Who Was Robert Eustace? Transcript

Caroline: If you have been reading golden age detective fiction for a while, you will probably have noticed that not all novels from this period have a single author. Indeed, I’ve devoted whole episodes to this in the past — married couples sometimes wrote mysteries together, as did friends and colleagues. Collaboration is part of what made this period in crime fiction so fun, I think. But most of these writing partners stuck together, so it really captured my attention when I started seeing the same name crop up in many different pairings. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace. Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace. Gertrude Warden and Robert Eustace. Edgar Wallace and Robert Eustace. Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace.

Tracking down accurate information about this serial co-author turned out to be rather more difficult than I expected. Which is why, today, you are going to join me in my attempt to answer a surprisingly difficult question. Who was Robert Eustace?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


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A warning about spoilers before I start: there will be minor details shared for all the novels and stories listed in the episode description, and major spoilers towards the end for The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. The latter will be flagged just before I get to it, so you can safely listen to the rest of the episode and just skip that part when I tell you.


Robert Eustace is a difficult man to pin down. Even establishing the most basic facts about him, such as when he was born and when he died, is rather tricky. If you search for him on the internet, you will quickly find plenty of contradictory alternatives — he was born in 1854, or perhaps 1869, and lived until 1932, or maybe 1943. Different scholars down the years have argued for one set of dates or another, creating plausible theories about this shadowy man from the scanty information he left behind. Just to make matters even more confusing, there seems to have been another writer active around the same time who also used the pseudonym of “Robert Eustace”. This was one Eustace Fraser Rawlins, who published a book in 1925 titled The Hidden Treasures of Egypt, and the confusion between the two seems to be responsible for a lot of the bad information out there about our Robert Eustace.

I’ve done my best to wade through all of this conflicting data as well as looking at census records, and this is what I think we can say for sure about the crime writing Robert Eustace. His real name was, confusingly, Eustace Robert Barton, and he chose to reverse his first and middle names when it came to choosing a penname — I’m going to carry on referring to him throughout as “Robert Eustace” to keep things simple. He was born near Hampton Court in south west London in late 1868 or early 1869. His father, Alfred Bowyer Barton, was a surgeon and his mother, Editha Howell, was, as far as we know, a full time mother to their four children, of whom our man was the youngest. The Barton family seems to have been pretty well off, because at the time of the census in 1871, when Robert was recorded as being two years old, the household contained not just his parents and siblings, but also a nurse, an under-nurse, a cook, a housemaid and a coachman. In 1897, he followed in his father’s footsteps and qualified as a doctor and a surgeon. To the extent that we can trace him after that, he does not seem to have lived a settled life in one particular place. He left England in 1903 for Portugal, was in Madeira in 1904 and then at some point he moved to Nice in France, before leaving from Naples in Italy in 1911 to sail across the Atlantic to New York. By 1914 he had returned to England and he joined the army medical corps for World War One. After the war, we know from some correspondences with literary agents that he moved around between towns and postings at hospitals in England, at one point living near St Ives in Cornwall. He died in 1943 while living in Newport, South Wales, and left behind him an estate worth £128 10s. 11d — about £4,500 today.

This is all a bit sketchy and unsatisfying, isn’t it? We don’t get a clear picture of a person from this bare facts. We don’t know if he was ever married, or in a long-term partnership. We don’t know what he looked or sounded like, or what areas of medicine interested him, or how his wartime experiences continued to affect him after the armistice in 1918. What we do know, though, is that in 1897 he became a co-author for the first time, when a series of short stories under the title “A Master of Mysteries: The Adventures of John Bell — Ghost-Exposer” launched in Cassell’s Magazine. These six tales, narrated by the character of Bell, a “professional ghost exposer”, appeared under the joint byline of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, and as far as I can tell they marked Eustace’s debut as a professional author of fiction. John Bell is an unusual kind of detective. He accepts only cases that involve the exposing of apparently supernatural phenomena, and the twist in each story is that he is always able to find a rational and scientific explanation for the apparently impossible and ghostly events. The tone and indeed some of the plots of these stories owe a lot to the work of Wilkie Collins, who had already explored the possibilities of blending supernatural or Gothic fiction with detection in his 1868 novel The Moonstone, but there are some original flourishes that make them enjoyable in their own right, such as the discovery in one of a peculiar gas leak and the arrival in another of a DIY submarine.

