Tag: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie’s England

Where is St Mary Mead, anyway?

My guide to Agatha Christie’s England is now available to pre-order from the publisher at shedunnitshow.com/map (ships 19th July 2021). It’s also available to order from Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwell’s and other booksellers. An audio version is available for purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap (if you are entitled to a free copy from your pre-order, you will have received an email from the publisher about this).

There are no major spoilers either in this episode or the guide.

Books mentioned:

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
Peril at End House by Agatha Christie
N or M? by Agatha Christie
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Third Girl by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

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

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

Agatha Christie’s England Transcript

Caroline: When you close your eyes and imagine the setting of an Agatha Christie story, what do you see? A grand country house, perhaps, or an idyllic English village complete with its own spinster sleuth. For all that the Queen of Crime is lauded for her plots, she deserves praise for her settings, too.

Beyond the more exotic locations featured in books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, there is a whole network of interconnected, seemingly ordinary, places that lie behind Christie’s fiction. It interacts with her biography too — the more you read her work, the more you realise that her characters’ lives are superimposed upon her own.

If you’ve ever walked into a hotel lobby or a village hall and thought “this looks like it should be in an Agatha Christie novel”, then this episode is for you. Because today, we’re exploring Agatha Christie’s England.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This episode marks a very special occasion. Over the last few months I’ve been working on something behind the scenes, and now it’s finally being released out into the world. It shares the title of this episode — Agatha Christie’s England — and is a map and a guide to the real life locations that appear in Christie’s fiction. I’ve scoured every novel and short story, as well as the Queen of Crime’s own life and autobiography, to find the most interesting places to include. As well as my writing, it also includes period-inspired illustrations and a postcard, so that you can send a loved one your best wishes from somewhere you discover on your travels with the map. It’s being published by Herb Lester Associates, an independent publisher that produces lovely literary guides and gifts, and is now available to order directly at shedunnitshow.com/map. I have also made an audiobook version of it, for those who really like to hear me talking about Agatha Christie. The first 100 people to pre-order the map will get the audiobook for free, and then after that it’s available for purchase. This has been a really fun project to work on, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you already know that I’m someone who really, really loves to research. Amassing information is something I’m pretty good at — I’m arguably better at that than knowing what to do with it once I have it. It won’t be any surprise to you, then, to know that the initial list of places I gathered for the map was a lot longer than the ones that we could actually fit. There are I think 45 entries in the guide, and my initial list had at least double that. Agatha Christie wrote a lot of books, stories and plays, and she sent her characters to a lot of different places.

In this episode, I’m going to talk about the sense of place in Christie’s books, her own favourite locations, and some of the trends that I observed while putting together the map. We’re also going to look into a surprising mystery connected to one of Christie’s most famous places.

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Agatha Christie was a very well travelled woman, both by the standard of her time and even compared with how much most people move around today. She attended a finishing school in Paris for a year in her teens and then spent the winter after she turned 17 in Cairo. This trip was supposedly organised for the sake of her mother’s health, but there was an ulterious social motive to it. The family was comfortably off but not so wealthy that they could afford to give their second daughter a “season” as a debutante in London. By wintering in Egypt, Agatha was able to go to lots of dances at a fraction of the cost and there was a ready supply of British suitors from the colonial regiments and administrative services stationed there.

Then in 1922 Agatha and her husband Archie Christie were invited to join a tour to promote international participation in the upcoming British Empire exhibition. This was a ten month trip that required them to leave their small daughter Rosalind at home with her grandmother, and took them to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. And of course, towards the end of the 1920s Agatha began to travel to the Middle East, and her subsequent marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan made her familiar with parts of Syria and Iraq where they travelled for excavations. The locations for some of her best known books, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, were drawn from her personal experiences of travel.

But our focus here is Agatha Christie’s England, not her adventures overseas. Where I do think the two are connected is in her powers of observation — a seasoned traveller often possesses the ability to imbibe the atmosphere of a place quickly and accurately, and I think that’s part of the skill on display in Christie’s writing about place. She doesn’t devote lengthy passages to the description of landscape, but she makes sure that the reader is aware of how bumpy the road is or what the house feels like when you first walk into it.

