Tag: Ronald Knox

Swan Song

How do you say goodbye to a beloved detective? Agatha Christie, of course, made a mystery out of it.

Thanks to my guest, Mark Aldridge. You can find out more about his work at markaldridge.info and order a copy of his new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, from all good booksellers.

Spoiler warning: there are major spoilers for Curtain and Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie in this episode.

Books mentioned and other sources:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Curtain by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“The Dispenser” episode about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks by John Curran

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

“A Christie for Christmas” episode about Agatha Christie’s seasonal publication schedule

“Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective”: obituary in the New York Times, 6th August 1975

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction, also discussed on “The Rules” episode of the podcast

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

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

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

Swan Song Transcript

Caroline: Detectives have to be fundamentally infallible. On their journey to a mystery’s solution they can be fragile, or flawed, or unreliable, or uncertain, but the reader has to be able to rely on the sleuth to find a satisfactory answer in the end. It’s a fundamental part of what makes a whodunnit work. After all, who is going to keep reading a type of story where the hero shrugs their shoulders on the final page and says “I dunno, maybe they did it with mirrors”?

Over time, pulling that rabbit out of the hat in a plausible yet surprising way becomes more and more difficult for the writer. Wearying of their creation, most detective novelists either move onto a different character or drift away from the genre altogether — writers like Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes who stuck with the same sleuth for five decades apiece are definitely in the minority. For the rest, a tricky question then arises: how best to conclude the career of a beloved detective? With the bang of a triumphant final case, or a whimper as they are never heard from again?

Agatha Christie, the best known and most widely read of the authors to come out of detective fiction’s golden age, grappled with this issue in perhaps the most unexpected way of all. Join me, then, as we delve into the surprising story of her sleuths’ swan song.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Today’s episode merits a rare overall spoiler warning from me. I generally try to keep my episodes free of major plot revelations, as I’m aware that some listeners use the show as a way to discover new mysteries to read. However, it’s not possible to do this particular topic justice without discussion of what happens in Sleeping Murder and Curtain by Agatha Christie, so if you want to read either of those books for the first time without prior knowledge of how they end, I recommend choosing a different episode to listen to for now and returning to this one once you’ve finished them.

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By the time the Second World War began in 1939, Agatha Christie had been publishing mysteries for almost two decades. All of her major recurring characters had already appeared in print somewhere in her canon. Hercule Poirot, of course, first stepped onto the page in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1921. He was followed by Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Miss Marple came into being for the short stories that were serialised separately and then collected in 1932’s The Thirteen Problems. Secondary sleuths like Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle had also all appeared in at least one novel and story by the mid 1930s. Her most productive and innovative writing years were arguably already behind her.

Poirot was, of course, by far her most popular character, and has had a life far beyond the books, as discussed on the previous episode of the podcast. At this point, Miss Marple had only appeared in one full length novel — 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage — but she was certainly second only to the little Belgian with the egg shaped head in readers’ hearts.

Although she carried on writing at a great pace during the war, Agatha Christie’s life was greatly changed by it. Her husband Max Mallowan worked for the Air Ministry and was posted abroad to North Africa. Their home in Devon, Greenway, was requisitioned by the US Navy (who installed a great number of extra lavatories in the house, much to Christie’s dismay post 1945). The author herself removed to London, where she refreshed her chemist’s training from the First World War and once more volunteered as a hospital dispenser. Many years later, she wrote in her autobiography that this period didn’t seem real at all — the war years were “a nightmare in which reality stopped”.

It was a furiously productive nightmare, however. Christie later put this down to the fact that she had no social life at all, and instead spent her days at the hospital and her nights at her desk, turning out whodunnits. She published thirteen novels between 1939 and 1945, including acclaimed classics like Evil Under The Sun, Five Little Pigs and The Body in the Library.

Those weren’t the only books that she worked on, however. Two more novels flowed from her pen during this time. Apart from her literary agent and a few trusted friends and family members however, nobody knew of their existence. Curtain and Sleeping Murder were destined to spend decades in a bank vault under the greatest secrecy. Their author intended that they would only see the light of day after she was dead.

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Agatha Christie was not shy about discussing her own demise. Perhaps fittingly for someone whose livelihood depended on inventing clever ways for people to die, in her autobiography she expresses her surprise that her agent always looked so upset when she brought up the question of what might happen to her characters and her work if she were to pass away. She didn’t feel that it was a subject to be embarrassed about at all.

It seems to be this practicality about mortality that lead her to begin work on Curtain in the early 1940s. Although the manuscript isn’t precisely dated, her notes for the story are mingled in with those for the stories in The Labours of Hercules that were published around this time and she sent a draft of the finished book to her agent in 1941, so we can make a reasonable guess that she was mostly working on it in 1940.

