A Clash of Opinions with Jessica Mann’s Deadlier than the Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing (1981): Part 1

It was an idyllic summer’s day when Brad (ah sweet mystery blog), Moira (Clothes in books), Martin (Do you write under your own name), and I all went book shopping in London; the day before the annual Bodies from the Library conference. I only made a couple of purchases and today’s read was one of them. It had been recommended by Martin and Moira, and the title of the book made it sound like it was very much up my street. So I was feeling pretty confident about enjoying this book when I started it earlier this week… Yet, as my post title intimates, all I can say Martin and Moira is: ‘I’m very sorry, but I really didn’t get on with it!’ So much so I am going to need two posts to cover my ossuary of bones of contention.

Following the structure of the book, today’s post is going to deal with Part 1, which aims to provide a general history of the genre, making pit stops at the themes of development, negative opinions of detective fiction, detective characters as heroes and finally heroines.

The introduction begins by posing this question: ‘Why is it that respectable English women are so good at murder?’ This is a question many have raised, when considering what made the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, remain so popular for so long. Mann’s thesis then continues to unfold through the introduction culminating in these rhetorical questions:

‘Inherent in this question are several others. Are English women better at writing about murder than those of other nationalities? Maybe not; but they are certainly more popular. Even Mary Roberts Rinehart, who would be claimed by many American readers as their answer to Agatha Christie, is little known outside of the United States. Are English women better at this work than English men? The answer, must be, if success and survival are the criteria, that they are. Are they respectable? I shall show that these famous women crime novelists were conventional, conformist and conservative, and that their very adherence to accepted standards in their fantasies made the product of their imaginations attractive to the public.’

*N. B. Some may wish to point out that neither Tey nor Marsh are English, but are Scottish and from New Zealand, respectively.

So yes, Mann sets herself an ambitious task. Yet I feel there will be more than one reader wishing to quibble with the final sentence. When reading this book I was one such quibbler, not least because when it comes to certain crime queens Mann goes on to contradict herself, showing them to be in fact rather more unconventional. However, the biggest issue with this gauntlet that Mann throws down for herself, is that she fails to really pick it up again. Her thesis point very much heads into the background, with only the occasional reference to it and to be honest, having now finished the book I don’t feel she particularly answered her primary question of why these writers have remained so popular and in some ways shoots herself in the foot by giving more page space to why people might not like their books. Yet, I will come back to this point in due course.

Chapter 1: Development

This opening chapter begins its journey with the genre’s gothic literature roots, as well as the Newgate tales and sensation fiction novels. Mann comments upon the self-reflective nature of some of these works and also includes primary evidence on how female authors, writing these stories were perceived. Writers such as Mrs Henry Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon are described in some detail. I was relatively familiar with the material, but at this stage things were going quite well, in terms of the reading experience.

However, a bump in the road is met by page 25, when we get this statement:

‘As I show in later chapters, one of the qualities shared by the most successful crime novelists in the last century, and in the present one, is the acceptance of their society’s prejudices.’

Now I don’t wholly disagree with this statement, but I feel Mann’s assertion is too absolute and disregards textual evidence. Harriet Vane’s plight in Strong Poison, certainly springs to mind and I imagine people reading this post, will no doubt immediately think of other examples from the stories written by the Queens of Crime as well. So for me this is too big a generalisation and not one Mann fully adheres too, as within part 2 of this book she does go on to make comments which don’t match this thesis statement.

After this we return back to Poe’s work and follow the well-established trajectory of the detective story, focusing on Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, the Sherlock Holmes stories and E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case; whilst also referencing L. T. Meade, Carolyn Wells, Baroness Orczy, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Chapter 2: A Kind of Vice?

This chapter title alludes to Edmund Wilson’s opinion of detective fiction, which ‘equated it with the drug habit.’ The chapter then opens out to look at more negative views on novels generally in the 19th century, whilst occasionally pointing out exceptions such as Charles Darwin who was quite a fan of them. For me this section was interesting, but very much off topic, yet Mann continues to mine the theme, turning to the low opinions of Q. D. Leavis on popular reading matter, such as crime fiction. You might suspect Mann would put up a suitable defence against the ideas Leavis espoused, yet intriguingly as the book progresses, Leavis-like opinions begin to be infused into Mann’s own opinions. For instance, we get the traditional digs at the characterisation in detective novels: ‘for it does not, or at least until recently did not, aim at subtle character drawing for its own sake, at exciting the reader’s aesthetic sensibilities, at revealing sociological details, or at any purpose which might be called instructive.’ Mann further writes that:

‘Not caring who goes to bed with whom is one aspect of the fact that crime novelists do not regard the emotions as inevitably paramount; they are interested in more of life than relationships between individuals, which have been so prominent a subject in mainstream fiction.’

