Tag: Dorothy L Sayers

The Murder At Road Hill House Transcript

Caroline: If there is, then you might have come down with a case of detective fever. According to Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, these were the symptoms — along with a sudden passion for seeking out knowledge and gathering clues.

This story was a popular early appearance of detection as we know it today in fiction. It strongly influenced what came next in the genre and was greatly admired by some of the early 20th century’s biggest whodunnit enthusiasts. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “probably the very finest detective story ever written” and TS Eliot declared it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”.

But the ideas and tropes we find in The Moonstone didn’t appear out of thin air. Collins was drawing both on the real life development of detection in Britain, and on one particular murder case that had gripped the nation just a few years before. A case that so perfectly contains many of the main features of a golden age detective story that it’s difficult to believe that it even happened outside of a book.

Today, we’re exploring what happened at Road Hill House on 30th June 1860.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into the episode proper, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has pre ordered a copy of my new map and guide, Agatha Christie’s England. If you were among the first 100 people to order, you will now have received an email from the publisher confirming that you will get a free download of the audio version. The details of how to claim it will be in your package with your purchase. If you missed out, don’t worry — the audio version is now available to purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap.

It feels a bit strange to give a spoiler warning for something that happened in real life, but the Road Hill House case feels so heavily fictional to me that I’m going to do it anyway. We’re going to talk in full in this episode about whodunnit and why — if you’d rather read a book about the case without knowing its conclusion, I suggest you finish doing that first and then come back and listen to this. And as ever on this show, there will be some discussion of the books listed in the description for this episode but no major spoilers given without warning.

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On the morning of 30th June 1860, a small boy was found to be missing from his bed in Road Hill House in Wiltshire. Three year old Francis Saville Kent should have been waking up in his nurse’s room just as on any other day, but he wasn’t there. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, assumed that his mother must have taken him in to be with her; Mrs Kent assumed that the nurse must have already got him up. It was a while before the two women compared notes and realised that nobody had seen the child at all since putting him to bed at 8pm the night before.

A frantic search began, with the rest of the Kent family and their servants turning the place upside down looking for the little boy. Workers from the nearby village of Road hunted outside too, and eventually the body was found in the outdoor privy. Francis Saville Kent had been attacked with a sharp blade, his throat slashed and torso cut, and then shoved down under the seat of the outdoor toilet. A fragment of newspaper (from the Morning Star, which nobody in the house read), a blanket, and a piece of cloth worn inside a corset were found in the privy too.

It’s a tragic sequence of events; I think we can all imagine what it would have been like to wake up in the belief that just another day was beginning and then experience that slow slide into horrible chaos as the world tilted on its axis. And although the brutal killing of a child is not exactly an everyday thing, it isn’t actually the death of Francis Saville Kent that makes this case so remarkable. It’s everything that happened afterwards.

In the initial aftermath of the body’s discovery, chaos reigned. Saville’s father had ridden into a nearby town when he was found missing to tell the story to the local superintendant of police, while Mrs Kent (his second wife, and his children’s former nurse) had been running about in what she later termed “a state of bewilderment” trying to direct the servants’ search effort at home. It was William Nutt, the village shoemaker, and Thomas Benger, a farmer, who had found Saville in the privy. They carried his little body inside and laid it on a table in the kitchen, where the nursemaid and some rest of the family rushed to see.

Saville was the middle of the three younger children of Samuel Kent’s second marriage; also in residence at Road Hill House were his four older half siblings, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Constance and William. With Samuel Kent out of the house raising help, it was left to the teenage William as the only remaining “man of the house” to go for the doctor who returned with him to examine the body. The household kept the awful news from Mrs Kent until her husband returned, so he was the one to tell her what had happened to her missing son. The first thing she said was “Someone in the house has done it.”

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This is the first moment in which this real life murder case begins to feel like a fictional whodunnit. Mrs Kent had jumped to the same conclusion that the detectives would later confirm: that this was a murder that had its origins inside the house, not out. The convenient solution of a passing maniac was not going to be available here. The Kents would have to confront the much more uncomfortable notion that their three year old son had been killed not only by someone that he knew, but that this person was still within the household. But how could they be so sure that the pool of suspects was limited like this?

Robin: Because it’s been raining, they know that there are no footsteps around outside. There is one of the windows on ground floor open, but only a very little bit open, not open enough to seem very suspicious and all the other windows and doors were locked until they were opened by people rushing out and looking for this kid.

Caroline: This is Robin Stevens, and she’s the expert that I’ve enlisted to help me get to the heart of this case. She has a longstanding obsession with what really happened to at Road Hill House, wrote an entire thesis about its impact on golden age detective fiction while at university, and is now a successful crime writer in her own right. This is such a writerly mystery — from the tropes that were borrowed by the likes of Collins to a strange letter that added to the intrigue in the 1930s. Who better to guide us through it that a writer of whodunnits?

Right from the outset, we start seeing the fictional parallels everywhere with this case.

Robin: The dog didn’t bark in the nighttime, which is one of my favorite tiny facts. That is used in a Sherlock Holmes story. And that’s the Mark Haddon story. Now the idea of the dog that does, or doesn’t bark in the night is so ingrained in crime fiction. And this is basically where it comes from if the dog didn’t bark. So we know that nobody came in from the outside.

Caroline: Samuel Kent, father of the victim and six other children still living in 1860, was a factory inspector and seemingly very concerned about household security. His nightly routine before retiring to bed was to check that the house and grounds were secure from intrusion and to let the family dog loose in the garden. His servants closed windows and doors as they finished their day’s work and then opened them again when they rose to start the morning’s chores.

On the day that Saville was found to be missing, his father’s regular habits and the fact that nobody had been woken by the dog made it easy to narrow the field of suspects to those already within the house when it was locked up. A couple of witnesses who had been poaching in Samuel Kent’s river overnight reported hearing a few quiet yelps from the dog, but thought nothing of it because this dog was known to bark at the slightest thing. It certainly wasn’t the volume or duration of noise that would be expected if the dog had come across an intruder.

One ground floor window of the house was slightly open, but the absence of footprints outside or any sign that the gate had been breached made it far more likely that somebody had used this window to get out, rather than in. As the local police began questioning the members of the household in an attempt to work out how a three year old had been carried out of his bed and killed in the privy overnight without anyone hearing, they could already be fairly certain that they were dealing with a closed circle of suspects.

Their suspicion quickly fell on the children’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough. Her statements about when she had noticed that a blanket was missing from Saville’s bed were inconsistent, and it had also been at least two hours between her waking and noticing that he was gone, and giving the alarm. She said that she had been confused, and had thought that Mrs Kent — who was eight months pregnant — must have heard him fussing and taken him into bed with her in the early morning, and that she was reluctant to disturb her mistress before she woke up. The police, of course, were choosing to put a more sinister interpretation on these facts.

Over the next few days, the local police continued to investigate, paying particular attention to the fact that even though the murder would have produced a lot of blood, no bloody clothing had been found anywhere in the house. One of Constance Kent’s nightdresses was missing, though, according to her laundry list, and much effort was put into examining where it might have got to. Much later, during an inquiry, it was revealed that in the early days of the case the police had found what they called a bloody shift hidden in the boiler hole, and put it back in the hope that they would be able to catch its owner red handed returning to destroy it. The officer standing observing it left his post for half an hour, though, and when he came back it was gone. The local force then kept this information quiet, no doubt because it didn’t exactly reflect well on them.

