#286: A Conscious Regiment of Women? – The Queens of Crime™, Representation, and the Golden Age

QoC

It is tremendously difficult to write about gender these days without appearing to be trying to sneak through some (usually unpleasant) agenda.  If anything in the following causes any reader jump to such a conclusion about my intentions, I urge that hypothetical reader to take a glance through any selection of posts on this site — all written by the author of what you’re reading now — to assure themselves that this in no way features in my plans.  I am simply, out of curiosity, asking a question that happens to involve gender.

And the question is this: Has Golden Age Detective fiction been subjected to a deliberate feminisation?  And, if so, to what end?

Okay, let me define my terms:

By ‘Golden Age Detective fiction’ (GAD from hereon) I mean novels and short stories predominantly written by English authors whose main intention is to communicate the commission and solving of a crime, published approximately between 1920 and 1945.

By ‘feminisation’ I mean the promotion of this type of writing being something undertaken by female authors far more than male authors, with the implication that by promoting this view there is some implicit difference or importance in this being the case.

Agatha Christie is the obvious example to draw — she is one of the few authors to genuinely transcend her genre in terms of public awareness, and so provides a suitable short-hand for this sort of question: not only is she in print, she’s on TV, in the movies, in video games…hell, if there’s a platform on which Christie can be promoted, the current rights-holders are more than happy to have the name attached to it, to hell with the faithfulness or suitability of whatever emerges (ahem, P******* i* C****).

But this case extends beyond Christie, and only really occurred to me of late due to my recent, belated purchase of Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder (2015) in which he charts the development of The Detection Club — a self-created collection of detective fiction authors, who would vote other authors in as members — from its inception through to about 1949 (it’s still going; Edwards himself is the current President).  At the start of the book is a list of all the authors elected to the club from 1930 to 1949 and of the 50 names — fifty, half of one hundred — only 14 are female.  And I was genuinely amazed when I read this.  I know not everyone from that era is still in print now, that’s an unattainable dream, but assuming a not-unreasonable equal tailing-off of interest in both genders of author, the relative profligacy of female authors currently in print implied to my mind a positive swathe of them from back when they were contemporary.  In short, I fully expected the women to hugely outnumber the men.  I didn’t care either way, I just unconsciously held that expectation.

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And, I can’t help but feel, ‘profligacy’ really is the word.  Since I have started reading GAD in any meaningful way, the authors whose work can be found almost without exception in any bookshop I walk into are exclusively female — Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey — and subject to all manner of debate over which four of them constitute the Queens of Crime.  Christie and Sayers are probably the most famous, television adaptations don’t hurt in that regard, but even in the best-stocked bookshops these five women represented a significant proportion of all the GAD work available; virtually everything they wrote was in print (oh, happy day!), and the numbers, while varying significantly, are pretty damn impressive:

Christie: ~80 books
Mitchell: ~70 books
Allingham: ~35 books
Sayers: 11 books
Tey: ~8 books

Some of those numbers are approximate because I don’t want to get into a debate about precisely which books we’re including (Christie, for starters, published a lot of stuff outside of the date range I gave above), but that’s still over 200 novels from the school we’re discussing, all written by women.  When Vintage reissued 6 Edmund Crispin books a few years ago he was one of the few male GAD authors in print.  It would appear, therefore that there is potential for the argument to be put forward that of late publishers have wished to propound the sense that the contribution of female authors to this form of detective story greatly outweighs that of their male contemporaries.  It’s a bit of a reach, sure, but the near-total scarcity of Berkeley, Carr, Connington, Crofts, Rhode, and many others besides until the advent of small press publishing houses seems…odd.

Hell, if you just want to compare numbers of books published at the time, John Rhode/Miles Burton outpublished Christie by a factor of 50%, John Dickson Carr pretty much matched her book-for-book, Freeman Wills Crofts would easily stack up against Allingham, and so three male authors have already in sheer numbers matched or exceeded the five fine women above.   I could keep quoting names at you on both sides of this divide — Henry Wade, E.C.R. Lorac, Rupert Penny, Carolyn Wells, Milward Kennedy, Helen Reilly, we really could be here all day adding first to one pile and then to another — but the fact remains that a majority of male authors from this period are nowhere near as well-know as these five women.  And that fascinates the hell out of me.

Before my intentions here are misinterpreted, let’s be clear on one thing: I don’t particularly care one way or the other — story has no gender, and my chief interest in GAD is the telling of a good story — I’m just curious at the revelation that female authors made up a comparatively slight proportion of those working in this field at this time, especially given the prevalence of those five names above in publishing terms.  While membership of the aforementioned society is not necessarily a great measure per se — one of those members was A.A. Milne, who wrote only one novel of detection, but equally another was Clemence Dane whose own contribution is debatable from the three books she co-wrote (though she did at least get involved in some of the round-robin works they produced, which is more than can be said for Milne) — it seems telling.

