Caroline: If there is, then you might have come down with a case of detective fever. According to Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, these were the symptoms — along with a sudden passion for seeking out knowledge and gathering clues.
This story was a popular early appearance of detection as we know it today in fiction. It strongly influenced what came next in the genre and was greatly admired by some of the early 20th century’s biggest whodunnit enthusiasts. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “probably the very finest detective story ever written” and TS Eliot declared it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”.
But the ideas and tropes we find in The Moonstone didn’t appear out of thin air. Collins was drawing both on the real life development of detection in Britain, and on one particular murder case that had gripped the nation just a few years before. A case that so perfectly contains many of the main features of a golden age detective story that it’s difficult to believe that it even happened outside of a book.
Today, we’re exploring what happened at Road Hill House on 30th June 1860.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into the episode proper, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has pre ordered a copy of my new map and guide, Agatha Christie’s England. If you were among the first 100 people to order, you will now have received an email from the publisher confirming that you will get a free download of the audio version. The details of how to claim it will be in your package with your purchase. If you missed out, don’t worry — the audio version is now available to purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap.
It feels a bit strange to give a spoiler warning for something that happened in real life, but the Road Hill House case feels so heavily fictional to me that I’m going to do it anyway. We’re going to talk in full in this episode about whodunnit and why — if you’d rather read a book about the case without knowing its conclusion, I suggest you finish doing that first and then come back and listen to this. And as ever on this show, there will be some discussion of the books listed in the description for this episode but no major spoilers given without warning.
On the morning of 30th June 1860, a small boy was found to be missing from his bed in Road Hill House in Wiltshire. Three year old Francis Saville Kent should have been waking up in his nurse’s room just as on any other day, but he wasn’t there. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, assumed that his mother must have taken him in to be with her; Mrs Kent assumed that the nurse must have already got him up. It was a while before the two women compared notes and realised that nobody had seen the child at all since putting him to bed at 8pm the night before.
A frantic search began, with the rest of the Kent family and their servants turning the place upside down looking for the little boy. Workers from the nearby village of Road hunted outside too, and eventually the body was found in the outdoor privy. Francis Saville Kent had been attacked with a sharp blade, his throat slashed and torso cut, and then shoved down under the seat of the outdoor toilet. A fragment of newspaper (from the Morning Star, which nobody in the house read), a blanket, and a piece of cloth worn inside a corset were found in the privy too.
It’s a tragic sequence of events; I think we can all imagine what it would have been like to wake up in the belief that just another day was beginning and then experience that slow slide into horrible chaos as the world tilted on its axis. And although the brutal killing of a child is not exactly an everyday thing, it isn’t actually the death of Francis Saville Kent that makes this case so remarkable. It’s everything that happened afterwards.
In the initial aftermath of the body’s discovery, chaos reigned. Saville’s father had ridden into a nearby town when he was found missing to tell the story to the local superintendant of police, while Mrs Kent (his second wife, and his children’s former nurse) had been running about in what she later termed “a state of bewilderment” trying to direct the servants’ search effort at home. It was William Nutt, the village shoemaker, and Thomas Benger, a farmer, who had found Saville in the privy. They carried his little body inside and laid it on a table in the kitchen, where the nursemaid and some rest of the family rushed to see.
Saville was the middle of the three younger children of Samuel Kent’s second marriage; also in residence at Road Hill House were his four older half siblings, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Constance and William. With Samuel Kent out of the house raising help, it was left to the teenage William as the only remaining “man of the house” to go for the doctor who returned with him to examine the body. The household kept the awful news from Mrs Kent until her husband returned, so he was the one to tell her what had happened to her missing son. The first thing she said was “Someone in the house has done it.”
This is the first moment in which this real life murder case begins to feel like a fictional whodunnit. Mrs Kent had jumped to the same conclusion that the detectives would later confirm: that this was a murder that had its origins inside the house, not out. The convenient solution of a passing maniac was not going to be available here. The Kents would have to confront the much more uncomfortable notion that their three year old son had been killed not only by someone that he knew, but that this person was still within the household. But how could they be so sure that the pool of suspects was limited like this?
Robin: Because it’s been raining, they know that there are no footsteps around outside. There is one of the windows on ground floor open, but only a very little bit open, not open enough to seem very suspicious and all the other windows and doors were locked until they were opened by people rushing out and looking for this kid.