On 6 July, Saville Kent was buried in the family vault, alongside his father’s first wife. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was detained for questioning but no offered no further revelations that explicitly confirmed her guilt. The case was becoming more and more confused as more parallel investigations began — as well as the local police, family friends were beginning to conduct their own inquiries — and all of this hunting for clues and constant interviewing of witnesses was obscuring, rather than revealing, helpful details. Finally, two weeks after the murder, Scotland Yard was called in.

Here again, Robin says, we encounter something very familiar from the detective fiction that was written after the Road Hill House case.

Robin: One of my favorite things is that the detective who has sent down from London, Jack Whicher, really is one of the first British detectives. And he is this very imposing figure. He’s got these beautiful blue eyes. And then you look through the rest of detective fiction and there are so many sort of tall handsome with piercing blue eyes.

And that is, that is Jack Whicher everybody is thinking about this kind of fantastic very sort of authoritative figure who is still a little bit of an outsider because that’s what the police were, they were a figures of suspicion. People didn’t really believe they could solve cases and they weren’t, they weren’t nice.

They weren’t respectable men. They were digging around in secrets and they were often from a middle-class lower middle-class working class background coming into these houses or in this case, he came into this house of wealthy people and biggest uncovering all of their dirty laundry, literally and figuratively.

And that kind of fascination with and distrust of the police — that’s in every single detective novel you could possibly read. Every aspect of this case has turned into a book convention in a way that’s almost unbelievable.

Caroline: The Detective Branch at Scotland Yard had been founded in 1842 and Whicher was one of the original eight officers recruited to it. He is a proto detective both in the sense that he was helping to create the role a detective would play in mid 19th century society, and because many of the fictional detectives that quickly appeared on the page drew on his character and cases. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote journalistic articles about the new detective branch, and both also created detective characters in their fiction soon after. Inspector Bucket in 1852’s Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone both contain a great deal of Whicher and his colleagues from that first cohort of Scotland Yard detectives.

And as Robin says, being a detective was not an especially respectable profession. In the Victorian era, the idea of a plainclothes or undercover officer who pryed into people’s domestic and private lives was considered grubby and unpleasant. Interviewing servants about their employers, for instance, was very frowned upon. In 1845, the Times ran an editorial about this that stated “there always will be something repugnant in the bare idea of espionage”. At the same time, the public loved the idea that a detective could reveal the hidden truth of everyday life and find significance in seemingly unimportant details. Letters poured into Scotland Yard offering theories about the Road Hill House murder, and Whicher had to go through them all.

There was a pronounced class dimension to this distrust of the detective too, and this played a big part in Whicher’s investigation. The Kents were a well to do family living in a large house with many servants. Whicher was the son of a gardener from Camberwell in London, and had worked as a labourer before joining the Metropolitan Police as a constable. The suspicions that he formed about the case soon after his arrival at Road House — which centred on Constance’s missing nightdress and the tensions that he detected within the family around the demise of the first Mrs Kent — were not taken seriously in part because his accusations were perceived as vulgar. Indeed, a barrister later described Whicher as “the detective, who is vulgar, greedy and rapacious in his destruction of a young woman’s life”.

After the break: the confession and beyond.

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Detective fever gripped the public in the wake of the murder at Road Hill House. The flames were fanned by the involvement of Scotland Yard, the violence with which Saville Kent had been attacked, the vast number of newspapers in existence at the time that could run sensational reports about it, and a general prurient curiosity about what had been going on inside this middle class home.

This last aspect manifested itself in an obsession with the physicality of Road Hill House, which in turn had an impact on the detective fiction that followed. Newspapers were desperate to publish an accurate floorplan of the house, but — perhaps understandably — Samuel Kent didn’t want reporters with tape measures crawling all over his house while his very pregnant wife and children were coming to terms with what had happened. The lack of access whipped up a frenzy, though, and the day after Saville’s funeral a reporter from the Bath Chronicle disguised himself as a detective and sneaked in, managing to make notes on the house layount before he was discovered and ejected. Five days later, the plans were published in the paper and became an indelibe part of the way the public consumed this case.

Think about all the times you have opened a new murder mystery, turned the first few pages, and examined the map of the country house where the story is set. That’s exactly what was happening here — the public of 1860, like the readers of golden age detective fiction in the 1920s and every decade since, wanted that anatomical diagram of the setting so they could feel themselves involved in what had occurred there.

The map of Road Hill House made such an impression on Robin that it helped her solve the problem of not being able to get out to look at potential settings for her new book during Covid.

Robin: It was just so funny. I couldn’t work out what to do about the map. And then I was like, what case do I know really well?

Caroline: What case indeed? The physicality of Road Hill House is so present in the way we think about it, all this time later, that when constructing a new country house murder mystery it’s the obvious place to turn for inspiration.

Robin: I like mapping out the house that I’m writing about the place I’m writing about. I can’t do that. So I’ve just had to get my copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and look at the map there. And that’s the map in the house that I’m writing about. And again, you know, I’m sort of thinking about this case as I’m writing.

Caroline: If you read Robin’s next book, The Ministry of Unladylike Activity out August 2022, keep in mind that she was thinking about Road Hill House while writing it.

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If you already know anything about the Road Hill House case, there’s a strong chance that you learned it from The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a non fiction book from 2008 by Kate Summerscale that was subsequently adapted into a television drama. I mention this both because it’s a good place to go after you listen to this episode if you want more granular details about the investigation than I can include here, and because the very title of the book hints at its interaction with detective fiction.

Summerscale’s book reads like a detective novel itself, even though it relies only on verified accounts and sources about the case. The creepy sense that the murderer is still inhabiting the house, even as the detectives are scouring it for clues comes through strongly, as does the claustrophobic sense of Road Hill House as a trap in which all the suspects are caught.

Whicher did get the chance to act on his suspicions. In what would probably be the mid narrative climax of a real detective novel, he was permitted by the legal authorities to arrest and detain Savile Kent’s 16 year old half sister Constance, and given seven days to gather enough evidence to build a case against her for murder.

In addition to his concerns about Constance’s missing nightdress, Whicher had also broken through the “happy family” facade of the Kent household and realised that the emotional tension had been running high for years. The first Mrs Kent had given birth to ten children in 15 years, only four of whom are still alive by 1860. Constance and William are the youngest, born in 1844 and 1845 respectively. Shortly before Constance was born, a 23 year old farmer’s daughter named Mary Drewe Pratt joined the Kent household as a governess to the older girls. Mrs Kent was, by this time, in poor physical and mental health, and her husband had consulted doctors who declared her “weak minded”. She could barely care for Constance when she was born, so the baby was handed over to Mary Pratt.

The situation had worsed when William was born the next year, and it wasn’t long before the governess was running the household in the place of its mistress. Rumours circulated among Samuel Kent’s colleagues that he was having an affair with Mary Pratt while his “deranged” wife was still in the house; the family actually relocated several times to get away from these persistent whispers. In 1852, when Constance was eight years old, her mother died of “an obstruction of the bowel”.

