Freeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

FeaturedFreeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

Freeman Wills Crofts today is not one of the more famous writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, he was a prominent and early member of the Detection Club, a select circle of crime authors that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and others. T.S Eliot rated Crofts as ‘the finest detective story writer to have emerged during the Twenties.’[1] An engineer by training, Crofts’ detective stories often include modes of transport which he describes in exact detail. In Mystery in the Channel, published in 1931, two dead bodies are found on a yacht in the English Channel. The eventual unravelling of the case by Crofts’ regular police protagonist, Inspector French, hinges on the exact timings several vessels embarked on their journey, their relative speeds, and the weather conditions.

The title of Inspector French’s 1934 outing, The 12.30 from Croydon, would have immediately communicated to a contemporary audience that airplanes, not boats, were the mode of transport under scrutiny this time. Like Christie’s more famous Death in the Clouds, published the following year, Crofts’ murder victim dies whilst up in the air.

The 12.30 from Croydon opens with a delightful chapter told from the perspective of the murder victim’s ten-year-old granddaughter Ruby, who is terribly excited that she will be flying for the first time. Ruby, her father Peter, her grandfather Andrew, and Andrew’s butler Weatherup are all due to fly to Paris because Ruby’s mother Elsie has been in a traffic accident in the French capital. Crofts’ engineer’s eye for detail is evident in this opening chapter, which describes the Imperial Airways plane the family board:

It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and each with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST.’[2]

‘Hengist’ was the colloquial name for a real Imperial Airways plane which until 1934 (the year of the book’s publication) flew on the European routes. It was subsequently converted to fly long-distance and as far as Australia, until the plane was destroyed in an accident in 1937. Once up in the air, Ruby and her family are served a ‘four-course lunch followed by coffee, all very nice and comfortably served’.[3] When they land, disaster strikes: Andrew Crowther, Ruby’s grandfather, is found unresponsive and declared dead.

A contemporary photo of the real Hengist plane standing outside Croydon Aerodrome, taken from A Million Miles in the Air,
the memoirs of pilot Gordon P. Olley, published in 1934

After the murder in the opening chapter, Wills Crofts shifts perspective and takes the reader back in time. The 12.30 from Croydon is a ‘psychological crime novel’ – rather than the reader trying to work out who has committed the murder and how, the author takes the reader into the mind of the murderer as he plots out his murder and attempts to escape justice. Andrew Crowther’s murderer, as it turns out, is his nephew Charles Swinburn. Charles is the managing director of the Crowther Electromotor Works, a firm originally set up by Andrew and his business partner Henry Swinburn. Although modest in size, the firm had been flourishing under Andrew’s leadership.

By the early 1930s, however, Charles is finding it impossible to stay afloat in the challenging economic environment following the 1929 Wall Street crash. Having already sunk his personal capital and a bank loan into the business, Charles approaches his uncle for financial help. Andrew, however, is not willing to give more than £1000, when Charles needs at least £6000. Knowing that he is one of the two heirs to Andrew’s estate (alongside Andrew’s daughter Elsie), Charles devises his plan to kill Andrew.

Charles method for murdering Andrew is one also used on occasion in other crime novels of the period. Andrew takes a ‘patent medicine’ against indigestion after lunch each day. Patent medicine were mass-produced pills designed to remedy common ills. Unlike more traditional medicine which was prescribed by a doctor and then mixed up to order by a pharmacist, patent medicines were available in standardized bottles and could be purchased without a doctor’s prescription.

In novels of the 1920s and 1930s they are often treated with disdain and considered to be inferior to the personalised prescriptions that a doctor would give out. However, their wide availability and uniform appearance also made them an ingenious murder weapon. Charles buys a bottle of pills identical to the one Andrew uses, but replaces one of the pills with a pill filled with potassium cyanide, an extremely lethal poison. Like in the Poirot short story ‘Wasps’ Nest’, Charles manages to obtain the poison with the excuse that he needs to eradicate a wasps nest from his garden. When at dinner with Andrew, Charles distracts him and swaps the pill bottles, pocketing Andrew’s bottle and replacing it with the one that contains the one deadly pill. He then books himself onto a Mediterranean cruise to be out of the way when Andrew eventually takes the poisoned pill.

Although the murder plan works and Charles duly inherits half of Andrew’s estate, Charles swiftly finds out that murderers rarely rest easily. First Weatherup reveals that he has seen Charles swap the pill bottles, and starts blackmailing him. Charles swiftly decides to kill Weatherup, too. Then Inspector French arrives and starts asking some awkward questions. The arrest, when it inevitably comes, takes Charles by surprise. It is not until the final chapter of the book that the reader is shown how Inspector French conducted his investigation, and how his powers of deduction led him to correctly identify Charles as the murder. The perfect murder plan conceived by Charles is revealed to have had some rather large holes in it.

Charles is duly condemned to death and executed. There is less moral ambiguity in The 12.30 from Croydon than, for example, Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought, or even than in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. Although Andrew Crowther is not a hugely sympathetic character, there is no doubt to the reader that Charles’ actions are wrong, and that the policing and justice systems will catch up with him and serve him the expected sentence. The book’s reversed structure allows Wills Crofts to reveal Inspector French’s intellect in the final chapter, transmitting the reassuring fiction to the reader that no matter how well one may think they have planned a crime, the men from Scotland Yard will always ensure that justice is dispensed.


[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 75

[2] Freeman Wills Crofts, The 12.30 from Croydon (London: British Library, 2016), p. 16

[3] Ibid., p. 19

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Winifred Holtby – South Riding (1936)

Journalist, author, feminist and activist Winifred Holtby was a distinctive voice in interwar Britain’s press. In her journalism pieces she often challenged social inequalities and advocated for change. Aside from her journalistic output, Holtby also wrote seven novels. The most famous of these is South Riding, which was published posthumously after Holtby’s death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain, Holtby’s close friend and an accomplished author in her own right, edited the manuscript of South Riding and got it ready for publication.[1] The book met with critical success upon its publication, and was turned into a Victor Saville-directed film in 1938. The story’s enduring resonance is evidenced by the BBC adaptation which appeared as recently as 2011.

