Tag: Josephine Tey

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.

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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.

Music

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.

Back To School

School is an enclosed world that breeds tension and suspicion and stress. No wonder it’s such a perfect setting for a murder mystery.

Find links to all the books mentioned and more details about my guests at shedunnitshow.com/backtoschool.

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

Contributors:
Moira Redmond, author of the Clothes in Books blog
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike book series

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Governess, or The Little Female Academy by Sarah Fielding
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
David Copperfield  by Charles Dickens
Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes
A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil
The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton
The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer
Moira’s blog about The Silent Three
First Term at Mallory Towers  by Enid Blyton
The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb – Rare Book
A Question of Proof  by Nicholas Blake
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser
The Secret Place by Tana French
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
First Class Murder  by Robin Stevens
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

Pseudonyms Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Authors’ names and personalities loom large when we think about detective stories. It’s enough to say “I’m reading an Agatha Christie”. You don’t need to give the title or summarise the plot for someone to know what you kind of book you’re enjoying. Just saying the name is enough.

Of course, writers don’t always use their actual names when they’re publishing books. For a whole lot of different reasons — some of them personal, some of them professional — they might choose a pseudonym to go on the cover with the title. And that’s the name that readers will get to know them by, perhaps never realising that it’s a name invented only for this purpose.

Pseudonyms have always been a feature of genre writing, with crime and detective fiction in particular overflowing with them — some writers even maintain multiple professional names, publishing as two or three or even more personas. But why go to all this trouble to craft a pseudonym? And what makes a good one, anyway?

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Before we get into today’s episode properly, I have two very exciting bits of news to share. The first is that Shedunnit has been nominated at this year’s British Podcast Awards in the “smartest podcast” category, which is a really lovely thing to happen and not something at all I expected to happen. It’s also something that I owe very much to you listeners, literally, since I used the money that listeners have been donating to pay for the entry, so thank you very much for that. The other nominees are all really impressive and excellent podcasts, so do go to britishpodcastawards.com and check them out if you’re looking for something else to listen to in between episodes of Shedunnit.

The second is that I’ve made some decisions about how I’m going to keep making Shedunnit, mostly based on what listeners told me they wanted in the recent survey about the podcast’s future. And. . . I’m starting a book club for the podcast! It costs £5 a month to be a member, and for that you get access to the secret members-only forum where we’ll discuss our chosen detective novel each month, at least one extra bonus podcast episode a month, and early access to the main show without adverts or interruptions.

I hope this is going to be a really fun way to spend more time talking about the detective novels that we all love, and a sustainable way for the show to continue. If you’d like to find out more and sign up, you can do that at shedunnitshow.com/membership. I’ve also written an article that explains why I’m choosing to focus most of my attention on the podcast’s community and its own website, rather than using an external platform like Patreon or seeking lots of sponsorships, so if you’re interested in understanding more about that do have a read, I’ve linked it in the show notes. And of course, if you have any questions about the book club or encounter any problems getting set up, please do drop me an email on caroline@shedunnitshow.com and I’ll do my best to help. Same goes if you’d like to contribute but circumstances make it difficult at the moment — do get in touch and we’ll work something out.
Right, enough of that. On with today’s episode.

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I first became interested in the relationship between crime writers and their pseudonyms because of Josephine Tey. I think the first of her novels that I read was The Man in the Queue from 1929, coincidentally also her first detective novel to be published, in a reprinted edition that I found in a charity shop when I was a teenager. I still have this copy somewhere, and it definitely names “Josephine Tey” on the cover. I assumed that Josephine Tey was just the name of a writer of detective fiction from this period just like others I was familiar with, such as “Agatha Christie” and “Dorothy L. Sayers”, and set about tracking down copies of Tey’s other novels featuring Inspector Alan Grant without giving a thought to the idea that there might not actually be anybody called Josephine Tey at all.

