Tag: Ngaio Marsh

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.

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

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

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

Policing the Detectives Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policing the Detectives

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

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

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

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

Sources and further information:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The Butler Did It” episode of Shedunnit

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Death In Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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

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

The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Before we get started with today’s show, I want to tell you about another podcast you should check out. The Lonely Palette is a show that aims to make art history accessible, enjoyable, and fun, one artwork at a time. Each episode, host and recovering art historian Tamar Avishai picks an artwork, plants herself in front of it at the museum, and interviews unsuspecting passersby to record their first impressions and descriptions. Then, in a 15-20-minute audio essay, she dives deeply into the object, the movement, the social context, and anything and everything else that will make it as exciting to you as it is to her.

With high-quality production values, evocative music cues, and a warm, friendly tone that is both intelligent and welcoming, The Lonely Palette acts as both a witty and compelling museum companion and a narrative radio show about the visual world. In the words of podcast-inventor Christopher Lydon, “this is what those snooze-a-thon museum audio guides should be”. Find it at thelonelypalette.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

Now, on with the show.

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By any definition, Ngaio Marsh lived an extraordinary life. She was the longest-lived of the four Queens of Crime from the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s and was made a Dame by the Queen of England for her services to theatre in her native New Zealand. Thanks to her 32 detective novels, Marsh is still that country’s bestselling ever author. She travelled regularly between Britain and New Zealand at a time when the trip took weeks rather than hours and was a keen painter and a journalist as well as an author.

Yet she was also an intensely private person, who only shared a little of herself with acquaintances and fans. She never married or had children, and destroyed many of her letters and papers before her death. Her books, of course, remain widely read, but in the UK and the US she isn’t quite as popular as Agatha Christie, say, or Dorothy L. Sayers. There’s even an aura of mystery around Ngaio Marsh herself — who was she really, this globetrotting blockbuster author who lived her life on opposite sides of the world?

Well, stay tuned to find out, because today we’re delving into the secret life of Ngaio Marsh.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

Ngaio Marsh was born on 23 April 1895 in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Her father Henry didn’t actually register her birth with the authorities until four years later, though, a mistake that Ngaio herself liked to take advantage of in later years in order to claim that she was a bit younger than her true age. Christchurch was a place that had been imbued with a strong sense of class and position right from its beginnings, when in 1850 four shiploads of settlers under the auspices of the Church of England arrived from Britain to expand the town. The passengers on these ships had been specially selected so that they represented the “proper balance squire, merchant, artisan and labourer” according to a 1980s history of the city. Basically, the aim was to export the British class system to this part of New Zealand as a way of getting away from the idea, common at the time, that emigration could be a way of making a fortune and escaping from social structures.

As a result of growing up in this atmosphere, Ngaio described her parents as “have-nots” within Christchurch’s rigidly separated society. Her father, Henry, had come to New Zealand from England when he was a young man and worked as a bank clerk his whole life. Her mother Rose had been born in New Zealand as her parents — Ngaio’s grandparents — had emigrated from England in the 1850s. From what I’ve read of Ngaio’s early life, it wasn’t exactly one of great deprivation, since the family were able to employ two servants and when she was quite young they moved to a newly-built house up in the hills beyond Christchurch, which is where Ngaio first encountered the New Zealand landscape that she occasionally rhapsodised about in her detective fiction. But her family weren’t wealthy by any means, and it’s interesting I think that by Christchurch standards, Ngaio definitely considered them to be on the poorer side.

This class background is important when it comes to getting beneath the surface of Ngaio Marsh’s character and understanding why she was so reticent about her personal life.

Joanne: She was from a generation of people who who were sort of aspirant. They were middle class but aspirant upper middle class to almost you know beyond that. And so to talk about things that were awkward or difficult were just was just not things that those people did.

