Crime fiction before the 1930s was a male-dominated genre of writing. The first woman to author a crime fiction novel was Anna Katherine Green in 1878 with The Leavenworth Case. Nevertheless, crime fiction readership has always been female-dominated. From somewhat arrogant protagonists to clever and quick-witted killers, these stories have kept their readers on the edge of their seats for centuries. It’s the feeling of escapism and power that truly entices a reader to become entranced with a novel, and the mystery genre best allows for those emotions to materialize. Come explore the Queens of mystery, from the Golden Age to the women who are following in their footsteps, changing and adapting the genre for women.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
In her time as a novelist, Christie wrote 66 detective novels and 15 short-story collections. She is one of the highest selling authors of all time, only being surpassed by the Bible and William Shakespeare. Not only that, but her novels are so widely read that they’ve been translated into over 100 languages. She is also a founding member of the Detection Club, an elite group of crime fiction authors. When they first formed, these authors were determined to create the guidelines for Golden Age Detective Fiction, as well as edit and assist in each other’s writing.
Christie often reprised her famous detectives, such as Colonel Race and Miss Marple. Nevertheless, her favorite and most praised detective is Hercule Poirot. He was so loved by readers that after the publication of his last mystery, Curtain, the New York Times published his obituary on the front page.
Some of my favourite Christie mysteries include:
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
Sayers was also a founding member of the Detection Club in 1930. Her series of mystery novels set between the First and Second World War also feature a recurring detective by the name of Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey featured in 11 novels and two sets of short stories. In her mystery, Strong Poison, Sayers introduced Wimsey to his love interest and soon-to-become detective partner, Harriet Vane. Vane was an attempt to end Wimsey’s reign as Sayers main detective. But whilst writing Gaudy Night, Sayers became so entranced by Wimsey’s and Vane’s chemistry that she couldn’t bring about Wimsey’s end. Being set in an interwar period, many of Sayers’ novels discuss the lasting traumas of World War One on both veterans and civilians.
Sayers was also a renowned poet, playwright, scholar, and translator. She even considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy her masterpiece.
Some of her best Wimsey novels are:
Margery Allingham (1904-1966)
Allingham is best known for having authored the adventures of Albert Campion. Part-detective, part-adventurer, Campion plays a major role in 18 of Allingham’s detective novels and many of her short stories.
Her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, was published in 1923, when she was 19. It was allegedly based on a story she had heard during a séance, later disproved by her husband. Nevertheless, Allingham continued to include occult themes in many of her novels. She was finding it difficult, however, to write a serious novel when her demeanor was so light-hearted and charming. So instead, she dove into detective fiction. And it was there that she created Campion as a minor character in her first crime fiction novel, The Crime at Black Dudley. Luckily, with pressure from American publications, Allingham decided to reprise Campion as a protagonist in the following mystery, Mystery Mile, leading her and her novels to great success.
Some of Allingham’s mystery novels are:
Josephine Tey (1896-1952)
Tey is the pen name used by Elizabeth MacKintosh to publish her mystery novels. Tey is noted as having written one of the best crime novels of all time with her novel, The Daughter of Time, a close examination of the role of King Richard III in the mysterious death of the Princes in the Tower. Her mystery series, including the title above, features the hero of Scotland Yard, Alan Grant as her main protagonist.
She often implemented an element of historical fact into her novels, as evident in her crime novel, The Franchise Affair, based on the 18th-century case of Elizabeth Canning. Tey was also an acclaimed playwright. Her production of Richard of Bordeaux, produced in 1932, played for over 14 months on the West End, including a regional tour.
Some of her Grant and standalone mysteries include:
Ngiao Marsh (1895-1982)
Marsh is always excluded in the list of the “Queens of Golden Age Detection” simply because she was a New Zealand author. Nevertheless the majority of her mysteries take place in Britain, and her command of the crime genre definitely earns her a place amongst her peers.
All 33 of her mystery novels feature the gentleman detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, working for the London Metropolitan Police. Several novels feature Marsh’s love for the theater and painting. Several of them are set around theatrical productions, and others feature actors off stage. Notably, her novel, Colour Scheme, features Māory people among its cast of characters, which was very unusual for novels of the British mystery genre. Marsh is often known for her subversion of the classic British form of the detective genre, sometimes even including aspects of spy fiction in her formula.
Some of the best Roderick Alleyn mysteries are:
Beyond the Golden Age
From the women who began writing directly after these iconic queens to those writing today, the crime fiction genre is adapting and evolving to suit changing audiences and social contexts. Below are some of the amazing women who have taken the mystery genre from the Golden Age into the modern day.
Charlotte Jay (1919-1996)
Jay was the pseudonym for Australian mystery writer Geraldine Halls. Her command of suspense and unorthodox style earned her a place in mystery novel history. While she traveled the world with her husband and his job, Halls was able to experience new lands in which she later set her novels. In 1954, her novel Beat Not the Bones won the then newly created Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers’ Association of America for Best Novel of the Year.
Some of her best work includes:
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
Known best for her command of language in psychological thrillers, Highsmith is noted as having invented the serial killer with Thomas Ripley. She wrote 22 novels and numerous short stories throughout her career spanning nearly five decades, and her work has led to more than two dozen film adaptations. Her writing derived influence from existentialist literature, and questioned notions of identity and popular morality. She also wrote the first lesbian romance novel to have a happy ending, The Price of Salt.
Her best thrillers include:
Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020)
Sjöwall is a Swedish mystery author and translator, best known for her police detective, Martin Beck. 10 books within the Beck series she co-wrote with her partner Per Wahlöö. She is often regarded as the godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction, with her novels predominantly set in Stockholm. Their novel The Laughing Policeman went on to win the Edgar Award in 1971 for best mystery novel, and later turned into a film set in San Francisco. Several Swedish movies as well as a TV show entitled “Beck” have been made inspired by Sjöwall’s stories.
Some of the best Martin Beck novels are also:
Sara Paretsky (1947-present)
Paretsky is credited with transforming the mystery genre with her creation of the female private eye, V. I. Warshawski, the protagonist of her crime novels. By crafting a detective with the grit and smarts to take on the mean streets of Chicago, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women were usually vamps or victims. She is also considered the founding member of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports and promotes women writers in the mystery field.
Some of the most intense Warshawski novels are:
Gillian Flynn (1971-present)
Flynn is best known for her thriller and mystery novels featuring a new and strange form of female lead characters. As a feminist, she feels that feminism allows for women to be bad characters in literature. This inspired most of her novels to feature bad and often cruel female characters, as an attempt to destigmatize female antagonists, often perceived as trampy and poor reflections of feminism. She provides us with a number of badass female villains. Two of her mystery novels have been adapted for the screen, with the screenplays and scripts also written by Flynn.
Flynn’s novels are:
If you wish to explore more novels by the Queen of mystery, Agatha Christie, click here.
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