The scope and order of South Riding are ambitious: the novel opens with a list of characters no shorter than 6 pages in length. The story is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. A facsimile of a hand-drawn map by Holtby in the front of the Virago edition of the book shows that she imagined the Riding to be located in the triangle between York, Scarborough and the northern border of Lincolnshire.

South Riding is a novel concerned with local government. Across its 500 or so pages, the novel is divided into eight ‘books’, each named after a sub-committee of South Riding Council. Through ‘Education’; ‘Highways and Bridges’; ‘Public Health’ and others, Holtby weaves a tale of modernity and tradition, and the deep interconnectedness of rural communities.

In a book with such a vast range of characters, the closest thing South Riding has to a protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, M.A. (Leeds), B.Litt (Oxon), the thirty-something new headmistress of the local girls school, whose return to the county of her upbringing kicks off the book’s narrative. Sarah has decidedly modern ideas about education and life in general. Her modernising spirit runs up against the traditions of the South Riding Aldermen, who sit on the Council and have been used to running things their own way.

These Aldermen also reflect a changing society, however: Anthony Snaith is a rich business owner and Mrs Beddows is the Riding’s first female Alderman. Holtby famously modelled Beddows on her own mother, Alice, who was the first woman Alderman in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alice Holtby initially opposed the publication of South Riding, worried as she was to the damage it may do to local political relations.

The central relationship in South Riding is between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer who occupies the local ‘Big House’, Maythorpe Hall, with his teenage daughter Midge. In an echo of Victorian Gothic literature, Carne’s wife is alive but insane and permanently locked up in an institution. The prohibitive medical costs for her care have led Carne to the brink of financial destitution. Maythorpe Hall is falling apart around him. Divorce is not an option for him, not because it is legally impossible but because he finds it morally unpardonable.

The emotional and intellectual connection between Sarah and Carne builds up throughout the novel. One of the key scenes of South Riding occurs when the pair find themselves staying over in the same hotel. Under the chapter heading ‘Two in a Hotel Find Themselves Temporarily Insane’, Holtby pens what was a decidedly modern and transgressive scene for mid-1930s Britain. A pleasant dinner turns into a night of dancing, and several drinks build the intimacy between the couple. As the evening draws to a close, Sarah invites Carne to visit her in her bedroom, room number ‘five hundred and seventeen.’[2] For a woman to invite a man to her bedroom was of course already frowned upon, but to do so to a married man broke all the rules of propriety. Equally, Carne’s grateful and enthusiastic response did not match behaviour expected of a gentleman.

Throughout the scene, Sarah remains calm and steadfast. Whilst awaiting Carne’s arrival in her room, she smiles at herself. When he asks her if she is really sure she wants to go ahead with it, she confirms ‘I know now I have never been sure of anything before in my life.’[3] The only reason the relationship does not get consummated is because Carne has an acute attack of a recurring heart problem. This rather disturbs the mood and the couple do not get a chance to be alone again for the night after that. Morally and emotionally, however, both Sarah and Carne were committed to an affair which neither of them believed to be wrong, despite it going against the generally espoused conservative values of the time.

South Riding conveys the effect of modern ideas on a traditional community, both for better and for worse. At the same time, it treats the local community and the Council with a deep respect. Everyone in the South Riding needs one another eventually, and progress, however difficult, does penetrate the region through the diligent work of the local representatives.


[1] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago Press, 2010), p. x

[2] Winifred Holtby, South Riding, p. 367

[3] Ibid., p. 368

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Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup starting in Qatar, there will be a couple of weeks of football-related content on the blog. Football was a popular sport for working-class spectators in interwar Britain, alongside (greyhound) racing and motor sports. Some historians even credit the popularity of football with bringing diverse social and ethnic groups togethers as neighbours went to support their local teams.[1] By the end of the interwar period, football clubs at the top end of the league were almost completely populated by professional footballers; but there were also still plenty of amateur clubs which delivered players of a high calibre. League matches were usually played on a Saturday afternoon, as most workers finished their weekly shifts at lunchtime on Saturday.

At the close of the 1930s, the Daily Express decided to capitalise on the increased popularity of professional football by commissioning author Leonard Gribble to write a serialised murder mystery which featured the real-life players and staff of Arsenal Football Club.[2] After serialisation, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was published as a book and a film version was made almost immediately; both appearing shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The plot of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is fairly straightforward: Arsenal play an amateur team, the Trojans. During the match, one of the Trojan players, Doyce, collapses on the field and dies shortly afterwards. Scotland Yard are called in and conclude Doyce was poisoned; Inspector Slade methodically works through the possible suspects until the case is resolved. Although a number of Arsenal players appear as characters in the book (and the Arsenal manager, George Allinson, even got a speaking part in the film adaptation) they are naturally not implicated in the murder or its resolution.

The police investigation concentrates solely on the Trojan players and staff. The conceit of the football game provides the type of ‘closed circle’ which interwar detective fictions liked to use: a very limited number of suspects, a tightly controlled window in which the murder must have taken place; and limited ways in which the weapon could be disposed of.

Aside from the murder story, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery provides the modern reader with plenty of insight into 1930s professional football practices. Gribble was clearly given access to the Arsenal club players and grounds in the writing of the book – the parts of the stadium to which the public do not usually have access are described in detail. The rapid professionalisation of football is reflected in the vigorous training practices of the players: ‘The game to-day is faster than it has ever been (…) Only the fit can survive.’[3] Arsenal also apparently already had a youth academy set up, dubbed a ‘nursery’, to train up promising young players.[4]

When it comes to the game itself, Gribble provides a diagram reflecting the starting positions of both teams. Both Arsenal and Trojans are shown to play with five forwards, three midfielders and two defenders[5]; a formation that was much more common in the early days of professional football than it is today. The author also provides an almost play-by-play account of the match, in sections of the story clearly written with football-mad Daily Express readers in mind.