Caroline: This is Joanne Drayton, a New York Times bestselling author and Ngaio Marsh’s most recent biographer. Joanne’s book Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was published in 2008, and she’s passionately interested in Ngaio’s work, her life, and what she represents for New Zealand. Perhaps best of all, she’s actually met the woman herself, so we can hear first-hand what the great Ngaio was really like in the flesh.

Jo:  My family knew her and I met her myself as a young person. When I was eight I met Ngaio Marsh. My cousin actually was one of her proteges, her acting proteges. So I met her through the theatre and she was a very imposing, wow, absolutely sort of daunting to an eight year old character: very tall, very chic and stunning, really a stunning woman. With a voice that was so low and so deep and resonant that it sort of really blew you blew you away really. It was amazing.

Caroline: Interestingly, even with this encounter as a child, Jo got a hint that there was something more to Ngaio Marsh than there appeared on the surface.

Joanne: Well my mother said to me ‘you know she was one of those sort of women’. At eight years old, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. And I’m still not exactly sure what she meant but I think she meant. But she was she was a member of a group of women really who were unmarried, who were career orientated, who were very very intelligent, well educated. They were a generation who were not only career women but also women who didn’t have the opportunity to marry. And she was exciting and interesting and I think perhaps my mother might have been referring to notion that she was a lesbian. So. But yes she was interesting and she was ‘one of those sort of women’ and I thought well I’m going to find out what that is.

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Caroline: Ngaio Marsh wrote her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, in 1931. She was in her thirties and on an extended visit to London, where she was visiting and travelling with her aristocratic friends Tahu and Nelly Rhodes. They had partied all over the place, been to the theatre everywhere and even gambled in Monte Carlo, but on the day that Ngaio started scribbling her first attempt at crime writing in an exercise book, she was back in London and alone for the weekend. She had been writing articles for newspapers back in New Zealand about her travels as “the Canterbury Pilgrim” and she had come to England with some early chapters of what she hoped might be a literary novel, perhaps even an early example of “the great New Zealand novel”, which was felt at that time to be something that hadn’t really come into being yet.

But this was the golden age of detective fiction, and in London she was right at the heart of it. Miss Marple had just made her first novel-length appearance in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. The Detection Club was just getting underway. (Although Ngaio was never a member, she did attend and very much enjoy one of the club’s rituals on another visit to London in 1937.) Also in 1930, Dorothy L. Sayers published Strong Poison, the first Peter Wimsey novel to feature her detective novelist character Harriet Vane, and the year before Margery Allingham had introduced Albert Campion to the reading public in The Crime at Black Dudley. A Man Lay Dead actually has a similar setup to Campion’s debut — it’s also a country house mystery set around a house party in which the guests decide to play an amusing game of “murder”, only for it all to turn tragic when someone is found stabbed to death with a dagger.

Right from the start, though, Ngaio favoured a slightly different approach to some of Christie’s most famously ingenious puzzles. “I invariably start with people, with two or three or more people about whom I feel I would like to write,” she said of her process many years later. “Very often I begin to write about these people in their immediate situation with no more than the scantiest framework for a plot and its denouement.” This character-led approach is one way in which her novels stand out from others of the same period — they’re not quite as obsessed with the ‘how’ of the mystery, and lean more on the characters and their relationships. Her detective, Roderick Alleyn, is famously detached and somewhat self-effacing. Marsh’s stories are clever, funny and well-constructed, but Alleyn perhaps lacks the showiness of a Hercule Poirot or a Peter Wimsey. He’s above all extremely plausible — a detective who likes method but doesn’t keep going on about it, and who hates making unfounded guesses. He did mature over the course of Marsh’s dozens of books containing him, but his progression wasn’t nearly as drastic as that of Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion, say, who had much further to travel from their initial caricatures into rounded human beings.

