Caroline: Most of us leave echoes as we move through the world. A trail of clues, if you will, that some interested historian or detective would be able to follow in the long distant future. Of course, the more prominent and privileged an individual is, the easier it will be able to reconstruct their life, but I think we all assume that by the beginning of the twentieth century, it is quite difficult for a writer, say, to vanish into the past without leaving a trace.
There is most definitely an exception to this rule, however. Her life spanned the first half of the twentieth century, but the most diligent literary sleuths have struggled to turn up more than the most basic biographical information about her. All we have is her work: five sharp, clever crime novels that were well reviewed and successful when published in the 1930s and 1940s, but which offer little insight into the true story of the woman who wrote them.
Today, we’re on the case of the mysterious Dorothy Bowers.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
So, who was this Dorothy Bowers, who I’ve dubbed “mysterious”?
Moira: She was a very familiar type, in a way. She was a well-educated woman who wrote murder stories because that’s what she liked herself. She wrote just five stories. She died quite young. She died at 48 of consumption. After a sort of, somebody who has written about her says it wasn’t a very joyful life, which is a bit sad. I’m not sure that she achieved quite what she wanted, but she was successful in her day. She wrote these five books, which are fairly traditional golden age detective stories looked at one way, but she definitely had an edge and her own thing. The books completely then fell out of print and nobody talked about them.
Caroline: This is Moira Redmond, a journalist and blogger about golden age detective fiction who has done a lot of research into Dorothy Bowers. Bowers was born in 1902, published five well-received mystery novels between 1938 and 1947, and was then almost completely forgotten after her death in 1948.
Since we know so little about her, especially when compared to her crime writing contemporaries like Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, we have to cherish every little detail. And we do know where Dorothy Bowers was born — Leominster in Herefordshire — and where she grew up — Monmouth, a market town just over the border in Wales. Her family wasn’t wealthy, but they became somewhat prominent in their community.
Moira: Her father was a baker. He had bakeries, but he was obviously very successful and also very civic-minded. So he was the kind of person who his businesses were succeeding. I think he was mayor at one point. He was definitely a councillor. He was very involved in the life and definitely coming up in the world, and he bought a nice house and he paid for his daughters to be privately educated. So it was definitely a family on the rise.
Caroline: Dorothy’s beginnings as the daughter of a baker seem to have stuck with her as she grew up and moved into more literary circles.
Moira: In one of her books, there’s just a little mention, this isn’t very important, but about a woman who lives in a small town and one of her friends drops her a little hint and says, ‘You must never forget, dear, that your father was in trade. So you are not really a lady like us.’
And I think maybe something like that might have happened to her. And she obviously took it very amiss, I think, as who wouldn’t? So the family was middle class and rising, but there would’ve been people who looked down on them and didn’t want them pushing beyond their station, which I think bothered her.
Caroline: Thanks to her father’s growing prosperity and his desire to invest in his daughters’ education, both Dorothy and her sister Evelyn were able to attend university — something that was hardly a given for young women in the 1920s. Dorothy doesn’t really seem to have been a scholar by inclination, though.
Moira: She got to Oxford, which was great, although she had to try several times, I think. She wasn’t obviously a natural student, I think. And she says herself, when she left, she wrote a letter to her principal and said, I could see now that I wasn’t really very good. I wasn’t much of a student, but thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Caroline: Academia might not have been Dorothy Bowers’s thing, but she did still get a lot out of her time at university.
Moira: She obviously loved her time at Oxford. Again, it’s a bit sad, I think, that she obviously had this wonderful, wonderful time at Oxford. Again, very like Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Pym, who’s not a crime novelist, but a similar kind of era and is coming from a similar part of the country actually, where these women went to Oxford and suddenly their lives expanded, and of course they were surrounded by young men. The ratio was so brilliant that these women suddenly were very much in command, and as far as I can tell, she had a fabulous time like that.
Caroline: One of the enduring mysteries surrounding Dorothy Bowers is that we have no idea what she looked like. There are no known photographs of her. During her research, Moira theorised that Oxford might be the point at which she was caught on camera, but…
Moira: I tried everything to find a photograph of her. I had a lovely conversation at her Oxford college, which is now St. Anne’s College. It wasn’t called that then. And I talked to them and they looked in their archives. They got everything they could, which was just a handful of letters, that’s all. They didn’t have a photograph of her. No photo of the class of 1920, 21, anything like that.
