Tag: Guest

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.

Golden Age Inspiration

How do you write a 1920s style detective novel that’s set in the 2020s?

Thanks to Elly Griffiths, aka Domenica De Rosa, for joining me today to talk about her love of golden age crime fiction and how she put that into her award winning novel The Postscript Murders. She also writes the Ruth Galloway series and the Brighton Mysteries series — find out more at her website ellygriffiths.co.uk and follower her on Twitter @ellygriffiths.

The Shedunnit Book Club is reading The Postscript Murders in June 2021 — if you’d like to join us you can become a member at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but there is some reference to the plot outline of The Postscript Murders.

Books referenced:
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
Cinderella Goes To The Morgue by Nancy Spain
A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths
Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
— The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
— The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

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

Thanks to today’s sponsors. You can get $5 off mail based Victorian mystery game Dear Holmes at dearholmes.com/shedunnit using code “shedunnit” at checkout. The audiobook of Laura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is available at your audiobook retailer of choice.

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

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/goldenageinspirationtranscript.

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

Golden Age Inspiration Transcript

Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Golden age detective fiction is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with hard to obtain titles receiving new editions and new TV and film adaptations in the works.

But it isn’t just in the books from that period that we see this effect. Today’s crime writers are turning more and more to the details and tropes of the classic whodunnit. Whereas just a few short years ago a publisher might have looked askance at a manuscript for a mystery laden with references to the golden age, it’s becoming positively desirable for authors to show off their knowledge of the genre’s origins.

It’s in recognition of this fact that the Shedunnit Book Club has this month taken a break from reading books published in the first half of the twentieth century, and is instead in June tackling a contemporary novel that grapples with the traditions of the golden age. The Book Club is the community that supports this podcast’s continued existence — paying members help the show remain independent and financially sustainable so I can keep making new episodes for everyone. Each month, club members vote on what book they would like to read and discuss together. Other perks of joining include getting access to the two bonus episodes a month that I make for just for members, ad free episodes of the main podcast, and access to the community forum where all things mysteries are discussed. There’s more information at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you’d like to check it out.

Anyway, this month, the club has chosen to read The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths. This novel, published in the last year, is absolutely steeped in the traditions and tropes of the golden age of detective fiction, and so is perfect for considering how these ideas are being refashioned by today’s writers. It follows four sleuths — one police detective and three amateurs — on their quest to discover who killed their friend Peggy, an elderly woman who loved reading murder mysteries. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like anyone can have had a motive to kill a charming and inoffensive old lady, but the closer the quartet look, the more it seems like the solution to the case lies in Peggy’s collection of classic crime novels.

Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica De Rosa, a writer based in Brighton who is the author of two separate mystery series — the Ruth Galloway novels about a forensic archaelogist slash sleuth in present day Norfolk, and the Brighton Mysteries series, which are set in Domenica’s hometown in the 1950s. The Postscript Murders reprise a detective character, DS Harbinder Kaur, from her standalone novel The Stranger Diaries, which won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Domenica to Shedunnit to tell us more about how The Postscript Murders came together, and about her own love of golden age detective fiction. There are no major plot spoilers in this episode, by the way. And don’t forget, if you’d like to join me to discuss the book at the end of the month, visit shedunnitbookclub.com/join once you’ve finished listening to become a member of the book club.

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To start with the premise of the book all revolves around this character, Peggy, who is a murder consultant. And I’d be fascinated to know where the idea came to you from. Have you ever encountered someone with that kind of role?

Elly: Well, actually there is a real life model for Peggy and it’s my Aunt Marge.

So I’ve got an Aunt Marge. Since I’ve started telling people the story, I realise so many people have it an Aunt Marge. Harry Potter did, didn’t he? So I have an Aunt Marge and she used to live in Norfolk where she was a great help with the Ruth books, actually, she has a boat and she was very helpful in researching those, but then she moved to the south coast, quite near me and something, so like Peggy she had a lovely flat, which looks out over the sea and the promenade just a little bit along the coast from me, I live in Brighton. Something about the new house, I don’t know what it was, whether it was the setting or the fact she could look out at the sea, maybe it was the sea air. I don’t know, but it just made her kind of obsessed with murder plots. And she kept thinking of new plots. She would look out the window and look up and down the promenade, she’d see two people meet here, think who are they?

And then she’d ring me up. And she used to always ring me, often still does, on a Sunday. And it’s like, ‘oh, hello love. I’ve just, I’ve just seen a priest and I was just thinking, could you kill someone with a thurible?’, you know, and all that. So I started to think about what if there was somebody whose job was to think up crime plots for crime writers, because Marge would always want me to put these plots in my book and I’d sometimes say to her Marge, why don’t you write books?

