Tag: Dorothy L Sayers

10. Nurse Daniels Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the tenth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: On 6 October 1926, a young woman went into the cloakroom on the quay at Boulogne in France. Her friend was waiting for her outside, expecting her to come out again quickly because they were due to catch the boat back to England in ten minutes’ time. The seconds ticked by, and the boat left, but still the young woman didn’t appear. She was never seen alive again.

Five months later, her body was found several miles away. An umbrella and a syringe of morphine were lying nearby, and it looked as if she had been strangled. No witnesses came forward and the police were baffled. British and French journalists descended on the town, eager to try their hand at investigating this riddle. Among them was a newly-married Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist with a keen interest in the crimes of her day, excited to test out her sleuthing skills on an actual case. But when she got there, she found that not every crime has a neat beginning, an intriguing middle and a satisfying ending. Real life is a whole lot more complicated.

This is the story of Nurse Daniels.

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn about Dorothy L. Sayer’s frustrating adventures in France trying to crack a case that was captivating Britain, and how she managed to weave elements of it into her fiction. But to understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning. Who was Nurse Daniels, and why did her disappearance and death cause such a sensation?

Music

Winifred May Daniels was 21 years old when she disappeared. She was a nurse probationer at a hospital in London, and according to the interviews given by her family after she vanished, she was a happy, cheerful person, who wasn’t prone to getting upset easily. One friend described her as “level-headed and cool, and not in any way hysterical” . She wasn’t famous or notorious, but she did live during interesting times, as the saying goes. Her disappearance caused a stir because of the role she inhabited in society, and her death was a good excuse for people to air a lot of prejudices and assumptions.

May Daniels belonged to the generation of women who grew up in the aftermath of the First World War and were able to take advantage of the progress that came afterwards. The very fact that she was training full time at a hospital even though the war had been over for years tells you something about the kind of person she was. She wanted to qualify and work as a nurse in a professional environment, rather than being the kind of gentlewoman volunteer who might having taken up nursing temporarily during the war. We don’t know anything about May’s romantic life, but she was unmarried and unattached as far as the newspapers could find out. She might well have been one of those “surplus women” supposedly left to fend for herself after thousands of men died in the trenches. You can find out more about that phenomenon and the ways it influenced detective fiction in the very first episode of this podcast.

Another clue to her personality lies in her appearance. The newspapers described Nurse Daniels as having “shingled hair”, which was an important identifier at that time. It means she had her hair bobbed in the modern style, rather than grown out long and arranged in a demure and complicated undo as her Edwardian mother and grandmother might have had. Shingled hair signalled that a woman had better things to do than spend hours fiddling with hair pins. She wanted a style that was comfortable, convenient and fashionable. To a certain kind of more conservative critic, reading this description would have had some negative connotations too, because some perceived the style as racy, since it exposed the back of a woman’s neck. A nurse with shingled hair might be assumed by some unenlightened individuals to be promiscuous or sexually available. This idea became part of the story later on, after the body was found, when people were attempting to find an explanation for how a nice, hardworking English nurse could have ended up strangled and dumped in a field in France. Naturally, the speculation got a bit lurid and out of hand. We’ll come on to that later.

On that day in October, May Daniels and her fellow nurse Celia McCarthy had 12 hours’ leave from work. They decided to take a day trip to France, and took the train to Brighton from London and then the ferry across the channel from there. The two women were close; May’s brother said later that “May simply adored Nurse McCarthy”. An eyewitness reported seeing them on the boat having a great time, laughing and chatting together. They spent the afternoon in Boulogne looking around the shops and having tea, and then just before their boat back to Brighton was due to depart, May said that she wanted to go into the cloakroom quickly for a “wash and brush up”. We know from later reports that May was dressed smartly, in a black coat and a fashionable mauve toque hat with a point at one side — perhaps she was enjoying the rare chance to be out of her nurse’s uniform. While she was in the cloakroom, Celia waited outside, and I think we can assume she would have told her friend to be quick, because they only had a few minutes before their ferry left.

Celia McCarthy waited and waited, the bustle on the quay all around her, watching the door through which her friend had vanished from sight. But May Daniels didn’t return. The boat left, and only one nurse was left behind on the quay.

Music

When you look back on a sequence of events like this, it’s easy to jump between the significant points and ignore the boring periods in between. There aren’t very many historical accounts of the Nurse Daniels case, but those that do exist tend to leap straight from her disappearance on the quay in Boulogne that evening to the discovery of her body five months later. But if you sift through all the newspaper clippings from the days immediately after she vanished, you get a fascinating glimpse into the mundane trivialities of crime and tragedy that detective stories usually leave out altogether.

For instance, although we know with hindsight that it is May Daniels who deserves our sympathy, it’s not as if Celia McCarthy was left in a very safe situation, either. She said in interviews afterwards that as she waited for any sign of her friend, she was completely unsure as to what she should do. It’s not as if you would immediately jump from your friend’s slight delay inside a cloakroom to assuming that she had been abducted or murdered. It would just be a bit unsettling to miss your ferry. McCarthy also didn’t speak much French, so once she was convinced that Daniels was no longer in the cloakroom, she found it very difficult to make enquiries as to whether anyone had seen her friend walking off anywhere. She was just left standing on her own on a dock, with no idea how long she should wait, and no idea where her friend could have got to. The ferry was due to leave around 5pm, and she waited on the dock until 9.30. Alarming, yes, but there was no reason yet to suppose that the story would have such a tragic ending.

One fact that many of the reports focused in on was that it was May Daniels, not Celia McCarthy, who was carrying the pair’s tickets. This suggested that it was unlikely that Daniels’ disappearance was planned, since if she had known she wouldn’t be returning to England with her friend, why keep hold of McCarthy’s ticket and leave her stranded in France? Police and public alike felt that this suggested Daniels had not vanished voluntarily, but had been “enticed away by a plausible stranger”, as one paper put it.

Nurse McCarthy ended up spending the night in the cloakroom before heading to a nearby convent early in the morning — she was a Roman Catholic — for some rest and the facilities to set enquiries in motion. She telegraphed to her sister in London for some money to pay for a return ticket and communicated with the British consul about May’s disappearance. The police tried to trace Daniels, but with little success, and her family offered of a £100 reward for information. But eventually McCarthy had to return to her own job and life back in England, none the wiser about where her friend had ended up. There was a small flurry of interest in the missing nurse in the papers, and some journalists tried to interview McCarthy at the hospital while she was on duty, but aside from the bizarre fact of her friend going into a cloakroom and apparently never coming out again, there was very little for the press to go on.

But then, a French farmer made a very unpleasant discovery. More on that after the break.

Music

And now listeners, a small intermission where I’m going to ask if you’ve got round to signing up to the Shedunnit newsletter yet? It’s the best way to stay up to date with everything I’m doing on the show and find out when a new episode has come out, and means you’ll be the first to know when any of the secret plans I’m hatching at the moment for the future of the podcast actually come to fruition. If that sounds good to you, head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Now, back to the story.

Music

It was almost five months later, on 26 February 1927, when a French farmer called Jean Houchin made his unpleasant discovery. He was walking near a well-known landmark on the outskirts of Boulogne, the Column de Grande Armee, built in the early nineteenth century to honour Napoleon. There are gardens laid out all around the column, and about 100 yards from the landmark he came across the decomposing body of a woman hidden under what the Sunday Post newspaper would later dramatically call “the Bush of Death”.

After the police were called and the scene properly investigated, they found a broken umbrella and a torn handkerchief buried in the sand near the body, and a little further away a small metal box containing a broken hypodermic syringe. This last gave the police and the journalists who began to appear in Boulogne over the next few days their first far-fetched theory: that Nurse Daniels was a secret drug taker, and had given her friend the slip in order to take a dose of something, only to succumb to an overdose. The fact that Daniels had no known history of drug taking, and that it would be very odd to sneak out of a cloakroom and walk a mile and a half just to get a hit, soon quashed this theory, but not before the papers had indulged in some seedy speculation.

May Daniels’ brother went to Boulogne and his identification along with some dental evidence confirmed that the body was indeed that of his sister. The police were able to turn up a few witnesses with a vague memory of seeing a woman who might have looked like Daniels walking in the vicinity of the column, but there was no definitive statement or evidence to explain how she had come to be there and at what point in the previous five months she had met her death. They had not been able to trace her in the time since she disappeared, and it was even harder to do after news of the body’s discovery spread and people suddenly had a voyeuristic desire to be associated with the case.

Even the cause of death was hard to establish, with the medical evidence citing “syncope”, or sudden heart failure, but with no clue as to the underlying cause. There was thought to be some marks of strangulation on the body, but with its advanced state of decomposition, they couldn’t be certain. Neither were any drugs or poisons found in her system, although that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there — a long time had elapsed since her disappearance and many analytical techniques were in their infancy. In short, this was nothing like the miraculously clear-cut post mortem reports you get in books, with time and cause of death neatly delineated for the detective’s convenience. There was little doubt that May Daniels was dead, probably murdered, but beyond that, the trail was cold.

Music

Interest in the Nurse Daniels case ran high in Britain and France over the next few weeks, fuelled by the rewards offered by her family and the fact that the police seemed to make no progress at all towards finding a solution or even a credible witness report. The circumstances were all aligned for maximum public interest: a pretty, modern young woman vanishes in mysterious, impossible seeming circumstances, and then her body is found months later alongside some hints of drug taking or other illegal activity. The lack of proper clues or witness reports left a vacuum in which speculation and outlandish theories could thrive. A lot of these focused on the broken hypodermic syringe, suggesting either that Daniels was a secret drug addict or that she had been doped by a gang of kidnappers, but there was one French police inspector who gave rise to another popular, if unsupported, explanation of events.