Caroline: This is Robin Stevens, and she’s the expert that I’ve enlisted to help me get to the heart of this case. She has a longstanding obsession with what really happened to at Road Hill House, wrote an entire thesis about its impact on golden age detective fiction while at university, and is now a successful crime writer in her own right. This is such a writerly mystery — from the tropes that were borrowed by the likes of Collins to a strange letter that added to the intrigue in the 1930s. Who better to guide us through it that a writer of whodunnits?
Right from the outset, we start seeing the fictional parallels everywhere with this case.
Robin: The dog didn’t bark in the nighttime, which is one of my favorite tiny facts. That is used in a Sherlock Holmes story. And that’s the Mark Haddon story. Now the idea of the dog that does, or doesn’t bark in the night is so ingrained in crime fiction. And this is basically where it comes from if the dog didn’t bark. So we know that nobody came in from the outside.
Caroline: Samuel Kent, father of the victim and six other children still living in 1860, was a factory inspector and seemingly very concerned about household security. His nightly routine before retiring to bed was to check that the house and grounds were secure from intrusion and to let the family dog loose in the garden. His servants closed windows and doors as they finished their day’s work and then opened them again when they rose to start the morning’s chores.
On the day that Saville was found to be missing, his father’s regular habits and the fact that nobody had been woken by the dog made it easy to narrow the field of suspects to those already within the house when it was locked up. A couple of witnesses who had been poaching in Samuel Kent’s river overnight reported hearing a few quiet yelps from the dog, but thought nothing of it because this dog was known to bark at the slightest thing. It certainly wasn’t the volume or duration of noise that would be expected if the dog had come across an intruder.
One ground floor window of the house was slightly open, but the absence of footprints outside or any sign that the gate had been breached made it far more likely that somebody had used this window to get out, rather than in. As the local police began questioning the members of the household in an attempt to work out how a three year old had been carried out of his bed and killed in the privy overnight without anyone hearing, they could already be fairly certain that they were dealing with a closed circle of suspects.
Their suspicion quickly fell on the children’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough. Her statements about when she had noticed that a blanket was missing from Saville’s bed were inconsistent, and it had also been at least two hours between her waking and noticing that he was gone, and giving the alarm. She said that she had been confused, and had thought that Mrs Kent — who was eight months pregnant — must have heard him fussing and taken him into bed with her in the early morning, and that she was reluctant to disturb her mistress before she woke up. The police, of course, were choosing to put a more sinister interpretation on these facts.
Over the next few days, the local police continued to investigate, paying particular attention to the fact that even though the murder would have produced a lot of blood, no bloody clothing had been found anywhere in the house. One of Constance Kent’s nightdresses was missing, though, according to her laundry list, and much effort was put into examining where it might have got to. Much later, during an inquiry, it was revealed that in the early days of the case the police had found what they called a bloody shift hidden in the boiler hole, and put it back in the hope that they would be able to catch its owner red handed returning to destroy it. The officer standing observing it left his post for half an hour, though, and when he came back it was gone. The local force then kept this information quiet, no doubt because it didn’t exactly reflect well on them.
On 6 July, Saville Kent was buried in the family vault, alongside his father’s first wife. The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was detained for questioning but no offered no further revelations that explicitly confirmed her guilt. The case was becoming more and more confused as more parallel investigations began — as well as the local police, family friends were beginning to conduct their own inquiries — and all of this hunting for clues and constant interviewing of witnesses was obscuring, rather than revealing, helpful details. Finally, two weeks after the murder, Scotland Yard was called in.
Here again, Robin says, we encounter something very familiar from the detective fiction that was written after the Road Hill House case.
Robin: One of my favorite things is that the detective who has sent down from London, Jack Whicher, really is one of the first British detectives. And he is this very imposing figure. He’s got these beautiful blue eyes. And then you look through the rest of detective fiction and there are so many sort of tall handsome with piercing blue eyes.
And that is, that is Jack Whicher everybody is thinking about this kind of fantastic very sort of authoritative figure who is still a little bit of an outsider because that’s what the police were, they were a figures of suspicion. People didn’t really believe they could solve cases and they weren’t, they weren’t nice.
They weren’t respectable men. They were digging around in secrets and they were often from a middle-class lower middle-class working class background coming into these houses or in this case, he came into this house of wealthy people and biggest uncovering all of their dirty laundry, literally and figuratively.
And that kind of fascination with and distrust of the police — that’s in every single detective novel you could possibly read. Every aspect of this case has turned into a book convention in a way that’s almost unbelievable.
