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The Murder on the Links Transcript (Green Penguin Book Club 2)



Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

And welcome back to Green Penguin Book Club, a series within Shedunnit that documents my journey of reading and discussing every crime title from the main Penguin series, in order. Our book today is The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, which was originally published in 1923, and then republished in 1936 by The Bodley Head as part of the Penguin series. It is officially Penguin number 6A, which makes it a bit of an anomaly, though. The original Penguin number six, one of the original ten titles debuted in 1935, was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, also by Agatha Christie. But this was pulled from the series soon after publication, and quickly replaced by The Murder on the Links for future reprints. This happened because of a contractual misunderstanding. Allen Lane had been trying to save money on the original ten penguins and include as many books that The Bodley Head, then publisher of the penguin series, already owned the rights to. He and colleagues assumed that because they had been the original publisher for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, they could therefore include it in their new series at no extra cost. But that wasn’t quite the relationship defined by Agatha Christie’s original contract, so to avoid a dispute with a by then very popular author, they pulled Styles from the series and replaced it with a title they definitely did have the rights to, The Murder on the Links. The difficulties over Styles were subsequently smoothed out and it reappeared in the series in 1936 as Penguin number 61, so I will get to read it as part of the series, hopefully later this year. But for today, we’re looking at number 6A, The Murder on the Links.

And my guest this this episode is an Agatha Christie expert with peer, John Curran, long time literary advisor to the Agatha Christie estate and author of the award winning books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Murder in the Making. He’s a frequent speaker at Christie and detective fiction related events, and I’m delighted to have him join me today for this re-examination of The Murder on the Links.

A brief note on spoilers before we get into the book. Until you hear me say that we are “entering the spoiler zone”, you can safely listen without hearing major plot details. The timestamp for that point will also be in the episode description. After that, we can expect to hear major spoilers, up to and including the solution to the mystery. For maximum enjoyment of Green Penguin Book Club episodes, I recommend that you read the book ahead of listening — there’s also a link to a complete list of the whole Penguin series in the episode description so you can see what will be coming up next. And at the end of every episode, I ask my guest to award the book a rating, so stay tuned to the end to hear how many green penguins out of five John gives this one.

With all of that said, let’s get into The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. This was Christie’s third novel and the second to feature Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings. Poirot has already been introduced as a retired Belgian police detective in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and at the start of this book he and Hastings are sharing lodgings in London while Poirot accepts cases as a private detective. This story begins with Hastings having a strange encounter with a modern young woman he nicknames “Cinderella” while on a train, and then Poirot receives a peculiar letter from a P.T. Renauld asking him to come to France immediately — the letter writer is in fear for his life. Poirot and Hastings set off for Merlinville-sur-Mer, a French seaside resort, only to discover that their client is already dead — murdered. Poirot then joins the investigation into the crime and the case unfolds from there.


So, John, where does The Murder on the Links sit in your personal Christie canon? How do you rate it?

John: Not very highly, I have to say. If you take the five Poirots of the 1920s, I would put it in the middle. I think it’s better than The Big Four. But then, what isn’t? And I would also rate it more highly than Mystery of the Blue Train, but I would put it below Roger Ackroyd and Styles.

But I would also put it higher than the books of the 60s, like The Clocks and Third Girl, and even Hallowe’en Party. But obviously, it doesn’t come anywhere near the great books of the 30s and 40s. But I think it’s an under regarded book. You never read very much about it, which I think is a shame because the plot in many ways is quite clever.

Caroline: So it’s not one that you re read regularly?

John: No, I have to be honest. I mean, I do read lots of Christies regularly. And of course, this wasn’t a book I needed to re-read for Secret Notebooks because there are no notes for it. But I don’t disregard it as highly, shall we say, as some podcasters and reviewers and commentators.

But I think it does have problems, definitely.

Caroline: Yes, you mentioned that there’s no surviving notes from Christie about its construction. Do you have any theories about why that might be?

John: Well, there are relatively few books from the twenties with notes, leaving aside the short stories, because there are virtually no notes for short stories.

Neither Ackroyd, nor Links, nor The Big Four, or the Seven Dials Mystery. None of them have notes. Now, the crying shame there, of course, is Roger Ackroyd. All there is in one of the notebooks is a list of characters, and that isn’t even complete for Roger Ackroyd. But I think at that stage, and she says this all in her autobiography, it wasn’t until after the break up of her marriage that she realized she was actually a professional writer.

Almost literally, she needed to write to put food on the table. So up to then, her writing was a sort of a lucrative pastime, if you like. So she probably didn’t bother keeping notes. It is a shame, clearly. But that’s only a theory. There’s nothing to say. And I’ve often thought to myself that had she known someone would go through the notebooks with a magnifying glass, 50 years after her death, she probably would have destroyed all of them.

So I would imagine for the ones for which we don’t have notes, she probably made notes on loose sheets of paper and destroyed them because she wasn’t, despite the cleverness and ingenuity of her plots, she wasn’t the most organized person because as you probably know from reading Secret Notebooks, the notes are very scattered and hiddly piggledy and disorganised.

But then I do speculate that is part of her genius.

Caroline: Obviously, there aren’t notes for this book, but just to give people who haven’t looked at Secret Notebooks yet, what kind of things do we normally learn from her workings out on paper?

John: Well, what we normally learn is there’s relatively little working out in the strict sense of the word.

