Caroline: When I tell people what this podcast is about one of the first questions that I usually get asked is if I am worried about “running out of things to talk about”. And I suppose that is not an unreasonable concern, if you are only aware of the work of Agatha Christie and perhaps a few of the other more popular crime writers from the 1920s and 1930s. If that was all I had to work with, then it might have been a bit harder to get almost five years’ worth of podcast topics out of this literary genre.
But of course, you and I both know that the reason the golden age of detective fiction was so called is because of the incredible depth and breadth of the work that it produced. I’ve been researching a fortnightly episode for the last half a decade or so, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to discover. That said, I have accumulated a fairly long list of intriguing titles and authors already, and I’d like to put that information at your disposal.
Which is why, today, you get to eavesdrop on my new murder mystery hotline.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Here’s how this is going to work. I opened up the hotline to members of the Shedunnit Book Club a couple of weeks ago, asking for their very specific book recommendation requests. Say you want to read a golden age mystery with a parrot in it, or one where there’s a car chase, or you’ve already enjoyed all the books by one famous author and want something similar from someone less well known. These books have not yet magically fallen into your lap, but perhaps I can help. I got an amazing wealth of responses from the Club, and now after some furious research by me and my production assistant Leandra, the hotline is now well and truly up and running. And this doesn’t have to be a one-time thing — if you enjoy it, we can definitely open it again in the future.
If you’d like to be involved in the making of future episodes like this, become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club today at shedunnitbookclub.com/join. As well as the chance to take part in the murder mystery hotline, members also get every episode of the podcast early and without advertising, two extra bonus episodes a month, and access to the secret club forum. Basically, if you like Shedunnit and you want there to be more of it beyond what is available for free, this is how you get it. Contributions from members are the main way that I’m able to keep the main podcast free and accessible to all, so if you’d like to help with that too, shedunnitbookclub.com/join is the place to go.
Before I take the first call, though, a quick note about book availability. While some of the titles I’m going to recommend today will be readily available in your local bookshop or library, some of them won’t be — I’m also going to touch on rarer and out of print options for the requests I’m answering, so if you want to read them you might need to start haunting your preferred secondhand book retailers. I’m doing this not because I want to frustrate anyone, but rather because I want to demonstrate the wide variety of golden age detective fiction available beyond what is still popular and in print today. Plus, we are very fortunate today to have a thriving reprint culture with these books, so I’m hoping that if I can give some attention to some overlooked titles, we might get to see them become more widely available in the future. And I’m hoping too that this might start a conversation with and among listeners — after hearing this episode, if you have a book suggestion for any of the callers, please do let us know via email or on social media, the details are in the description of this episode.
Oh sorry, I think someone is already calling the hotline.
Phone pick up sound
Meg: Hi Caroline. I’d like to read more books that have gardening, gardeners or plants as important parts of the plots. I enjoyed A Grave Mistake by Ngaio Marsh and there’s quite a few plants in Ellis Peters’ books, but I’d like to read more. Thank you.
Phone put down sound
Caroline: Well, this is an interesting one. Of course, there are plenty of famous detective novels in which plants feature in their distilled form as poisons or gardeners provide important witness testimony, but I think we can do better than that for this caller. My first suggestion is the work of the author Sheila Pim, an Irish novelist who published the first of her seven crime novels, Common or Garden Crime in 1945. This story is set in a village outside Dublin during the second world war, and focuses on a group of gardeners with very different horticultural styles who are preparing for a flower show when a key judge is poisoned. Pim’s mysteries are gentle and light in tone, so perhaps not for the diehard puzzle mystery fan, but as she was a horticulturalist herself who also wrote for gardening magazines, I think her gardening credentials are unimpeachable.
Other than that, I would suggest looking into the work of R.T. Campbell, a pseudonym of the Scottish poet Ruthven Todd, who in the 1940s published eight mysteries starring the botanist and amateur detective Professor John Stubbs. The first one, Unholy Dying, sees a murder take place at an international gathering of geneticists, and several others have botanical features, such as 1946’s The Death Cap, which sees a victim poisoned with a mushroom.
I’d also like to propose checking out Black Orchids by Rex Stout, from 1941, which features a millionaire orchid fancier and another death at a flower show.