Ngaio’s mother Rose visited her daughter in London in the early 1930s, and according to Joanne’s biography, was impressed by an early draft of A Man Lay Dead. Rose hoped that her daughter might come home to New Zealand with her at the end of her trip, but the lure of literary life in London was too great. Ngaio longed to stay and remain part of it all, but she did have to return home in 1932 when her mother fell ill. Ngaio left the manuscript of A Man Lay Dead behind in London with a literary agent named Edmund Cork that summer in the hope that he might be able to find a publisher for it and took the long boat back to New Zealand, where her mother was seriously ill with cancer. Ngaio got back in August, and her mother died in November, no doubt pushing any thoughts of Roderick Alleyn and his adventures out of her mind. Laid low by grief and convinced of the need to stay in Christchurch to be with her now retired and widowed father, Ngaio put any further travel to Britain on hold. But although she herself might be staying in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, Ngaio had left a little piece of herself behind in London in the form of her first detective novel, and from henceforth she would live a divided kind of life, split between the north and south hemispheres, and her public and private selves.

More on that, after the break.

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This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. This is a new Hercule Poirot story — a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in 1930s London. In it, the beloved Belgian sleuth returns home from lunch one day to find an angry woman waiting outside, demanding to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of a Barnabas Pandy, a man neither of them have ever heard of or met. As The Mystery of Three Quarters continues, it turns out that other letters like this have been sent too. Of course, Poirot has to investigate — who is writing these awful letters under his name, and who is Barnabas Pandy, the supposed murder victim? You’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out.

The Mystery of Three Quarters is Sophie Hannah’s third novel featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. It’s a Sunday Times bestseller, and a surprising, twisty read. The Sunday Telegraph said that “what Sophie and Agatha have in common is a rare talent for fiendish unpredictability”. If you’re a fan of the Poirot stories — and I know lots of you are — you’re going to want to check this out too. The Mystery of Three Quarters is available now in paperback, ebook and audiobook, so get your copy now.

You can also enter a competition to win your very own copy of The Mystery of Three Quarters — just send a quick email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be in with a chance of getting your hands on one. There’s no special phrase or question required, just send an email to competition@audioboom.com and you’ll be entered.

Now, let’s head back to New Zealand and Ngaio Marsh.

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It was a few months after Rose Marsh’s death that Ngaio received word from her agent that he had found a publisher for her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead. She received a £30 advance and the book was published in 1934, with Ngaio receiving the final copies a full two months after they went on sale in the UK, because that’s how long it took for things to reach New Zealand. It was a moderate success, with some critical acclaim, although a few reviewers struggled to work out the writer’s gender and background thanks to Ngaio’s Maori originating first name. It came out the same year as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, both acknowledged masterpieces of the detective genre. The fourth Queen of Crime had arrived.

But even as her writing career developed and flourished, Ngaio Marsh would always feel pulled between two worlds. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:

Joanne: I think she had a split life really she lived in two places. And I think that gave her also a certain amount of she could be one person one sort of person in one place and another person in another place. So I think New Zealanders knew a very different Ngaio Marsh to the one that she presented publicly in the UK and then you know I mean she was very ravishing and chic and quite down to earth and New Zealand where that was much more you know the thing to be. But I think it was fascinating that she managed to also make that shift in her writing because most of her writing really was intended I think to satisfy the genre that was shaped.

Caroline: In a way, Ngaio Marsh was a chameleon: she could be whatever the situation required of her.

Joanne: So she fitted in there with you know Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Tey, very well but she also had she could actually turn the genre into a New Zealand story as well. In that period of that period with all the same kind of cosy intensity almost village like intensity, but it had that real New Zealand flavour. And if you’re a New Zealander you recognize it profoundly in Died in the Wool and Colour Scheme and some of those amazing stories that speak to New Zealanders in a very personal more intimate way. Using that same genre which is amazing. And it was special to have here among that you know the kind of pantheon really of great writers of the genre and do that and achieve that from New Zealand which was much more difficult.

Caroline: And achieve she did — Ngaio’s publishers kept her to a tight schedule, and she often produced a book a year. She travelled back to London every so often too, and each time she said she felt refreshed and renewed, and felt she had to start writing again as soon as she arrived. In 1949, she experienced something very rare for a writer of any kind, when one million copies of her books were issued into the international market in the same year — 100,000 copies each of ten different novels.