For the most part, they’re random notes that she jotted down whenever they crossed her mind. For instance, Sparkling Cyanide. The notes for that book are scattered over 12 notebooks. And there are other examples like that. So, when I was writing the first book, lots of friends and Christie fans would say to me, Oh, did you find the notebook for Peril at End House?

Did you find the notebook for And Then There Were None? But the sad fact is, there is no such thing as a notebook for a book. Notes were scattered hither and yon throughout all 73 notebooks. Because she says herself in her autobiography, she might have a few notebooks on the go at any one time, and depending on where she was or what she was doing, she’d get a bright idea or something would cross her mind and she’d reach for a notebook and write down her great idea.

But interestingly, she says, when I look back over the notebooks, I look back at the notes and I think, I’ve no idea what I meant when I wrote down, for instance, this isn’t an actual example, but when she writes down March, Geraldine, Winter. I’ve no idea what that was all about, but, and this is the interesting, well to me, interesting aspect.

It may spur her on to do something else. So that’s all she needed to start composing a fresh plot. So the notebooks, despite the fact that the books work with the precision of a swift plot, the notes are anything but that. And the other really interesting thing I thought, and this applies to most of the books, virtually nowhere does she say, and X is going to be my murderer.

To give one fairly prime example, which most Christie fans would know, the murderer in Crooked House is a genuine shocking murderer. And yet, that murderer is never identified. There are quite a lot of notes for Crooked House. So people thinking, oh, well, that’s where she got that idea and she’d worked the plot around that great idea.

That’s not accurate. In some cases, she does go through half a dozen characters to decide which is going to be her murderer. But she very rarely says anything as black and white and as unequivocal as, Oh, X will be my murderer.

Caroline: That’s fascinating. I definitely think people have a certain vision of the kind of mind that was needed to construct this kind of plot, very organized and precise and so on.

And that’s, that’s not what’s revealed in her notes, at least.

John: I mean, it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make, because she was the greatest exponent of the classical golden age detective novel, so you would expect her to be highly organized and rigorous, but she’s not. But then I speculated that’s why she’s so good at what she does, because she wasn’t thinking the way the rest of us think. In straight lines, if you like.

She had no formal schooling, she didn’t go to a school, so she probably wasn’t taught how to think. If you follow my syntax. But this is just my own speculation, I don’t know. So, to get back to your original question, why there are no notes for those books is anybody’s guess. She may not have had any, although I think this plot is quite complex, so she probably did, but just destroyed them or lost or disposed of them, sadly.

Caroline: And where are we in the golden age of detective fiction when this book is being written and then published in 1923? I think it’s difficult to imagine when we’re looking back at it, with hindsight, we think of it as a very homogenous genre, but how developed is the style so far, would you say?

John: Well, technically speaking, the golden age ran between the wars.

So, in other words, we’re taking 1920 because it’s just a handy date, and it’s Styles, and it’s Freeman Wills Crofts. And it’s the early H. C. Bailey short stories, but as you say, it’s not really a black and white situation. It evolved over many years, and so in the 1920s, apart from Christie and Crofts, Conan Doyle and Chesterton were still writing, although whether they’re going to name it or not is another question.

But then, over the rest of the decade, Anthony Berkeley, S. S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, and then towards the end of the decade, we had Gladys Mitchell, Ellery Queen, and we had the Coles. But all of those names which we now associate with the golden age, although they may have started writing in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 30s the complete flowering of the age began, the greatest ingenuity and in many cases productivity. So this is the second novel of Poirot and though it was published in March 1923, its serialization actually began in December 1922. So it was well written by the time it appeared in hardback. And it’s also complicated by the fact that the Poirot Investigates stories, although they were collected in 1924, they were also appearing during 1923.

And she also was to be writing during 1923 The Big Four short stories, because although that book was published in 1927 as a book, the individual short stories were published in 1924. So it was a very, very busy time for her, mainly with short stories, it has to be admitted, because she wrote most of the short stories in the 1920s.

So it does come more or less at the beginning of Christie’s career, because she led off with a very golden age country house murder mystery. And I would agree with Sutherland Scott who said it’s the best first of the genre. And then she did a complete swerve with The Secret Adversary, which was a thriller.

And then she returns with another golden age novel, although the mystery to me is why she set it in France. There doesn’t seem to be any reason that I can see why she would do that, but then who knows?

Caroline: Yes, I suppose again, looking back it, it doesn’t feel that surprising because we’re quite used to from later Poirot’s the idea that he travels a lot and he takes cases abroad and all this kind of thing.

But yes, you’re absolutely right. If you’re reading them chronologically as they come out and in amongst the short fiction, it does feel like quite a, a random thing to do.

John: It does. The only possible justification is the true crime on which it’s based happened in France, but then the true crime on which Murder on the Orient Express is supposedly based happened in America and Murder on the Orient Express is not set in America.

So I don’t give much credence to that, but I should also put in a caveat. I’m quite wary about saying that such and such a book, especially Golden Age Detective Novel, is based on such and such a crime. Because sometimes the connection is rather tenuous, shall we say. And a good detective story writer, and Christie was the greatest, would take just the smallest inkling or seed of that crime and then build her own plot around it.

So saying it’s based on is a little bit misleading, and I’m always quite wary. You’re absolutely right in that she did set lots of her books throughout her career. much more than any of her compatriots, abroad. And in the 1920s alone, we have France. She goes back to France again for Mystery of the Blue Train.

And of course, she goes to South Africa with The Man in the Brown Suit. So she was very adventurous with her settings.