As well as details about the actual gameplay, Gribble pays substantial attention to convey the culture of football fandom. For example, he spends several pages describing the convivial atmosphere in the streets and train stations around the stadium after the match is over:

‘In the trains the corridors and entrance platforms are choked (…) The air is full of expunged breath, smoke, human smells, and heat. But there is plenty of laughter, plenty of Cockney chaff. Whatever happens, however great the discomfort, the crowd keeps its good-temper. This herded homegoing is just part of the afternoon’s entertainment.’[6]

Needless to say, this ‘entertainment’ is described as an innately masculine past-time. It would not be possible for women to enter this crush of human bodies. When Inspector Slade of Scotland Yard enters the story, he too enters in a social pact with the football players which excludes women. During his investigation, he questions one of the Trojan players, Morring, in front of a woman friend, Jill. Morring implies in guarded language that his fiancée, Pat Laruce, had had an affair with the victim, Doyce. Slade:

‘‘I take it you told him to be careful or next time he’d have more painful reason to regret his – um – interference?’ The two men grinned, while the girl looked from one to the other, wide-eyed, unable to appreciate a humour that was essentially masculine.’[7]

Phrases like this make it clear enough that Gribble was writing for a male audience; he also made the main female character, Pat Laruce, extremely unlikeable. Not only is Pat revealed as having cheated on her fiancé Morring, Gribble also portrays her as an extremely calculating woman who uses fake emotional outbursts to control men’s behaviour. He describes her as follows: ‘The daughter of a chorus girl who had married a publican after burning her fingers with a scion of the aristocracy, she [Pat] had imbibed her mother’s outlook on life.’[8]

Pat works as a model for advertisements; a job that entails her offering up her physical appearance for (male) consumption. Pat’s independence and modernity are unequivocally rejected by Gribble, and presented as intergenerational faults that are passed on from mother to daughter. There are several points in the book at which Pat is described as confused that her emotional manipulations are not working on men as she expects them to. Her friend Jill, by contrast, is presented as pure and innocent (as in the quote above which implies her complete ignorance about sex), and therefore a much more suitable life partner.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery reveals much about the practicalities of professional football in 1930s Britain, as well as delivering a reasonably competent murder mystery story. It also carries its sexist gender views on its sleeve, by using the medium of football to promote a misogynist worldview in which professional sport is equated with male sociability.

The film version of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (starring the real 1939 Arsenal squad) can be viewed for free on YouTube.


[1] Benjamin Lammers, ‘The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 2, (2005), pp. 331-344 (pp. 338-9)

[2] Martin Edwards, ‘Introduction’, in Leonard Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, (London: British Library, 2018), p. 7

[3] Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, p. 123

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Interwar Spooky Stories

FeaturedInterwar Spooky Stories

With Halloween nearly upon us, it is time for a review of spooky short stories written in interwar Britain. Although Halloween was not celebrated in the modern sense during the interwar period, All Hallows Eve was a longstanding feature of the Church calendar, originating out of pagan Samhain celebrations. Short stories were an immensely popular format in the interwar years, with many short stories published in newspapers and dedicated magazines such as Strand Magazine. Many journalists and authors worked in the genre, which could be lucrative.

In recent years, the British Library publishing arm has re-issued many original stories of the 1920s and 1930s in various edited collections. Spooky short stories of the period often crystallise contemporary fears about technology, alienation, and modernity. They can also address social inequalities in a pointed way. For example, F Tennyson Jesse’s story ‘The Railway Carriage’, published in Strand Magazine in 1931, hinges on the third-class railway carriage as a democratic space that forces together people from wildly different backgrounds.[1]

The story’s protagonist, a young woman named Solange, finds the closed nature of the railway carriage oppressive: ‘she would have given a great deal to be out of that little third-class carriage, to be in a modern corridor train, to be – this, above all – away from her travelling companions.’[2] The design of the train means that Solange cannot change carriages whilst the train is in motion, heightening her feeling of being trapped with two unusual companions. Solange ‘had to stay with them whether she would or no. It was really an outrage, she thought to herself, that such a thing as a non-corridor train should still exist.’[3]

Solange is a modern, somewhat entitled young woman, who by the end of the story has to accept that there are things beyond the rational realm and that she cannot always control the world around her in the way she would like. When the train crashes, Tennyson Jesse introduces a supernatural element to the story and meditates on the justness of capital punishment, a practice that was under much debate during the interwar period. Despite the introduction of a possible ghost, the true horror of the story lies in the very real judicial practices of interwar Britain.

Another story which effectively conveys the terror that the proximity of strangers can bring is E.M. Delafield’s ‘They Don’t Wear Labels.’[4] It also demonstrates how the anonymity of the big city can be exploited, and how patriarchal structures can put women in danger. The story’s protagonist is Mrs Fuller, a boarding house keeper, who takes in a couple, Mr and Mrs Peverelli. Mr Peverelli is very charming, but his wife is sickly. From the moment the couple enter the house, Mr Peverelli plays on sexist stereotypes which Mrs Fuller is very happy to accept. He implies that his wife’s ailments are nervous disorders; Mrs Fuller then tells Mrs Peverelli ‘shed’ a good deal to be thankful for, with her husband in a good job, and always ready to do what would please her.’[5]