He had the turf beneath Daniels’ body analysed, and found a large quantity of blood in it. From this, he decided that she had bled and died at that spot, rather than having been moved there after death, and that most likely she suffered heart failure as a consequence of some operation that was being performed on her. The syringe hinted at medical involvement of some kind, too, lending circumstantial corroboration to this. The police and newspapers were reluctant to actually name the kind of operation that everyone was assuming had taken place — the inspector himself just said that “the act leading to the death of Miss Daniels was an offence against French and English law”.

What he, and everyone else, meant was abortion. A whole new narrative about May Daniels was built up, in which the cheery outing with her friend to Boulogne was actually a front for a desperate woman’s attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy at a time when there were no legal or safe options available to her. In this version, she either disappeared from the cloakroom voluntarily, giving her friend the slip in order to keep her appointment with a backstreet abortion provider, or her friend was helping her, and lied about the disappearance in order to cover up what Daniels was really doing. This latter seems unlikely, though, since surely Celia McCarthy would have had a better story if she’d been able to think about it in advance than just “she went into a cloakroom and never came out”. And then, goes the theory, the operation went wrong somehow and May Daniels died, so didn’t return to rendez-vous with McCarthy and return to England as expected. Those who had done the operation panicked, and dumped the still-bleeding body of Nurse Daniels in a bush on the outskirts of town, and then kept their heads down when the police started asking questions.

This is just about plausible as an explanation, although it falls down a bit when you wonder why they would leave her body badly hidden right by a well-known landmark, and why, if she had died during a medical procedure, it looked as if she had been partly strangled. But the press carried on embellishing this version of events regardless of its implausibilities and contractions. Within a few weeks, the story had advance to the point where Nurse Daniels wasn’t just pregnant, she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the British establishment (not named) who had paid for her to go over to France for the abortion in order that it would be harder to trace back to him than if it took place in London. There was no proof or even indication of this, by the way, but the addition of an aristocratic or political connection did add spice to an already salacious story. It didn’t help investigators get any closer to the truth, though.

Music

Dorothy L. Sayers arrived in Boulogne in mid March 1927. She came with her husband Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist who wrote for the newspapers under the name of Mac Fleming. They had been married just under a year, and although Sayers was still enthusiastic and happy when she wrote about their relationship in letters to others, they had both embarked on the marriage with some baggage and it would become troubled later on. Mac was divorced with two daughters from his previous marriage, and he had a wound from his First World War service that gave him chronic pain and periods of illness. Sayers, meanwhile, had had a prior relationship with a married neighbour that resulted in the birth of her son, John Antony — a secret she kept closely for most of her life. We’ll talk more about this in a future episode, but for now it’s worth knowing that just a few years ago, Sayers had found herself in a not dissimilar situation to the one that had been imagined for May Daniels. Rather than abortion, which she abhorred both on religions and practical fronts, Sayers ended up having the baby and giving him away to be fostered with a cousin. She had hoped that when she married Mac, her son might come and live with them, but it never happened, although he did take Mac’s surname and use the name John Anthony Fleming.

Mac was due to report on the Daniels case, and the News of the World newspaper hit on a cunning idea: since he was a journalist and his wife was a detective novelist, why not pay for the two of them to go over to France and see if they could solve the mystery? Sayers and Fleming accepted — possibly partly because it was a free holiday at a time when money wasn’t exactly plentiful for them, since Sayers worked as an advertising copywriter and Fleming was freelance. They were far from the only special investigators sent by newspapers like this, either: former Scotland Yard man Chief Inspector Gough was hired by the Daily Mail and Netley Lucas, a conman turned crime correspondent was there for the Sunday News. Indeed, the town was crowded with people trying to work out what had happened to Nurse Daniels.

On 20 March, Dorothy wrote to her mother from Boulogne. “We rushed violently over here yesterday afternoon at about half an hour’s notice,” she said. “Mac is investigating the Daniels case and I am fooling about, hoping that an opportunity may present itself to ask leading questions! Anyway it was a very jolly trip over – simply glorious weather, sunshine and the cafes open till 2 in the morning. We rolled into bed about 2.30 and feel all the better for it, in spite of an intensive course of mixed drinks during the evening… of course, the place is swarming with English journalists.”

It seems like the sleuthing pair were having a lovely time, drinking and socialising with the makeshift press pack that had assembled in the town. However, they did also find time to do a bit of investigating, inspecting the mysterious cloakroom and various other key locations, but in the end Sayers had to admit herself stumped — she couldn’t do any better than the police in this instance. She did however find herself inspired by several of the aspects of the Daniels case, and worked quickly to incorporate her fictionalised versions of them in her next novel.

Music

By early 1927, Dorothy Sayers had already published two Peter Wimsey novels — Whose Body? in 1923 and Clouds of Witness in 1926. By the time of the trip to Boulogne to investigate the Nurse Daniels case with Mac she had already written most of her next detective story featuring her monocled aristocratic sleuth. This book was titled Unnatural Death and it would be published later in 1927. Her biographer Barbara Reynolds points out that at the time of the Daniels investigation in March Sayers was still able to insert some new details that draw on her attempts at real-life detection.

That book, which incidentally is one of my own favourite detective novels, features a cloakroom scene very like that which Celia McCarthy experienced that October day on the quay in Boulogne. During the course of a trip to Liverpool, Wimsey’s manservant and detecting assistant Mervyn Bunter is instructed to follow a mysterious unknown woman who they believe might be connected to the case. He trails her successfully to a ladies’ cloakroom where Bunter feels that he, as a man, can’t follow. He waits outside, secure in the knowledge that there is only one exit and he can carry on tracking her after she comes out. He waits for ages and she doesn’t appear, and after getting a hotel employee to check the cloakroom he finds that the woman has somehow vanished.

So far, so similar to what happened with Nurse Daniels. But at that point, Sayers’ imagination takes over, and she invents a solution of her own. The woman in her story is completely aware that she is being followed, and she has come equipped to throw off her pursuer. She cunningly changes her coat and hat in the cloakroom and emerges looking completely different, and is therefore able to walk straight past Bunter without him noticing her, since he didn’t know her personally and was mostly using her outfit to identify her.

Sayers also uses this episode as away of hinting towards the way society looked upon single, so-called “surplus” women at the time — they’re interchangeable, she seems to be saying, and all you really notice about them are their clothes. Elsewhere in the same book she also includes a scene in which a murdered young woman is found under a bush in a semi-public place with various red herrings strewn around. I don’t want to give away anything more, because it’s such a good story, but let’s just say that hypodermic syringes and nurses also feature.

There can be no doubt that Sayers found her brief stint as a real life amateur sleuth very stimulating. And it’s not that surprising: the case of Nurse Daniels reads like the first ten pages of a brilliant detective story. The independent young woman, out for a day’s fun with a friend, goes into a cloakroom and is never seen to come out again. Her body is found months later, with several convenient red herrings nearby. But as Sayers and others found when they tried to work out what happened next, real life doesn’t work out as neatly as the stories we make up for ourselves.

Nobody was ever able to prove how May Daniels got out of that cloakroom without her friend seeing, or what sequence of events lead to her death, or even how she was killed. There’s no satisfying ending where a clever detective brings a wicked villain to justice. A horrible act of violence was committed against a young woman, and nobody was ever punished for it.

The sad reality is that sometimes, you never get to find out whodunnit.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/nursedaniels. There, you can also read a full transcript.

I have to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported the show in the last two weeks — it’s been a really busy time for me, and getting the notifications of your donations and reviews really helped keep me motivated to stay up late and write and record. A few of you pointed out though that the book wishlist link I mentioned last time wasn’t working, so I have now fixed that. If you feel an urgent desire to buy me a mystery story to talk about in a future episode or a magnifying glass that I can brandish while I read, go to shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

I’ll be back on 6 March with a new episode.

Music

Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

I know I said that last time, but this time I really mean it.

9. The Rules Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the ninth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: A good detective story has a recognisable rhythm. The plot might have unexpected twists and the characters can surprise you, but there are certain structures and tropes that recur through much of the crime fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. Some of them have been parodied to the point of cliche, such as the old ‘the butler did it’ solution, but they are usually there nonetheless, providing the author with some creative constraints and the reader with a frame of reference.

Even if you aren’t a big reader of mysteries, these founding principles of the genre are so familiar that I expect you’d still be able to name a few: nothing supernatural, no secret twins, no springing clues or suspects on the reader in the final chapter — the list goes on. But how did these precepts come to be woven through the books from the golden age of detective fiction between the two world wars? And what happens when you break the rules?

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Music

My obsession with what is and isn’t allowed in a detective story began with A. A. Milne. Although he is best known now for creating The Hundred Acre Wood and its residents Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and co, Alan Alexander Milne was also a journalist, playwright and novelist publishing work both before and after the First World War. He also had a passion for detective stories and in 1922 published one of his very own, The Red House Mystery, in which the host’s long lost brother is found shot during a country house party, and two of the guests turn to sleuthing to solve the puzzle. It was a great success, being reprinted many times, and is still read today.

