is turned over to the Germans.

Gilbert was an incredibly adaptable writer, who dabbled in many different styles and subgenres over his long writing career. I think he represents a bridge between the dominant style of crime writing in the 1930s and 40s and the more modern thriller found in bookshops today. He was reading crime fiction during the golden age, and even started writing a mystery novel in the late 1930s, but didn’t get to start publishing until after the war.

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We are a long way from Shedunnit’s usual stomping ground in the golden age of detective fiction now. Although our next writer was technically alive during that period — she was born in 1930 — her first book came out in 1964. That was From Doon With Death, the debut of Ruth Rendell, in which she introduced the character who was to become her recurring sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford.

This wasn’t the very first Ruth Rendell I had read, because I’ve picked a few up at the library at random over the years, but it was the first time I had read this book. I found it really impressive — I don’t think all the crime writers I’ve read for this episode managed such an accomplished debut. From Doon With Death is chilling and suspenseful, and I also think it looks both backwards and forwards in the canon of twentieth century crime writing.

The woman at the heart of the plot, Margaret Parsons, is a shy housewife in a quiet town. She is very clearly differentiated from the upper class, larger than life victims in whodunnits from the 1930s and 40s. Her normalness is strongly underlined. This makes the murderer’s attack on her all the more shocking — what on earth can she had done to justify such a thing? The emphasis on her home feels to me like it looks forward to the trend for domestic noir that is even now dominating the bestseller charts.

Yet there are aspects of this book that feel like they could be from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel, in particular Margaret’s secret cache of rare books. It is in the inscriptions to these that Wexford has to look for clues to unlock the case. Rendell’s use of the particular legal circumstances of the time to hoodwink the reader also reminded me of Sayers’ legal slight of hand in Unnatural Death. I found reading From Doon With Death a really interesting experience, perhaps I should read more modern crime fiction more often.

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I was really motoring through the latter part of the twentieth century now, in a period of crime fiction that is almost completely unfamiliar to me. My best book, from the 1970s, was Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. This was first published in 1977, and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I came across it during my research for my People’s Pathologist episode about the early forensics expert Bernard Spilsbury.

This novel came fairly early in James’s career, but her police detective character Adam Dalgliesh was already well established by the time it came out. Again, there are aspects of his character that seem to hark backwards even as the plot of this novel is modern. Dalgliesh is a kind of “gentleman” detective within Scotland Yard, and someone who enjoys poetry and reflection. He reminds me a little of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who first appeared in 1975’s Last Bus To Woodstock, but also of E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen from his novels in the 1930s — Owen being from a noble family yet choosing to work as a lowly police constable.

Death of an Expert Witness is set among the staff of a forensics lab, and this gives James plenty of scope to introduce lots of technicalities peculiar to that field. The focus on forensics is intriguing, but the motive she gives to her murderer was a bit disappointing to me, and felt like it fell into some of the exploitative traps that generally makes me dislike more recent crime fiction. Still, I’d like to spend more time with Adam Dalgliesh.

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My choice for the 1980s is a bit of a throwback — Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes, first published in 1986. I say that because this is actually the final book in a series that began during the golden age, with 1936’s Death at the President’s Lodgings. Innes was the pseudonym of literature academic J.I.M. Stewart, and in half a century he published almost fifty novels featuring his sleuth Sir John Appleby. I’ve read some of the earlier ones and liked them, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to drop in on the final instalment.

As is fitting for a detective of such long service, Sir John has retired from the police force by the time of this book. He goes for a cosy lunch at a country house called Clusters with Lord and Lady Osprey, and is then surprised to get a call days later to come and investigate the lord’s murder. The power dynamic between him and the officer actually in charge of this case is interesting, but overall I rather regretted my choice to read a late career book by such a long lived author.