At the same time as her public career was going from strength to strength, Ngaio’s private life remained as much of a closed book as ever. She remained single — or a “spinster”, as the parlance of the day would have it — and devoted much of her time to her close female friends, some of whom she knew from going to school in Christchurch, others from university or her work in the theatre. Over the years, as a result of this closeness, there have been many suggestions that Ngaio Marsh was a lesbian, or at least not completely heterosexual. But like the canny crime writer that she was, Ngaio didn’t make it easy for people to find out her secrets. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:

Joanne: I think also there’s no doubt about the fact that she had very close personal relationships with women. In terms of really hard evidence you’re right though there’s not a lot of facts absolute facts that can be tested. They say two or three sources is a piece of information that you can use and you certainly don’t get that sort of thing around Ngaio Marsh. She was very careful about cleaning out behind her. And it depends on how you define lesbianism with you. I mean most people these days don’t necessarily see a physical relationship is defining it but it does also and it does depend on how you what you bring to this situation as your own definitions. So I could never guarantee that I match sleep with other women but what I can guarantee is that her most significant friends were women right.

Caroline: Ngaio was private, yes, but she wasn’t above hiding in plain sight.

Joanne: And you know I think I think there were there were people that often often traveled with her sometimes not not not when it was it was actually almost secretly they traveled with her overseas. People didn’t know about it. I found photographs of people that weren’t even identified as being as traveling with her that I knew were close friends of his. But she kept. You know she played her cards very close to a chest.

Caroline: She even had one particular friend who lived right next door to the Marsh family home in Cashmere.

Joanne: She had a very close friend called Sylvia Fox who eventually moved into the house behind her. There was a hedge with a connecting hole. So they used to dash into each other’s houses through this hedge between them and Sylvia Fox was went to school with her in Christchurch and they were just long term very old and close friends right throughout their life and are buried together.

Caroline: For a long time, Joanne says, Ngaio Marsh was just written off as the classic spinster author, who lived out her days alone. But even though Ngaio clearly didn’t want the world to know what her life was really like, we’re now able to think of her as a much more complex person.

Joanne: I think that you know what’s previously been written has been written particularly from a really traditionally heterosexual position because defining relationships as either you are either heterosexual or you’re not. It’s sexual and you’re either with a man or you know you have a man in your life. We don’t. Whereas I think we know now we’re prepared to see people as more complex than that and see sexuality as more fluid and end complex [00:25:50][33.8]

Caroline: There’s so much more to say about Ngaio Marsh — I’ve really only scratched the surface here. As well as being a prolific detective author, she was a keen painter and a revered theatre director who did a huge amount to establish and develop the theatrical tradition and profession in New Zealand. But hopefully I’ve been able to say enough to whet your appetite and intrigue you about her, this women whose name is so often lumped together with the other so-called Queens of Crime, but who in reality lived such a different and intriguingly complex life. I find her endlessly fascinating. Like all the best detective novelists, she kept her secrets very, very well.

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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 contributors Joanne Drayton, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ngaiomarsh. There, you can also read a full transcript.

The sharp-eared among you will have noticed that for the very first time, this episode had advertising on it! Truly, this podcast is growing up and finding its place in the world. I am also going to be launching a system whereby you can get an ad free version of the show very soon though, so if that’s something that interests you, make sure you’re signed up to the Shedunnit newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and then you’ll be the first to hear about it. My thanks to to everyone who has filled out the audience survey over the past few weeks, I honestly couldn’t be doing this without your help.

I’ll be back on 17 April with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Pseudonyms.

The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh

By any definition, the New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh lived an extraordinary life. But who was she really, this globetrotting blockbuster author who divided her life between opposite sides of the world?

Find more information about my guest Joanne Drayton and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/ngaiomarsh.