It wasn’t until I read a biography of Josephine Tey many years later that I learned that it was actually the pseudonym of an Elizabeth MacKintosh, known to her friends as Beth. She was Scottish, born in Inverness in 1896. She didn’t come from a family of writers or academics — her parents ran a fruit shop, and before their marriage her mother had been a teacher. Beth trained as a physical education teacher after school (a setting she would reuse to great effect in her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes) and worked at various schools and clinics around the UK before and during the First World War. In the early 1920s she was working at a school in Tunbridge Wells in Kent in the south of England when her father asked her to come home — Beth’s mother Josephine was very ill, and indeed she died in 1923 when Beth was just 26. She decided to remain in Inverness to keep house for her widowed father, and it was during this time that she first began writing in earnest. She made friends with a soldier a couple of years her senior, Hugh Patrick Fraser McIntosh (no relation, despite the similar surnames) who also had literary leanings, and they encouraged each other to submit their short stories and poems for publication.

It wasn’t the works of Josephine Tey that poured out from her pen, though. Beth was the first of the pair to be published, with a poem in the Weekly Westminster Gazette in August 1925. It appeared under the name of “Gordon Daviot”, which was the pseudonym that Beth had chosen for her nascent writing career. She had serious literary ambitions, hoping to write novels one day and publish her verse in the best London journals, and she felt that the best way of accomplishing that was with an explicitly male-sounding name. This isn’t that surprising — three years later in 1928, Virginia Woolf would deliver the lectures upon which her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” is based, detailing all the ways in which true literary and academic success were denied to women because of prejudice and inequality. As an unknown Scottish woman with few connections in the London literary scene, it make complete sense that Beth would want to take one reason for editors to turn her down — her gender — out of the equation. I don’t know where the first name Gordon came from, but Daviot is the name of a village just outside Inverness, where the MacIntosh family used to go for holidays.

Beth, as “Gordon”, continued to publish poetry and short stories over the next few years, as did her friend Hugh. In fact, Beth’s biographer Jennifer Morag Henderson has speculated that if he had lived, a romance might have developed between Beth and Hugh. But he was in Inverness because he had tuberculosis, contracted no doubt after the horrendous conditions he endured in the trenches during the First World War. He died in 1927, and if there was any secret romantic connection between them, Beth couldn’t express it publicly. She never married anyone else.

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Hugh didn’t live to see it, but Gordon Daviot’s literary career went from strength to strength. In 1929 she had two novels published, the literary piece Kif: An Unvarnished History, and the first Inspector Grant novel The Man in the Queue, which also initially appeared under the Daviot pseudonym, despite the fact that latter editions have attributed it to Josephine Tey instead. Just to make things extra confusing, Beth dedicated her first detective novel to “Brisena, who actually wrote it”, which was actually her nickname for her typewriter, but does make it seem like she’s pointing to the fact that the author is not writing under her real name. Gordon Daviot also wrote plays, and one of them, a historical piece about Richard II, was performed in London’s West End in 1932.

It wasn’t until 1936 that she published another crime novel, this one called A Shilling for Candles and also featuring Inspector Grant. But this one appeared under a new pseudonym, that of Josephine Tey. Josephine was Beth’s mother’s name, and she believed that “Tey” was the surname of her English great-great-grandmother, although Jennifer Henderson writes that she couldn’t the name in any family records and wonders if actually Beth misread the name “Fry” to find her pseudonymous surname. However she came upon it, it was clearly a division of authorship that worked for her — she continued to write more literary fiction and plays as Gordon Daviot, and her detective novels as Josephine Tey, and she even had separate literary agents for each one. Plenty of writers around this time used pen names to kept different types of writing distinct like this. Cecil Day-Lewis, father of the actor Daniel and Britain’s Poet Laureate between 1968 and 1972, published around 20 detective novels under the name Nicholas Blake, which he started writing in order to make money (because poetry didn’t pay that well). Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote under a few different names, including Anthony Berkeley, Frances Iles and A. Monmouth Platts, trying out different formal experiments with detective fiction for each. Others just used one pen name for everything, as in the case of Clemence Dane, real name of Winifred Ashton, who wrote plays, detective fiction, literary fiction and non fiction all under that same pseudonym.