Early on in my blogging days, I wrote a whole post on the role of emotions in classic detective fiction, so I think feelings do have a considerable position within detective stories. Not least, because it is in fact the ‘relationships between individuals,’ which cause the murders under investigation in the first place. Writers such as Christie put a great deal of effort into throwing red herrings into the mix so readers won’t realise the true state of affairs between two people, and Poirot as a sleuth often recommends focusing on the character of the victim and how they affected those around them. So, for me, but feel free to disagree, this point doesn’t wholly stand up to scrutiny, and nor does this one…

‘Indeed, it is a common feature of the writers of crime stories that they have no personal experience at all of crime and detection. There are very few exceptions…It is here that one of the common features, and explanations, of the English lady’s success with murder lies: she writes something which is, for her, fantasy.’

Now I am fine with the initial point, in its genderless form, but my issue crops up with the final sentence. Surely since most male writers of the period equally weren’t police officers, i.e. John Rhode, Brian Flynn, John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen etc., they too must have been writing “fantasies” if we adopt Mann’s argument. Yet their popularity has been far more mixed than the Queens of Crimes has been, so it can’t really be a significant part of the answer of why the Queens were so popular. This point also overlooks the fact that many writers of the Golden Age, male and female, did extensive research into police methods, forensic science, murder methods, and would often spend time with those in the police, so a certain extent of what they wrote would have been influenced by that, as opposed to mere fantasy.

Following on from this Mann moves onto, ‘the complaint that these books merely reinforce the least creditable prejudices of the readers.’ Colin Watson is duly trotted out, along with the quasi-justification that the detective novel in the interwar years only ‘reflects – rather than tries to alter – the society in which and for which it is written.’ I don’t disagree that crime novels are good at reflecting back at society the state it is in, but I do dissent from Mann’s opinion that ‘it is distasteful to realise that the middle classes of the 1930s wanted their villains to be wily orientals or Huns or Jews.’ Again, for me this remark makes too broad a stroke and in some ways over-magnifies the issue. I also think that this latter remark by Mann is probably more fitting with thriller novels than detective novels and is not really in alignment with the crime Queens own work, though I am aware of the presence of isms they can contain at times.

For those who have read a number of histories of the genre, this chapter will be covering familiar territory and is easy to anticipate in terms of direction.

Chapter 3: Detective Heroes

Mann commences by aligning the detective figure with that of a hero/knight errant and goes onto say that when it comes to the longevity of a series character:

‘they attract affection, either of a romantic or a filial kind, and they must show an almost magical power, which makes them superior to the uncertainties and inefficiencies of everyday life. The true hero restores order without doubting that it is right and necessary.’

Considering the authors this book goes on to discuss, my mind flitted through the various stories they crafted, and consequently I struggle to fully endorse this opinion, made by Mann. The sleuth is not meant to have ‘almost magical power,’ which in turn clashes with notions of fair play and with the idea of reader playing amateur sleuth. A far poorer reading experience is provided when the detective plays magician and has to whip the solution out of a hat. Equally I would say Christie, Sayers and Allingham, all in their own way, either upend or complicate the concept of the detective hero. This is something Mann doesn’t fully explore, though she does bring into the discussion the idea of the detective character updating the hero formula. However, this opportunity for more in depth analysis is lost, as Mann ploughs on to give the readers a potted history of the public image of the police detective in history, followed by examples of police and then amateur detectives in detective fiction. It was at this point that it came to me that these three chapters are very cyclical, they continually take the reader back to the beginning of the story of the genre and then take them back up to the interwar years. For me this gave the book a repetitive feeling and it also made me realise that how little the thesis point of the book is referred to. I appreciate that a general introduction is required, but this repetitive cycle seemed too much to me. Personally I felt the word ‘investigation’ in the title, was something of a misnomer; a feeling which unfortunately the remainder of the book went on to confirm.

Fans of those ‘humdrum’ writers as Julian Symons liked to call them, better hold on to their hats as Manns describes them in this way: ‘They read now like the written equivalent of pictures ‘painted by numbers.’’ Although she does regard Crofts to be the best of these writers, and looking back over the book as a whole, that’s probably one of her nicer criticisms of the genre.

We then move on to fictional descendants of Philip Trent, such as Roger Sheringham, Reggie Fortune and Anthony Gethryn, whom she describes as:

‘perceptive, sympathetic, inoffensive; they are all, in contrast to their pre-World War 1 colleagues, very ordinary indeed – so ordinary as to be uninteresting. Nobody could wish to re-read one of their adventures, perhaps because the element of fantasy or wish fulfilment is completely missing.’

