MURDER IS A MAN’S GAME, NOT for the weak kneed, and stories about murders were definitely not for the weaker sex. So it was said, mainly by men though. Yet, women readers outnumber men when it comes to mysteries. Even more striking, the highest selling author in the mystery genre is Agatha Christie, having sold two billion copies, and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-time bestselling novelist. One of her greatest triumphs, And Then There Were None (1939), has sold 100 million copies, and is one of the world’s bestselling books. Her play, The Mousetrap, is the longest running stage production, from 1952 to 2020, and restarted after Covid in 2022. All this from someone who had no formal education, and who wrote at a time when society was even more patriarchal than now, publishing her first book in 1920. Her popularity was immediate, and in the 1920s, she and Dorothy L Sayers along with two male authors were considered the superstars of that decade. So, what allowed them to succeed in what was considered a man’s domain?
World War I had a lot to do with it. Many women left home to work in the war effort as nurses, land girls, and in munitions factories. Christie worked in a hospital where she developed a fine knowledge of poisons that she put to good use in her mysteries. As Julian Symons notes in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the war created the conditions for women’s emancipation in Europe through a new structure of domestic life. Women had more leisure, which many used to read books —mainly light romances and detective stories — from circulating libraries associated with Boots and WH Smith. In fact, as he points out, many detective stories were written by women, and essentially for women.
The war also left the public thirsty for escapist fiction, for murders that happened to middle-aged spinsters, plucky young widows and marriageable girls who found themselves hearing strange noises and sinister conversations until they finally stumbled upon the clue that solved the mystery, leaving an entirely comfortable shiver down the reader’s spine.
It was into this world Agatha Christie stepped in with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). She’d written three others before, ‘long and confused’ and rejected by publishers, so she decided to try her hand at the detective story. Her writing style was pacey with lots of light dialogue that had a ring of everyday-ness, a distinctive detective in Hercule Poirot, a stupid friend in Captain Hastings, and a coherent plot.
But all this had been done before. So what made Agatha Christie so popular? John Curran who edited Agatha Christie’s 73 notebooks (approximately 7,000 pages) and published them in Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks speculates about her continued popularity. He lists readability, simplicity, plotting, fairness and productivity as the most important reasons for her enduring worldwide readership. But always, she played fair with the readers, liberally hiding the clues in a clutch of red herrings, wowing them with her wily plots, and managing to surprise even the most experienced crime fiction reader with her solutions.
Agatha Christie always played fair with the readers, liberally hiding the clues in a clutch of red herrings, wowing them with her wily plots, and managing to surprise even the most experienced crime fiction reader with her solutions
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Others like Symons point to her puzzle-making prowess and her ability to make them maddeningly elusive. Her books, he says, were original in the sense that they are puzzle stories that permit no emotional engagement with the characters. “It ushered in the beginning of the Golden Age where the detective story came to be regarded as a puzzle, pure and complex, and interest in the fates of the characters was increasingly felt to be not only unnecessary but also undesirable.” This public need for an almost clinical distance from the characters, to not feel too deeply could be the pushback from the tragedies they were forced to experience during the war. Whatever the reason, her books and those of Dorothy Sayers fit the public appetite. This, by the way, contrasts with the present-day fascination for domestic crime and psychological traumas, first person and close third-person narratives where readers want to get into the skin and feel the experiences of the protagonist.
CHRISTIE AND SAYERS beat the men at their own game. They followed the rules of detective fiction encapsulated by writers like Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine: the detective was a vitally important figure, usually an eccentric amateur, the crime had to be murder (not a lesser fraud or theft), the motive had to be personal (not matters of country and society), and in the story, there could be no supernatural explanation, no love interest and no going on about the larger political milieu. These rules, Agatha Christie followed more or less for the rest of her novels, while Dorothy Sayers toed this line only in the 1920s. In their books, one doesn’t get a sense of the war (except in the Tommy and Tuppence books), and the Great Depression or other political events. Yet, Christie was not backward in throwing the rules out of the window when it suited her. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (published in 1926) is a case in point where the narrator turns out to be unreliable.
Sayers, though, is a more divisive figure for readers. Symons is right that her avid admirers see her as the finest detective fiction writer in the 20th century, while to her less enthusiastic readers, her prose is long winded and ludicrously snobbish. Unlike Christie, Sayers was a scholar of modern languages with a first-class degree from Oxford. Her mastery of crime literature is evident in her introductions to the first two volumes of Detective, Mystery and Horror published in 1928 and 1931. Her stories are well crafted, the modus operandi of the murder is very clever (an air bubble injected in an artery), but her love of scholarship sometimes lets her down. The Nine Tailors (1934), for instance, is about bell ringers, and is for many (including me) the dullest book ever.
Three more women joined the ranks of popular crime writers in the 1930s. Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. Public tastes had changed somewhat—and in line with this, their characters were more human, and their eye on the social milieu, gently ironic. Their Master Detective continued to be upper class and well bred, but they indulged the public appetite for romance. Sayers gave Wimsey a love interest in Harriet Vane (Strong Poison), culminating in the proposal in Gaudy Night and a marriage in Busman’s Honeymoon. Even Christie modified Poirot’s character by making him less absurd, more mature, while continuing to emphasise the puzzle in the story. Poirot though, continued to be a matchmaker in the novels, so romance did play out for the secondary characters.
The public need for an almost clinical distance from the characters, to not feel too deeply could be a pushback from the tragedies they were forced to experience during the war. Christie’s books and those of Dorothy Sayers fit the public appetite of that time
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THEIR MASTER DETECTIVES, though, remained men. While Agatha Christie did write the Miss Marple series, the character (whom she based on her grandmother) was that of an elderly spinster whose fluffy murmurings masked a razor-sharp mind. “I am but a mere woman,” she would say before exposing the murderer through the use of intuition and an understanding of human weakness.
Sayers did toy with Harriet Vane as a detective, but ultimately, let Lord Peter come up with the solution. This trend continued for the newer popular writers emerging in the thirties (Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey) and up to the 1960s and ’70s (Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, PD James). While these later writers experimented with new ways of combining character and setting, making it less clinical, training an ironic eye on the social milieu and creating more psychologically intense characters, their Great Detectives continued to be men. Rendell said of her detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford: He “was a man because like most women I am very much still caught up in the web that one writes about men because men are the people and we are the others.” But Rendell succeeded in going beyond the ambit of the Golden Age, tackling issues of transvestism, hatred within families and sexual frustration.
Things have come a long way these days. The field of crime fiction is open for strong and powerful female sleuths who have the brains, the expertise and the mojo to tackle and triumph over killers in dark and stormy settings: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, a forensic anthropologist, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Malone, a private eye, Val McDermid’s Inspector Karen Pirie, Ann Cleeves’ Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and so on. In more recent times, the psychological thriller with female protagonists has become hugely popular with The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, the Millennium series, books by Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, and so on. But still trumping all the new entrants, Agatha Christie continues to beguile and delight her readers all over the world even though her settings (for most part) and her characters were quintessentially English. She has shown later generations of women writers that as with anything else done well, gender doesn’t matter. Doing it right does.
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