This was to be Poirot’s swan song — his final outing. There is some evidence in her notebooks that the idea for this story came to her several years before she actually began to write it, but the circumstances of life past 1939 are perhaps what pushed her to get it finished. Every aspect of the plot reeks of finality. It sees Poirot return to the setting of her very first novel, Styles Court, now come down in the world from country manor to genteel guesthouse. It rekindles his partnership with the Watson of his early adventures, Captain Hastings, who last appeared in 1937’s Dumb Witness and would not show his face again in Christie’s canon until Curtain came out. And most importantly of all, it is Poirot’s last case in every sense of the word, because the detective does not survive the investigation. It’s a book hemmed in by death on all sides.

Mark: So this was during the war, when Agatha Christie didn’t know how long she was going to live for — nobody knows, you don’t know what’s happening.

You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by a bomb, which indeed one of her houses was in Sheffield Terrace. So there’s all sorts of reasons to be thinking about your future. So it wasn’t that she was necessarily thinking ‘when I die at a great old age, this will be something’, but for all she knows, she might never have written another Poirot afterwards because you know, people did die in bombing attacks.

So it sort of comes down to that, this posthumousness. I guess it makes sense that if you’re really wanting to kill Poirot off, that’s the one that you can write and put to one side for later.

Caroline: That’s Mark Aldridge, the Agatha Christie historian and author of a recent book about Hercule Poirot. Christie always intended Curtain to be the last Poirot novel to be published, whether she was to be killed in the Blitz or, as actually happened, live for several more decades. It was to be the punctuation at the end of his story, the hard stop that would prevent other unauthorised uses of her most popular and valuable character. And it was also something of a financial insurance policy. The rights to the book were legally gifted to her daughter Rosalind, meaning that any proceeds from sales or subsequent adaptations belonged to her. The reason for this? Well, they do say that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life…

Mark: The intention was that along with various other things that she distributed to lots of people, but that actually it’s very difficult to tax-wise whilst you’re still alive to gift things to people. And so it was basically designed to be a posthumous gift that meant that Rosalind would be able to reap the rewards of this.

Caroline: Christie wrote later that she understood very little of what she’d been told about death duties, but that she did grasp that her demise was going to cost her relatives a great deal of money in inheritance taxes and so on. Gifting the rights to her works, then, was a way of distributing her success to friends and relations while she was still alive. And Curtain was undoubtedly going to be the jewel in the crown — even in 1940, I think she would have had a fair idea about how popular a book with the subtitle “Poirot’s Last Case” was going to be. Rosalind would be well taken care of.

Christie’s second husband Max received the rights to Sleeping Murder in a very similar way. This was a last outing for Miss Marple, although it differs from Curtain in several important regards. Firstly, Miss Marple doesn’t die in this book and she doesn’t even seem to have aged substantially — unlike Poirot, who is quite infirm by the time of his final visit to Styles and of course passes away there. Christie also doesn’t seem to have had quite such a clear vision for Sleeping Murder, because the story went through various different iterations in the planning, at one time with Poirot attached at detective, and then Tommy and Tuppence, before it eventually found its final form as a Marple story.

Historians have long thought that it must have been written around the same time as Curtain, since it had a similar purpose in insuring Max against Christie’s death, and the author herself does bracket both books together in her autobiography. However, some detective work by John Curran, the editor of Christie’s notebooks, suggests that Sleeping Murder came together in the mid or even late 1940s. It contains a reference to the “poison pen trouble down near Lymstock” which is an allusion to The Moving Finger, published in 1943, and its planning is closely intertwined with that of Taken at the Flood, which came out in 1948.

Regardless, both books eventually ended up in the bank vault, heavily insured, to be published after Christie’s death. Even though she would go on to write many more outings for both characters, Agatha Christie had already had the final word on Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.

After the break: How Poirot kept breaking rules, right to the end.

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Agatha Christie may have been more relaxed about contemplating her own death than her friends and relatives expected, but that didn’t mean that she had any idea when it would happen, and thus when her two secret novels would see the light of day.

In the event, Curtain actually appeared a few months before Christie passed away in January 1976. She had published a Miss Marple in 1971, Nemesis, and then a Poirot, Elephants Can Remember, in 1972, but things really came to a stop with 1973’s Postern of Fate, a Tommy and Tuppence novel that isn’t really up to the quality of what she had done with the characters before. And so her daughter Rosalind, who owned the rights to Curtain, had an idea.

Mark: It was quite a complicated thing for them to work out by the end, but it was actually Rosalind’s suggestion. By the time it was obvious that Agatha Christie wasn’t going to be able to write another novel, certainly, she actually suggested that perhaps it could be published, obviously you don’t know how long, you know, Agatha Christie is going to live, there’s no way for them to know that.

