Tag: Gladys Mitchell

Young Sleuths Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Sleuths

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

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

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

Books and sources mentioned:

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

Thanks to today’s sponsors. You can get $5 off mail based Victorian mystery game Dear Holmes at dearholmes.com/shedunnit using code “shedunnit” at checkout.

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

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

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

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

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

Notable Trials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

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

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

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?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

Queer Clues Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the third episode of Shedunnit. Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

[Music]

Caroline: On the surface, everything about classic detective stories seems straightforward. It’s all very black and white: people are either good or bad, guilty or innocent. There’s not a lot of grey in between.

These easy distinctions are what some readers find appealing about murder mysteries, since the idea that there are actually definitive answers to life’s questions can be very comforting.

Except if you dig a bit deeper, nothing is as simple as it seems. In a scenario where anyone could be a suspect, nobody is really being honest or presenting their true self. For a whole variety of different motives, everyone is playing a part.

The writers of detective stories from the 1920s and 1930s used this as a way to hide subversive, secret back stories for their characters in plain sight. This is true particularly of gay and lesbian characters, some of whom have hidden depths that it’s unusual to find in works of this period.

It’s all there though, alongside the murder weapons and the red herrings.

You just have to know how to spot the queer clues.

[Music]

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

[Music]

The dominant perception of the work of authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey and Gladys Mitchell is that it is cosy and nostalgic for a simpler time. Detective fiction’s golden age in the 1920s and 30s isn’t exactly well known for being edgy, or at the vanguard of the struggle for gay rights.

And it’s true that these novels do contain their fair share of vast country houses and cute rustic cottages, peopled by glamorous aristocrats and their well-meaning servants. In many ways, they do seem to reflect the political attitudes of their time. Women in these stories are unlikely to have careers, and if they do have jobs it’s often remarked upon as something surprising. If set abroad, the local people will probably be described with thinly veiled colonial callousness. And if a character happens to have been born out of wedlock, it would be considered enough of a personal shame to be a very decent motive for murder, should anyone find out. In this context, you’d be forgiven for assuming that gay or lesbian characters would be non existent, or else the first to die once a killer appeared on the scene.

But for some readers, there’s a whole world of queer stories beyond this. For JC Bernthal, an academic and author of Queering Agatha Christie, this is how these murder mysteries have always appeared to him. Even as a child, he was fascinated by all the deception:

JC Bernthal: I didn’t have many friends as a kid, so after reading all of Roald Dahl and everything in finding every other children’s writer too saccharine, I moved on to my granddad’s collection of detective stories which was Agatha Christie mostly and I just became absolutely engrossed with this idea of a puzzle but also these characters interacting with each other and hiding things from each other and then finding out secrets about each other. As a child with a very limited social circle and not much to do in the world, it was really fascinating to be able to get into all these problems and this really cynical view of humanity as something that can be quite dark and horrible.

Caroline: It was obvious to him early on that there were queer clues everywhere in these books.

JC Bernthal: I’ve been thinking about detective fiction as queer for as long as I’ve been queer which is a very long time now. So you know partly sort of growing up not being a straight person I found that a lot of my refuge was in detective stories and part of that is fundamental in how I view myself as a queer person is that absolutely cynical attitude towards how people present themselves in crime fiction. So I always loved this fact that in an Agatha Christie book or especially a golden agey crime novel everyone is so pretentious and presenting themselves in this very respectable way. And by the end of the novel we know that that’s all rubbish. We know that we’re going to uncover horrible secrets about everyone in the book and that sort of cynical attitude to respectability was something that really helped me as someone who wasn’t heterosexual or presenting myself in the way that the world wanted me to. So in that sense I’ve always read the detective fiction queerly, but actually queering detective fiction as it was was something but I wanted to do as soon as I learnt what queer theory was as a postgraduate student.

Caroline: One of the most basic ways in which queer themes and characters are woven into these stories is via existing stereotypes. Therefore, a manly woman who spurns the company of men, or an effeminate man with an artistic temperament, can both be read as hints towards queerness. Here’s Bernthal again:

JC Bernthal: A lot of the writers in the interwar period used accepted codes to describe what they would have called ‘gender inverts’ or ‘perverted people’. So if you look in any interwar popular novel for a man with long fingers or artistic fingers or a man who spiteful or has a womanish mouth he’s what we would now call gay.

Caroline: Although it was a different time politically, the word queer did already have a slang meaning connoting homosexual activity, especially between men. It appears in this sense in several detective novels, and its ambiguity elsewhere is helpful for hinting at meanings that are not fully explored. But just because things aren’t always made completely explicit, doesn’t mean they aren’t there, JC Bernthal argues.