Fortunately for us, Eustace’s co-author L.T. Meade is much easier to get to know. Elizabeth Thomasina Meade was an Irish writer about twenty years’ Eustace’s senior, having been born in County Cork in 1844. She was well-known throughout the 1870s and 1880s for her children’s fiction, especially her writing for girls, with books like An Honourable Miss and A World of Girls. She was also for a time the editor of a popular journal for girls titled Atalanta. I think her decades of experience writing popular fiction as well as the editorial skills honed in the world of London magazine publishing made Meade the ideal person to take advantage of the new boom in serialised crime fiction that came along with the phenomenal popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand, which began appearing in in 1891. Meade spotted a Holmes-adjacent niche — that of the scientific or medically-informed mystery — and decided to fill it. She initially teamed up with a police surgeon named Edgar Beaumont, who wrote under the name “Clifford Halifax, MD” to produce a twelve-part series for the Strand titled “Stories from the Diary of a Doctor”, which was followed by the eight-part tale “The Adventures of a Man of Science” in 1896. These stories were popular, and soon L.T. Meade was rivalling Arthur Conan Doyle as the main attraction for readers of the Strand. By the late 1890s, though, her partnership with Edgar Beaumont was on the wane, and she looked around for a new collaborator with a medical background who could supply the scientific knowledge and research she needed. She ended up with one Robert Eustace.

The Meade-Eustace partnership was to prove very fruitful. After A Master of Mysteries, they produced several more successful series that blended science, the supernatural and crime. Among them were “The Experiences of the Oracle of Maddox Street”, “The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings” and “The Sorceress of the Strand”. This last is my favourite, because it introduces a great female villain in Madame Sara, a woman who is equally proficient with poisons, witchcraft and science — and is happy to deploy any or all of these skills to attain her evil ends. Altogether, they would work together on around a dozen series, which were then collected and published in book form as well. Their last book together, The Face in the Dark, appeared in 1903 — the collaboration probably coming to an end because Eustace was setting off on the decade of travelling and living abroad that would come to an end with the outbreak of war in 1914, which is also the year that L.T. Meade died at the age of seventy. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find that either of them left any diary or other record of how they worked together. It has always been assumed that Meade did the bulk of the actual writing, because she was so experienced and prolific. She did give an interview in 1893 that was titled “How I Write My Books”, in which she explained that she dictated her work for hours a day to her shorthand typist and then revised the typewritten manuscript, because she had so much to write at all times that there simply wasn’t time for her to put pen to paper. Robert Eustace, who had never written fiction or indeed anything professionally before their collaboration as far as we know, would have very little to contribute in this area. He, however, was a doctor and a surgeon, and had spent years studying and training in medicine. Meade had no higher education. She had been taught by a governess and then gone to a girls school for a period, before starting to write at the age of 17. Even if Eustace didn’t already have complete knowledge of all the scientific concepts they were weaving into their fiction, he had the skills and the contacts to research them quickly and thoroughly. It’s easy to imagine that Meade perhaps developed an initial outline of scenario and character, which Eustace then fleshed out with the scientific mechanisms that would drive the plot, before Meade wrote up the first draft that they could edit together. That’s how I picturing it, anyway. And whatever they were doing, it worked very well. Eustace’s scientific know-how, combined with Meade’s gift for writing addictive serialised fiction, established them as key players of late nineteenth and early twentieth century crime fiction.