The next year, her father married her former governess. The servant who had cared for Constance in place of her mother had now literally taken her mother’s place. The former Miss Pratt soon had children of her own, and she favoured them over her older step children. At Road Hill House, they had nicer bedrooms on the same floor as their parents, while their older half siblings slept upstairs on the floor usually reserved for servants. When Constance acted out, she was published strictly, with physical blows or by being locked up for hours, and she both she and William were sent away to school.

By delving into this backstory, Whicher discovered what he believed to be a motive for Constance’s attack on her little half brother — revenge upon the former governess who had supplanted her mistreated mother. He also learned of a previous incident that seemed to suggest that Constance was much more resourceful and independent that she had appeared during the investigation.

Robin: Constance and her brother William actually run away. I think the year before the crime happened, she cuts off all her hair, pretends to be a boy, and runs away because they hate living there so much but they’re caught and brought back. So, she’s having a miserable time. All of the kids from the first marriage were having a terrible time. And that is going to be important.

Caroline: Although these points are logically consistent with the events around Saville’s death, Whicher failed to find any material evidence — like a bloody garment or a weapon — that definitely connected Constance with the crime. But, believing his theory to be correct, he presses ahead.

Robin: He decides that it was her and he accuses her, on the basis of the nightgown, on the basis of her running away, her being unhappy. And everybody’s horrified because Constance is upper-class, she’s a young lady she’s important and Inspector Whicher is less important than she is, and he’s accusing her.

The public is outraged on her behalf. They’re all taking up her cause and then actually the jury at the inquest say it wasn’t her. It couldn’t just be her she’s too much of a lovely young lady. Elizabeth Gough was arrested again and released. And so it’s this ongoing thing that you just sort of, can’t get to the truth for years and everybody is fascinated.

Caroline: The backlash against Whicher for seemingly falsely accusing a young woman of high status like Constance is intense — he ends up leaving Scotland Yard and working as a private investigator because of it. The impact of the furore around the case is lasting, too — the novelist Margaret Oliphant complained that it had inculcated a kind of “detectivism” in the reading public, and ushered in the “police court aspect of modern fiction”. The case faded from the headlines, but nobody forgot what had happened — the influence of those few weeks in Wiltshire in July 1860 were everywhere in the culture.

Robin: And then in 1865 so five years after the case Whicher has left the police force the year before in disgrace because he never managed to catch the killer. His name is mud and then Constance comes forward and confesses that she actually did do it.

Caroline: This is the twist that ultimately sets the Road Hill House case apart from all the others. Constance Kent had been sent to a school in France, and then came back to England to be a boarder at a kind of Anglican convent in Brighton. There, in April 1865, she told one of the priests during confession how she had committed the murder of her half brother Saville. Two weeks later, the Reverend Arthur Douglas Wagner accompanied her to London to make a formal confession to Scotland Yard. She pled guilty at her trial, so never had to give evidence of exactly what had happened that night, and was sentenced to life in prison, later altered to twenty years in light of her youth and cooperation with the police after the confession.

Not only does the Road Hill House case have a proper ending, it’s an ending that a novelist would be proud to craft. The hard working detective was right after all; the murderer really was in the house all the time, moving the incriminating bloody nightdress around from hiding place to hiding place until she could burn it in secret. The apparently perfect Victorian family really was a hotbed of hate and unhappiness, just as Whicher had suspected.

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When writers like Wilkie Collins, and then decades later Dorothy L Sayers, were transforming the Road Hill House case into a literary murder mystery, there were certain aspects of it that attracted them more than others. The idea of the hysterical women, as typified by the first Mrs Kent, is certainly present in The Moonstone, as is the class dynamic between the family being investigated and the detective that we saw with the Kents and Inspector Whicher. Aspects of the domestic life at Road Hill turn up in The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — both lean into the idea of a perfect-seeming domestic setup that conceals untold horrors. The key difference, though, is to do with the crime itself.

Robin: The Moonstone and Clouds of Witness they both go certain ways to cleaning up the case to making it less horrendous, because I think there is something about it that even though we love it, we want to fictionalize it, we can’t quite face it. And we don’t want to really think about the reality of what actually happened because it’s so grim.

Caroline: By replacing the murder of a defenceless child with the theft of a jewel, Collins tempers the tragedy and releases the reader to feel fascinated by the story free of any sense of prudish guilt. The surrounding elements of the mystery do stay similar.

Robin: And there is a night dress that gets dirty and it’s, one of the key clues of the case, but it gets dirty with paint not blood.

Wilkie Collins takes all of the blood and all of the best sort of death and murder. I mean, there, there are deaths in that story, but he takes the original moment of horrible, bloody murder and turns into this very bloodless theft of a jewel.

Caroline: I hadn’t even spotted that Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers is a version of the Road Hill House case until I read Robin’s thesis, but once she had pointed it out, I was seeing the similarities everywhere. Again, Sayers changes the central crime — a grown man is found shot in the garden of a remote country house — but the surrounding details are striking in their similarity. A lower class detective, a vital stained garment, a motive buried in the private affairs of wealthy people — it’s all there. As a confirmed fan of both The Moonstone and an obsessive researcher of the original case, Sayers played her part in perpetuating the myth of Road Hill House.

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After serving her twenty years in prison, Constance Kent was released at the age of 41. She emigrated to Australia where her brother William was already living, and lived out the rest of her life there, having changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye in an attempt to guard against inquiries from anyone who still remembered what had happened in the 1860s. She never publicly elaborated on her confession or identified anyone else who was involved in the murder, although in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale makes a compelling case that her brother William was an accomplice and her confession was prompted by the need to divert attention from him so he could inherit his portion of their mother’s money and gain his independence the next year at the age of 21.

Constance lived a very long life, and was still alive when the golden age of detective fiction began in the early 1920s. In 1936, seven members of the Detection Club — including founders Sayers and Anthony Berkeley — published a book titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which they each wrote a chapter about their favourite real life crime. John Rhode, or to give him his real name, Cecil John Street, chose the Road Hill House case, since he had previously published a whole book about it in 1928 for the Famous Trials series.

As Rhode recounts in his chapter of The Anatomy of Murder, after that volume came out, he received an anonymous letter from Sydney, Australia, that gave a great deal of extra detail about the personality and early life of Constance Kent. Rhode believed that it had been written “if not by Constance Kent, at least by some person having a very intimate knowledge of her childhood and history” although a handwriting expert consulted at the time disagreed. It gave excrutiating detail about how the governess Miss Pratt had punished William and Constance as children by locking them up and giving them only dry bread to eat, and how Constance had frequently escaped by daringly climbing out of upstairs windows. It also vehemently disputes the suggestion in Rhode’s Famous Trials book that the first Mrs Kent was insaneIt’s an extraordinary document, and I agree with Rhode that it seems far too detailed to be entirely fabricated.

Rhode donated the letter to the Detection Club’s library, and when it was reexamined in the 1970s by true crime writer Bernard Taylor it was felt to be a genuine narrative from Constance Kent or someone very close to her, since it matched up with her location and life story. The original letter has now sadly been lost since, along with several of the club’s other treasures, but fortunately Rhode had typed up a copy that was discovered among his papers after his death in 1964.

