“Women Writers of Mystery” (by Leah Pennywark)


In September of 2016 Leah Pennywark appeared on one of the panels for EQMM’s 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University’s Butler Library (available on YouTube and as part of our podcast series!), illuminating the discussion with her extensive knowledge of both EQMM and crime and detective fiction generally. She has recently completed a PhD in American literature with a particular focus on detective fiction. Her work is published in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory and is forthcoming in Studies in American Indian Literatures. She tells us she’s currently at work on two articles: “the contributions of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to the development of postmodern literature and the tradition of women’s hard-boiled detective fiction.” She is also planning a book on U.S. detective literature during the Cold War. Her post today centers on some largely forgotten early women writers in our field.—Janet Hutchings

I love mystery writing, crime fiction, and, especially, detective stories, from ratiocinative to hard-boiled, Sophocles to Margaret Millar, short story to tome, realist to postmodern. I’ve just read my first Megan Abbott novel, the retro noir The Song Is You, which got me thinking about the investigations that no longer appear so regularly on our bookshelves and some of the once-popular mysteries that are new to me. Thus, I offer a few of the stellar US and British authors from the past century and a half that I’ve been reading lately for a project on women writers of mystery. The following is not in any way meant to be conclusive or exhaustive—I’ve been given a word limit, after all.

Look at any bestseller or best crime fiction list from recent years and you’re sure to see plenty of women writers. The New York Times list of the ten best crime novels of 2016, for instance, includes S. D. Sykes, Clare Mackintosh, Lisa McInerney, and Louise Penny. Women have been writing mystery fiction since there was such a thing; witness, for example, Metta Victor (1831-1885), Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930), and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1872-1958). But an equal number of talented women writers have fallen out of favor or out of print, despite their skill and popularity during their era. When I look at my bookshelf, I see Poe, Doyle, Chandler, Hammett, Collins, Stout, Macdonald, and Himes. Of course, there’s also Christie, Highsmith, Sayers, Hughes, and a whole host of contemporary writers. But many other women mystery writers who came before the renaissance of women’s detective fiction that began in the last decades of the twentieth century with Paretsky, Grafton, and Muller, have been forgotten. Here I suggest just a handful of the many such closed cases that we might reinvestigate for their interest and relevance to contemporary readers.

I begin with Vera Caspary (1899-1987), best remembered for Laura (1942), in which a woman, presumed to be Laura, is found shot dead in her apartment. When Laura turns up alive she becomes a suspect in her own murder. Yet, Otto Preminger’s 1944 film adaptation of the book may be better known now than Caspary’s novel. Caspary’s work tends to feature independent career women. Her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups (1979)—nominated for an Edgar in 1980—reveals that she herself held a wide range of jobs from stenographer to advertising copywriter in addition to writing novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Yet, most of Caspary’s wonderful novels are overlooked today. Perhaps my favorite Caspary novel at the moment is The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966), brought back into print in a new edition in 2014. The Man Who Loved His Wife is a mystery, a thriller, and a detective novel, but unique to each of these categories. It isn’t until halfway through the novel that the potential crime—if indeed a crime has taken place at all—occurs. Readers don’t lack for possible suspects and each character has their own ideas about what happened and how. The novel cleverly shifts from one character’s perspective to the next, each equally limited. Caspary incorporates explorations of masculinity and femininity into murder mysteries in ways that are evocative of midcentury America and yet continue to resonate with today’s readers.

When we think about the origins of the fictional ’tec, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin springs immediately to mind, though we might also recall Oedipus. An astute reader of EQMM once submitted an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, published in September 1966 along with her letter arguing that Shakespeare anticipated the modern detective story in several important ways. But what role did women writers and ’tecs play in the founding of the genre? American Anna Katharine Green’s first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878), is widely cited as one of the earliest women-authored detective novels. However, Englishwoman Catherine Crowe (1790-1872) was writing about female ’tecs more than thirty years prior to Green. In addition to drama, children’s books, short stories, other novels, and true crime, popular author and public figure Crowe wrote a bestselling detective novel, published just months before Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” appeared: Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence (1841), later retitled Susan Hopley, or the Adventures of a Maid-Servant. It was her first book and popular enough to be adapted for the stage. The detective genre was still young in the mid-nineteenth century, but Susan Hopley is easily recognizable as an early iteration. Crowe’s narrative even anticipates the complex plots of Ross Macdonald’s Cold War–era Lew Archer novels with its multiple storylines, financial concerns, and family dynamics.

A personal midcentury favorite of mine is Cornell graduate Merriam Modell (1908-1994), best known under her pseudonym, Evelyn Piper. Though she’s now all but forgotten, her novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957) was made into a film by Preminger starring Sir Laurence Olivier in 1965. The same year, Bette Davis appeared in the film adaptation of Piper’s 1964 novel, The Nanny. In 1950, The Innocent (1949) was nominated for an Edgar. Piper was a splash in her day, and looking at Bunny Lake Is Missing, it’s easy to see why. The book follows one harrowing day in the life of Blanche Lake who is transformed from a naïve single parent who’s new in the big city to one tough mother when her daughter Felicia (“Bunny”) goes missing. Piper adopts some of the best strategies of the hard-boiled genre and makes them her own in her suspenseful domestic thriller. Her novel teems with the threatening denizens of mean nighttime streets. Piper’s handling of domestic and urban issues is masterful. While her male counterparts of the day drew a strict line between the private home and public world of the detective, Piper smashes them together in her hard-boiled heroine, rendering Blanche’s descent from bright 1950s optimism to its dark underbelly in haunting language that stays with the reader long after the last page.

I’ve just cracked the covers on the last two authors on my list: Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910) and Mabel Seeley (1903-1991). I’m looking forward to following the exploits of Pirkis’s gumshoe in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894). Brooke is a professional detective, perhaps the first of her gender created by a woman. Pirkis was a Londonite and prolific writer of short stories, articles, and novels. Like so many later gumshoes, Brooke is isolated, sharing little of her life with readers or other characters. She’s also quite skilled at observation and disguise. Pirkis’s lady ’tec and her cases return us to the essentials of the genre. Seeley’s popular midwestern mystery novels, written between 1938 and 1954, on the other hand, feature amateur investigators. The first book, The Listening House, was reprinted several times in the late thirties and early forties and translated into Spanish in 1943, Norwegian in 1948, and French, Swedish, and German in the 1950s. Her stories also appeared in EQMM, Detective Book Magazine, Two Complete Detective Books, and were anthologized by Ellery Queen. The New York Times reviewed several of her books favorably. Of 1947’s Woman of Property, for instance, reviewer Nash Burger writes: “Frieda, starkly and convincingly portrayed in Mrs. Seeley’s swiftly paced narrative, is very apt to be one of the most talked about heroines of this season’s fiction.” Seeley avoids cliché and sentimentality in stories that offer a window not only into midwestern American life in the first half of the twentieth century but also the enduring search for personal fulfilment, all within well-crafted whodunits.

Whether you like rural or urban mysteries, hard-boiled or hard-thinking sleuths, I hope something on this list will pique your interest and you’ll join me in rediscovering some of these standout investigations. Perhaps some cold cases should stay that way, but these mysteries are definitely worthy of your time and shelf space.

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