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Cherchez les Femmes

From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: The American tradition of mystery novels by women.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By JON L. BREEN
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The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight

by Metta Fuller Victor

Duke University Press, 388 pp., $21.95

That Affair Next Door & Lost Man's Lane

by Anna Katharine Green

Duke University Press, 388 pp., $21.95

Painted for the Kill

by Lucy Cores

Rue Morgue, 189 pp., $14.95

Corpse de Ballet

by Lucy Cores

Rue Morgue, 289 pp., $14.95

In a Lonely Place

by Dorothy B. Hughes

Feminist Press, 250 pp., $14.95

The Blackbirder

by Dorothy B. Hughes

Feminist Press, 288 pp., $14.95

Revisionist history sometimes becomes conventional wisdom. Consider this proposition, now universally accepted as truth: While British women long ruled the mystery roost, their American sisters were a downtrodden underclass in a genre dominated by bullying hardboiled males. Or try this, which most of those who comment on mystery fiction seem to believe: American women pioneers in the development of the detective novel have been ignored or marginalized by mostly masculine historians and scholars. Or this: Strong, self-sufficient non-spinster female detectives were unknown in fiction before the 1970s. Or, finally, this: Pulp fiction is some kind of prestigious and mysterious old boys' club.

As it happens, all of these are false. But the truth doesn't seem to fit the story that people want to tell about the field of crime fiction, and so the facts seem to go out the window. Introducing one of two recent omnibus volumes by the American detective novel's two most important nineteenth-century pioneers, Catherine Ross Nickerson asserts that most historians of the detective story begin with the American Edgar Allan Poe but "go on to trace the development of the detective novel in the work of British writers ...[and] tend to return to the American scene only with the arrival of the hard-boiled style in the 1920s."

While one of her subjects, Metta Fuller Victor (1831-1885), has only recently been recognized for her historic role, the other, Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), has long been celebrated for her seminal status and renders the sweeping statement inaccurate.

Victor, who wrote her two early novels under the name "Seeley Regester," genuinely does deserve credit as the first American detective novelist--but with an asterisk. The Dead Letter (1867) begins with Richard Redfield, a postal employee in Washington, finding a cryptic letter dated two years earlier that sheds light on a mystery that has virtually destroyed his life. By opening the story with the finding of the letter before introducing a flashback to the events leading up to it, Victor gives the reader the illusion of a story set in motion by an incredible coincidence (fictionally acceptable) rather than resolved by one (fictionally unacceptable).

Two years before, Redfield was a student in the offices of lawyer John Argyll and in love with his benefactor's daughter Eleanor, whose fiancé Henry Moreland is found stabbed to death while en route to the Argyll home. The novel has enough of the essential elements to qualify as a detective story. Burton, the Great Detective figure, introduced as taciturn but increasingly garrulous as the story goes on, "chooses such cases as demand...the benefit of his rare powers." The final revelation of the criminal (which can hardly have surprised the readers of its time much more than it will today's) comes in a gathering of the suspects. The novel keeps a consistent focus on the case, apart from romantic interludes. But in place of real detection, Victor resorts to parlor tricks and supernatural visions. When Burton makes Sherlock Holmes-like deductions from the handwriting of a letter, the reader must take his graphological acuity on faith, since no explanations are given. Some of Burton's detection comes via the gifts of his clairvoyant eleven-year-old daughter.

Though hard sledding for a reader of today, the novel is well enough written to show the author was good in her time, and the social and domestic details are instructive. The Irish servant class is stereotyped as superstitious and over-emotional, with their dialect presented in tiresome phonetic transcription. Modern marvels include train travel and photography to aid identification. A long sea voyage is needed to travel to California to track down a clue. The publisher's back-cover blurb claims "a background of post-Civil War politics," but nothing of the kind appears--indeed, the action takes place in the late 1850s, before the Civil War.

