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.