Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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3.2Women Entering the Genre

“She writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant” (SP 143), says Lord Peter Wimsey in Sayers’ Strong Poison, which introduces the genre in its female concept focusing on the fairy-tale element.
One of the sublime areas of “women’s contribution to popular fiction is thus the development of the English detective story […] a genre which has unquestionably been dominated, in terms of sales and influence alike, by women writers, notably Agatha Christie, the most popular of all” (Stevenson 181). Stevenson mentions the plausibility of the plot which draws the readers’ attention, referring to “one major crime which can plausibly be committed by almost anyone if the circumstances are right” (Stevenson 181) and it gives a chance to any detective story author to play with the individual characters and confuse the reader. John G. Cawelti, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, questions the issue of popular literary formulas in crime fiction and defines the patterns of mystery, using examples from Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’ works. His notion of the classical story contains also the formed “universality, plausibility of character and action, or breadth and significance of theme” (Cawelti 106), however, he stresses the variety of combinations and divergent areas of subject matter provided by the individual detective story author. The combination method includes various situations, different settings, distinct characters, and diverse themes on the one hand; on the other, the reader expects the same plot order which introduces the murder, the investigators and their search for the clues that lead them to catch the slayer. This concept was maintained at the beginning of the genre, but as crime fiction further develops, it features new techniques and approaches in its structure. In Cawelti’s view, female detective story authors became pathfinders, initiating up-to-date procedures in writing of the detective stories.

As Susan Rowland claims, “in 1920 the character of the fictional detective changed” (Rowland 15) and, therefore, new forms of crime fiction notions appeared on the criminal stage. Presumably, the female authors of the detective story genre were affected by the past and recent female tendencies and they placed themselves in the centre of British crime literature, as Rowland suggests:

What we have, starting in 1920, is a literary event in which crime fiction by these six women1 come to dominate the genre in Britain. In the first place they constitute the early twentieth-century sub-genre of ‘golden age’ detective fiction. In the case of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, they transmit this heritage into an age when the fictional representation of crime is dispersed across a number of both ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ genres (Rendell 15).
According to Rowland, the majority of female writers reject the conservative methods of investigation, showing the detective gradually in his professional status and they strive to lay a significant stress on the protagonists – either on the investigators, or the murderers themselves – on their feelings and emotions. The authors highlight the aesthetic level at the expense of the role of the legal procedure. Rowland further elaborates on another change which corresponds with the structure of the detective story genre and that is represented by the Great Detectives themselves, by their “personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities” (Rowland 19), which adds to a further feminization of the genre. This characteristic feature of an investigating detective proposes something negative – because the investigator must be infallible and determined, not weak and vulnerable – in the chase for the murderer, but in the end the absence of infallibility turns out to be a positive aspect and sometimes leads to a successful disentanglement. The element could be ascribed to the female approach that creates crime fiction more appealing to a reader, as the circumstances appear to be more realistic and plausible, as pronounced by many crime fiction critics and theorists. The authors describe a real world which is closer to the reader because of the weaknesses and the lack of perfection. On the other hand, as Helen Bergmann argues, “the conventional virtues of the heroines, such as obedience and passivity, were being replaced by qualities involving more action and independent thinking” (Bergmann 89). Such a dichotomy represented by Rowland’s and Bergmann’s theories can introduce female protagonists who connect the two opposite characteristics and, therefore, bring to the investigation their ability to sense crime in their active contribution as well as their competence to listen and thoroughly perceive the small details in the investigation, which can be regarded as the passive part of their contribution.