And it’s not as if a lot of these male writers are only just becoming available now.  It seems to’ve been since the paperback boom of the 1980s that a lot of GAD authors have gradually disappeared from bookshops, leaving those five fine women to carry the tradition on.  Prior to this, Penguin, Berkeley, Bantam, Dell, Walker, Collier, and other publishing companies kept shelves stocked with beautifully-designed, well-produced classic GAD paperbacks from all sides and styles.  The gradual fading of these from public awareness can of course be attributed to a loss of vogue for the detective novel, but then why didn’t Allingham equally disappear along with Henry Wade and Philip Macdonald?  Why did Christie remain in print and Carr stalk away into obscurity?  C’mon, don’t tell me you’re not a little bit curious…

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Now you mention it…

Obviously rights play a part, but at the same time the crowning of Queens of Crime is a commonly-understood thing, whereas my Kings of Crime selections from a little while back would have people scratching their heads at the terminology.  Again, let me be clear: I’m not being a broflake, it just seems so marked that you (well, I) sort of wonder if there was some design behind it all: is the perceived genteel air of the Golden Age only to be preserved if books by women are made easily available?  Pick up Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) or, hell, the far more famous and likely And Then There Were None (1939) and that illusion would be shattered pretty quickly.  Did these female authors stick more rigidly to the genre lines?  Allingham sure as hell didn’t, and Sayers gave us some elaborately complex psychology and research-first plotting that really challenges what’s permissible in the form.  Tey wasn’t even a GAD specialist — her particular idiom doesn’t fit in this school at all to my eye, about which possibly more at a later date — and the appeal of Mitchell confounds me like little else.

So, what says you?  Has there been a deliberate attempt to present GAD as the preserve of a handful — and, by implication, majority — of female authors, and why?  Or is it just coincidence?  I don’t mind in the least, and the likes of Ramble House and The Langtail Press have in recent years jumped on the rights of neglected and forgotten authors from this era…but how did they come to be so forgotten?  I feel I could make some of these points better but it’s late, I’m tired, and you doubtless have something to say.  So let’s get into it…

~

As any thirst for controversy will doubtless remain unquenched following the above, those hoping for more fertile ground are invited to check out the time I legitimately defended sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other attitudes in GAD reprints.  Have fun!

51 thoughts on “#286: A Conscious Regiment of Women? – The Queens of Crime™, Representation, and the Golden Age

  1. I’m tempted to see a link to marketing strategies. Crime/detection fiction these days appears to be roughly split into two categories: cozy & hard-boiled. The former is, broadly speaking, presented as, if not the preserve of women writers then certainly a field which they dominate. On the other hand, the latter has historically been seen, and continues as such, as an area where men hold the reins.

    It looks a little like a similar division is used by publishers and marketing departments when they deal with reprints of GAD – they are thinking how GAD can be slotted into their current template.And that template looks like it equates GAD with cozy.

    Furthermore, there is the perception (fact?) that women read more and also tend to read more material written by women. So I have a hunch it may come down to marketing and certain perceptions.

    • A great set of points: ask someone to name a hard-boiled writer and you’ll get Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson…but then do we know that women worked in this sphere? The tropes and trappings of such would suggest not, but am I being lulled into that assumption the way someone who has watched 20 episodes of Poirot mightn’t know what Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr did for GAD?

      The British Library Crime Classics series is possibly helping to address this — I think of the 41 novels they’ve published, five are by women — so there’s doubtless recognition of the work from this era coming through, but maybe the perceptions of needing to push a small number of authors on the readers most likely to go for them is a very insightful one.

      Begs the question why it took so long for another publisher to try something new, but I suppose that comes down to publishing trends: wy would you look to publish something there appears to be no market for?

      • re, the query about no hardboiled female writers, how about Dorothy B. Hughes? Admittedly I can only think of the one just now but it’s late and I’d *ought* to be sleeping… I quite agree with that seeming differentiation you mentioned re styles, i.e. “male/plot/violence/speed”. “female/relationships/characters” etc.

        • I don’t know Dorothy B. Hughes — the name sounds vaguely familiar, but I couldn;t name a title or a style. Thanks for raising it, I’ll check her out in due course.

          And, yeah, I would have automatcially assumed she was a “softer” mystery writer purely based on her gender, I realise. Man, I am so unreformed… 🙂

  2. Certainly a tricky question you pose, but I think Colin could be on to something as from stuff I have read, even during the GAD period, for instance, it was assumed that women used libraries a lot more than men, so therefore what mysteries being chosen to be in those establishments was influenced partially by that factor. I also think as mystery fiction broadened out from the GAD style, the work from women writers may have stood the tests of time better, with novel of manners, romance, characterisation elements etc.. I could be and probably am wrong though. I shall have to give it further thought.

    • The notion of it being part of a wider literary trend — that womeon are typically more prevalent in other genres and therefore were promoted as such in this genre — is another factor I hadn’t thought of. And I guess it wasn’t a growth market until recently, so maintaining the status quo of simply keeping the same handful of authors available at least achieves a degree of coherence from that perspective.

