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.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
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.
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.