If fans of Gordon Daviot’s The Man in the Queue recognised Inspector Grant when he popped up in the Tey novels in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, they didn’t make a big deal of it — it does seem like to most people, the different names and works weren’t obviously connected. This impression was bolstered too by the fact that Beth was a very private person, who kept her life very compartmentalised between family, friends from her teaching days, Scottish friends, and literary friends in London. Perhaps that’s a vital characteristic of an author who wants to work with different pseudonyms, in order to keep them all straight.
Pseudonyms are certainly no less popular or prevalent in today’s crime fiction than they were when Elizabeth MacIntosh was working. One of the biggest literary news stories in decades broke in 2013 when it was revealed that the crime author Robert Galbraith was actually the pseudonym of Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. Like Beth before her, Rowling had wanted to use a different name for her adult crime fiction to escape the pressure of publicity and expectation, and a male one at that to circumvent any speculation or prejudice that she might face as a woman writing hardboiled noir-style stories. Very little seems to have changed in this regard.

After the break: a contemporary crime writer explains how she went about creating her pseudonym.

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Although the motivation for a woman novelist to publish at least some of her crime fiction under a pseudonym might be unchanged since the early 20th century, the practicalities of doing it have changed somewhat. An author’s name is now their personal brand, to be nurtured through website, social media and personal appearances, so it’s much harder to keep everything separate and secret the way Beth MacKintosh did with Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.

Helen: I write crime fiction which is police procedurals as Helen Fields and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. That series is ongoing and a little while ago I agreed that I would write a different book for a different publisher. That’s not a police procedural it’s slightly different it’s part legal thriller and part psychological thriller. We discussed this with my agent and publishers and we reached an agreement that there would be a different name. And I went away and I gave them three different names.

Caroline: This is Helen Fields, a former barrister and now crime fiction author. She has a new book out on 16 May, but it won’t be appearing under her own name. Instead, her novel Degrees of Guilt will have the name “H.S. Chandler” on the cover. Part of the reason for that, she says, is just because it’s coming out with a different publisher to her Helen Fields novels. When it actually came to choosing the new pseudonym, Helen didn’t get the final say, although she did draw up the shortlist:

Helen: I went back to them with three names. I’ve kept my initials but they are initialized. That’s not my full first name. And it was actually the publishers who chose which of the three they wanted me to use. That wasn’t my decision. I did give them all names that had some meaning to me. So I didn’t just kind of pluck them out of thin air. And for example I give an example of one that if we didn’t use but I gave them the name Blakelock which I thought was great. I thought it was all kind of a psychological thriller and kind of dark whatever but that’s my husband’s family’s original name from a couple of centuries back. And I think that’s amazing. That was the one they went for. I think they were after something a little bit more kind of up to date.  So it’s it’s Chandler which actually is my mother’s maiden name so it’s a family name that has some resonance to me I’m not. So they’re going to be sat on a panel withsomebody calling me by a name that I’ve just made up and I can’t recognize.

Caroline: Helen was pleased that her new writing name uses initials rather than a first name, and so comes across as more gender neutral.

Helen: I suppose to an extent we initialize because of that age old thing about there being some men who don’t like buying books by women that is still true I still have men come up to me at events and say I don’t read women’s books and I politely say that’s completely fine that’s up to you. So in that you know following the amazing footsteps ofJ.K. Rowling sometimes it’s easier to initialize than actually putting the initials in rather than a full first name meant that if it was a element myself I could keep the same but private so I am HS, that’s real. And that was quite useful to me. But there are also other, more aesthetic considerations. Publishers are trying to think of very way in which the author’s name might affect whether someone chooses to buy the book or not, Helen says.