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.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Things mentioned in order of appearance:
The Lonely Palette podcast
Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime by Joanne Drayton
A Man Lay Dead  by Ngaio Marsh
Murder at the Vicarage  by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Crime at Black Dudley  by Margery Allingham
Murder on the Orient Express  by Agatha Christie
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Died in the Wool  by Ngaio Marsh
Colour Scheme  by Ngaio Marsh

Further reading and sources:
Ngaio Marsh: A Life  by Margaret Lewis (the authorised biography from 1991)
Black Beech and Honeydew  by Ngaio Marsh (her autobiography)
The Golden Age of Murder  by Martin Edwards

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/ngaiomarshtranscript.

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

Round Robin Transcript

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

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

Caroline: Writing is a solitary pastime. To invent the characters and stories that readers love, most authors have to lock themselves away from the world, avoiding company and interruptions until the blank page is filled.

Not everyone wants to spend all their time hunched over their work, though, and the writers of detective fiction in the 1930s were no different. Anthony Berkeley, the creator of the sleuth Roger Sheringham, began organising regular dinners for his fellow detective authors in 1928. This gathering eventually evolved into a more formal organisation called the Detection Club, which numbered Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ronald Knox, Emma Orczy and others among its founding members. They dined together, they drank together, and sometimes, they wrote together.

The novels they collaborated on aren’t necessarily among the best-known works of detective fiction, but they’re fascinating all the same. We’re so used to the idea of a whodunnit being constructed by a single all-knowing author, who invents the solution but keeps it hidden from the reader until the last minute. What happens when a dozen writers work together on the same plot?

Today, we’re delving into the round robin.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to take a look at the multi-author detective stories from the early days of the Detection Club that were written in the round robin format, such as Behind the Screen, The Scoop and The Floating Admiral. Is it possible to construct a compelling whodunnit this way, or is it the case that too many cooks spoil the broth? Let’s find out.

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First, let’s look at this idea of the “round robin”. It’s a phrase that has a variety of meanings in different contexts, but they all share a common sense of “rotation” or “passing around”. In sport, the phrase denotes a tournament in which each competitor plays all of the others, and in computing it refers to a kind of algorithm used to schedule processes in a sequential and equitable fashion. For our purposes, the most relevant point of origin comes from the practice of creating round robin petitions in the 18th century. These were often contentious political statements or controversial demands, so all the signatories would write their names in a big circle at the bottom of the document so no one person appeared at the top and therefore it was harder to punish an individual for the action of the group. It’s no longer the case that people sign things in a circle, but the term is still used to describe a petition that is signed by a group collectively.

In relation to fiction, the phrase “round robin” has a similar meaning — each writer completes a chapter or section, passing the manuscript on to the next person in the group when they’re finished, until the story is completed. It’s long been popular as a method of composition, with science fiction and erotica examples from the nineteenth century. There was precedence in the crime and thriller arena too. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and in whose shadow all the detection novelists of the 20th century worked, was one of 24 authors who wrote sections of an 1892 collaborative novel called The Fate of Fenella, alongside Bram Stoker, Frances Eleanor Trollope and Florence Marryat. In the last few decades, the practice has found a new home, with fan communities on forums or email lists writing fanfiction this way.

The members of the Detection Club first became involved in constructing round robin stories through broadcasting, rather than publishing. The BBC had been founded in London in 1927 and was in search of compelling speech programmes to get new listeners to tune in. The Talks Department approached six of the best-known detective novelists of the day — Hugh Walpole, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, E. C. Bentley and Roland Knox — about creating a round robin detective story for the radio. The format they settled on is both a formal test for the writers and an excellent way of engaging listeners with the BBC — today’s audience experts would do well to take note.

The plan was this: each author would write one of the story’s six sections, with the first three aiming to set up the clues and then the latter trio unravelling them. Every Saturday evening for six weeks each author would deliver their part of the story live on air, and it would then be published a few days later in The Listener magazine. Then at the end of the run the audience would be invited to write in with their solutions to the mystery in the form of answers to three questions about the plot, and a winner would be chosen from those who got closest to who actually dunnit.