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At the start of this episode, I listed a whole lot of writers with whom Robert Eustace was credited as a co-author: L.T. Meade, of course, but also Edgar Jepson, Gertrude Warden, Edgar Wallace, and Dorothy L. Sayers. On the surface, they don’t have much in common. They were all crime writers of a sort, yes, but the dashing serialised fiction of L.T. Meade and Gertrude Warden is not much like the Peter Wimsey novels Dorothy L. Sayers was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, layered as they are with literary quotation and formal experimentation. What did all of these people want from Robert Eustace?

The answer is science. As the detective story was evolving through the late nineteenth century, it was developing a deeper and deeper relationship with science and technology. With the requirement that the plot’s mystery be explained by mundane rather than supernatural means came a narrowing of the field of possibility. There are only so many ways a person can be killed, of course, and if the “it was a witch or a demon or a ghost” explanation isn’t available, things will start to go stale. In fact, in her introduction to an anthology she edited titled Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror from 1928, Dorothy L. Sayers articulated the danger that the genre was in in the early twentieth century. “There are signs that the possibilities of the formula are becoming exhausted,” she wrote, meaning that plausible, realistic ways of fairly surprising the avid crime fiction reader were becoming harder for writers to devise.

One way out of this problem was what she called “the solution by unexpected means”. “With recent discoveries in medical and chemical science this field has become exceedingly fruitful, particularly in the provision of new methods of murder,” she wrote. Incorporating new ideas and technologies that were absolutely real and evidence-based but perhaps still less well known to the average reader provided a way to abide by the precepts of fair play and still produce an unexpected denouement. Robert Eustace aside, we can see how popular a strategy this was just by how many of the best detective novelists from the first three decades of the twentieth century had a science background. Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, was a doctor, and Agatha Christie trained extensively in chemistry in order to work as a hospital dispenser during the first world war. R. Austin Freeman, creator of the “medical jurispractitioner”, Dr Thorndyke, was also a doctor, while J.J. Connington, the pseudonym of Alfred Walter Stewart, was a professor of chemistry and the author of an influential chemistry textbook.

I’ve talked previously on the podcast about how writers like Christie drew on their scientific knowledge to create clever murder methods and diversionary tactics in their books. Those without that expertise, though, needed to get it another way — either through research, or by bringing in a co-author who did have that knowledge or the means to acquire it easily. This is what L.T. Meade did, first with Edgar Beaumont, and then with Robert Eustace. Ngaio Marsh did the same with a doctor named Henry Jellett, who she collaborated with on her 1935 novel The Nursing Home Murder. And this is what each of Eustace’s other co-authors were doing by working with him. The story that he worked on with Edgar Jepson, The Tea Leaf, is a perfect example of how this worked. This is the tale of an apparently impossible crime committed in the hottest room of a Turkish bath. It seems like only one man can have attacked the murder victim, against whom he had a serious grudge, yet the weapon with which he supposedly did it has vanished into thin air. Everyone is wearing only towels and there is nowhere to hide or dispose of a blade. Yet here lies a man who has been violently stabbed to death, with wounds that the experts think must have been created by “a pointed piece of a half-inch steel rod”. Said wound also contains a single tea leaf, which is similarly impossible to explain. How can it have happened? I won’t spoil the solution for those who haven’t read it, but suffice to say that only someone with a working knowledge of physics, chemistry and laboratory equipment could have come up with it. Again, we don’t know exactly how the labour of putting together this tale was divided, but it seems likely that Eustace was responsible for the scientific details that drive the plot, while the dramatic courtroom reveal came from Jepson, a writer and translator who was known for his fantasy adventure stories as well as his crime fiction.