Four years later, he wrote a new introduction for the 1926 edition, and in it Milne set out his own “curious preferences” about what a detective story can and can’t be. He wanted his whodunnits written in plain English, without the intrusion of a romance plot, starring an amateur detective who works just with logic and reasoning rather than specialised scientific knowledge or equipment. There must also be a ‘Watson’ character, via whom the detective can narrate his sleuthing progress, who must be neither too quick to catch on nor a total fool (in fact, a lot like the original Watson in Sherlock Holmes, perhaps).

Milne hated the final chapter reveal, in which the detective proudly unveils the solution to a throng of other characters, which is invariably based on a whole load of clues the reader had never heard of before. He wanted readers to feel that they had a fighting chance of solving the mystery for themselves; that the important clues had been dropped like breadcrumbs through the whole text, if only the reader was smart enough to work out which ones mattered and which ones didn’t.

There’s plenty I agree with here – I too like the illusion that I could outwit the detective — and some that I don’t (I think some of the best detective stories have a romantic element, as Dorothy L Sayers later proved). But what first captivated me about Milne’s essay wasn’t the specifics of what he outlined, because after all he made clear he was just addressing his personal preferences, but rather the seriousness with which he had considered the formal structures of detective fiction as a form. So-called “genre” writing has always suffered from the perception that it isn’t as important or worthy as highbrow literature, but here was a respected author really getting stuck into the tropes and conventions that underpinned this kind of writing.

And he was far from the only one. Plenty of other writers, both at the time and later, have tried to lay down “rules” for detective fiction. T. S. Eliot was one such — he was a big fan of the whodunnit too, and used to review new detective fiction in his literary journal The Criterion (although not under his own name). He even described himself in a letter to his friend Virginia Woolf as a “person who specialises in detective stories and ecclesiastical history”, and I don’t even think he was joking, although by that time he’d published Prufrock, The Waste Land and other major poetic works.

Eliot’s own favourite story was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which although it was published in 1868, long before the advent of detective fiction’s golden age in the early 1920s, Eliot considered to be the first and best example of the form. (This is also an opinion that was shared by G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories and the first president of the Detection Club.)

From the work of Wilkie Collins and his familiarity with the novels that followed it, Eliot evolved a few rules of his own about how a whodunnit should be put together. He banned elaborate disguises, supernatural incidents and bizarre coincidences, and insisted on a clever detective who is not so brilliant that it comes across as some kind of superpower. Most of all, though, he wanted the criminal’s motive to be normal or logical, and for the reader to feel that they had a sporting chance at finding the solution.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American art critic Willard Huntington Wright published in 1928 under his regular pseudonym of SS Van Dine an essay titled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, which has often been quoted and cited since. He has many of the same preferences as Milne and Eliot as far as romance, transparency and rationality, but he also had some more specific (and funny) hang ups. No secret societies, no murderers who are also domestic servants, no long ‘atmospheric’ passages of writing, no professional criminals, no fake seances, no code letters, no knockout drops or hypodermic syringes, no cigarette butts as evidence. . . The list goes on and on and on.

Music

As listeners will have no doubt have spotted, Van Dine’s rules were broken left, right and centre. Just from those few points I listed, I can think of popular and acclaimed detective stories that include those specific elements, from the scene setting in The Moonstone itself, to the professional criminals that Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion encounters, the fake seance in Dorothy L Sayer’s Strong Poison, to the possibly coded letters in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, the hypodermics in Sayers’ Unnatural Death, and finally Sherlock Holmes’s own preference for using cigarette ash as a major element of detection.

This is the key point, I think — these rules were never written to be taken very seriously. Ronald Knox, himself a detective novelist as well as a Catholic priest, wrote a rather more tongue in cheek list of ten ‘commandments’ for detective novelists that were published in the introduction to the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology in 1928. Several things we’re now very familiar with are prohibited by his list too, such as twins, ghosts, multiple secret passages, overly smart Watsons and concealed evidence, but he also banned detectives who are also murderers and Chinamen.

This last was a reference to the racist stereotypes prevalent in the popular thrillers of the time, where mysterious Oriental villains from smoky Limehouse opium dens abounded. Knox himself said in the same piece that too many rules could cramp an author’s style — he clearly never intended detective fiction to become some kind of tick box exercise. Putting down these ideas was just another way of recognising the popularity and legitimacy of the form.

An idea that all of these rule-makers had in common, though, was that of “fair play”. Indeed, it was such a foundational part of the style in this period that the first item in the constitution of the Detection Club, to which Christie, Sayers, Marsh and others all belonged, says that “it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not ‘play fair by the reader'”. This comes back to that sense that T. S. Eliot reference of wanting the reader to have a “sporting” chance at solving the crime for themselves; indeed in his history of this time, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards links this desire to the idea of being honourable on the cricket pitch, of that old fashioned English idea of “playing the game” and not deceiving anyone.

The kind of detective novel that most closely adheres to the notion of fair play is the pure puzzle, where the whole setup of the crime scene is described to the reader so they can form their own deductions. Dorothy L Sayers didn’t often write this kind of book, since she was usually breaking rules all over the place with her seances and her romances and her elaborate disguises, but in Busman’s Honeymoon she did have a go at it. This story actually started life as a play that she later turned into a novel, and is the last full-length appearance of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. It features that classic murder plot — the locked room, or house in this case — in which the victim seems to have had his head bashed in somehow while completely alone in a secured dwelling.

Pretty much everything you need to know to solve this one is there in the first few chapters, but I’d be very impressed if anyone manages to do it without any prior knowledge of the twist at all (if you do, write in and tell me how, I’m on caroline@shedunnitshow.com). That said, when I’ve reread this book since, some of the clues do seem a bit obvious and clunky, so maybe it isn’t as impenetrable as I think.

Another writer who was very interested in maintaining a sense of fair play was John Dickson Carr, who even included a meta discussion of it in relation to locked room murders in his 1935 novel The Hollow Man. It’s the most extraordinary scene in which Carr’s protagonist Dr Gideon Fell delineates all the different ways a supposedly ‘locked room’ mystery can be engineered, with commentary about which ones are more or less common or fair. He even says “we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not”. Carr was a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton, who was himself a great proponent of fair play — it’s even been suggested that his description of Fell was meant to suggest that he looked like the great creator of Father Brown.

J. J. Connington, a favourite of T. S. Eliot’s, even went so far as to include a “clue finder” appendix in his 1929 novel The Eye in the Museum, which gave the page numbers of all the major clues so that after they’d read the solution, the reader could go back and check up on all the hints that they missed. He, and the handful of other authors who used this device like Ronald Knox, really wanted people to know that they were trying to stick to the rules.

Music.

But what about when authors threw the rule book out of the window? I think there are two good examples of this, the first a single book and the second an entire career. The first is, of course, Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which is perhaps the finest example of the exact opposite of fair play (although some critics maintain that it doesn’t completely break the rules). When it was published, it caused a bit of a stir for its rule-breaking structure (I’m not going to say anymore, because I don’t want to ruin the first time shock for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but please do seek it out) and its disgruntling effect on some readers became well-known enough that when the American critic Edmund Wilson wrote a grumpy essay about how he didn’t see the point in detective fiction in 1945, it was headlined “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”.

I think Christie enjoyed experimenting and causing a fuss; lots of her books are certainly full of smaller examples where she deviates from the rules, not least because of Hercule Poirot’s love of keeping the workings of his little grey cells a secret until he’s absolutely sure of his solution. Five Little Pigs is another good example of inverted fair play, because that’s a novel in which Poirot is called into reinvestigate a case from decades before, and he has no evidence to go on beyond the psychological inferences he can make about the people involved. This style of story is sometimes referred to as that of an “armchair detective”, because there’s no need for any energetic sleuthing to crack the mystery. I’m not sure that T.S. Eliot would have been madly keen on that as a way of telling a detective story, but I personally think it’s one of Christie’s stronger books — she apparently created it as a challenge to herself to see if she could pull off a plot without the more conventional elements of an investigation like fingerprints to help her.

The second major contradiction of the fair play doctrine I think comes in pretty much all the work of Margery Allingham. Her books do have many of the trappings of the conventional golden age mystery, such as the singular detective in Albert Campion, the country house and upper class settings, and so on, but you only have to read the first Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley from 1929 to see how quickly she chucks all notions of fair play out the window. Campion disappears at a crucial moment in the plot, and then reappears several chapters later, and doesn’t even then really explain what he’s been up to until the very end.

Allingham said that she wrote this book via what she called the “plum pudding” method, in which anything can be stirred into the mixture to enhance its richness. That’s certainly how the novel feels, as more gangsters and ancient curses turn up. There’s something of the P.G. Wodehouse style romp to some of her books, and she did also really like to hint at the supernatural, such as in 1931’s Look to the Lady. This is something that she had in common with Gladys Mitchell, who also liked to make reference to witchcraft and folk customs in her detective novels, and didn’t particularly trouble herself about whether her sleuth Mrs Bradley’s methods were always completely fair and transparent to the reader.

Part of the focus on fair play at this time stems from the other kinds of puzzle games that were popular, like crosswords, mahjong, treasure hunts and so forth — the classic, truly honest fair play detective novel should be as easy to solve as a crossword with all the clues listed underneath it. And while there are novels that manage to do that while also creating a story that’s exciting and enjoyable to read, plenty of authors clearly struggled under the constraints and ended up prioritising their puzzle plot over everything else.

Allingham described the construction of a mystery story as a process of building a box with four sides, made up of “a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion”, and said that the box could be both “a prison and a refuge”. I think what she meant by that was that the restrictions of the form could both prompt her to be more inventive, but also curtail some of her more outlandish ideas. I’m glad to say though that she didn’t allow it smother many of her stranger ideas — with authors like Allingham and Mitchell particularly, it’s the moments when they break free of the rules that I most enjoy their work.