The Figure Eight (1869) includes the same brand of stock characters as its predecessor--the gallant but misunderstood narrator, his kind elderly benefactor, an evil rival in love, and women of beauty, innocence, and nobility--but it is a more successful novel. It begins with a body in the library: the uncle of narrator Joe Meredith, a country doctor who had recently returned from California with $60,000 in gold bars intended to pay off a mortgage and retire from medical practice. The victim, poisoned by prussic acid in a glass of port, leaves a dying message: a scribble that includes the figure eight of the title. The gold has disappeared, and the narrator is accused of the crime. The characters, including a Mrs. Danvers-like governess and the victim's young Cuban wife, are more complex and less predictable than those in The Dead Letter, but the detection is no more advanced. Don't expect any great revelation on the meaning of that dying message. The novel exemplifies the mystery as social history, including the hero's resolve during his exile on the western frontier to make a killing in real estate.

FOR MANY YEARS, before scholars unearthed Victor's work, Anna Katharine Green was regarded as the first woman to write a detective novel--indeed, as the first American mystery novelist of either sex. Her 1878 novel The Leavenworth Case has been almost universally recognized as a milestone, and all the early, mostly male historians of the form acknowledged her pioneering status. The two novels chosen for reprint exemplify one of Green's many innovations: the spinster sleuth, later to be explored by writers as various as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, and Stuart Palmer.

In That Affair Next Door (1897), wealthy Manhattan resident Amelia Butterworth becomes suspicious late one evening when she sees a man take a young woman into the seemingly closed house next door and shortly leave without her. When the woman's body is found crushed under a heavy cabinet, Amelia ponders the eternal question of mystery fiction: Was it accident, suicide, or murder? A semicomic figure who reveals herself more than she intends in her first-person narrative, Amelia enthusiastically probes the complicated relationships of her neighbors and offers help to Ebenezer Gryce, the elderly policeman of earlier Green novels. The novel is leisurely paced but not padded, and the detecting rivalry of amateur and professional is humorously and sensitively managed. Much of its careful plotting and attention to detail would be at home in a formal detective novel of decades later, though the final solution comes from a witness with an explanation anticipated by neither Gryce nor Butterworth. The surprise killer, though probably anticipated by latter-day readers, must have been a sensation in 1897.

Amelia gradually wins Gryce's grudging respect, to the extent of becoming involved at his invitation in Lost Man's Lane (1898), about a series of broad-daylight disappearances in a New York mountain village. With mysterious noises in a houseful of secrets and the legend of a phantom coach, the novel is much more in the gothic tradition than the superior That Affair Next Door. A frankly preposterous story, with a broadly painted least-suspected-person culprit and at one point a highly unlikely disguise for Gryce, it is a lesser book than its predecessor, though not devoid of interest.

HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE APART, has Green become merely a museum piece? Some 1940s commentators, including Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen, would have said so on the basis of her florid Victorian style. But perhaps they were too close in time to appreciate what then was merely out of fashion. On the basis of these two novels, Green can be accessible and rewarding today to the right reader.

In the early years of the twentieth century, American women ceded none of their preeminence. Green continued producing into the 1920s and by the beginning of World War I had been joined by the hugely successful Mary Roberts Rinehart, who would remain a perennial bestseller into the 1950s, and the less well-remembered (but celebrated in her time) Carolyn Wells, among other female American detective novelists. By the 1930s, such writers as Leslie Ford, Mignon G. Eberhart, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor had launched long and successful careers. In the 1940s came Craig Rice, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Charlotte Armstrong, and Helen McCloy, among many others.

The prominence of women was not limited to the writers. Many, perhaps most, of the prominent mystery editors at mid-century were female: Lee Wright, Marie F. Rodell, Joan Kahn, Isabelle Taylor, Margaret Norton. By the early 1950s, women occupied the mystery reviewing chairs of major newspapers and magazines: Avis de Voto, Lenore Glen Offord, Dorothy B. Hughes, Frances Crane. The major tastemaker was a man--the New York Times Book Review's Anthony Boucher--but he loved books by women.

And what about the characters these women wrote about? Strong independent women were nonstarters in sleuthing roles until the private eyes, policewomen, pathologists, and trouble-prone amateurs of the 1970s and 1980s, right? Wrong. Rue Morgue Press, Tom and Enid Schantz's small Colorado publishing firm, has reprinted several writers of the 1940s who put the lie to such nonsense, most recently two novels by Lucy Cores.

