Queens of Crime: American and British female detective novels over the course of time

Bachelor Thesis, 2012
30 Pages, Grade: 1,6


Table of Contents

1 Abstract

2 Introduction

3 The history of crime novels with special focus on female detective novels

4 Definitions and the ideal crime scheme

5 Typical elements of female detective novels
5.1 The lady detectives and female roles
5.2 The motives and topics
5.3 The adaption to male manner of speaking

6 The appeal of detective novels for women writers

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Abstract

The present study is concerned with the analysis of female detective novels coming from the USA and Great Britain. Firstly, the history of female detective novels and the ideal crime scheme are explained in order to introduce the topic and to give basic information on it. In a second step the characteristics of female detective novels in opposite to male detective novels are highlighted whereas the analysis is focused on lady detectives and female roles, motives and topics and adaption to male manner of speaking. In a last step the appeal of detective novels for women writers is analysed. It was shown that female detective novels are not a separate sub-genre but a separate field within the genre of detective novels. However, women writer gave the genre new impulses helping to develop it.

2. Introduction

ʻ The detective story was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, but he wrote only four of them before he lost interest. The first “ career ” practitioner of the genre who is still important to us today is Arthur Conan Doyle. Agatha Christie, who began publishing detective fiction thirty-three years after Conan Doyle, elaborated upon the traditional rules of detective fiction, in sixty-six novels published between 1920 and 1983. According to a number of sources, her books have sold more than two billion copies, making her the most widely read novelist in history ʼ .1

The above quotation illustrates that although the genre of detective stories was invented by a man, the importance of female crime authors cannot be denied. Admittedly, Agatha Christie is an exception within the genre- a true ʻ queen of crime ʼ .2 However, women were not always given the same recognition in former times and even Agatha Christie would have felt the consequences. In fact, it is not widely known that she considered publishing her first detective novel ʻ The Mysterious Affair at Styles ʼ written in 1920 under a masculine pseudonym. However, she could neither decide in favour of the name Martin West nor of the name Mostyn Grey which is why she finally published the novel under her real name.3 ….Agatha Christie was not the only female crime author with such concerns, so that it had been common usage to opt for a masculine pseudonym. The reason for this measure is simple: Detective novels written by a woman and with a ʻ lady detective ʼ (Keitel, 1998, 2) as the main character were highly unpopular among the male readership. Female crime writers generally used a narrator to tell the events and preferred a male detective. In retrospect, this strategy was the right one and it comes as no surprise that ʻ The Mysterious Affair at Styles ʼ was the first crime novel with the famous detective Hercule Poirot (see Keitel, 2001, 26).

Since then a considerable progress has been made and female authors have created a very individual way of writing detective novels. However, experts still disagree on a clear definition of the female crime novel. Some of them were interviewed by the newspaper ʻ Die Zeit ʼ for a survey in 2002. Their answers to the question ʻWhat are female crime novels?ʼ can be categorised into four different groups:

The first group said that female crime novels were a sociological category instead of a literary one. According to this group, the term is used in order to limit and sometimes to devaluate these novels.4

The second group shared Sabine Deitmer`s opinion which states that female detective novels are just a marketing strategy and rejects the term as a ʻ label ʼ.5 Deitmer admitted that the readers did appreciate the labelling ‘female detective novels’ in bookshops, because they had the feeling that these books with female protagonists and living circumstances could interest them and that they could find themselves in these books.6

The third group argued that female detective novels do not exist at all. The author Anne Chaplet commented laconically that she did not read female crime novels but good crime novels. The publisher Else Laudan even considered it possible that male authors wrote female detective novels. She admitted that she has not read such a book yet (see Gohlis, 2002). ….The last group agreed with Sabine Wilke´s definition on which this bachelor thesis is based: Female crime novels are crime novels which are written by women and which debate topics relevant for women or have women as their main characters.7 With regard to the page numbers, this bachelor thesis focuses on the following aspects: lady detectives and female roles, motives and topics, adaption to male behaviour and characteristics of detective novels by female crime authors coming from the English-speaking countries.

