Tag: John Curran

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.

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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.

Cryptic Crimes Transcript

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cryptic Crimes

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

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

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

Sources and further information:

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

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

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

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