Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre

November 18, 2010

The quality of detection", someone may have said, "droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven into every genre of literature." Indeed, given the general presence of the idea of detection in English fiction, it seems superfluous to have developed a particular genre for it. Lucy Sussex rightly points out that Jane Austen is one of the first major novelists to have included the practice of detection in her novels, and from then on detection (in the widest sense of establishing what exactly is going on) forms the basis of many canonical plots.

The discussion in this book of the merging of the "crime and social modes", as Sussex describes one of the works of the late 19th-century writer Mary Braddon, is one of its most important attributes, since it highlights the ways in which the past two centuries have made crime, and writing about it, into a special place. But what is also interesting is that the two male writers often identified as the founders of crime and detective fiction (Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins) created rather different pictures of the location of crime: the former in the dangers of the new urban space and the second in the "ordinary" confines of the Victorian middle-class home. Thus, although Sussex is entirely correct to claim that the women writers of detective and crime fiction have been given an inadequate place in the history of the genre, what is made less central here is the question of whether or not there is such a thing as "male" or "female" detective fiction.

The evidence of the 20th century would suggest that there are few clear gender lines in the content of detective and crime fiction. In terms of accounts of specific forms of brutality, female writers can often more than match their male counterparts, while an affection for the crimes of the drawing room and the village is not always a female preserve. In the case of the female writers of detective and crime fiction considered by Sussex, it is clear that women writers covered ground that was similar to their male counterparts and that their engagement with the genre was the result, as it was in the case of men, of various motives relating to circumstance and competence.

Given this degree of similarity, there were two differences between the empirical situation of women and men in the 19th century that it may have been useful to use as organising themes in this book: the first being that for women, until well into the 20th century, any formal engagement with crime and detection was impossible (except, as Sussex points out, as warders in prisons for women or as "searchers" of women in police stations) and the second being that the private, domestic violence against women by men, then as now, is a subject that is largely absent from detective and crime writing.

Thus one of the questions that women writers of detective and crime fiction might have asked, and did not, was that of why so much of this form of violence went "undetected". Was the subject of men hating women (a possibility Stieg Larsson's translators refused to render into English) too dangerous a ground in the 19th as well as in the 21st century? It is to the credit of this book that it invites us to ask these questions.

Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre

By Lucy Sussex. Palgrave Macmillan, 232pp, £50.00. ISBN 97802302293. Published 16 July 2010

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