Caroline: Detective fiction, especially the fair play style that relies on logical deduction above all else, should have no time at all for ghosts, spirits or magic. What place could supernatural happenings have in a genre defined by its interest in precision and verification? That demands to know exactly who was where doing what, and to see the proof of it?
And yet the reverse seems to be true. The stack of golden age detective novels that include reference to paranormal or mystical events is so high that it could mysteriously fall over and crush me at any moment. How can these two things, the extremely rational and the supremely irrational, be reconciled?
Well, as we get a little spooky today, we’re going to find out.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into the episode, though, I’m going to talk to you about how I’ve been able to make Shedunnit up until now and why I need your help going forward. If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know that I don’t do this most of the time — I know it’s annoying when podcasters interrupt the content you came for right at the beginning with lots of plugs, so I save all of mine up for this one period every year that I call the Shedunnit Pledge Drive. And that begins today! For the next four episodes, I’ll be explaining how you can help to support the future existence of the show and get some exclusive audio goodies while you do it. I’m able to do all of this — keep the podcast free, keep advertising and the plugging of things to a minimum — because of the Shedunnit Book Club. This is the paid membership scheme that runs alongside the show, with a brilliant community reading books and short stories together every month, and enjoying all of the bonus episodes that I make for them. The aim of the pledge drive is to add 100 new members to the club by the end of the year. I haven’t put the membership price up since the club started in 2019, but my costs have most definitely gone up. Thus, I need more people to chip in to be able to keep the podcast afloat.
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Edgar Allen Poe is generally credited with writing the first detective story of “ratiocination”, or deductive reasoning, in the form of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841. Even though his sleuth Dupin spends a lot of time espousing the virtues of a logical approach to solving crime, the presence of Poe so high up in the detective fiction family tree should probably have tipped me off much sooner to this genre’s spooky DNA. Although his three Dupin stories from the 1840s are not especially Gothic in tone, during this same period Poe was working on some of the best spooky, supernatural fiction that has ever been written. That the creator of stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” should also be considered a prime mover in the beginnings of detective fiction makes an early and powerful connection between the logical and the supernatural.
Several of the major writers who followed in Poe’s footsteps in the following decades built on this. Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1968, considered by many to be the first police procedural, and married the detective elements of his story with a creepy atmosphere involving ancient curses and mysterious memory loss. Arthur Conan Doyle firmly positioned Sherlock Homes in opposition to all things supernatural, having him say in a late story that “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply”. Yet we just have to take a quick glance down the list of Homes stories to see titles like “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” and “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”, which indicate how frequently the great detective comes up against suspected paranormal phenomena. Indeed, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle wrote a whole novel devoted to just such an investigation. Of course, there turns out to be another explanation for sightings of “a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon” with “blazing eyes and dripping jaws”. But the fear that there may not be a rational solution is one of the story’s main plot drivers.
The way that these pre golden age writers used the suggestion of supernatural elements highlights two really important elements of this question. The first is that there don’t need to be actual ghosts or curses in a book for them to have power — the suggestion or the belief that they are even a possibility can be enough to influence the behaviour of characters and the direction of the plot. And second, these spooky happenings just make for some great variety, which the best writers have always searched for within the confines of the detection genre. Here’s my guest Carla Valentine, to explain a bit more about why writers, and indeed readers, have long enjoyed the marriage of the supernatural and the logical.
Carla: I do like a bit of spookiness in my mysteries. Not all of them, but I like spookiness around Halloween, so if there are some to choose from that have got a slightly spooky background, then I’ll save them until October and I’ll happily reread Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, for example. It’s nice to have a choice, I think… If it’s a plot driver and it’s just a way to add a little bit of interest and a bit of spice to the story, then it can work really, really well.
Caroline: When the Detection Club was first formed in 1930, they began to put together a constitution, a set of rules, and an oath that members had to swear in order to be admitted. Dorothy L. Sayers was the prime mover when it came to this initiation ritual, and in creating it she drew substantially on a list of ten commandments that the writer Ronald Knox had proposed in 1928. I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, in an episode titled The Rules, so I won’t rehash it all here. It’s the second entry in Knox’s decalogue that we are concerned with today. It reads: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”
Knox, of course, was being somewhat tongue in cheek with his list — the rule immediately after this, for instance, is “not more than one secret room or passage is allowable”. One secret passage, yes. Two, no. The fact that he was able to joke about the inclusion of ghosts, ghouls, spirits and witches, I think, reveals just what an entrenched part of the genre it already was by this time. And the Detection Club’s oath reflected this whimsical attitude to the subject too, as Carla can explain.
Carla: There’s even a bit in the oath where they talk about ‘Mumbo, Jumbo and Jiggory Pokery’, which I think that all of this supernatural stuff probably does come under ‘mumbo jumbo’ and ‘jiggery pokery’ and I suppose it’s because it’s just not fair if the if the murder was solved because of something magical then it wouldn’t really be very fair on the reader because the reader wouldn’t be able to guess that that was going to happen so I suppose they have to keep to the rules keep everything very sort of within the realms of physics so that we can at least try and solve along the mystery.