Something that I became very aware of while working on the map and guide is how much Christie’s personal orbit influenced the places she included in her fiction. She was born in Torquay in Devon, in the south west of England, and retained a connection to that area all of her life. Although she moved away when she first got married and later sold her childhood home Ashfield in 1938, she always had a residence in Devon. It’s easiest to write what you know, and she was very familiar with the seaside resorts of Cornwall, Dorset and the English riviera (as the coast of south Devon is sometimes called). Torquay, Salcombe, Dartmouth, Sidmouth and others all make repeated appearances in novels throughout her career, from the fictional Cornish resort of “St Loo” in Peril at End House to Tommy and Tuppence’s trip to Bournemouth in N or M?. Specific seaside hotels, such as the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, even turn up multiple times, sometimes in disguise, and sometimes – as in the case of Sleeping Murder, just as themselves.

This is a regular trick of Christie’s — the places that she knew best are reused over and over again. Her own house in Devon, Greenway, makes numerous appearances in novels as different as Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence, with different aspects of the house and grounds emphasised as the plot requires. Realism in the setting for whodunnits is so established in the genre that the inclusion of maps and floorplans is standard, so it makes sense that being able to pace out the distances in a real place when working out an alibi would be a big help to an author.

Aside from the south west, London is another area where Christie’s locations are clustered thickly together. She lived in London on and off throughout her adult life, from the time immediately after the first world war when she and Archie were first setting up home together, though to her time working in a hospital there during the second world war, and beyond. Perhaps because her readers were more likely to be familiar with the city’s geography, I found that in London she was less likely to play fast and loose with the layout. The Ritz Hotel, for instance, crops up whenever a flashy American character needs to be introdued, such as in the case of Julius P Hersheimer in The Secret Adversary. It is sometimes poorly disguised as “the Blitz”, but it’s always the same luxurious establishment on Piccadilly. Christie’s characters, too, rarely stray from central and west London — again, the places that she would have been familiar with herself. She had a variety of London addresses over the years, but they were all in west London — Kensington, Chelsea, St John’s Wood, Hampstead, and so on. And thus, I found, rarely if ever do her characters stray into east London or south of the river.

Almost as interesting the places that Christie does include in her fiction are the ones that are absent. Since the map and guide are about “Agatha Christie’s England”, I was keen to put in locations all around the country, both just for interest’s sake and because it visually makes for a better map if the dots are nicely spread out. However, Christie really didn’t make this easy for me. There are two hotspots in the south west and in London, as I’ve said, and then a smattering of other places in the south east — such as the real house and swimming pool on the south Downs that inspired the house in The Hollow. But then there’s a big gap in the Midlands, and a much sparser spread of locations in the north of England. With a few exceptions that I’ll talk about in a second, her northern places also tend to be much less defined. Even I, who love digging through footnote after footnote late at night, had to admit defeat on a few where I just couldn’t find any real life analogue for a place in a book. I suspect that Christie just wasn’t as familiar with the north in general, and as such was much vaguer about her descriptions. Sir Bartholomew Strange’s country house in Three Act Tragedy, Melfort Abbey, particularly haunted me — it is only described as being “in Yorkshire”, and has no distinguishing features beyond the basic requirements of four walls and a door that might help to plot it on a map.

The exception to this northern vagueness, however, is to be found in Christie’s familiarity with the area around her brother in law’s estate at Cheadle near Manchester. Agatha’s older sister Madge married James Watts, heir to Abney Hall, in 1902 and the writer stayed with them often. Country houses such as Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and Stoneygates in They Do It With Mirrors were inspired by her stays at Abney, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — another country house murder mystery — is dedicated to Watts.

After the break: what actually is Miss Marple’s address?

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Agatha Christie’s writing career began in 1920, and her last full novel was published after her death in 1976. England changed a lot during the six decades in which she was writing, and we can track that through the way she writes about the settings of her stories. In her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we have a very typical English village of the early twentieth century. Styles St Mary, the village near the country house Styles Court, is meant to be in Essex, but it could really be anywhere in southern England within easy reach of London. The big house has an expansive park around it, and the lady of the house does good works in the village – mostly in aid of the war effort, since this book is set during the first world war. There’s a land agent who helps to take care of the estate and a home farm where tenants work the land. Part of the mystery that Christie weaves is to do with the shock people experience when this template is disrupted, and how much this impedes their ability to disentangle what is real and what is not. Mrs Inglethorp’s marriage to an inappropriate and bearded younger man is tantamount to a declaration of war on a way of life.

