Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From the files: History of women crime Writers, part 1

Maio, Kathleen L. "A Strange and Fierce Delight": The Early Days of Women's Mystery Fiction (full text)
Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, No. 10. pp.93-105 (ceased publication)

If you had asked me to name early women writers of mysteries I would have answered Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. That's the point that Maio starts with, that most people can't name writers before the Golden Age. In fact, Maio shows that you can go back more than fifty years before the Golden Age and find women authors of mystery and crime fiction.

The movement started to gain influence with women sensation novelists evidenced by the writings of Mrs. Henry Wood who published East Lymne in 1861.
Mystery problems were a favorite plot device of Mrs. Wood. they concerned anything from missing wills to missing wives, and each problem was "fully and properly unravelled, in a workmanlike manner and without any loose ends."

The plots of stories by sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 1862) and Catherine L. Pirkis (A Red Sister, 1891) are discussed in length. A common thread through the stories are strong, assertive, sometimes "unfeminine" women triumphing. In some case a woman is even the villain.

Mystery fiction was also pushed along by the dime novel. Maio points out that
The dime novel is generally associated with the male writers and readers, but in fact many women authors and editors worked for the dime houses as well.

Unfortunately, the dime novel was not printed to last which explains why the works of these women writers are not well known or even preserved.

One of he most prolific woman writer of detective stories was Anna Katherine Green who is identified by most histories of detective fiction as the first woman writer of pure detective fiction. This status for Green is disputed by Maio but Green was extremely popular and counted President Woodrow Wilson among her readers.

Maio goes on to profile many more writers and their works. Again, the common thread is that these stories fulfilled a need for escape literature much more important the mystery novel was to women! Mystery fiction was perfect as female escape fiction: a vision of women being strong, protecting themselves and each other; often, quite literally, women getting away with murder.

As the Golden Age of mystery fiction approached, this treatment of women in mystery fiction began to fade. Mystery writer and antifeminist Carolyn Wells wrote in 1913
the introduction of the feminine element in a Detective Story is subject to certain and definite rules. A victim she may be, a suspect she may be, but only in rare cases and when exceptionally well done, should she be the criminal...the experienced reader of detective stories feels fairly sure that an attractive feminine suspect is not the real criminal.

This article is written from a feminist perspective so Maio has no problem declaring that
The age of the mystery amazon, the strong sleuth the cunning criminal, the runaway wife-hero -the age of our literary "anarchism" - was over. And the evidence indicates that she was murdered by the patriarchy. The rigid Poe/Doyle formula killed her.

Fiery rhetoric aside, I can't argue her premise. This historical perspective makes the current role of women in mystery/crime fiction all the more interesting. We seem to come full circle. Strong, assertive, unconventional women characters are prominent these days: Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox,Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski, Chelsea Cain's scary serial killer Gretchen Lowell sprang to mind as I wrote this.

I don't think these early women writers of crime fiction would have any problem adapting their themes to the 21st century.

I have another article discussing early women mystery writers that I will feature in a later post. It is also from a journal that has ceased publication so I am comfortable providing the full text for it as well.