Caroline: And in case you were thinking of pausing this episode to do a quick google search, be careful with making assumptions about what you find. There is a picture of a Dorothy Bowers online, but it is not the Dorothy Bowers.
Moira: There is a photograph doing the rounds. If you look online, you’ll probably see this picture coming up, but it’s not her. It’s a completely different person called Dorothy Bowers, who lived in Texas at around the same time, and someone’s lifted it. And even in the time that I’ve been looking into her history, that photograph has become very widespread. I keep seeing it in all places, but as far as I know, there is no photograph in existence.
Caroline: So sadly, we don’t get a visual glimpse of a young Dorothy during her time at Oxford, and it’s actually after she finishes there that we really begin to lose sight of Dorothy Bowers. Like many women of her generation and educational background, she dabbles in teaching for a while…
Moira: She taught in a number of different ways. She taught as a personal tutor at school, so on, and everything she ever says would tell you that she hated every single second of it. She did not like it at all. She said she did not like being in the single sex environment, which any teaching of her kind of stature at that time would’ve been. And she wanted to do secretarial training in order to get out of teaching.
Caroline: She also tried her hand at a few more classic “golden age” pursuits, which we’ve discussed in more detail in previous episodes of the podcast.
Moira: She did things like she composed crosswords and sold them. She kind of entered the literary competitions that were such a feature at that time, none of which was going to make her a career, I think, or make her a lot of money. She must have hoped that the books would make money for her, and you just felt all she wanted was to get away, really.
Caroline: At this point, from the little that we know about her life, it seems like Dorothy Bowers was beginning to get what she wanted. She had left her hometown behind her and she was starting to gain a foothold in London, including at the BBC.
Moira: She had a number of different jobs in London. She worked at the BBC. She worked at what is now the National Book League. So literary. She doesn’t seem to have done war work as such. I mean maybe her BBC job, it’s not clear what her BBC job was.
Caroline: There are a few parallels here with Dorothy L. Sayers — another golden age crime writer who moved to London after studying at Oxford and tried to carve out a financially independent life as a writer. But from the vantage point of hindsight, we can say that the key difference between them is that it ends up working out for Sayers. As discussed on the last episode, she gets a steady job as an advertising copywriter which then supports her through the first decade or so of writing Lord Peter Wimsey stories, until her mystery writing is sufficiently popular on both sides of the Atlantic to allow her to do it full time. Her books never go out of print and she has enough active literary friends left after her death to ensure that her legacy lives on. One of her friends, the Italian literature scholar Barbara Reynolds, wrote a biography of Sayers and edited four volumes of her letters, making it much easier for a new generation of fans and academics to follow in her footsteps. Dorothy Bowers just doesn’t seem to have been so lucky. And, Moira says, she also seems to have made some slightly strange choices along the way.
Moira: When I’m reading about her, eventually you kind of think, oh, for goodness sake, stop making bad decisions. And at one point she started trying to work on a biography of somebody, and this person is so obscure and was still alive. And obviously wasn’t very nice, and you’re thinking, why didn’t you choose someone else? Couldn’t you have found somebody else to work on as your literary project? But there’s something wilful about her always choosing the wrong thing. And nothing, of course came of this project. As with so many things with her, it was really quite sad.
Caroline: It’s all the more sad because Dorothy Bowers clearly had the talent to succeed, if only she could have hit upon the right combination of project and publisher.
Moira: She was a very good writer and I think it’s very sad that, I think seriously if she had not died so young, and again tragically consumption, she would’ve built and built her reputation and become one of the classic queens of crime, I think. She was that good in my opinion.
Caroline: After the break: Just how good was Dorothy Bowers? We dive deeply into her mystery novels to find out.
Caroline: Having established what little we know about Dorothy Bowers, it’s time to turn our attention to the one source we have unfettered access to: her five novels. Her first, Postscript to Poison, was published in 1938. Here’s Moira to tell you a little more about this debut mystery.
Moira: It’s a very classic seeming story. It’s a family. There’s an old woman bedridden, dominating the whole family. Horrible matriarch. There are two young relations, two young women whose lives are being made an absolute misery of, and eventually somebody dies, and who could it have been? So it’s a very classic setup, but there’s something about it.