      I’m very interested in that wider idea of why, though. Women only tending to read books by women — that’s an key idea here. Boys tend to go for books by male authors (I seem to remember reaing somewhere that this is why the Harry potter books are “by J.K. Rowling” rather than “by Joanne Rowling”), so I wonder if girls tend to go for female authors and this trend continues generally in both genders as they age. I can feel a dissection of sociological norms coming on… 🙂

  3. I think we’re all guessing here without the advantage of instant access to data – or even a clear understanding of what questions we should ask. As I pondered, I started with a theory that women had been relegated to genre fiction, but a quick survey of the top novels/authors of the 1930’s/40’s illustrates that authorship has always been one profession where women could succeed as well as men. And while there are women who write science fiction and maybe even action thrillers, those who do not write mainstream fiction tend to gravitate toward the genres of mystery and romance. So 1. There are a lot of women writers here.

    Next, mysteries are relegated to a specific section of the bookstore and targeted to a specific audience. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider the relationship between genre and mainstream fiction. Of the women authors listed as writing best selling novels in the 30’s/40’s, two of them – Mary Roberts Rinehart and Daphne DuMaurier – are mystery writers. But if you examine their work – and you take in the fiction of the Crime Queens – I would hazard a guess that 2. Women writers better incorporate the structures of mainstream fiction into their work than male mystery authors. I was on the verge of writing a post about “weirdness” in mystery fiction, based on a comment in one of your posts about how Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors has a “weird” plot. That’s not a weird plot!! Ellery Queen’s And On the Eighth Day is a weird plot. Q. Patrick’s The Grindle Nightmare is a weird book. As Kate notes above, women writers incorporate the novel of manners and often a strong romantic element in their mysteries which appeals to both women readers and those readers of mainstream fiction who might risk crossing over to genre fiction.

    Third, is it just coincidence, or is it significant that most of the novels that have been successfully adapted into film and/or television have been written by women? Yes, there are series about Maigret and Father Brown, films and TV series featuring Ellery Queen, Charlie Chan and Nero Wolfe. The 1930’s Chan and Wolfe films are wonderful; the Queen not so much. The series I mentioned get bashed regularly. Meanwhile, Christie, Allingham, Sayers and Marsh have gotten the royal TV treatment, and Christie is still being adapted to the big screen. I know money and power plays into this, but I would hazard a guess: 3. Women have a grasp on characterization, relationship, and basic story structure that translates their mysteries better to adaptation than men do. (The irony here is that I believe most of the adaptations of these women’s work are written by men!)

    Finally, I know, JJ, that you don’t have a sexist bone in your body, but you did protest being a broflake at least three times, and I think that if we look at the larger picture we’re seeing a coming together of a lot of factors – writers, readers, critics, style – that result in a celebration of female success in one small corner of the arts world. The fact that more men joined The Detection Club than women speaks to me of the “bro” factor in our society. Men like their clubs with their sense of exclusivity. They like to part-ay together! Women join sororities to be sisters forever, and then they go live their lives. Given how shy Christie was (and how prolific), I am almost surprised that she was a member. I think she went only to steal ideas from other writers! 🙂 I’m starting to ramble here, so I’ll sum up my final point this way: 4. Women are great at this, and in a world where we stilldon’t value women like we should, we might as well celebrate their greatness here! Long live the Queens!

    • There’s a lot here I do agree with and some I don’t, but I especially like the notion of female authors having a better grip on characterisation to help their stories relate. Wimsey, Tommy & Tuppence, Tey as discussed in a comment elsewhere recently, even (gak) Mrs. Bradley all had their aspects of ebing perhaps more richly imagined than the typical GAD assessment might ave you believe. And Jane Marple was so beautifully a product of her place and time that it’s nigh impossible to imagine that character existing under any other circumstances.

      By contrast…well, fellas. Rhode was pure plot, as was Crofts, as was Connington — not that they were incapable of character, but theses formed a less-integral part of the narratives. Yes, of course, some male authors did wonderful character work — we discused ESG here recently, whose characters are among the finest-realised of the era — in the same way that some female authors have a cloth-eared notion of how people talk and behave, but the fairer sex do overall come out more accomplished in this regard. Even Fell, possibly my favourite detective of the lot, is a series of blustering outbursts and then convenient exclamations to move things along when the other, dimmer characters get shipwrecked.

