Gender and Representation in British ‘Golden Age’ Crime Fiction (2016) by Megan Hoffman

Source: Review Copy (Palgrave Macmillan)


Not only is there a rise in the reprinting of golden age detective novels these days, but there is also a rise in the number of books coming out which seek to analyse such works, so I was keen to get stuck into Hoffman’s book. The 1920s-40s were a time of great change for woman, politically, socially and career wise, which Hoffman succinctly summarises at the start of her book. Hoffman also argues that these changes are reflected and questioned in detective novels of the time, though her own study specifically focuses on female writers. Hoffman suggests that the conventions of golden age detective fiction made it a safe place ‘for the exploration of anxieties surrounding constructions of femininity in the period and that ‘female characters [were] … used in ways that can be read as questioning and renegotiating social, gender and genre norms, … [as] the depiction of a woman in a crime novel… is loaded with social and cultural meanings.’ Hoffman asserts that the response to these issues is ambivalent, on the one hand ‘advocating a modern, active model of femininity that gives agency to female characters,’ but on the other hand ‘displaying… an emphasis on domesticity and on maintaining a heteronormative order.’ Her book looks at authors well known to golden age detective fiction fans: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Patricia Wentworth, Christianna Brand and Josephine Tey, though some of these authors have received less critical attention than others.

N.B. When I discuss the final chapter, the gender of the killers are inevitably given away by the topic so tread with caution if there are some gaps in your reading for 1930 and 40s Christie novels and 1920s Mitchell and Sayers. There is a similar but smaller issue in my discussion of Hoffman’s look at nonconforming women for 1930s Christie and Marsh novels.

After contextualising the changes and challenges for women in the time period, drawing on less well-known sources, Hoffman turns her attention to looking at women who did not Murder is Easyconform to the ‘cult of domesticity’ and ‘the heteronormative order, including spinsters, lesbians and “fallen” women.’ Whilst exploring this theme Hoffman analyses Sayers’ Miss Climpson, Christie’s Miss Marple, Wentworth’s Miss Silver and Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley and gives a reading of Murder is Easy (1939), Overture to Death (1939) and Strong Poison (1929). Again Hoffman shows there is an ambivalence to such women as on the one hand in golden age detective fiction single women and/or ‘women who exhibit excessive or deviant sexuality are often portrayed as victims and villains.’ So for instance in Strong Poison, the fact Harriet Vane was the victim’s lover prejudices people against her and in particular the spinsters’ ‘frustrated desires manifest[ing] in violence,’ can be found in texts such as Overture to Death. Yet on the other hand spinster detectives are used to question the role of women and characters such as Miss Climpson show the value of a work outlet for women and through her, Sayers often overturns assumptions about single women or has Miss Climpson use such assumptions for her own ends. Moreover, Hoffman argues that ‘single women detectives… [in these stories] police social order… [yet they] also destabilise stereotypes by repeatedly showing the value of ‘superfluous’ women.’

An idea which interested me in this chapter was Shaw and Vanacker’s suggestion that Miss Silver ‘generally seems to belong more to the crude thriller.’ Initially this idea seems The Girl in the Cellarabsurd, but then I started thinking of stories such as The Girl in the Cellar (1961) and I can kind of see it. I also really enjoyed Hoffman’s re-reading of the marriages which so often appear at the end of golden age detective novels. She suggests that these ‘do not necessarily glorify the concept of the traditional patriarchal family’ and that new pairings are not as conservative as they seem. An example from a later chapter in the book is Peril at End House, where the couple destined for marriage is not the typical young innocent hero and heroine, but is ‘an experienced, modern woman’s second marriage (who has drug addiction problem), to a man of a different ethnicity’ and this ‘sets up a very different representation of “happily ever after.”’

I think my only criticism of this chapter is that the discussion on Miss Marple was a little The Murder at the Vicaragedisappointing, not because I disagree with the points raised, it is just that they were points others have made before and felt quite familiar. However, I did enjoy Hoffman’s reading of The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) where she comments on the fates of the nonconforming women. Again Hoffman’s reading of Murder is Easy is insightful showing how the thwarting of the killer’s marital ambitions led to them not only killing, but then also using the role of the detective to frame someone else. Moreover, it is also shown how the pragmatic marriage Bridget Conway plans fits into the wider concept of female careers. But above all Hoffman suggests that this story is a ‘warning against relegating women to a passive, domestic role.’