Caroline: The Detective Branch at Scotland Yard had been founded in 1842 and Whicher was one of the original eight officers recruited to it. He is a proto detective both in the sense that he was helping to create the role a detective would play in mid 19th century society, and because many of the fictional detectives that quickly appeared on the page drew on his character and cases. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote journalistic articles about the new detective branch, and both also created detective characters in their fiction soon after. Inspector Bucket in 1852’s Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone both contain a great deal of Whicher and his colleagues from that first cohort of Scotland Yard detectives.
And as Robin says, being a detective was not an especially respectable profession. In the Victorian era, the idea of a plainclothes or undercover officer who pryed into people’s domestic and private lives was considered grubby and unpleasant. Interviewing servants about their employers, for instance, was very frowned upon. In 1845, the Times ran an editorial about this that stated “there always will be something repugnant in the bare idea of espionage”. At the same time, the public loved the idea that a detective could reveal the hidden truth of everyday life and find significance in seemingly unimportant details. Letters poured into Scotland Yard offering theories about the Road Hill House murder, and Whicher had to go through them all.
There was a pronounced class dimension to this distrust of the detective too, and this played a big part in Whicher’s investigation. The Kents were a well to do family living in a large house with many servants. Whicher was the son of a gardener from Camberwell in London, and had worked as a labourer before joining the Metropolitan Police as a constable. The suspicions that he formed about the case soon after his arrival at Road House — which centred on Constance’s missing nightdress and the tensions that he detected within the family around the demise of the first Mrs Kent — were not taken seriously in part because his accusations were perceived as vulgar. Indeed, a barrister later described Whicher as “the detective, who is vulgar, greedy and rapacious in his destruction of a young woman’s life”.
After the break: the confession and beyond.
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Detective fever gripped the public in the wake of the murder at Road Hill House. The flames were fanned by the involvement of Scotland Yard, the violence with which Saville Kent had been attacked, the vast number of newspapers in existence at the time that could run sensational reports about it, and a general prurient curiosity about what had been going on inside this middle class home.
This last aspect manifested itself in an obsession with the physicality of Road Hill House, which in turn had an impact on the detective fiction that followed. Newspapers were desperate to publish an accurate floorplan of the house, but — perhaps understandably — Samuel Kent didn’t want reporters with tape measures crawling all over his house while his very pregnant wife and children were coming to terms with what had happened. The lack of access whipped up a frenzy, though, and the day after Saville’s funeral a reporter from the Bath Chronicle disguised himself as a detective and sneaked in, managing to make notes on the house layount before he was discovered and ejected. Five days later, the plans were published in the paper and became an indelibe part of the way the public consumed this case.
Think about all the times you have opened a new murder mystery, turned the first few pages, and examined the map of the country house where the story is set. That’s exactly what was happening here — the public of 1860, like the readers of golden age detective fiction in the 1920s and every decade since, wanted that anatomical diagram of the setting so they could feel themselves involved in what had occurred there.
The map of Road Hill House made such an impression on Robin that it helped her solve the problem of not being able to get out to look at potential settings for her new book during Covid.
Robin: It was just so funny. I couldn’t work out what to do about the map. And then I was like, what case do I know really well?
Caroline: What case indeed? The physicality of Road Hill House is so present in the way we think about it, all this time later, that when constructing a new country house murder mystery it’s the obvious place to turn for inspiration.
Robin: I like mapping out the house that I’m writing about the place I’m writing about. I can’t do that. So I’ve just had to get my copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and look at the map there. And that’s the map in the house that I’m writing about. And again, you know, I’m sort of thinking about this case as I’m writing.
Caroline: If you read Robin’s next book, The Ministry of Unladylike Activity out August 2022, keep in mind that she was thinking about Road Hill House while writing it.
If you already know anything about the Road Hill House case, there’s a strong chance that you learned it from The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a non fiction book from 2008 by Kate Summerscale that was subsequently adapted into a television drama. I mention this both because it’s a good place to go after you listen to this episode if you want more granular details about the investigation than I can include here, and because the very title of the book hints at its interaction with detective fiction.
Summerscale’s book reads like a detective novel itself, even though it relies only on verified accounts and sources about the case. The creepy sense that the murderer is still inhabiting the house, even as the detectives are scouring it for clues comes through strongly, as does the claustrophobic sense of Road Hill House as a trap in which all the suspects are caught.
Whicher did get the chance to act on his suspicions. In what would probably be the mid narrative climax of a real detective novel, he was permitted by the legal authorities to arrest and detain Savile Kent’s 16 year old half sister Constance, and given seven days to gather enough evidence to build a case against her for murder.