Music

I don’t think anybody other than a few extremely grumpy critics has ever put down a detective novel and refused to read further after discovering it doesn’t completely adhere to the idea of fair play, but I do still sometimes observe the traces of this attitude when it comes to contemporary television adaptations of these stories. There’s an element of the audience who want to judge a TV version of a story by how faithful it is to the source book, and I have seen people post on social media about turning off an episode in disgust halfway through because an element of the plot has been changed or approached in a different way.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with having strong feelings about the quality of how something was made, but when I see that kind of view expressed, it does make me think back to the rules of SS van Dine and others, and wonder how differently detective fiction would have developed if everyone had always coloured inside the lines, rather than extravagantly slopping paint everywhere just to see what would happen. I suspect that everything would have been much flatter, more conventional and less captivating if they had resisted experimentation in favour of obedience.

After all, everybody knows that rules are made to be broken.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/therules. There, you can also read a full transcript.

Something both really surprising and lovely has been happening over the past few weeks — I keep getting these emails from Paypal telling me that listeners have sent the show money. Thank you very much to everyone who has donated, it’s really kind of you and all helps keep the wolf from the podcast’s door. If you’d like to join in, you can head to shedunnitshow.com/donate to send me your loose change, or as per lots of requests, I have now set up a wishlist so you can buy me books to help research future episodes. You can find that at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist..

I’ll be back on 20 February with a new episode.

Music

Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

9. The Rules

A good detective story has a recognisable rhythm and plot points. But how did these tropes come about? And what happens when you break the rules?

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/therules. 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.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Books and articles mentioned in order of appearance:
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
T. S. Eliot on detective fiction
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
S. S. van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Ronald Knox’s Decalogue
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
—”Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” by Edmund Wilson
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

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

8. Dining with Death Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the eighth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: It’s a perfect image of family harmony and domestic bliss. Everyone gathered around a table groaning with food, brought together for the daily ritual of breaking bread. Maybe it’s a huge dining room full of damask and silver; perhaps it’s a small, homely kitchen with everyone crowded in on stools. The class signifiers matter less than the fact that the whole family is there, eating together.

Except too often, in a detective novel that is, these jolly family dinners aren’t quite what they seem. There’s resentment about inheritance simmering below the surface, and extramarital affairs being conducted under spouses’ noses. Long held grudges from childhood hover in the background, all the more dangerous now that everybody is all grown up. Still, as long as everyone can stay civil and eat together, they can pretend that everything is just fine.

That is, until somebody clutches their throat, turns blue in the face, and falls face forward into their soup

Because tonight, you see, we’re dining with death.

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

A brief note before we go any further: in order to be able to discuss this subject properly, I might need to hint at whodunnit. If you’re worried about spoilers, please refer now to the list of books in the episode description, and maybe come back when you’ve finished reading them.

Music

Food matters in literature. Describing what characters eat and how is an important tool for authors trying to build a world and an atmosphere quickly and without a lot of exposition. You can learn a lot about someone from what they choose to eat and what they leave on the plate, and how they behave during the meal.

Food also has a deeper symbolic meaning: it stands for comfort, security, domesticity and family. There’s a reason why, both in real life and in fiction, when something terrible happens our first reaction is to make tea or heat up soup. It’s a way of showing love and of taking care of someone.

Food can also do a lot of the work in a story when it comes to setting the scene and evoking the period.

Kate: I have always been interested in the food in Agatha Christie because it was sort of a a quite interesting picture of England. So At Bertram’s Hotel is full of people sitting in an old fashioned hotel dining room eating muffins and doughnuts and crumpets and having big pots of tea and A Pocket Full of Rye is about a jar of marmalade and about tea time at work and about scones and jam and there is this sort of picture of England that you get through the food which I always really appreciated and felt sort of placed me in the stories in a really definite way.

Caroline: This is the food writer Kate Young, the author of The Little Library Cookbook. She grew up in Australia, and she writes about food herself, so she’s always been sensitive to the ways in which it is used in fiction generally, and — as a massive Agatha Christie fan — in these novels in particular.

In both of the books she mentioned there food plays a vital role not only in expressing their essential Englishness, but also in delineating period, setting and character. So in At Bertram’s Hotel, Miss Marple is continually troubled by how perfectly expressive the food at the hotel where she is staying is of her Edwardian girlhood, all seed cake and perfect muffins — a type of fare that had mostly vanished by the time the book was published in 1965. It’s all just too good to be true, she feels, as if the afternoon tea service is a performance on a stage rather than a real part of life. And of course, it turns out that she is right. The food at the hotel is explicitly designed to give the place a nostalgic atmosphere of the utmost respectability in order to detract from the shady things that are going on.

Similarly, in the opening chapter of A Pocket Full of Rye from 1953, we follow a long description of how the morning tea break takes place at an office, learning all the while who is competent and who is not. (The ability to make tea with water that is actually boiling is rarer than you might think.) The perfect tray is eventually presented to the boss, only for him to collapse and die shortly after taking a sip of his tea. In crime novels, food isn’t just a way of setting a scene or evoking a place. Food can also be a means of murder.

Music

In detective fiction, food has a dual, and even contradictory, role. It has all of that sense of home and tranquility, but then when that is disrupted by violence, the juxtaposition is all the more jarring. So many detective stories start with a peaceful exchange over the breakfast table — lots of Sherlock Holmes stories begin this way, as does Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, and many other of her works. Then, the bad news arrives and the meal is spoilt. The food is left to go cold because crime has intervened. Normality is disrupted. It’s even a way of showing that someone is depraved or lacking in humanity — in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey says that he’s known murders tuck into the supper of someone they’ve just murdered quite cheerfully in order to suggest that the death occurred later.

Of course, the most prominent role food plays in crime fiction is as a vehicle for poison. This is the most extreme way that comforting, nourishing food is subverted for evil ends, when the meal itself becomes the way in which the fatal blow is delivered. Here’s Kate Young again:

Kate: A Pocket Full of Rye is a really good example of that. There’s these extraordinary breakfast that is described and then a really lovely afternoon tea both of which are how the two characters who enjoy those meals that the breakfast meal and then the afternoon tea. That’s how they’re murdered. There’s poison slipped into tea and poison put it into a pot — taxine from the yew berries in the trees outside that is put into the pot of marmalade. So it is a really grim and eerie look at food which is supposed to be this warming wholesome comforting thing I think particularly like lovely breakfasts at home and and an afternoon tea service in your library are supposed to be the sort of things that you could just eat and enjoy that happen every day and suddenly are the result of somebody getting murdered. It is a really interesting thing and the descriptions of those meals because they keep returning to them and considering how that poison could possibly have been administered it is really interesting to keep returning to that table and how it was set.

Caroline: Agatha Christie in particular liked using this means of murder in her books; just under half of her plots involve a poisoning of one kind or another. Partly this is because the use of poison can just make for a more interesting plot, and it also fits into the mostly bloodless kind of violence preferred by the crime fiction of the 1920s and 30s. (Incidentally, most descriptions of poison victims’ deaths in novels skate over some of the more unpleasant symptoms, like excessive vomiting and diarrhoea. Euphemisms like “violently unwell” appear instead. If you’re interested in getting all the gory details about what really happens when you swallow a lethal dose of something, I recommend reading scientist Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic.)

Poison is a frighteningly easy way of killing someone, too. It’s quiet, it doesn’t require excessive physical strength, and in some cases the deed can even be done at second hand, so the murderer doesn’t even have to be present administer the dose themselves. There are countless examples of this, and I’ve always found them some of the most terrifying deaths in detective fiction. There’s Aunt Julia in Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral, who dies because one of her weight loss pills has been poisoned and then put back in the packet, and the murderer is just waiting for the morning when she happens to swallow that one.

Or Rex Fortescue in A Pocket Full of Rye as Kate said, dead because of poison his housemaid put in his marmalade because her boyfriend told her it was a truth serum. Or Anne Johnson in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, who wakes up thirsty in the night and downs the glass of water by her bed, except the murder has replaced it with hydrochloric acid and she dies in burning agony. This last one scared me for months after I read it as a child — a glass of water is such an innocuous thing, and yet here it was turned into a deadly weapon.

And then there’s the classic “sending a box of poisoned chocolates” way of trying to kill someone, which I’ve always thought was deeply creepy, especially when, as in Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors, the poison has only been injected into the chocolates that the intended victim particularly likes. That such an intimate thing to do, to exploit someone’s taste in sweets like that. It brings murderer and victim as close as if he was holding a pillow over her face.

Another reason why Christie used poison so often in her plots is because she had professional knowledge to draw on. During the First World War, she volunteered as a nurse in a hospital in Devon and ended up working in the dispensary there. She took and passed exams in 1917 that qualified her to work as a dispenser, meaning that she had a wide knowledge of different drugs, their therapeutic uses in medicine, the safety procedures required at the time, and what the consequences of misuse might be. She gave this exact job to a character in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Cynthia Murdoch is a dispenser in a hospital, and her knowledge of and proximity to dangerous compounds like arsenic and strychnine is vital to that book’s plot.

Christie remained interested in pharmacy long after the war was over, collecting books on the subject and keeping up with the latest research. During the Second World War she again volunteered as a dispenser, updating her training with further study and working at least two days a week at University College Hospital in London. This is why Miss Marple is so extremely knowledgeable about poisons and their antidotes — sometimes to a degree that slightly stretches credulity, such as in the short story “The Thumb Mark of St Peter”, when she immediately knows that a dying, poisoned man is trying to call for the compound “pilocarpine” to counteract the fatal dose of atropine eye drops he has just ingested.

