Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction : the mothers of the mystery genre – Lucy Sussex

I’ve always been interested in how the literary canon is decided upon. Who makes the decisions & which authors are left out & why? As a lover of mystery & detective fiction, this is an area that particularly interests me. Having read Lucy Sussex’s earlier work on Ellen Davitt & Mary Helena Fortune (two Australian women crime writers featured in this book), I’d had my eye on this book for some time. It’s part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files academic series & quite pricey so I borrowed it on Inter Library Loan & I’m very glad I did. Don’t be put off by the academic tag. This is an immensely readable survey of early women crime writers & it made me want to immediately get hold of more of their work.

Sussex begins with a look at early crime fiction, the Newgate novels about criminals, the role of newspapers in retelling the stories of crimes as they happened – the report of the crime itself, the investigations, then the trial & the outcome. The Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe introduced elements of crime & mystery as did novels of the 1830s such as Eugene Aram by Bulwer Lytton & Jack Sheppard by William Ainsworth. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories featuring Chevalier Dupin were published in the 1840s & are often seen as the beginning of crime fiction but already Sussex has demonstrated that the genre stretches much further back.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the lives of the women writers featured in the book. I knew Catherine Crowe as a writer of ghost stories- her book The Night Side of Nature is a classic account of psychic phenomena. However, I didn’t know about her crime novels, The Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence & Men and Women. Susan Hopley was published in 1841, the same year as Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Its success is shown by the fact that it was soon parodied & a stage version was produced. Crowe’s novels use female amateur detectives & complex plots. Her life was as fascinating as her books. She was an eccentric women, who wrote novels, stories & plays, held literary salons & was pilloried for her interest in the supernatural. She had a nervous breakdown which led to her wandering naked in the streets of Edinburgh one night. This incident led to her becoming a figure of fun in the literary world, even though she soon recovered from her illness.

Other authors are better known. The work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon has had quite a resurgence in recent years. She was one of the most prominent authors of Sensation fiction & often compared favourably with Wilkie Collins. Her private life, like Collins’s, was unconventional. She lived with her married publisher, John Maxwell, for years as he couldn’t divorce his wife. She looked after his six children & she had six of her own, while writing & publishing a phenomenal amount of fiction. Many of her novels had elements of crime, especially in later years when the enthusiasm for sensation had waned. Ellen (Mrs Henry) Wood is best known today for her bestselling Sensation novel, East Lynne. Her private life couldn’t be more different to Braddon’s. Very little is known apart from a hagiographic memoir written by her son after her death which portrays her as an eminently respectable wife & mother. Ellen Wood wrote many novels of varying quality & this may be one reason why she & Braddon are not as respected as their male contemporaries.

The most interesting chapter of the book was about two Australian authors, Ellen Davitt & Mary Helena Fortune. Davitt wrote the first mystery novel published in Australia – Force and Fraud (1865) – & Fortune, the longest running crime serial. Lucy Sussex has brought these two women out of the shadows with her extensive research into their lives & work. She continued the research of John Kinmont Moir, who investigated Fortune in the 1950s when there were still people alive who remembered her. Fortune’s long career involved writing serials for newspapers, badly paid work that often left her nearly homeless. She knew about the law from both sides – her second husband was a mounted police trooper & her son, George, spent over 20 years in prison& had a lengthy criminal record. Sussex has edited the work of both women & I remember reading it when it was published in the 1980s. Ellen Davitt has been commemorated in the awards for women’s crime fiction awarded each year by Sisters in Crime Australia.

The American writer, Anna Katherine Green, is often called the mother of the detective novel. Her bestseller, The Leavenworth Case, was published in 1878 so, having read this book, it’s easy to see that there were many women who came before Green. She was still an important writer as she wrote several detective series, two of them featuring women detectives. Another American writer, Metta Victor, published her detective fiction under the androgynous pseudonym Seeley Register. She wrote across many genres, including household advice & anti-slavery polemics. Her detective novel, The Dead Letter, is still in print & has been regarded as technically innovative & tightly plotted.

I wanted to read almost every novel Sussex discussed. I have quite a few of them, especially Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s & I’ve downloaded several free ebooks. More have been added to wishlists. I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of the crime novel & especially the contribution of women writers, many of them unjustly forgotten until recently. Lucy Sussex has a new book about to be published which I’m also looking forward to reading. Called Blockbuster!, it’s the story of another Australian crime fiction phenomenon, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

8 thoughts on “Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction : the mothers of the mystery genre – Lucy Sussex

  1. It is interesting to see some of these forgotten books revived and I am interested in reading some of them. However in the case of The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, I have to admit that I have read it and I was underwhelmed.

    Like

  2. I enjoyed Hansom Cab but maybe that was because I live in Melbourne & knew all the locations. It is amazing that it was such a bestseller & so sad that Hume made so little money out of it.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s