In addition to his concerns about Constance’s missing nightdress, Whicher had also broken through the “happy family” facade of the Kent household and realised that the emotional tension had been running high for years. The first Mrs Kent had given birth to ten children in 15 years, only four of whom are still alive by 1860. Constance and William are the youngest, born in 1844 and 1845 respectively. Shortly before Constance was born, a 23 year old farmer’s daughter named Mary Drewe Pratt joined the Kent household as a governess to the older girls. Mrs Kent was, by this time, in poor physical and mental health, and her husband had consulted doctors who declared her “weak minded”. She could barely care for Constance when she was born, so the baby was handed over to Mary Pratt.
The situation had worsed when William was born the next year, and it wasn’t long before the governess was running the household in the place of its mistress. Rumours circulated among Samuel Kent’s colleagues that he was having an affair with Mary Pratt while his “deranged” wife was still in the house; the family actually relocated several times to get away from these persistent whispers. In 1852, when Constance was eight years old, her mother died of “an obstruction of the bowel”.
The next year, her father married her former governess. The servant who had cared for Constance in place of her mother had now literally taken her mother’s place. The former Miss Pratt soon had children of her own, and she favoured them over her older step children. At Road Hill House, they had nicer bedrooms on the same floor as their parents, while their older half siblings slept upstairs on the floor usually reserved for servants. When Constance acted out, she was published strictly, with physical blows or by being locked up for hours, and she both she and William were sent away to school.
By delving into this backstory, Whicher discovered what he believed to be a motive for Constance’s attack on her little half brother — revenge upon the former governess who had supplanted her mistreated mother. He also learned of a previous incident that seemed to suggest that Constance was much more resourceful and independent that she had appeared during the investigation.
Robin: Constance and her brother William actually run away. I think the year before the crime happened, she cuts off all her hair, pretends to be a boy, and runs away because they hate living there so much but they’re caught and brought back. So, she’s having a miserable time. All of the kids from the first marriage were having a terrible time. And that is going to be important.
Caroline: Although these points are logically consistent with the events around Saville’s death, Whicher failed to find any material evidence — like a bloody garment or a weapon — that definitely connected Constance with the crime. But, believing his theory to be correct, he presses ahead.
Robin: He decides that it was her and he accuses her, on the basis of the nightgown, on the basis of her running away, her being unhappy. And everybody’s horrified because Constance is upper-class, she’s a young lady she’s important and Inspector Whicher is less important than she is, and he’s accusing her.
The public is outraged on her behalf. They’re all taking up her cause and then actually the jury at the inquest say it wasn’t her. It couldn’t just be her she’s too much of a lovely young lady. Elizabeth Gough was arrested again and released. And so it’s this ongoing thing that you just sort of, can’t get to the truth for years and everybody is fascinated.
Caroline: The backlash against Whicher for seemingly falsely accusing a young woman of high status like Constance is intense — he ends up leaving Scotland Yard and working as a private investigator because of it. The impact of the furore around the case is lasting, too — the novelist Margaret Oliphant complained that it had inculcated a kind of “detectivism” in the reading public, and ushered in the “police court aspect of modern fiction”. The case faded from the headlines, but nobody forgot what had happened — the influence of those few weeks in Wiltshire in July 1860 were everywhere in the culture.
Robin: And then in 1865 so five years after the case Whicher has left the police force the year before in disgrace because he never managed to catch the killer. His name is mud and then Constance comes forward and confesses that she actually did do it.
Caroline: This is the twist that ultimately sets the Road Hill House case apart from all the others. Constance Kent had been sent to a school in France, and then came back to England to be a boarder at a kind of Anglican convent in Brighton. There, in April 1865, she told one of the priests during confession how she had committed the murder of her half brother Saville. Two weeks later, the Reverend Arthur Douglas Wagner accompanied her to London to make a formal confession to Scotland Yard. She pled guilty at her trial, so never had to give evidence of exactly what had happened that night, and was sentenced to life in prison, later altered to twenty years in light of her youth and cooperation with the police after the confession.
Not only does the Road Hill House case have a proper ending, it’s an ending that a novelist would be proud to craft. The hard working detective was right after all; the murderer really was in the house all the time, moving the incriminating bloody nightdress around from hiding place to hiding place until she could burn it in secret. The apparently perfect Victorian family really was a hotbed of hate and unhappiness, just as Whicher had suspected.
