Wicked Wednesday-Early Female Crime Writers

Jessie: Feverishly working away on her next novel between trips to take the puppy out at his insistence.

As we continue to mark Women’s History Month I wanted to ask you all about your favorite or most admired female crime writers of the past. How have those women laid a path for each of us to follow? Which of their work ranks amongst your favorite?

Julie: Need you ask? Agatha Christie. Not only was she an early on favorite of mine, I did a lot of research into her for a thesis I wrote about her use of POV. She was a remarkable woman. She had a tough time when her husband Archie wanted a divorce, and in her autobiography talked about writing The Mystery of the Blue Train (not one of her best), and how she realized she had to make a mindset shift, that it was now up to her to support her family. That was in 1928. And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, the Tommy and Tuppence novels, countless stand alones, and The Mousetrap were to come. A remarkable woman.

Edith: Of course, Christie. Years ago I read through all of Dorothy L. Sayers’ crime fiction and loved it, but it’s been a while, so I am hazy on details. Must be time for a re-read! Let us not forget Carolyn Keene – aka Mildred Wirt Benson for the first eight Nancy Drew books. I was deeply influenced by reading those as a child.

Mary Roberts Rinehart

Barb: I, too, am a huge fan of Christie, Sayers, and Nancy Drew, and all three influenced me as a crime writer. But since they’ve been mentioned, I want to plump for Mary Roberts Rinehart, often called “The American Agatha Christie.” (Jessie mentioned Rinehart in her original post for Women’s History Month.) Rinehart originated the phrase, “The butler did it,” and invented the Had-I-But-Known structure for mystery writing. Her books sold millions of copies, rescued her family financially after the stock market crash of 1903, and made them rich. She was a war correspondent on the Belgian front during World War I, leaving her husband and children at home. She was a long-term breast cancer survivor who went public about her mastectomy in 1947, when almost no one did. When she was seventy-one, the chef who had worked for her for twenty-five years fired a gun at her and tried to slash her with knives. She was rescued by her other servants. (The chef did it?) I’ve stayed at the inn that now stands on her property in Bar Harbor, Maine and it was a treat.

Jessie: I love Ngaio Marsh! She published between 1934-1982 and was voted a Grans Master by MWA as well as a Dame Commanderof the Order of the British Empire. Her detective Roderick Alleyn is suave yet approachable. Her plotting is solid, her characterizations well-rounded and the period charm of her work has held up delightfully over time.

Sherry: With a house full of mysteries there were plenty of women writers I loved. But prolific writer Phyllis A. Whitney stands out for a couple of reasons. I loved her books and one of my favorites was Hunter’s Green. My mom found a reprint and gave it to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. Phyllis A. Whitney also  wrote an open letter to MWA pointing out that women weren’t being nominate for awards. That letter, among other things, inspired Sara Paratesky and a group of women to start Sisters in Crime.

Readers, do you have a favorite female crime writer of the past?

37 Thoughts

  1. Agatha Christie was the author of the first mystery I read (at about the age of 8), and Murder Must Advertise is one of my favorite books of all time (her description of the difference of “with” and “from” in advertising is absolute perfection and still makes me laugh out loud), but my choice is Josephine Tey. To me The Daughter of Time is one of the best mysteries ever written, and it barely qualifies as fiction.

    For those of you who haven’t come across this gem, it uses the structure of a mystery to show us how maligned Richard III was by Shakespeare and History. Reading it is an absolute delight, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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    1. Agree with you about Tey- very good writing, very original – but (ahem) Dorothy L. Sayers wrote Murder Must Advertise. Looks like you meant It was one of Dame Agatha’s

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  2. I have to go with Clair Blank, who wrote the Beverly Gray mystery series for girls from the 1930s through the 1950s. Not great literature, but her sleuth was much more of the real world than Nancy Drew and the series didn’t ignore things like WW II. And, of, course, Beverly was a newspaper reporter, novelist, and playwright, so not a bad role model for an aspiring writer.