Compare this to a book like Third Girl from 1966, which revolves around a flatshare in west London and takes in the much freer, looser social mores of the time in which it was published. Norma Restarick, the main character, is 19 or 20 and doesn’t really know what to do with her life, but she certainly craves a kind of independence that would have been unthinkable for her counterparts in the Christie novels of three decades earlier.

Agatha Christie has a reputation for portraying an idealised version of England, in which everyone knows their place and the perfect village is untouched by progress. I don’t think she really does this, though. I think it’s a perception imbibed from serial television adaptations, in which screenwriters flatten the chronology in order to get around the problem of how Poirot or Miss Marple might age. There’s a cosy “forever England” aesthetic to Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead in the various TV series that isn’t there in the books. After all, Miss Marple is always telling the reader that there is nowhere so vicious and dangerous to live as a small village. She derives all of her detective skill, she says repeatedly, from having observed all of the worst vagaries of the human character in such a small, rural idyll.

And that village is not static either. When we first visit St Mary Mead, there is a certain sense of permanence about it — that everyone knows everyone else inside out. But then in post WW2 Miss Marple novels such as A Murder is Announced, things are changing. St Mary Mead is expanding with new houses and new people are moving in. People who don’t come with formal letters of introduction and who haven’t got grandparents who have always lived in this village. It’s a destabilising force that is woven into the mystery, but it’s not something that really comes through strongly on television, where all of Miss Marple’s cases seem to occupy a kind of timeless state somewhere between 1935 and 1955.

Speaking of St Mary Mead — where actually is it? I get asked this fairly regularly by listeners, likely confused by all the different references to its location in various books and adaptations. It’s a regular mystery, and one that I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to solve. Sometimes it seems like it’s in the west country, such as in 4.50 from Paddington when the village is clearly on a train line that heads west out of the capital. At others, it seems to be near the Hampshire or Dorset coast, as in The Body in the Library. On occasion, Christie unhelpfully defines its location in relation to other entirely fictional places that she’s invented, such as in Nemesis when we are told that it is 12 miles from Danemouth, 12 miles from Loomouth and quite near Much Benham.

Miss Marple’s house itself, Danemead, is modelled on Christie’s own house near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which in turn serves as the pattern for the recurring location of Market Basing in books like Dumb Witness and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. But St Mary Mead itself remains elusive.

Just to complicate matters further, St Mary Mead actually first appears in a Poirot novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train as the village from which heiress Katherine Grey departs for the south of France. Then, it’s in Kent, but in later stories it moves variously to the fictional counties of Downshire, Radfordshire and Middleshire. The BBC used the Hampshire village of Nether Wallop as the setting for the Joan Hickson Miss Marple adaptations, that being both a good filming location and also a decent guess at where a St Mary Mead type village might be.

At a certain point, awash with all of the contradictory distances and locations for St Mary Mead, I became convinced that Agatha Christie was teasing her readers. As the fanbase for her books increased, more and more companion texts were published that sought to expand and explain the universe of her works — I even came across one very patronising guidebook that tried to explain to Americans how small England is by comparison to the US. Perhaps by refusing to give St Mary Mead a real world location, Christie was resisting the force that was turning her work into a miniature tourism industry in its own right. Or maybe it was just more convenient to keep Miss Marple’s village firmly in the realm of the imagination, where it could be moved about southern England as plots required.

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So while there are plenty of real life locations from Agatha Christie books that you can visit, from the grand hotels of the English riviera to the chilly hills of the Isle of Man, the most famous place in her fiction, St Mary Mead, isn’t on any maps. The fact that it is so real to her readers, though, is testament to her skill as a writer. There’s more than one way to travel, and paging through a smart whodunnit is certainly a good one.