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Constance Kent died in 1944 at the age of 100 in Sydney, Australia. Living so long would have made her a witness to unprecented change anyway; the fact that she was at the centre of one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated murder cases as well merely singles her out further. Hers is a story that has captivated people for over 150 years, and if the extent to which I fell under her spell while making this episode is anything to go by, her power is undiminished.

But did she really do it? I think we’ll always have our suspicions.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Robin Stevens — you can hear her on two previous episodes of the show, Back to School and Death Sets Sail on the Nile, and her new collection of short stories about schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells is called Once Upon A Crime and comes out in August 2021. Links to this and all the other books and sources mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/themurderatroadhillhouse. 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 and the creation of more long, detailed episodes like this one, 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.

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Policing the Detectives Transcript

Caroline: Is detective fiction an escapist genre? The marketing for today’s thrillers and cosy mysteries that encourages us to “get away from the real world” for a while by reading about fictional crimes would suggest that it is. Expecting to be soothed by plots that centre on violent death might sound counter intuitive, but it is the structure around the crimes, the power of the detective to create order out of chaos, that is comforting.

Underlying all of this are assumptions about justice. That through the investigations of a detective, the wicked perpetrators will receive their just desserts and balance will be restored to the universe. And by and large, it is a police force that enforces this justice.

Even if it is an amateur detective like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot who has cracked the mystery, it is the police who will lead the culprit away to a cell after the dramatic denoument. Whether individual officers are portrayed as whip smart or bumbling, the police as a whole are a default part of crime fiction. Their presence is rarely questioned.

But interactions with the police in real life are not always as straightforward or fair as they are portrayed in mysteries. For some people and groups, calling the police has historically made their situation worse, not better — whether that’s because of racism, sexism or other forms of prejudice. What would it look like if those stories and experiences were reflected in detective fiction? That’s what we’re going to explore in today’s episode.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Detective fiction has always been closely interwined with the police, right from its beginnings in the nineteenth century. The two emerged around the same time and developed in tandem. In France, the reformed criminal Eugene Francois Vidocq began organising an informal brigade of plainclothes law enforcement officers in 1811, and two years later the Emperor Napoleon signed a decree that made them an official state security force known as the Sûreté Nationale. Vidocq was friends with authors like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas père, and parts of his life appeared several times in novels from the 1820s and 30s. Honoré de Balzac borrowed much of the backstory for his character Vautrin in the La comédie humaine series from Vidocq. A convicted criminal, Vautrin avoids the death penalty several times and ends up as chief of the Sûreté.

In Britain, a similar process was under way. Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners from the 1750s and the Marine Police Force established in 1798 had gradually morphed into the Metropolitan Police, which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1829. The first detective branch, of eight officers, was added in 1842, and they were given permission to operate in plainclothes, out of uniform, even though there was some distaste in the British establishment at the time for such organised state surveillance. Charles Dickens was fascinated by this new development in law enforcement, and covered the new branch extensively in his magazine Household Words. His first article, from 1851, was titled “On Duty with Inspector Field” and narrates a night he spent out on patrol with the detectives.

Dickens almost immediately imported what he learned on such assignments into his fiction. In 1853 he included the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, a character heavily based on the Met’s Charley Field. Dickens’s friend and literary protege Wilkie Collins followed suit, basing Scotland Yard’s Sergeant Cuff in his landmark 1868 novel The Moonstone on the early antics of the Met’s detectives as well. Considered a likely candidate for the first true detective novel, the presence of a smart, competent police detective in The Moonstone had an outsize impact on the next century of crime fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others were all, in a sense, following in Sergeant Cuff’s footsteps.

In this first wave of crime fiction, the arrival of the police is not necessarily a positive development for all characters, it should be noted. A class dimension to law enforcement was established fairly early, with writers recording the anxiety felt by servants and lower paid workers when a detective starts asking questions. Over and over again in late nineteenth and early twentieth century whodunnits, housemaids and butlers insist that investigators search their bodies and bedrooms thoroughly and immediately so that their innocence can be established beyond doubt. Without a social or financial safety net, a professional reputation was vital to continued employment, and any whisper of being “mixed up” with the police could be enough to ensure that a servant was never hired or trusted again.

But for the largely middle and upper class protagonists of detective fiction, the police represent only security and safety. Aristocratic characters might find the presence of constables on their estate asking them questions irritating or regard inquiries as a breach of their privacy, but they don’t feel fundamentally threatened by them, or consider themselves seriously at risk of receiving unfair treatment.

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If you’ve been reading the news at all over the last few years, you can’t help but have noticed that not everybody is afforded the luxury of knowing that the police are only there for their own protection. There have been instances of law enforcement deviating from that ideal of impartial justice that is expressed in detective fiction all over the world, but the most high profile instances, at least from my perspective, have been in the US. From the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolice, Minnesota in May 2020, there have been so many high profile examples of the police themselves being the source, rather than the solution to, the violence. And as the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists have highlighted, these cases are inextricably linked to the wider problem of racial inequality and injustice. Both Brown and Floyd were Black men, and both were killed by white police officers. That this situation, this power dynamic, is replicated over and over again is no coicidence.

There are plenty of examples to draw on from where I live in the UK, too, and no doubt from wherever you’re listening to this now. Most recently and most visibly there was the Sarah Everard case, in which a 33-year-old woman disappeared while walking home one evening in south London. A serving Metropolitan police and firearms officer has been charged with her kidnapping and murder and is now awaiting trial. A vigil held in Everard’s memory near where she disappeared was forcibly broken up by police, with shocking pictures of women attendees being wrestled to the ground by officers being widely circulated. At the time, many made comparisons with the light touch way in which a recent demonstration against Covid lockdown measures had been monitored by police, in echo of similar complaints about the intensive way that Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall protests are policed. There’s still a public inquiry going on, too, that is scrutinising the activities of the so called “spy cops”, the cohort of about 139 undercover officers who spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968. At least twenty of them formed serious relationships with women while undercover and three at least fathered children with them. The Met has retrospectively admitted that this was “abusive and deceitful” to the women involved, and compensation has been paid in some cases after some of the women took legal action.

All of which is to say, it isn’t very surprising that readers have started to look a little harder at the police characters in their crime fiction of late.

Nicole: I was noticing that the police just pop up all the time, whether they’re like a main character, supporting characters or they are foils for the main character,  whether it’s like, you know, it was a Sherlock Holmes situation, you have a bumbling inspector they’re running things with, or it’s just like the police are there it’d be like, to help, basically.

In March, the CrimeReads website published an article on this subject titled “Who Are You Going To Call: Rethinking The Role of Police in Mysteries“, and reading that really helped to hone my own thoughts on this subject as I was working out how to talk about these issues on the podcast. So, I got in touch with the writer of that piece, wanting to hear more.

Nicole: My name is Nicole Glover. I’m the author of The Conductors, which came out fairly recently this year. It’s a historical fantasy mystery story about… everything.

Caroline: Nicole’s debut novel isn’t a straightforward murder mystery — as she says, it’s a historical novel with fantasy elements as well —  but the process of writing it allowed her the space to consider her own perceptions of law enforcement in relation to the way the police are written about in crime fiction.