And she’d say, no, no, no, love, I couldn’t write the book, but I want you to put it in. And I did once use one of her murders in a Ruth book actually earlier on. So she’s got a bit of form. And one of the reviewers, I think it was the Financial Times said that it was the nastiest use of a stairlift they’d ever heard of, and Marge was so happy with that she framed it. She was so happy with that review, so she wanted me to put them in my book. So I thought, what if there was an elderly lady, very respectable, my aunt’s a retired maths teacher, very, very respectable. But what if her job was thinking up murders for crime writers? And then what would happen if she was murdered?

I did have to, it’s not giving anything away because Peggy is murdered in the first chapter, first page, I think. And I did have to square it with Marge and she didn’t mind the character getting killed off quite early. And she was fine about that being a true mystery fan. So really that’s where the idea came from.

Caroline: Amazing, because is that something that as someone who’s written a lot of books now that you struggle with that part of the process that I need yet, another way for someone to die before I can set this plot in motion?

Elly: I suppose so in a way, it might sound strange from a crime writer, but the plot is always kind of the hardest bit for me because I really like the characterisation. And then what was fun in this book was writing about four very different characters, all from their viewpoints.

I really liked that bit. I love the location and atmosphere and I, that’s where I always start as a writers with the place and with the atmosphere of the place. So sometimes the who killed who and why is a little bit the last thing to appear. And I guess my murders aren’t very gory, so don’t have a kind of, lots of blood and gore in my books.

So it often is a sort of a puzzle, you know, who did what, when and why? So I guess that’s right. I am a little bit squeamish about killing people in horrible ways. And I think apart from the stair lift, I’ve never done anything too horrible, I think not, anyhow. So yeah, maybe that is the bit that I struggle with most.

Caroline: Is it helpful to have some external feedback, perhaps?

Elly: Yes. Yes, it is. It is really.

Caroline: When you were putting together this book, cause another thing that is remarkable and sort of makes it stand out, is the fact that you’ve got a collective detective group, as opposed to, you know, in your Ruth Galloway series, you’ve got an amateur and a professional, let’s say working in tandem, which is quite a classic mould.

But in this case, you’ve got a little gang of four haven’t you. Is that different? Does that feel differently when you’re writing?

Elly: Yes. I mean, it was, it was quite a challenge because yeah. So I’ve got the four characters, cause I’ve got Harbinder, who is Harbinder Kaur, who is the official detective.

She’s the Detective Sergeant who appears in The Stranger Diaries as well. So she’s kind of doing the police procedural bit. So I wanted to have three characters who weren’t doing that. So there’s Natalka who is the Ukrainian carer of Peggy, Peggy’s 80 year old neighbour, Edwin, and there’s Benedict who runs the coffee shop.

So I wanted to have sort of very different characters and the challenge, which I did quite enjoy, actually, was of course they would all notice different things and they’d see different things and Benedict’s very much a crime fan. And he loves some TV, crime and reading about crime and all sorts of things.

So he sees a certain thing, whereas Edwin is maybe a different generation and he sees different things, but he’s also very good sleuth and the Natalka’s quite dashing and takes risks. So I quite enjoy doing all those things, but it was quite hard to remember who’d seen what, who’d remember what, and there’s quite a lot about there quite a lot of clues in this book that are kind of literary, like sort of anagrams and wordplay and things like that.

And of course who’d noticed that and who wouldn’t and things like that. So that was quite a challenge, but I did enjoy it. I have to say really, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a book more.

Caroline: Well, that definitely comes across and something that I really, really liked about it and why I think it’s going to really, really appeal to the fans of the podcast is that it is so literary.

And so referential of the genre and not just the genre today, although you do have the period at the Aberdeen crime festival where there are contemporary writers, but it’s very referential of crime fiction in the past as well. So is that something that you’re a fan of as well?

Elly: Yes. You know, and I’m so happy to have found your podcast.

It’s going to be one of my happy places because yes, I love classic crime and golden age crime. And yes, one of the clues is about a golden age book, which is a made up, which is a made up writer, Sheila Atkins. And I had so much fun making up all her titles, because I love thinking of titles for books.

And I have to say quite often my publishers sort of say what a great title. No, we won’t have that. Yeah, because it’s like too, too silly or it’s a quote from Shakespeare or something. So I actually gave rein to all my what I think of a fantastic crimey titles and my editors would have to, like, you’ve got those all out of your system and I probably have as, so yes, there’s a golden age writer at the center of this.

And I do really like this, this sort of genre of writing. I teach creative writing and I just, but I do particular like, and also I think it’s a very sometimes quite overlooked, how kind of dark some of these books are and how sort of bleak they are. And some that they, one of my favorite golden age writers, I just think she’s almost out of print now, is Nancy Spain.