Even if you can’t travel very far in real life at the moment, I hope you can still open up your map and get lost in Agatha Christie’s England.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. My guide to Agatha Christie’s England, published by Herb Lester Associates, is now available to order at shedunnitshow.com/map. Links to this and all the other books and sources I mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesengland. On the website I also publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

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

Policing the Detectives Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policing the Detectives

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

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

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

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

Sources and further information:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The Butler Did It” episode of Shedunnit

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Death In Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

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

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

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

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.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Best Fiends. You can download Best Fiends free on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

To be the first to know about future developments with the podcast, sign up for the newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter.

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

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.

The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot

There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

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.

There are no major spoilers about clues or endings in this episode. However, there is some mention or discussion of the books listed below.

Sources and further information:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by Maurice Leblanc
“The Dispenser” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
“The Lady Vanishes” episode of Shedunnit about Agatha Christie’s 1926 “disappearance” and divorce
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

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The Many Afterlives of Hercule Poirot Transcript

Caroline: There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.

The beloved Belgian detective made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair At Styles a hundred years ago, and today it seems impossible to remember a time when he wasn’t a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

But Agatha Christie’s sleuth, for all that he is obsessed with neatness and order, isn’t a straightforward character. Even in print there are all sorts of inconsistencies in his portrayal, and at times even his creator seemed less than enthusiastic about his little grey cells. The cinematic success and beloved television adaptations are a relatively recent phenomenon. There were entire decades of the twentieth century where Poirot barely appeared on screen at all.

In fact, we might say that there isn’t one Hercule Poirot, but many, jostling for position on page and screen. And today, we’re going to meet some of them.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Hercule Poirot came to be because of an argument that Agatha Christie had with her sister. In her autobiography, Christie described herself and Madge as “connoisseurs of the detective story”, saying they had enjoyed all of Sherlock Holmes as well as the work of Gaston Leroux and the Arsène Lupin stories. They were disputing whether it was easy or not to write a detective story — Madge thought it would be difficult, whereas Agatha thought she might be able to do it if she tried. She didn’t put pen to paper write then and there, but as she put it “the seed had been sown”.

She began to think about it more seriously in 1916 when she was working as a dispenser at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. Snatches of plot and character came to her in idle moments, and apparently thinking about it made her quite distracted at home. Those idle wonderings eventually became The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which was published in 1920.

But before it got that far, she had to make a key decision for a detective novelist. She had to create a detective.

Mark: Well, she had this thing and I think it shows how she was already able to think like an author in a very practical sense, even before she had anything substantial published that when she was writing Styles or when she was planning that she was going to write Styles, she was like, well, I need a detective, and she was very sort of pragmatic about it.

Caroline: This is Mark Aldridge, a historian of Agatha Christie and the author most recently of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. This book is a study of all the different ways Poirot has been written and portrayed over his century of existence, and the context behind both Agatha Christie’s work and that of all the other writers and actors who have had a hand in his appearances. That origin point, when she was pulling together her ideas for The Mysterious Affair At Styles, is crucial to Mark’s book, so I’ll let him explain Christie’s thought process.

Mark: I need a detective, they probably have to have some sort of quirk, you know, she didn’t want an inspector from Scotland Yard. So she started to think about what else you could have. So she thought about things like a school boy investigator or scientist.  But she, she settled on. Yeah, a Belgian refugee, but she immediately says, and she says this in her autobiography. Well, I didn’t know them but there was several were housed near Torquay or in Torquay.  And actually there still is. You can still see where, where they, they used to be held  or housed and  So what you can actually get a sense of from that is that she was like, Oh, well, here’s somebody, who’s a bit interesting distinctive, even though I don’t know much about Belgians or indeed refugees perhaps necessarily, but she still felt that that would be somebody who was, was very appealing.

Caroline: When Christie was giving her detective his distinguishing characteristics for this first story, she could have had no idea that she would still be working with this character five decades later. She had never had any writing published before — and indeed it would take several years of trying even to get The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. She certainly wasn’t designing Poirot with a long running series in mind, in the way that a professional writer embarking on a new project might. As a result, Christie had some regrets about how Poirot turned out.