Caroline: I’m just going to issue my standard spoiler warning here — we are not going to reveal everything about any of the stories that we discuss, but if you like to read without any knowledge of what happens, please consult the episode description for a list of titles mentioned and consider pausing here until you have read all that you desire.
One way in which the detective fiction writers of the twentieth century explored this theme was by a consideration of technology. As anyone who has seen a really cutting edge new invention can testify, it is easily possibly to confuse innovation with witchcraft. Edgar Wallace was relying on this effect in his 1905 novel The Four Just Men, offering cash prizes to readers who wrote in with the correct explanation for his murder somehow committed inside a hermetically sealed room. He assumed that the technology he referenced in his plot was far less well understood by the general public than it turned out to be, and he also failed to limit the number of prizes he would give for right answers. The sheer volume of solutions bankrupted Wallace and forced him to sell the copyright of the book for a paltry sum.
Unlike Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie managed to make rather more judicious use of the relationship between technology and the supernatural throughout her career.
Carla: I’m thinking about stories like “Wireless” from 1933, where she’s sort of, you know, it’s a good way to give somebody a heart attack really, isn’t it? Because, you know, for people to think that the dead are talking to them across a radio, it’s, you know, certain types of people who’ve got a weak heart, then you probably would get frightened. But then she sort of uses that idea of technology and the supernatural as late as 1961 in The Pale Horse, I think it is. So, it spans a really long period of time, the entire writing career, really.
Caroline: Once again, it is the fear provoked by the possibility of ghostly activity that has the effect. In general, Christie seems to have joined her fellow Detection Club members in remaining somewhat cynical about supernatural agencies, although she certainly made plenty of good use of it in her work, especially as a way of highlighting how gullible or trusting people can be taken advantage of by charlatans.
Carla: I don’t know actually because I lean on sort of more towards the fact that she was skeptical, I think, of a lot of these things even though they were obviously around at the time because it was a really sort of golden era for spiritualism and things when she was writing but then that said you know Janet Morgan says that she has kind of a scholarly interest in things like telepathy and then if you read her autobiography she does have a couple of moments where she says, for example, that she’d had a premonition and knew exactly when her mom died when she was on the train and she just sort of went cold. So yeah, I think overall she was skeptical, but she definitely has her moments.
Caroline: She certainly does, as we’ll hear after the break.
Even with the prohibition in fair play detective fiction on having a supernatural agency as the solution to a mystery, such elements can be used to great effect in a plot as a source of fear and misdirection. As such, I thought we’d take a look at some of the different ways this can work. One of the most popular among golden age writers was to put the spooky elements in the setting for the book, and then have a supposedly non-supernatural mystery play out against that backdrop. Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party is a good case study for this topic. Obviously this is very much the season for a book with Halloween in the title – hence the timing of this episode — and I’ve been seeing this one all over Instagram as usual, styled up the max with plenty of pumpkins and flickering candles. Except, in my opinion, this is — at least on the surface — one of Christie’s less spooky books. Yes, the principal murder does take place at a Halloween Party, but it’s a children’s Halloween Party, full of raucous fun and very little space for ghostly vibes to develop. With hindsight, though, the way that the murderer strikes during these wholesome festivities provides one of Christie’s most horrifying deaths — one that has been on my mind every time I’ve been to a Halloween party since I first read this book when I was a teenager. And if that’s not a haunting, I don’t know what is.
Carla: Without giving too much away it involves child murders which, you know, earlier Christie’s really didn’t involve not really that many of them at all really involve children being murdered only several. So, I think I think that’s good because it really does it really is quite a sort of macabre undercurrent to the book even you know just this idea that that yeah children and even the way that the way that the girl is first murdered I don’t know whether to really give that away but there’s just something very macabre about it, so it’s perfect for Halloween.
Caroline: There is a tendency, perhaps, to think of Halloween as it is celebrated today as American in origin, with the emphasis on orange pumpkins and trick or treating. But the 31st of October has supernatural resonances in lots of cultures and countries, including England, and in the games that are played at her Halloween Party, Christie is drawing on some of these older customs.
Carla: It’s when theoretically the dead are supposed to be able to traverse the veil and speak to the living and detective fiction is all about the dead speaking to the living in terms of if they’re victims of murder, they have a medium or an interpreter in the form of their detective, or maybe the police surgeon, who’s communicating what the dead are trying to say to everyone who’s alive and who’s, you know, part of the case. So, in that way, I mean, rather fanciful way of saying it, but they sort of go together for that reason.
It really goes back thousands of years in England, really going back to the Celts and even things like funeral biscuits. People used to make funeral biscuits in the Victorian era and that was based on a sort of like idea of trick or treating or you go and give you give biscuits to people who were grieving someone’s funeral.