Nicole: I think I’ve always kind of questioned the appearance of police in a sense. I have got a healthy suspicion or reluctance of a police presence. But even when I was younger, I was more neutral as kid. And as I got older and realizing how often they appeared, I just started noticing.

And particularly in the last few years, it was something that really sparked my interest about cause I remember reading articles about police propaganda, particularly in the US. Whether it shows and the movies because there’s all these cop shows in America from CSI to like the comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and everything like that.

And there are so many roles for these characters, even look at supporting casts, there’s always a cop character. I guess around the same time I was getting more into mystery because I was starting to write my book.  When you write a story, you start looking at inspirations of the people in your genre and watching all these mystery shows, cops are showing up all the time.

Caroline: A Gallup poll of adults in America conducted in August 2020 found a big divide in perceptions of the police. Fifty-six percent of white adults surveyed said they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, while only 19 per cent of Black adults said the same. This divide has been widening since this survey began in 1993, too, with the disparity getting larger. This difference has a lot to do with experiences with the police in different communities — and the fact that situations are more likely to escalate and end badly when they involve people who aren’t white.

Nicole: And it’s also becomes clear the racial issue is really strong because there’s  lots of contrast articles that come out when there’s an incidents about whether someone Black or Brown that gets shot from where the case where a white antagonist would probably get gently talked down or taken without being injured.

Like whenever I see accounts of shootings in different areas. If I see in the article that the person was captured and taken into custody, I know that shooter was white without reading anything else beyond that headline.

Caroline: The way the police are characterised in the vast majority of crime fiction — ie as the heroes or at least the reliable coppers who can be relied upon to uphold justice – doesn’t match the experience that Nicole is talking about. It’s not being told from the perspective of characters who are constantly worried that even the most casual and routine interaction with law enforcement could put them in harm’s way. That’s true in books from the 1920s, and it’s largely remained true in the detective fiction that has been published since.

After the break: what happens when the police aren’t the heroes anymore?

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You might be wondering why this all matters. Detective fiction is just that — fiction, so the argument goes. Whatever is going on in the real world, surely the way whodunnits are written doesn’t have any bearing on that.

Except that detective fiction is pop culture, and a very popular part of our culture indeed. It reflects ideas back to the world, and helps to form narratives and trends around it. To give just a small example, there are lots of great interviews with real life forensic pathologists and investigators out there in which these scientists explain how much their work differs from what we see on television on shows like CSI and Silent Witness. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that DNA evidence and blood stains are analysed in fictional narratives, that we expect it to be similarly accurate and rapid in real life, which it often isn’t — lab work takes days, sometimes weeks, and can’t always deliver the certainties that it does on TV.

In fact, for a lot of people, fictional portrayals of police and criminal investigation will form the bulk of their impressions on this question, so it really does matter. Here’s Nicole again.

Nicole: Because even though it seems like in the news that we have a lot interaction with police, most general person will be interacting with police on the very minimum level. They’re not going to see them all the time. So fiction is their most likely way to  get their impression of the police.

Yeah. And it’s so many, you know, there’s so many, like there, there are like seven different CSI shows or, or all that kind of all the similar genre and right now, like it’s, so it’s, it’s relentless.

Caroline: When Nicole began writing the story that would become The Conductors, she was sure from the outset that even though it was a mystery, there weren’t going to be any police characters, which is an unusual starting point for a piece of crime fiction.

Nicole: And I guess from the start, I knew the cops weren’t going to play any kind of particular role in the story. Most, some of it’s character reasons —  they are former Underground Railroad conductors. They did stuff that was in the eyes of the law illegal back in that time period.

Caroline: The book is set in post–Civil War Philadelphia, and the main character Hetty and her husband Benjy are newly settled in the city having spent years as conductors on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that helped enslaved people escape the United States.

Nicole: So they’re like my definition of what’s legal and what’s right is totally different. So they’re not going to turn to certain authorities about certain things, especially as I often learned in the past that sometimes doing that gets them in more trouble. And I think also in some ways I was curious about like how a story functions without the role of the police.

Caroline: A story set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War with Black protagonists was always going to have to grapple with questions about justice, equality and legal authority. And that’s partly what drew Nicole to this moment in history. When her story begins, the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery — which was ratified by Congress in 1865 — is still very new. It’s only just become illegal to own another person, so her characters can be forgiven for preferring to stay away from the state system of law enforcement.

Nicole: And so the time period’s always interested me. I mean, it’s also, it’s all stuck in my mind cause it pops up the most. When you talk about movies about black history in America, that’s the time period. I used it as a backstory on purpose most because I wanted to talk about the reconstruction period, the period after the American Civil War, because that’s not talked about at all in the US that much beyond like, you know, a paragraph saying it happened.

And I liked the idea of using it as a backstory for the characters that is an area that’s where they got their skills to, you know, learn how to be mystery solvers, basically.  I figured like, you know, if you think about it, for me it seemed natural, like, you know, they learned these skills about sneaking around, they get very aware and observant, being able to pick out who could be a good person to help, if they could be like enemy more or less.

And then in addition to like, you know, the magical elements of the world I created , I felt that they got those skill sets and make them really easy to be like, you know, mystery solvers, you know?. I always kind of joke when I was putting together the idea for this, like the mystery element just kind of slid in nicely when I was first like drafting out the story way back when, so like all these things kind of combined together.

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In the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, police characters and the system of law enforcement and justice that they represent are certainly a regular presence. But although they are there, they aren’t often in the foreground of these plots. Of the four so called Queens of Crime from this time — Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh — only one created a recurring detective character who is an active member of a police force.

That was Marsh’s Scotland Yard detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who first appeared in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead and then starred in a further 31 novels until his final case in 1982’s Light Thickens. Several times across his long literary career, Alleyn references the fact that as a serving police officer he is merely a small cog in the big machine of the state, with little power to act on his own ethical views. Marsh was especially forthright about this during the 1930s, when she was writing plots that included elements about how Scotland Yard surveilled left wing and radical political groups, alongside ones set at aristocratic debutante balls.

In 1935’s The Nursing Home Murder Alleyn says that “As the police officer in charge of this case I am simply a wheel in the machine. I must complete my revolutions […] neither you nor any other lay person, however much involved, has the power to stop the Machine of Justice or indeed influence it in any way whatever.” This is a pretty bleak view of justice, but it’s one that Marsh returns to repeatedly. The next year, in Death in Ecstasy, Alleyn complains again that “The police force is merely a machine”.

Although he remains a loyal Scotland Yard man for his entire career, Alleyn shares some characteristics with the classic amateur detective in the mould of Sherlock Holmes or Peter Wimsey. Alleyn is a gentleman, a member of the upper classes, and as such is unusual in the ranks of a police force that in both fiction and fact drew its recruits largely from the lower middle and working classes. In her books from the 1930s and 40s this status is especially useful to Marsh, because it gives Alleyn a personal entré into the country houses and county sets where she liked to set her mysteries during this time. E.R. Punshon had a similarly dual role for his Scotland Yard detective, Bobby Owen, who joins up as a lowly constable despite his wealthy background and university education.