Mark: So she did say that she, she regretted making him so old initially and possibly regretted making him for her quite annoying. But she seemed to soften on that as she got older as well. But yes, it, I think that if she’d known that she was having a recurring detective, I suspect that that Poirot isn’t who she would have gone for

Caroline: Poirot’s age is the obvious issue that Christie herself, as well as all the playwrights and screenwriters who have engaged with her work, have had to grapple with. He’s introduced as a retired policeman in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which suggests he’s at least in his sixties. By the time a book like After the Funeral was published in 1953, he must be at least into his nineties, which isn’t ideal if you think about it for too long. And that wasn’t the only thing about Poirot that Christie regretted.

Mark: The things that she found quite difficult to stick with, the things that are work on a superficial level.

And then don’t, if you think about them too much  and actually most, we just don’t mind these things, but she would even get annoyed with things like that. He had an egg shaped head. It’s just like, what is the next shape? Ted says, people would ask me which way round is the egg. Can I say, no, I just said an egg shaped head and you’re stuck with that already.

He limps in the first one, which goes out pretty soon. So we can assume that that’s a passing    sort of problem.  But, but things like, she seemed to get quite annoyed with his, his tidiness and his fastidiousness because she said herself that did I create him because I’m wildly untidy myself, so says perhaps subconsciously she was writing someone who was a complete contrast to herself.

And I guess that’s quite fun, once or twice, but then if you’re writing somebody who’s whole sort of attitudes to life perhaps is quite different to yours in terms of the him, his neatness,  his desire for order, which really was, were not Agatha Christie type traits  in her own life. Then you can understand why she would then find him quite annoying over time.

Caroline: Like Poirot himself, Christie’s relationship to her creation did not remain fixed. In the introduction to the Daily Mail serialisation of Appointment with Death in 1938 she wrote that “there are moments when I have felt why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” That line is often quoted, but doesn’t really reflect her true feelings to her little Belgian sleuth, Mark says.

Mark: If you keep reading that, that quote, which is in the introduction to appointment with death serialization?  She, she says, Oh, but actually, I, I think he’s won because actually he, he has sort of won me over by this point and, and I feel much more warmly towards him. So even by the late thirties, she didn’t seem to mind him that much, but.

You know, it’s like with colleagues, isn’t it, you can really enjoy working with a work colleague, but they can still annoy you every now and again.  And I think this was the same for her. That Poirot was her work colleague and it was all right when he was bubbling in the background and when she had a good idea for him, but when suddenly you’re stuck together, it’s not so much fun.

Caroline: Christie used another of her sleuthing characters, Ariadne Oliver, as a way of relieving her feelings about this a little. She admitted in an interview in 1956 that Ariadne, a popular detective novelist who appears in a string of novels beginning with Cards on the Table in 1936 and ending with Elephants Can Remember in 1972, contained “a strong dash” of Agatha Christie herself. Ariadne’s detective character is a Finn, Sven Hjerson, who has a number of quirks that are frustrating to his creator, including vegetarianism, cold baths in winter, and raw foods. She also complains of how difficult it is to create a realistic and consistent backstory for a character from a country she knows nothing about — in Ariadne’s case, Finland, but for Agatha and Hercule, of course, it was Belgium.

Ariadne Oliver was also useful for Agatha as a way of acknowledging or correcting her past mistakes. For instance, in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne admits to having got the length of a blowpipe completely wrong and receiving a lot of reader letters about it — which refers to a similar error Christie made in a Poirot novel from the 1930s.

Poirot might have had his annoyances for his creator, but there were circumstances in her own life that meant he had to endure. Readers loved him, and especially after the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, there was an increasingly large audience for new Poirot adventures. That year also marked a turning point for Christie herself, as I’ve covered before on the show, which culminated in her divorce from Archie Christie and her need to support herself with her writing.

Mark: She was having to then really write professionally because she needed the money, which before her divorce, she hadn’t really needed.  But she wanted to then obviously have her independence afterwards.

And so when actually you’re having to write, because you’ve got to put Poirot in a story because he’s commercial  because  you know, you need to sell these copies, sell it to magazines. That was a big thing that they love Poirot in this era. Then you can start to feel a bit tied to him can’t you and feel a bit like you’re, you’re stuck in this, this sort of dependence between yourselves that, that, that perhaps isn’t something that is going to be very gratifying to you as an author, but commercially and for your readers will be very successful.