You might also like to try John Rhode’s Up the Garden Path from 1949, in which two bodies are found at different times in the same spot — on the garden path of a country house owned by an eccentric inventor. Or an alternative from a bit later: the caller did say they had already enjoyed Ngaio Marsh’s Grave Mistake, which stars a gardener, but I wonder if they might also like to try her novel False Scent from 1959, in which someone is killed with an insecticide intended for potted plants.
Finally, a non-fiction option: Karl Sabbagh’s A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud from 2001, which tells the true crime story of a 1940s plant-based crime involving rival botanists and scientific skulduggery.
I hope at least one of those does the trick. Let’s see who else is on the line.
Phone pick up sound
Phil: Hi Caroline. My name’s Phil and I would love a classic detective fiction recommendation with a Welsh connection. So Welsh authors or books set in Wales with a strong sense of place. Um, I think the 1920s and thirties as a golden age were pretty interesting from a labour history and social history point of view for the mining industry. And so anything set in or touching on a mining community in Wales would be particularly interesting and for absolute maximum interest. From a personal sort of family history point of view for me, um, anything that features a village shop in a mining community in Wales would absolutely hit the jackpot. Um, but any combination of whatever of those elements you can find would be terrific. Thank you.
Phone put down sound
Caroline: Well, I did ask the book club members to send me their very specific book recommendations, and they took me at their word! I sadly haven’t managed to hit the jackpot with this one and find a shop-based mystery set in a Welsh mining community, but I do have a few Wales-based options for you. How about Ianthe Jerrold’s Dead Man’s Quarry from 1940, which is set during a cycling holiday on the Wales-Herefordshire border? Another choice might be The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull from 1934, a famous inverted mystery narrated by one Edward Powell, who lives on the outskirts of a tiny Welsh town with his Aunt Mildred. I’m also intrigued by Death on Tiptoe by RC Ashby from 1931, which is a country house style mystery set in a fictional Welsh castle. And then for a later book by an author who started out during the golden age, I would suggest Noonday and Night by Gladys Mitchell from 1977. This one is intriguingly focuses on the drives at a coach tour company. Two of the buses have gone missing, one in Derbyshire and one in Wales, and although the vehicles themselves reappear eventually, the drivers are nowhere to be found. Mrs Bradley follows the tour route through Wales to unravel the mystery. I hope that gives you something to be going on with, Phil!
This next request was submitted via text, and it comes from Janet, who says: “I really enjoy books where books or libraries are the centre of the story. I know there are a few out there, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose being a great example, but I am not sure which golden age authors centred their plots around libraries, so would love some recommendations.”
Now, bibliomysteries — that is, mysteries relating to books and the people who write them — have been having a bit of a resurgence lately. In the last year, the British Library has republished three interesting titles in this niche, Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson from 1937, Death of an Author by ECR Lorac from 1935, and The Mysterious Mr Badman by W. F. Harvey from 1934. Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells from 1936 is very much in this same vein, as the title would suggest, as is R. T. Campbell’s Bodies in a Bookshop from 1946. There is also a British Library short story collection from them called Murder by the Book and a not dissimilar collection from across the pond edited by Otto Penzler titled Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores.
Obviously, Agatha Christie has a well known novel that fits Janet’s request for a library-based mystery — The Body in the Library. But we can definitely go deeper than that. A Case of Books by Bruce Graeme from 1946 also features a corpse found in a domestic library, that of a wealthy book collector who focused on extremely rare incunabula, or early printed books (shades of Peter Wimsey, of course). Graeme’s regular series character Theodore Terhune, a bookseller in rural Kent, then investigates. A lovely option, this one. For a public library example, we can go across the Atlantic and try The Widening Stain by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, which was first published in 1942. This light-hearted book from the American golden age tradition is set in a university library that is supposedly based on one at Cornell University and features not only the theft of a rare manuscript but also a locked room strangling. I hope one or more of those will satisfy the library mystery cravings, Janet.
Next we have another text submission from Christian, who would like a golden age mystery whose plot involves the League of Nations or the UN.