JC Bernthal: The fact that these references might appear coded in the books doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being avoided. Often the very fact that something’s not being talked about is what raises that something.

Caroline: His own favourite queer character is Christopher Wren, from Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap, who is implicitly queer coded through the use of various familiar tropes.

JC Bernthal: He can be mean and catty and bitchy but sort of midway through the play he completely breaks down and reveals that he just feels completely abandoned by the world around him and this is a post-war play. So it’s just a really interesting character and he turns out to be a war hero which is just this wonderful way of showing that even though he’s been completely spat out by the world around him he’s still done what is configured in the world of the play to be his patriotic duty. He’s a really interesting nuanced character, Christopher Wren, and he’s also a huge fun. He has some of the best lines. I love that at the end of the play he just takes over the housework while everyone else is busy trying to work out who did the murder.He goes off to the kitchen and bakes a pie. I think that’s fabulous queerness. He also looks longingly at the male hero and calls him my dear and makes him very uncomfortable and demands that he can stay in a bed with chintz curtains and rose petals or something so he’s absolutely wonderfully eccentric.

Caroline: Sometimes, though, the queer clues are so obvious that it feels impossible to find any other interpretation. In Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, which although published in 1950 exhibits many of the characteristics of the golden age, there are two women characters that seem very much a devoted, loving couple. Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd share a house in a rural English village, go everywhere together, and are generally accepted by the neighbourhood as a pair. When one of them dies in tragic and suspicious circumstances, the other is completely distraught in a way that seems far more like the devastation a lover would feel at their partner’s death than the grief of just a friend.

Moira Redmond: You know that they’re gay because they wear trousers one of them’s got shorthair and the other is quite feminine. Trousers and short hair is definitely something to look out for if you’re looking at lesbian characters in books of any kind. And although it’s never spelt out this couple is actually lesbian that there is any sexual activity. It’s absolutely clear as you’re reading it that they’re meant to be a very close couple who live together virtually as man and wife. And it is very sympathetically done and it’s tremendously sad.

Caroline: This is Moira Redmond, a journalist and blogger who has been writing about crime fiction for years. For her, another key queer moment in detective fiction — albeit a more unsettling and less positive one — comes in the 1927 Dorothy L Sayers novel Unnatural Death.

Moira: I’ve always interested in the fact that unnatural is in the title there and there is an absolutely extraordinary scene in that in which a woman tries to seduce Lord Peter but it becomes apparent to him — he as any regular reader knows is irresistible to any woman. But it’s obvious that this woman is revolted by him and doesn’t want to seduce him but feels she has to for the purposes of her plot and the reason is because she is gay. That’s why — she’s a lesbian.

Caroline: This character is Mary Whitaker, although she is in disguise as her alter ego Mrs Forrest during this particular scene. As Whitaker, she has a relationship with a young woman called Vera Findlater that some in her village consider too close for comfort. The latter is described as having “quite a pash” for Whitaker, and their stated ambition of retiring to a cottage and taking up chicken farming is generally dismissed as weird and unserious. Then in her encounter with Lord Peter, Whitaker does her best to simulate heterosexual desire, but she can’t make herself do it.

Moira: She doesn’t want to kiss him because she it’s repellent to her but she is trying to do that in order to further her wicked ways. And it’s quite a startling scene actually. I’ve no idea what Sayers thought about these things in everyday life but it’s not attractively done in that particular book. The woman’s motives for what she does are not related to her sexuality particularly but her sexuality does arise in that book. She’s certainly not saying she’s evil because she’s gay or she’s gay because she’s evil but the way in which she reacts to what’s happening and to. Lord Peter is definitely shown as unnatural I would say.

Caroline: In the queer crime fiction anthology Murder in the Closet, Redmond has an essay in which she argues that the all-female educational establishment is “a gift to fiction writers”, particularly those interested in queer subtext. She focuses particularly on Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a college called Leys that trains women to become physical education teachers.

Moira: The training college in Miss Pym Disposes is a very odd place. . . it’s a very enclosed world the world of this college Leys college and she uses it to magnificent effect in this very very unusual book while leaving you with an ambiguity and I think it’s an incredibly clever book for that reason because in the end you can’t say for sure that there is a lesbian subtext or there isn’t. Well I see there definitely is but she is not going to tell you she’s going to leave you to work out for yourself whether the two main characters actually engage in sexual activity.