Caroline: Agatha Christie was a keen reader of Arthur Conan Doyle. She writes in her autobiography how instrumental Sherlock Holmes was to her own ideas about how to write a detective, and in The Sittaford Mystery she created a brilliant homage to his 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle had of course, famously, tried to kill off his detective when he got fed up of writing him, even though the public were desperate for more stories, and then had to humiliatingly revive him. Christie came up with a much more subtle way of relieving her feelings around Hercule Poirot’s end while keeping her public happy — and I’ll be talking more about that in another episode soon.

After the break: Hercule Poirot is ready for his closeup.

Now, a brief intermission. The style that I use to make Shedunnit means that what you hear in these final episodes is a bit like an iceberg — it’s only the visible tip of a great big mass of interviews and research that goes unseen underneath. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Shedunnit Book Club, because I can put some of that extra material into bonus episodes and extended interviews for those dedicated paying supporters. If you would like to hear full length versions of my conversations with the guests you hear on the show — such as On Nomoto from the Honkaku Mysteries episode, say, or Hamish Symington the crossword setter, or indeed Agatha Christie historian Mark Aldridge, become a member today to get access to the show’s bonus feed. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and you’ll be helping to keep the show financially viable. To hear more from Shedunnit, consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Caroline: Agatha Christie had a somewhat tense relationship, at times, with the stage and screen versions of her characters. Her clearest of expression of this, again, comes via Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, when she says: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things they never would have said”.

1931’s Alibi was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot on film, and that came to the big screen via the theatre. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been adapted by Michael Morton into a stage play called Alibi that was performed in 1928, and it was that version which was subsequently produced as a film. Christie had disliked Morton’s early suggestion that her Belgian sleuth should become “Beau Poirot”, be 20 year younger and be a heartthrob to young ladies. This didn’t make it into final version of the script and he remained Hercule for both the play and the film of Alibi. But he was played in the first three Poirot films by the young actor Austin Trevor, who was 33 when Alibi was made — introducing yet another confusing element to the question of “how old is Hercule Poirot”. That film, by the way, is now completely lost, so you can’t go back and watch it — all we have to go on are the contemporary reviews and material that survives.

While I was talking to Mark about all the different incarnations that Hercule Poirot had and Christie’s attitude to the adaptation of her work, it reminded me of something that Victoria Stewart said on an episode last year when she was talking about how the students on her detective fiction course first encounter murder mysteries. Let’s hear it:

Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television.

Caroline: Reruns of the various Poirot and Marple films and TV series are so common on British daytime television that the young people who come to Victoria’s classes quite often had their first encounter with the characters on screen, rather than in books. That is completely normal and expected these days, but it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon.

Mark: We’re so used to seeing lots of Poirot now. And you go look at this such a long period where there’s no Poirot whatsoever. If we are to, you know, perhaps ignore a single West German adaptation and possibly some unofficial ones in Russia, then actually between 1934 and 1965, he is not onscreen at all for 31 years at the peak of his success, there is no real Poirot.

There’s like an American TV pilot. So, so there’s 25 minutes shown once  in like the early 1960s. But other than that, very, very, you know, there’s no great mainstream Poirot. There’s no actor who people are readily associating with him beyond those who’ve played him on stage and screen in the late twenties and through to the thirties.

Caroline: As Mark says, there were a handful of film and TV projects through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but they often focused on other characters from her canon, rather than Hercule Poirot.

Mark: Poirot was always seen as the, sort of the crown jewels as, as the absolute sort of    the, the thing to be protected above all else, I guess, in, in Agatha Christie. And that goes for during her lifetime and, and afterwards. And then there is this sort of slight relaxation when Murder on the Orient Express happens in, in 1974 the film. And then there seems to be a bit more relaxation, but even then they would test the waters usually with other things. So when there were noises about television adaptations again  which they had been constantly been asked about and denied their response was, well, you can have Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, which is, you know, it doesn’t have Ms Marple doesn’t have Poirot  is, is  is a very decent mystery, but is I would say, not generally regarded as, as one of the handful of masterpieces. You know, it’s not very, very top tier, I would say  And so it was slightly a safe bet that you could say why? Well, let’s see how they get on with this one. And then we’ll see. And then, then that they’re sort of starts really in the sort of fishing line a little bit and go, okay, you can have Tommy and Tuppence that? See what happened to Tommy and then there’s miss Marple. And then so 10 years after Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? happens, we’ve got David Suchet as Poirot.