And I love her books. I mean, who would it love a writer who has a book, talking of titles, called Cinderella Goes To The Morgue. I mean, that’s such a good title. But you know, there’s a book of hers called R In The Month, which is set a sort of, rather than run down sort of seaside town in winter and it’s all atmospheric and brilliant.

So yes, that’s definitely an era that I like and I did very much enjoy sort of making up a few golden age plots. I suppose, in The Stranger Diaries, I’ve made up a Victorian short stories that I love the Victorian era. I’m a huge fan of Wilkie Collins. I see quite a lot of your listeners are also Wilkie Collins fans, so yeah. Yes. So I really did enjoy that.

Caroline: What do you think someone who’s writing crime fiction today, what do you like to take from that golden age period and what is sort of fresh and new do you think, is, are there things that you enjoy imitating?

Elly: Yes. Well, I do think golden age can teach us quite a lot about the power of understatement and what’s not said, and, and there, there are some, you know, it’s very spare.

I was re reading Agatha Christie the other day and this just pages and pages of dialogue. And you don’t even know who was saying what although you can guess Poirot cause he keeps saying, ah mon ami. You know, that’s why she keeps doing that so you can tell that it’s him, but, but there’s just lots of dialogue and it’s a very understated, but all the clues are then of course it’s very difficult in a short novel, like an Agatha Christie, I mean they’re sort of about 60,000 words. On average I think a book now is about 90,000 words. So with so little padding to do such a good plot it’s very, very hard. And to, and to not, to not cheat at all. And to really keep you guessing to the last minute. I write a series of novels for children actually — middle grade it’s called, so it’s like nine plus and they’re called A Girl Called Justice, and there are three books in the service now. And it made me think by that writing those words. Cause it goes, when you’re writing books for children, maybe it’s a little bit like a golden age novel, clearly there’s not going to be any gratuitous violence, there’s not going to be any sex. There’s not going to be much description of the countryside. So it’s all plot and, and that’s actually very hard to do something that’s kind of all plot. Having said there’s no sort of description. I do think that a lot of those writers are very good at, you know, what’s that wonderful Ngaio Marsh book, Opening Night, the set of theatre and the very, very good at atmosphere, I think.

But again, without too many words, not using too many words.

Caroline: We’ll hear more from Domenica, including how she keeps up with her two books a year schedule, after the break.

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And now, back to The Postscript Murders.

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Caroline: Because place and atmosphere, as you said, is something that’s very important to your books. And you’ve got two very distinct landscapes in your different series. And in this one, all of the stuff about, you know, Peggy and Edwin in the block of flats, looking out to sea and reflecting on old age and all that sort of thing.

It’s very evocative. And where did that come from? Is that also from your aunt?

Elly: I suppose. So I think it’s a move isn’t it? That maybe one takes at a certain point in life to maybe move from a flat into an apartment. And Edwin is quite sort of scathing about the apartments they’re called Seaview House and he calls them in his head Preview House.

It’s like a preview of death sort of thing. So he’s quite gloomy about it. I get the impression that sort of Peggy, so, so it in a different way. She saw it just as a new opportunity. And so I think it is a part of your life where when you are thinking of, yeah, you’re thinking of the next stage, this stage, it might be your last home, I guess.

So I think you would look at it, I suppose I did look at it a bit like that, you know, but, but Marge moved in, but also she loved it. You know, she really loves the view and she loves seeing the sea and she loves that such and a seaside town is actually a very good place for crime novel because it does a lot of the things that you need.

Like you really need a sort of range of people, is that usually a range of people in a seaside town, people sort of wash up next to the sea and sort of stay there. So you’re often have very grand houses in this book. There’s a millionaire’s row, which there is in Brighton, you know, where there is massively grand houses, but also you have quite grotty accommodation, you have a big range, but also if you have something near the sea, there’s always a way of escaping, you know, and actually Shoreham, this book is based in Shoreham by Sea, there’s even an airport, which is a lovely little 1930s airport, so people can, and they do in this book even get a plane. So I think the ideal setting for a crime novel is somewhere like that somewhere quite evocative. Somewhere where there’s a range, a social range, and also people with different backgrounds and histories and also a way of escaping.

Caroline: Hmm. Yeah. That’s a really good point. I suppose. You’ve, you’ve got two detective characters now on two different coasts of the UK.

Elly: I do. Yes. I do wonder about that. Obviously it’s something, and I know some of my Brighton books is set in the 1950s, I do seem to a friend to my William Shaw is really good crime writer writes the Alex Cupidi series. He, when he was a journalist, did an article about people who live near the sea and there was some studies done. I would have to ask him that showed that people got more eccentric the nearer they got to the sea. And you could always see that. So you get out of the station of Brighton station around Brighton station the sort of accountant’s office is a bit like that. And as you get near the sea, you get to tattoo parlours, you get the funny stranger shops and nearer to the sea, the slightly odder and stranger things are. So I think that might be why I’m drawn to the sea.