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  3. My go-to answer is always Dorothy Sayers. I read the whole Lord Peter series when I was in college, and re-read them again and again. What always draws me in is not simply the plot or the story, but the depth of the characters’ personalities (which evolves over the series). But I also read Ngaio Marsh (how did she get forgotten?) and Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham, and of course Nancy Drew. Christie I find rather dry, but I respect her craft. And I still have them all, except the Nancy Drews which my mother tossed one year when we moved. I never forgave her.

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    1. Dorothy L. Sayers is one of my favorites too. I introduced one of my sons to her last month when he needed something wonderful but not exhausting. I am so sorry to hear about your Nancy Drew collection!

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  4. Margery Allingham is my favorite of the Golden Age writers, but I also love Christie, Sayers, and Marsh. Rinehart as well. A note to Edith: Mildred Wirt Benson wrote more books in the Nancy Drew series than the first eight, just FYI. Nancy Drew is one of my all-time favorite characters. I also loved Margaret Sutton, the author of the Judy Bolton series, and Julie Campbell Tatham, creator of Trixie Belden.

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    1. Let me correct myself. MWB wrote the first 7 Nancy Drew books; Walter Karig wrote 8-10, and then MWB took over again, through #30.

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  5. I’ll add an extra shout-out for Tey; just read MISS PYM DISPOSES for the first time last year, and I’ve added that one to my own favorites ever.

    But also want to mention some earlier writers and detectives—from works I’ve taught in my “Women of Mystery” course at George Mason University: C.L. Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke stories, Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard tales, and Pauline Hopkins’ “Talma Gordon,” which has been called the first mystery story by an African American writer. And don’t forget Anna Katherine Green too, whoe laid the groundwork for Mary Roberts Rinehart and for Christie beyond that—and her Violet Strange stories are a nice precursor to Nancy Drew too!

    (I’m teaching this course again next fall—excited already!)

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    1. I wish I were somewhere I could take your course! Have you ever considered offering one for mystery writers and or enthusiasts online at one of the many teaching platforms? I’d sign up!

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    2. Hi Art,

      Add me to the list of those who wish we were neighbors so I could take your class. Alas, Sacramento is a bit far to commute.

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  6. Count me in the Christie fandom. Her plotting, especially in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (my two favorites) is amazing when she’s at the top of her game.

    And being from Pittsburgh I’m very familiar with Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was from this area. Our Sisters in Crime chapter adopted her as our namesake.

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  7. I have to go with Elizabeth Linnington who wrote the Luis Mendoza police procedurals as Dell Shannon. I borrowed one from my Mom when we were on vacation and I’d finished all my books. I got hooked and read the whole series

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  8. I’m a huge Trixie Belden fan as well, and I’ve gotten my niece addicted to her adventures as well. (I’m doing the uncle thing correctly.)

    However, I also want to give a shout out to Dorothy Gilman, creator of Mrs. Pollifax. These cozy spy novels are a pure delight. If you’ve missed them, you must track them down. I may have stolen Carstairs from these books.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning Dorothy Gilman, Mark! I was delighted to discover that Barbara Rosenblat, who narrates my Beryl and Edwina books, also narrated several Mr. Pollifax books. It felt like good things were in store when I discovered that!

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  9. I’d have to go with Sayers too and for the very reason Sheila Connolly already said – her characters come alive and change and grow (and they are witty, too) My first Lord Peter was a revelation! How far back are we going? Because I would say Mary Stewart’s best suspense novels – contemporary with my youth – have a permanent place in my heart

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  10. I’d have to say that Agatha Christie was my main influence but I’ve read most of the others mentioned. I don’t think anyone mentioned Miss Silver mysteries yet or Patricia Moyes.

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  11. I have to agree with Phyllis A. Whitney. I started with here in my late teens after all the Nancy Drew books. Am now going through all the older favorites.

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