Crime Scene: LUCY SUSSEX Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The mothers of the mystery genre. Reviewed by Emma Ashmere
The groundbreaking Women Writers and Detectives is a jam-packed rethink of the history of crime/mystery/detective fiction.
Melbourne-based Lucy Sussex has won awards for her own crime and sci-fi stories, and for the neo-Victorian ‘puzzle novel’ The Scarlet Rider. Her most recent book Blockbuster! is about Fergus Hume, author of The Mystery of the Hansom Cab.
The first chapter of Women Writers and Detectives takes us back to the founding fathers of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. But like any good mystery, all is not quite as it seems. Questions must be asked.
Did Poe’s story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ really arrive in 1841 as a ‘virgin birth’? Sussex sets out compelling evidence to prove it was not. Rather, it was one of many significant contributions born from a long and complex genealogy with roots planted in melodrama, true crime, and the Gothic novels of the 1700s.
So, whodunnit first? Cherchons les femmes (let’s look for the women) comes the reply.
A self-described ‘literary archaeologist’, Sussex spent two decades piecing together international sources to show the traditional genealogy of crime fiction was missing its maternal line. The ‘founding mothers’ have been rightly rediscovered, and are:
[a] … parade of unusual suspects in bonnets and crinolines … a Gothic novelist, a spiritualist, the wife of a policeman, a hunchback, an actress – and other women quite unexceptional except for their vivid imaginations.
One of these women is Catherine Crowe (1790-1872). According to Sussex, Crowe was the first person to combine crime and mystery in the novel form. In her Adventures of Susan Hopley; Or circumstantial evidence:
A murder and a disappearance occur in the first few chapters and are solved at the novel’s end. Moreover, the book is largely told through the experience of women, with three female detectives. All are effective amateur sleuths.
Crowe not only pioneered the idea of a ‘heroine-sleuth’, her novel was published anonymously a few months before Poe’s story appeared.
Chapter Two sketches out the advancements of the Enlightenment, which fuelled the later development of crime writing – the diminishing belief in God-as-detective, shifts in legal practice, innovations in science and forensics.
The printing press was also crucial. Criminal news had once come straight from the gallows. ‘Dying speeches’ were reproduced in pamphlets and touted by the ubiquitous ‘death hunters’. Women in particular snapped these up. As one death hunter puts it, ‘Mostly all our customers is females. They are the chief dependence we have.’
Another development occurred in 1752, when the magistrate and novelist Henry Fielding began attending and writing about criminal trials, which were then ‘… reported in the papers as it happened: a real-time process beginning with the discovery of a body, followed by the inquest, investigation, the discovery of the culprit, etc’.
These tantalising serialised glimpses of courtroom drama fired the imagination and even led to members of the public, including Ellen Wood (aka the novelist Mrs Henry Wood, 1814-87}, solving them. Writers of both sexes squirrelled away these sensational and shocking tales, and ‘murder-mania’ built on this momentum. Victorian-era women in particular became transfixed by the vicarious violence, treachery, and fascinating horror played out in the dock and in print.
The other seven chapters are devoted to the work and often sobering personal circumstances of writers Ann Radcliffe, Catherine Crowe, Harriet Prescott, Caroline Clive, Mary Braddon, Mary Fortune, Ellen Davitt, Ellen Wood, Metta Victor and Katharine Anna Green.
These chapters are page-turners. Sussex maintains that ‘both writer woman and woman written are intertwined’, and seamlessly interleaves excerpts of their writing and summarised plotlines with insights into their complicated domestic arrangements. Although some women left little trace, there are piquant snippets about unmarried liaisons, rambling blended families, precarious finances, political preoccupations with the abolition of slavery and workers’ rights, and physical disabilities such as chair-confining scoliosis.
There are also strangely familiar accounts of stoushes with publishers, spiky encounters with reviewers and cross-Atlantic copyright pirates, the impact of tacky dramatisations for the stage, and episodes of praise and betrayal by contemporaries. Illustrations, portraits, photographs, a handy timeline, extensive bibliography, police documents including mug shots, and a foreword by Val McDermid add to the text.
And Catherine Crowe? She wrote two more novels, including the bestseller The Night Side of Nature, which centred on the Spiritualists. After leaving a Spiritualist event, Crowe was reportedly found wandering Lady Godiva-like in the streets. Pilloried by Charles Dickens and others in the press, Crowe’s many innovative literary contributions were eclipsed.
Thanks to Lucy Sussex’s Women Writers and Detectives, the glittering achievements of these remarkable women have been brought back into the light.
Lucy Sussex Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The mothers of the mystery genre Palgrave Macmillan 2010 HB 232pp $159.00
Emma Ashmere’s debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press. She blogs about writing short and long fiction at http://emmaashmere.com
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