It was rather like reading late P.G. Wodehouse, in that it felt nostalgic for a world of country houses and casual privilege that didn’t really exist anymore. The appearance of the N word in Sir John’s dialogue and some of the attitudes expressed around rape didn’t make this book especially comfortable reading.

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And now, we have arrived at the last of my ten books, the end of the journey. This is the only book on my list that is by a living writer, who is also coincidentally the only writer here I have actually met. My last choice is Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, his eight novel to feature his police detective Inspector Rebus, which was first published in 1997. Again, I’ve read a few Rankins here and there at random from the library, but this was my first time choosing one intentionally.

I had read that this title in particular was considered a seminal example of the “tartan noir” movement in modern crime fiction, and so decided to use it as the destination for this journey. It felt fitting that my meander through a century of British crime fiction, so much of which is very stereotypically English, should end north of the border.

In Black and Blue, Rebus is working on I think four cases at once. It’s action packed, with the detective flitting around Scotland in pursuit of a terrifying serial killer while at the same time handling some internal disputes within the police. There’s also a political and corporate corruption subplot. We’ve come a long way from the linear, laidback plot of Trent’s Last Case, shall we say.

But for all of its busyness and chaos, I liked Black and Blue a lot. It manages to be topical with all of its references to North Sea oil and the political clout that will bring while also having a timeless enough plot that reading it in 2021 didn’t feel like browsing old newspaper articles. I’m no expert in American noir, but I strongly suspect that Rebus’s high energy antics in this book have more in common with the work of Raymond Chandler, say, than that of Agatha Christie.

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And there we have it — that was my journey through ten decades of whodunnits, a book at a time. If you’ve previously been a dedicated golden age reader like me, I hope you found a reason somewhere in here to stray beyond the 1940s. And if you’re an aficionado of more recent publications, perhaps you’re now intrigued by Trent’s Last Case. I’m certainly going to be spending more time with Ruth Rendell and P.D. James in the future.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/century. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

A Century of Whodunnits

Reading through the twentieth century, one murder mystery at a time.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but the opening plot scenario of each book is discussed briefly. There is a major spoiler for the Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem” from 1893.

The ten books I read for this episode are:

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley (1913)

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920)

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1943)

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert (1952)

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell (1964)

Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James (1977)

Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes (1986)

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)

Other sources:

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Bloody Murder: from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel by Julian Symons

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/centurytranscript.

Thanks to today’s sponsors. You can get $5 off mail based Victorian mystery game Dear Holmes at dearholmes.com/shedunnit using code “shedunnit” at checkout. The audiobook of Laura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is on a special deep discount through May, and you can find that through your audiobook retailer of choice.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

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The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot

There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

Thanks to my guest, Mark Aldridge. You can find out more about his work at markaldridge.info and order a copy of his new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, from all good booksellers.

There are no major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below.

Sources and further information:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by Maurice Leblanc
“The Dispenser” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
“The Lady Vanishes” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s 1926 “disappearance” and divorce
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

The podcast is on TwitterFacebookTumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/themanyafterlivesofherculepoirottranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot Transcript

Caroline: There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

The beloved Belgian detective made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair At Styles a hundred years ago, and today it seems impossible to remember a time when he wasn’t a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

But Agatha Christie’s sleuth, for all that he is obsessed with neatness and order, isn’t a straightforward character. Even in print there are all sorts of inconsistencies in his portrayal, and at times even his creator seemed less than enthusiastic about his little grey cells. The cinematic success and beloved television adaptations are a relatively recent phenomenon. There were entire decades of the twentieth century where Poirot barely appeared on screen at all.

In fact, we might say that there isn’t one Hercule Poirot, but many, jostling for position on page and screen. And today, we’re going to meet some of them.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Hercule Poirot came to be because of an argument that Agatha Christie had with her sister. In her autobiography, Christie described herself and Madge as “connoisseurs of the detective story”, saying they had enjoyed all of Sherlock Holmes as well as the work of Gaston Leroux and the Arsène Lupin stories. They were disputing whether it was easy or not to write a detective story — Madge thought it would be difficult, whereas Agatha thought she might be able to do it if she tried. She didn’t put pen to paper write then and there, but as she put it “the seed had been sown”.