Caroline: Who would you say are her influences at this time? As you rightly say, the idea of the golden age and the detection club and this kind of group of colleagues all feeding off each other, that’s still 8-10 years away at this point.

Who might she have been reading at the time that would have influenced Murder on the Links?

John: Well, she says in her autobiography that the books that influenced her were The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, and Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, as well as the Sherlock Holmes stories.

We also have to remember that she was writing her autobiography. She began it in 1950 and wrote it over the next 15 years, and 1950 itself was over 25 years after, for instance, in Murder on the Links. So, the autobiography is not the most dependable source, it has to be said, even though they’re the words of the master.

You can’t take everything in it as gospel. But I think she says that Gaston Leroux influenced Murder on the Links. Well, the French setting is one thing, but I’m not sure. I mean, it’s more likely that Christie influenced other writers than she used the influence of anybody else because she did, our first book, she did it better than most other people.

So she certainly read those books. Leavenworth and Yellow Room, and they did have some influence on her. So, saying that Christie was influenced, I’m not really sure that you can say that categorically. Certainly, the early Poirot short stories are influenced by the Sherlock Holmes short stories. I mean, the two of them have a flat, they have a landlady, people come to them with their problems, and some of them are very similar to some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories.

But I think influence is very difficult to define anyway.

Caroline: Yes, let’s go back to something you mentioned just now about this idea of the real life case and, because I completely agree with you, I just don’t think it’s really right to say that a book can be based on a case like that, but I do think that someone who writes crime fiction is interested in what’s happening in real life crime and they might be inspired by little, little nuggets here and there.

John: Yeah, just one facet of a case may influence a writer, but they would use that and then build their own plot or own edifice of construction around it. So this one, she talks about autobiography about a notorious case some years ago. Now, according to my reckoning and the research that I’ve done. The case was 15 years earlier.

So, and it may well have been high profile at the time, who knows, but it involved a lady called Marguerite Steinhiel. And Marguerite had, let’s just say, she had a colorful life. But she was accused of, well— her husband and mother-in-law were found dead, although the mother-in-law choked very unromantically on her false teeth, and Marguerite herself was found tied up, and her claim was that two men had burst into the room looking for papers.

She was tried, but she was acquitted and lived happily ever after, as the saying goes. But it is hard to imagine that Christie wasn’t aware of this case, because the similarities are very close. Although it’s not a husband and wife, it’s a woman’s husband and mother-in-law, which is quite a different setup.

But she only just took that bit of it and wove her own plot around it. And quite cleverly, I think.

Caroline: Yes. So she read about that. She got the idea for the opening scenario of The Murder on the Links, but then the rest of the book develops in an original direction that isn’t part of that case at all.

It’s interesting nonetheless. And also, as you say, the autobiography, it’s an unstable source, shall we say. But the fact that she does mention it, however many, 30 years later, she is still remembering that connection is interesting.

John: Oh, absolutely it is. But the autobiography, you would nearly need to check it against other sources before you’re taking anything as gospel.

I mean, she was writing it over a period of 15 years. That alone would make it unstable, if you like. But of course, in a way, it shows her modesty because she wasn’t able to quote day and date, because as far as she was concerned, she was just fulfilling a commission from the BBC. She had no idea that it was going to become the longest running play in the history of humanity.

She was very professional in her writing and in her presentation, but she was very unprofessional in the organization and she was quite modest about her achievements and how she set about achieving those achievements, if you like.

Caroline: I find that very interesting. This is a bit of a stretch, but I remember once at some event, I was sat next to a museum curator who was at that time working on the huge exhibition about David Bowie that was then put on at the V&A and toured the world and was this big success.

And she was saying he kept literally everything right from the very earliest days. He seemed absolutely convinced that he was going to be so famous that one day someone would care about, you know, a napkin that he’d scribbled three words that might or might not end up in a song eventually. And that she had this enormous warehouse to go through basically of stuff.

And Christie seems to be completely the opposite of that. She never had any expectation that anyone would want to study her. And therefore, she had no reason to note down the exact time someone from the BBC called.

John: No, absolutely not. And I mean, in one of her books, she names six of her earlier murderers.

which seems to me to be proof that she had no idea. She thought the books would be read for three or four, maybe five, ten years and then disappear. So the fact that you and I are sitting here almost 50 years after her death discussing in detail one of her earliest and least famous novels, that she would be the subject of doctoral theses and academic papers and endless numbers of books on every aspect of her life and writing.

No one would be more surprised than Agatha Christie herself, because that wasn’t what she did. She was a Victorian lady, you have to remember.

Caroline: Yes, I think that’s fascinating. One aspect of her potential connection with her personal life with this book that I’m interested in is the connection with golf.

Because the title suggests that this is going to be a golf mystery. I think the French edition is even called something like Le Crime du Golf, but it’s not really, is it? But why do you think Christie might wanted to give that impression?

John: Again, you have to consider the possibility that it may have been her publisher.

Now we know that her husband played golf, amongst other things. This is Archie, to whom this book, by the way, Murder on the Links is dedicated. So maybe that was the reason. But it also was a good way to produce a dead body in a bunker, although Carter Dickson was to do it again many, many years later. So I’m not sure that that was her intention.

And again, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? opens very promisingly on the gold links, but that has nothing to do with it. The most ‘golfy’, if I can use that word, type of story, is “The Sunningdale Mystery” from Partners in Crime, a very clever short story.

