Sunday, June 14, 2015

Listen to Your Mother (s) 2: Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010), by Lucy Sussex, Part 1

Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010) is one of the most important scholarly accounts of overlooked mystery fiction by women writers, an area of study that has attracted much interest from academia in the last twenty years. The traditional histories of detective fiction, while giving recognition to such women as the Americans Anna Katharine Green, and Mary Roberts Rinehart and the celebrated English Crime Queens, scanted nineteenth-century female crime writers, according to Sussex:

The popular view cites Poe in the 1840s, as the "first" detective writer, of classic short stories.  He was followed by Wilkie Collins with The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), a mystery and a detective novel respectively.  In the late 1880s appeared Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes tales--just at the time when detective fiction became identifiable as a popular and wide-spread publishing category....

This popular history of crime fiction's origins, with its 20-year intervals between the three canonical, founding fathers, is a progression that resembles three generations, a genealogy with no apparent maternal input....

Lucy Sussex

Sussex notes that more specialist studies often add other male names, such as William Godwin (Caleb Williams, 1794), Emile Gaboriau and Fergus Hume (The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1886, and scores of other, now largely forgotten, mysteries), along with Anna Katharine Green, routinely pronounced to have been the first woman to write a detective novel (The Leavenworth Case, 1878).

Sure enough, when one looks at Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure (1941)--for three decades, until the publication of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder (1972), the primary popular mystery genre history--we find, after a discussion by Haycraft of Edgar Allan Poe in Chapter One, a profile of Gaboriau, Collins and Charles Dickens in Chapter Two ("Gaboriau, Collins, Dickens.  Each contributed something toward fictional detection. Jointly, they kept the form alive: saved the theme, perhaps, from premature extinction."), followed by a third chapter devoted to the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and a certain Sherlock Holmes.

Fergus Hume makes a cameo appearance in Haycraft's Chapter Four, on account of, naturally, his massively successful The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, but Haycraft peremptorily dismisses the novel as a "shoddy pot-boiler....[s]carcely readable today" that "is mentioned here for its historical interest only."

Nary a woman is sighted in the pages of Murder for Pleasure until the formidable Baroness Orczy pops up on page 70, for her Man in the Corner tales.  Finally Anna Katharine Green crashes the scene on page 83, to be received with somewhat more welcome than Hume.  Haycraft allows that Green's The Leavenworth Case is "one of the true historical milestones of the genre" with a "remarkably cogent plot," despite what he considers "some incredibly bad writing."

For his part, Julian Symons in Bloody Murder introduces William Godwin into his Poe chapter, then moves on to discuss Dickens, Collins and Gaboriau.  He also includes a discussion of Charles Felix's The Notting Hill Mystery (1865; serialized 1862-1863), declaring that "there is no doubt" it was "the first detective novel."

This contention, incidentally, has been contested by those who make the case for Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Trail of the Serpent (1860/1)--see, for example, Anne-Marie Beller, who in her excellent Mary Elizabeth Braddon Companion (2012), edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, has condemned Symons for having "notoriously overlooked female contributions to the emerging mystery genre."

Symons also looks at the contributions to crime fiction of the great Victorian author Sherida Le Fanu, whom he calls "a romantic writer in the Gothic mode, working half a century after the Gothic novel had faded."

As I discussed in my previous post, Symons' omission of any discussion of women Victorian sensation novelists as such seems curious, when one considers that, from the evidence of his own book, he clearly had read Alma Murch's The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), wherein Murch devotes an entire chapter to the subject. In Bloody Murder Symons allows that Murch's book "contains a lot of detailed and valuable materiel about nineteenth-century crime fiction, not easily found elsewhere."

However, when Symons takes time to note that Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi "contains a chapter about fingerprints as a means of identification," but passes over Braddon and Wood, both of whom were praised by Murch for their contributions to developing detective fiction, one can only conclude some value judgments about basic literary worth were being made.

Yet Symons also finds space for a Major Arthur Griffiths, who wrote some "crime stories and historical romances" that "include detectives of sorts," but "are fifth-rate thrillers redeemed only by the writer's knowledge of criminal habits."  How can Major Griffiths merit mention, but neither Braddon nor Wood nor, for that matter, Elizabeth Gaskell, whose "The Squire's Story" Murch calls "a neat little tale of crime and detection, though presented as social commentary, thus escaping the stigma of 'sensationalism'"?

Julian Symons

Fergus Hume again receives notice, this time more positively, Symons allowing that his Hansom Cab is a "reasonably good imitation of Gaboriau, contributing some convincing scenes of low life." Anna Katharine Green comes off much more poorly, Symons being hard-pressed to explain the popularity of her Leavenworth Case, beyond suggesting that this "was perhaps partly due to her sex, partly because of the familiarity she showed with legal and criminal matters (her father was a lawyer), and partly--one is bound to think--because there were so few detective novels being written."