Caroline: And you’re absolutely right about the sort of social mix at a seaside town because people move there for all sorts of different reasons don’t they? And one thing that I am, I’m sort of in my head thinking about as a trend, but I don’t know if it is one yet, but I feel like there’s more and more crime novels. And these days that feature older characters of which The Postscript Murders is one and it’s such a fascinating thing to do, and you don’t see it perhaps quite so much in golden age stuff with the exceptions of Miss Marple and so on, people tend to be sort of middle-aged and active when they’re involved in a crime novel, but there’s a whole hidden history to a life that you can reveal as you do in this book. I wondered if you had any reflections.

Elly: Yeah, that’s so true. As a matter of fact I did think when I wrote this book, gosh, this will be really unusual group of old people solving the crime.

And older people solving a crime. And of course it came out at exactly the same time as Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, which I really, really enjoyed, which of course is about group of old people in an old people’s sort of complex solving crimes. So very, very similar plot though actually I think they are quite dissimilar books, but it is, it is something that happens all the time, isn’t it? You think this is a great idea and somebody else has it, but you’re so right about the golden age. I recently re-read, Agatha Christie’s By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which is a, it’s a Tommy and Tuppence novel, which they often a bit ignored aren’t they? But it’s very good. Again, very good on atmosphere, very creepy, but it starts off in an old people’s home and they keep saying that well, poor old soul needed to put her in an old people’s home.

She was 60. And you think, oh my goodness, that is young now, you know, maybe it’s because I’m in my fifties, I’m thinking that, but you know, and then there’s another, oh, well she’s 70. So it’s nowadays 70 year olds are Joanna Lumley aren’t they and glamorous people going around the world. And it really does make you think.

As you say, apart from Miss Marple who was kind of ancient throughout. It has been actually having said that By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, is Tommy and Tuppence in their later years, I guess they were in their fifties and they do muse quite a lot on that. And the fact that, you know, they had that exciting, wartime past.

And what do they do now? What does Tuppence do now as a woman? So actually there was a little bit of that in the books, if you look hard enough for it, but I guess I think like a lot of people as I get older, my idea of what is old gets older and older. So Peggy is 90 you know, she’s quite a spring chicken.

Caroline: Another nice improvement you’ve made on the form with this book is by making Peggy’s carer a really fully realised character I mean there’s several carer characters in the book. And I think there is perhaps a tendency to make those people invisible in fiction and in TV and so on. And you sort of done the opposite.

Elly: Thank you. I’m glad do you like Natalka. My mum was looked after by carers in her last years and they were just such wonderful people. And again, it’s an interesting job because people come to it from such different places and life experiences. They’re doing it for all sorts of different reasons.

Yet they are doing to something that is hard work and you do very hard work, but it’s also caring so that they are particularly interesting people I do think. And, but you’re quite right about it in a way, the golden age. And I always think of Miss Marple often says about some poor dead maid, poor silly girl, you know, and that’s all she gets.

That’s all the epitaph she gets . Yes. You want to bring out the figures, the hidden figures who might be overlooked in that genre of fiction, definitely. I like Josephine Tey, I’m a fan of The Daughter of Time, huge influence on me, but there’s an awful line in Brat Farrar where the sort of sympathetic character says, can your latest idiot take a telephone message? So yes, there’s snobbery there that is in some of the books I have to say, which I hope modern crime fiction doesn’t have that.

Caroline: Yes. I think definitely the I’ve been looking into this a lot recently, the kind of the way servants are just part of literally furniture is definitely not how people write today and that’s a definite upgrade. I suppose in a way that this is , as you say, a sequel to The Stranger Diaries, because Harbinder carries over, are we going to meet any of the characters again in the future, do you know?

Elly: I had thought it would be a standalone though I do think that Harbinder will appear again. So she, as you said, she appeared in The Stranger Diaries and she appears again here, so I feel she’s got one more adventure in her at least, and there are a few things I’d like her to do. I think it will be interesting to follow her doing, let’s say.

I had thought that they, I wouldn’t write about them again, but I’ve never missed characters as much as I miss Edwin and Benedict and Natalka. So I don’t know. I’m obviously quite bad at standalones, because I keep bringing my characters back, so I wouldn’t say never . But my idea is that the next Harbinder book will be a whole new cast of characters and the only one we’ll know will be Harbinder.

That’s the idea, but you never know. I can see them teaming up to solve more crimes and I’m also quite taken with maybe a short story about Peggy before, because you know, as we’ve said, she is sort of central to the novel, but she does die quite early on. So maybe a short story about her would be fun.

Caroline: Yes to visit her pre the events of The Postscript Murders?

Elly: Yeah.

Caroline: Well, you’re in charge.