At first glance, I was sure that we wouldn’t be able to find anything for this! Too specific, for sure. But I had underestimated a) the diversity of the golden age genre and b) the persistence of Leandra, my production assistant. Thus, we have two very plausible options for Christian. First, Mystery at Geneva by Rose Macaulay from 1922, which is, as the title would suggest, set in Geneva during a League of Nations conference, and stars a journalist who starts investigating when the delegates begin to go missing in suspicious circumstances. And then our second choice is The Death of a Diplomat from 1928 by Peter Oldfeld. This is actually the pseudonym of two writers, Vernon Bartlett and Per Jacobsson, who both worked for the League of Nations before moving on to different professions — Bartlett became a journalist at the BBC and Jacobsson ended up as the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Their mystery is set in the diplomatic circles surrounding the League of Nations and features a vanishing diamond, a stolen treaty and a murdered ambassador — all of which must be solved before an international crisis ensues. Enjoy, Christian!
Phone pick up sound
Anne: One of the books in the Bookshelf challenge, chosen by @meginsuspense was by Edgar Box, the pseudonym of the writer Gore Vidal. This reminded me of the Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis’s alter ego Nicholas Blake, the name under which he wrote an acclaimed series of crime novels. John Banville, the Booker prize winner, has written detective stories as Benjamin Black, and more recently under his own name. What other examples are there of well known writers, with established literary reputations, writing detective fiction under another name?
(Arguably, Josephine Tey comes into this category, but as she became better known as Tey, the mystery writer, than as Gordon Daviot, the playwright, and neither was her real name, she’s not I think the best example.)
Phone put down sound
Caroline: This is an intriguing question, and to be honest to start with I thought Anne had already named the famous examples of this — Gore Vidal as Edgar Box, Cecil Day Lewis as Nicholas Blake and John Banville as Benjamin Black. But we did find a couple more writers to add to the list. W. Bolingbroke Johnson, whose library based mystery The Widening Stain I’ve already mentioned, was actually the pseudonym of Morris Bishop, a notable American historian, essayist and translator who wrote popular biographies of figures like Petrarch and Blaise Pascal under his own name. And then there’s also the English novelist and screenwriter James Hilton, who is best known for Goodbye Mr Chips, but who also in 1931 wrote a mystery under the Glen Trevor pen name titled Murder at School. Both Bishop and Hilton only wrote one mystery each, sadly, so you’re unlikely to find a whole shelf of them at a secondhand bookshop.
After the break: a treasure hunt, a double act, and a pineapple.
Let’s see who’s on the line now.
Phone pick up sound
Katrine: Hi Caroline, my name is Katrine and I’m a Danish children’s author and librarian. I have been a diehard Agatha Christie fan for many years. I love the puzzle aspect of golden age detective fiction and I’ve even had my own company making treasure hunts. I was wondering if you have a recommendation for a book with a lot of clever clues and riddles. I have already read all of Agatha Christie’s back catalogue so ideally it would be of another author. I love your show so much, it gives me a great deal of joy in my every day life. Thank you.
Phone put down sound
Caroline: Treasure hunts are such a classic golden age style activity — I believe they surged in popularity after the First World War at the same time as detective novels did. I know Katrine said she had already read all of Agatha Christie, but for anyone else who hasn’t and who shares her interest in treasure hunt mysteries, I did just want to mention the Christie short story “Manx Gold”, which is not only about a treasure hunt, but is actually one itself — it was commissioned by the Isle of Man tourist board to accompany a live event where readers could find clues in the text that lead to actual locations on the island where some prizes had been buried.
Other than that, I think a good read for this theme would be ECR Lorac’s These Names Make Clues from 1937, which has recently been republished. Its plot revolves entirely around a treasure hunt at a country house party, with Lorac’s regular detective Robert Macdonald one of the guests taking part. It also involves fake names, clues, ciphers and convoluted alibis, so should scratch that puzzle itch nicely. Similarly, the Ellery Queen novel The Chinese Orange Mystery from 1934 might do the trick — in this one an unidentified man is found killed in a locked room with a bowl of tangerines and all of the furniture and his clothes have been turned backward, even though the door has been under observation the whole time.
And then as a little bonus suggestion as Katrine is a children’s author herself, my production assistant Leandra has recommended The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, an American young adult mystery from 1978. I’ve never actually read this myself, but several past guests from the US, including YA mystery author Maureen Johnson, have insisted that I must do so immediately as it is an extremely Shedunnit-worthy book.