      This didn’t necessarily propagate down the ages — there are plenty of facile amnesiacs to fill out pages galore these days — but is there a sense that, in a more character-driven time, it was through investment in character that these were the books that survived? Hmmm, now you’ve got me thinking…

  4. As the French saying goes, “that’s an excellent question and I thank you for asking it”. I tend to agree with Colin that it’s first and foremost a marketing ploy – the target audience is female so let’s give them female writers – but one can’t overlook another reason, that is, academic enthusiasm for the female wing of Golden Age fiction, enthusiasm fueled by the literary qualities that Kate mentioned (though I fail to see them in Allingham’s work – but that’s another matter) but also by politics – feminists are very keen on the Crime Queens for obvious reasons and Sayers in particular has become a staple of women’s studies. People think the survival of a work of art is a matter of “standing the test of time” but it is also and perhaps above all a matter of whether the Literati find something there to like or exploit. Carr in my opinion is a better writer than Allingham on all counts, but he offers much less material for the academics to chew on – also, most of them wouldn’t agree with his politics. Same goes for most of the Kings of Crime. And maybe it’s better this way. I’m always wary of popular art being co-opted by the highbrows; it usually results in it losing its identity or surrendering it to the standards and demands of “high art”. Look what happened to comic books and TV shows since they have become respectable.

    • What I find interesting about this is the idea that let’s say Sayers becomes interesting to people on account of her academic work…but then the interest in her detective fiction isn’t sufficiently marked to result in more of the same being published, all the while being significant enough to keep it in print.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong — Brad’s spot on in his assertion that we’re theorising with hindsight but really no data — I’m just intrigued. I guess this could be seen as a measure of how little interest there was in the genre overall, except it kept Allingham and Mitchell — who don’t really do anything to warrant inclusion on these grounds — equally available ahead of others (Marsh, say, who was only repreinted in totality of late) for no discernable cause. The more I think about this perspective, the more I think I’d happily believe it was just a small test case riding on the coat-tails of Christie and her extreme visibililty.

      I agree wtih your point about visibility, too. The genre was perfectly fine without the Sophie Hannah Poirot novels, or the rush of Unreliable Narrator on the Noun supposedly brilliant crime novels that will reinvent how you think about words printed on pages bound together for ease of turning (and, my, how they’ll turn!). I’d take a complete reissue of E.C.R. Lorac over The Girl Who Kicked the Train of the Couple Next Door any day of the week.

      • They have become serious. Popular fiction these days is more often praised for its psychological depth and/or social relevance than its entertainment value. I think it should be the other way round, but that’s only my opinion.

        • As an example of what I’m struggling to say, here is how head of jury Lee Randall introduces this year’s McIllvanney Prize winner:

          ‘The Long Drop by Denise Mina transports us back to dark, grimy Glasgow, telling the social history of a particular strata of society via the grubby, smokey pubs favoured by crooks and chancers. She takes us into the courtroom, as well, where Manuel acted as his own lawyer, and where hoards of women flocked daily, to watch the drama play out. Full of astute psychological observations, this novel’s not only about what happened in the 1950s, but about storytelling itself. It shows how legends grow wings, and how memories shape-shift and mark us. For my money this is one of the books of 2017 — in any genre.’

          She might as well be talking about the latest Man Booker Prize winner. No mention of plotting, suspense or even readability. I’m not saying a crime novel should not deal with so-called “serious” themes but when they become the book’s raison d’être and the exclusive focus of critical attention I think there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

          • This is part of why the distinction between detective fiction and crime fiction is so important. I didn’t appreciate it quite so keenly until I started writing about it myself, but clearly the crime novel is not the detective novel.

            I’m curious, though, how the temporal issue of legitimacy affects this: was it that crime writing was taken seriously and so started tackling more realistic themes, or did it start tackling more realistic themes and so get taken more seriously?

            You’re gonna need an expert on 1960s+ writing to unpick that, I think — my knowledge ends on 31st December 1959!

  5. Xavier, if I had a mystery/crime novel published, I would certainly want a review complimenting on my plotting, story’s execution, suspense, and readability, I regard the “The Long Drop Review” to be pretty hollow. Leaves much to be desired for me both as a reader and as a writer if this review described my book. First and foremost, I’m concerned with the story. I don’t mind a review praising the themes of the book, psychological observations, or the setting but when story is king and should be one of the factors reviewed in a book review.

    When the review said, “Full of astute psychological observations, this novel’s not only about what happened in the 1950s, but about storytelling itself”, pray do tell me, head of jury Lee Randall, more about the “storytelling itself”

  6. Sorry, guys, I’ve lost track of who to reply to here! So I’m just . . . replying!

    Xavier, I grew up reading comics when they were only entertaining. In my late 20’s, a friend of mine who still collects comics introduced me to the Vertigo titles, plus I dated someone who read comics. I thought the new “seriousness” was quite good. The artwork was superior in most cases, and the plot lines fulfilled my love of serial complexity and emotional heft. Now I fear they’ve run out of original ideas, so the big heroes keep getting re-invented. Plus, the popularity of film and TV adaptations tends to skew toward visuals and action rather than emotions. So I’m fine leaving comics behind.

    As a kid, I watched WAY too much TV, and most of it was dreck. But the drama series were wonderful: Perry Mason, The Defenders, The Fugitive, Mannix, The Name of the Game . . . I’m focusing on crime series, but there was a lot of good stuff to be had. Today, I think that there is STILL a lot of great drama (not so much great comedy, though), but I’m weaning myself off all of these dark, dense series where order is not only not restored but, no matter what the genre, the world tends to end.