When writers like Wilkie Collins, and then decades later Dorothy L Sayers, were transforming the Road Hill House case into a literary murder mystery, there were certain aspects of it that attracted them more than others. The idea of the hysterical women, as typified by the first Mrs Kent, is certainly present in The Moonstone, as is the class dynamic between the family being investigated and the detective that we saw with the Kents and Inspector Whicher. Aspects of the domestic life at Road Hill turn up in The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — both lean into the idea of a perfect-seeming domestic setup that conceals untold horrors. The key difference, though, is to do with the crime itself.
Robin: The Moonstone and Clouds of Witness they both go certain ways to cleaning up the case to making it less horrendous, because I think there is something about it that even though we love it, we want to fictionalize it, we can’t quite face it. And we don’t want to really think about the reality of what actually happened because it’s so grim.
Caroline: By replacing the murder of a defenceless child with the theft of a jewel, Collins tempers the tragedy and releases the reader to feel fascinated by the story free of any sense of prudish guilt. The surrounding elements of the mystery do stay similar.
Robin: And there is a night dress that gets dirty and it’s, one of the key clues of the case, but it gets dirty with paint not blood.
Wilkie Collins takes all of the blood and all of the best sort of death and murder. I mean, there, there are deaths in that story, but he takes the original moment of horrible, bloody murder and turns into this very bloodless theft of a jewel.
Caroline: I hadn’t even spotted that Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers is a version of the Road Hill House case until I read Robin’s thesis, but once she had pointed it out, I was seeing the similarities everywhere. Again, Sayers changes the central crime — a grown man is found shot in the garden of a remote country house — but the surrounding details are striking in their similarity. A lower class detective, a vital stained garment, a motive buried in the private affairs of wealthy people — it’s all there. As a confirmed fan of both The Moonstone and an obsessive researcher of the original case, Sayers played her part in perpetuating the myth of Road Hill House.
After serving her twenty years in prison, Constance Kent was released at the age of 41. She emigrated to Australia where her brother William was already living, and lived out the rest of her life there, having changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye in an attempt to guard against inquiries from anyone who still remembered what had happened in the 1860s. She never publicly elaborated on her confession or identified anyone else who was involved in the murder, although in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale makes a compelling case that her brother William was an accomplice and her confession was prompted by the need to divert attention from him so he could inherit his portion of their mother’s money and gain his independence the next year at the age of 21.
Constance lived a very long life, and was still alive when the golden age of detective fiction began in the early 1920s. In 1936, seven members of the Detection Club — including founders Sayers and Anthony Berkeley — published a book titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which they each wrote a chapter about their favourite real life crime. John Rhode, or to give him his real name, Cecil John Street, chose the Road Hill House case, since he had previously published a whole book about it in 1928 for the Famous Trials series.
As Rhode recounts in his chapter of The Anatomy of Murder, after that volume came out, he received an anonymous letter from Sydney, Australia, that gave a great deal of extra detail about the personality and early life of Constance Kent. Rhode believed that it had been written “if not by Constance Kent, at least by some person having a very intimate knowledge of her childhood and history” although a handwriting expert consulted at the time disagreed. It gave excrutiating detail about how the governess Miss Pratt had punished William and Constance as children by locking them up and giving them only dry bread to eat, and how Constance had frequently escaped by daringly climbing out of upstairs windows. It also vehemently disputes the suggestion in Rhode’s Famous Trials book that the first Mrs Kent was insaneIt’s an extraordinary document, and I agree with Rhode that it seems far too detailed to be entirely fabricated.
Rhode donated the letter to the Detection Club’s library, and when it was reexamined in the 1970s by true crime writer Bernard Taylor it was felt to be a genuine narrative from Constance Kent or someone very close to her, since it matched up with her location and life story. The original letter has now sadly been lost since, along with several of the club’s other treasures, but fortunately Rhode had typed up a copy that was discovered among his papers after his death in 1964.
Constance Kent died in 1944 at the age of 100 in Sydney, Australia. Living so long would have made her a witness to unprecented change anyway; the fact that she was at the centre of one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated murder cases as well merely singles her out further. Hers is a story that has captivated people for over 150 years, and if the extent to which I fell under her spell while making this episode is anything to go by, her power is undiminished.
But did she really do it? I think we’ll always have our suspicions.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Robin Stevens — you can hear her on two previous episodes of the show, Back to School and Death Sets Sail on the Nile, and her new collection of short stories about schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells is called Once Upon A Crime and comes out in August 2021. Links to this and all the other books and sources mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/themurderatroadhillhouse. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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