I honestly think if you’d read that in 1938 amidst all the other murder stories that were coming out, you would think, oh, this is one to watch, because she had a sharpness. And, no, but they weren’t cozy characters at all and they weren’t even particularly nice. Any of them. That’s the great question. Are they nice characters?
Again, very different from a lot of books of the time. You couldn’t pick somebody out and think, well, that’s the young heroine. Can’t be her that’s done it. You absolutely couldn’t do that because she was sharp and mean-minded, I think, and it’s just a very clever and very involving, I think, crime story that you really want to know what’s going on here, what happened? Who were these people? The relationships between them. They’re just really, really interesting. And it’s not cosy, it’s not sentimental, it’s not twee.
Caroline: In this book, Bowers introduced a detective character, Inspector Pardoe, who she would go on to include in three more novels. But unfortunately, he’s not really anything special.
Moira: One thing I would say is that I did not find Inspector Pardoe an incredibly strong character compared to some of her others. I couldn’t tell you very much about him, really. She just found him handy, I think.
Caroline: If you were looking for reasons why Dorothy Bowers’s popularity never quite seemed to live up to her talent as a writer, this is a good one — we all know that a recurring and characterful sleuth who can recur across many books was a classic trick that golden age authors used to keep their readers coming back for more. Think Poirot, Marple, Alleyn, Campion, Wimsey, Miss Silver, Roger Sheringham, and so on. Inspector Pardoe is… fine. But compared to the vivid, clever way that Dorothy Bowers sketched her non-recurring characters, he’s extremely ordinary and not at all memorable.
Pardoe’s next outing, Shadows Before, was published the following year — Bowers’s publisher was clearly pleased enough with the response to her first novel to keep her on for a second. This is another familiar-seeming style of whodunnit — a country house family mystery — but as you progress through it, you begin to appreciate Dorothy Bowers’s talent for hiding something unusual just below the surface.
Moira: Shadows Before, I think, is very good and has a very surprising outcome. She’s very good at, at something changing. It’s not just, here’s a group of people, which one of them did it? There’s something going to surprise you at the end, I think it’s fair to say. Most definitely was. Then again, It might have seemed traditional, but it really wasn’t a traditional book. The story of the family at the centre of it is very strange. It’s not your classic country house mystery, that. It’s very, very good.
Caroline: The Second World War broke out in 1939, and once again Bowers’s life is a mystery to us. We just don’t know what she was really doing in the early 1940s, whether she was involved in war work or not. But we do have the novel that she wrote in those first few months of the conflict, which was published in 1940. Listeners who were around for the “Queens of Crime at War” series that I made in the autumn of 2021 will know that I’m fascinated by World War Two crime novels that were actually written during those years, rather than after the fact, and Bowers’s next effort doesn’t disappoint.
Moira: Next, she did A Deed Without A Name, and that’s 1940 and the war has begun, and it’s an extremely good book for having that feel of those early days of the war when nobody knew where things were going. I always thought it fascinating to read something actually written at the time. You haven’t got hindsight, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and there’s a spying plot in this. It’s a very good book. It’s very different from her other ones, and it’s got a lot about fascist sympathizers from the 1930s and how they ended up.
It’s got a good crime plot as to someone’s died. Did he commit suicide? What happened? A very sort of unusual clue that involves knowing obscure things about birds. It’s full of life, and again, you think, oh, she’d made it to London by this time. She was finally living in London. She felt it probably was what she most wanted, and she writes about London wonderfully well, and you get such a strong atmosphere of those first years of the war.
Caroline: And then to cap off this productive period of four crime novels published in four years, in 1941 Dorothy Bowers published Fear For Miss Betony, which Moira and I, and pretty much everyone else who has read all of Bowers’s books, agree is her masterpiece.
Moira: It has nearly all my favourite crime story tropes in it. It’s got the lot, it’s got, you know, a school, a hugely female population. It’s very funny. But at the same time, there’s this link with the town and there’s a male fortune teller who just appears really only in one scene. It’s an extraordinarily involving and entrancing scene. It’s incredible. Most of the rest of the time, it’s very much school setting, but again, sharp and funny. Miss Betony is a great heroine. She’s an older single lady and she ends up at the school. She’s the person whose father was in trade. And I think it’s a great book.
Caroline: Moira feels pretty confident about the quality of Fear For Miss Betony.
Moira: If you read that book and you didn’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. It’s such a good book and so unusual. It has features from similar to many other books at the time, but it is on its own, Fear For Miss Betony.