She began to think about it more seriously in 1916 when she was working as a dispenser at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. Snatches of plot and character came to her in idle moments, and apparently thinking about it made her quite distracted at home. Those idle wonderings eventually became The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which was published in 1920.

But before it got that far, she had to make a key decision for a detective novelist. She had to create a detective.

Mark: Well, she had this thing and I think it shows how she was already able to think like an author in a very practical sense, even before she had anything substantial published that when she was writing Styles or when she was planning that she was going to write Styles, she was like, well, I need a detective, and she was very sort of pragmatic about it.

Caroline: This is Mark Aldridge, a historian of Agatha Christie and the author most recently of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. This book is a study of all the different ways Poirot has been written and portrayed over his century of existence, and the context behind both Agatha Christie’s work and that of all the other writers and actors who have had a hand in his appearances. That origin point, when she was pulling together her ideas for The Mysterious Affair At Styles, is crucial to Mark’s book, so I’ll let him explain Christie’s thought process.

Mark: I need a detective, they probably have to have some sort of quirk, you know, she didn’t want an inspector from Scotland Yard. So she started to think about what else you could have. So she thought about things like a school boy investigator or scientist.  But she, she settled on. Yeah, a Belgian refugee, but she immediately says, and she says this in her autobiography. Well, I didn’t know them but there was several were housed near Torquay or in Torquay.  And actually there still is. You can still see where, where they, they used to be held  or housed and  So what you can actually get a sense of from that is that she was like, Oh, well, here’s somebody, who’s a bit interesting distinctive, even though I don’t know much about Belgians or indeed refugees perhaps necessarily, but she still felt that that would be somebody who was, was very appealing.

Caroline: When Christie was giving her detective his distinguishing characteristics for this first story, she could have had no idea that she would still be working with this character five decades later. She had never had any writing published before — and indeed it would take several years of trying even to get The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. She certainly wasn’t designing Poirot with a long running series in mind, in the way that a professional writer embarking on a new project might. As a result, Christie had some regrets about how Poirot turned out.

Mark: So she did say that she, she regretted making him so old initially and possibly regretted making him for her quite annoying. But she seemed to soften on that as she got older as well. But yes, it, I think that if she’d known that she was having a recurring detective, I suspect that that Poirot isn’t who she would have gone for

Caroline: Poirot’s age is the obvious issue that Christie herself, as well as all the playwrights and screenwriters who have engaged with her work, have had to grapple with. He’s introduced as a retired policeman in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which suggests he’s at least in his sixties. By the time a book like After the Funeral was published in 1953, he must be at least into his nineties, which isn’t ideal if you think about it for too long. And that wasn’t the only thing about Poirot that Christie regretted.

Mark: The things that she found quite difficult to stick with, the things that are work on a superficial level.

And then don’t, if you think about them too much  and actually most, we just don’t mind these things, but she would even get annoyed with things like that. He had an egg shaped head. It’s just like, what is the next shape? Ted says, people would ask me which way round is the egg. Can I say, no, I just said an egg shaped head and you’re stuck with that already.

He limps in the first one, which goes out pretty soon. So we can assume that that’s a passing    sort of problem.  But, but things like, she seemed to get quite annoyed with his, his tidiness and his fastidiousness because she said herself that did I create him because I’m wildly untidy myself, so says perhaps subconsciously she was writing someone who was a complete contrast to herself.

And I guess that’s quite fun, once or twice, but then if you’re writing somebody who’s whole sort of attitudes to life perhaps is quite different to yours in terms of the him, his neatness,  his desire for order, which really was, were not Agatha Christie type traits  in her own life. Then you can understand why she would then find him quite annoying over time.