Ouch!  Well, in Mothers Lucy Sussex definitely has more to say about such assumptions, as I will be discussing in Part 3.


  1. Many thanks again -- I'm finding these posts exceptionally interesting and useful.

    Gutenberg, by the way, doesn't have The Trail of the Serpent, but the Internet Archive does -- with luck this link will work.

  2. I enjoyed Sussex's book very much when I read it a couple of months ago. She has a new book out next week, Blockbuster! about Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

    1. Oh, yes, I plan to review Blockbuster! soon. And more in detail on Mothers soon.

  3. I think both Haycraft and Symons, modernist as he was, held a fairly "traditionalist" definition of the detective story and found sensation writers like Braddon or Wood lacking in that respect. I myself read Braddon's TRAIL OF THE SERPENT some years ago and was underwhelmed. Deciding who is or is not a "Great Ancestor" requires, as Chandler said, to agree on standards and definitions and to me the "orthodox" like Haycraft or Symons (or me, for that matter) and the "revisionists" seem not to agree on what the genre is and does, hence their differing views of the history of the genre.

    1. Xavier, I can see why Haycraft didn't look at these writers, as I explain in post one, given the time he was writing and his emphasis on pure detection, but the omission seems more striking in the case of Symons, given that Symons had read Alma Murch, who makes the case for these writers (and was rather orthodox herself), and includes a number of writers in his study who were not pure puzzlers.

      Overall, I think the modern academics are right that we have to acknowledge the impact of the Gothic/Sensation novel traditions on crime fiction, pure detective fiction being merely one element of the genre, although a wonderful and important one.

      Look forward to reading your Track piece.

  4. Thanks for an interesting article. I'm not a great fan of Symons Bloody Murder and find it a bit of a hatchet job on the genre resulting in a book that for me reads more as an insight into Symons personal taste than an all-encompassing balanced critique on detective fiction. There are too many omissions and authors who do get covered tend to get boxed off as good, bad or indifferent. The last time that I perused a copy I was thinking it would benefit from the subtitle The Case of the Disappearing Detectives. Thou saying this I would recommend it to anyone starting out on the genre as there's plenty to get your teeth into.

    1. Well, if you've read my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery or The Spectrum of English Murder (the new one), you know I have major disagreements with Symons! Though i still think it's the best history of detective fiction out there. I also think Jacques Barzun was a great theorist of the genre, though I don't agree with him all the time either

    2. I have read Masters of the Humdrum and thoroughly recommend it to readers of the genre. Well researched and informative. I especially enjoyed reading about Cecil Street. You've done him proud. I have Spectrum on order. As a fan of the work G.D.H. and Margret Cole I can't wait to delve into it. Now if only somebody would write such a book on Milward Kennedy or J Jefferson Farjeon ;).

    3. I'm glad to hear you like the Coles' books, they didn't come out so well in Martin Edwards' book, I thought! I hope Spectrum provides the definitive account of their work, there's also more on their personal lives as related to their fiction. I definitely like some of the Milward Kennedy books, as does Martin, and Farjeon became one of my favorites about fifteen years ago. I collected copies of all his books, a good investment concerning his embrace by the British Library!

      I became really interested in Street about twenty years ago, after seeing how Barzun's and Taylor's Catalogue of Crime praised him so highly. I was able to read all his books, barring three Cecil Wayes, and really wanted to write about him and the other so-called "Humdrums." Still working on getting all his books back in print, it's been unexpectedly difficult, given that there actually is publisher interest.

    4. It would be a wonderful feat to get all of Street's work back in print as he had such an exceptional output. Here in the U.K you used to be able to pick them up for pennies but with the advent of such websites as Amazon and eBay along with the current interest in GAD novels the prices have inflated considerably. As you point out The British Library edition of Farjeon's Mystery in White being a surprise Christmas bestseller has increased his value. At least they have two more in the pipeline for release later this year and with Dean Street's good work in getting Punshon back on the shelves there's definitely a market for Street's work. Fingers crossed.

    5. Oh, I have definitely had publishers asking me about Street, and I have always tried to facilitate things when I can. On Punshon, yes, all his book will be reprinted in electronic and paper forms by DSP. My aim is to write a 1000-word introduction for each, so at the end of the day there will be about 35,000 words on the man and his work, like a long book section.

      The Cols came very close to being reprinted this year, but there was a late snafu, still have hopes.