And you’re absolutely right, because the golf connection here is rather tenuous, shall we say. Although they play that up much more in the David Suchet version, where Hastings is hoping to go on a golfing holiday without Poirot noticing.

Caroline: Yes, it almost makes more sense with the addition of that, I think, the title.

I think it, whether, yes, as you say, it was intentional on her part or just some kind of manifestation of a publishing thing, it does almost feel a bit like a red herring, the title of this book. You go into it with certain expectations and then they’re not met. So you mentioned Hastings there, and I think he’s a very important person part of this book. He’s very prominent as a narrator, sort of interlocutor for Poirot. He’s definitely Poirot’s Watson at this point, would you say?

John: Oh yes, absolutely. Even from the first book, I would say that. And again, in this one, he plays a more prominent part, and it has to be said, staggering stupidity, he shows halfway through the book.

But of course, he’s a man in love. And I have to, this is my own personal view, detectives and/or their sidekicks in love are a sorry sight. I’m one of those who would start a cue to bang the heads of Peter, Wimsey and Harriet Vane together at regular intervals throughout their books. So I don’t go along with this at all.

Hastings does play a large part in this. But then, even at that point, according to her autobiography, Christie was getting fed up with Hastings. Bearing in mind, although it’s only the second book, she would have already written quite a lot of short stories. And he is, I mean, generally accepted to be the stupidest of Watsons.

But I never think that’s completely fair, because the whole idea of a Watson is more or less to be stupid, so that the great detective can explain how, what a genius he is to the Watson and thereby also explaining to the reader. So he’s the go between, if you like. She sends him off to Argentina at the end of the book, and he doesn’t come back really until Peril at End House.

He does come back in The Big Four, but those stories are more or less contemporaneous. Yes, he does play a part in this and a lot of the plot developments are thanks to him or, I don’t know whether thanks is the right word, because he does introduce a lot of complications that make the whole case much more difficult for the detectives.

He’s quite Watsonly in the sense that he’s a huge fan of Poirot. He sometimes exasperates Poirot, but his heart is good even though his brain lags a good bit behind him, I’s afraid. And never more so than in this book, because what he does is. Staggeringly stupid, even though it is necessary, if you like, to the complications of the plot.

And, of course, he’s in love, which is disastrous.

Caroline: Yes.

John: We know that Poirot has an ego the size of the Grand Canyon. We know that he has a good sense of humor, we know he’s a genius, we know he loves playing his cards close to his chest. There again, that’s Christie taunting and tantalizing her readers more than Poirot has tantalized the French detectives.

What was interesting to me in this one is it’s the only example I can think of where Poirot has an antagonistic relationship with the other detective. As we know, while he can exasperate Inspector Japp, they’re good friends. It’s Lieutenant Spence who appears in a few later books. Ariadne Oliver who appears with him.

But in this one, he is very antagonistic. Well, in fairness, it’s the other way around more so. The French detective is very antagonistic towards Poirot, which maybe that was the reason for the French. Christie was going to play up that aspect of it. But Poirot is, I think, he’s intensely likeable. I’m not sure that people would like to meet Sherlock Holmes. Or like to eat Roger Sheringham. But I think most people would like to meet Poirot. They could imagine themselves sitting down and having a tisane with him and a chat because he does seem to be good company.

Caroline: Yes, he seems also to have some sense of humour, like he might be a bit fun, whereas I can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes being fun.

John: No, oh absolutely not, no, no. And you’d probably won’t want to talk to the Roger Sheringham ten minutes after meeting him.

Caroline: For sure, yes. So, we shall now enter the spoiler zone. We do have several police, official investigating characters in this book. Poirot is called in by this peculiar situation where he receives a letter from a man who then turns up dead, but the other characters, Monsieur Bex, Monsieur Hautet, the magistrate, and Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté, they all come in, in the normal official way after a body has been discovered.

Is it a bit over complicated of Christie, do you think, to have all of these different investigators working on the same case?

John: Absolutely, because you become bewildered as to what function each of them has, whereas in one of her stories set in the UK, the chief constable might come in, but he’ll come in at the early stage and then disappear into the final stages.

There are far too many policemen, it has to be said, the only interesting one is the one where he has an antagonistic relationship. The other complication for me, leaving aside the sad fate of Hastings, is the fact of two sisters. Now, again, in the David Suchet version, this was streamlined, and there’s only one sister.

Two sisters is one too many, I feel. It’s an extra complication on top of half a dozen policemen, which is really unnecessary because the basic plot is quite clever. But far too many policemen. Although maybe that was or maybe that is the way a French murder investigation works. I don’t know. I suspect Agatha Christie didn’t either.

Caroline: Yes, it doesn’t come across as the product of vast research, I must admit.

John: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t.

Caroline: You mentioned there that the base plot of this, the base mechanism of this book, is very good. Could you say a bit more about why you think it is?

John: Yes, absolutely. It is clever because, okay, we know it’s based, well, the inspiration came from the true life event of two people breaking in and tying up the victims.

But in this, it’s the case of one murder plot is afoot, shall we say, and then somebody intervenes at the last minute and turns the real murder plot into a second murder plot. But the reader doesn’t know this until the final stages. Now, in fairness to Christie, we are given quite a few clues or hints, not as definite and as black and white as in Mysterious Affair at Styles, but we’re told about the French case, although quite late in the book, relatively speaking. We’re told about the lead piping, which is scorned by the French detective, but Poirot paid more attention to it. My favorite clue in it is the overcoats. And as usual with Christie, a letter plays an important part. If you go through Christie and count the number of books on which a letter or writing of some sort plays a part, she played endless variations on the idea of a matter, and so be it with this book. But the clue of the overcoat and mystifying scene where Poirot measures an overcoat and nobody has any idea what that’s all about. But actually that is the main clue. So the essential plot is clever. What ruins it, well ruins is a bit of an overexaggeration, what spoils it is the number of policemen and investigators and the fact of two sisters.