Elly: I suppose I am!

Caroline: I’d love to ask you to a little bit about your sort of writing habits and your writing process, because you’re a very regular, and as a fan I can always rely on a new Ruth book and so on. How do you manage all of your different characters in your different series?

Elly: Well, I usually, thank you. I mean, I’m quite last couple years, I’ve published two books a year and you know, that, that didn’t stop in lockdown. In fact, I felt very lucky to have that to escape, to, to be honest with you. And I try and write every day. I’m very lucky my children are grown up and I do a bit of teaching, but, but that’s it really.

I’ve got a little writing shed in my garden, which is where I’m talking to you from. Yeah. So I try and write every day. I’m very lucky, usually I can do some, it’s usually just me in here with the cat writing away. I do usually just write one book at a time. So I wouldn’t say write a Ruth book in the morning or the Brighton Mystery in the afternoon.

So I have to be sort of in that place, I guess when I write it, the only exception is my children’s series A Girl Called Justice, cause I sometimes write your a of that on Friday to cheer myself up because I just really, really enjoy writing those books. So that’s like a little treat I give myself sometimes on a Friday, but, but usually, so I obviously have notebooks I’ve written, you know, when Ruth was born, when Nelson was born, but when the events of the books happened, because of course now I’m writing Ruth 14, actually at the moment, it’s called The Locked Room, and there are 14 years of stuff, you know, to remember.

And I usually I’m quite good at it. But sometimes I can be, oh, sometimes you think, did I say that, you know, in this book I’m writing at the moment she actually has goes to a school reunion and I knew I talked about her school friends somewhere that took me quite a long time to find it, but I had, so I was able to sort of, and luckily I put quite a sort of teasing little thing in about one of them. So I was quite pleased with myself.

Caroline: So, yes. Thanks to your past self. So how long would you say it takes you to write to write one of your novels?

Elly: It’s sort of like everything, isn’t it really? So as I say, I’ve been contracted to write two a year. So it basically takes six months.

I usually start one in January and sort of finish in July and start the next one in August and finish in January. So it sort of works itself out like that. I’m often editing one while I’m writing another, but that’s okay. It’s just the kind of creative, getting the story down that I feel I can’t do two at once.

So so that’s more or less what it takes me. But I’ve got like everything when I wrote one a year, it took me a year. And if I gave myself, you know, at some point I will take myself off this treadmill and then it will probably take me five years, who knows. But at the moment it doesn’t seem, it doesn’t seem to treadmill-ish actually.

Caroline: I was doing some research recently about what Agatha Christie did during the second world war and she wrote two books a year throughout the war. And in one case she wrote three. And she says in her autobiography that she found she had so much more time. Once you know, her husband was away with the armed forces and there was no social life.

She was actually living in London, but there was no social life because everyone had left. So she had nothing to do apart from write. And that made me think that that’s a little bit like the last year.

Elly: Interesting. Yeah. Did those novels feature the war? I’m trying to think.

Caroline: I think a couple of the later ones did, I think the sort of ones that come out in 44, 45 sort of reference it, but largely not.

And actually the year that she wrote three, one of them was Curtain, which then wasn’t published until the seventies, but she wrote it in 41 they think, and then had it put away as the last Poirot

Elly: That’s such a good book. God, that’s very interesting. I guess you forget really Third Girl is the sixties, isn’t it?

You know, she just did sort of keep writing. But at that point I do think there are similarities. So funny enough, the Ruth book I’m writing at the moment, which is Ruth 14, called The Locked Room, it is set in 2020, because I couldn’t really get away, get away from that because I’ve been writing one every year. So she is locked down.

With Nelson, without Nelson? In this book at the same time, I’m thinking of the next Justice book, which will be in the second world war it’ll be 1939. because that’s where I’ve got to in that series. And there are sort of similarities, you know, I think you’ve just described the school with a gas mask and, and school suddenly seeming sort of different and having different rules.

And I am seeing similarities there, definitely. Yes. So like, Agatha Christie I think writers are very lucky because we can escape can’t we, you know, you can escape the what’s happening in your own world.

Caroline: And process it into whatever is helpful. Yes, I was very struck by what she said about how well, I just had nothing to do apart from work, which I think is probably what many of us have found.

Well, I think that that’s everything that I wanted to ask you.

Elly: Well, it’s been lovely to talk to you and just to say I’m so flattered that people wanted to hear about The Postscript Murders and there probably will be another Harbinder book at some point, but the next book for me will be the next Ruth book, which will be in February. And it’s called The Locked Room.

Caroline: Wonderful.

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Thanks very much to Domenica, aka Elly Griffiths, for joining me. The Postscript Murders is available now at all good booksellers, and if you’d like to discuss it with other members of the Shedunnit Book Club community at the end of June, sign up now at shedunnitbookclub.com.