Hercule Poirot is another interesting character in this regard. Although in all of Christie’s books he operates as a private detective, unaffiliated with any official force, he is described as a retired policeman who had a distinguished career in his native Belgium. This status largely attracts respect from the Scotland Yard officers he works with, and also means that he has contacts with police in other places like Paris when his cases take him overseas. In many ways, this was Christie having her cake and eating it too. Poirot has all of the freedom of the private detective to act outside of the law when he feels like it and dispense justice on his own terms, but he also has a background that means he can command assistance from the official police force when he desires it.

Then finally, I want to mention the police characters from this period who aren’t bumbling and prone to jumping to the wrong conclusions, but competent and trusted colleagues of the amateur sleuthing hero. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion has a long and close relationship with Inspector Stanislaus Oates, who first appears in 1931’s Look to the Lady. Much later, Campion becomes godfather to Oates’s son. And of course, there’s Inspector Charles Parker, friend and brother in law of Peter Wimsey. Right from the start of her mystery output, Sayers paired these too together. Her debut, Whose Body? from 1923, sees them investigate parallel cases and pool their resources in order to see if the two things are connected after all.

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Detective fiction has always evolved alongside the police, borrowing elements of real life investigation and reflecting it back for our consumption. We can only hope that as society changes, so does the crime fiction it produces. I’ll let Nicole have the last word on this one.

Nicole: I think people have been in the past interacting with this, there has been other writers of colour even before I started writing like back the early from nineties and stuff like that, that been looking into different relationships with how do you deal with the police? Basically, it’s not an old conversation.

It’s probably just  become more prominent. I guess there’s more upcoming writers as well, who are also engaged in certain things that are doing different in different fashions. I’m not too surprised that within next few years, we aren’t seeing different kind of situations, but to go back to my first point, it’s like, it’s something that’s always been kind of happening.

It’s just probably becoming more mainstream. You might be seeing more bigger stuff happen now. Hopefully.

Caroline: 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/policingthedetectives. 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.

Policing the Detectives

Is it possible to write a whodunnit and leave out the police?

Many thanks to my guest, Nicole Glover. More information about her work is available at nicole-glover.com, and her first book, The Conductors, is out now in the US and the UK.

The inspiration for this episode was Nicole’s article “Who Are You Going To Call: Rethinking The Role Of Police In Mysteries“.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but there is some discussion of the works listed below.

Sources and further information:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

“On Duty With Inspector Field” by Charles Dickens in Household Words

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The Butler Did It” episode of Shedunnit

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Death In Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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Cryptic Crimes Transcript

Caroline: Classic detective fiction has rules. Codified as the genre grew in popularity in the 1920s and early 30s, these conventions mostly feed into the idea of “fair play” between author and reader. The art of writing a good murder mystery, then, is sticking to this framework while also subverting it. There’s a great skill to putting the secret out in the open and at the same time manipulating the reader into never looking at it long enough to guess the answer.

But whodunnits are not the only form of entertainment from this time that rely on clues, misdirection and twists to bewitch and delight. Another kind of mystery entirely grew out of the so called “puzzle craze” of the early twentieth century, and there’s a surprising amount of intersection and dialogue between the two. Both have their rules, their traditions, their famous creators, and their devoted fans.

Grab your pencils and put on your thinking caps, because today we’re going to solve some crosswords.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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The first crossword was published because it was almost Christmas and a newspaper editor had run out of ideas. It was 1913 and Arthur Wynne, the journalist in charge of the New York World’s weekly colour supplement titled FUN, had more space available than he had words to fill it with. The order had recently come down from management that the paper should be including more puzzles and games, so Wynne decided to make one up to fill his extra space. He created a diamond shaped grid of squares accompanied by a list of riddles that corresponded to the numbered rows and columns.

As the reader filled in the answers, the intersections provided letters that could help solve other clues. That first time, on 21 December 1913, it appeared under the title of “Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle”. Two weeks later, a printing error reversed those two key words and it became “Fun’s Cross-Word Puzzle”. The name stuck and it was an instant hit. After seven weekly puzzles had appeared, readers even started sending in ones that they had constructed themselves, and two years in Wynne was complaining that “the present supply will last until the second week in December, 2100.”. That quick puzzle that he had dashed off last minute became an institution and quickly gathered thousands of fans.

The crossword was a peculiarly trans-Atlantic invention. Arthur Wynne was born and brought up in Liverpool, the port city in the north west of England where I live, but emigrated to Pittsburgh in the United States when he was 19. Newspapers were in his blood — his father had been the editor of the Liverpool Mercury, and Wynne started out on the Pittsburgh Press before he transferred to the New York World. Although he is remembered fondly now as the originator of these puzzles, he didn’t create them in a vacuum. Going back to the nineteenth century, word games such as acrostics had been a popular element of newspapers and magazines, and the early Fun Crosswords have a lot in common with the “riddle boxes” popular in British children’s magazines when Wynne was growing up. And 23 years before Wynne in 1890, an Italian journalist called Giuseppe Airoldi had published a puzzle he called the parole incrociate or “crossed words” in a Milan magazine. This was a four by four grid where each row and column was the solution to an accompanying definition. The Italian reading public weren’t especially keen on it, so it didn’t take off. It was the puzzle-hungry readership of the New York World, a couple of decades later, that really set the crossword puzzle in motion, and it quickly caught on in Britain too, with the first crossword puzzle appearing in Pearson’s magazine in 1922. American and British crosswords are different, though, it should be noted. The former is often based on general knowledge and definitions, while the so called “cryptic” style popular in the UK is built on wordplay, puns, anagrams and the like. The first cryptic crossword was published in the Observer in 1926, and the setter Torquemada is generally credited with originating the form.

But what does any of this have to do with murder mysteries? Well, these two forms of puzzle — the crossword and the classic fair play whodunnit — were exploding in popularity at the same time and this collective passion had a common source in the so called “puzzle craze” of the period immediately following the First World War. I’ve talked before on the show about the “convalescent” qualities of whodunnits and how people exhausted and traumatised by years of conflict found comfort in this genre, and the same dynamic was at play with all kinds of distracting, puzzle based entertainment. Jigsaws, treasures hunts and parlour games all surged in popularity and the crossword was right up there too. The critic Alison Light has described the effect of murder mysteries in this post war period as “the mental equivalent of pottering”, and the same could be said of word puzzles. Even the genre’s detractors saw the similarities — in his famous 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, the critic Edmund Wilson says that “the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere be­tween smoking and crossword puzzles”. People love whodunnits and crosswords alike because they’re absorbing and distracting but not disruptive.

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I feel like I should issue a disclaimer at this point. I am not good at crosswords, especially the cryptic ones that really passionate fans of these puzzles adore, and I’ve never devoted any time to learning their ways. I’m not sure why — I’ll happily spend hours and days thinking about the nuances a 1920s  murder mystery, but when confronted with a crossword clue like “One may take issue with rising fish stocks”, nine letters, my brain just glazes over.

In order to understand the connection between crosswords and crime fiction more deeply, then, I needed to call in an expert.