The four female authors explored stay to a certain extent within the crime fiction boundaries and the traditional features; however, they add some strong female elements into their writings. One of the conventional areas employed would be the gothic novel aspects, which are found in all the four novels analyzed. As frequently demonstrated, the most significant characteristic feature of the gothic novel represents “the disruptive return of the past into the present, particularly in the form of hidden family secrets and ghosts […] some crime in the past threatens the social order in the present, which the detective attempts to maintain or preserve” (Scaggs 15-16). Christie undoubtedly uses similar aspects in Murder is Easy in connection with Lord Gordon Whitfield and his secretive relationships with the village people. Another example originates in Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which the protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey and his family background is focused on in detail. Lord Peter also falls in love with the accused woman of the murder, Harriet Vane, providing thus the necessary romance, juxtaposed with the main features of the detective story. Thus the castle, the rigid social order, the secret places, the aristocratic background, and the heroine in distress – all unify the notion of the gothic novel where these issues play important roles. Moreover, in the novels discussed, the main plots are accompanied by romantic elements; love affairs and somewhat sinister affinity between the individual characters. Interestingly, the more contemporary representatives of crime fiction selected partially demonstrate this. Rendell’s Road Rage overviews the matrimonial life of the protagonist, Chief Inspector Wexford, and his wife who is kidnapped and has to be rescued quickly; and Frances Fyfield depicts various common human relationships in Clear Conscience, in which there is another desperate woman in need of help. It can be claimed and further demonstrated in the following chapters that the gothic novel characteristics and the romantic features among others, have never disappeared from crime fiction and constitute a fundamental issue in the genre.

Let the four of the female detective authors and their works be introduced here. Agatha (Clarissa) Christie (1890-1976) belongs to the world’s famous mystery authors and remains among all-time best selling writers of any genre today. She wrote over eighty novels and short story collections; over forty crime novels feature Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective, and in another thirteen novels, Miss Marple, a shrewd spinster constitutes the major investigator. Both of the protagonists make Christie one of the most popular members of the First Wave of the female detective story authors. I select Murder is Easy on purpose as it provides no well-known Great Detective, but the concentration is elsewhere: the changing patterns in a certain village community, women’s rights and positions and gender issues in general. Apart from the female murderer, the detective story also sets an excellent example of the female element in the investigation.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) also falls in the First Wave of the English Queens of Crime. Her Great Detective is represented by Lord Peter Wimsey, who can be regarded as an example of an unerring detective of the traditional concept. In Strong Poison, however, he is more humanized: he falls in love and finds his future wife here, and though rejected, he is aware of his true-love’s reasons why. Women play important parts in the novel selected, both among the protagonists and the jury members.

Ruth Rendell (born 1930), ranking also among the British best-selling mystery and psychological crime writers, finds herself in the Second Wave of the English Queens of Crime and develops a new approach towards the protagonists because of modern technical development and a different attitude towards women. She is known for her sharp insights into the human mind and for incorporating the latest issues dealing with the domestic violence and basic human relationships. Rendell’s Great Detective, Inspector Wexford, appears in many of her novels. Rendell publishes other texts under her pseudonym, Barbara Vine, where the police factor is greatly diminished. I select Rendell’s Road Rage, one of the detective Wexford series. Here both he and his wife are directly involved in the investigation and I look in detail at the social aspects of the story and try to illustrate the gender issues on the vast crowd of female victims and culprits.

Frances Fyfield (born 1948) is the only author selected, whose Great Detective represents a professional female investigator. Based on Miller’s article, “shrewd, intelligent Helen is the creation of real-life criminal lawyer Frances Hegarty2, who writes two mystery series featuring female sleuths” (Miller). Fyfield is the creator of Helen West and Sarah Fortune, who are both involved in law and detective issues. In her work, the variety of women’s roles becomes fundamental both in the plot and in the investigation. Clear Conscience features Crown Prosecutor Helen West, who places her largest effort in the law and in her work. Fyfield penetrates Helen’s personal and professional life, and she strives to discover the basic idea of the truth in rules which must be sometimes stretched to allow certain issues to be revealed. The four authors combine main characteristics of the pre-feminist tendencies, but also at certain points they cannot be treated collectively, for each reflects a great deal of difference, as seen in the following chapters.

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