By far the best known work that Robert Eustace was involved in, though, was The Documents in the Case. And this is where those who don’t want to hear a detailed, spoiler-filled discussion of this book should bow out of this episode; please do come back and finish it when you’ve read the book. This is the 1930 novel that Eustace co-authored with Dorothy L. Sayers. Often overlooked among her output as it is the only full-length novel she produced that does not include her series sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, I re-read it while working on this episode and I have come to realise that it is, in fact, a really wonderful and very clever book that ought to receive far more attention. It is an epistolary novel, with the murder mystery unfolded through a series of letters, diaries and witness statements without any narrative in an authorial voice linking it all together. Wilkie Collins used this style for The Moonstone, and in The Documents in the Case it works similarly to hold the reader’s attention as they wade through all of the material, hunting always for the crumbs that will piece the true story together. I feel fairly confident in saying that it was Sayers who came up with this structure; we know that she was a great admirer of Collins’s novel because she had already written a book heavily inspired by it in the form of 1926’s Clouds of Witness and she was working on a biography of Collins when the collaboration with Eustace began. Plus, she was a writer who was just not content to find a format and stick to it. Each of her twelve detective novels and dozens of short stories shows her trying out something new, from her painstaking and not entirely successful experiments with unbreakable alibis in Five Red Herrings to her finessing of real legal loopholes in books like Unnatural Death and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Thus The Documents in the Case fits into her pattern of restless innovation, as she tried to apply narrative techniques popular in Modernist literary fiction to a detective novel.

Unlike with Eustace’s other collaborations, we do actually know how the two writers came to be in touch. Sayers contacted him while she was putting together the Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror anthology, seeking permission to include two of the stories he had penned with L.T. Meade, Meade having died in 1914. He agreed to have the stories reprinted in the book, and after some more correspondence with Sayers, he suggested that they could work on their own mystery together.

The scenario that unfolds through the letters we read in The Documents in the Case centres on a house in Bayswater, a boring if respectable west London suburb where an unhappily married couple, the Harrisons, live with their maid-companion and their two lodgers — John Munting, a writer, and Harwood Lathom, a painter. Mrs Harrison is much younger than her husband and is regularly teased by him for her interest in contemporary art and literature. She eventually begins an affair with Lathom, even while Mr Harrison continues to regard the painter as a friend. Sayers was inspired in part by the real life case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, which I’ve covered on the show before, and drew on some of the themes of dull suburban wifehood to create the claustrophobic love triangle at the heart of this book.

Thanks to their correspondence, we do have a fairly clear picture of how Sayers and Eustace went about dividing the work on The Documents in the Case. There are some elements in the book that clearly involve scientific knowledge, such as Mr Harrison’s hobby of collecting and eating wild mushrooms, which is assumed to be the cause when he is found dead of muscarine poisoning. It is initially believed that he ingested this alkaloid by eating a mushroom in which it naturally occurs by mistake, and then it is later proved that a synthetic version of the substance has been deliberately added to his food to kill him and give the appearance of an accident. His son, who has always believed his father was far too much of a mushroom expert to make such a mistake, is the one who has assembled the “documents” that make up the book in the hope of proving a case against his father’s killer. The book also has several scenes set in a laboratory and a breathless chase to the finish at the end that involves a scientific instrument called a polariscope that allows the light refracting properties of a substance to be observed and tested. All of this came from Eustace rather than Sayers, via his own experiences and research he did about recent advances in inorganic chemistry. He also proposed the philosophical theme that dominates the latter stages of the book, as the differences between “natural” and “artificial” substances are debated, and wrote a first draft of the climactic scene where a group of scientists debate the implications of the mystery.

Much of the rest of the book, though, from the gossipy specificity of the maid-companion’s letters to the musings on the frustrating life of a novelist in John Munting’s extracts, feel like pure Dorothy L. Sayers to me. I’m not sure how much of this complex critique of modern literature and gender roles that Robert Eustace provided, although some of the first-person experience of Munting as a solo man living as a lodger may have come from Eustace, since he likely lived that way himself at various points during all of his travels. And I’m certainly not alone in the opinion that this book is more Sayers than Eustace. It was even suggested by the late Detection Club president H.R.F. Keating that Sayers had been very generous in giving Eustace equal billing as co-author, since the scientific contributions he made were not exactly equivalent to all the work she did in actually writing the novel.