Christie even corresponded with specialists throughout her writing career to make sure she got the details of her fictional poisonings absolutely right. Largely, she did, unlike some other, less well versed detective novelists. The Pharmaceutical Journal reviewed The Mysterious Affair at Styles and said that “This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written,” which was an accolade Christie remained proud of her whole life.

When poison has been used, the food that carried it is subject to much greater scrutiny than it would otherwise be in a novel. It ceases to be part of the background, and comes sharply into focus. Again, it’s a macabre parody of the virtuous attention to detail a good cook would pay to the creation of a meal. Analysts pore over small samples of crucial dinners and detectives quiz the diners about the precise details of who ate what and when. Domestic poisonings were horribly common in Britain in the 19th and early 20th century, mostly due to a lack of proper regulation and the ready availability of large quantities of extremely toxic substances in things like fly papers and patent medicines. The newspapers covered these cases constantly, so the techniques available to the police for working out what had been introduced into food and why came to be well known. This, of course, meant that any would-be poisoner, even in fiction, had to get creative if they were going to get away with it.

Music

For me, the most infamous meal in detective fiction is served in the Dorothy L Sayers novel Strong Poison, first published in 1930. This book actually opens not with a disrupted breakfast, but with a courtroom drama. A young detective novelist by the name of Harriet Vane in the dock, being tried for the murder by poison of her lover Philip Boyes. She absolutely denies the charge, and Lord Peter Wimsey, watching from the public gallery, believes her, although the judge and most of the jury seem convinced of her guilt. Fortunately for both the reader and this nascent sleuthing romance, the trial falls apart when the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, giving Wimsey time to investigate properly.

The tale he discovers all turns on this one dinner, the last meal that Boyes ate before he succumbed to the effects of arsenic poisoning and died. It was served at his cousin Norman Urquhart’s house, and the description of all the courses — a cup of cold bouillon to start, then a piece of turbot with sauce, followed by a poulet en casserole, and finally a sweet omelette, actually made at the table by the murder victim himself using a spirit lamp and a chafing dish — is detailed and elaborate. Reading it, you can feel your mouth watering, until you remember that some part of this dinner actually killed someone. Both Boyes and his cousin ate some of everything, and all the dishes bar the omelette were also eaten by the servants. When Boyes is taken ill later that evening, Urquhart even takes the precaution of preserving as much of the meal as possible for testing, despite the fact that to start with there is no suggestion of poisoning. As Wimsey puts it towards the end of the book, “Did you ever hear of a meal hedged round with such precautions? It’s not natural.” The extreme focus and preparation around this one meal is suspicious, and that’s what ultimately leads to the detective discovering the solution.

There’s a similarly elaborate plot around the death in the Agatha Christie short story “The Tuesday Night Club”, when a husband who happens to be a salesman for a chemical firm engineers that the maid will use hundreds and thousands laced with arsenic to decorate a trifle. It appears on the surface that husband, wife and the wife’s companion have all eaten the same meal and yet only the wife died, but Miss Marple soon works out that Mr Jones just scraped off the hundreds and thousands, and the companion Miss Clark was “banting” (that is, dieting) so wouldn’t have touched her helping of dessert. To me, this is such a grim murder — trifle is such a cheering pudding, and hundreds and thousands are a kind of sugar decoration you’ll often see on sweets for children. Turning them into a way of killing an unwanted wife is doubly horrible.

It’s perhaps interesting that in both of these examples that I’ve singled out to talk about, the poisoners who adulterate otherwise delicious-sounding food are both men. Poison is traditionally considered to be a “woman’s weapon”, both because it doesn’t require great strength to wield, and because it works best in the customary women’s sphere of the home. Even if real-life statistical analysis of poisoning cases doesn’t actually back up this stereotype, it’s definitely a persistent idea in detective fiction that if someone is poisoned, you should look for a murderess, not a murderer. That’s why Harriet Vane so very nearly gets convicted, and why Elinor Carlisle in Christie’s Sad Cypress very nearly does too, and why Mitzi, the cook in A Murder is Announced, is convinced that she will end up in prison too. The links between nourishing food and femininity are so strong that when the former is subverted for evil purposes, it follows that the latter has been corrupted too. The central pillar of society — the home — has collapsed, and all is in disarray. “Dining is the privilege of civilisation” wrote Mrs Beeton – until, one day, it’s not anymore.

Music

Yet despite all of ghastly poisonings in detective novels, we still love reading about the food. Or perhaps it’s because of this that there’s such interest in these dishes – there’s a certain piquancy to making a recipe that could so easily have an extra, deadly ingredient. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of books that exist to cater to our desire to replicate the food we read about in whodunnits, from Anne Martinetti’s Agatha Christie cookbook Crèmes & châtiments : Recettes délicieuses et criminelles to The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.

In Kate Young’s The Little Library Cookbook, there are two recipes she’s created that are inspired by descriptions in Agatha Christie stories.

Kate: The first one is creamed haddock on toast, which because I love Sleeping Murder which is the book that it’s from. And because I also love like a late night fish supper and the creamed haddock on toast is something that Gwenda asked for for breakfast and the woman who works in her house her sort of housekeeper says ‘um, no you’re not eating fish in bed, you can have that for supper instead’. And I like the idea of sort of a late night fish supper. So I went with creamed haddock on toast which is totally delicious not very photogenic. There’s clearly not a picture of it in my book and there’s a reason for that. And then the crystallized ginger is one of my granddad’s favorite things. It’s from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a Hercule Poirot book where he goes to a big house in the countryside and there’s a ruby and a Christmas pudding and it’s it’s very like classic Christie feel in terms of the house but it’s even more so because it’s an English house at Christmas time.

Caroline: When she’s developing a recipe from a novel – and her book is full of them, it’s not just detective stories — she’s trying to recreate the feeling you get while you read about the food, as much as literally translate what’s on the page.

Kate: I’m not a food historian so while I really enjoy the research and looking into the sort of history surrounding a recipe the biggest thing for me is that it has to work in your kitchen. So what I do at the beginning is really consider the time the book was set and who’s doing the cooking in that house whether it’s somebody who’s employed to cook or whether it’s a member of the family. And then what cookbooks they might have had. And so there’s lots of great historic cookbooks that are available that you can have a look at and lots of them are available online. I play around with different ingredients and different methods and have a think about social class and what access to ingredients and access to equipment that character might have had and then all of that kind of gets thrown away when I come to write the recipe because it needs to work in 2018-2019. So I know this is a non Christie example that I’m going to talk about but the roasted goose in A Christmas Carol that Mrs Cratchit makes for their family on Christmas Day is roasted over a spit and if I put a recipe for roasted goose in the book where that said ‘Ok ready your spit’ nobody’s ever going to make it. And so it needs to be something that’s going to work in your kitchen now that has an essence or an understanding or a bit that is from that book without being sort of really adherent to the cooking methods and ingredients at the time.

Caroline: For the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth in 2010, the actress Jane Asher created a recipe for the “Delicious Death” chocolate birthday cake that Mitzi makes in A Murder is Announced. It’s described as a cake with “an intense, forbidding dark Belgian chocolate centre which is lifted by the unexpected sharp zing of its brandy-soaked cherry and ginger filling”. In the book, someone is found dead after eating this rich centrepiece of the birthday tea, but in real life people queued up at the Agatha Christie festival in Devon that year to grab a piece.

Perhaps risking death is worth it, if the cake is especially delicious.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/dining with death. There, you can also read a full transcript.

We’re welcoming new listeners all the time, but I still need to tell more people about it if I’m going to turn the podcast into something sustainable I can do long-term. If you’d like to help me out with that, the best things you can do are tell your friends or family about it, post about it on social media, or leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

I’ll be back on 6 February with a new episode.

Music

Next time on Shedunnit: The Rules

8. Dining with Death

Food matters in books. It helps to set the scene, build up characters and evoke a period, and it also symbolises comfort, security and domesticity. Yet in detective fiction, food can also be a method for murder. Everything is lovely at the family dinner, until somebody clutches their throat, turns blue in the face, and falls face forward into the soup.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/diningwithdeath. 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.

Contributors:
—Kate Young, author of The Little Library Cookbook. Follow her on Instagram @bakingfiction and find out more about her work at thelittlelibrarycafe.com.

Books mentioned in order of appearance (please be aware that there are minor spoilers for some stories in this episode):
At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
The Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers
A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
“The Thumb Mark of St Peter” and “The Tuesday Night Club” in The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
Crèmes & châtiments : Recettes délicieuses et criminelles d’Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti
The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J Eakins
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

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

7. Edith Thompson Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the seventh episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Just before nine am her gaolers injected her with a sedative, and then offered her brandy as well to calm her nerves. It still took four people to drag her out to the brick shed where her end awaited.

She was strapped into a bosun’s chair. A white hood was put over her head and a noose around her neck. She was barely conscious when, at the stroke of nine, the trapdoor opened and she fell to her death. At the exact same time in a different prison a mile away, the man she loved fell also. She was buried in the prison grounds, and for decades her family begged in vain to be told where her grave was located.