Wow! Where to start with this one? Well firstly anyone who can describe Sheringham as ‘inoffensive,’ clearly hasn’t read much of Berkeley’s work and even Gethryn is fairly annoying in his gender politics. I would also quibble with the word ‘uninteresting,’ but I appreciate that that is a subjective matter. Though I wonder why Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn doesn’t cop similar criticism later on in the book, despite him being an incredibly bland series detective. But we’ll get into the partisan handling of authors in my next post. Equally Mann’s brief reference back to her argument at the end of the paragraph adds little weight to her case, as she’s not established either that the Queens of Crime write their own fantasies into their books, nor whether readers are drawn to their works because of it.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, may wish to avert their eyes to the following sentences as this beloved character takes a blow in this chapter when he is reductively said to serve:

‘as a machine for detection, and any other collection of characteristics would have done as well, for his personality does not affect the action, except for the fact that Poirot’s solutions are usually arrived at after so many additional murders that a CID man would have been demoted to the uniformed branch and point duty.’

Right, deep breaths everybody… Again where to start? If it wasn’t for Poirot the police in his cases wouldn’t even have the right criminal or any culprit to arrest and secondly you only need to cast your mind back to Poirot’s debut appearance to see how his personality very much affects the action. I’m sure Mann must have read quite a lot of Christie’s books, but I am somewhat boggled to see how she can make these assertions so strongly when a moment’s thought brings up significance shortcomings in them.

Mann’s initial discussion of the Queens of Crime’s serial sleuths continues with further bold claims that Poirot never changes as a character and is completely static, and despite pointing out how little we know about Albert Campion, Mann still maintains that he is a more fully realised character than Poirot. Dorothy L Sayers bashing also begins in this chapter and throughout this chapter the author is keen to point out the emotional relationship each writer had with their character, from Sayers being in love with Wimsey to Marsh apparently treating Allen like an imaginary friend: ‘It is easy to imagine that a lifelong companion of her own invention would be good company on the travels of an unmarried woman.’ This point is overdone, in my opinion, and is not handled in a balanced manner. At times it seems like a derogatory point to pursue and certainly seems like a fairly gender stereotyped one. Wild supposition follows on from this juncture with Inspector Alleyn being referred to as ‘less the man his creator would choose to love, than the one she would have liked to be.’ I think when you make those sorts of statements you need to back them up with a bit of hard evidence.

The chapter concludes with the following remarks:

‘Because these women were so typical of the society in which and for which they wrote, because they accepted the prejudices and ideals common to their readers, their own fantasies expressed those of less articulate people – to be, or to be loved by, or to be rescued by a ‘verray parfit gentil knight.’

Seriously? Once more I am not comfortable with this word ‘accepted,’ as it presents a very myopic view of the matter and the underlying snobbery of the statement is not pleasant reading either. Of course a quick examination of Christie’s novels show this claim to be highly suspect as she is not Patricia Wentworth, her young lovers are not always innocent and not every book ends at the altar.

Chapter 4: Heroines

We have finally arrived at the closing chapter of Part 1 of Deadlier Than the Male. The cyclical nature of Part 1 returns, as again we are taken back to the 19th century to look at the history of the female detective. Titles such as The Experiences of a Lady Detective and writers such as M. McDonnell Bodkin are discussed, as well as Wentworth’s Miss Silver. On one page she says ‘the best female detectives, whose adventures are still read with pleasure, are those descended from that invention of Anna Katharine Green’ and Miss Silver is demarcated as ‘one of the chief exponents of the deductive talents of elderly spinsters.’ Yet one page later, Wentworth’s ‘characters are sadly shallow, and her situations rarely convince.’ One could question whether fantasy; an element upon which Mann’s tentative thesis lies, has to be wholly wedded to realism in the first place? Artifice and detective fiction have been bedfellows for quite some time anyway. I also thought the comment on Wentworth’s characters a bit unfair, as in some ways the characters showcase Wentworth’s writing skills the best.

