Saturday, June 13, 2015

Listen to Your Mother(s) I: The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), by Alma Elizabeth Murch

On this blog I spend so much time looking at forgotten twentieth-century crime writers that I tend not to glance back as much as I should to the nineteenth-century, though I have made occasional forays there.  One of the most prominent scholarly detectives investigating nineteenth-century crime fiction is Lucy Sussex, whose book Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (Palgrave, 2010) studies the works and lives of a multitude of women writers from the nineteenth century.  Some of them are well-known, some not, but Sussex, following Catherine Ross Nickerson (see The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, 1998), argues that all of them were long insufficiently credited in genre histories for their accomplishments within the crime and mystery fiction genre.

I think there is no question that this contention is generally true of the once extremely influential genre histories of Howard Haycraft (Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of Detective Story, 1941) and Julian Symons (Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, 1972). Today, in 2015, it seems rather astonishing when one opens Haycraft and Symons and sees no mention made of Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood alongside Wilkie Collins and other male Victorian sensation writers who incorporated mystery elements into their fiction.  Of course Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone had been proclaimed by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Sinclair Lewis as one of the great detective novels; and herein lies a problem in mystery fiction aesthetics.

Haycraft's book was subtitled "the life and times of the detective story" for reason. Haycraft was concerned with tracing the history of detective fiction, which he, quoting bibliophile John Carter, declares "must be mainly occupied with detection and must contain a proper detective."  Even The Moonstone, Haycraft asserted, "belongs midway between the romance of incident and the novel of character."  He distinguished between the mystery story and the detective story based on "whether...the solution is accomplished by incident (mystery story) or deduction (detective story)."

Howard Haycraft (1905-1991)

Haycraft was writing at the twilight of what we see today as the Golden Age of detective fiction, when the clue-puzzle is considered to have been the dominant form of mystery writing, so it is not surprising that in his book he emphasized what he deemed to be true detective fiction (in truth, the predominance of pure detective fiction had peaked before 1941 and even in the 1920s sales of thrillers exceeded those of detective fiction).

The omissions of Symons, whose Bloody Murder went through three editions between 1972 and 1992, are more striking, however, because he had read Alma Elizabeth Murch's The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), which looks not only at Dickens, Collins and Le Fanu, but includes a chapter entitled "Women Writers of Detective Fiction in the Nineteenth Century," in which works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Ellen Wood (then still generally known as Mrs. Henry Wood), Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Anna Katharine Green are discussed.

The book (later revised for republication in 1968) was based on Murch's M. A. thesis, "The Development of the Detective Story in France and England, 1850-1920," which she had submitted to the University of Bristol in 1956.

Alma Elizabeth Murch seems largely to have dropped out of the consciousness of mystery fans, which is a shame, as she laid out the markers for much of the modern discussion of nineteenth-century mystery fiction authored by women:

Most of the melodramatic novels written by women during the latter half of the nineteenth century were of little value in themselves or for our purpose, except that they maintained the popularity of a background against which certain types of detective theme could show to advantage.  In brief, they prepared the way for what may be called "the domestic detective story," in which the reader becomes acquainted with the normal daily life of the characters before the motif of a mysterious crime is introduced.

A few such novels did more than prepare the way.  They traveled some distance in that direction, and enlivened the domesticity or social intrigues of their plot with a sensational crime, leading to investigations along detective lines, if not so the creation of a detective.

Murch then discusses Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) and Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1861) in some detail, along with other novels by this pair of authors.

Of East Lynne she states

Within the extensive framework of this romance is a well-constructed murder mystery....More interest is focussed upon the drama of these developments than upon the process of detection which brings them about, yet that process is clearly and logically followed through to a successful conclusion, and an orderly array of evidence is placed before the court at the trial which forms the culmination of this detective theme.

Of Mary Braddon Murch concludes that "almost without exception" her "later novels deal with ingenious crimes and the circumstances that lead to the punishment of the criminal, and though she did not produce a detective-hero, she certainly made some contribution to the detective fiction of the 1870's and 1880's."

To Anna Katharine Green Murch devotes six pages, arguing that her works reflect a "far clearer conception of how a detective novel should be constructed," and she discusses The Leavenworth Case (1878) (claimed here, as it often was, to be the first detective novel written by a woman), That Affair Next Door (1897), Lost Man's Lane (1898) and the short story collection The Golden Slipper (1915), all works that have received considerable attention from modern scholars in the last couple of decades.

Murch notes that Green's novels in some respects resemble those of Wood and Braddon "in their introduction of such melodramatic features as guilty secrets behind a facade of wealth and luxury, unjust suspicions, dramatic revelations and noble reconciliations"; yet she concludes that Green "uses them merely to provide a background and create the mystery.  The paramount interest is clearly the theme of detection...."

Murch concludes that not even in The Moonstone "does the detective theme monopolize the reader's attention so completely as it does" in Green's novels and that in them "we can discern for the first time, in its entirety, the pattern that became characteristic of most English detective novels written during the following fifty years."

In their genre histories both Haycraft and Symons acknowledged the historical precedent of Green's detective fiction, though both men chastised the author for bathetic writing, a reflection of how the sensation fiction form generally had fallen into disfavor at this time, Collins and Sheridan Le Fanu excepted. (T. S. Eliot was another prominent twentieth-century critic who faulted Green's writing style.)

"Her style is unbelievably stilted and melodramatic by modern standards, her characterization forced and artificial," wrote Haycraft, while Symons chimed in too, damning The Leavenworth Case as a "drearily sentimental story" with "passages of pious moralizing which are pulled through only with the most dogged persistence."

Over the last several decades the reputation of Victorian sensation fiction in general and writers like Wood, Braddon and Green in particular has greatly risen in public and critical estimation (the rehabilitation of Collins and Le Fanu was already well underway during the Golden Age), and mystery genre studies have become less exclusively preoccupied with the purely ratiocinative form of mystery fiction epitomized by such writers as Poe and Christie, Queen and Carr.  So the time was ripe for a study like Lucy Sussex's, which looks not just at Wood, Braddon and Green but a host of women authors not touched upon by even the mysterious Ms. Murch. More soon on Sussex's excellent book.


  1. A fascinating piece, for which many thanks: I'm much looking forward to the next episode.

    Pedantry Korner: It's Anna Katharine Green, not Anna Katherine Green.

  2. Whoops, thanks, didn't even catch that! And I've spelled her name so many times! However, if that's the only typo in a 1000+ word blog piece I'm getting off well, lol.

  3. There are still pockets of resistance to the reappraisal of Green et al. LeRoy Lad Panek in his THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN DETECTIVE STORY denies THE LEAVENWORTH CASE being a detective novel; to him it is just a (not particularly good) sensation novel with a criminal element. He also rejects on the same grounds THE DEAD LETTER's claim to be the first American detective novel.

    1. Yes, I'm going to talk about Panek a bit when I review Sussex's book in full. Also a good bit on The Dead Letter!

  4. Excellent post, Curt. It's good to see a revival of interest in the history of the genre among critics not blinded by "Golden Age was only the crime queens" nonsense, who will look back at the real contributions made by earlier women writers.