When Mrs Peverelli tries to tell Mrs fuller that Mr Peverelli is forcing her to eat and drink things against her will, and that she thinks her husband is trying to poison her, Mrs Fuller naturally rubbishes the suggestion. E.M. Delafield neatly demonstrates the pervasive assumptions about domestic violence: ‘If you really believed it, why – you’d left him. It’s surely the very first thing you’d have done’ huffs Mrs Fuller. ‘You don’t understand’, responds Mrs Peverelli. ‘I love him.’[6]

Shortly thereafter, the Peverelli’s move on, the wife looking ‘worse than ever – sallower and more frightened.’ The true horror of Mr Peverelli’s designs is revealed at the close of the story, when Mrs Fuller realises he has ground up a Christmas bauble and fed the powdered glass to his wife.[7] Murder by ground glass was, incidentally, one of the ways in which Edith Thompson suggested murdering her husband in her letters to her lover Freddie Bywaters. E.M. Delafield had followed the Thompson-Bywaters case closely, and is surely referencing it in this story. Mrs Fuller, and the reader, are confronted by their willingness to believe strangers at face value, and to believe men over women. The horror here is not supernatural, but rather the by-product of an inherently unequal society.

A final female-penned, London-based, spooky short story appeared slightly after the interwar period, at the close of the Second World War. In 1945, Elizabeth Bowen published the (very short) story ‘The Demon Lover’.[8] It effectively uses the bombed-out locales of war-torn London. Bowen’s protagonist, Mrs Drover, is checking up on her Kensington house after an extended stay in the country, away from the Blitz.

Things take a dark turn when Mrs Drover discovers a mysterious letter from a past lover, which warns her that today is ‘our anniversary, and the day we said. (…) I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.’[9] It transpires that Mrs Drover had a soldier lover during the First World War, who went missing. In fear of him, she decides to get a taxi as quickly as possible before the man can come to the house and claim her. Yet rather than a means of escape, the taxi becomes her prison, as she realises too late that the man behind the wheel is the very man she is fleeing from.

As in ‘The Railway Track’, in ‘The Demon Lover’ a means of transport traps a woman rather than give her freedom. The latter story also includes ample reflections on ageing and the compromises made by women: marriage, children and a big house in Kensington versus the excitement of a passionate love affair. Like Mrs Peverelli, Mrs Drover ultimately is unable to escape masculine power. The scariest thing for women turns out to be the patriarchy itself.

All of the stories and books mentioned in this post are available to purchase through the British Library online shop.


[1] F Tennyson Jesse, ‘The Railway Track’, in Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2018), pp. 267-286

[2] Ibid., p. 272

[3] Ibid., p. 277

[4] E. M. Delafield, ‘They Don’t Wear Labels’, in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2015), pp. 265-273

[5] Ibid., p. 268

[6] Ibid., p. 270

[7] Ibid., p. 273

[8] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Demon Lover’, in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 81-91

[9] Ibid., p. 85

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Muriel Jaeger – The Question Mark (1926)

Although the interwar period is known for the large volume of crime fiction it produced (examples here, here and here), it also saw the publication of some classic works of science fiction. Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World in 1934, and across the pond Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds aired on radio in 1938. Preceding both these high watermarks of science fiction is Muriel Jaeger’s 1926 novel The Question Mark, which has recently been re-published by the British Library in their ‘Science Fiction Classics’ series.

Jaeger is not a household name, and certainly a lot less well-known then her good friend Dorothy L. Sayers. The pair studied at Somerville, Oxford together and were both members of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a group of female students with literary ambitions.[1] The Question Mark was Jaeger’s first novel, and it was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their Hogarth Press.

The protagonist of The Question Mark is Guy Martin, a young-ish bank clerk in London. He is of the lower middle class and resentful about it. Along with his generic name, there are few distinguishing features about Guy – Jaeger deliberately keeps descriptions of him generic. Guy has a lingering dissatisfaction in life, which he tries to quench by attending meetings of the Socialist Club. The Club almost allows him to believe in a future in which class boundaries can be transcended, until Marjorie, the girl he has fallen in love with, throws him over in favour of a Tory.[2]

Marjorie’s rejection leads Guy to sink into a stupor; when he wakes up, he is several hundred years into the future. It is later explained that Guy actually died on the night of Marjorie’s rejection, and is the first corpse to be successfully revived by a Dr Wayland. There is then, no chance of Guy returning to the 1920s, or roaming around time and space in the manner of H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’. Instead, Guy must make the best of his new life in this future version of London.

At first, naturally, all seems much better in the future: London has turned into a pleasant green landscape of rolling hills, and everyone who works has access to a ‘power box’: a device that acts as a portable power source to ‘Anything you want to make go.’[3] There are ‘areocycles’ for short trips through the air, and silent and impossibly fast planes for travel to the continent.[4] Everything runs so smoothly that workers have very little to do, and education is accessible to everyone.

But of course, these initial impressions are shaken before long. Jaeger’s future society no longer has class divisions in the way a 1920s reader would recognise them. Instead, however, the population is divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’. Dr Wayland and his cousin John, who takes Guy under his wing, are both ‘intellectuals’. This means that they do not need to undertake manual labour and are allowed to study and pursue knowledge their entire life.

Dr Wayland, however, married a ‘normal’ woman, Agatha, and as a consequence his children Ena and Terry are also ‘normals’. Because ‘normals’ are denied intellectual development over several generations, they have become highly emotive and impressionable. Ena is twenty years old, but is described as behaving closer to a child in her early teens. She quickly becomes infatuated with Guy, much to the latter’s confusion and disgruntlement.