That’s just, I say, one too many. But other than that, and I think the revelation of whodunnit does come as a surprise to most people, even though it has been signaled right from the word go, when he talks about the girl with the anxious eyes, and how many readers stop to think, well, why is she anxious?

Caroline: Yes, it’s very interesting that, isn’t it, that. And I don’t know whether this is Christie’s skill or maybe her skill still shining through despite her inexperience, perhaps, because it feels like she throws so much at the reader.

You’ve got a blackmail, infidelity plot, a parallel case from twenty years before, young women appearing and absconding with murder weapons. As you say, far too much romance. I don’t dislike romance in detective novels as much as you do, but I only like it where I feel it is sort of justified, and I don’t think it’s justified in this book.

And then the two sisters, which for me has far too much of a smack of twins about it. It feels like in spite of all of that, there is still a good novel in here, and I can’t decide whether Christie sort of achieves that because of her skill or in spite of it, if that makes sense.

John: Oh, yes, it does. It may absolutely make sense.

I mean, what I noticed when I was rereading it for this podcast, and this applies to the vast majority of her books right up to the end of her career, is the pacing. Because something happens in every chapter, and even though people are interviewed, and there are quite a few people to interview, it never flags.

It keeps going, and then there’s another development, and then there’s another body, and then there are more developments. So despite all of that, the book moves along at a great pace, and that is part of the secret of her success. Her pacing is much better than most. Admirable though Wills Crofts is, you do lose the will to live during some of his more long winded investigations, whereas that never happens with Christie.

And the other thing that never happens with Christie is you never confuse one character with another. Even though the character drawing is not Jane Austen or George Eliot. I think the book doesn’t move along at a great pace, but with those caveats, I think that’s a good point. Did she do it because or despite?

I think it’s probably despite. Possibly if she had rewritten it or if she’d written it ten or fifteen years later, she would have gotten rid of quite a few of those characters. But I do think having said all of that, the revelation of the killer is a surprise because she doesn’t come under any suspicion at any point in the novel.

Now I do have reservations about the final scene where she’s trapped and acrobats and all the rest of it. I don’t find that particularly believable, although you have to remember this is a book written over a hundred years ago.

Caroline: Yes. Would you say then that Christie does play fair with the reader, even though Marthe doesn’t come under suspicion by any other characters and Poirot, as you say, keeps his cards very close to his chest.

Do you think you can work it out for yourself?

John: Well, I think she plays fair, but not fair enough, if I could put it that way. I don’t think he would work it out. Well, you do have the clue of the anxious eyes, the clue of the overcoat, the clue of the letter, which isn’t actually addressed to anyone. What I do think puts a lot of people off, I remember the very first time I read it, it put me off, because we probably all would be suspicious of the setup.

But then, when the wife identifies the dead body and faints, and Poirot tells us, the reader, that was a shock, she wasn’t acting, she wasn’t pretending, then we have to go back and revise all your thoughts. So I think that is very clever. So, I think she probably, it is her skill of course, but I think she made life more difficult for herself with some of the complications that she brought in.

Caroline: What things do you identify in this book? Seeds that she plants that then bloom in later works? What do you think she does well here that we then see to greater effect later on?

John: Well, the letter, for instance, because she uses letters in so many books. The Lord Edgware Dies. Well, not all turns on the letter. A lot of it turns on the letter. Peril at End House. The letters are a huge indication. Three Act Tragedy. A letter plays an important part. ABC Murders. Five Little Pigs. That’s just off the top of my head. But the other plot device, which I think is a great hook, is the letter—there we go again, another letter—to Poirot inviting him over. Then when they get there, the person is dead. Now she used that again in Dumb Witness. which is over ten years later. And she also used it in “How Does Your Garden Grow?” and to a lesser extent in “A Cornish Mystery.” So that idea really appealed to her. I’m assuming she remembered that she did it before.

So those ideas, I think she was quite pleased with and used them again. I’m not sure that there is very much else in this. I suppose the revelation of the killer is a surprise because, as I said earlier, Marthe doesn’t come under suspicion at any point, and she’s a beautiful young girl, so of course she couldn’t be a killer.

And probably again in 1923, a beautiful young girl as a killer was a shock. But in many ways, it’s not a typical Christie story, possibly because of the French connection.

Caroline: Yes, the choice of the young beautiful woman as the murderer, I haven’t done all of the sums on this, but it doesn’t feel like typical Christie.

We don’t get that many of those, especially not in the earlier works. Would that be right?

John: No, no, I think you’re probably right. Again, I haven’t sat down, I’ve done the calculation, but there are obviously female mergers dotted throughout, but they’re not all as beautiful or as young or as sympathetic, if you like, because the romance between herself and Jack is, you know, and they all lived happily ever after type romance.

So you don’t expect one half of that to end up on the gallows. Whereas when he is accused and in jail and what have you and is released, you think, oh, that’s okay. Then they’re going to get married at the end of the book. And hey ho, they don’t.

