Tag: Michael Gilbert

A Century of Whodunnits Transcript

Something I love about making this podcast is the space it provides for me to zoom right in. I can dedicate a whole episode to a single trope from classic detective fiction, whether that’s tropes like “the butler did it” or settings like “on a boat”.

I’ve narrowed the focus even further by putting a time limit on the books that I cover. They largely come from the golden age of detective fiction, that period between the two world wars when what we now think of as the “classic” whodunnit was at the height of its popularity.

And while I have no intention of setting aside this approach, something has been gnawing at me for a while. It’s this question. What would it look like if I zoomed out instead of in? What if, instead of tracking the development of the golden age detective novel within that short timespan, I considered the broad strokes of the murder mystery across a whole century?

Well, that’s what I’m going to do today. We’re going on a journey from 1900 to the year 2000. This is the twentieth century, according to its whodunnits.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It’s now been a century, at least, since the first whodunnits from the golden age of detective fiction were published.

I spend a lot of time reading the books that were published during that two decades or so because I love seeing the development of the “classic” whodunnit up close, and also because I make this podcast.

I know that round numbers are meaningless, but I can’t help it. Noticing that a hundred years has passed since some of my favourite books from the early 1920s were first released had more of an impact on me than when it was just 99 years, or 98. There are still so many books from that time that are new to me that it’s easy to forget that they are, objectively, quite old now.

As much as I might try to get into the mindset of a reader from 1923, for instance, reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ debut novel Whose Body? with fresh eyes just after publication and encountering her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey for the first time, I can’t switch off my knowledge of everything that comes after. I know that she would write ten more novels and dozens of short stories featuring this character, and that she would begin drifting away from writing detective fiction once the second world war began. Imagination can only take you so far.

Although I can’t abandon my vantage point in 2021 and the hindsight that comes with it, I decided to try reading my way through the crime fiction of the twentieth century from beginning to end, like I was one very long lived reader keeping up with what was new in my favourite genre.

To do this, I picked a book from each decade that seemed to me to be an important step forward for the form of the detective novel. Now, before I get into discussion these books, I just want to preempt any dissent about my choices by saying that they are just that, my choices. This is a personal journey through the twentieth century’s crime fiction, and it’s in no way intended to be a definitive reading list or statement. In fact, I’d love to hear what you would pick for a similar reading project — you can tell me about it on social media if you’d like, where the podcast can be found as @ShedunnitShow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Having said all that, I couldn’t start anywhere but with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories that Arthur Conan Doyle had published in magazines between 1903 and 1904, and which appeared in one volume for the first time in 1905.

This wasn’t Holmes’s first appearance in the twentieth century. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novel about Holmes and Watson’s adventures unravelling the myth of a diabolical dog on Dartmoor, had been published in 1902. But crucially, this story is a flashback — in the personal chronology of Sherlock Holmes, it takes place before he dies at the end of the short story “The Final Problem”, first published in 1893.

Conan Doyle really did intend that to be the last word on Sherlock Holmes. He was convinced he was destined for literary greatness beyond detective fiction, and that the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street was just holding him back. He even wrote to his mother about the decision, saying that “I must save my mind for better things”.

But it didn’t last long. First he relented to the pressure from publishers and the public with a tale from Holmes’s casebook in the form of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then in the first story from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”, he resurrected his sleuth properly. Picking up this book again for the first time in years, I tried to imagine how exciting it would have been, as a fan, to open the magazine containing the first new adventure for your favourite character in ten years. Today, we have become accustomed to the endless cycle of reboots and remakes, but I think that would have been genuinely thrilling.

Since it had been a while since I read these stories, I had forgotten quite how many of my favourites this collection contains. The characters of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are well established, and thanks to his work’s incredible popularity Conan Doyle is able to assume when writing in the early 1900s that his readers are conversant with the typical beats of a detective story. Therefore, he spends less time on the fundamental mechanics of “whodunnit” and starts riffing on the theme, exploring new avenues and possibilities.

Turning the pages, it felt a bit like I was reading a kind of source text out of which everything in the next couple of decades was going to expand. “The Adventure of the Empty House” is a clever locked room mystery. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is a case that turns on code breaking. “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” is an inheritance mystery. “The Adventure of the Priory School” features a criminal that deliberately tries to hoodwink the detective when it comes to forensic observation. “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” sees the detective act not only as investigator, but judge and jury too. I could go on. Each story contains at least one aspect that other writers would enhance and develop into entire plots and subgenres in the decades to come.

It really isn’t possible to understate the influence that Sherlock Holmes had on the crime fiction that followed. So many of the traits that we now just associate with the figure of “the detective, such as his eccentricity, or his detachment from a personal life, or his preoccupation with forensic evidence like ash and footprints, were first brought to wide attention in the form of Sherlock Holmes.