Sayers managed the whole project, keeping in touch with her fellow authors and also the editors at the BBC about their progress. Walpole, who was to go first, circulated a synopsis for the whole story too so that they all had an idea of the sphere in which they were working. Each section was short, around 1,800 words, so the resulting story isn’t a long one, but apparently it was still difficult for Sayers to get her fellow writers to deliver on time (in his book about the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards points out that Christie was particularly troublesome in this regard). I suppose this is one of the downsides of collaboration, and of broadcasting — you have to write strictly to someone else’s timetable.

The story that resulted from this process, Behind the Screen, was a success with listeners who heard it on the radio in June and July 1930, despite the behind the scenes anxieties. It’s an enjoyable, fast paced little mystery, hovering somewhere between a short story and a novel (perhaps it’s what we would call a novella, although I’ve never been sure exactly what the word count for that is). Walpole sets the scene with some exciting, fast-paced writing, describing how a young medical student called Wilfred Hope discovers the body of the mysterious lodger, Mr Dudden, fatally wounded in the neck and spouting blood behind the Japanese screen in the drawing room. Christie follows on with a chapter mostly composed of dialogue, and she brings the characters to life through their speech in the aftermath of the discovery. Then comes Sayers, who with characteristic precision looks at the weapon, the bloodstains, and the beginnings of the police investigation. Anthony Berkeley and E.C. Bentley bring in more clues and characters, building sometimes haphazardly on what went before, and then finally Ronald Knox winds the whole thing up to its startling conclusion.

The BBC had 170 answers to their listener competition about the solution, and nobody got it completely right. They awarded the ten guinea prize to Miss E.M. Jones of Birmingham “in view of the excellence of her answers to [questions] a and b”, even though she didn’t get c right. The story is certainly readable enough, even if the emphasis on certain aspects feels a bit disproportionate in light of the solution, as the writers set up clues their successors chose not to make great use of, and so on. It’s also worth noting that Ronald Knox’s solution most certainly does not obey the rules he had set out in his “decalogue” of restrictions for detective novelists — for more about this, do have a listen to episode nine of this podcast where I talked about it in more detail. This certainly wasn’t the first or indeed the last murder mystery to be opened up for competition, either. I’ll talk more about that in a future episode.

Behind the Screen was enough of a success that the BBC came back to Sayers and asked her to organise another round robin mystery story for the following year, although the people at the Talks Department did deplore the persistent lateness of the contributions from the various detective novelists, who were presumably mostly unused to writing to a tight deadline like this. In 1931, another group of Detection Club authors made The Scoop in a similar fashion with the BBC, although Walpole and Knox were replaced by Freeman Wills Croft and Clemence Dane. Once again, it was popular with listeners and brought welcome publicity to the authors involved. The round robin format worked for detective fiction, even if the process of writing for the BBC brought headaches. What if, Sayers wondered, the Detection Club could produce a mystery novel all by themselves?

Find out how that went, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the sleuthing stories to ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really appreciate it if you’d spend three minutes filling out the audience survey I’m currently running for the podcast, which you can find at shedunnitshow.com/survey. It’s just a few questions about how you listen to podcasts and what you’d like to see me do with the show, to help me with some decisions I’m making at the moment about how to keep this thing running in the future. And to say thank you, once you’ve taken part, I’ll enter you into a raffle to win a cherished vintage detective novel. That’s how much I appreciate your help: I am willing to go to the Post Office for this. Right, on with the episode.