    Regarding books, I’m like JJ: I’d rather re-read After the Funeral for the 12th time than take up another angst-ridden, alcoholic sleuth with daddy issues who has to figure out which neo-Nazi neighbor is disemboweling children in the woods. I spent the weekend with some friends and bemoaned that nobody i live near enjoys old mysteries. One friend said he loved mysteries . . . and then cited James Patterson, John Hart and Nora Roberts as examples. I love the guy, but . . . I feel very much alone here. 😦

    • Talking about my reading habits with someone at work this week, they legitmately said “The last detective novel I read was The Da Vinci Code”. I maintained a brave front for the remainder of the conversation and then found a lonely corner somewhere and quietly died a little inside.

    • I’d rather read and re-read Agatha Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party”, Christie’s less popular book, then read the modern, dark, psychological novels that are so graphic and grim that all of the fun and color are stripped away. I know “Hallowe’en Party” isn’t considered Christie’s best book but it sure beats the many mystery/crime novels I see on the shelves today. Christie’s book is dark but not so much that any comic relief or fun is nonexistent. And if a modern crime writer pens a book about a neo-Nazi neighbor disemboweling children, expect that book to have such graphic language that turns the stomach. It sure turns mine. I think I’ll stick with Joyce Reynolds found drowned in an apple-bobbing tub instead 😉

    • Oh and Brad, speaking of the angst-ridden, alcoholic sleuth solving which neo-Nazi neighbor disemboweling children, that would be considered a serial killer thriller and as I said in a previous post, the language would be so graphic when describing the victims. I’ll stick with Christie’s “The ABC Murders” or Ellery Queen’s “Cat Of Many Tails” instead. We can get a sense of how dangerous a serial killer is and the urgency to capture him without falling into torture porn. I don’t need to read graphic descriptions of the killer’s handiwork. A writer does this for the story to be realistic but I think everything doesn’t have to be described and in my opinion to write a story about disemboweling children or even an adult, yes, it happens in the real world but I don’t need to read about it.

    • oh, damn, Brad, this cracked me up! your “I’d rather re-read After the Funeral for the 12th time than take up another angst-ridden, alcoholic sleuth with daddy issues who has to figure out which neo-Nazi neighbor is disemboweling children in the woods.” -sigh- Beautiful.

  7. I’ve broached the question to Martin Edwards as to why the female authors have remained in print and even he didn’t have an answer. On a very basic level, is it possible that readers would start on Christie (fair enough) and when looking for something similar, looked for a similar author (i.e female and of a certain age) rather than a similar style of writing because such a comparison was easier to make? Just a thought…

    • Oh, yeah, completely — hell, it took me long enough to read someone GAD who wasn’t Christie after starting her. But surely there’d be scope there to then market someone else on the back of Christie’s recommendation (she, like Sayers, wasn’t shy in spreading around nice things about her contemporaries) — that whole “Very few detective novels baffle me nowadays, but Mr Carr’s always do” thing would sell a goodly few copies of JDC if anyone had tried it, for one.

      But I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say: if you enjoy an author in a particular style or genre, you tend to look for similar in order to continue reading. And if the other authors in that tradition are the other women mentioned herein, that’s likely who you’re going to. But isn’t that just a red queen situation, then? They’re the ones bought because they’re in print, and they’re in print because they’re the ones people buy…

      • Back in the day though, how much publicity was there for these books? Some of my Rhode titles have adverts for toothpaste rather than other titles.

        My gut feeling is that the average punter wouldn’t have read reviews or recommendations but would go to the bookshop and basically take a punt on a title. And with not much else to go on, the author’s name on the spine might be enough.

        Although that doesn’t really explain Ngaio Marsh – is Ngaio an obviously female name?

        • Sure, but I’m looking at this a more modern phenomenon — the early 2000s, say, when GAD reprints simply didn’t exist beyond Sayers, etc. Hell, a book published these days declaiming some affinity to Agatha Christie on its cover is, sure, lying, but also going to generate a certain amount of interest. So an actual, legitimate, attributed recommendation from Mrs. Mallowan herself would have had people poitively clambering up bookshelves to buy them.

          • I’m not convinced that a cover quote would be enough – you need to catch the audience’s eye and persuade them gradually. Even in the new millennium, the Crime Queens were still the known names, so they still sold and were still reprinted. You need a way beyond a cover quote to catch the potential audience – the BL finally found a way to catch the readers’ eyes en masse by the pretty covers and that has, to an extent, raised the profile of the Golden Age “missing” authors. Attempts by, say, The Murder Room, while appreciated by the people who already knew about such writers, didn’t, I think, garner much of a new audience and they even had a bundle of (admittedly mostly disappointing) Carr titles in their catalogue.