Hers had been a life of passion and fantasy, a whirlwind of imagination she created to escape a humdrum suburban existence. Her lover always maintained that the murder they were hanged for was his idea alone, but she was convicted by a jury immersed in the strict moral code of a bygone era that saw her frankness, love of romance and enjoyment of sex as proof of guilt enough. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, EM Delafield, Dorothy L Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Music

It’s not hard to see why the life and death of Edith Thompson proved so captivating for crime writers and the general public alike. It reads like a ready-made morality tale, or an inverted fairy story, in which the heroine finds her prince only for her happily ever after to turn into a nightmare that ends in the hangman’s noose. It caused a sensation while it was happening in 1922, and it has continued to fascinate people ever since. The events themselves — what we would call the plot, if this was a novel rather than a horrifyingly true story — are shocking enough, but it is really the characters and backgrounds of the people involved that makes this tale so compelling. And to really understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning.

Edith Graydon was born on Christmas Day in 1893 in east London. She was the eldest of five children of prosperous lower middle class parents — her father William was a clerk and her mother Ethel a housewife whose father was a policeman. William also had a part time job as a dancing teacher, and his daughter grew up to love performing. She left school at the age of 15 in 1909 and worked in the fashion industry, doing well at a London millinery firm. She was promoted several times until she became their chief buyer, and travelled twice to Paris for work. Before the idea of the “flapper” had really taken hold in the British psyche, Edith exhibited lots of the traits associated with that 1920s stereotype: she was a hard working career woman, she loved to have fun, she put off having children, she had bobbed hair, she spoke French — the list goes on.

In 1909, Edith also met Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk three years her senior. They were engaged for six years, eventually getting married in 1916 when Edith was 21. She kept working, and the pair initially lived in Southend before buying a house in the outer east London borough of Ilford. The Thompsons lived what appeared to be a happy, comfortable married life, but judging by what happened next, it would seem that Edith was bored or even depressed at her newly suburban, grown up existence.

The fateful meeting that would set Edith on the course to that bosun’s chair happened in 1920, when she reconnected with a young man she had first met nine years before, when he took dancing lessons from her father. Frederick Bywaters was now an 18 year old ship’s laundry steward who was handsome and full of stories about all his travels at sea. He was already friendly with Edith’s younger sister Avis, and it seems that Percy liked him at first too, because all four of them went on holiday together that summer to the Isle of Wight. Afterwards, Percy suggested that Frederick lodge with the Thompsons in Ilford on the rare occasions that he got leave from his ship, and Bywaters accepted.

Music

What happened next feels inevitable now, looking back at this story with the advantage of hindsight, but I’m sure as Edith was living it, she felt like every glance from Frederick held a new and fascinating potential to save her from her humdrum existence. Not long after returning from the summer holiday, she and Frederick began an affair, conducted under her husband’s nose at the house in Ilford. Of course, Percy found out. In the ensuing argument, Frederick demanded that her husband allow Edith a divorce so the lovers could be together, but Percy just raged and banished him from the house. Afterwards, Edith said later, Percy became violent — hitting her several times and throwing her across the room. Frederick went to sea again for his job in September 1921 and remained away for a whole year. It’s not hard to imagine the despair that Edith faced while he was away, her boring suburban life rendered even worse by the deteriorating state of her marriage.

The really remarkable part of this story, and ironically the thing that probably influenced the jury at Edith’s trial most, is what she did during the year that Frederick was away at sea. She wrote and sent him more than 60 long love letters — that’s at least one a week for a year — that were informed by her love of literary and romantic fiction. There was over 50,000 words altogether, including details about Edith’s life, her feelings, her memories and her reading habits.

In September 1922, Frederick returned to London on leave, and he and Edith reconnected. On 3 October, Edith and her husband were walking home from Ilford station late at night after going to the theatre in central London when a man jumped out from behind some bushes by the road and attacked Percy with a knife. The attacker ran away and her husband died before help arrived. Later, neighbours reported hearing a woman screaming “no, don’t!” repeatedly at the time of the attack.

When the police arrived, Edith identified the attacker as Frederick Bywaters and explained his connection to herself and her husband. I can only assume that she was confident at this point that she was considered to be just a witness to the crime, otherwise it seems like a strangely helpful way for a murder suspect to behave. It was only after detectives investigated Bywaters and found all of Edith’s letters that he had kept that she was drawn into the investigation.

The letters, you see, contained references to certain thrillers that Edith had read, including one called Bella Donna by Robert Hichens, in which a wife poisons her husband. As well as declaring her passionate love for Frederick, these missives also hinted at her desire that he should replace Percy as her husband, possibly using violent means if necessary. At one point, she claimed to Frederick that she had tried murdering Percy by putting ground up glass in his mashed potato. She also made reference to a young woman who had lost three husbands, while she, Edith, “can’t even lose one”. This was enough, apparently, for the police to invoke the law of “common purpose”, under which all those who plan a murder share criminal liability for it, even if only one physically carried out the attack. The letters, with their inclusion of husband-murder tropes, hinted at Edith’s complicity in the attack, the police felt. Both Frederick and Edith were arrested and charged with Percy’s murder.

Music

Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were tried together at the Old Bailey in London. The proceedings opened on 6 December 1922. They both had famous lawyers defending them — Edith’s barrister Henry Curtis-Bennett had earlier that year appeared for the arsenic poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong and Bywaters’ lawyer Cecil Whiteley had in 1915 defended the ‘brides in the bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith. There was a media frenzy surrounding the case already, with papers all over the country running breathless stories about “The Ilford Murder” and the attractive young lovers in the dock.

The trial only lasted a few days, because Frederick made it all quite straightforward. He had cooperated fully with the police, even showing them where the knife he had used to stab Percy was hidden. He insisted throughout that he had acted completely alone and without Edith’s knowledge, and that she was completely innocent of the crime. He said that his own intention had not been to murder Percy, but to confront him and frighten him into agreeing to release Edith from their marriage. Frederick explained that he had lost his temper when Percy had seemed to find the idea funny, and that’s when things turned violent.

The case against Edith looked like it would easily collapse. There being no material evidence linking her to the planning of the crime beyond the vague suggestions in her letters to Frederick, and her lawyer felt sure that he could argue those represented merely an infatuated woman’s fantasies rather than any concrete intention to act or cause harm. Percy’s body was exhumed and Home Office pathologists (including Bernard Spillsbury, who we met in episode two during the trial of Dr Crippen) could find no evidence that he had been fed glass or poison as the letters suggested. This gave weight to the idea that what she had written in the letters was really just the result of Edith’s imagination running wild, and could therefore be discounted in court.

So how did it go so wrong for Edith Thompson? Afterwards, her lawyer put her conviction down to the fact that she had insisted on giving evidence in her own defence. Her biographer, Rene Weis, writes that she was convinced that if she spoke, she could convince the jury that her relationship with Frederick was no sordid suburban affair but rather a grand romantic passion. She had been mortified by hearing her love letters read out tonelessly in court and seen her parents humiliated and in tears, Weis writes. She felt that she could “set the record straight” and as well as securing her own release, she thought she might be able to convince the judge not to sentence Frederick to death.

Unfortunately, her appearance seems to have had the opposite effect. She contradicted herself on the witness stand and appeared alternately melodramatic and self pitying. When asked about what she had been thinking when she wrote some specific passages in the letters, she said she couldn’t remember. The judge, Sir Montague Shearman, particularly seemed inclined against her, since he began the part of his summing up that referred to her without even using her name. “As for the woman,” he declared, disapprovingly, before going on to remind the jury of their duty to deliver a verdict only based on the evidence presented in the case.

Music

The guilty verdict was delivered on 11 December. Both Edith and Frederick were sentenced to death by hanging. To the salacious delight of the newspaper reporters in the press gallery, Edith collapsed in hysterics at the news, while Frederick shouted loudly about her innocence. Since he was nine years younger than her, commentators enjoyed portraying him as an innocent youth led astray by a manipulative older woman. He was a mere “romantic, chivalrous boy”, one wrote.

Of course, this could have been what happened. If Edith Thompson was indeed manipulative enough to have pushed Frederick Bywaters’ buttons until he stabbed her husband to death, it is possible that she could also have put on her extraordinary, contradictory courtroom performance because she thought it would muddy the waters and get him a lighter sentence. It seems less likely, though, than the theory that Rene Weis and others have put forward — Edith was just a sentimental, flighty young woman who completely lost her head when her romantic lover took things too far.

A big part of her miscalculation was in how the public, and crucially the jury, would respond to her letters. It’s possible, of course, that Edith thought Frederick would destroy them so they could never be read by anyone anyway. There was a heavy vein of sexism in the way the case against her was built, because the prosecution argued that her love of romantic, fanciful books led her to indulge in lethal fantasies that eventually led to action.

There were still ideas around in the 1920s about the harmful effect of romantic or sentimental fiction on women — it lingered for a long time, because it’s the same trope that Jane Austen was making fun of when she wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803. Frederick did say during the trial that Edith liked to “read a book and imagine herself as the character in the book”, not thinking that the jury would take that as an indication that she actually wanted to act out the role of murderess in the thrillers that she had enjoyed reading.

Edith’s biographer Rene Weis has also hinted at a theme I discussed in the first episode of this podcast as an explanation for why she was convicted without any substantial evidence against her. In 1922, Britain was still gripped by the idea, compounded by the figures released for the 1921 census, that the country contained over a million more women than men after all of the male casualties in the first world war. As I showed in that episode, this isn’t strictly correct in demographic terms, but this idea of the “surplus women” as disposable and unwanted was a powerful force regardless. To social conservatives at the time, Edith Thompson was not a “womanly woman” — she worked, she danced, she had been married for six years without having a child so presumably used contraception, and she wrote in her letters to Bywaters about enjoying sex and having an abortion.