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I started with a bang, I know. Now we’re moving on to the next decade, the 1910s, and a book that I think is a little less well known today: Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, first published in 1913. Writers like GK Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley all regarded it very highly, and when the Detection Club was formed in 1930 Bentley was elected as a member based on the reputation of this one novel, and succeeded GK Chesterton to become the society’s second president.

I first came across the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley when I worked at the New Statesman magazine, as it happens. Bentley is probably best known today as the originator of a poetic form called after his own middle name — the clerihew. Supposedly, Bentley invented these four line biographical poems when at school in the 1890s, and he and schoolfriend GK Chesterton had great fun filling notebooks with them. The first line has to be just the person’s name, and then the following three lines (rhyming AABB) sketch the person’s life. Here’s an example, from Bentley’s 1905 collection of them, Biography for Beginners:

Sir Christopher Wren

Said “I am going to dine with some men.

“If anybody calls

“Say I am designing St Paul’s.”

The New Statesman ran competitions where readers sent clerihews in for years, and for the 2013 centenary issue the writer Craig Brown was commissioned to write some new ones. I got curious about how someone could make living in the 1900s from writing funny little poems, so I dug into Bentley’s bibliography and discovered his detective fiction. Anyway, the point of telling you this is to illustrate how that light, comic style was central to Bentley’s work and reputation, during his lifetime and after. If you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, then you have a fair idea of how he wrote.

Because that’s how Trent’s Last Case started out, as a kind of light comic parody or satire. He set out to write a detective novel that would simultaneously contribute to the genre while also undercutting the seriousness of detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown, who had first appeared in print in 1910.

Trent’s Last Case and includes lots of other very recognisable elements that would later become standard golden age tropes: an unlikeable victim, a comic amateur sleuth, an apparently perfect alibi and a brilliant twist ending. Philip Trent struggles against “the impotence of human reason”, but in making reason or logic the central theme of the book while marrying it with a lightness of touch and sparkling prose, Bentley was paving the way for Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and many others to follow. He prevented the detective novel from becoming too serious and self regarding. Even the title is a joke in itself — this is the first novel about Philip Trent, but it’s also announced as his last case because he’s not a good detective. In other words, E.C. Bentley made it OK to be funny while writing detective fiction.

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And now we’re in the 1920s — a decade of richness when it comes to detective fiction. What should I choose? Agatha Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Gladys Mitchell’s first novel Speedy Death, or Anthony Berkeley’s brilliantly referential and innovative The Poisoned Chocolates Case? No, I went for The Cask, first published in 1920, the first novel by Irish writer Freeman Wills Crofts.

Why? Well, it’s true that in part I wanted to read a book from this decade that isn’t quite as familiar to me as those others I mentioned, and also because I think what Crofts achieved in this novel is worth appreciating as an important way point on crime fiction’s journey through the century. Crofts was a railway engineer by profession, or at least he was until 1929 when he became a full time detective novelist, and he wrote this first book while signed off work sick in 1919.

His plot unites three strands that we’re going to revisit a lot in the rest of this episode.

Firstly, it is a police procedural. A cask containing a dead body is unloaded at the docks in London, and the police are summoned to investigate (the cask disappears again before they can take charge of it, but you’ll need to read the book yourself to find out why). The reader then follows the police detective through the process of chasing down clues until they arrive at the truth.

This relates to the second strand: the masterful way in which Crofts handles alibis. Every single one is worked out to the second. This was to become a trademark of his fiction going forward, but again I feel like it would have felt new to a reader cracking open the book for the first time in 1920.

And then finally, there’s an international dimension to the book, with the cask bouncing back and forward between London and Paris with the police detectives of both cities on its tail.

I find reading The Cask incredibly restful, which is an odd thing to say about a book centred around a murder, I know. But there’s something about the way the plot is constructed that makes it clear that Crofts is in full control, and I find it relaxing to know that somebody is else is in charge while I’m reading. His work absolutely deserves to be better known, so if you haven’t read one of his stories before I highly recommend seeking one out.

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Into the 1930s. Again, since we’re still in the golden age, I was spoilt for choice. I went for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is a book that I’ve reread a lot in the last twenty years. I didn’t choose it with this in mind, but I found that it followed on from The Cask very well, because the complex bellringing elements of Sayers’ plot — she did subtitle it “changes rung on an old theme in two short touches and two full peals” after all — married very well with Crofts’ detailed alibis.