            Personally, I think the change in attitudes can be traced almost entirely to Mystery In White. Must get round to reading it one day…

            • True enough; the difficulty with the early-2000s era in this regard was that such awareness was very print-media driven and there wasn’t quite the easy access to wider research there is now.

              I mean, Langtail, Rue Morgue, Ramble House, and ithers were printing some of this stuff thenabouts, but they were very much niche houses doing small print-runs of obscure titles…without any online presence drawing attention to them, they would only have been found by the curious and determined. The same would be true of these sorts of books from standard pubishig outlets, just with the slight advantage that well-stocked bookshops might run the slim chance of having a few available…

              Mystery in White is an odd one, for sure. The structure is unusual enough to make the seasoned reader sit up and take notice, but I don’t see anything about it that led to 60,000 copies selling in the run up to Christmas a couple of years ago. It’s…fine, but not the book you’d guess would kick off such a surge of interest. Would be intrigued to see what you make of it.

  8. Like everyone else, I don’t have a cut-and-dry answer to your question, but remember reading somewhere, years ago, that modern-day academia has some blame in the misconception that only women dominated the Golden Age. Nearly every literary scholar from the past fifty or sixty years, who wrote about Golden Age detectives, almost exclusively wrote about the Crime Queens. When they wrote about male crime writers, they were usually focusing on the hardboiled giants from the United States or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

    So an exact answer to your question is that are various reasons why that lead to this perception (academics favoring female writers, marketing, readers seeking out writers who are like Christie, etc).

    • Yeah, naturally, there’s unlikley to have been just one single reason, but it’s great to see people giving this so much thought. The question of where the academic interest in solely the female writers comes from — interesting to research Sayers, say, know of her membership in the Detection Club, and then pursure that no further — is perhaps another layer of the onion to be unpeeled another time!

  9. Here’s theory number two. Ahem. And before I start, I know there’s a massive exception to this in the shape of Carr, and I’m not convinced that I’m not going to insult a large proportion of the mystery loving audience.

    The named female writers tended to have more distinctive detectives. Poirot, Marple, Campion, Wimsey, even “Handsome” Alleyn are clear characters and readers wanted to know what scrapes the characters that they had enjoyed got into. Campion, Wimsey and Alleyn have lives that move forward through the books. Whereas while I’m really enjoying the latest John Bude from the British Library, I can’t see anyone giving two jots about Inspector Meredith – nobody even noticed that he was a recurring character, it seems, as I can’t find reliable info as to how many of Bude’s books he was in. It may well be that a number of readers weren’t treating the genre as a genuine puzzle read, just a fun guessing game and didn’t particularly care about the clueing aspect of the book, just in how much of a fun read it was.

    Yes, Carr with Fell and Merrivale is the exception that proves the rule, but I can’t think of any others. Possibly Queen, but when your character traits metamorphose throughout the years as much as his do, and the central constant is being somewhat irritating, I can see why these have died off too. You can make a similar claim for Nigel Strangeways too, perhaps.

    But look at where the mystery novel (not the crime novel) has been thriving over the years. The USA’s distinct brand of cosy crime, Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries et al, are strong on character and fun and short on those pesky clues. But given the amount of space given to them in the average Barnes and Noble, they sell by the bucketload, so perhaps the average reader, even the majority of readers, don’t actually care too much about the clueing and fairness of a mystery, but will put up with anything provided it’s fun and/or gripping.

    So when publishers are looking for something to sell, they want to sell more than one title – and what better way than to choose the adventures of “Handsome” Alleyn and his ilk. It’s certain easier (and cheaper) than trying to sell something that people haven’t heard of yet…

    • Interesting, you may be onto something there, and it provides food for thought at the very least. Along side Carr, I think we could add Stout and, to an extent, Van Dine as men who created memoorable characters.

    • An excellent set of point, Doc.

      It is interesting to reflect — as I said in response to (I think) Brad — how a lot of male authors did produce a bunch of ciphers as characters. Of course there will be exceptions, just as not every female author produced a varied and interesting central character, but it’s something I’d not picked up on before. Yes, there are flashes of insight or humour or something deeper at times, but I remember how struck I was by Bunter having to tend to Wimsey when he has his panic attack in Whose Body?…and nothing I’ve read in Crofts or Rhode or Wade or Connington has approached that level of immersion and response.

      And when you say even the majority of readers, don’t actually care too much about the clueing and fairness of a mystery, but will put up with anything provided it’s fun and/or gripping, I think this is very true; if nothing else it can be demonstrated in shows like the recently-discussed The Mentalist (which ran for SEVEN SEASONS!). In the new millennium there is definitely more of a desire to buy into a character or an ensemble — as you correctly state with the Cozy Haunted Baked Yarn Shop example — and it could simply be that these particular books sold well in the 1980s on these grounds and so were renewed and continued through the 90s and into the 2000s.

    • The USA’s distinct brand of cosy crime, Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries et al, are strong on character and fun and short on those pesky clues. But given the amount of space given to them in the average Barnes and Noble, they sell by the bucketload, so perhaps the average reader, even the majority of readers, don’t actually care too much about the clueing and fairness of a mystery, but will put up with anything provided it’s fun and/or gripping.