Hamish: There is a particular type of crossword clue for that one where, um, the, the solution is actually hidden in the in the clue itself. Here’s one I wrote a while back. “Put an end to staying in hotel, I’m in a tent”, and if you look at the words “hotel, I’m in a tent”, Ignore the H O T  of hotel and then you’ve got. E L I M I N a T E N T for tents at the end of it. And that spells eliminate, but it’s actually in “hotel, I’m in a tent”. So it’s staying in hotel, I’m in a tent and it means put an end to. So in that, in that case, the solution is literally staring you in the face. If you care to read the clue in the right way.

Caroline: This is Hamish Symington, a plant science phd student and cryptic crossword enthusiast. I’m afraid even after this excellent explanation the solution to that particular clue is still not staring me in the face. But that’s just me — there’s nobody better to guide us through this cryptic world: Hamish sets crosswords for the Guardian and elsewhere under the pseudonym “Soup”, and he even takes commissions to create custom puzzles for birthdays and other special occasions.

I knew in principle that cryptic crosswords and crime novels shared many features, but it wasn’t until I talked to Hamish that I realised quite how much they have in common. For starters, crosswords have rules that setters are supposed to follow, very much in the way that the writers of classic whodunnits were too.

Hamish: A clue should contain two things. It should contain the definition and it should contain wordplay to give you the answer to that definition and nothing else. And that is a really difficult thing to stick to. There are some times where you want to include a few extra words, just because it would really make the surface of the clue look like something else, but it doesn’t contribute to the actual meaning of the clue. It’s extra cruft, which you’re putting in just to make it look good. That is not allowed.

Caroline: And then there’s the dynamic between the setter and the solver, and the way that clues have to be both transparent and opaque at the same time.

Hamish: This is the joy of cryptic puzzle, as opposed to general knowledge or something like that. The clue that is split into two parts, you have the definition, which is a synonym of the word which you are looking for, then there’s wordplay. And the wordplay is really, really clever because it gives you the puzzle of how to get to the solution while looking like it means something completely different. And that is the art of the setter is making it look like something completely different.

Caroline: And then there’s the fact that setters write under pseudonyms.

Hamish: Everyone has a pseudonym. They don’t publish under their real names, I’m not entirely sure why this came about, but it’s how it always is. So Araucaria was the monkey puzzler, he was always called the little monkey when he was little, apparently. So they kind of make sense. Araucaria is the monkey puzzle tree.

Caroline: Araucaria was the pseudonym of the Reverend John Galbraith Graham, who was a popular cryptic crossword compiler for the Guardian from 1958 until his death in 2013. He was a crosswording mentor of sorts to Hamish, who also succeeded Araucaria as the editor of 1 Across magazine. Setters like this who publish puzzles over many decades develop a certain style and way of doing things that fans recognise, just as a favourite author might have a distinctive flair or a recurring character.

Hamish: [20:26] I can’t workout how to explain it you just, you just get to know the setter. Um, Some setters are witty, some like Shakespearian characters more than others. There’s a setter called Boatman who will always include the word “boatman“ in one of the clues. That could mean sailor or tar or A.B. for Able Seaman or it could mean I or me for the setter. There’s a setter called Paul who is often a bit more smutty. So you’ll probably get a bum joke in every one of his crosswords. There are some whose puzzles you just look at in complete awe. There’s a setter called Brendan, who is amazing. He set a puzzle in which nowhere in the grid was that the letter E, which is the most common letter setting that as a grid is actually relatively straightforward, but nowhere in the clues was the letter E either. And that sort of stuff is amazing. Araucaria had his own style. He was very much anything goes as long as it’s fair. There are rules, which you have to follow. He didn’t always follow the rules, but he knew what he was doing when he was breaking them. And you could tell that from the clues, you would always think that the clue was fair.

Caroline: That sounds rather familiar to the mystery fan, doesn’t it? A group of clever writers, often working under knowing pseudonyms, who play with the rules of a form that first became popular in the 1920s to baffle and delight their readers. The more I learned from Hamish, the more I began to see all of the parallels between the golden age of detective fiction and the world of cryptic crosswords. It was almost enough to make me want to try and solve one for myself. Almost.

After the break: what happens when you put the crosswords in the crime fiction?

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Now, a brief intermission. They say that the pictures are better on radio, but sometimes it can be helpful to actually see what I’m talking about with your eyes rather than building the image in your mind alone. To this end, I want to recommend the podcast’s Instagram account to you — I’ve got really into sharing pictures of books and adaptations on there, as well as talking to listeners directly, and I’d love for you to join us. It’s @ShedunnitShow, and following the show there is also a good way to stay in touch with what’s coming up, because I share some behind the scenes stuff as well as sometimes running quizzes and giving away copies of my favourite murder mysteries. Last year, I “soft launched” some new merchandise on Instagram and it all sold out in the first day, so it’s a good way of staying in the loop about that sort of thing. Take part in the podcast in between episodes by following now — @ShedunnitShow on Instagram.

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The practice of putting crosswords actually in crime stories goes almost all the way back to Arthur Wynne and that first “Word-Cross” in the New York World in 1913. After that puzzle series became so popular that the paper was inundated with reader submitted solutions and puzzles, Wynne was assigned a secretary to help him manage it. Margaret Petherbridge, a highly educated woman who had her own ambitions to become a writer, initially saw this as a dead end job, but found herself sucked into the world of the crossword regardless, especially after she realised how much of the mailbag for the page was readers complaining about Wynne’s shoddy setting and frequent mistakes. Once she had tried some of Wynne’s puzzles for herself and realised that they were technically unsolvable, she vowed to fix it.  She took the whole thing in hand and put it on a more professional footing. She became a crossword enthusiast herself, and when she left the New York World, she was one of the editors of the first books of crosswords, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1925. It was incredibly popular, with 350,000 copies selling in the first year, and booksellers and libraries reported a sudden decline in sales and borrowing, because everyone was just doing the crossword book instead. Petherbridge joined the New York Times in 1942 as its first puzzle editor, and was described by the New Yorker as “probably the most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle”.

But from our point of view, Margeret Petherbridge’s most significant contribution to the intersection of crime fiction and crosswords was a series of 21 short stories that were published by Mystery Book Magazine in the 1940s. They starred a sleuth called “Inspector Cross” and included a crossword puzzles that readers had to solve in order to fill in the gaps in the mystery story. This is a formal experiment that has been repeated down the twentieth century, demonstrating just how closely the puzzle and the puzzle mystery are intertwined. For instance, an author called Nero Blanc — actually a pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team — throughout the 2000s published a dozen instalments of a series called “the crossword mysteries”, which are whodunnits which come with downloadable crossword puzzles that the reader can fill in to augment the story.

Detective novelists have long dabbled with crosswords in their fiction, and puzzles can have narrative uses beyond this more literal method of “solve these clues to reveal elements of the story”. The Dorothy L. Sayers short story “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will”, published in the 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, is an excellent example of this, where the crossword is for the characters to solve, not the reader — although Sayers did kindly include a grid and the correct answers in the back of the back of the book for anyone who wants to try. A friend of Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister is struggling to track down a rich uncle’s will, and the sleuth helps her to uncover that the answer lies in a set of riddles with answers that must be slotted into the tiled grid of an indoor fountain. I asked Hamish to take a look at these clues, and he reported that while this isn’t a true cryptic crossword — he described it as a riddle — they are well written and much better than the usual standard of puzzle to be found in fiction.

