Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Listen to Your Mother (s) 3: Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction (2010), by Lucy Sussex, Part 2

The first chapter of Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010) surveys "the beginnings of crime fiction" in the picaresque novel (Moll Flanders), true crime texts (the Newgate Calendar and newspaper reportage) and, last but definitely not least, the Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho).

In his survey Bloody MurderJulian Symons (1972) specifically excludes the Gothic novel from his consideration of the origins of the detective novel, arguing that "Gothic novelists wanted to arouse in their readers feelings of terror and delight at the horrific plight of the central character, and they used mysterious events to enhance these feelings. The solution of a puzzle was not for them the main interest of the book."

Fourteen years earlier, however, Alma Murch had argued, in her The Development of the Detective Novel, that in her Gothic novels Ann Radcliffe had written tales "in which her readers could expect the riddles to be finally explained, often in conversations between a clever, observant character and his less quick-witted friend." These are, she notes, "two features which link them unmistakably with the detective novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Douglas G. Greene, the esteemed biographer of John Dickson Carr, similarly has noted that some Gothic novels, like The Mysteries of Udolpho, "conclude with natural explanations of the terrors, and these novels, when combined with other influences, eventually lead to the detective story."

Sussex comes down with Murch and Greene, declaring that the "Gothic is a Pangaea of genre literatures, containing within it the future continents of horror, science fiction...and crime writing....perhaps most crucial is what mystery is involved in the Gothic context: the depiction of a sensational motif or incident, with its explanation being delayed until much later in the narrative."

Connections between the Gothic novel and Victorian sensation novel and, even later, the Golden Age so-called "Had I But Known" mystery suspense narratives are especially clear.  Female authors associated with these mystery forms--Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart--received especially short shrift from Symons, their work getting either ignored or, frankly, denigrated when even acknowledged.

Yet in many ways their mystery writing has had a greater influence on modern crime fiction than the strictly fair play, clue puzzle detective fiction of the Golden Age. (Interestingly, crime writer and reviewer Todd Downing, a great admirer of female-authored mysteries, in 1936 expressly compared Mignon Eberhart's novels with those of "Mrs. Radcliffe," adding that Eberhart had performed some needed "pruning of the Gothic impedimenta"--see my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.)

In her second chapter, a most fascinating one, "Mrs Radcliffe as Conan Doyle?", Sussex looks at very early examples of women writers incorporating crime into their texts, as well as female investigators. Sussex argues that Radcliffe's Female Gothic "arguably comprises the major 'system' in the creation of the new crime fiction genre, contributing the mystery, rationalism and also the role of the protagonist....Emily in Udolpho is a woman of reason, elucidating the mysteries of the castle....Emily and other Radcliffe heroines walk the mean passages of their various Gothic castles very much by themselves....With the Radcliffe heroine can be seen a narrative model emerging, of women versus crime, women conquering and explicating crime--even if only briefly on the way to matrimony."

Sussex follows with other examples of female investigators in women-authored fiction, including Jane Austen's satiric Northanger Abbey, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton ("although not generic crime, it includes a murder mystery in its plot structure," she notes) and several works by Frances Trollope. It is all very stimulating stuff for the student of the mystery genre and there is much more, as Sussex takes us from the criminous fiction of Catherine Crowe to that of Anna Katharine Green.  I shall look at all this in the concluding piece, part four.


  1. An interesting idea, but a bit tenuous. Poe invented detective fiction and he did it by presenting a mystery and having the detective hero solve it purely by the use of his own brain power - a mixture of careful observation, logical reasoning and psychology. In the Ann Radcliffe style of gothic novel the rational solution is something that is either stumbled upon or suddenly produced like a rabbit out of a hat. You might as well suggest that Sophocles invented the detective novel - Oedipus the King has a murder and a mystery but there’s no detecting.

    It seems to me that people like Lucy Sussex have an axe to grind - they want to prove that women invented detective fiction, and to devalue the contribution of male writers. But the truth is that the important pioneers of detective fiction were male - Poe, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle. You can’t rewrite history.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like Ann Radcliffe’s fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. But detective fiction was essentially a male invention, which some women later became very good at.

    Women did play a very major role in the development of gothic fiction, although they didn’t actually invent it either.

    Science fiction on the other hand was definitely a female invention. Mary Shelley really can be considered to be the originator of that genre.

    1. I think you are certainly right that mystery and detection are distinct branches on the tree of crime-related fiction, but I also believe forms like the Gothic and Sensation novels have a relationship with mystery fiction, certainly, and to some extent with detective fiction as well. So it all depends on how wide a net we are casting. Sussex has done a tremendous amount of research and found some very interesting nineteenth-century women writers who dealt with crime and mystery in their works and deserve to be remembered. I'll be discussing more of them in detail this weekend, I hope.

    2. but I also believe forms like the Gothic and Sensation novels have a relationship with mystery fiction, certainly, and to some extent with detective fiction as well.

      That's quite true, although I'd regard the Victorian sensation novel as a cousin of the detective story rather than an ancestor.