Caroline: Of course, Christie is far from the only author to make use of Halloween’s supernatural resonances for a murder mystery. The Halloween Murders by John Newton Chance was published the year before Christie’s novel, and it actually features one of the activities done at her party as a major plot point — the practice of a young girl looking in a mirror and hoping to see the figure of the man she will marry standing behind her in the reflection. As Chance envisions it, the girl in question sees the image not of a future husband but a future murder victim. Then there’s Wraiths and Changelings by Gladys Mitchell, which is set around a ghost hunt held on Halloween night. This involves a series of apparently harmless yet spooky pranks played by the party’s host on her guests at various creepy locations, which then unfortunately culminates in a pair of very real stranglings. Finally, I want to mention the story “Dead Cat” from a cunning Ellery Queen collection titled Calendar of Crime. Each story is fixed to a particular date in the year, and this one occurs on 31st October. It involves a costume party at which everyone must be dressed as a cat, at which the classic game of Murder is proposed, during which the lights go out, after which it is found that at least one player wasn’t pretending. This isn’t a unique plot, of course, but Ellery’s commentary on the action makes it a worthy Halloween mystery nonetheless.
A similar device is used in Margery Allingham’s debut detective novel, The Crime at Black Dudley, from 1929. Although not set at Halloween, this one gives us a supposedly cursed weapon and a creepy country house as a setting. In fact, the haunted house is a very popular twist on the classic country house mystery, and shows up in many, many whodunnits. John Dickson Carr was rather fond of it, being a master of the eerie and uncanny even while producing some of the most ruthlessly logical mysteries I’ve ever read. The Plague Court Murders and The Red Widow Murders are two haunted house mysteries of his that especially stand out in my mind. In that vein, I think Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer is also worth looking at, since it features a family moving into a previously-uninhabited-for-ages ramshackle priory. Of course, shortly after they take up residence, a murder is committed. In fact it has several parallels with the recently Kenneth Branagh Poirot film, A Haunting in Venice, which sees some elements of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party transported to a haunted Venetian palazzo. The house is haunted by the ghosts of children locked in there to die in a plague centuries ago, and when the bodies start piling up in the present day, Poirot must work out what is real and what is just the haunting. We didn’t have space for a full review of the film in this episode, but it is very Halloween appropriate, so Shedunnit Book Club members will be getting a bonus episode very soon with thoughts on it from both me and Carla.
Anyway, alongside John Dickson Carr, I’d say Gladys Mitchell ranks pretty highly for her ability to introduce a spooky element into her books, and 1941’s When Last I Died hits lots of popular golden age supernatural themes, with a haunted house, a seance, and a ghostly atmosphere that owes plenty to the fiction of MR James. I also think Mitchell deserves attention in this realm for her creation of Mrs Bradley, a detective who personally embodies the apparently contradictory themes we have been exploring today. She is highly educated and a scientist, being a medical doctor as well as a psychoanalyst. But there is also something persistently witchy about her — other characters recoil from her, she is perpetually described as reptilian or crone-like, and her insights often strike others as uncanny. Mitchell is drawing on very old ideas about wise women and witches with Mrs Bradley, and to a lesser extent Agatha Christie does the same thing with the character of Miss Marple. They are both women who appear to know more than is natural and use their abilities to solve mysteries.
Christie drew on the fear that witches can inspire in two other books that I think are worth mentioning: The Pale Horse and Murder is Easy. In these, and in fact in Hallowe’en Party as well, she is alluding to a primal, pagan system of belief that can make all of your hair stand on end if you think about it for too long. Even the suggestion that there are some things in life that disciples of logic like Hercule Poirot cannot explain adds a certain frisson to the narrative.
Writers really did enjoy themselves when it comes to adding the supernatural into their mysteries. John Dickson Carr published a book in 1935 in which not one but two people are apparently killed from being stabbed in the eyes by an invisible unicorn. It’s called, unsurprisingly, The Unicorn Murders. A Corpse at Camp Two by Glyn Carr features a murder mystery among a group of mountain climbers and there is, for a while, a strong suggestion that a yeti is involved. Carr again: He Who Whispers from 1946 involves a murder that might have been done by a levitating vampire. The Spirit Murder Mystery by Robin Forsythe involves a seance that produces some creepy organ music and the next day two people are dead. Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady includes a haunted chalice dating back to the Crusades. I could keep doing this for hours, but I hope you get the idea now: for all its apparent reliance on logic and rationality, the writers of golden age detective fiction had great fun introducing some much less rational elements into their books.
Why do we enjoy it so much? In an attempt to answer this question, let me paint you a picture. As I write this, the light is fading outside the window and I can see the trees tossing and blowing in the wind. It’s not even six pm and it’s already nearly dark. This twilight moment in the weeks before Halloween, when people light the lamps in their houses but haven’t yet drawn their curtains for the evening always feels a little magical to me: the contrast between the light and the dark is so strong. That’s why it feels pleasurable to read a mystery with spooky elements, I think. Evoking the darkness that might be lurking just beyond the light enhances the comfort we feel tucked up inside, safe in the knowledge that there will always be a clever sleuth on hand to bust the ghosts and break the curses by the end of the book.
This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/spookysleuthing. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
This episode marked the beginning of the Shedunnit Pledge Drive, the annual event where I ask the podcast’s community to help me fund it for another year. If you’d like to be part of that and get an excellent free audiobook of pre golden age detective stories read by me, join now at shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.