The writer E.R. Punshon went one better than Sayers in 1934 and published a novel titled Crossword Mystery, which sees his sleuth Bobby Owen sent to provide protection to a jittery stockbroker whose brother has recently died in a seemingly innocent swimming accident. A crossword devised by one of the victims in this story provides pivotal clues that lead to the eventual solution, and again Punshon “played fair” by the reader by including the grid in the book so that everyone could have a go, again pointing to the similar skills required to solve a murder and a crossword puzzle. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one myself, and I have read others say that it is particularly hard, so I don’t feel too bad about that.

We find this same trope of a dead person leaving a crossword behind to illuminate their demise in Close Quarters, a novel by Michael Gilbert that was published in 1947 but demonstrates many of the characteristics of the previous decade’s whodunnits. It’s set in a cathedral close, with the various resident clergy rocked by a spate of poison pen letters that accuses one of their number of negligence. A crossword puzzle devised by a previous victim is eventually discovered, and in a memorable scene two characters solve it on the spot to reveal a vital clue that moves the plot towards its conclusion. In this way, the puzzle is being used as a kind of personal code, with the setter pitching it a level that they knew their friend and fellow enthusiast would be able to manage, but which wouldn’t be accessible to a curious stranger. Gilbert’s novel can be read a little like a check list for the major tropes of golden age detective fiction, with the closed circle of suspects confined within the walls of the cathedral close, some fascinating stuff around footprints and time of death, a major red herring and a dramatic denouement. The crossword is really just the final touch that confirms this novel as being very much of the golden age, despite it’s slightly later publication date.

The crossword, then, can both provide clues itself and also work as an expression of its setter’s or solver’s personality. This latter attribute is very much on display in a short story called “The Clue” by the Anglo Irish writer Lord Dunsany. This is a very brief piece which turns on the idea that an apparently perfect murder can be solved by unravelling the crossword that the killer filled in while waiting for their victim to arrive at the deadly rendezvous. The sleuth divines a lot about the solver by looking at which clues they went for first and which solutions they missed entirely — you can learn a lot about a person, it turns out, based on which obscure facts they know and which they don’t.

And lest you think that it is only golden age authors who dabbled in crossword based murders, I must just point out that Patricia Moyes published one in 1983 called Six Letter Word for Death. This one is rather more convoluted and leaves me yearning for the stark simplicity of a grid on the page, but since the the sleuth is initially tipped off to the murder by mysterious crossword clues that arrive anonymously by post, I think it has to be included in the crossword mystery canon.

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After all that I’ve said, it should come as no surprise to you that mystery writers throughout the last 100 years have been among the foremost fans of crosswords. Whether it’s Ronald Knox having to give them up for Lent as a penance, or Colin Dexter naming all the characters in a Morse novel after his fellow regular competitors in a newspaper crossword competition, it’s clear that the skills involved in plotting a murder mystery and those required to solve a cryptic are very similar. And the tradition continues with today’s crime novelists — one of Hamish’s proudest custom crossword commissions was for Anthony Horowitz, who I’m told is a rare author who writes genuinely high calibre clues into his fiction.

I’ve always found crosswords intimidating — they seemed to have so many rules and conventions that I didn’t understand — but now that I know that they’re essentially just murder mysteries in grid form, I’m rather more inclined to give them a go. Whether it’s crime or cryptics, we’re all just searching for the solution, after all.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. My thanks to Hamish Symington, aka Soup, for sharing his crossword expertise with me — we actually spoke for a long time and he did his very best to make me understand how cryptic clues work, and members of the Shedunnit book club will be getting to hear that full interview soon as a bonus episode, sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you would also like to hear it. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/crypticcrimes. 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.

Cryptic Crimes

If you can solve a crossword, you can solve a murder.

Thanks to my guest, Hamish Symington. You can find out more about his work at hamishsymington.com and order a custom cryptic crossword from him at customcrypticcrosswords.com.

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:

Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars by Alison Light
“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” by Edmund Wilson, first published in the New Yorker on 20 January 1945
The Crossword Mysteries by Nero Blanc
“The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will” in Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers
Crossword Mystery by E.R. Punshon
Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert
“The Clue” in Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories by Lord Dunsany
A Six Letter Word For Death by Patricia Moyes
Last Puzzle and Testament by Parnell Hall
Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures With Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them by Adrienne Raphel
—”Clues: Crosswords and Detective Stories” by John Curran in Crime and Detective Stories 79, December 2018
Cracking Cryptic Crosswords by Colin Dexter
— Two episodes of The Allusionist podcast about crosswords: #8 Crosswords and #62: In Crypt, Decrypt

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.

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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/crypticcrimestranscript.

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

Notable Trials

How did a legal history series become so well known that even Lord Peter Wimsey owned a set?

Find links to all the books and sources mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/notabletrials.

Special thanks today to my guest Dr Victoria Stewart. You can follow her on Twitter @verbivorial and order her book Crime Writing in Interwar Britain: Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age here.

Buy tickets to the first-ever Shedunnit live shows at shedunnitshow.com/events — I’ll be in Dublin on 15 November 2019 and Birmingham on 1 February 2020.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/bookclub.

Books and sources:
Strong Poison (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers
A Pin To See The Peep Show  (1934) by F Tennyson Jesse
Portrait of Fryn: Biography of F.Tennyson Jesse  (1984) by Joanna Colenbrander
The Anatomy of Murder (1936) by The Detection Club
The Poisoned Chocolates Case  (1929) by Anthony Berkeley
Malice Aforethought  (1931) by Francis Iles
“Decline of the English Murder” (1946) by George Orwell
Death at the Opera  (1934) by Gladys Mitchell

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 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.

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

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

The Mutual Admiration Society

One chilly night in November 1912, a group of young women gathered together to share their writing with each other. From that meeting, we got Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, and so much more besides.

Find links to all the books and sources mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/mas.

Special thanks today to my guest Mo Moulton, you can follow them on Twitter @hammock_tussock and order their book The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers And Her Oxford Circle Remade The World For Women at Amazon, Waterstones, Hive or your local independent bookshop.

Buy tickets to the first-ever Shedunnit live shows at shedunnitshow.com/events — I’ll be in Dublin on 15 November 2019 and Birmingham on 1 February 2020.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/bookclub.

Books and sources:
Mutual Admiration Society  by Mo Moulton
Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Live and Soul  by Barbara Reynolds
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase  by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night  by Dorothy L. Sayers
Busman’s Honeymoon  by Dorothy L. Sayers

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 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.

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

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

Brides In The Bath

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. But three times? Three women dead in identical circumstances is highly suspicious. This is the story of the brides in the bath.

Find links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/bridesinthebath.

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at shedunnitshow.com/membership.

Books and sources in order of appearance:
The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins
Notable British Trials: George Joseph Smith
British Newspaper Archive
Murder on the Links  by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death  by Dorothy L. Sayers
Busman’s Honeymoon  by Dorothy L. Sayers
A Caribbean Mystery  by Agatha Christie
The Bath Mysteries  by E.R. Punshon
“Three Is A Lucky Number” in The Allingham Casebook  by Margery Allingham

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 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.

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

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