Where The Nine Tailors feels like a step onwards is in its characterisation. The people of Fenchurch St Paul, the tiny Norfolk village where Peter Wimsey ends up by accident on New Year’s Eve, live and breathe. Their ideas and motivations are overlapping and complex; they don’t all line up neatly just for the purpose of a plot. Said plot also takes place over a number of years, which also helps to dissipate the feeling of artificiality that had begun to creep into some detective novels by this time. The events of the novel span a couple of decades, which feels a bit more likely than a case that can be tied up in a bow in three days.

When Sayers died in 1956 the obituary writer in the New York Times remarked that this novel was widely considered to be her finest literary achievement. I would agree – I think she invented better plots, but I don’t think she wrote a better novel. The presence of Wimsey feels almost incidental, as if he truly is there by accident rather than having to push the plot on with exposition. And some of her descriptive passages about the way the bells sound across the fens or the rising floodwaters in the dykes are truly brilliant.

Sayers was always looking for ways to push the detective novel further and to release it from the restrictions placed on genre fiction. Given that, I think it’s the highest compliment I could pay this book to say that I really don’t care who did the crime by the end — I just want to keep reading about the village and the bells.

After the break: what happens after the golden age?

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The Second World War was something of a watershed moment for detective fiction. Some previously prominent writers, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, stopped writing whodunnits altogether after 1939. Others, like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and others, kept going with the characters and style that had made them popular during the golden age even as that period drew to a close.

It was really difficult to know at what point to drop in on Agatha Christie’s career on this journey. There are six different decades to choose from — she published whodunnits from the 1920s through to the 1970s. That’s over half of the twentieth century, just in her bibliography.

Although I think the 1930s probably represents her best hit rate — that is the period in which she wrote Peril at End House, The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None, after all — I eventually went for Five Little Pigs. I think this unsettling novel from 1943 is truly a tour de force, and I also think it shows signs of the way the crime genre is developing that are interesting to note after what we’ve read before.

My principle attraction to Five Little Pigs, though, lies in the fact that it is a cold case — something that Christie didn’t address often, preferring a more active murder scenario. In this one, Hercule Poirot reexamining a case from 16 years ago in which a painter was poisoned as he worked at a portrait of his mistress. The book is formally intriguing, too, with the events of his last day retold to the detective from five different perspectives as he interviews each of the five people who were present. It’s a formidable challenge of both plotting and detection, since Christie allows neither herself nor Poirot access to new clues or suspects beyond those included in the original case. It’s a book that carries the reader along on the drama of pure intellect and reasoning, and as such I think can fairly be described as a true high point of the golden age style.

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My next choice reflects the way in which the detective novel began to morph and change with the changing times after 1945. Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert has some of the key golden age characteristics, including a closed circle of suspects and an amateur detective, but is very different in setting and atmosphere. The plot takes place in a prisoner of war camp for British officers in northern Italy during the Second World War, and is based on Gilbert’s own experiences of being interned.

The camp inmates are working hard at covertly digging a tunnel so they can escape when they discover a dead body in their earthworks. Rather than alert the camp’s authorities to the murder and expose their escape attempt, they appoint one of their own number to investigate the crime. This element works very well as a classic murder mystery plot, but it enhanced by the addition of a wartime thriller, as the characters struggle to get out safely before the camp is turned over to the Germans.

Gilbert was an incredibly adaptable writer, who dabbled in many different styles and subgenres over his long writing career. I think he represents a bridge between the dominant style of crime writing in the 1930s and 40s and the more modern thriller found in bookshops today. He was reading crime fiction during the golden age, and even started writing a mystery novel in the late 1930s, but didn’t get to start publishing until after the war.

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We are a long way from Shedunnit’s usual stomping ground in the golden age of detective fiction now. Although our next writer was technically alive during that period — she was born in 1930 — her first book came out in 1964. That was From Doon With Death, the debut of Ruth Rendell, in which she introduced the character who was to become her recurring sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford.

This wasn’t the very first Ruth Rendell I had read, because I’ve picked a few up at the library at random over the years, but it was the first time I had read this book. I found it really impressive — I don’t think all the crime writers I’ve read for this episode managed such an accomplished debut. From Doon With Death is chilling and suspenseful, and I also think it looks both backwards and forwards in the canon of twentieth century crime writing.

The woman at the heart of the plot, Margaret Parsons, is a shy housewife in a quiet town. She is very clearly differentiated from the upper class, larger than life victims in whodunnits from the 1930s and 40s. Her normalness is strongly underlined. This makes the murderer’s attack on her all the more shocking — what on earth can she had done to justify such a thing? The emphasis on her home feels to me like it looks forward to the trend for domestic noir that is even now dominating the bestseller charts.