Once Wentworth has been dealt with, Mary Robert Rinehart comes up to bat, though this time we are subjected to a long bio of her life and very little analysis. Given the problematic nature of the analysis offered, Rinehart might not feel so very snubbed by the lack of it. It is interesting watching Mann write about the HIBK genre in an un-praising manner, whilst simultaneously trying to supply a weak defence or rational for its popularity. It is at these moments that the text lacks conviction.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, seems to pass relatively unscathed, though this is at the expense of Miss Silver. Unlike Miss Silver, Mann says Miss Marple ‘never dealt with such witless idiots’ and does not become ‘as bland as’ Miss Silver. Poor Maud Silver really can’t catch a break can she? Little to nothing is said about Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, though it would have been interesting to see what Mann made of her, given her opinions on other sleuths. I do have one point to quibble with, (surprise, surprise), as according to Mann, Mitchells’ ‘always set her books in places of contemporary interest [… such as progressive schools] and her environments have changed with the times.’ The fallibility of this remark is quickly evidenced in the word, ‘always.’ Mitchell wrote scores of mystery novels which had much more generic settings such as country houses, rural towns and villages and holidays abroad. Statements like this one certainly undermine the competency of the piece.

Her last word on elderly female sleuths is this:

‘None of these elderly lady heroines has been the type of character to attract a fantasising readership. They are all very prosaic, their sense nothing if not common. They are neither glamorous, like most detective heroes, nor magical like, for instance, Poirot. It was only during the 1960s and 1970s that women adventurers began to appear who might fire their readers’ imaginations.’

Who has proven that people read the Queens of Crime for their fantasies? Or for the opportunity to fantasise? People love the Miss Marple novels and return to them again and again, so clearly that suggests that at least one Queen of Crime is popular for reasons other than the fantasies her novels supposedly project and I would say more than one reader has had their imagination fired by the female sleuths/adventurers of Christie and Sayers. And Poirot, magical? And Mrs Bradley prosaic? Arghhh!

The nonsense continues:

‘The female characters in detective fiction whom readers have loved and identified with, have been, not detectives, but detectives’ girlfriends.’

I’m sorry did Mann go around conducting a global poll of mystery fans? How can she so boldly assert this opinion as though it were fact? Interestingly she then goes onto criticise a number of these girlfriends whom we are supposed to love and identify with so much, whom are ‘too perfect’ and not very realistic, fulfilling ‘the traditional roles of women, achieving their success without sacrificing their femininity, and they never resent the difficulties their double roles entail.’ To be honest if you’re interested in exploring the theme of gender and Golden Age detective fiction I recommend buying or borrowing from your local library, Megan Hoffan’s Gender and Representation in Golden Age Crime Fiction. It handles the theme far more competently and intelligently, with rigorous referencing of the texts. Furthermore, it also explodes the theory mentioned above with substantial textual evidence. We don’t get that in Mann’s book so much and instead seem to encounter a lot of personal judgements on authors, especially Sayers: ‘Dorothy L. Sayers gave Harriet new attributes, not the wealth and status with which she endowed Wimsey, but an emotional life which Dorothy herself was without, of which, indeed, she was really incapable.’

However, the character assassination Sayers receives in this book will be discussed more in part 2 of this review. After all you probably deserve tea and cake after getting through this first one. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issues raised in this post and/or about the book itself, if you’ve read it. All that is left to say is brace yourselves for tomorrow…

12 comments

  1. Have no fear, Kate: Mimi lay snug in my arms as I read your post! The title of this book makes no sense, as it suggests a favorable comparison between female crime writers and male. Instead, it appears to be another tiresomely derogative list of crime fiction‘s ills. And while I have no intention of reading this, I have to ask: are we sure that Jessica Mann . . . is a woman?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dust jacket photo does provide conclusive evidence that Jessica is a woman. Yes the book unfortunately does not live up to the expectations the title generates.
      You may need both cats on your knee for part 2 of the post. You may even need to borrow some cats for extra support!

      Like

  2. All I can say is, Oh Good Grief. Ms. Mann needs to be careful, with her nose so far up in the air she’ll drown if it rains. Obviously the lady has her own snobbish agenda, and the title vs. the book seems to be a classic case of bait and switch. I do have this book, and after starting to read it and the pausing and flipping through the rest I sighed and put it aside. Good for you for such a detailed review. It’s such satisfaction to see my own reaction echoed!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This is a very good review. I like the book and find it interesting. That isn’t, of course, the same as agreeing with all of Jessica’s opinions. My own views are much closer to yours, Kate. But Jessica was a good writer and critic and her views on Gaudy Night (which she admired much more than I do) are illustrative of her approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Has she written about Gaudy Night elsewhere? That book does seem to be the only thing about Sayers and her work that she likes. As you say the book is interesting, though for me more in a provocative, what are you thinking? kind of way! The evolution of opinion on GAD fiction is also interesting. Just glad I’m at the end where it is far more appreciated!

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    • Well you could skip ahead to the Sayers chapter! As I talk about tomorrow, there are times where I will agree with a negative opinion of a writer, but the way Mann goes about expressing this opinion is the problem as it tends to be full of generalisations and over confident assertions.

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