Towards the end of the book, a religious leader emerges who is able to capture the imagination of thousands of ‘normals’. When this Emmanual predicts the end of the world to be nigh, so many ‘normals’ down tools that the intellectuals have to step in to keep things running. Guy is reminded of a strike in the 1920s:

He remembered how the young assistant-manager at his bank (a post that was practically a sinecure in a certain family) had gone off joyously to take tickets and slam lift-doors on an underground railway along with other numbers of gay young men of the leisured classes who meant to “keep things going until the beggars had had enough of it.” The two situations had a startling similarity in difference.[5]

Jaeger’s point is clear: although traditional social classes are abolished in the future, humanity has still created an artificial boundary that treats one group of people as morally, financially and intellectually superior to the other. When the ‘normals’ refuse to behave according to their allotted tasks, the system does not break down and they are not taken seriously. The religious uprising comes to nothing and things quickly return back to how they were. At the close of the book Guy remains trapped in this future that is fundamentally no better than the past he left behind, ‘heavy with terrible knowledge.’[6]

The Question Mark is no utopia. Instead, Jaeger offers the reader an intellectual exercise in future-building that is quite cynical about humanity’s ability to create a better future for itself. Like all good science fiction, it uses a made-up world to comment on the real one. The Question Mark’s commentary on class differences, social inequality and access to education are just as pertinent in the 2020s as they were when the book was written, nearly a hundred years ago.


[1] Mo Moulton, ‘Introduction’ in Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark (London: British Library, 2019), p. 9

[2] Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark, p. 33

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., pp. 91-2

[5] Ibid., p. 171

[6] Ibid., p. 205

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F. Tennyson Jesse – A Pin To See The Peepshow (1934)

The trial and execution of Edith Thompson have been discussed several times on this blog. The 1922 trial was extensively covered in the press of the period. In short, Edith Thompson was tried and executed alongside her lover Frederick Bywaters, for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. At the time, newspapers judged Edith harshly for her affair with a younger man (she was nine years older than Frederick). Current scholarship is generally of the opinion that Edith probably knew nothing about the planned murder and should not have been found guilty. You can read a fuller account of the case here.

Due to the high profile nature of the case, it is no wonder that contemporary authors drew on the case for inspiration. I’ve previously discussed E.M. Delafield’s 1924 novel Messalina of the Suburbs which was based on the Thompson-Bywaters case. Where Delafield’s interpretation of the case was fairly loose, a novel published a decade later took a more forensic approach to recreate the story.

The extra years which had passed since the case no doubt help F. Tennyson Jesse to gain more perspective when she wrote A Pin To See The Peepshow, a novel frequently referenced as the definitive fictionalisation of the case. Tennyson Jesse was a prolific writer across several genres including novels, plays, poetry and non-fiction.[1] Some of her work is available to read for free online. She had a definite interest in true crime: in 1924 she wrote a non-fiction work Murder and its Motives and throughout her career she contributed to the long-running book series Notable British Trials. One of the volumes she was responsible for was the trial of Sidney Fox, who was found guilty of killing his own mother.

In A Pin To See The Peepshow Edith Thompson is transformed into Julia Almond, a young, somewhat pretty woman who, like Edith Thompson, works in a women’s fashion boutique and ends up marrying to a man she finds dreadfully dull. The strength of the book is that Julia is not necessarily a sympathetic character, the reader does sympathise with her. Like E.M. Delafield before her, Tennyson Jesse leaves no doubt that her fictional heroine had no involvement in the plot to murder her husband.

The novel starts when Julia is a school girl, living in West London with her parents and counting down the days to her adulthood. When she is ordered to mind a class of younger children one day, one of the younger boys, Leonard Carr, has a ‘peepshow’: a cardboard box with a decorative interior that can be seen through a small hole. Julia is enchanted by this portal into another world: a first indication of her romantic nature which is reiterated throughout the book. Leonard Carr, when he grows up, becomes the fictional version of Frederick Bywaters. In Tennyson Jesse’s narrative, Julia and Leonard’s relationship is marked by make-believe from its inception.

During the real Thompson-Bywaters trial, much was made of Edith’s letters to Frederick. He had kept these letters despite the couple’s agreement that they would destroy each other’s epistles – Edith did destroy Frederick’s letters to her. The letters alluded to supposed plots to kill Percy. The prosecution at the time used them as evidence that Edith wanted her husband to die, and that she was manipulating Frederick to commit the act for her. From the novel, it appears that F Tennyson Jesse agreed with scholars such as Lucy Bland that the letters were works of fiction, written by a woman with a vivid imagination.[2] Another feature that Tennyson Jesse awards her heroine, which may not be entirely historically accurate, is that Julia is terribly short-sighted. This gives her a plausible defense when she claims she did not recognise her husband’s killer, as the real Edith Thompson also initially said.

The heart of the case is, of course, extramarital relationship which Edith Thompson deigned to embark on. In Delafield’s novel, the heroine is sexually active at a young age, but also gets sexually abused by a series of men who are in positions of power over her. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia is less obviously interested in men, but the brief affair she has with a young man at the start of the First World War is described as completely natural and nothing to be ashamed about.

Julia’s eventual marriage to family friend Herbert Startling is primarily motivated by her desire to leave her parents’ home, and her inability to afford her own living space. When Leonard Carr re-appears on the scene as a young adult, Tennyson Jesse makes it clear that sexual relations with Leonard are extremely satisfying to Julia, again without judging or moralising about it.

Julia is less obviously a victim than Delafield’s heroine. Throughout A Pin To See A Peepshow, Julia is often in command. She earns more money than Herbert and is largely able to dictate when she allows him to sleep in her bed. Nonetheless, Tennyson Jesse makes clear that ultimately, Julia is too naïve to understand the passions she’s unleashed in Leonard which drive him to his ultimate act. Her subsequent foolish attempt to cover up Leonard’s involvement to make the murder seem like an accident, seals her fate in a patriarchal justice system. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia probably comes close to the real Edith Thompson: a woman not without faults, whose options in life were narrowly determined by her sex and who paid the price for transgressing accepted norms.

A Pin To See The Peepshow was recently re-issued as part of the British Library Women’s Writers series. Copies can be bought here.