Hoffman next looks at detective couples including Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton, Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy and Tommy andLord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane Tuppence Beresford. Hoffman asserts that the women in these groups ‘provide a model of femininity that attempts to reconcile new opportunities for career women with a fulfilling romantic relationship and a domestic life. These models though again are ambiguous. For instance when discussing Sayers’ and Allingham’s couples Hoffman proposes that there is a little gender role reversal in that ‘the deceptively inane detectives are matched with sensible industrious women.’ Yet once marriage and children arrive Hoffman notes how these relationships which attempt to maintain equality start to become less so and that for these marriages to work there is a suggestion that men and women must revert back to their original gender roles. For instance Amanda Fitton becomes a successful engineer yet abandons this career during WW2 for looking after her son which she describes as her ‘war work’.

Although Hoffman interestingly points out how in the courtship phase of these partnerships there is much more questioning of gender roles, which she demonstrates Artists in Crimeconvincingly in her reading of Artists in Crime (1938) and Death in a White Tie (1938), showing how Alleyn and Troy’s courtship flouts gender expectations and shows Alleyn as reluctant to take on the aggressive dominant male role. Out of all the couples Hoffman argues that Tommy and Tuppence have the most equal partnership with Tuppence remaining active in their partnership throughout the stories. Reading Hoffman’s case for this is compelling and makes me want to re-read the books to see Tuppence’s independence and activeness in action, especially after the other married couple sleuths books I have read this year, where the women have been disappointingly passive. A final idea I enjoyed from this chapter is Hoffman’s suggestion that these stories looking at relationships post marriage are transgressive in themselves, as so often the romance plot ends at the church, whereas these stories look beyond that point and consider how couples negotiate their roles.

The next chapter focuses on ‘women in schools, universities and the workplace… [and the] tension between women’s expanding place in the public sphere and the pressure to stay in traditionally domestic role.’ In order to examine this topic Hoffman looks at, Tey’s Miss St Peter's FingerPym Disposes (1946), Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), Mitchell’s St Peter’s Finger (1938) and Laurels are Poison (1942), Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) and Brand’s Death in High Heels (1941). Once more there are no clear cut responses to the issue as communities of women can be revealed as supportive and nurturing environments, providing women with individual fulfilment or they can be presented as “unhealthy”. I particularly enjoyed Hoffman’s reading of the killer in Gaudy Night, showing how they are used to dispel negative assumptions about female educatory communities and Mitchell similarly debunks negative stereotypes about nuns in St Peter’s Finger. Some negative sides are also revealed in the texts as well and I found the idea that competiveness in Miss Pym Disposes is infantilising and defeminising of the characters interesting and intriguing. Moreover, legal justice itself is viewed as patriarchal, presenting detectives as subversive when they do not recourse to it. This chapter also probably includes one of the world’s most sexist marriage proposals ever (in The Fashion in Shrouds), disturbing and amusing (due to its sheer ridiculousness) in turn.

Finally Hoffman explores the female murder victims’ and killers’ bodies arguing that they Speedy Deathare ‘sites of transgression that must be resolved or contained at the novel’s conclusion so that order can be restored.’ The texts she looks are: Christie’s Peril at End House (1932), Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Dumb Witness (1937), Evil Under the Sun (1941) and The Body in the Library (1942), Mitchell’s Speedy Death (1929) and Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927). One of the points raised which interested me was one made by Linden Peach (2006) which asserts that in this genre ‘very often, the female victims are “criminalised” and punished for their independence and assertiveness.’ I also enjoyed reading about how the female killers used social expectations of women in terms of dress and behaviour in order to conceal their criminal deeds. Through the use of disguises and the way women are often identified through their clothes, identity becomes very fluid for these killers and bodies even become interchangeable. Moreover, Hoffman also comments on how suicide is sometimes used by these killers as a way of subverting legal justice and in one particular case as a means of upholding her maternal priorities. Hoffman’s readings of these texts also brought out the performative nature of gender and how in these texts characters are sometimes punished for failing to perform, such as in Speedy Death.

Overall Thoughts

All in all I really enjoyed this book. Hoffman’s readings of texts were consistently detailed and engaging, helping me to look at familiar stories in a new light. I also liked her writing style (a crucial element in a literary criticism book), as she was enjoyable to read and informative, without becoming dense. Her engagement with other critics such as Stephen Knight was also good and I found out about another book, new to me, called Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity (2006) by Merja Makinen. My favourite chapters from a thematic point of view were the third and fourth ones concerning nonconforming women and detecting couples. I think my only real criticism of this book is the price which pushes it out of the easy reach of non-academic readers, which I think is a real shame as I know a lot of golden age detective fiction fans would love to read this book, but will be put off by the price.

Rating: 4.5/5


  1. […] detective fiction. I also gave out a rare non-fiction Book of the Month prize to Megan Hoffmans’ Gender and Representation in British ‘Golden Age’ Crime Fiction (2016). This is a really interesting book, and it is a shame that its price puts it out of the […]


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