Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carolyn Considers: "Why Women Read Detective Stories" (1930)

In 1930 True Detective Mysteries published a column by American mystery writer Carolyn Wells, in which she considered the question, "Why Women Read Detective Stories."  This may seem an odd question today, when we read so many articles about how men do not read fiction at all anymore. I recall several years ago reading a post on Martin Edwards' blog where he pointed out that at his talks on mystery fiction his audiences were mostly women.  The comments on Martin's piece as I recollect seemed to be the effect that men didn't like reading fiction or, if they did, they gravitated to action and event. Women, on the other hand, liked the cerebral aspect to detective fiction.

George Orwell: men's "consumption of
detective stories is terrific"
This view often is applied backward in time as well, to the Golden Age itself, in explaining the popularity of the British Crime Queens, read, so the argument runs, more by women; yet it is in fact precisely the opposite of the then current wisdom of those days, which was men wrote and read detective fiction in greater numbers than women.

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. DellWarwick 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. SayersMargery 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).

This perceived gender shake-up accelerated after the Second World War, with the paperback revolution and the great success of hard-boiled, noir and espionage novels, all of which were seen as being more read (in droves) by sensation-oriented men in search of the visceral thrills of violence and sex, the two qualities often emphasized on the paperback covers of these books.

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
But before the Second World War (certainly before the mid-Thirties), the situation was, as discussed, much different, with its being assumed that it was the male sex was the one that more preferred genuinely ratiocinative detective fiction.

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.

Of course True Detective Stories, founded in 1924, was a true crime magazine and, according to authority Leroy Panek, lent "toward sensation"; but it's interesting to see Wells challenging what was then conventional wisdom about detective fiction readership.

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
In the 1920s, according to Wells, women became desirous of emulating "all male pursuits," including reading detective fiction.  Woman "wanted to vote, wanted to cut her hair short, wanted to smoke, wanted to ride astride, wanted pajamas, and wanted the same untrammeled frankness of speech that man hitherto had hitherto monopolized.  These things she achieved, and it may be that detective stories fell into line."

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 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.

"As for the old love stories," Wells concluded, the woman reader "knew all seven of their plots and they held no surprises for her experienced interest....detective stories proved a new field, and women have fallen for it."

"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!


  1. No mention of the appeal of the Queens - their skill as social observers. And their wit. They wrote novels of manners - what happened to those?

    1. Well, in 1930, I think the idea of Crime Queens and the mystery "novel of manners" hadn't really crystallized. By the mid-thirties, you had Christie as an increasingly popular crime writer and Sayers achieving bestsellerdom with Gaudy Night. Then by 1940 Marsh and Allingham were becoming well-known in the US too among mystery readers. 1940 looked a lot different from 1930. But I'd say for much of what traditionally has been considered the "Golden Age" (1920-1940), men were considered to be more the market of ture detective fiction. Carolyn Wells was an early voice challenging that idea. Of course she herself was a detective fiction fan of long standing, as well as a practitioner of it, if an imperfect one.

    2. I should add: note how in 1930 she said there were more celebrated female writers of mysteries in the US, but more celebrated male writers of mysteries in England. Would she have claimed that a decade later?

    3. Which women mystery writers were being celebrated in the US in 1930? Mary Roberts Rinehart is the only one I can think of from that era. Anna Katharine Green hadn't written a book in seven years and would die in 1935. There were several minor writers who had been cranking them out throughout the 1920s (Isabel Ostrander, Natalie Sumner Lincoln, Lee Thayer) and some just starting out in 1930(Harriette Ashbrook, Mignon Eberhart) but were any of them being celebrated? Does she mean noticed favorably in reviews? Selling books in large numbers? I wonder what Wells meant exactly. Anyway, I think she is exaggerating. I don't think US women writers outnumbered men in mysterydom this early in the history of the genre. I may just come up with a chart to see if she was right or wrong.

    4. I imagine Wells was including herself in that list! She certainly was selling better than most American mystery writers in the US, though her mysteries by this time often were poor. Rinehart would have been huge, but I think between 1920 and 1930, the whole decade of the 1920s, she only published one mystery novel! She doesn't mention AK Green, but Green published her last in 1923. This may suggest Wells didn't think much of the men! Of course there was Van Dine and Biggers, but a lot of the big American men were yet to come too.

      This goes back to my own view, which is that when people recall the Golden Age it's much more for the 1930s than the 1920s. People often act as if the GA can be defined by Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh (see Lucy Worsley), when in fact Allingham and Marsh were late-comers and even Sayers was much better known in 1940 than she was in 1930 (and Christie in 1930 was often referenced with Ackroyd).

