Thursday, January 14, 2016

Writers Under Suspicion: British Female Mystery Novelists

British female mystery novelists have developed their work, over nearly a century, from something dismissed as trivial, or as  An Unsuitable Job For a Woman, to use the title of P.D. James’ first Cordelia Grey mystery, to recognition as literature equal to that of any other genre. 

The Golden Age of mystery writing began in the 1920s. Two British female writers -- Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers -- were giants of that era and helped usher in a wave of British women mystery authors that has not abated to this day.

Christie's early novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is still considered to be one of the greatest works in that genre.  The twist at the story's end was both controversial and ground-breaking.  Christie is among the best-selling novelists of all time in any genre.

British female mystery writers were once commonly associated with the sub-genre called the  British cozy, in which the murders take place in a small community and the sleuth is an amateur, such as Christie's character Miss Marple or Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.  However, British female mystery authors have scored hits in all genres of mystery writing, including historical, police procedural, and thrillers.

This includes P.D. James, who died in 2014, known as “the Queen of Crime” and whose work was praised in a memorial piece of the New York Times by Marilyn Stasio:

“… the complexity of her plots, the psychological density of her characters and the moral context in which she viewed criminal violence, Ms. James even surpassed her classic models and elevated the literary status of the modern detective novel.”

This description recognizes a shift in the quality of and acceptance of the British female mystery genre during James’ career from dismissal to adoration.

Currently popular authors Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters, and Anne Perry extend the genre to new and different heights with their historical mysteries that provide depth through attention to historic detail.
•    Lindsey Davis takes the reader to Ancient Rome with the wise-cracking first-person narratives of investigator Marcus Didius Falco who works for Emperors and Senators, usually to prevent scandal for his patrons.
  •    Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), who died in 1995, created the Brother Cadfael series about a 12th century monk who uses his knowledge as an herbalist to solve crimes.
•    Anne Perry produces intricately researched novels bringing the reader into Victorian London with the husband and wife sleuthing team of Charlotte and Thomas Pitt.  And separately, William Monk, an ambitious police detective who turns private investigator.  Both series describe the seamy side of upper-class British society.

See the book display at the Al Harris Library that highlights some of the leading female mystery writers hailing from the British Isles in the last 100 years.  In the case of mystery writing, it is no longer an unsuitable job for a woman.  When the question is “whodunit” the answer is a resounding “she did it."

No comments: