Thursday, March 12, 2009

Women's Mystery History

Cricket McRae

March is Women's History Month. I'm more than usually aware of this because I'm part of a Sisters in Crime panel discussion of same at the Briargate Library in Colorado Springs, CO this afternoon. And because it's a Sisters in Crime panel, and at a library, naturally we'll be talking about mysteries.

I thought I knew a fair amount about female mystery writers, but I discovered something new -- to me, at least.

Most of us know about Edgar Allan Poe and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Charles Dickens was arguably influencial to the genre, using many elements of mystery in Bleak House, and he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood, though he died before it was finished. Wilkie Collins contributed The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

All well and good, but what about the chicks? Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are British grand dames of the mystery genre, both considered cozy writers of the Golden Age of mysteries in the 1920s and '30s. Others include Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. Our shelves were well populated with their books when I was growing up.

But: before them came Anna Katherine Green. In 1878 she published
The Leavenworth Case -- in America, no less -- in which she introduced Detective Ebenezer Gryce, a New York City police officer. Her father was a criminal lawyer. In fact, a few people have speculated that he inspired her first book and may have even written it.

Now come one. She was a bestselling author and went on to publish 40 or so books. Inspiration I'll buy, but I doubt Daddy had much to do with the writing.

Sounds like quite the up-and-coming feminist, doesn't she? Not so much. Anna was a proper Victorian woman, touting high moral standards and critical of both the feminist movement and women's suffrage. She was married to an actor turned furniture designer and had a daughter and two sons. Yet her writing enabled her to contribute regularly to the family finances until her death in 1935.

And The Leavenworth Case was required reading at Yale Law School.

Wow. That's incredibly cool.

That was in 1878. Now, in 2009, it turns out we still have a need for the Sisters in Crime organization to work on the behalf of women mystery writers. To check and see that we receive as much attention in the media as male authors, as much recognition for our work, and are reviewed on an equal basis.

Wow. That's incredibly uncool.

I mean, it's been 131 years, folks. Sure, there's been a lot of progress. Yes indeedy -- a ton of it, and I am grateful for every smidgeon. But still: 131 years later. I'm just sayin'.

If you're interested in more information about Anna, there's a lot to be had and most if it's fascinating. For a start there's a great article in
Mystery Scene Magazine entitled The Mother of American Mystery, by Michael Mallory which has information about her and her books.

Viva la femme!


Keith Raffel said...

One reviewer said I did women characters well for "a male author." A little back-handed but I attribute this to reading all the Nancy Drews after there were no more Hardy Boys left to read.
Keith (a member of Sisters in Crime)

G.M. Malliet said...

New info for me. Thanks, Cricket!