Caroline: Like Poirot himself, Christie’s relationship to her creation did not remain fixed. In the introduction to the Daily Mail serialisation of Appointment with Death in 1938 she wrote that “there are moments when I have felt why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” That line is often quoted, but doesn’t really reflect her true feelings to her little Belgian sleuth, Mark says.

Mark: If you keep reading that, that quote, which is in the introduction to appointment with death serialization?  She, she says, Oh, but actually, I, I think he’s won because actually he, he has sort of won me over by this point and, and I feel much more warmly towards him. So even by the late thirties, she didn’t seem to mind him that much, but.

You know, it’s like with colleagues, isn’t it, you can really enjoy working with a work colleague, but they can still annoy you every now and again.  And I think this was the same for her. That Poirot was her work colleague and it was all right when he was bubbling in the background and when she had a good idea for him, but when suddenly you’re stuck together, it’s not so much fun.

Caroline: Christie used another of her sleuthing characters, Ariadne Oliver, as a way of relieving her feelings about this a little. She admitted in an interview in 1956 that Ariadne, a popular detective novelist who appears in a string of novels beginning with Cards on the Table in 1936 and ending with Elephants Can Remember in 1972, contained “a strong dash” of Agatha Christie herself. Ariadne’s detective character is a Finn, Sven Hjerson, who has a number of quirks that are frustrating to his creator, including vegetarianism, cold baths in winter, and raw foods. She also complains of how difficult it is to create a realistic and consistent backstory for a character from a country she knows nothing about — in Ariadne’s case, Finland, but for Agatha and Hercule, of course, it was Belgium.

Ariadne Oliver was also useful for Agatha as a way of acknowledging or correcting her past mistakes. For instance, in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne admits to having got the length of a blowpipe completely wrong and receiving a lot of reader letters about it — which refers to a similar error Christie made in a Poirot novel from the 1930s.

Poirot might have had his annoyances for his creator, but there were circumstances in her own life that meant he had to endure. Readers loved him, and especially after the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, there was an increasingly large audience for new Poirot adventures. That year also marked a turning point for Christie herself, as I’ve covered before on the show, which culminated in her divorce from Archie Christie and her need to support herself with her writing.

Mark: She was having to then really write professionally because she needed the money, which before her divorce, she hadn’t really needed.  But she wanted to then obviously have her independence afterwards.

And so when actually you’re having to write, because you’ve got to put Poirot in a story because he’s commercial  because  you know, you need to sell these copies, sell it to magazines. That was a big thing that they love Poirot in this era. Then you can start to feel a bit tied to him can’t you and feel a bit like you’re, you’re stuck in this, this sort of dependence between yourselves that, that, that perhaps isn’t something that is going to be very gratifying to you as an author, but commercially and for your readers will be very successful.

Caroline: Agatha Christie was a keen reader of Arthur Conan Doyle. She writes in her autobiography how instrumental Sherlock Holmes was to her own ideas about how to write a detective, and in The Sittaford Mystery she created a brilliant homage to his 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle had of course, famously, tried to kill off his detective when he got fed up of writing him, even though the public were desperate for more stories, and then had to humiliatingly revive him. Christie came up with a much more subtle way of relieving her feelings around Hercule Poirot’s end while keeping her public happy — and I’ll be talking more about that in another episode soon.

After the break: Hercule Poirot is ready for his closeup.

Now, a brief intermission. The style that I use to make Shedunnit means that what you hear in these final episodes is a bit like an iceberg — it’s only the visible tip of a great big mass of interviews and research that goes unseen underneath. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Shedunnit Book Club, because I can put some of that extra material into bonus episodes and extended interviews for those dedicated paying supporters. If you would like to hear full length versions of my conversations with the guests you hear on the show — such as On Nomoto from the Honkaku Mysteries episode, say, or Hamish Symington the crossword setter, or indeed Agatha Christie historian Mark Aldridge, become a member today to get access to the show’s bonus feed. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and you’ll be helping to keep the show financially viable. To hear more from Shedunnit, consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Caroline: Agatha Christie had a somewhat tense relationship, at times, with the stage and screen versions of her characters. Her clearest of expression of this, again, comes via Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, when she says: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things they never would have said”.