Helen: And it starts with the book concept and it’s on the cover and it’s also about layout on the book. So they’ll look at how you know H.S. Chandler works written along the bottom of the book is it neat as it does it stay balanced with the title layouts hugely important. How does it look down the spine because it could be really difficult to get a very long name on a spine along with a long book title. So it’s it’s hugely carefully managed and carefully thought out. So none of that happens by accident.

Caroline: Helen isn’t keeping her pseudonym a secret — hence the fact that’s she’s telling us about it now — but she is keeping the two “brands” distinct, with separate social media presences. They’re also already distinct in her writing styles and in her head, interestingly.

Helen: It’s funny sometimes I kind of slip over into the Helen Field’s writing when I was writing as HS Chandler. And I feel it immediately. It helps what really helps me and this is just a quirky thing to do with me is that the Helen fields books are set in Scotland. And when I write them literally every word my my brain voice as I write right to a Scottish accent it does it all the way through and H.S. Chandler is is kind of English and more of a me voice but I I physically hear the voice I hear the words out loud as I as I write it. And that’s quite a good separation technique for me because I could feel when I’m slipping from one style of writing into another.

Caroline: So there you have it, two women working in crime fiction almost a century apart, still grappling with the same issues around their gender and the names they choose to associate their work with. A pseudonym can be part of a fun game that a writer is playing with their readers, or it can conceal a more serious need to avoid prejudice and retain some modicum of personal privacy.

Whatever the reason, it makes the detective writers of the 1920s and 30s like Josephine Tey feel very close to us now. I mean, it’s almost as if nothing has really changed at all.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributor, Helen Fields, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/pseudonyms. There, you can also read a full transcript.

It’s also part of a collaboration with my friend Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist podcast. If you go and subscribe to that show now — search “The Allusionist” wherever you get your podcasts or click the link in the show notes — and next week you’ll be able to hear another episode all about pseudonyms and names featuring yours truly.

A reminder that if you’d like to join the Shedunnit book club and start listening ad free to extra bonus episodes of the podcast in between main releases, you can join up at shedunnitshow.com/membership. I look forward to chatting with you in the forum and picking our first book to read together.
I’ll be back on 1 May with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Period Style.

Pseudonyms

Authors’ names loom large when we think about detective stories. Yet many of them are pseudonyms, created just to appear on book covers. But why go to all this trouble? And what makes a good pen name, anyway?

Find more information about my guest Helen Fields / H.S. Chandler at her website helenfields.co.uk and get links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/pseudonyms.

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

Read about why I’ve started the book club here.

Subscribe to The Allusionist podcast by Helen Zaltzman to catch Caroline on her pseudonyms episode next week. Find it at theallusionist.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Man in the Queue  by Gordon Daviot / Josephine Tey
A Room of One’s Own  by Virginia Woolf
Josephine Tey: A Life  by Jennifer Morag Henderson
Kif: An Unvarnished History by Elizabeth Mackintosh
Richard of Bordeaux, a play in two acts by Gordon Daviot
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey
Degrees of Guilt  by H.S. Chandler

Sponsor:
The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah, published by HarperCollins. Enter the competition to win a copy by sending an email to competition@audioboom.com.

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

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

Queer Clues Transcript

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

[Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Music]

Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

[Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline: Bernthal agrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Music]

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

Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Vanishes.

Queer Clues

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

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

Contributors:
JC Bernthal, academic and author of Queering Agatha Christie
—Moira Redmond, journalist and blogger at clothesinbooks.blogspot.com

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

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

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

Whodunnit? Transcript

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

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

No fictional character was safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whodunnit?

For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. A golden age of detective fiction dawned, and people around the world are still devouring books from this time by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more.

In this podcast, Caroline Crampton will be unravelling the mysteries behind such classic detective stories, looking at the social, literary and political context in which these writers worked. If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you.

Find the show at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the first episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can find a full transcript of this mini episode at shedunnitshow.com/whodunnittranscript.