Yet there are aspects of this book that feel like they could be from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel, in particular Margaret’s secret cache of rare books. It is in the inscriptions to these that Wexford has to look for clues to unlock the case. Rendell’s use of the particular legal circumstances of the time to hoodwink the reader also reminded me of Sayers’ legal slight of hand in Unnatural Death. I found reading From Doon With Death a really interesting experience, perhaps I should read more modern crime fiction more often.

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I was really motoring through the latter part of the twentieth century now, in a period of crime fiction that is almost completely unfamiliar to me. My best book, from the 1970s, was Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. This was first published in 1977, and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I came across it during my research for my People’s Pathologist episode about the early forensics expert Bernard Spilsbury.

This novel came fairly early in James’s career, but her police detective character Adam Dalgliesh was already well established by the time it came out. Again, there are aspects of his character that seem to hark backwards even as the plot of this novel is modern. Dalgliesh is a kind of “gentleman” detective within Scotland Yard, and someone who enjoys poetry and reflection. He reminds me a little of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who first appeared in 1975’s Last Bus To Woodstock, but also of E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen from his novels in the 1930s — Owen being from a noble family yet choosing to work as a lowly police constable.

Death of an Expert Witness is set among the staff of a forensics lab, and this gives James plenty of scope to introduce lots of technicalities peculiar to that field. The focus on forensics is intriguing, but the motive she gives to her murderer was a bit disappointing to me, and felt like it fell into some of the exploitative traps that generally makes me dislike more recent crime fiction. Still, I’d like to spend more time with Adam Dalgliesh.

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My choice for the 1980s is a bit of a throwback — Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes, first published in 1986. I say that because this is actually the final book in a series that began during the golden age, with 1936’s Death at the President’s Lodgings. Innes was the pseudonym of literature academic J.I.M. Stewart, and in half a century he published almost fifty novels featuring his sleuth Sir John Appleby. I’ve read some of the earlier ones and liked them, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to drop in on the final instalment.

As is fitting for a detective of such long service, Sir John has retired from the police force by the time of this book. He goes for a cosy lunch at a country house called Clusters with Lord and Lady Osprey, and is then surprised to get a call days later to come and investigate the lord’s murder. The power dynamic between him and the officer actually in charge of this case is interesting, but overall I rather regretted my choice to read a late career book by such a long lived author.

It was rather like reading late P.G. Wodehouse, in that it felt nostalgic for a world of country houses and casual privilege that didn’t really exist anymore. The appearance of the N word in Sir John’s dialogue and some of the attitudes expressed around rape didn’t make this book especially comfortable reading.

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And now, we have arrived at the last of my ten books, the end of the journey. This is the only book on my list that is by a living writer, who is also coincidentally the only writer here I have actually met. My last choice is Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, his eight novel to feature his police detective Inspector Rebus, which was first published in 1997. Again, I’ve read a few Rankins here and there at random from the library, but this was my first time choosing one intentionally.

I had read that this title in particular was considered a seminal example of the “tartan noir” movement in modern crime fiction, and so decided to use it as the destination for this journey. It felt fitting that my meander through a century of British crime fiction, so much of which is very stereotypically English, should end north of the border.

In Black and Blue, Rebus is working on I think four cases at once. It’s action packed, with the detective flitting around Scotland in pursuit of a terrifying serial killer while at the same time handling some internal disputes within the police. There’s also a political and corporate corruption subplot. We’ve come a long way from the linear, laidback plot of Trent’s Last Case, shall we say.

But for all of its busyness and chaos, I liked Black and Blue a lot. It manages to be topical with all of its references to North Sea oil and the political clout that will bring while also having a timeless enough plot that reading it in 2021 didn’t feel like browsing old newspaper articles. I’m no expert in American noir, but I strongly suspect that Rebus’s high energy antics in this book have more in common with the work of Raymond Chandler, say, than that of Agatha Christie.

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And there we have it — that was my journey through ten decades of whodunnits, a book at a time. If you’ve previously been a dedicated golden age reader like me, I hope you found a reason somewhere in here to stray beyond the 1940s. And if you’re an aficionado of more recent publications, perhaps you’re now intrigued by Trent’s Last Case. I’m certainly going to be spending more time with Ruth Rendell and P.D. James in the future.

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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/century. 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.

A Century of Whodunnits

Reading through the twentieth century, one murder mystery at a time.

There are no major spoilers in this episode, but the opening plot scenario of each book is discussed briefly. There is a major spoiler for the Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem” from 1893.

The ten books I read for this episode are:

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1905)

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley (1913)

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920)

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1943)

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert (1952)

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell (1964)

Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James (1977)

Appleby and the Ospreys by Michael Innes (1986)

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)

Other sources:

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Bloody Murder: from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel by Julian Symons

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.

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

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

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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.

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