[1] Lucy Evans, ‘Preface’, in F. Tennyson Jesse, A Pin To See The Peepshow (London: British Library, 2021), p. viii

[2] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in 1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, no. 3 (2008), 624-648

Vita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

FeaturedVita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

During the interwar period, Sackville-West was best known as a prolific and celebrated author in her own right. By 1930, when her best-selling novel The Edwardians appeared, Sackville-West had already published more than a dozen other novels, works of poetry, and non-fiction volumes.[1]

The Edwardians was originally published by the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The book was a huge commercial success: by July 1930, within two months of its publication, Hogarth Press was already advertising that it had sold 20,000 copies. That the book clearly appealed to a working-class audience is evidenced by the popularity of the cheap sixpenny edition, of which 64,000 copies had sold by 1936.[2]

Advert for The Edwardians, Sheffield Independent, 14 July 1930, p. 3

Sackville-West herself was anything but working class. She grew up at Knole, a medieval palace remodelled into the Sackville family seat in the early 17th century (it is currently managed by the National Trust). Vita had many happy memories of her childhood at Knole, and in The Edwardians she created its fictional equivalent in the Chevron estate, seat of the Duke of Chevron. Chevron is the enduring foundation and backdrop throughout the book’s descriptions of upper-class parties and affairs.

The Edwardians’ main character is Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron. At the opening of the book, in 1905, Sebastian is nineteen. He loves Chevron and being the head of the estate, but is vaguely dissatisfied with the social life of upper-class Edwardian England. Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, is part of the ‘smart set’: ‘They were all people whose names were familiar to every reader of the society titbits in the papers.’[3] Unlike the matriarchs of the Victorian period, Lucy’s friends think of themselves as less worried about decorum and ‘doing the right thing.’ One of the key themes of The Edwardians is how both the upper and the middle classes still put convention and appearance over personal freedom, despite their insistence that they have done away with Victorian primness.

Sebastian has three key relationships in The Edwardians, which are announced by its chapter headings. In 1905, he meets Anquetil, an explorer who is an outsider to Chevron’s smart set. Anquetil invites Sebastian to come away with him for a few years to see something of real life. Sebastian declines, as he has just fallen in love with Lady Roehampton, a 40-something married woman who is a friend of his mother and one of society’s great beauties. Lucy wholeheartedly approves of this affair, seeing it as a healthy rite of passage for a young man to be introduced to sex.

What is not intended, however, is that Lady Roehampton falls in love with Sebastian. When, after a year and a half, her husband finds out about the affair, he states she must move to the country with him and never see Sebastian again. This creates the first big crisis in the book: Sebastian tells Lady Roehampton that she should get a divorce and come away with him: Lady Roehampton, despite her belief that she is much more modern than her Victorian forebears, shrinks from the idea of divorce and dumps Sebastian instead.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Sebastian then pursues a middle-class married woman, Teresa. She is dazzled by the riches and ceremony of Chevron, but when Sebastian makes a pass at her at Christmas she is horrified that he would think she would cheat on her husband. Sebastian is now disillusioned with both the ‘smart set’ and the middle-classes. After a brief affair with a bohemian artist, he resigns himself to marrying a plain but proper daughter of a respectable family. Just before he decides to formalise his engagement, Anquetil shows up again. This time, Sebastian gratefully accepts the offer of escape from his cushioned life.

The Edwardians offers a detailed and, one senses, authentic view of upper-class society in the Edwardian period. Readers are entertained with descriptions of sumptuous parties and Downton Abbey-esque descriptions of the servants’ hall. At the same time, Sackville-West is critical of this lifestyle. For example, she repeatedly stresses that Lucy’s friends, despite their power and influence, are not particularly intelligent. When Teresa is invited to Chevron for Christmas and sits with the other ladies after dinner, ‘she was forced to admit that they did not seem to be saying anything worth saying.’[4] Sackville-West also pokes fun at the group’s own special lingo, ‘deevy’ for ‘divine’ and ‘adding an Italian termination to English words’: ‘lovel-are’ for ‘lovely’ and ‘dinn-are’ for ‘dinner’.[5]

Sackville-West’s critique also touches on more substantial matters: when Sebastian decides to give all his staff a raise of five shillings a week after New Year’s, it leads to critical self-reflection on his own part. He notes that the increase would cost him ‘thirteen hundred pounds a year; very little more than his mother would spend on a single ball; a negligible sum in his yearly budget. He felt ashamed.’[6] When at dinner, Lucy tells the other guests of the raise, Sebastian is harshly criticised by the other lords, who say that he has ‘spoiled the market’ for other landowners and that his staff will only ‘expect more’: ‘They all looked at Sebastian as though he had committed a crime.’[7]

Contemporary reviews of The Edwardians mostly did not note the social commentary of the book. Although the Aberdeen Press and Journal review noted that ‘The Mayfair, Belgravia, and country house lot are shown to us as publicly engaged in whitewashing their own and their neighbour’s private lives’[8], other reviews consistently described the book as primarily ‘entertaining.’[9] Several reviews note that whilst the Victorian period had been extensively revisited by historians and novelists, the Edwardian period had received less attention due to it being overshadowed by the war.[10]

The immediate cultural impact of The Edwardians can be seen in a throwaway comment in the Daily Mirror. In a brief article about Ascot fashion, the journalist writes:

On the cover of Miss Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” there is pictured a group of presumably select persons of that period. The “happy few” look now like a number of charwomen out for a beanfeast. And the question is: Will the belle assemblée at Ascot to-day look like that – a ragbag assortment – in fifty years’ time to those who examine our back numbers? Very likely. But was does it matter? They look nice now.[11]

Already, mere weeks after its publication, The Edwardians was referenced as a text with whom all Daily Mirror readers were expected to be familiar. Whether they enjoyed it for its lavish descriptions of upper-class life, or for its social critique, it is undeniable that the book resonated with many interwar readers.