Next we’ve got a request that came in in text form, from Elizabeth, who would like a golden age mystery set in the world of theatre, the seedier the better. The obvious suggestion here is, of course, the work of Ngaio Marsh, who as a periodic theatre director herself wrote quite a lot of detective novels that have a theatrical connection. Highlights include Enter a Murderer from 1934, in which an actor is killed live on a West End stage by what was supposed to a prop gun, and Opening Night from 1951 with its backstage whodunnit, although Vintage Murder, Overture to Death, Final Curtain and Death at the Dolphin also have elements of the stage to them. But there are also non-Marsh options: Anne Haynes’ The Bungalow Mystery from 1923 is about a village amateur dramatic society, Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning from 1937 is set behind the scenes of a musical comedy production in London, and Alan Melville, who was a playwright himself, drew on his own theatrical experience to write 1934’s Quick Curtain.
Here’s our next caller.
Phone pick up sound
Kerry: This is Kerry from New Zealand, in keeping with that location, my question is whether you know of any mysteries that are set at Christmas in summer in the southern hemisphere. Thank you.
Caroline: This one was a real puzzler, and we really tried our best. There is no shortage of golden age mysteries from the southern hemisphere, of course, with writers like Ngaio Marsh, Arthur Upfield, Fergus Hume, Mary Fortune, J. M. Walsh and others ensuring that this region had a thriving crime writing tradition in the early to mid twentieth century. However, we really struggled to find any that specifically depict a summer time Christmas, I’m sorry to say. The one title that emerged from the research process was 1945’s Black Express by Conyth Little, the joint pen name of sisters Constance and Gwenyth Little, and also sometimes published under the title Great Black Kanba. This amnesia-based story is set at Christmas in Australia, so there is definitely a summer time festive period included.
Phone pick up sound
Sherri: Hi Caroline. What I would like is a sleuth couple, like Tommy and Tuppence from Agatha Christie or Harriet and Peter from Dorothy Sayers, a couple that compliment each other and they work together to solve mysteries. It would be so much fun to find another one.
Caroline: I think I’ve got a good suggestion for this one, which is the Mr and Mrs North series. These books were written by an American married couple, Frances and Richard Lockridge, and the first novel, The Norths Meet Murder, appeared in 1940. In the first one, the Norths share the mystery-solving duties with the police, but as the series goes on they do more of the sleuthing, with Mrs North often taking the lead. They were a very popular duo in their day, and there was a movie, a Broadway play and multiple radio series made featuring them. The Lockridges also kept the series going for a couple of decades, so if you like them, you’ll find that there are 26 novels to enjoy.
Now we’re going to do a few more quick fire recommendations. Rowena would like a mystery featuring a pineapple. I would suggest Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse from 1929, although the pineapple that its plot centres around is actually a hand grenade, nicknamed a pineapple in the slang of the First World War.
Another club member would like a mystery featuring an elephant and one featuring a penguin. For the former, you can’t do better than Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari from 1938, in which an elephant plays a major role in the climax of the plot. And for the latter, I would highly recommend 1931’s The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer in which a murder is witnessed at the titular location at the New York Aquarium. The 1932 film adaptation of this book is also great fun.
Finally, Shedunnit production assistant Leandra snuck her own request onto the end of the list — she would like a golden age mystery with a time sensitive plot, with the events in the novel ideally taking place over 24 hours, or 48 hours maximum. I have just the thing for this — Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston from 1935, which is a country house mystery with a strict 24 hour structure. The murder takes place right in the middle of the timetable, meaning that the reader gets to see the suspects in the lead up to the crime, and then in the aftermath.
That’s it from the murder mystery hotline for now — I hope the callers and all those who were listening have found something new and intriguing to read, or at least can now marvel in the seemingly infinite variety of the golden age detective novel. Whether you want diplomats or penguins or pineapples or riddles, there really is something for everyone.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/themurdermysteryhotline. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to have me answer your call to the murder mystery hotline in the future, the best way to do that is the join the Shedunnit Book Club — this is the paid membership scheme that runs alongside the podcast and which will get you extra episodes as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped the show stay on the air. Find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join. And if you have a recommendation to make in response to any of these prompts, get in touch via email or on social media, the details are on shedunnitshow.com.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.