1931’s Alibi was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot on film, and that came to the big screen via the theatre. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been adapted by Michael Morton into a stage play called Alibi that was performed in 1928, and it was that version which was subsequently produced as a film. Christie had disliked Morton’s early suggestion that her Belgian sleuth should become “Beau Poirot”, be 20 year younger and be a heartthrob to young ladies. This didn’t make it into final version of the script and he remained Hercule for both the play and the film of Alibi. But he was played in the first three Poirot films by the young actor Austin Trevor, who was 33 when Alibi was made — introducing yet another confusing element to the question of “how old is Hercule Poirot”. That film, by the way, is now completely lost, so you can’t go back and watch it — all we have to go on are the contemporary reviews and material that survives.

While I was talking to Mark about all the different incarnations that Hercule Poirot had and Christie’s attitude to the adaptation of her work, it reminded me of something that Victoria Stewart said on an episode last year when she was talking about how the students on her detective fiction course first encounter murder mysteries. Let’s hear it:

Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television.

Caroline: Reruns of the various Poirot and Marple films and TV series are so common on British daytime television that the young people who come to Victoria’s classes quite often had their first encounter with the characters on screen, rather than in books. That is completely normal and expected these days, but it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon.

Mark: We’re so used to seeing lots of Poirot now. And you go look at this such a long period where there’s no Poirot whatsoever. If we are to, you know, perhaps ignore a single West German adaptation and possibly some unofficial ones in Russia, then actually between 1934 and 1965, he is not onscreen at all for 31 years at the peak of his success, there is no real Poirot.

There’s like an American TV pilot. So, so there’s 25 minutes shown once  in like the early 1960s. But other than that, very, very, you know, there’s no great mainstream Poirot. There’s no actor who people are readily associating with him beyond those who’ve played him on stage and screen in the late twenties and through to the thirties.

Caroline: As Mark says, there were a handful of film and TV projects through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but they often focused on other characters from her canon, rather than Hercule Poirot.

Mark: Poirot was always seen as the, sort of the crown jewels as, as the absolute sort of    the, the thing to be protected above all else, I guess, in, in Agatha Christie. And that goes for during her lifetime and, and afterwards. And then there is this sort of slight relaxation when Murder on the Orient Express happens in, in 1974 the film. And then there seems to be a bit more relaxation, but even then they would test the waters usually with other things. So when there were noises about television adaptations again  which they had been constantly been asked about and denied their response was, well, you can have Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, which is, you know, it doesn’t have Ms Marple doesn’t have Poirot  is, is  is a very decent mystery, but is I would say, not generally regarded as, as one of the handful of masterpieces. You know, it’s not very, very top tier, I would say  And so it was slightly a safe bet that you could say why? Well, let’s see how they get on with this one. And then we’ll see. And then, then that they’re sort of starts really in the sort of fishing line a little bit and go, okay, you can have Tommy and Tuppence that? See what happened to Tommy and then there’s miss Marple. And then so 10 years after Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? happens, we’ve got David Suchet as Poirot.

Caroline: This idea of “protecting” Poirot, of keeping Agatha Christie’s most popular character “safe” from clumsy screen adaptation is one that has its origins in the author’s own caution, and which was carried on by her relatives as they took bigger roles in her literary estate. But it isn’t always quite as simple as that, as Mark has discovered during his research.

Mark: One of the great surprises was about  murder by the book, which is this, this  one off a television film ashes, about 50 minutes long, which was made and shown in the eighties. And that is all about Agatha Christie played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft meeting Poirot, played by Ian Holme and having a discussion about let’s say her plans for him.