But she did say, well I’m going to surprise you, I think as the way she phrased it, when she wrote to her that her agent and publisher, Agatha Christie’s agent and publisher and said, and I think that we would quite like to publish Curtain. And then she spoke to Agatha Christie who seemed quite happy with it because I think Agatha Christie, by the end of her life, all I know from what she writes, that she felt a great deal of responsibility for the Christie at Christmas as it was by this point.

Caroline: And so to keep up that tradition of a new Christie for Christmas, Curtain was published in 1975. It caused a global sensation, and earned Hercule Poirot a new and surprising accolade — he became the first fictional character to receive a front page obituary in the New York Times. “Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective” the headline announced on the 6th August 1975. “His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, his creator, was one of the most illustrious in fiction,” the article declared.

Curtain was actually one of the earlier Agatha Christie books I read when I was discovering her work as a teenager. I just got it out of the library and had no idea that it had been written getting on for 40 years before it was published. When you think about this, it’s rather marvellous — somehow Christie in 1940 managed to write a novel that didn’t feel anachronistic or out of place in 1975.

Mark That was a deliberate choice that she says that in her letters that she had deliberately done that. And she also said that she gave permission to Rosalind or whoever to make any changes to it before publication that they felt was necessary. Bear in mind she’s probably thinking at this time that it might be, you know, 30 years in the future, not necessarily 36 or whatever it ends up being.

So it’s quite a long, old time and so much changes in that time that you can’t envision that, can you, so she was probably thinking along the lines of, you know, whether it’s the brands of coffee or something could come in and out of fashion. In the end, it is still a sort of period piece because the tone of it is different to how she is writing in the sixties.

In particular, I would say that it goes back to this sort of country house feeling. But yeah, absolutely, you wouldn’t know. I mean, now we’re so far away from it again, now that you’ve read it and it’s 45 years and is it really that different reading a book that’s 45 years than one that’s 75 years, maybe a little bit, but the further away we get, the more these, these periods seem to condense in history a little bit don’t they?

Suddenly things that felt massively distinctive about them they sort of start to get mixed a bit so in our sort of cultural memory. So I think that that over time most people will approach it like you did.

Caroline: I recommend rereading both of these novels, actually, and thinking about their long sojourn in a bank vault as you do so. It really seems extraordinary that they worked for readers at the time of publication, stripped of all of the detail of setting and place that would have situated them in the 1970s rather than the 1940s. But perhaps it’s because the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie was so well established by this time that readers barely noticed anything out of the ordinary. These stories happen in a kind of alternate whodunnit universe, and time doesn’t work in quite the same way there.

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Caroline: Miss Marple’s final full length novel Sleeping Murder, was actually published posthumously as planned. It appeared later on in 1976, and had a slightly more troubled gestation period than Curtain. Twice during the decades between the novel being written and her death Christie had to change its title. Originally she wanted to call it “Murder in Retrospect”, which is a good representation of the plot’s focus on crimes of the past that resurface in the present, but then her American publishers used this title when they brought out Five Little Pigs in the US. It was then renamed Cover Her Face, which is a quotation from the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster — the full line being “Cover her face — mine eyes dazzle — she died young”. P.D. James used this title for a novel in 1962, though, so Christie once more had to think again, and eventually plumped for Sleeping Murder.

It’s a strong story, with some extremely creepy moments, but it in no way climbs to the heights that Curtain does.

The best thing about Curtain, I think, is the way that it brings together several of Christie’s best moments with Hercule Poirot while also working as a story in its own right. This is no greatest hits album that rests on its laurels. This is a story about a canny, unlikely murderer, who goes about his crimes in such a way that even Hercule Poirot is — for a while — at a loss as to how to bring him to justice. Back at Styles and in the company of his loyal friend Hastings once more, Poirot eventually has to perpetrate a break in the rules of classic golden age detective fiction even more dramatic than the one Christe pulled off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. “The detective must not himself commit the crime,” Ronald Knox declared in his famous ten commandments for the genre, but Poirot ends up taking matters into his own hands and executing the murderer before gently allowing his own illness to end his life.

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John Curran writes that “[Curtain] is the most dazzling example of literary legerdemain in the entire Christie output, and I agree. Christie has hinted at Poirot’s egotism when it comes to the dispensing of justice before — most notably in Murder on the Orient Express — and it is that certainty and command of every situation that readers love. Hastings and Japp might roll their eyes as he extols the superiority of his little grey cells, but they, and we, know that he’s right.

In this final case, Agatha Christie makes the detective’s power over life and death practical rather than just theoretical. Hercule Poirot is infallible, to the last.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/swansong. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

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.