Lady Justice: The Contribution of Women in Mystery Fiction -- By: William David Spencer

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 03:3 (Summer 1989)
Article: Lady Justice: The Contribution of Women in Mystery Fiction
Author: William David Spencer


Lady Justice: The Contribution of Women in Mystery Fiction

William David Spencer

William David Spencer is the author of Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel (UMI Research Press: 1988). He is pastor of encouragement at Pilgrim church of Beverly/Salem, Massachusetts and teaches “Prayer and Theology and the Arts” at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His book will be on sale at the CBE conference.

Are people sick of reading novels that portray women as either victims or villains? Are Christians fed up with fiction that stereotypes believers as simply helplessly innocent or hopelessly immoral? Is the major, moral, middle-class reader in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain growing weary of nearly exclusively seeing endless images of the sinister minister, churlish “church lady”, and the dishonest deacon? A groundswell of new literature in the mystery genre strongly suggests that such is the case. A part of the counter revolution is the new wave of women writers who have recently begun filling bookstores and libraries with portrayals of powerful Christian detectives, both women and men.

Mystery literature may be traced back to such ancient sources as Bel and the Dragon and Susannah (in the Apocrypha) and Aesop’s fable of the lion and the fox. However, detective fiction as a genre only came to full flowering in Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of detection.

Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Purloined Letter”,” Gold Bug”, and especially, perhaps, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (based, as it was, on a true incident) struck immediate resounding chords in contemporary women writers. Such notable women as Louisa May Alcott began penning thrillers like her anonymously published Behind the Mask. So proficient did women become that from 1878 through the early 1900’s mysteries poured from the quills of Anna Katharine Green, the Baroness Orczy, and Mrs. Belloc Lowndes.

In 1903, a young nurse, Mary Roberts Rinehart, struggling to help her husband surmount a $12,000 stock market loss, turned naturally to mystery fiction. Her success inspired Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Georgette Heyer. The rise of these and many other outstanding women writers prompted literary critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their massive annotated index, A Catalogue of Crime, to observe, “The greatest masters of the twenties and thirties were in fact mistresses...They wrote true detection; they fashioned unsurpassable models.”

Why have women found such success in the mystery genre? Leonard Wibberley, author of The Mouse That Roared, who wrote mysteries himself under the pseudonym Leonard Holton, noted:

The...

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