Cores's Painted for the Kill (1943) introduces Toni Ney, physical trainer and jujitsu instructor at a posh Manhattan salon that will remind you of the setting for Claire Boothe Luce's The Women. When a French movie star is murdered during a mudpack treatment, Toni turns amateur sleuth, and her relationship with police detective Torrent parallels that of Butterworth and Gryce half a century earlier. The novel has all the elements of a present-day cozy mystery--specialized background, amateur sleuth with interesting job and independent nature, romantic misunderstandings, humor, suspense set-pieces, even a cat--but is miles better than most of today's product, mainly because of a better sense of pace, a lack of tangential soap-opera complications, and some genuinely clued detection. Corpse de Ballet (1944), with Toni working as a reporter covering a ballet production, is not quite as good, partly because of a tiresome romantic subplot, but it is still well written and deceptively plotted.

MACHO RESENTMENT over women in the workforce is one motivation for the serial strangler who stalks postwar Los Angeles in the 1947 novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of the biggest names in mid-twentieth-century crime fiction, both as reviewer and novelist. Her earlier The Blackbirder (1943) is a pursuit novel with a vivid visual sense and a strong sense of faceless menace, with details of what is going on only gradually revealed. Juliet Marlebone, the American-born daughter of a naturalized French father, has fled wartime Europe with unofficial help. Following the murder in New York of a German acquaintance, she flees to Santa Fe in search of the shadowy title character, an illegal transporter of refugees from Mexico. In the course of her travels, several locales are economically captured, along with the details of wartime conditions on the home front.

The reprinting of these two excellent novels by Feminist Press is most welcome, but the editors do Hughes an unintentional disservice by the series title, "Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp." By any sensible definition, Hughes was not a pulp writer. "Pulp fiction" refers to material written for the pulp-paper magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s and died out in the 1950s. Some commentators, reasonably enough, extend the term to include material written for the digest-sized fiction magazines and paperback-original publishers that took the place of the pulps in the marketplace--or as much of the marketplace as the rise of television left for them. For purposes of the Feminist Press series, though, pulp seems to be a synonym for mass-market paperback, which leads the editors and their consulting scholars into a morass of misunderstanding, sweeping generalizations, and fuzzy thinking.

FOR EXAMPLE, the editors claim in their overall introduction, "authorial name and persona were rarely linked to real-life identity." Pseudonyms were widespread in pulp magazine and paperback staples like mysteries, science fiction, and westerns, but they were not the norm. In her afterword to The Blackbirder, Amy Villarejo calls the early Pocket Books "among the first pulp novels." Pocket Books, one recalls, specialized in cheap reprints of classics. If Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jane Austen are now pulp writers, the designation has lost all meaning.

In fact, pulp writer is not a dishonorable label. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the pulps, as did many other distinguished writers of popular fiction in various genres. But most pulp fiction, in its strictest definition, was disposable product, written fast for low rates of pay, without the care or the literary ambition of writings for slick magazines or for book publication. It's no accident that most anthologies of pulp fiction draw on the more respectable and better-edited latter-day digests for most of their material rather than the real pulps. Even in those early pulps, there were women writers--notably Leigh Brackett, who would become a prominent screenwriter best known for her work on The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back.

Regardless, "pulp writer" simply will not do as a description of Dorothy B. Hughes. Her first book was a volume of poetry from Yale University Press, her novels were written for the hardcover book market from the beginning, she was inspired to fiction writing by the very un-pulpish Eric Ambler, and she received respectful reviews from distinguished publications throughout her career.

QUIBBLES about terminology aside, what remains is the work, and it is good to have all these books available to readers. And there are many other unjustly neglected women deserving revival: the wonderful Charlotte Armstrong, for just one example. But there are many men who deserve reprinting as well. There simply isn't any truth in the story that women writers are especially ignored by readers and historians of mystery fiction. Time and forgetfulness are equal-opportunity erasers.

Author of Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon, Jon L. Breen is winner of two Edgar awards.