Caroline: This idea of “protecting” Poirot, of keeping Agatha Christie’s most popular character “safe” from clumsy screen adaptation is one that has its origins in the author’s own caution, and which was carried on by her relatives as they took bigger roles in her literary estate. But it isn’t always quite as simple as that, as Mark has discovered during his research.

Mark: One of the great surprises was about  murder by the book, which is this, this  one off a television film ashes, about 50 minutes long, which was made and shown in the eighties. And that is all about Agatha Christie played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft meeting Poirot, played by Ian Holme and having a discussion about let’s say her plans for him.

And, and, and  how well Poirot, I was going to come out of all of these plans and, and what, how what’s my plan for him might be. And my assumption had always been well, they must’ve just sort of done this and not worried about. You know, the Christie estate and stuff, because it’s everything that they don’t like.

You know, it says they really didn’t like Agatha Christie herself being depicted on the screen, particularly  and Poirot was fiercely protected at this point. So imagine my surprise in learning, not only through paperwork, but also speaking to Matthew that actually they really liked it and they were really supportive of it.

Caroline: That’s Matthew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie.

Mark: And they, they allowed the use Poirot for a pound. So they didn’t even like make money out of anything. They just saw. It was a rather nice idea. So are I often, I think I’m probably guilty of this more than anybody else of, of sort of really reinforcing this over-protective idea that I think some people get the impression of that being, but actually there are so many of these exceptions that it just shows actually, if you had them right approach, if you were doing things that happened to coincide with what either Agatha Christie Limited or the sort of family wanted to do, then actually there was quite a lot there. That’s that they would allow you to do. So it’s just always full of surprises.

Caroline: Adaptations, especially popular ones like the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and the more recent films, certainly help to give a character the university that makes them instantly recognisable from even the smallest hint or phrase. But Hercule was a household name long before David Suchet started twiddling his moustaches on television. There’s something intrinsic to the way Christie wrote him that makes him stick in the memory.

Mark: I think that there’s something immediately definable about him in a way that even Miss Marple isn’t quite there. He’s got some very strong traits and of course  is, is very well known as well. But I think that because Poirot has particularly got this thing about being an outsider that makes them much more immediately identifiable. She basically describes him in the same way. In dozens of books  that she will describe him in precisely the same way, you know, with the egg shaped head and with the fine moustaches and with the little grey cells all the ways that he’s described.

And so it almost becomes a description that, that is so heavily ingrained in your head that, that he’s right there. And I think it’s a bit of a gift to a good actor to be able to, to, to bring that to the screen.

Caroline: But lots of characters have recognisable physical traits. The moustaches alone aren’t enough.

Mark: I actually would suggest that the reason he’s endured is because the mysteries he’s in are brilliant. And I think that’s the big thing is it’s a Poirot’s around because he solved really good cases  in a really interesting way with completely satisfying  conclusions for the most part — Murder in Mesopotamia, there’s one or two exceptions — but what we’ve got really is, is somebody who, who it’s great to revisit and go back.

I mean, there are loads of brilliant characters who have completely forgotten in detective fiction because perhaps they’re their mysteries aren’t that great. Poirot has got this great thing of being both a very strong and identifiable character and somebody who is in some of the greatest pieces of detective fiction ever written.

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Caroline: That’s what it comes down to, as I think it often does in discussions of Agatha Christie’s work. You can dissect her prose style and her settings, her focus on a particular class of people and set of attitudes, her over reliance on a few stock ideas about how people lived. But you can’t argue with her plots, or with most of them, at least. That’s what gave Hercule Poirot life a hundred years ago, and it’s why he’s still alive today.

Mark: Poirot is bigger than any of us, once you’ve created him, there’s no stopping him and you can’t, you can’t contain him.

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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/themanyafterlivesofherculepoirot. 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.