  2. I have no ideas about this. The attics and basements of all my relatives' homes were filled with boxes of these kinds of books and magazines. But it was particularly after the mass market paperback began in WWII here in the U.S. that these collections began.

    I spent hours and hours of all my childhood and adolescence digging through all the magazines and books stored in these attics and basements, including my own parents' home. They weren't only mysteries and detective fiction either, but westerns galore. And all kinds of old popular fiction books, and ladies magazines reaching back into the late 1800's and early 1900's when my great great grandmothers and great grandmothers were young ladies searching for the styles and manners that would distinguish them from the less cultured and lettered women.

    I read all of it, except the military fiction, and sometimes, when desperate would look into that too.

    This is probably one of the big influences that made me into an historian . . . .

  3. The curious aspect of this is that today, certainly in the Scandi countries and the UK, a lot of the hardest-hitting crime fiction is being written by women and, if we're to judge by bloggers, read by women too. (I imagine the same's true for modern cozies, although I follow those less.) At the same time -- according to my exceptionally unscientific sampling of crime-fiction blogs wot I follow -- a lot, perhaps most, of the people interested in Golden Age/elderly cozies are men.

    Er, lent/leant.

    1. Yes, it does make me wonder about the gender assumptions people make now and have made in the past. I've gotten, rather belatedly, to quite like some hard-boiled, but my more youthful genre reading was all *wrong*, according to the stereotypes.

      Some of the assumptions about readers in the 1920s and 1930s seem frankly sexist to me. You have even Carolyn Wells, making the case for women as detective fiction readers, referring to the "keen logical interest" having "partially dormant in the feminine mind." She seems to be linking detective fiction to the modern liberated woman of the Twenties, along with pajamas (yes, women wearing was pajamas was a controversy back then) smoking and getting bobbed hair.

      But then I read today about what men are supposed to want to read and usually it's books I don't want to read!

  4. Foxessa,

    That's interesting to read! Of course in the piece I'm speaking about people's historical perceptions, which can be wrong. I certainly didn't conform to the stereotype of the male reader in my own mystery fiction reading. I started with Christie--my Mom's Pocket paperbacks from the 1970s--then went on to, yes, the Crime Queens: Sayers first, then Marsh and Allingham, and Heyer, Brand, Ferrars, Tey. In the 1990s I did finally take up John Dickson Carr and some of the other men, like Crispin, Blake and Innes. If course today, I read about everything, even hard-boiled!

    I find it interesting how people's perceptions have changed so much, whether these perceptions are right or wrong. Today people often tend to think that women are more the market for "traditional" detective fiction, that men need "action" to drive their fiction reading; while eighty, ninety years ago men were the ones seen as being more interested in detective fiction. Were people's perceptions right, then and now, or was a lot of gender stereotyping being done? Carolyn Wells is challenging this gender-driven view back in 1930, while also affirming the view that detective fiction readership had traditionally been seen as more masculine.

    I suppose my own feeling is that a lot of women were drawn toward the detective fiction of the Crime Queens, because of the importation into it of human values to go along with the problem interest. This was when the traditional problem-oriented detective novel began to be dismissed as "Humdrum" and the writers most associated with it, like Crofts and Rhode, as ""Humdrums." I think the readership for those sorts of novels has always been seen as more male. It will be interesting to see what the response to the British Library reprint series is as they start reprinting more books by Humdrums (they've already started with Crofts).

  5. I started with Christie, back in the 70s when I was still at school. She was hugely popular with adolescent males back then. But then I don't think of Christie as being a "women's" writer in the sense that Sayers is. By impression then, and it's still my impression, is that Christie appeals to male readers as much as to female readers. The other Crime Queens seems to me to be much more female-oriented.

    In general I overwhelmingly read male writers but I still thoroughly enjoy Christie's work. I find Sayers to be close to unreadable, and Allingham to be entirely unreadable.

    1. I think this is true, Christie has always appealed to a wider audience, hence the sales! She always had the puzzles going for her.

  6. I hadn't realised Edgar Wallace had been so popular with female readers. I'd have assumed that the readership of the thriller writers - Buchan, Charteris, Wallace, etc - would have been primarily male. It appears that I'm wrong.

    1. Well, I don't know whether there is any hard data, but it's taken for granted by a lot of commentators back then that women liked Wallace. Men too, but, if anything, women even more so. And he was a huge seller, selling more in the 1920s than most of the true detective novelists, so I'm not surprised his audience cracked demographic barriers.