3. The history of crime novels with special focus on female detective novels

Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story ʻ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ʼ written in 1841 is regarded as the beginning of the detective genre as was already mentioned in the introduction. The detective in ʻ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ʼ, C. Auguste Dupin, is described as ʻ a man of supreme intellect and arrogance ʼ.8 It is remarkable that his five short stories already ʻ supplied most of the elements of the subsequent genre ʼ (Munt, 2). The genre was initially restricted to the USA because of Edgar Allan Poe’s origin. Since the 1860s American women had increasingly begun to write detective novels. Those women developed strategies to avoid hostilities such as using a pseudonym, publishing as part of an anonymous series or hiding their detective stories behind romantic love stories. The novels were very often edited by men. The first detective novel being written by a woman was ʻ The Dead Letter: An American Romance ʼ written in 1866. The book’s cover named Seeley Regester as the author which was a pseudonym for Metta Victoria Fuller Victor. The first bestseller by a female crime writer was Anne Katherine Green’s ʻ The Leavensworth Case: A Lawyer ’ s Story ʼ from 1878 (see Birkle, 4-5). …

.The beginning of British crime literature was in 1887 with the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ʻ A Study in Scarlett ʼ . In this novel, Conan Doyle introduced his famous detective Sherlock Holmes for the very first time, whereby ʻ the figure matured into [an] archetype ʼ (Munt, 2) over the times. The 1920s and 30s in Great Britain have often been called in retrospect as the ʻ Golden Age ʼ (Keitel, 2001, 20) of crime literature´s domination by female writers. Famous representatives of the genre were inter alia ʻ Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey ʼ (Birkle, 5). In this context, the ʻDetection Clubʼ played an important role. This association was founded in 1928 during the heyday of the genre in Great Britain- the Golden Age. From the above writers, Dorothy Sayers was a founding member and Agatha Christie took over the presidency from 1958 till her death in 1976.

The Detection Club stipulated strict rules for writing detective novels. Accordingly, the writers had to swear an oath with in which they promised to refuse to employ the following tricks: ʻ Divine Revelation, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Feminine Intuition ʼ (Keitel, 2001, 20). These rules guaranteed that the reader actually had the chance to solve the murder case (see Pütz, 6). They helped to achieve a high literary value, but the plots were usually very similar and corresponded to the ideal crime scheme which will be examined more closely in the fourth sub chapter of this paper. Among the novelties of those Golden Age-novels were that lady detectives investigated and that the places were ʻfemaleʼ as Keitel described it (see Keitel, 2001, 21). Keitel used this term in order to allude to the typical Miss- Marple-scenery of a picturesque English village in which not much happens. Such a peaceful place increases the shock of a murder case, because nobody would have expected it in such an environment. A murder seems to be incongruent (see Keitel, 2001, 21). In the fourth sub chapter this stylistic device is called an alienation effect. Female writers continued to opt for a male pseudonym as already mentioned in the introduction (see Keitel, 2001, 25). ….After the Second World War, the female writer’s stance towards crime literature has changed slightly. Famous authors of this second phase included e.g. ʻMary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, P.D. James and Ruth Rendellʼ, thus, authors who are still very popular today. These women have written about men and have reached as a consequence a bigger target group. The first initial steps towards an emancipatory crime literature developed in the early 1960s with the author Carolyn G. Heilbrun, better known under her pseudonym Amanda Cross. Cross invented the detective Kate Fansler, a literature professor at an American elite university who uses her knowledge to solve murder cases (see Birkle, 6). ….In the 1970s another innovation was established: The search for the culprit became an independent profession. Before introducing the first female private investigator (P.I.) Sharon McCone, all detectives were amateurs like Miss Marple or Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane (e.g. in ʻ Gaudy Night ʼ written in 1935). Marcia Muller generated waves of enthusiasm among the writers copying her idea with her novel ʻ Edwin of the Iron Shoes ʼ (1977) and its main character Sharon McCone. Sharon McCone was the first character who was half Native American and can be assigned to the group of hard-boiled detectives (see Birkle, 6). … ….This term stood originally for crime literature which developed in the 40’s in the USA and which was exclusively written by men. This subgenre has determined the image of the typical private investigator who wears a parka and smokes and drinks while investigating. The ʻ private eye ʼ (Keitel, 1998, 16) usually dwells with the world. Crime literature was subdivided and developed further to the introduction of the hard-boiled novels. The thriller is one result of this process.9 It was difficult for Muller to develop a convincing and authentic hard-boiled lady detective, because ʻ [t]he hard-boiled tradition had been a male prerogative for many years, simply because men knew about punching people out and kicking doors down. [ … ] The women coming into it didn ’ t understand the unspoken protocols of men, ( … ) ʼ .10 ….Since that time lady detectives of all social classes and in all kinds of professions have been represented in detective novels (see Keitel, 2001, 26-28). These detectives have corresponded less to stereotypes due to this difference to some male detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Admittedly, the characters Holmes and Poirot were invented much earlier, so that ʻmodernʼ male detectives represent different classes, too. However, in comparison to the beginning of this genre, this constituted a significant advance. The genre started to reflect current social change.11

