|George Orwell: men's "consumption of |
detective stories is terrific"
Recalling his days working in a bookshop, George Orwell, for example, wrote that while "women of all kinds and ages" read novels by such mainstream bestsellers as Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping and Jeffrey Farnol, "men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories....[T]heir consumption of detective stories is terrific."
To the extent that women were seen as mystery readers in the 1920s it was more as readers of "thrillers," books that were less about cogitation than palpitation. The English shocker king Edgar Wallace was said to have kept more women up at night than any man in England.
It was only with the rise in the 1930s of the novel of manners mysteries associated most strongly today with the British Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (and the concomitant decline of the "Humdrum" mysteries associated with male writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, J. J. Connington and John Rhode/Miles Burton--see my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery) that observers began to associate women more with detective fiction per se (in the US women readers had long been associated with the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart and the so-called feminine HIBK--Had I But Known--school, yet these books were not considered pure detective fiction but rather watered-down "mystery" bearing some considerable relationship to the thriller).
The "traditional" detective novel now was being associated, in a way it had not actually been for much of the Golden Age, with women readers and writers (increasingly the "official" British Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham, but also Patricia Wentworth, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars and others).
Often elements besides the detective plot were emphasized in discussions of these books, like "love interest" (romance rather than raunch), wit (genteel repartee rather than slangy wisecracks) and minute social observation (quaint villages rather than "mean streets"), qualities that, again, were seen as appealing more to a female than a male audience. (Although in paperback these books too sometimes received the sexed-up covers we associate with hard-boiled and noir "pulp.") Eventually the term "cozy" began being broadly applied to these books and their modern day incarnations, cementing the idea that these were more "women's mysteries," the visceral American tough stuff being the natural province of the male reader.
|What did Lou do?|
Lou Henry Hoover and her husband, an
American president and acknowledged
detective fiction fan
So when Carolyn Wells in 1930 wondered "Why Women Read Detective Stories" this was not an odd or quirky question. Women detective fiction readers often still were seen as something of a novelty.
Wells began her article by asserting that "woman's interest" in detective fiction, though of "comparatively recent growth," was real:
The list of detective story fans, continually appearing in newspapers, includes Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Statesmen, Scientific giants, and celebrated men of all types, but never does a woman's name appear on those lists. We are not informed that Mrs. Hoover or Queen Mary eagerly buy thrillers at the station news stands or order them from the booksellers by half dozens. Yet recent statistics compiled by the editor of this magazine, tend to show that the interest in detective fiction is about evenly divided between the sexes.
Wells then argued that concerning detective fiction authors in the United States "there are more well-known feminine names than masculine." (However, she claimed--this may surprise people--that just the opposite was the case in England, where "there are many more celebrated masculine pens...writing detective fiction than feminine.")
Wells believed that when, after the Great War, "the better class of writers...combined the horrors of murder with the intellectual interest of problem solving, the keen logical interest present, even if partially dormant in the feminine mind, awoke, and women began to see that detective stories had a lure of their own, as compelling as crossword puzzles or village gossip."
|no doubt she's now planning to curl up|
with a good detective story
Wells asserted to that the "feminine mind is often quicker and more direct than a man's mind....women are coming to realize more and more that detective stories appeal to the feminine mind that is willing to exercise its own peculiar gifts of logic and deduction."
Yet, Wells allowed, detective novels also offered women readers "scope for the working of their emotions....in a well-written detective story [a woman reader] finds someone to pity, someone to hate, someone to become enraged at, someone to love....she tingles with fear, she sighs with relief, she revels in the dangers and dilemmas, and her quick wits try to outrun the detective in his deductions and often do.
"Intellect is impartially distributed between the sexes," Wells significantly added, "and if in all ages man has achieved more lasting fame, raised to himself more enduring monuments, it is not because of a superior brain, but because of a multitude of other reasons and causes, which may not be enumerated here, however."
Perhaps the male readers of True Detective Mysteries weren't ready for such an enumeration!