Caroline: Yes, I think perhaps if you’ve read a lot of somewhat lesser writers, I’m thinking particularly of Patricia Wentworth, you’re inclined to think that any character who is early identified as being part of a romantic couple cannot possibly be involved in the murder.

John: Yeah, absolutely. But Christie had none of that. She was absolutely ruthless in her choice of killer. Quite a few times, either the male or the female, and you think they’re going to live happily ever after. They don’t. I do say Patricia Wentworth was notorious for that, but then I don’t really consider Patricia Wentworth a serious Golden Age writer.

But Christie was more ruthless than most of her compatriots or fellow writers. She had no compunction about making people—sympathetic people—killers, and more power to her.

Caroline: Yes, I think it absolutely makes for a better book. So we’ve got the Jack Martyr romance, but then also something else that feels like an additional layer of complication in this plot to me is that you’ve got Jack and Bella each sort of doing a false confession to save the other, which is something that you do find in other books, but it feels with everything else going on in this book, it It does feel like a bit much to me to have that added as well.

John: I didn’t have a major problem with that, although standing back and looking at it in cold blood. But again, you have to remember it’s a hundred years ago and people, I suppose, a hundred years ago were much more likely to do that. then maybe ten, twenty, a hundred years later. It is quite a romantic gesture, bearing in mind that she could end up being hanged.

I don’t think in the overall scheme of things that’s too much. I would be much happier leaving that in and taking out one of the sisters. And Hastings’ romance.

Caroline: Yes, because Bella is the sister who matters, really, to the large amount of this plot. And yes, so all you need to do, which I have to admit, I haven’t rewatched the Suchet adaptation of this in years.

But I imagine this is what they do, which is they just give a couple of things Dulcie does to Bella and then that’s all you need. That’s one person.

John: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just one sister and it’s much more streamlined and makes much more sense. And of course, the embargo on twins didn’t officially come in until five, six years after this book was written.

So you could use twins at that point. And of course, Christie did use twins. And so did most of her contemporaries. How you use them is the important point. But this really adds nothing. I said it earlier, but I will say it again. Hastings’ actions in the middle of the book really beg our belief. Even for somebody who wasn’t involved in crime or crime detection.

What he does just is beyond dull.

Caroline: He’s very much tampering with the investigation, isn’t he? But he doesn’t acknowledge it as such.

John: No, we see, I suppose a man in love and all that, but it still doesn’t excuse it. I mean, it was completely, and not only that, but in the book, he’s allowed into the garden shed or whatever you want to call it, where the evidence is.

I mean, I know he’s not the most gifted intellectually, but really it is asking a lot to ask us to believe that he did not just one, but half a dozen stupid things. But as you say then, and doesn’t acknowledge it in the end.

Caroline: No, not at all. That is something that I think is very interesting if you sort of think about this book from a metafictional point of view.

And it does seem to be coming to the reader through Hastings as the Watson conduit. He’s not at all self-aware. He’s not self-reflective about his own part in any of it.

John: No, absolutely not. I don’t think any of us blame Christie for getting rid of him. Because, of course, from a more practical point of view, if you’ve got a Watson narrator, it means that you’re confined to scenes where he was actually present.

So you can’t describe things when he’s not around. And we can see part of that with In both Dumb Witness and ABC Murders, there are sections where, even though they’re told in the first person by Hastings, there are sections told in the third person. So, Christie was obviously getting tired of this. She felt it restricted her, leaving aside whether or not he was the most gifted Watson of all time, which he wasn’t.

So, I can completely understand why she did want to get rid of him, because he is, as you say, completely un self-aware. Self-unaware. Whichever.

Caroline: Yes. It reminds me actually of something that I feel like once you know it, you can’t not see it in Jane Austen’s work, that there are no scenes of just men talking to men because Jane wouldn’t have known what that was like. And so she didn’t include it.

John: Yeah, absolutely. But it’s only when you look back and look at the overall picture of these sort of things that these things click with you.

Caroline: Yes, which is why I’m really enjoying this re reading project that the Penguins are providing me because I do definitely notice things. I’d never really questioned Hastings before when I read this book years ago, but now I do, you know.

John: Yeah, but you’re seeing him if you like, because he’s an invisible narrator for a large part. And of course, he did disappear until 1937, so onto your curtain.

Caroline: The way that Poirot ends this book, you could argue, is not with the greatest integrity. Because he engineers a situation in order to trap Marthe, rather than being able to just unmask her with evidence that he’s gathered and so on. He has to set a trap for her to fall into. What do you make of that?

John: I think it’s of its time, to be honest. But Poirot’s integrity, as regards murders, is a little bit questionable from time to time. If you think of, for instance, the ending of The Hollow. He knows what the killer there is going to do, and I won’t say he encourages, but he doesn’t discourage. The same with Dumb Witness. He knows what’s happening there.

This is just a more dramatic version of that, if you like. But then there’s also the question, was his reconstruction of the crime capable of proof?

Caroline: Yes, that, I think whenever I encounter this type of ending, that’s always the question it makes me ask is: could you have done this without resorting to this?

Again, it depends on what’s your standard of proof, you know, if you’re thinking about it in terms of what would work for a prosecution versus what would work just to, you know, satisfy everybody that they knew what happened. Without catching her red handed in this way in this book, I don’t think there could have been a prosecution, for instance.

John: No, I think that is probably the deciding factor because if you look at almost all of the Miss Marples end in a similar fashion, because Miss Marple deductions, which are not as hard and fast as Poirot’s for the most part, would never stand up in a court of law or a police station even. So most of her mergers are unmasked by something similar.