In the 1980’s and 1990’s almost all lady detectives were serial heroines. This was very often not the decision of the writers, but it was rather the publishers who urged them to publish in series. The amount of readership was an important criterion for concluding a new contract. There were not a lot of writers which could withstand this pressure. However, it could also be positive to write about serial heroines: ʻ Readers love the continuity, publishers love that readers love to read all the books in a series, and authors love steady work ʼ.12 It is interesting to note that the detectives solved the concrete murder case in one single volume, but their personal lives developed consistently throughout all the volumes. The detectives of this phase made mistakes and had experiences which let them appear more human. They aged and matured as opposed to a Miss Marple who always stayed the same. They were described as strong and independent women. This development of their private life explains the thrill of those novels. The readers usually wanted to read all the novels in chronological order which was in the interest of the publishers, too (see Keitel, 2001, 28-29). In addition to having the lady detective as the main character, a lot of writers opted for a female narrator. ….A famous detective of this phase is Sara Paretsky´s V.I. Warshawski. Warshawski is described as a private investigator from Chicago. She likes to drink Johnnie Walker Black Label and carries a 38 Smith & Wesson revolver. She practices karate and has sexual relations with men (see Keitel, 2001, 30). In all the above points, the difference to the spinsterish, elderly lady Miss Marple is striking. Admittedly, the age difference between these characters explains partly the different way of living. The writers of the 1980s and 1990s aimed at a female readership: They wrote for and about women (see Keitel, 2001, 30). …

.In 1987, Sara Paretsky and some other authors set up an American network called ʻ Sisters in Crime ʼ. In doing so, she wanted to protest against the fact that detective stories written by women were less reviewed, hardly published as a hardcover and the authors received a lower fee- regardless of the book’s literary value, but simply because of the writersʼ gender.13 This organization was so successful that the concept was copied by other countries. The German ʻ Chapter ʼ (Heuner, Busch, 2011) from 1996, for example, has the byname ʻ M ö rderische

Schwestern ʼ which means murderous sisters (see Heuner, Busch, 2011). At this time, some publishers put special female crime series on the market.

While the Golden Age was a mainly British phenomenon, the New Golden Age was dominated by American writers who developed more complex and competent lady detectives. Those characters behaved self-confidently and identified with their profession. They came from all social classes and practised all kinds of professions. Humour and self-irony played a central role as it had already been before in Agatha Christie’s novels. Men played a marginal role and were described as charming, but rather strange and unknown characters. According to Keitel, women and men lived in separate worlds and a communication beyond borders was hardly possible (see Keitel, 2001, 32). Female characters were represented as energetic and authentic, whereas the description of male characters was very often artificial and superficial. The lady detectives also differed in the way they deduced. While in the Golden Age the Detection Club prohibited using ʻ feminine intuition ʼ (Keitel, 2001, 20), the writers of the New Golden Age broke this rule consciously. They also used the elements of sudden impulses and lucky chances in their novels. The detectives appeared more modest than characters such as Hercule Poirot who was very aware of his cognitive superiority.

Lesbian detectives were another novelty in special serial books like Barbara Wilson’s detective Pam Nilsen.14 The detectives often belonged to a particular regional, ethnic or religious community. Barbara Neely, for example, developed the Afro-American detective Blanche White15 and Dana Stabenow the Aleut detective Kate Shugak.16 Therefore, the characters’ everyday life and the living conditions sometimes differed a lot from the reader’s own life (see Keitel, 2001, 35-36). According to Peter Freese, this was one reason for the thrill of mysteries: ʻ Mysteries can fulfil the function of anthropological handbooks and provide their readers with exciting introductions to unknown cultures ʼ.17