[1] Kate Williams, ‘Introduction’, in Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xv

[2] Ibid., p. x

[3] Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. 27

[4] Ibid., p. 193

[5] Ibid., p. 194

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] Ibid., p. 205

[8] ‘Book of the Week: A Novel of Edwardian Society’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 June 1930, p. 6

[9] ‘Real Life Raffles’, Daily Mirror, 23 June 1930, p. 20; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[10] ‘Books of the Day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 June 1930, p. 8; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[11] ‘Ascot Fashions’, Daily Mirror, 18 June 1930, p. 9

Featured

Anthony Berkeley – Trial and Error (1937)

Crime novelist Anthony Berkeley (born Anthony Berkeley Cox in 1893) was one of the key crime writers of the interwar period, producing books both as Anthony Berkeley and as Francis Iles. Many of his books innovated the crime genre, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) in which the members of an amateur crime detective club each put forward unique and plausible solutions to the same crime.[1] In Before the Fact (1932, written as Francis Iles) the female protagonist becomes gradually convinced that her husband is planning to murder her.

Berkeley’s main sleuth was Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective and author. It was common, indeed expected, for interwar crime writers to have a regular detective character, and Berkeley wrote ten novels starring Sheringham. His crime novels that do not include Sheringham, however, allowed him more flexibility in terms of plot development. This is also true of Trial and Error, which Berkeley wrote in the mid-1930s. Trial and Error does feature other characters from the Berkeley crime universe, such as the bumbling Ambrose Chitterwick who also stars in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and The Piccadilly Murder (1929).

The plot of Trial and Error is as typically convoluted and rewarding as can be expected from Berkeley, including a twist in the very final sentence of the book. Like other crime novels by Berkeley and his fellow writers, the plot is based on a historical crime, in this instance a case from 1864.[2] In Trial and Error, Lawrence Todhunter is told he is going to die of an aortic aneurysm at some point soon – as long as he does not exert himself, he may live another year, but anything that increases his heartrate may kill him.

Todhunter asks his friends a seemingly hypothetical question – what would they advise a man who has only a few months left to live, to do? The unanimous response is that such a man should kill someone – after all, the death penalty would form no deterrent. Although Todhunter at first entertains thoughts of killing Hitler or Mussolini (the latter of which was seen as a bigger threat in 1937)[3]; he eventually decides to kill an ‘ordinary’ person who makes the lives of those around them miserable. He finds his victim in Miss Jean Norwood, a stage actress who seduces married men and then financially drains them.

The selection of Miss Norwood as the victim and her eventual successful murder takes up less than the first half of Trial and Error. The second half of the book is concerned with the aftermath – and this is where it copies the historical case. After the murder Todhunter decides to go on a world tour, expecting to peacefully die somewhere en route. Several weeks into his trip, however, he is horrified to find out that another man has been arrested for the murder of Jean Norwood. Todhunter speeds back to England to prove his guilt – but he has been so thorough in hiding his tracks that there is no material evidence to convict him, and the police do not believe his confession.

With the other man tried and found guilty, Todhunter has very little time to prevent the execution of an innocent man (the time between conviction and execution was traditionally only three weeks). Together with his friends, he comes up with a plan. One of his friends, a civil servant, sues Todhunter for the murder under civil law. Whilst the police controlled who would be prosecuted in a criminal court, anyone could bring a case to anyone else a civil court. Todhunter actively works with the prosecution’s legal team to make the case against him as strong as possible. They also ensure that the case gets plenty of press attention, which in turn leads to political debate. The execution of the previously convicted man is paused until Todhunter’s case is completed. At the end of the book, Todhunter is victorious – he gets found guilty of the murder and sentences to death, whilst the other man walks free.  

In Trial and Error, Todhunter’s impending aneurism not only provides the catalyst for the plot, but it is also an effective tool to ratchet up the tension throughout the narrative. During the trial, Todhunter is increasingly worried he may die before he is convicted, and his friends shelter him away from the media circus to keep him alive. The tight timelines of the criminal court case and execution also put the pressure on Todhunter, which of course in turn makes him more likely to suffer his aneurism.

But beyond the race to save a condemned man, Trial and Error raises some questions about the British justice system. The man who is originally convicted is innocent – the police have been able to provide motive and circumstantial evidence and the jury has made its decision based on that. When Todhunter returns to Britain and makes a full confession, the police are unwilling to believe him.[4] A miscarriage of justice is a very real possibility in this scenario. Because Todhunter is initially unable to provide any material evidence to back up his confession, he is disbelieved. Technical advances in policing have made physical evidence so important that even a genuine confession holds no weight.

Like other Berkeley books, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Before the Fact, there is no direct connection between those who commit murder and those who get punished for it. Whereas other crime novelists such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie often ensured that their criminals were either killed or arrested at the end of the novel, Berkeley’s books are much more ambiguous. This critical stance at the British justice system is perhaps one of the reasons why Trial and Error has only been transferred to the screen once, in a 1958 BBC miniseries. Berkeley’s satire still raises uncomfortable questions about the robustness of Western justice systems.


[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: HarperCollins, 2015), pp. 85-86

[2] Ibid., p. 360

[3] Anthony Berkeley, Trial and Error (London: Acturus, 2012), pp. 12-13

[4] Ibid., pp. 125-129

Featured

Henry Wade – Heir Presumptive (1935)

In the Golden Age of crime fiction, many authors were tempted by the ‘perfect murder’. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Lord Peter Wimsey ruefully states that the perfect murder would never be considered a murder, and would therefore necessarily go undetected. In 1936, six writers of the Detection Club each wrote a short story containing the ‘perfect crime’. Each story was then followed by an analysis of a retired CID inspector, who unpicked whether the crime would be detected in real life, or not.[1] The inspector concludes that in each case, the police would eventually identify the killer – not surprisingly, he probably felt that to admit otherwise was to invite readers to have a go at replicating the ‘perfect murder’!