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

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.

Policing the Detectives Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policing the Detectives

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

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

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

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

Sources and further information:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The Butler Did It” episode of Shedunnit

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Death In Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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/policingthedetectives

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

Swan Song

How do you say goodbye to a beloved detective? Agatha Christie, of course, made a mystery out of it.

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

Spoiler warning: there are major spoilers for Curtain and Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie in this episode.

Books mentioned and other sources:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Curtain by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“The Dispenser” episode about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks by John Curran

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

“A Christie for Christmas” episode about Agatha Christie’s seasonal publication schedule

“Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective”: obituary in the New York Times, 6th August 1975

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction, also discussed on “The Rules” episode of the podcast

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

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Best Fiends. You can download Best Fiends free on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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/swansongtranscript

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

Swan Song Transcript

Caroline: Detectives have to be fundamentally infallible. On their journey to a mystery’s solution they can be fragile, or flawed, or unreliable, or uncertain, but the reader has to be able to rely on the sleuth to find a satisfactory answer in the end. It’s a fundamental part of what makes a whodunnit work. After all, who is going to keep reading a type of story where the hero shrugs their shoulders on the final page and says “I dunno, maybe they did it with mirrors”?

Over time, pulling that rabbit out of the hat in a plausible yet surprising way becomes more and more difficult for the writer. Wearying of their creation, most detective novelists either move onto a different character or drift away from the genre altogether — writers like Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes who stuck with the same sleuth for five decades apiece are definitely in the minority. For the rest, a tricky question then arises: how best to conclude the career of a beloved detective? With the bang of a triumphant final case, or a whimper as they are never heard from again?

Agatha Christie, the best known and most widely read of the authors to come out of detective fiction’s golden age, grappled with this issue in perhaps the most unexpected way of all. Join me, then, as we delve into the surprising story of her sleuths’ swan song.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Today’s episode merits a rare overall spoiler warning from me. I generally try to keep my episodes free of major plot revelations, as I’m aware that some listeners use the show as a way to discover new mysteries to read. However, it’s not possible to do this particular topic justice without discussion of what happens in Sleeping Murder and Curtain by Agatha Christie, so if you want to read either of those books for the first time without prior knowledge of how they end, I recommend choosing a different episode to listen to for now and returning to this one once you’ve finished them.

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By the time the Second World War began in 1939, Agatha Christie had been publishing mysteries for almost two decades. All of her major recurring characters had already appeared in print somewhere in her canon. Hercule Poirot, of course, first stepped onto the page in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1921. He was followed by Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Miss Marple came into being for the short stories that were serialised separately and then collected in 1932’s The Thirteen Problems. Secondary sleuths like Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle had also all appeared in at least one novel and story by the mid 1930s. Her most productive and innovative writing years were arguably already behind her.

Poirot was, of course, by far her most popular character, and has had a life far beyond the books, as discussed on the previous episode of the podcast. At this point, Miss Marple had only appeared in one full length novel — 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage — but she was certainly second only to the little Belgian with the egg shaped head in readers’ hearts.

Although she carried on writing at a great pace during the war, Agatha Christie’s life was greatly changed by it. Her husband Max Mallowan worked for the Air Ministry and was posted abroad to North Africa. Their home in Devon, Greenway, was requisitioned by the US Navy (who installed a great number of extra lavatories in the house, much to Christie’s dismay post 1945). The author herself removed to London, where she refreshed her chemist’s training from the First World War and once more volunteered as a hospital dispenser. Many years later, she wrote in her autobiography that this period didn’t seem real at all — the war years were “a nightmare in which reality stopped”.

It was a furiously productive nightmare, however. Christie later put this down to the fact that she had no social life at all, and instead spent her days at the hospital and her nights at her desk, turning out whodunnits. She published thirteen novels between 1939 and 1945, including acclaimed classics like Evil Under The Sun, Five Little Pigs and The Body in the Library.

Those weren’t the only books that she worked on, however. Two more novels flowed from her pen during this time. Apart from her literary agent and a few trusted friends and family members however, nobody knew of their existence. Curtain and Sleeping Murder were destined to spend decades in a bank vault under the greatest secrecy. Their author intended that they would only see the light of day after she was dead.

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Agatha Christie was not shy about discussing her own demise. Perhaps fittingly for someone whose livelihood depended on inventing clever ways for people to die, in her autobiography she expresses her surprise that her agent always looked so upset when she brought up the question of what might happen to her characters and her work if she were to pass away. She didn’t feel that it was a subject to be embarrassed about at all.

It seems to be this practicality about mortality that lead her to begin work on Curtain in the early 1940s. Although the manuscript isn’t precisely dated, her notes for the story are mingled in with those for the stories in The Labours of Hercules that were published around this time and she sent a draft of the finished book to her agent in 1941, so we can make a reasonable guess that she was mostly working on it in 1940.