Caroline: Unlike the women’s educational establishments in Gladys Mitchell’s detective novels (she was also a teacher, so there are plenty), Leys is curious sexless and inward looking. Almost none of the characters have any relationships with men at all, and instead there’s a complete focus on the friendships and attachments between the women. But, as Redmond says, it is possible to find a reading of the novel where none of the characters are lesbians, although it feels like a bit of stretch. This doubling effect is largely intentional, she argues.

Moira: I think there was a definite two layer version here that the writers knew what they were saying but they also knew that some people reading this book would never for a million years think anything other than Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were good friends.

Caroline: Bernthal agrees.

JC Bernthal: I would say if you want to read the books as nostalgic and reassuring, that’s absolutely fine — that reading is there but it’s kind of like if you have a passive aggressive relative round at Christmas and they say ‘oh this is a lovely decoration — for the budget’, you can take that as a compliment or you can take it is rather insulting and I think that some of the tweeness and conservatism in golden age crime fiction really should be taken with a pinch of salt. I think a lot of these authors are cocking a cynical eyebrow at the world around them.

Caroline: There could be a good reason for that — for some of them, their own lives weren’t exactly following the traditional path society might have expected.

JC Bernthal: Gladys Mitchell who is one of the greatest crime writers who many people are still never read. She created the wonderfully eccentric Mrs. Bradley and she lived a large amount of her life with another woman quite openly about it. And her books are absolutely fantastic because they smash pretty much every social and sexual taboo that you can have. They feature homosexuality and incest and all kinds of other things. People have speculated about other writers like Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey as being potentially gay and are a lot of male writers of detective fiction were gay as well.

Caroline: There’s a sense in which outsiders — of which queer people were just one kind — could better straddle the different world contained within a whodunnit, Bernthal says.

Bernthal: A lot of the writers if we look through their biography or whatever will find that may might have been what we now call gay or they were unmarried or they struggled with some aspect of trying to fit into normal life whether that was a sexuality thing or a religious thing or even politics. And many of the writers of Golden Age crime fiction were on the edges of respectable middle class life which is why it’s so funny really that we have this twee and nostalgic view of this genre.

Caroline: In contemporary pop culture, it’s become an automatic assumption that the queer character is more expendable than the straight one, and therefore more likely to be killed off. There’s even a jokey TV trope name for this phenomenon — “Bury Your Gays”. It might be logical to think that golden age detective fiction would be even worse on this score than today’s novels and shows, but this isn’t the case.

JC Bernthal: There’s this big myth about Golden Age crime fiction that when queer characters appear they die and they rarely actually do crime fiction today is much less forgiving towards people who are different than Golden Age Crime fiction was.

Caroline: Bernthal’s research focuses particularly on Agatha Christie, and he’s crunched the numbers on this.

JC Bernthal: She only has two victims out of her many hundreds of victims. Only two of them are what I would call queer and only one murderer.

Caroline: Why, then, is contemporary drama, especially crime drama, so much more inclined to lean on negative stereotypes and shortchange queer characters?

JC Bernthal: I think part of that is because crime authors today are directly tackling issues around things like misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and as such many of today’s writers make the queer character the victim or the murderer to sort of show how social pressures have turned them into a monster. And because the Golden Age writers weren’t trying to have that agenda. They were able to make often much more subtle points.

Caroline: This is my personal favourite manifestation of golden age detective fiction’s queer clues — when authors use the stereotypes embedded in readers’ brains to mislead them for the purposes of their plots. As Bernthal explains:

JC Bernthal: Often because of the prejudice at the time and they need to shock the reader or trick the reader often Christie will create a rather sinister effeminate young man and the reader is supposed to think ‘ah, he’s guilty, I don’t like the look of him’ and of course because she’s trying to shock you will turn out to be completely innocent and that’s massively interesting because it shows us that the initial judgments we make are going to be completely wrong.

CarolineThis happens with Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, and with the “womanish” and “artistic” antiques dealer Mr Ellsworthy in Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy, and with another lesbian-coded Miss Whittaker in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, and plenty of others. For me, it’s the ultimate kind of twist, because it relies on the reader’s own prejudices to work rather than just clever sleight of hand with the plot.

The queer clues are there, if we bother to look for them.

[Music]

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributors JC Bernthal and Moira Redmond, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/queerclues. There, you can also read a full transcript. My thanks also to Stephanie Boland for her help.
Just a head’s up, I’m hoping to have not one but two festive themed episodes for you over the next month, so make sure you’re subscribed in your podcast app so you don’t miss them. If you do have time to do something extra to spread the word about the show to others, the top two ways to do this are leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or telling a real-life friend to listen. Thanks in advance for your help. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Vanishes.