If guilty, she had also brought about the needless deaths of two men. Seen in this light, it’s no wonder she was sentenced to death. Her lawyers did appeal, but unsuccessfully. There was even a public petition to stop the execution of Edith and Frederick with over a million signatures, but that was rejected too. Less than a month over her conviction, Edith Thompson was dragged into that shed at Holloway Prison and hanged. As well as being almost unconscious when it happened, she bled a lot — eyewitnesses says it looked like her “insides fell out”. Subsequent commentators, including Weis, have interpreted this as a miscarriage, suggesting that it was possible that Edith was pregnant. If so, she should never have been hanged — the law forbade it. Even if not, it was rare for a woman to be hanged at all — Edith was the first in 16 years.

Music

The influence of the case on the crime writers of the day was profound and long lived — the real events were so dramatic and improbable that the could not help but capture the imaginations of those who made this stuff up for a living. Martin Edwards documents many of their reactions in his book The Golden Age of Murder, so I recommend seeking that out if you’re interested in learning more. The first novel to appear based on the so-called “Ilford Murder” came out just a year after Thompson’s execution: Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield. You might know her as the author of the semi-autobiographical The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but she was also a novelist and close friend of the Golden Age detective writer Anthony Berkeley. He also dwelt on the idea of a wife inciting a lover to murder her husband a few times in different books, most overtly in 1939’s As for the Woman. In 1937 the authors who made up the famous Detection Club (which we’ll be learning more about in a future episode, by the way) published a book of true crime essays titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which Berkeley wrote about Edith Thompson. Unhappily married and prone to outside passions himself, he felt strongly that she was “executed for adultery” rather than for an actual crime.

One of the most interesting novels to be influenced by the case was The Documents in the Case, a 1930 collaboration between Dorothy L. Sayers and the scientist Robert Eustace. The whole story is told through letters and documents relevant to the case, so the reader feels as if they are playing the role of detective themselves. It too features a young wife (“a sort of suburban vamp”, they call her) who starts an affair with the lodger and is therefore ambiguously implicated in her lover’s later actions. It’s perhaps not as pacy as a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is a bit too wrapped up in the ingenious technicalities of the murder method rather than having properly compelling characters, but it’s an interesting take on the relationship dynamics nonetheless.

The actor Frank Vosper, who would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and die in suspicious circumstances in 1937, wrote a play about Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters called People Like Us. It opened in London in 1929, but was swiftly banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its supposedly racy content, and then remained unperformed until 1948. This play is in turn referenced in Agatha Christie‘s 1949 novel Crooked House, when an actress says suggests that a murder in the family is the ideal time to put on the “Edith Thompson play”, and that “there’s quite a lot of comedy to be got out of Edith Thompson – I don’t think the author realised that”. Exactly what Agatha Christie thought might be funny about this case is sadly not recorded.

Alfred Hitchcock was actually closely connected to the case, since he had been a pupil at Edith’s father’s dancing school and remained friends with her younger sister Avis. He apparently considered making a film about Edith’s demise a number of times, but never actually did. However, there are traces of the case in his 1950 film Stage Fright, and in the 1941 film Suspicion, which stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, ground glass is used as a murder weapon. Incidentally, this film is actually based on Anthony Berkeley’s 1932 novel Before the Fact.

Novelists and film makers are still finding inspiration in the case and the works it spawned today. As well as the 2001 film Another Life, the writer Sarah Waters has written about how it was Fryn Tennyson Jesse’s 1934 novel about Edith Thompson A Pin to See the Peepshow that first gave her the idea for the setting of her 2014 bestseller The Paying Guests. All of the Thompson-inspired novels give “a vision of a suburbia filled with seedy clerks and sulky housewives”, she has said, which seemed to her still an idea setting for a thrilling story of murder.

Music

In November 2018, Edith Thompson’s body was lifted out the mass grave in Brookwood Cemetery where it had been buried when Holloway Prison was rebuilt in 1971. After the Ministry of Justice finally allowed an exhumation, an ambulance took it to the City of London cemetery where it was laid in the same grave as her mother and father, just as her parents had always wanted.

She might be at rest at last, but the story of Edith Thompson lives on. It’s too extraordinary to be forgotten.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and articles that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompson. There, you can also read a full transcript.

I wish all my listeners a very happy new year, and thank you very much for sticking with the podcast into 2019. A few of you have been in touch to say that you discovered the show via Instagram, so I’m trying to be better at posting pictures related to the episodes there. Do come and take a look at instagram.com/shedunnitshow.

If you’d like to show your appreciation for the podcast, do tell your friends and family about it, or leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts because it helps the show be more visible to new listeners.

I’ll be back on 23 January with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.

7. Edith Thompson

On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, E.M. Delafield, Dorothy L. Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
Bella Donna by Robert Hichens
Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson by Rene Weis
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
As for the Woman by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
The Anatomy of Murder by the Detection Club
The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
A Pin to See the Peepshow by Fryn Tennyson Jesse
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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

5. Crime at Christmas Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the fifth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: The classic Christmas traditions are all about comfort. Blazing fires, mulled drinks, vast quantities of food — it’s all intended make the darkest time of year that little bit brighter. Much of the entertainment we enjoy over the festive period tries to do the same thing. The books, films and TV series themed around this time overflow with heartwarming adventures and happy endings.

But there’s one tradition that bucks this trend: the Christmas murder mystery. The depths of December inspired authors like Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and more. Their Christmas novels and stories have vicious murders and ingenious thefts committed and investigated against the backdrop of cosy festive fun.

Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century and watching television adaptations of these books is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most appropriate festive activity.

So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?

Music

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

Music

One of my absolute favourite murder mystery novels is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers. It was published in 1934 and sees her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigating a theft and murder in the Fens in East Anglia. The first few times that I read it, I was — like most readers — caught up in the detailed study of bellringing that the plot includes. It was only by chance that I happened to open it one year on 24 December, and on rereading came to appreciate that it contains some extraordinary writing about the dark bleakness that accompanies the bright joy of Christmas and New Year.

After that, I began to find similar passages in plenty of other detective novels from this period. Some of them address Christmas directly, such as Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in which a millionaire is found with his throat slit in a locked room on Christmas Eve, and others more obliquely like The Nine Tailors and Gladys Mitchell’s Groaning Spinney from 1950, in which a corpse is discovered the night before Christmas, but Mrs Bradley’s investigation continues well into the spring. The latter was actually republished in 2017 with the new title of Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery to really tie into the festive murder mystery reading trend.

The British Library Crime Classics, a publishing project to bring lesser known or out of print works back to readers also includes its fair share of Christmas stories, including The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay and Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith, as well as several festive themed short story collections. Both of these novels feature the discovery of murdered corpse in the midst of Christmas festivities — indeed, in the former, the victim is actually discovered by a guest dressed as Father Christmas. You couldn’t get a clearer example of murder intruding on cosy Christmas celebrations. But why is this such a popular trope?

Cecily: I think that the particular thing about Christmas is that you have such a strong contrast between the crime that occurs and the context in which it’s occurring.

Caroline: This is Cecily Gayford, a senior commissioning editor at Profile Books. She is also the editor of several anthologies of festive murder mystery stories, including most recently A Very Murderous Christmas, which includes work by Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell and GK Chesterton. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about why murder is such a popular Christmassy subject.

Cecily: You have a time of goodwill, a time that families are supposed to come together, it’s supposed to be about joy and generosity and safety and cosiness and the contrast between the warm inside and the cold outside. But then you bring that darkness, the sort of feeling underneath the Christmas tree of the Christmas dinner, and you have a disaster or an act of violence — a sort of damage to the social contract right in the centre of what is essentially the most safe and warm time of the year.

Caroline: This contrast is a heightened version of the effect murder mysteries have all year round: we like reading them partly because they make us feel safe. In the books, the murders happen in a controlled, ordered way and are solved by clever detectives, unlike the chaotic unresolved fears we might have in real life. At Christmas, this sense of danger resolved is all the greater. There are two ways this works, Cecily says.

Cecily: I think probably the most important is really that there is something about the mood of Christmas which means that we crave a kind of counterpoint to all that comfort and joy. It can feel a bit cloying and actually we fancy a bit of murder and mayhem to offset it. And I think that there’s something about the Christmas mood which obviously is itself a kind of contrast to the dark, miserable time of year and that feels a bit artificial because as a society we know that there’s both light and shadow in the world and if we insist on everything being all comfort and joy and goodwill to all men then there’s a sense in which the other side of life bursts back into being.

And then I think the second reason which is connected to is partly to do with why we like detective fiction in general which is that as well as being a good story it’s a way of working through anxieties that we have about the world and how safe it is for us.

Caroline: These stories are building on one of the fundamental tools of storytelling, she says.

Cecily: Now a lot of detective writers I think, most notably Dorothy L. Sayers, drew a line between Greek tragedy and detective fiction and talked about how the crime itself is a kind of cathartic moment. It allows us to address what happens when society breaks down and we’re no longer safe in places that we should be and of course there’s something about Christmas which is particularly cosy and safe you know we’re usually home with our families or inside brightly lit places at a time of festivity and so that intensifies that feeling of the worst has happened and so we had that cathartic release of addressing what could go wrong and then the resolution of it being solved and things being put back and returned to sort of prelapsarian safety essentially where detective sweeps in from outside.

Caroline: Different authors used the Christmas setting to explore different aspects of human nature.