      Provided also that they can relate to the characters. You wouldn’t believe how many people read mysteries not for the plots but because they like the detective and want to see what happens to him/her next. That’s the main reason why series are so prevalent these days, whether in the cozy field or in darker areas, and one of the key differences about the detective novel of old and the contemporary novel about a detective.

        • And I was wondering why people seemed interested in that particular post today 😉 Thanks JJ. I actually agree with Xavier, “you wouldn’t believe how many people read mysteries not for the plots but because they like the detective and want to see what happens to him/her next”. I learned this truth from Elizabeth George, who was doing a reading/signing at my bookstore. One lady asked, “Will Barbara Havers ever find happiness?” The author replied quickly, “Not if I can help it!” and laughed. Another customer put it less coherently, and I’m paraphrasing — “I like to read about nice people having to clean up the messes of awful people.”
          It took me almost a year to generate my most previous post on “Why we read mysteries” but I am thinking of another reason … and it has to do with why mysteries have series detectives and ties in to “they want to see what happens to the detective next”. Give me a year, though 😉

          • Noah, I just commented on another post about the soap-opera quality of George’s work. Following her detective and his posse was what kept me reading, even after the books became doorstops!! But that is surely a modern convention. (P.D. James did it too, but Dalgliesh and Company’s private lives were not very interesting.) I couldn’t care less what was going to happen next to Hercule Poirot. I only cared that each time I picked up one of his adventures he would exhibit certain traits. Unlike his creator, I loved the guy! But if Christie hadn’t been able to mold great plots for him, my affair with Poirot would have been short-lived. And then there’s Rex Stout. I care more about Wolfe and Archie than any of their stories. But there’s no real movement in their lives. They stay the same from beginning to end. I don’t mind that at all.

            • The book I’m currently reading has got me reflecting in this exact point! More on Thursday, assuming I find the time to finish it by then…

  10. Okay, now it’s too much! I’m responding to everybody about everything!!!

    I love PD’s theories! Christie was my gateway drug and, being a kid, I didn’t rush to the book review sections or have the internet to draw comparisons. I went to the bookstore! It was too early to see a lot of “in the style of Agatha Christie” blurbs on the front cover, so I read the back cover blurbs. You could get a really good sense of whether or not a mystery was Christie-an or . . . something else. Another highly prolific author whose books occupied several shelves near Christie was John Creasey (a.k.a. JJ Marric and, I believe, a host of other pseudonyms.) I sensed he was nothing like Christie – spies, procedurals, action), so I never read him. (And you know what? Nobody whose blogs I read seems to have noticed him either.) But I was drawn to Queen and Carr (both men – but at the time I didn’t notice the details enough to see the difference, and there are differences.)

    The detective theory is brilliant, and with all respect I would add Ellery Queen to that list of distinctive detectives. But then, I did read all of Ngaio Marsh, and Alleyn isn’t particularly interesting. And I read a few Allinghams because I found Campion fun, but the plots drove me away. And I could not bear Peter Wimsey or pretty much anything about Sayers. So while I agree that female writers on the whole contributed more distinctive detective heroes, that distinction wasn’t always a good thing as I chose who to read and who to avoid. There is probably an argument to be made for keeping the investigator rather subdued in order to focus on the case. I assume a lot of (male) writers bought into this idea, and now look at where they’ve gotten to: they’ve become lengthy sections in books by Curtis Evans to convince us that they really are worth reading!

    Finally, while I decry the proliferation of “cozy” mysteries in our bookstores at the (seeming) expense of fine mystery literature, I’m not sure you can make a connection between that and The Mentalist and its ilk. Crime fiction has simply devolved from clever whodunits to more “realistic” depictions of murder and mayhem, with the occasional classic mystery trope thrown in to qualify the book for entry into the genre – and then that trope is mishandled, even butchered. Television has rarely been kind to the whodunit except in the most formulaic of ways, and to understand why, you need look no further than Agatha Christie herself. When she wrote her plays, she “dumbed them down” because she believed that asking an audience to concentrate over two hours on the complexity of suspects and clues she puts into her novels is asking too much of them. Now I know there are those of us who can do this! Hence, Death in Paradise and the Poirot/Marple adaptations (most of which still cut down on the characters and clues). But we live in a world where evidently the entire American election was swayed by false Facebook identities providing links to Russian-managed websites filled with fake news. And if P.T. Barnum was wrong and you can fool all of the people all of the time – at least sometimes – what chance do we have for modern readers or viewers to embrace complex mysteries?

    Interestingly, Christie removed Poirot from her plays because she didn’t believe any actor could portray the part convincingly (and sometimes because she regretted putting the Belgian in the book in the first place.) But I’m sure part of the appeal of Christie on screen are the detectives themselves, while nobody has ever gotten Queen right or even tried with Dr. Fell. Meanwhile, the depictions onscreen of Campion, Alleyn and Wimsey do justice to – maybe even improve on – the characters from the page.