Queer Clues

The detective stories of the 1920s and 30s aren’t exactly well known for being edgy, or at the vanguard of the struggle for gay rights. But there are queer clues everywhere in these books, if you only know where to look for them.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/queerclues. 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:
JC Bernthal, academic and author of Queering Agatha Christie
—Moira Redmond, journalist and blogger at clothesinbooks.blogspot.com

Books referenced in order of appearance
Queering Agatha Christie by JC Bernthal
The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers
Murder in the Closet edited by Curtis Evans and with essays by multiple authors, including Moira Redmond
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie
Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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

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

Whodunnit? Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of this mini first episode of Shedunnit.  Listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. Many things, actually — there were murders in country houses, on golf courses, in Oxford colleges, on trains, in vicarages, in far flung parts of the globe and quaint English villages. Pistols, daggers, blunt instruments and exotic poisons abounded.

No fictional character was safe.

Because these events were all fictional — the plots of novels that flooded the market in the 1920s and 30s. People couldn’t get enough of all the inventive ways that writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more could think of for people to die. This period came to be known as the golden age of detective fiction, and for good reason.

If this all sounds very familiar to you, then you’re in the right place. Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This golden age coincided with the aftermath of the first world war, when more women were starting to achieve the right to vote and the economic freedom to earn their own living. One of them, Agatha Christie, is one of the biggest selling authors ever, with billions of copies bought all over the world. The work of Sayers, Allingham and co is also still very much in print and finding new readers every day. The huge popularity of detective stories enabled these women to work as professional writers in a way that hadn’t really existed in a widespread way before. They weren’t struggling to prove that their work was worthy of being deemed “great literature”, but instead delivering gripping, thrilling entertainment to millions.

And their work is still reaching people — there are so many ardent fans of golden age detective stories all around the world. The books are translated and adapted everywhere, with new TV and film versions appearing all the time.

There are so many different aspects of these books that speak to people, too. During my research for this podcast, I’ve been a few fans to share their reasons for loving these books with me, and I got such a variety of answers. For Maxine, it’s the thrill of the chase.

Maxine: I like golden age detective fiction because I love a good puzzle. Novels such as these always have a fabulous puzzle. you have the clues laid out before you, and I guess if you’re bright enough you can actually work it out ahead of time. Often, I find I just like to get caught up in the story.

Caroline: For Lina, it’s all about what she can learn about the era these books were written in.

Lina: The stories transport you to another age that heralded that heralded the modernity of our today.

Caroline: But then for Sonija, it’s about the contrast with how crime stories are told now.

Sonija: I enjoy the deductions of the detectives, both professional and amateur, without forensics, mobile phones and other modern methods.

Caroline: Kirsty found her love of Miss Marple through a TV adaptation, and learned early on about ageism and how women are too often underestimated.

Kirsty: I grew up watching Joan Hickson on the BBC and I absolutely loved the fact that she was so amazingly intellectual, and yet she was a little old lady, and that was such a marvellous thing for me.

Caroline: For Helen, these stories help her feel connected to people from her past.

Helen: I think really what I enjoy is the recreation of a world. I’m not even sure it’s a world that was a good one, or a safe one, or a fair one, but that’s what attracts me because it puts me back in contact with people who died a long time ago, you know, my older relatives.

Caroline: For Skye, they’re a way of connecting the generations.

Skye: I started reading them because I found them on the shelves of my grandmother’s house in Finland. She was reading them to help her learn English but also because she loved murder mysteries and she imparted that love to me. I just recently read Murder on the Orient Express to my son and he enjoyed that, and now we’re just about to start reading another one so it’s come full circle.

Caroline: The work of these authors — many of whom, like Christie, Sayers and Allingham, were women shaping for themselves what it meant to be a professional writer in their time — was informed by their political and social context, by the real-life cases that they pored over, and by the voracious appetite of the public for yet more puzzles.

But the sheer popularity of these books has to an extent obscured the fascinating stories that lie behind the plots. We all know about Miss Marple’s nosy parker ways, but less about why her status as a spinster makes her so ideally suited to solving crimes. Dorothy L Sayers wasn’t just a mystery author: she was a Sherlock Holmes superfan who worked as an advertising copywriter and created something called “the mustard club”, which was a really early form of successful guerrilla marketing. Agatha Christie was a bestselling author, yes, but she was also an archaeologist and a pioneering surfer.  All of these women had complicated, startling lives that are worth bringing to the fore.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in this podcast, telling the stories that lurk in the shadows of the famous detective novels. Along the way, we’ll learn all about things like the queer subtext of golden age detective stories, the intersection of feminism and stories of murder, the slow creep of technology into detection and much, much more.

If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you. Find us at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the first episode.