This was to be Poirot’s swan song — his final outing. There is some evidence in her notebooks that the idea for this story came to her several years before she actually began to write it, but the circumstances of life past 1939 are perhaps what pushed her to get it finished. Every aspect of the plot reeks of finality. It sees Poirot return to the setting of her very first novel, Styles Court, now come down in the world from country manor to genteel guesthouse. It rekindles his partnership with the Watson of his early adventures, Captain Hastings, who last appeared in 1937’s Dumb Witness and would not show his face again in Christie’s canon until Curtain came out. And most importantly of all, it is Poirot’s last case in every sense of the word, because the detective does not survive the investigation. It’s a book hemmed in by death on all sides.

Mark: So this was during the war, when Agatha Christie didn’t know how long she was going to live for — nobody knows, you don’t know what’s happening.

You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by a bomb, which indeed one of her houses was in Sheffield Terrace. So there’s all sorts of reasons to be thinking about your future. So it wasn’t that she was necessarily thinking ‘when I die at a great old age, this will be something’, but for all she knows, she might never have written another Poirot afterwards because you know, people did die in bombing attacks.

So it sort of comes down to that, this posthumousness. I guess it makes sense that if you’re really wanting to kill Poirot off, that’s the one that you can write and put to one side for later.

Caroline: That’s Mark Aldridge, the Agatha Christie historian and author of a recent book about Hercule Poirot. Christie always intended Curtain to be the last Poirot novel to be published, whether she was to be killed in the Blitz or, as actually happened, live for several more decades. It was to be the punctuation at the end of his story, the hard stop that would prevent other unauthorised uses of her most popular and valuable character. And it was also something of a financial insurance policy. The rights to the book were legally gifted to her daughter Rosalind, meaning that any proceeds from sales or subsequent adaptations belonged to her. The reason for this? Well, they do say that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life…

Mark: The intention was that along with various other things that she distributed to lots of people, but that actually it’s very difficult to tax-wise whilst you’re still alive to gift things to people. And so it was basically designed to be a posthumous gift that meant that Rosalind would be able to reap the rewards of this.

Caroline: Christie wrote later that she understood very little of what she’d been told about death duties, but that she did grasp that her demise was going to cost her relatives a great deal of money in inheritance taxes and so on. Gifting the rights to her works, then, was a way of distributing her success to friends and relations while she was still alive. And Curtain was undoubtedly going to be the jewel in the crown — even in 1940, I think she would have had a fair idea about how popular a book with the subtitle “Poirot’s Last Case” was going to be. Rosalind would be well taken care of.

Christie’s second husband Max received the rights to Sleeping Murder in a very similar way. This was a last outing for Miss Marple, although it differs from Curtain in several important regards. Firstly, Miss Marple doesn’t die in this book and she doesn’t even seem to have aged substantially — unlike Poirot, who is quite infirm by the time of his final visit to Styles and of course passes away there. Christie also doesn’t seem to have had quite such a clear vision for Sleeping Murder, because the story went through various different iterations in the planning, at one time with Poirot attached at detective, and then Tommy and Tuppence, before it eventually found its final form as a Marple story.

Historians have long thought that it must have been written around the same time as Curtain, since it had a similar purpose in insuring Max against Christie’s death, and the author herself does bracket both books together in her autobiography. However, some detective work by John Curran, the editor of Christie’s notebooks, suggests that Sleeping Murder came together in the mid or even late 1940s. It contains a reference to the “poison pen trouble down near Lymstock” which is an allusion to The Moving Finger, published in 1943, and its planning is closely intertwined with that of Taken at the Flood, which came out in 1948.

Regardless, both books eventually ended up in the bank vault, heavily insured, to be published after Christie’s death. Even though she would go on to write many more outings for both characters, Agatha Christie had already had the final word on Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.

After the break: How Poirot kept breaking rules, right to the end.

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Agatha Christie may have been more relaxed about contemplating her own death than her friends and relatives expected, but that didn’t mean that she had any idea when it would happen, and thus when her two secret novels would see the light of day.

In the event, Curtain actually appeared a few months before Christie passed away in January 1976. She had published a Miss Marple in 1971, Nemesis, and then a Poirot, Elephants Can Remember, in 1972, but things really came to a stop with 1973’s Postern of Fate, a Tommy and Tuppence novel that isn’t really up to the quality of what she had done with the characters before. And so her daughter Rosalind, who owned the rights to Curtain, had an idea.

Mark: It was quite a complicated thing for them to work out by the end, but it was actually Rosalind’s suggestion. By the time it was obvious that Agatha Christie wasn’t going to be able to write another novel, certainly, she actually suggested that perhaps it could be published, obviously you don’t know how long, you know, Agatha Christie is going to live, there’s no way for them to know that.

