Monday, May 12, 2008

Jess Lourey On the Herstory of Mystery

(submitted by Julia Buckley)

Thank you to the Deadly Daughters for allowing me to guest blog today on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: female mystery authors.

It is widely accepted that the first published mystery was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” penned by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 (and if you were going to contend this assertion, the blog of Poe’s Deadly Daughters wouldn’t be the place to do it). Wilkie Collins published his riff on detective fiction, The Woman in White, in 1860. Then, Sherlock Holmes hit the scene in 1887, providing the ultimate detective prototype. The mystery genre was taking shape, and by the turn of the century, it obtained mass appeal with the publication of pulp magazines and dime novels.

Like much literary history, the ascendance of the mystery novel is dominated by male authors. Heck, even Nancy Drew was originally penned by a guy. As Virginia Woolf wryly observed in 1928, it’s difficult to write without a room of one’s own. However, despite the obstacles of the time, three women managed to write their way to the top of the pile, redefining the mystery genre and turning out some amazing fiction. So, allow me to present to you a short herstory of mystery, featuring Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Although Sayers considered her greatest work to be her nonfiction translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and her time better spent writing literary works than detective fiction, she is best known for her mysteries. Sayers was born in England in 1893. She earned a degree in Modern Languages in 1915 and went on become a copywriter, which is what she was doing when she published her first novel, Whose Body?, in 1923. Whose Body? introduced the aristocratic, monocled amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who helmed 14 of her novels and short stories. She once commented that she envisioned Wimsey as a combination of Fred Astaire and P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional Bertie Wooster. In 1931, Sayers introduced Harriet Vane, her other main protagonist, in the novel Strong Poison. Critics suggest Vane, an Oxford-educated mystery writer, was a stand-in for Sayers.

Sayers is most famously known for bringing a literary element to detective fiction. Her writing is praised for being intelligent and layered, and she’s really, really creative with the cause of death in her novels (poisoned cat’s claw, anyone?). She also had a killer personal life, including a lover who was an unemployed car salesman at the time of their trysting, an illegitimate son, a devout Catholic faith, and amazing contemporaries, including C.S. Lewis. Sayers stopped writing detective novels in the late 1930s and instead focused on her poetry, religious dramas, and nonfiction.

Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham, though today not as widely known as Sayers or Christie, was one of the great Golden Age mystery writers. She was born in London in 1904, and both her parents were successful writers at the time. Although she published her first book, Blakkerchief Dick, in 1923, it wasn’t until 1927 that she published her first piece of detective fiction, and not until 1929 that her seminal character, detective cum adventurer Albert Campion, appeared on the scene as a minor character in The Crime at Black Dudley. Rumors have it that Campion was intended as a parody of Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey.

While Margery Allingham is unknown to most mystery readers today, I include her in this herstory because she wrote some great books worth discovering, and she is easy to identify with. She began writing “serious literature,” but found it out of touch with her easygoing nature and so switched to mystery, which she found neat and clean, a box with four sides—"a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it." According to the Margery Allingham Society website, mystery writing was “‘at once a prison and a refuge’ to a writer unsure of her aims but confident of her powers.” She improved with each book, stuck with mystery writing even when she couldn’t make a living off of it, and took risks with her characters. How many mystery writers out there can relate to that?

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is not only the best-selling mystery author of all time—-she’s the best-selling author, period. Her collected works have only been outsold by the Bible, and I’d argue that her writing has much better pacing.

She was born in England in 1890, married in 1914, and had one daughter in 1928. She published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, in 1920. Christie’s beloved protagonist Miss Marple first appeared in 1930 in The Murder at the Vicarage. Under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, she wrote six romantic novels, and she also wrote four nonfiction books (note to you mystery writers who want to branch out—-even Christie did it!). All told, Christie wrote over 80 novels and short story collections and more than a dozen plays.