Caroline: After 1941, Dorothy Bowers makes some changes in her life. She seems to have given up her ambitions of making it alone in London as a writer – perhaps her goals changed, or perhaps she had to go home to Monmouth to look after ailing parents. We don’t know. She spends the last few years of the war back there, assisting with the evacuees her family has taken in, and then after her father dies, she uses the inheritance he left her — about £150,000 today — to buy herself a house in the next county, in the small cathedral city of Hereford. That’s where she is when she publishes one last book, in 1947, The Bells at Old Bailey. This one features a different police detective who is not Inspector Pardoe, but who is equally colourless and eclipsed by the other characters.
Moira Again, I think it’s a great book. Again, it contains many of my favorite sort of tropes and it’s got poison pen letters, death, blackmail. It’s got a cafe. It’s got, it’s got the perfect Golden Age set up, which is a business enterprise, which combines a cafe and a hat shop and a beauty parlour all in one! So you think, yeah, that’s what we need. Lots of chatter, lots of gossip about the neighbours and the women who come into these various places, and it’s a good book. Again, I think she might have done more.
Caroline: Dorothy Bowers was probably already ill with tuberculosis as she finished The Bells at Old Bailey, and she didn’t survive its publication very long. Once more, this feels unlucky — widespread and effective treatments for TB in the UK were just a couple of years away, and had she fallen sick just a few years later there’s a good chance she could have survived to write many more mysteries.
Before Dorothy Bowers died in 1948, though, she was invited to join the Detection Club, which is an indication for us of how well-regarded her writing was in the 1940s, even if its reputation did not long survive her.
Moira: Martin Edwards, the current president of the Detection Club, showed me a letter saying how happy it made her. And you feel, yes, she must definitely have felt that was a really big deal for her because that was very much something that was offered by your fellow writers. You couldn’t just ask to join, you had to be invited by other crime story writers who were already members. And I think that must have been a great moment for her. But not long before she died. And it seems likely she didn’t make it to London to any of the meetings, which is sad because she would have been so happy about that, I think.
Caroline: But that’s not quite all — there is still one last tantalising glimpse of Dorothy Bowers to be had.
Moira: There’s one more kind of weird mystery in her life. In the, when she died, we did have her will and she left her house to her lodger. And her lodger was a man called John Pickett who was a bus conductor, and it’s not really clear what role he had in her life at all. And we can’t, well we can guess. We can speculate. No idea. I believe that there is evidence that later, several years later, she died. He was involved in a divorce case where he was cited as correspondent. And so simply based on that, I like to think that he brought her a little happiness, that he was the lodger and they had a little romance. He was the Lothario of the transport system and I hope brought her some happiness, because apart from that, there’s absolutely no evidence that any romantic involvement in her life that we know about.
Caroline: Neither Dorothy Bowers nor her sister ever had children, and it seems like their possessions and paperwork and all the other bits and pieces that make up a life were lost once they both passed away. Similarly Dorothy’s books receded from view but thanks to recent republications can now be found easily, and despite our difficulty in getting to know the woman herself, her books are very much worth spending time with. Even with the lack of a memorable detective character, there is something distinctive and a bit pointy about her writing that makes it stand out — had she lived to write more, I can absolutely imagine readers in the 1950s and 1960s very much looking forward to the new Dorothy Bowers in the way that they might look forward to the new Agatha Christie. Bowers had a style you could be a fan of. She was particularly gifted with characters, Moira says, and with blurring the line between the artificiality of the classic murder mystery and the tragedy of crime in real life.
Moira: The families she creates are very real. They’re never just the chess pieces that people often accuse crime story families of being, they’re convincing. You think, yeah, yeah, that is how that person might be.
She takes it seriously, actually. She’s trying to show what effects they would have. She is playing a game or doing a puzzle, but she also does want to show you how these crimes affect people and how people’s relationships will be messed up by what’s happened.
Caroline: If any of that sounds intriguing to you, I hope you join us in exploring Dorothy Bowers’s books. They can be read in any order, so you can pick the one with the scenario or setting that most appeals to you, and you’ll find links to where to source them in the shownotes for this episode. As you’ve just heard, Dorothy Bowers had a short and somewhat sad life, but there’s still time for us to make sure that her work lives on.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Moira Redmond.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/themysteriousdorothybowers. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.