But she did say, well I’m going to surprise you, I think as the way she phrased it, when she wrote to her that her agent and publisher, Agatha Christie’s agent and publisher and said, and I think that we would quite like to publish Curtain. And then she spoke to Agatha Christie who seemed quite happy with it because I think Agatha Christie, by the end of her life, all I know from what she writes, that she felt a great deal of responsibility for the Christie at Christmas as it was by this point.

Caroline: And so to keep up that tradition of a new Christie for Christmas, Curtain was published in 1975. It caused a global sensation, and earned Hercule Poirot a new and surprising accolade — he became the first fictional character to receive a front page obituary in the New York Times. “Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective” the headline announced on the 6th August 1975. “His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, his creator, was one of the most illustrious in fiction,” the article declared.

Curtain was actually one of the earlier Agatha Christie books I read when I was discovering her work as a teenager. I just got it out of the library and had no idea that it had been written getting on for 40 years before it was published. When you think about this, it’s rather marvellous — somehow Christie in 1940 managed to write a novel that didn’t feel anachronistic or out of place in 1975.

Mark That was a deliberate choice that she says that in her letters that she had deliberately done that. And she also said that she gave permission to Rosalind or whoever to make any changes to it before publication that they felt was necessary. Bear in mind she’s probably thinking at this time that it might be, you know, 30 years in the future, not necessarily 36 or whatever it ends up being.

So it’s quite a long, old time and so much changes in that time that you can’t envision that, can you, so she was probably thinking along the lines of, you know, whether it’s the brands of coffee or something could come in and out of fashion. In the end, it is still a sort of period piece because the tone of it is different to how she is writing in the sixties.

In particular, I would say that it goes back to this sort of country house feeling. But yeah, absolutely, you wouldn’t know. I mean, now we’re so far away from it again, now that you’ve read it and it’s 45 years and is it really that different reading a book that’s 45 years than one that’s 75 years, maybe a little bit, but the further away we get, the more these, these periods seem to condense in history a little bit don’t they?

Suddenly things that felt massively distinctive about them they sort of start to get mixed a bit so in our sort of cultural memory. So I think that that over time most people will approach it like you did.

Caroline: I recommend rereading both of these novels, actually, and thinking about their long sojourn in a bank vault as you do so. It really seems extraordinary that they worked for readers at the time of publication, stripped of all of the detail of setting and place that would have situated them in the 1970s rather than the 1940s. But perhaps it’s because the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie was so well established by this time that readers barely noticed anything out of the ordinary. These stories happen in a kind of alternate whodunnit universe, and time doesn’t work in quite the same way there.

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Caroline: Miss Marple’s final full length novel Sleeping Murder, was actually published posthumously as planned. It appeared later on in 1976, and had a slightly more troubled gestation period than Curtain. Twice during the decades between the novel being written and her death Christie had to change its title. Originally she wanted to call it “Murder in Retrospect”, which is a good representation of the plot’s focus on crimes of the past that resurface in the present, but then her American publishers used this title when they brought out Five Little Pigs in the US. It was then renamed Cover Her Face, which is a quotation from the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster — the full line being “Cover her face — mine eyes dazzle — she died young”. P.D. James used this title for a novel in 1962, though, so Christie once more had to think again, and eventually plumped for Sleeping Murder.

It’s a strong story, with some extremely creepy moments, but it in no way climbs to the heights that Curtain does.

The best thing about Curtain, I think, is the way that it brings together several of Christie’s best moments with Hercule Poirot while also working as a story in its own right. This is no greatest hits album that rests on its laurels. This is a story about a canny, unlikely murderer, who goes about his crimes in such a way that even Hercule Poirot is — for a while — at a loss as to how to bring him to justice. Back at Styles and in the company of his loyal friend Hastings once more, Poirot eventually has to perpetrate a break in the rules of classic golden age detective fiction even more dramatic than the one Christe pulled off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. “The detective must not himself commit the crime,” Ronald Knox declared in his famous ten commandments for the genre, but Poirot ends up taking matters into his own hands and executing the murderer before gently allowing his own illness to end his life.

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John Curran writes that “[Curtain] is the most dazzling example of literary legerdemain in the entire Christie output, and I agree. Christie has hinted at Poirot’s egotism when it comes to the dispensing of justice before — most notably in Murder on the Orient Express — and it is that certainty and command of every situation that readers love. Hastings and Japp might roll their eyes as he extols the superiority of his little grey cells, but they, and we, know that he’s right.

In this final case, Agatha Christie makes the detective’s power over life and death practical rather than just theoretical. Hercule Poirot is infallible, to the last.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/swansong. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot

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

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

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

Sources and further information:

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

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

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

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

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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