And, and, and  how well Poirot, I was going to come out of all of these plans and, and what, how what’s my plan for him might be. And my assumption had always been well, they must’ve just sort of done this and not worried about. You know, the Christie estate and stuff, because it’s everything that they don’t like.

You know, it says they really didn’t like Agatha Christie herself being depicted on the screen, particularly  and Poirot was fiercely protected at this point. So imagine my surprise in learning, not only through paperwork, but also speaking to Matthew that actually they really liked it and they were really supportive of it.

Caroline: That’s Matthew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie.

Mark: And they, they allowed the use Poirot for a pound. So they didn’t even like make money out of anything. They just saw. It was a rather nice idea. So are I often, I think I’m probably guilty of this more than anybody else of, of sort of really reinforcing this over-protective idea that I think some people get the impression of that being, but actually there are so many of these exceptions that it just shows actually, if you had them right approach, if you were doing things that happened to coincide with what either Agatha Christie Limited or the sort of family wanted to do, then actually there was quite a lot there. That’s that they would allow you to do. So it’s just always full of surprises.

Caroline: Adaptations, especially popular ones like the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and the more recent films, certainly help to give a character the university that makes them instantly recognisable from even the smallest hint or phrase. But Hercule was a household name long before David Suchet started twiddling his moustaches on television. There’s something intrinsic to the way Christie wrote him that makes him stick in the memory.

Mark: I think that there’s something immediately definable about him in a way that even Miss Marple isn’t quite there. He’s got some very strong traits and of course  is, is very well known as well. But I think that because Poirot has particularly got this thing about being an outsider that makes them much more immediately identifiable. She basically describes him in the same way. In dozens of books  that she will describe him in precisely the same way, you know, with the egg shaped head and with the fine moustaches and with the little grey cells all the ways that he’s described.

And so it almost becomes a description that, that is so heavily ingrained in your head that, that he’s right there. And I think it’s a bit of a gift to a good actor to be able to, to, to bring that to the screen.

Caroline: But lots of characters have recognisable physical traits. The moustaches alone aren’t enough.

Mark: I actually would suggest that the reason he’s endured is because the mysteries he’s in are brilliant. And I think that’s the big thing is it’s a Poirot’s around because he solved really good cases  in a really interesting way with completely satisfying  conclusions for the most part — Murder in Mesopotamia, there’s one or two exceptions — but what we’ve got really is, is somebody who, who it’s great to revisit and go back.

I mean, there are loads of brilliant characters who have completely forgotten in detective fiction because perhaps they’re their mysteries aren’t that great. Poirot has got this great thing of being both a very strong and identifiable character and somebody who is in some of the greatest pieces of detective fiction ever written.

Music

Caroline: That’s what it comes down to, as I think it often does in discussions of Agatha Christie’s work. You can dissect her prose style and her settings, her focus on a particular class of people and set of attitudes, her over reliance on a few stock ideas about how people lived. But you can’t argue with her plots, or with most of them, at least. That’s what gave Hercule Poirot life a hundred years ago, and it’s why he’s still alive today.

Mark: Poirot is bigger than any of us, once you’ve created him, there’s no stopping him and you can’t, you can’t contain him.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/themanyafterlivesofherculepoirot. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

The Lady Vanishes

On 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home in the southern English county of Berkshire just after 9.30 in the evening. She drove away, taking a small suitcase and a fur coat with her. The following morning, the car was found 15 miles away on the edge of a lake called Silent Pool. The headlights were still on and her luggage was inside, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. The lady had vanished.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/theladyvanishes. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Books mentioned in order of appearance
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers
Agatha Christie: A Biography by Janet Morgan
Agatha by Kathleen Tynan
Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days by Jared Code
Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait by Andrew Norman
A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott

Sources:
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopaedia by Matthew Bunson
The British Newspaper Archive

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theladyvanishestranscript.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.