I don’t really have a problem with that and it makes a more dramatic read.

Caroline: It definitely works in a fictional narrative sense, yes, for bringing it all to a climax. It does raise some interesting, interesting questions about justice, I think. But yes, you’re right, you could never put Miss Marple in the witness box and say, so you suspect this man because of how somebody else bought the fish forty years ago.

Could you explain how that happened?

John: Exactly. Yes.

Caroline: Yes. Doesn’t work. The other thing that I wanted to come back to something you said earlier, which is this observation that Poirot makes early on in the book about Marthe being a girl with the anxious eyes. And this is like a motif that recurs through the book.

And actually on my reread, I decided, I think it’s my favorite thing about this book because he makes this observation upon first seeing her. And Hastings is saying, you know, didn’t you notice it wasn’t that girl attractive? And Poirot’s saying, I just saw a girl with anxious eyes. We then, much later, are led to realize that that’s a very important clue.

Why is she anxious? She has superficially no reason to be anxious at that time, unless there’s something else going on. It’s then the name of a chapter around the middle of the book, and then it obviously feeds into the the final revelation. What do you make of that? How does that work for you?

John: Because not only is it the name of a chapter, it was the name of the novel man of a serialized before publication. I don’t think it’s a great title for a crime novel, I have to say. I mean, The Murder on the Links, you know what you’re getting. I think it is Christie being in your face. Almost defying you to ask yourself, why is she anxious?

Because as you say, superficially, she has nothing to be anxious about. Okay, you could say it’s because of Jack, but that really doesn’t explain it. So I think it’s Christie daring you to anticipate the solution. And she can turn around and say, well, I told you she was anxious from the very first time you met her.

So I applaud her for that. To me, that would be one of the main clues, although it’s very tenuous, I agree, but when you look back on it, it does seem one of those things you say, Oh, of course, why didn’t I notice that?

Caroline: Yes, it is very clever in that way. It does give that sort of deniability if you’re engaging in the interrogation of, is she playing fair? Is she cluing fairly? All that sort of thing. Yes, definitely a big point in Christie’s favour, that. And, and yeah, I think done very, very cleverly. And yeah, for me, one of the best things about the book. Also just for what it draws out about the differences between Poirot and Hastings is quite amusing too.

You know, Hastings just sees a pretty face and Poirot sees something more.

John: Which is why Christie knew it would escape the attention of most readers because they’re oohing and aahing over Hastings falling in love.

Caroline: Yes.

John: So she, she can flip that main clue right past you and you don’t even notice it.

Caroline: Yes, more and more this discussion has convinced me that she was absolutely right to pack Hastings off to the Argentine at the end of this book with Dulcie.

John: Yeah, I’m afraid I do agree, I have to say. He doesn’t really add luster to the cases. And as his creator, Christie, I’m sure, felt very restricted in what she could do because of him.

Caroline: Let’s move to our overall assessment of this book, having reconsidered it on all these points. Has your opinion of The Murder on the Links been changed at all, John?

John: I think it has, and not in a good way, because I never really talked very much about it before. You just read them for the enjoyment. And as I say, I didn’t have to study it for Secret Notebooks because there are no notes for it.

So I think what got me this time around was the plethora of policemen, and then Hastings and his lady friend. I think they gum up the words considerably. It’s not really part of the murder plot, I mean, apart from Hastings stupidity in what he does, but it doesn’t add or subtract from the plot that’s going on under the text, if you like.

So, I think it went down slightly in my estimation. Although I don’t agree with Robert Barnard’s salation where it’s highly complex. I don’t think it’s highly complex. I don’t think any of Christie’s works are highly complex, which is why she’s still read now. So I would, as I said earlier, I would place it higher than the Poirots of the sixties and I would place it in the middle of the Poirots of the twenties, but not anywhere near the Poirots of the thirties and forties.

So I think I’m being fair to it. I would also place it higher than Seven Dials and The Chimneys and all the rest of those because my main interest is the detective novel. I think, does that answer your question really? I mean, I’m sitting on the fence a little bit, but for me to say “it’s not as good as” that’s a big confession because everything, everything that Christie did was wonderful.

Caroline: Yes. No, I think that that makes a lot of sense. I agree with you as well, that I think I would say cluttered rather than complex perhaps. And I think as well, it does show genuine signs of being a novel of detection, which you can’t say about all of her works of the 1920s.

John: No, I absolutely agree. I gave a talk at the festival a few years ago and I looked at the different decades of her writing, and I’m convinced that in the 1920s she was finding her feet.

To take them chronologically, she did a detective story, then she did a thriller, then she went back to a detective story but in a French setting, then she did another thriller, then she did a collection of short stories, then she did Roger Ackroyd. But then she did Blue Train and Seven Dials and Secret of Chimneys and another collection of short stories.

So, if she had only written those books, we probably wouldn’t be talking about her today, apart from Roger Ackroyd. So it wasn’t until the 1930s that she settled in to doing what she did best, of which she did superlatively well, and did better than all of her contemporaries, that is, the classic detective novel, with the challenge to the reader to spot the villain before I’m ready to tell you.

But the only examples of that in the 1920s are Styles, obviously, this one, and Roger Ackroyd. That’s my take of the 1920s. I think she was finding her creative feet.

Caroline: So, what I like to do at the end of each Green Penguin reread is award a book a number of Green Penguins out of five. How many Green Penguins out of five would you like to give this book?

John: Five being the best, I assume.