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The Detection Club really wanted to have their own permanent meeting rooms in London — a club house, if you will, for them to use for their dinners and conversations. But in order to have premises, they needed funds. To raise this money, they decided to write a book, using the collaborative round robin format from the BBC broadcasts but with a few extra refinements. These took the form of two rules, set out by Sayers in her introduction to the final volume. Firstly, each author, no matter where their chapter came in the sequence, must write with a definite solution in mind, and indeed had to share this solution to be published in an appendix with the others at the back of the book. Then secondly, nobody was allowed to add complications for the sake of it — meaningless red herrings were banned — and each writer must try and explain in their section what their colleagues had written before. And then in addition to these restrictions, there was no overall synopsis or outline sketched out by the group. The chapters were written in order, with each author only able to read the instalments that preceded their own before they began writing.

The book that emerged from this convoluted writing process was published at the end 1931. The Floating Admiral was on the cover attributed to “certain members of the Detection Club”. It had 12 chapters, each written by a different detective novelist (other than chapter two, which was written jointly by the habitual husband and wife writing duo GDH and Margaret Cole). It also had a prologue written after the whole manuscript was complete by the Club president GK Chesterton. Canon Victor Whitchurch, who usually wrote railway-based detective stories that I like very much alongside his day job as a Church of England clergyman, kicked the whole thing off with a chapter entitled “Corpse Ahoy!”. He set the scene, with old countryman fishing enthusiast called Neddy Ware getting up early to try his luck in a nearby river, only to sink his hook into the local vicar’s rowing boat which is bobbing freely on the incoming tide. Inside, he finds the bloodstained body of Admiral Penistone, who lives in a house further up the river, still in his evening dress from the night before.

After Whitchurch, who actually died not long after working on this book, came the chapter by the Coles, and then contributions from Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Croft, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley. Each tried to abide by the rules that Sayers had laid down, keeping the threads from the previous chapters running and only writing with a definite solution in mind. Poor Inspector Rudge, the police detective mouthpiece for all of these sleuthing experts, is run ragged by all of the different approaches to solving the crime. They have him driving all over the place, dashing up and down the river in boats, and taking trains to London with far greater energy than a detective in a golden age book usually exhibits. It’s all entertaining, if very obviously uneven and jerky in places, and somehow the story just about gets to the end without completely falling apart.

The chief joy in this and I think all round robin stories is getting to compare the varying styles and approaches of the different authors up close. We all have our favourites and preferences, but it’s not often that you get to see them cheek by jowl like this and contrast their handling of the same characters and events. For instance, I really like Agatha Christie’s chapter in The Floating Admiral, which is titled “Mainly Conversation”, in which she introduces Rudge to a garrulous pub landlady who conveniently confirms some alibis and busts others. I do not really enjoy Ronald Knox’s contribution in this book, the chapter headed “Thirty Nine Articles of Doubt”, during which he has Rudge sit at a desk and work his way through 39 points of interest from the case in a long list — I just find it quite dull and procedural compared to the hectic energy of the rest of the book. In the same way, I really like Clemence Dane’s chapter in The Scoop, because she gives much greater emphasis to the character of newspaper secretary Beryl Blackwood than the preceding authors had done, and pens a chapter in which Beryl goes shopping, accidentally buys a puppy and through her own investigative efforts makes a major discovery about the murder weapon. By contrast, the more conventional following-up of clues that E.C. Bentley offers just seems less fun to me.

The chapter headings in The Floating Admiral are worth paying attention to, because I feel that’s where you get little peeks into how the authors were feeling as they worked on this unwieldy project. The fifth writer, John Rhode, ambitiously titled his “Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory”, only to be contradicted by Milward Kennedy in the very next one with “Inspector Rudge Thinks Better Of It”. And perhaps best of all is Anthony Berkeley’s concluding section, which is called “Clearing Up The Mess”. Berkeley certainly had the hardest job here, and it took him dozens of pages and multiple sub sections to get the whole plot to a point where he could reasonably reveal a murderer.