This is how it ends up in most interwar crime stories – no matter how ingenious the plot, usually the killer gets caught and either brought to justice, or given the option to take the ‘honourable way out’ and commit suicide. Not so, however, in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. In this inverted murder story, the murder central to the book is judged to be an accident.

Henry Wade was one of the original members of the Detection Club. An ex-soldier, he turned to crime fiction writing after the Great War. Unlike most other crime writers of the period, he was genuinely part of the landed gentry – his real name was Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher.[2] Wade used his insider knowledge of entailed estates to concoct the plot of Heir Presumptive, which features a family tree so intricate that a diagram is provided on the first page of the book (and to which this reader, for one, grateful referred back to multiple times).

The main character of the book is Eustace Hendel, a 35-year-old member of the secondary branch of descendants of the 1st Baron Barradys. The Baron’s title and estate are being passed down the male line and Eustace is far removed from them. He trained as a doctor, but after meeting ‘a rich widow’ who then ‘conveniently died’ (through natural means) Hendel came into an inheritance that allowed him to live as a man of independent means.[3] At the opening of the book, these means have nearly run out, debts are racking up, and Hendel is on the look-out for a way to continue his lifestyle without having to work. He also has a relationship with Jill, an actress who makes it clear that she will not stick around if Eustace can’t afford her.

When Hendel reads in the paper that the son and grandson of the current Baron Barradys have both died in a mysterious swimming accident, he makes sure to attend the funeral, in the hope of mending relationships with his wealthy family. Hendel re-acquaints himself with his cousin David, who is now unexpectedly the next heir to the family name and estate. David’s only son is a 20-year-old invalid who is expected to die soon. However, David is young enough to remarry, and there is a general expectation that he will do so now that he is next in line for the inheritance.

It is at this point that Eustace formulates his plan. After David and his invalid son, he believes he himself is the next male heir. If he kills David and the son dies as expected, then he would become the next Baron, and inherit the sizable estate attached to that title. And even until the current Baron dies, being next in line to inherit would be sufficient to secure loans and favours.

It is clear at this point in the book, about six chapters in, that Eustace Hendel is not a sympathetic character. He is greedy, lazy, and openly contemplating murdering his next of kin for his own benefit. Wade surprises, then, by allowing Hendel to execute the perfect murder. David invites him up to his lodge in Scotland, to go deerstalking. On the final day of the trip, David and Eustace go off without assistance to a remote part of the estate. After Eustace shoots a stag, he asks if he can also be the one to cut its throat to allow it to bleed out quickly. Feigning a slip, Eustace instead plunges the knife into David’s femoral artery.[4] After that, the remote spot and lack of onlookers make it easy for Eustace to ensure David bleeds to death before help can be found.

Although there is of course an investigation by the Scottish authorities, who are presented as more thorough and less obliging than their English counterparts, in the end, they decide not to pursue a criminal investigation. Although Wade allows Eustace to get away with the perfect murder from the perspective of a prosecution, he does not get the enjoy the expected benefits of his deed. The current Baron starts exploring options to cut Eustace out of the line of succession altogether, based on the general unfavourable impression he has of him.

In order to change the line of succession, the Baron needs the agreement of the current heir, David’s sick son Desmond. Eustace starts visiting Desmond and, under increasing pressure of Jill and various moneylenders, starts planning a second murder. Before he has time to execute it, however, Desmond dies. It is here that the reader starts to realise that Wade has been stringing them on all along. Although the focus has been almost exclusively on Eustace Hendel, it turns out he has been nothing but a pawn in someone else’s plan.

All along, the real mastermind has been David’s brother-in-law, lawyer Henry Carr. Henry orchestrated the swimming accident of the original heirs; Henry killed Desmond; and, after offering legal advice to Eustace, Henry frames Eustace for Desmond’s murder and then kills Eustace himself, making it look like a suicide. As if this isn’t enough, Eustace finds out just before he dies that whilst he is due to inherit the title of Baron, the estate and money are not passing through the male line and will instead be inherited by Henry’s wife (who is completely oblivious as to her husband’s murdering schemes).

For the final few pages of the book, after Eustace has died, the perspective switches to that of Henry Carr. We move from a world of country houses and independent incomes to suburbia – Carr travels by Underground to Waterloo as a seasoned commuter. ‘It was past the hour of the daily rush return from work, though the third-class carriages were fairly full; he himself never travelled first-class on ordinary occasions, but this was one on which he thought the luxury was justified.’[5] The motive for his murdering was to allow his wife to move out of the ‘semi-detached villa’ and to be able to afford the school fees for the children – middle-class aspirations if ever there were some.[6]

In the end, then, it is not the lazy, good-for-nothing playboy who is the threat to the upper classes, but rather the ambitious professional man who stops at nothing to give his wife and children a better future. Heir Presumptive is a cynical book, perhaps reflecting Wade’s ‘pessimism about the state of Britain’.[7] Eustace, Henry, even Jill – all are grasping for more than they have, without wanting to work for it. But whilst Eustace manages to orchestrate the perfect murder, he is too naïve to see the trap he walks into himself. Henry Carr, for all his cleverness, also has to reckon with justice – the final line of the book announces that ‘In the hall stood Chief-Inspector Darnell, accompanied by a uniformed police officer.’[8] Ultimately, Wade reassures the reader that no matter how clever the crime, justice will eventually be served.


[1] Published as Six Against the Yard (London: Selwyn & Blount, 1936). See Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), pp. 285-6

[2] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 194

[3] Henry Wade, Heir Presumptive (London: Remploy, 1980), p. 3

[4] Ibid., p. 77

[5] Ibid., p. 203

[6] Ibid. pp. 203-7

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 197

[8] Wade, Heir Presumptive, p. 209