Cecily: There’s some really great Agatha Christie stories, there’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” which is one in which Poirot’s invited to a country house and finds I think it’s a ruby in the middle of a Christmas pudding. Agatha Christie was someone who was particularly preoccupied by a certain kind of middle class, safe very ordered world. So I think she does it very well.

Margery Allingham was interested in I suppose the more upper class kind of country house side of things. They often have Albert Campion turning up in these slightly fraught noble families having to entertain a large group of country house guests but one of them is a blackmailer and there’s a disreputable uncle and in another corner an heiress with a secret. So I think people addressed it in different ways.

Caroline: Cecily also pointed out to me that there’s a slightly more mundane explanation for the profusion of Christmas murder mystery stories. Readers really like them, so publications pay authors to write them.

Cecily: I mean one of the reasons why there are so many Christmas crime short stories is that it was in a lot of these people were professional writers and it was a good opportunity for them to place a story. I think it had a partly reflects the fact that there were often special Christmas editions of magazines and it was a professional opportunity as well as a creative one.

Music

Caroline: In the decades since Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Mitchell were working, a new Christmas murder mystery tradition has emerged: that of the TV special. I’m going to be talking a lot more about screen adaptations of these books in the next episode, by the way, so make sure you refresh your feed on 26 December, because you’re not going to want to miss it. In the last few years, the BBC has been running new versions of Agatha Christie stories in the days between Christmas and New Year, and they’ve been a huge ratings hit. Why do we like watching something so dark and violent just when we’re all snuggled up on the sofa with a tin of quality street, though? These stories are not necessarily what you would first jump to as “good family viewing”.

Anna: It’s such a good question because obviously when you think about murder mysteries you’re mostly thinking about kind of hysterical violent deaths which doesn’t seem like the most cozy thing off the bat but I think there’s so much about them that’s comforting and I think part of what I originally found comforting about murder mysteries was kind of the way that they make a silly theatre out of death which you know a lot of us struggle with fear around death.

Caroline: This is Anna Leszkiewicz, a cultural critic and the deputy culture editor at the New Statesman magazine. Some eagle eared listeners might recognise her as my co-host from the now discontinued pop culture podcast SRSLY, which we hosted together for two and a half years. I’ve known Anna for a long time now, and one of her most beloved pastimes is watching murder mystery adaptations on ITV3, all year round, but especially near Christmas. She likes series like the David Suchet adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, but her real obsession is with series like Morse and Midsomer Murders, which although they are modern use many of the tropes and styles of the golden age of detective fiction. This, she says, is precisely what is so comforting about them.

Anna: For me I started really getting into murder mysteries when I was a student and I was watching Lewis which is set in and around the university I was studying art in Oxford and I really liked the way a that it made such a kind of ridiculous theatre out of death but by the way it kind of dramatised the absurdity of caring too much about academia because a lot of the villains would be like Oxford professors or students with like maniacal revenge against their tutors and it made it so clear that to care too much about your essay deadlines was just so absurd. And I found it really comforting but I think what Lewis also has is a is a kind of fairly derivative template. It’s a mix of very familiar either down to earth or eccentric characters very kind of lush grand or period settings and then these kind of contained wild plots that you just watch over the course of one episode or maybe two episodes if they’re two parter structures of this kind of like melodramatic easy to follow murder plot line. So they’re kind of that combination of familiar and wild and crazy but all in this very kind of like safe contained old fashioned space. So I think it’s that combination of things that makes them quite compulsively watchable and quite comforting because it’s that familiarity without it being boring is what makes it so comforting for me.

Caroline: As with detective novels, there are certain key aspects that a comforting murder mystery adaptation has to have for it to work, she say.

Anna: But for me the things that they need to have are they have to have the identity of the murderer being withheld from the audience for kind of the whole of the episode. I don’t like these murder mysteries like Luther and stuff where you know what’s happening and you’re just waiting for liefer to figure it out. I like I like being surprised at the end I like being able to make my best to make my guess. And then you have this recurring and probably very brooding detective figure. But they don’t have to be a detective. They can be as we know a hot pathologist or a hot vicar. Grant Chester and other shows. Each episode has to explore like a brand new case. So you could just pick up whenever you don’t have to watch the series kind of in order. I think that’s a big part of their accessibility. And then you have to have this you know ridiculous staged grand reveal where the detective figure somehow manages to persuade them the murderer to just explain everything they did in front of a whole room full of like people gasping. You know that’s kind of key. And then I think you have to have that tone of kind of absurd death implausible twists.

Caroline: A wintry, Christmassy setting really amplifies the comforting nature of these shows, she says.

Anna: They’s not really any kind of summer glorious summer set murder mysteries there’s a lot of these kind of twee English villages which really come into their own at Christmas these sorts of settings. I do think part of that is the kind of fairy opulent period setting which really just lends itself to kind of the lushness of festive decor and you know in mazing coats on and I think yeah it’s just the more comforting a program the more you want to watch at Christmas like Christmas is a time of comfort watching. You also want it to be something accessible and though murder mystery is often aren’t really suitable for tiny children they are quite family appropriate especially you know once once the kids are a bit older a grown up it’s kind of the kind of thing I mean I watch a lot of Midsomer Murders growing up with my family. Here was a big thing that we would all sit round and watch as family we’d laugh at the theme tune we’d laugh as Martine McCutcheon was bludgeoned to death with a giant wheel of cheese. That’s something very accessible and family watch about those programmes so I think that’s a big part of why they have such an appeal at Christmas as well. And also I think Christmas because it’s a kind of creepy time — the days are short, the nights are long — ghost stories are a big part of Christmas and murder mysteries often especially the Christmas ones come with that kind of like supernatural edge that’s eventually you know especially something like Jonathan Creek which is all about this kind of guy. He disproves the paranormal that’s kind of his whole role as a detective. They often can try and incorporate these ideas that you know Poirot’s seen a ghost or whatever it might be. And so I think they’ve just got all these little boxes that they tick you know period setting tick alignment with the supernatural tick easy to watch tick it just really means that they’re kind of perfect Christmas viewing.

Caroline: This issue of the wheel of cheese is an important one, because although these stories are violent, we don’t often actually see the gore, or even the actual moment of killing. For tales of death, they can be oddly bloodless. Plenty of the Christmas short stories I’ve read in Cecily’s anthologies and elsewhere don’t even include a murder, but focus rather on theft or deception. (My favourite of this kind, in case you were wondering, is “The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s in the 1933 collection Hangman’s Holiday, and you should definitely get hold of it to read on Christmas Eve.) This lack of explicit violence in these murder mysteries is a key part of why they’re enjoyable at Christmas, Anna argues, although there is some sign that that is changing.

Anna: Over the last four years there has been a trend to make these particularly the Agatha Christie adaptations more dark more gritty I guess because that’s where a lot of TV has gone. But I kind of prefer them with without but the real darkness and violence and as you say like I don’t I love watching murder mysteries and actually they don’t feel like a pity a place that’s full of violence against women even though obviously women are murdered so they literally do it involve violence against women it’s done in such a such a way that you never feel like it’s particularly depressing or realistic or likely to to happen you know it’s often the motives are not oh well he was domestically abusing his wife. It’s like well she had the ruby opal or whatever.

Caroline: Ultimately, we want just enough violence so that the peril feels real and the resolution convincing, but not so much that we actually feel scared ourselves.

Anna: That’s part of what makes them enjoyable is that they’re safe because it’s kind of taking all the things like you know death mud sexual affairs and all these things and putting them in such a soft twee and distant often context you know whether it’s the village of midsummer or 1920s London or whatever it put it puts it at a distance from reality and hams up everyone’s motives so much that it’s just that the melodramatic element takes it away from reality and it makes it quite as safe space to kind of engage with things like that without it feeling terrifying or horrible.

Caroline: As ever, murder mysteries take our anxieties about the world and reflect them back at us. At Christmas, a time that is meant to be all about plenty and goodwill, but which is often cold and difficult for many, they help us remember that not everything is comfort and joy, and give us a way to process our own feelings about safety and violence.

The firelight might be bright, but the shadows in the corners are darker than ever.

Music

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the events and books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. There, you can also read a full transcript.

A reminder that this was just the first of two festive specials – the second one will be out on 26 December. If you head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and sign up, you’ll get an alert when it comes out so that you can pretend to your family you have a very important work email and go off to another room to listen in peace.

I got a really nice surprise this week when the podcast leapt up the Apple Podcasts chart, thanks to all of the lovely reviews and ratings that listeners had been leaving. We peaked just outside the top 50 in both the UK and Ireland, which is completely amazing and you’re all very kind. If you’d like to keep spreading the word, who knows how high we can go. Regardless, I’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Adaptations, with special guest Sarah Phelps.

5. Crime at Christmas

Reading crime fiction from the early twentieth century is a really popular activity at Christmas. It’s nice to curl up with a good whodunnit by the fire, but if we stop and think about it, reading about complicated ways for people to die is not exactly the most festive thing to do. So why is it that we love crime at Christmas?

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/crimeatchristmas. 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.

Contributors:
Cecily Gayford, senior commissioning editor at Profile
Anna Leszkiewicz, deputy culture editor at the New Statesman. Read her article about cosy murder mysteries here.

Books and stories mentioned in order of appearance:
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
Murder in the Snow: a Cotswold Christmas Mystery by Gladys Mitchell
The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay
Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith
A Very Murderous Christmas edited by Cecily Gayford
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie
Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L. Sayers (includes ‘The Necklace of Pearls’)

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

4. The Lady Vanishes

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

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

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

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

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