The solutions that each author wrote, too, are a delightful part of this book. Some, like Sayers, chose to write entire background essays about the characters involved, filling in all their relevant actions before the book begins. Others, such as Clemence Dane, were far more succinct and frank about the difficulties they had faced in producing their chapters. Dane’s chapter was the eleventh in the book, so she was the last to contribute her possible solution as Berkeley’s actually appeared in the book itself. She sets out an idea for what her bit could lead, and then says: “I am, frankly, in a complete muddle as to what has happened, and have tried to write a chapter that anybody can use to prove anything they like.” Not strictly according to Sayers’s rules for the story, perhaps, but an illuminating insight into the difficulties of trying to wrap up a story where a dozen people have a hand in the plot.

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The Floating Admiral was enough of a success to enable to Detection Club to rent two small rooms in Soho in central London — their longed-for club meeting rooms. The authors also went on to work together again throughout the 1930s on subsequent collaborative novels and collections, although as far as I can tell they never repeated the precise round robin format of The Floating Admiral. There was more fiction, in the form of Ask a Policeman, non-fiction essay about true crime in The Anatomy of Murder, and the unusual Six Against the Yard, in which six authors wrote “perfect murder” cases for a retired Scotland Yard detective to critique. The practice of these collective books slowly fell out of favour as the founding members of the club drifted away or died, but a couple more were published after the Second World War, including the round robin No Flowers By Request in 1953. Short story anthologies have been more popular in recent years, presumably because they’re easier to write and to organise, and are just as good at bringing in funds.

Because the Detection Club still exists today, although not in exactly the same format as it did when Berkeley, Sayers, Christie and co were writing about poor old Admiral Penistone. It no longer has rooms in Soho, but it does number some of today’s top crime novelists among its members, and they meet a few times a year for dinner and shop talk. And in 2016, a loving tribute to the original round robin enterprise was published in the form of The Sinking Admiral — a collaborative crime novel about a dilapidated seaside pub and its unfortunate landlord. There were a few key differences in approach from the modern Club members: for instance, no one author is identified with a single chapter, but the introduction rather explains that a synopsis and outline was worked out at group meetings and then different writers wrote particular sections or scenes according to their own skills and interests. It’s not really a round robin in the strict sense either, because it wasn’t passed around and added to sequentially. However, it’s an enjoyable modern crime novel with some nice vintage touches and references to the original, and certainly reads much more coherently than the original effort. For all that I applaud Dorothy L. Sayers’ strictness about the format, she wasn’t exactly making it easy for her fellow authors.

But then perhaps that was the point. She wanted a challenge, to stretch herself and her colleagues and see what they could do together with detective fiction that might have eluded them as individuals. Some might criticise detective fiction as formulaic, but there’s absolutely nothing predictable about the round robin novels from the 1930s. Most of the time, even their authors didn’t know whodunnit.

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/roundrobin. There, you can also read a full transcript.
One more reminder to take part in the audience survey and win a copy of a detective novel — head to shedunnitshow.com/survey to do that. I’m so grateful to those who have already done it — it’s all really useful information that will help me make the show better and keep it running long term.
I’ll be back on 3 April with a new episode.

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Next time on Shedunnit: Ngaio Marsh.

Round Robin

Writing is usually a solitary pastime, yet a group of detective fiction authors in the early 1930s decided to work together on murder mystery stories. Is it possible to construct a compelling whodunnit this way, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

Fill out the audience survey and have your say in the future of the podcast at shedunnitshow.com/survey.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/roundrobin.

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

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Books and articles mentioned in order of appearance:
The Scoop  & Behind the Screen by members of the Detection Club
The Floating Admiral by certain members of the Detection Club
The Fate of Fenella by Arthur Conan Doyle and others
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Ask A Policeman by members of the Detection Club
The Anatomy of Murder by members of the Detection Club
Six Against the Yard by members of the Detection Club
The Sinking Admiral by members of the Detection Club

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

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

The Rules

A good detective story has a recognisable rhythm and plot points. But how did these tropes come about? And what happens when you break the rules?

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Books and articles mentioned in order of appearance:
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
T. S. Eliot on detective fiction
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
S. S. van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Ronald Knox’s Decalogue
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
—”Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” by Edmund Wilson
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

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

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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.