4. Definitions and the ideal crime scheme

There is hardly a genre which is characterised by an as strict scheme as the detective novel. Whether some guidelines such as the three constants cannot be changed easily, variation has always been a convention of the genre itself (see Keitel, 1998, 18). The ideal crime scheme shows aspects which have been frequently used in detective novels up to the present day. However, it is a scheme which was summarised in this concise form by literary critics. The fact that the genre´s essential aspects can be summarised in a scheme might be one reason why detective novels have been regarded as ʻinferior literatureʼ or pulp fiction. This probably conveys the idea that detective novels can be written literally according to the book. This assumption is wrong, since that there would be otherwise plenty of crime authors with the excellence of Agatha Christie. The following chapter defines the ideal crime scheme:


1 Joan Acocella, 2010. Queen of Crime - How Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery. The New Yorker. <http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/08/16/100816crat_atla rge_acocella#ixzz1Swbc6eyN> (8.04.12)

2 Evelyn Keitel, Vom Golden Age zum New Golden Age- Kriminalromane von Frauen f ü r Frauen quoted from Frauen auf der Spur- Kriminalautorinnen aus Deutschland, Gro ß britannien und den USA [Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2001], 20.[

3 Evelyn Keitel, Kriminalliteratur von Frauen f ü r Frauen- Unterhaltungsliteratur aus Amerika [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998], 21.

4 Tobias Gohlis, Wozu ein "Frauenkrimipreis"? - Eine Umfrage unter Autoren, Kritikern und Lesern. Die Zeit 49/2002. <http://www.zeit.de/2002/49/frauenkrimi> (08.04.2012)

5 Carmen Birkle, Frauen auf der Spur- Kriminalautorinnen aus Deutschland, Gro ß britannien und den USA [Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2001], 4.

6 Melina Pütz, Inwiefern bilden Frauenkrimis ein Subgenre innerhalb des Kriminalromans? [München: Ravensburg: Grin Verlag, 2003], 8.

7 Sabine Wilke, 2001. Wilde Weiber und dominante Damen: Der Frauenkrimi als Verhandlungsort von

Weiblichkeitsmythen quoted from Frauen auf der Spur- Kriminalautorinnen aus Deutschland. Gro ß britannien und den USA [Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2001], 256.

8 Sally R. Munt, Murder by the Book? - Feminism and the Crime Nove l [London and New York: Routledge, 1994], 2.

9 see Juliane Dylus, Frauenkriminalliteratur der Gegenwart. Ein Ü berblick i in: TATort und TATsache [Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2004], 107.

10 Bruce Newman, Murder, Mayhem and Madness [Los Angeles Times Magazine : 19. 5. 1996], 17quoted from Evelyn Keitel, Kriminalliteratur von Frauen f ü r Frauen- Unterhaltungsliteratur aus Amerika. [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche .Buchgesellschaft, 1998], 4.

11 see Patricia Plummer, 2001 . Ironie, Parodie, Zitat: Subversionen des . Kriminalromans in Werken britischer Autorinnen in: Frauen auf der Spur- Kriminalautorinnen aus Deutschland. Gro ß britannien und den USA [Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2001], 198.

12 Thomas Bedell, New Footprints on the Trail of Mysteries [American Newsletter Studies 23, 1991], 51 quoted from Evelyn Keitel 1998. Kriminalliteratur von Frauen f ü r Frauen- Unterhaltungsliteratur aus Amerika [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998], 3.

13 see Almuth Heuner, Andrea C. Busch, Sisters in Crime: Ein Netzwerk (nicht nur) f ü r Krimiautorinnen. Mathilde- Frauenzeitung aus für Darmstadt und .Region. <http://www.mathilde-frauenzeitung.de/mh061- 23sistersincrime.html> (08.04.2012)

14 Barbara Sjoholm. 2007. Bio, <http://www.barbarasjoholm.com/bio/index.html> (08.04.2012)

15 Blanchewhite.com. 2011. <http://www.blanchewhite.com/> (08.04.2012)

16 Stabenow.com. 2011. < http://www.stabenow.com/novels/kate-shugak> (08.04.2012)

17 Peter Freese, The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman [Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1992], 10 quoted from Evelyn Keitel, Kriminalliteratur von Frauen f ü r Frauen- Unterhaltungsliteratur aus Amerika [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998], 97.

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Queens of Crime: American and British female detective novels over the course of time
Cologne University of Applied Sciences
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Silke Friedrich (Author), 2012, Queens of Crime: American and British female detective novels over the course of time, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/196477


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