In 1981, Jessica Mann wrote Deadlier Than the Male. As the subtitle says, it’s An investigation into feminine crime writing. Last year, it was released as an eBook with a new Foreward by the author. As I’ve always been interested in the authors Mann investigates – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Josephine Tey – I’m almost sure I read the book when it was first published. However, that was a long time ago & I was interested to see what the landscape of women’s crime writing was like 35 years ago & whether I would agree with Mann’s opinions on the women known as the Queens of Crime.
The first half of the book is a survey of the development of the crime novel & the different types of hero & heroine. The second half concentrates on the five authors & gives an account of their lives & careers. I found it fascinating to read of the many forgotten novelists whose work had not survived but who have recently been reprinted in series such as the British Library Crime Classics. Mann suggests that their work just wasn’t good enough to survive but tastes change & what was seen as irredeemably old-fashioned 50 years after publication is seen as fascinatingly retro after 85 years. The availability of digital publishing has also made the work of a lot of forgotten authors available again & I think that phenomenon helped to create the appetite for Golden Age mysteries that has been satisfied by the many reprints we’re enjoying now.
One comment that I had to smile at referred to
… the numerous excellent writers like Margaret Kennedy, E M Delafield, Angela Thirkell and Storm Jameson, to mention only a few, whose sensitive and literate novels are out of fashion now.
All these authors have been reprinted as paperback or eBook editions in the last few years & are enjoying quite a revival. Even more delicious is that the revival of “sensitive and literate” women’s fiction owes so much to Jessica Mann’s sister, Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books. That’s just a tangent but I couldn’t resist quoting it as an example of how our reading lives have changed for the better & our access to books has broadened since the 1980s.
Mann discusses the appeal of crime fiction in the twentieth century & argues that the chaos of life leads to a desire for order which is satisfied by a novel that creates order out of strife. The popularity of mystery novels focusing on murder & disruption during WWII would seem counter-intuitive but, on the contrary, there was a feeling of reassurance in reading a novel that tied up all the loose ends & restored normal life at the end. Crime was the most popular genre during the War & the puzzle detective novel was at its height during the 1940s. Exotic settings, in an age when foreign travel was more difficult & unusual, added another layer to the reader’s enjoyment. Agatha Christie set her books in the Middle East, Egypt & the south of France as well as in St Mary Mead & London. Closed communities – from a wartime hospital to a fashion house, theatre or Oxford college – were also popular & the authors that used these settings often knew them intimately. If you’re a reader of Golden Age crime, you’ll recognize those settings & the authors all made use of either personal experience or detailed research to make the books unforgettable.
Mann also contrasts the formulaic novels of the Golden Age with their stock characters & bloodless corpses with the more realistic thrillers that were published in the 1960s & 1970s. She describes the difference as …between optimism and pessimism, almost, in some cases between hope and despair. Formula may bring a sense of comfort but greater realism was inevitable as society changed after the War. Even Agatha Christie, whose novels relied more on fiendish plotting than on description of either character or place, tried, not always successfully, to move with the times in her novels written in the 1950s & 1960s. The continued popularity of these writers is also remarkable & most of them continued writing after the period that has become known as the Golden Age. Dorothy L Sayers stopped writing detective fiction in the late 1930s but her books have never been out of print & Mann sees them as the books that can be read with pleasure as novels even after the reader knows the denouement of the plot (I agree with that. Sayers is one of the few detective novelists I reread often for the pleasure of revisiting the 1930s). Margery Allingham died in 1966 & Josephine Tey in 1952 but they are still popular, maybe even more so now than in the 1980s when Mann was writing. Ngaio Marsh was the only one of the five authors alive when Mann wrote Deadlier Than the Male (Marsh died in 1982).
In her quest to discover why these “respectable English women” (Marsh was a New Zealander & Tey was Scottish but they both mainly set their books in England) are so good at writing about murder, Mann looks at their lives & careers.
… I believe that their experiences tended to induce in them similar assumptions: that stability was desirable, and when threatened, should be restored; that reason should prevail over violence; that the customs of a secure and unthreatened class had an intrinsic merit. I think that the ethos they expressed in fictional form was acquired during and from their own lives, and was equally attractive and admirable to readers less able to express it.
The biographical details of the writers’ lives are briskly told. She looks at the trajectory of each author’s career, from Dorothy L Sayers quite openly admitting that she wrote the Wimsey books for money & stopped when she discovered something else that she wanted to devote herself to (her translations of Dante) to Margery Allingham’s pragmatic desire to write books that will sell (she came from a family of writers). Josephine Tey & Ngaio Marsh were much more interested in the theatre. Tey wrote some successful plays & referred to her detective novels as her knitting while Marsh wrote to finance her theatrical work, producing plays, especially Shakespeare & her crime fiction was very much in second place. Mann knows the work of all these writers well & can discuss plot & the development of character. The reticence of these five writers about their personal lives may have led them to write detective fiction with its strict rules & conventions rather than more personal forms of fiction. They would be unlikely to be completely comfortable writing thrillers like Patricia Highsmith, with her fascination in the character of the criminal or like Ruth Rendell & P D James, who write much more realistically & graphically about murder & about the effects on those who come into contact with it. She sees writers of romantic suspense, like Mary Stewart & Helen MacInnes, as the heirs to the Golden Age writers, rather than crime writers who tear away the veil of respectability & look at evil so directly.
Deadlier Than the Male is a great overview of the development of detective fiction & the work of these five women writers in particular. Although there have been many biographies & critical volumes devoted to these writers, Mann’s insights into the influence of the life on the work & her judgements on the work, are still very relevant today.