Caroline: Five being the best.

John: Can I give two and a half? Or is that cheating?

Caroline: No, you can give two and a half. I’ve had, I’ve had someone gave 4.2 in a previous one.

John: Oh no, oh no! Oh no, absolutely not. No, I think two and a half, because as I say, I would put it in the middle of the twenties, just taking the Poirot books.

I would put it in between all of them. Not as good as some, a lot better than others. So two and a half, if that’s not making your life difficult.

Caroline: No, that’s brilliant. And thank you so much for rereading this with me, John. It’s been wonderful to have you.

John: Oh, I’m always happy to reread a Christie.


I hope you enjoyed our conversation about The Murder on the Links. Before we finish, I want to do a brief postbag section, mostly to thank you for all the wonderful messages I received about our last Green Penguin Book Club episode, in which Helen Zaltzman and I discussed The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers — details of that plot ahead, if you’re still avoiding spoilers for it. In particular, I want to highlight one point made by Cora, who got in touch about the character of Majorie Phelps, who at the end of that book makes an impromptu and seemingly casual proposal of marriage to Peter Wimsey, only to be rebuffed. This isn’t the end of this theme for these characters, Cora points out:

“I want to give Marjorie Phelps her due: I think she cares quite a bit for Lord Peter. There’s a passage in Strong Poison where she takes him to see Eiluned Price and Sylvia Marriott, and he is called away to the telephone where he’s got news about the packet of white powder, and he comes back in an elated mood. This obviously tips Marjorie off that his feelings are involved, and the narrator says, “Marjorie Phelps looked at him and said nothing. She suddenly felt as though something inside her had been put through a wringer.”

I had forgotten about this, and it puts that interaction in a new light — poor Majorie, with her unrequited feelings, now supplanted by Harriet Vane in a later book.

And then I also wanted to include this point from Janet, for whom the episode brought to mind an Open University lecture she went to decades ago that pointed out how rare it is to see contemporary women’s writing in the 1920s about the effects world war one. Reconsidering The Unpleasnantness at the Bellona Club in this light is very interesting. Janet says:

It brought out the stresses that George Fentiman’s poor wife Sheila had to cope with, struggling to earn enough to put food on the table, and pretend that things were alright. — George has war trauma This scenario must have been deeply disturbing at the time, but will have resonated with many families, although they would have never talked about it. I have never forgotten this lecture, all those years ago. Incidentally, we learned that the other writer who raised this subject was Virginia Woolf (another woman), when she wrote Mrs Dalloway, in 1925. Incidentally, It was left to a German man to write about the war – Erich Paul Remark’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 1928 (the same year as The Unpleasantness!!).

Thank you very much to Cora and to Janet, and everyone else who sent in thoughts. If you have a perspective you’d like to share for the next episode, please send an email or a voice note to caroline@shedunnitshow.com and mark it for inclusion in the show. The next book we read will be Penguin 14, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammit. I’m doing green penguin book club roughly ever other month, so listen out for that episode in June. And make sure you’re following the show in Instagram @shedunnitshow for green penguin updates and guest announcments before then.


This episode of Shedunnit was produced and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. My guest was John Curran.

You can find a full list of the books we mentioned in this episode at shedunnitshow.com/themurderonthelinks. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

And don’t forget that my new book, A Body Made of Glass, has just come out and is currently available to order everywhere books are sold or borrowed. And if you do read it, I would really appreciate a rating or review at your platform of choice — it’s hugely helpful both to me and to other readers who might be deciding if they want to give it a try.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

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Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Golden age detective fiction is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with hard to obtain titles receiving new editions and new TV and film adaptations in the works.… Continue Reading

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… Continue Reading

A Century of Whodunnits Transcript

Something I love about making this podcast is the space it provides for me to zoom right in. I can dedicate a whole episode to a single trope from classic detective fiction, whether that’s tropes like “the butler did it” or settings like “on a boat”. I’ve narrowed the focus even further by putting a… Continue Reading

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… Continue Reading

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.… Continue Reading

Cryptic Crimes Transcript

Caroline: Classic detective fiction has rules. Codified as the genre grew in popularity in the 1920s and early 30s, these conventions mostly feed into the idea of “fair play” between author and reader. The art of writing a good murder mystery, then, is sticking to this framework while also subverting it. There’s a great skill… Continue Reading

The Honkaku Mysteries Transcript

Caroline: It’s over a hundred years now since the golden age of detective fiction began in Britain. Some writers who were key to the popularity of the whodunnit between the two world wars are still household names in the UK and the US today — Agatha Christie, of course, but the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers,… Continue Reading

The First Whodunnit Transcript

Caroline: The world of detective fiction has recently passed an important milestone. It’s a hundred years since the appearance of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. First serialised in the London Times in 1920, it appeared in book form first in the US at the end of that year and then in… Continue Reading

The People’s Pathologist Transcript

The murder mystery is a form that brings forth certainty from uncertainty. The job of the detective is to sort through the chaotic mass of clues and testimony to create an ordered, coherent narrative of how a crime was committed. Medical evidence forms a vital part of this process, often creating the parameters for a… Continue Reading

The Psychology of Anthony Berkeley Transcript

Caroline: The writers of detective stories can be as much of a mystery as the plots they create. During the 1920s and 30s, this attitude was especially prevalent. Some authors, grudgingly or not, accepted the publicity duties that often go with literary success — Dorothy L. Sayers, with her day job in advertising, was even quite… Continue Reading