    • On the subject of adaptations — and getting off the topic above, but it’s my site so I’m allowed — you may be interested to know that Anthony Horowitz is currently adapting Magpie Murders for TV, and has an idea for another Atticus Pund book that he said would be the second series if it gets picked up.

      Now there’s a complex narrative to adapt for a different form — though he at least has the common sense to be going for 8 episodes rather than compromising heavily and churning out a one-shot that guts the complexity of the book. It is with immense eagerness that I await any results…might even have to buy a television…!

  11. Just to add to Puzzle Doctor’s theory about the appeal of character over plot, I agree that this is a big part of why those particular women have remained in print so long, but would also suggest that the characterisation and detailing of the era itself is important. All of those authors have a very clear and rich sense of place and time: the background detail and turns of phrase which cannot be reproduced by modern pastiches, however well-written some might be. Dorothy Sayers made sure to add up to date touches, carefully researched. Agatha Christie documents decades of sometimes painful changes. Ngaio Marsh ( my spellcheck just altered her to NyQuil Marsh – even the software is a critic), however much I may despise ”Handsome’ Alleyn, could write beautifully immersive scenes about theatre, New Zealand and almost everything up until her detective arrives.
    Immersive, in fact, is what I think I’m going for here. And, in my opinion only of course, Carr, John Rhode, John Budd and Freeman Wills Croft lack that quality, however excellent their mysteries and plotting may be.
    I’d be tempted to add an appealing touch of humour here as well ( Murder must Advertise, Strong Poison, Coroner’s Pidgin, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd all have lovely moments) but, for one, humour is so subjective that I’m not sure how much of a factor this is and, two, there are at least two male authors I can think of off the top of my head who I enjoy as much for their humour (Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin and I’m certain there are more of both sexes, if I only had the memory of a moderately competent goldfish).
    Might I add how much I’m enjoying the debate and the passionate involvement of this blog and commentors in discussion of reading?

    • Ha, I love “NyQuil Marsh”…

      I think, in terms of contemporary verisimilitude, the male authors you cite — even Bude, who fails to uimpress me thus far — very ,uch saw a lot of those details as understood, and rarely sought to bring attention to them since they were writing for a contemporary audeince (in much the same way one doesn’t need to explain the precise operations of Windows on a computer now). There’s one Carr novel where he does properly lampshade an important historical detail, but it was mostly restricted to circumstance and action (Crofts’ Antidote to Venom is, for my momey, as fine a period piece as can be found in the genre).

      Whether the female authors were any more explicit in this I don’t really know. I have a feeling they weren’t, but it might just be that there’s a sense they were because so many of the stories have been realised in a visual format and so we feel we got those details in the writing. I can’t think of anything where Christie especially lavished contemporary detail on a setting, except in later novels to draw the stark contrast between the world Poirot or Marple was used to and the one they now found themselves living in. But, hey, feel free to disagree!

      The intelligence of the people who gather round this sort of thing is one of the chief joys of this blogging lark. It’s no good discussing this wort of thing with people who are going to be boorish or alarmist. We’re very fortunate to have to many commenters who can bring so much to such discussions. And more creep out of the woodwork every day…!

  12. I don’t think Christie and her female ilk (would that be “ilk-ettes?”) set out to call attention to their “lavishing of contemporary detail on a setting” . . . it was just there and often because much of their story was either told from the point of view of characters other than the detectives or at least because the story wandered through non-official settings, like sitting rooms and village shops and London offices. How many Carr novels can I think of where most of the plot transpires within a series of gatherings of the investigative team? Norman Berrow does this, too. The same is true for early Queen: the focus is on Ellery, his father and Velie and seldom if ever leaves their POV. For every Christie novel where Poirot or Miss Marple are present from beginning to end, there are three to five titles where the focus is on the closed circle, with little to no interaction between the police and the amateur sleuth until the end. And in those scenes of Miss M. (forgive me) cosying up to the suspects, Christie piles on details of ordinary life, of how people interact with their servants, view their neighbors, treat their relations, plan and eat their meals, deal with wartime. Those fun scenes where Poirot makes a little list of key points and dangles them in front of Hastings or Superintendent Spence are a small part of the novel; contrast that with Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale tossing theories about with his cronies. In that scenario, there’s little to no time for “contemporary details” unless they apply to the case.

    • Okay, cool, I’m glad we’re in agreement. This doesn’t mean we’re right, but it’s nice to know someone else sees this from my perspective (though, of course, with far greater clarity than I could bring to it…!).

      • Good God, man, did I just agree with you? I – I didn’t mean . . . well, clearly, I don’t have a mastery of language, but then again, I’m only a man . . .

        • Sorry, dude. We’ll work through this. There’s got to be a new Paul Halter translation round the corner…just hold out for that and we’ll be back to normal…

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