Sayers herself was rather critical of the work she did on The Documents in the Case. When she sent the completed manuscript to Eustace for his review, she included a note describing how she had been “so nervous and rundown” during the writing of it that she felt some of this atmosphere had infected the book. This is entirely understandable — she had recently lost both her parents within months of each other, and had also failed to persuade her husband to adopt her son. “The earlier half was so bad that I had to re-write great chunks of it, and it is still bad,” she wrote. Add to that the fact that the typist had come down with “VIOLENT POISONING!” while working on the book, and Sayers had become quite convinced that this book was jinxed. Still, Eustace and Sayers posed together for a publicity photographer that underlined the scientific foundation of their collaboration: him in a white lab coat, using a bunsen burner to concoct the very substance, muscarine, that lies at the heart of the plot, while she leans on the workbench and watches what he is doing with apparent fascination.

The tone of the letters between Sayers and Eustace is friendly and collegiate. He was never, to my knowledge, invited to join the throng at the Detection Club, but perhaps that was understandable since he never wrote what might be called a detective novel on his own. There has been some speculation among Sayers scholars down the years that the pair fell out between the publication of The Documents in the Case in 1930 and Have His Carcase in 1932. Eustace provided some medical information for the latter novel yet received no co-author credit or even acknowledgment, with Sayers instead thanking the writer John Rhode in the dedication for his help with “the difficult bits”. One critic has even speculated that Sayers had discovered in the interval between these two books that Eustace was gay and had accordingly shunned him, but there seems to be no proof of this — either of his sexuality or of her attitude to it. Indeed, given that Sayers had previously contributed poetry to a publication called The Quorum: A Magazine of Friendship, one of the very first publications in Britain to be written by and for what was then called “the homosexual movement”, and remained friends with its editor, known “Uranian” Leonard Green, it seems unlikely that she would have cared even if she had found out that Robert Eustace was not straight. The dedication of Have His Carcase being to Rhode rather than Eustace is more readily explained by her correspondence, which shows that Rhode had sent far her more information for the book and spent much more time helping her — perhaps she should have also acknowledged Eustace, but they were still writing friendly letters to each other a decade later, so I don’t think he held a grudge.

Regardless, Sayers’ fears about the quality of her work on The Documents in the Case seemed to be validated when, a few months after it was published, she received a letter from a professor of chemistry that explained that although in general the theory that a polariscope could enable one to tell the difference between a natural and a synthetic instance of the same substance, muscarine was an exception to this rule and thus the book’s big twist did not work. In 1932 Sayers owned up to this in a BBC radio broadcast she gave titled ‘Trials and Sorrows of a Mystery Writer’, calling it “a gigantic howler”. She and Eustace had consulted experts during the writing of the book, she explained, but had not realised that the polariscope could not detect the synthetic versions of all alkaloids, only some. Eustace tried to console her, writing that having re-read the book he thought that “your work in it is tremendously good and I am quite sure that it will long survive the usual flood that engulfs ephemeral fiction. My regret remains for the blunder about the optical activity, and I am glad to have the true scientific explanation as to how such should have occurred to anyone not in touch with the complexities of the matter,” he said.

Both of them remained sore about the mistake, however. Later on in 1932, Sayers spotted a footnote in a book by an analytical chemist thanking the authors of The Documents in the Case for drawing his attention to the optical potential of muscarine. Then in 1941, Eustace was still discussing the issue with the author of another scientific text on the topic and then writing to Sayers that “I wonder if we shall ever hear the last of the blessed Muscarine! It is a comfort to know we are in the right.” And they were — in 1957, the molecular structure of muscarine was finally established beyond doubt and its optical activity proven to be in line with what Eustace had posited in a mystery novel back in 1930. Sadly, he had died in 1943, but Sayers did not pass away until December of 1957, so I like to think that before she went she was aware of the muscarine discovery and could still raise a glass to her friend Robert Eustace, scientific co-author extraordinaire.


This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/whowasroberteustace. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you would like to take part in the Shedunnit Pledge Drive, and I hope we do because we’re really close to hitting this year’s goal of 150 new members, please head to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive to do so.

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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