Anyone who has read Agatha Christie will have their own argument as to why she is still so widely read. For my money, it’s her character development, timeless examination of human corruption, and wicked (but fair) plot twists that keep me coming back for more. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Christie’s characters have a keen eye for detail, and I never finish one of her novels without feeling like if I just paid a little more attention in life, I’d see a whole new world.

And how can you not love a woman who says things like this?

· “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.”
· “Every murderer is probably somebody's old friend.”
· “I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties.”
· "If I was born once again, I would like to be a woman - always!"

Although more women were becoming published authors in the early 1900s than in any other time in history, they were still underrepresented in all but one area: mystery. They dominated this genre. Danced on it. Slapped it and made it their own. Thank you, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie, for opening all those doors for us and for providing limitless entertainment and inspiration.

And so tell me: who did I miss on this herstory of mystery?

Jess Lourey, the guest blogger for today, has just released August Moon (, the fourth novel in her Lefty-nominated Murder-by-Month series. Of August Moon, Denise Swanson, author of the Scumble River Mysteries, writes, "Lourey has a gift for creating terrific characters. Her sly and witty take on small town USA is a sweet summer treat. Pull up a lawn chair, pour yourself a glass of lemonade, and enjoy."

Jess will be touring the West Coast with mystery author Dana Fredsti in May and hitting the Midwest in June. Check her website for more details. Also, to win a free copy of August Moon, be the first person to email Jess through her website and correctly identify the female Scottish mystery author who was a contemporary of the above three and should probably have been included in this post. Be sure to tell her that Poe’s Deadly Daughters sent you!


Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Jess--some very interesting details here. I didn't know many of these things, especially about Allingham, whose books I haven't read.

And I love the detail about Wimsey being part Bertie Wooster--a favorite character of mine.

Jess Lourey said...

You are so much more well-read and urbane than me, Julia. I had never heard of Bertie Wooster before researching this blog post. You're my smart friend. :)

Thanks to Poe's Deadly Daughters for letting me post today!

Julia Buckley said...

Well, thank you for calling me urbane. Here at the high school I think I'm just viewed as vague and eternally smudged with chalk (at least by the students).

They also think I have bad shoes, which I do.

zhadi said...

Excellent article, Jess!

Christine said...

Ngaio Marsh is one you left out. I can't remember where she was born but she lived and wrote in both New Zealand and England. Her first love may have been theater and she certainly had a lot to do with the theater scene in NZ when she returned there (just before WWII?). Her main characters are associated with the aristocratic Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard (including Agatha Troy, a portrait painter not a little unlike Harriet Vane).

I've read all three of the writers you mention and am particularly fond of Allingham with Sayers close behind. Christie wrote the best puzzles, but her characters remain frozen in time. Allingham and Sayers had characters who grew and changed along with the times they lived in. In fact, Allingham, in particular, provides almost a social history of Great Britain, especially if you focus on her books published in the 30s through the early 60s.

All four of these "queens" of the Golden Age had male protagonists but all of them wrote about strong women as well.


Julia Buckley said...

I would also add Josephine Tey.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Add my vote for Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, also Christianna Brand, Patricia Moyes, Patricia Wentworth. Then jump the Atlantic and a decade or two and add the mothers of American woman PI and cop mysteries: Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Susan Dunlap, Marcia Muller.

Jess Lourey said...

Christine, I absolutely need to check out Ngaio Marsh now. I had never heard of her. And Elizabeth, thank you for the list of more women to read! Isn't it great to be throwing around all the names of these amazing female authors?

Jess Lourey said...

Whoops--should have posted this earlier! It's finals week at the college where I teach, and life is crazy hectic now...

Anyways, Caroline Blanchard of Honolulu, Hawaii, won the free signed copy of August Moon. The correct answer to my question was Josephine Tey. Congratulations, Caroline!

Melissa said...

Very excellent. I look forward to this new read. I haven't been interested in this genre until after reading Landmark Status. Now, I look forward to finding more with the help of great reviews such as this one.