Damsels in the Press
- By Art Taylor
- August 1, 2016
A look at the masterful mystery writers I’ll be teaching this fall.
It’s August 1st, and as mid-summer eases into late summer, I already feel like I’m behind on preparations for the coming semester at George Mason University. Book orders are long past due! Syllabi need to be prepped! Students are pressing for registration overrides! for previews of what’s ahead! and please please don’t let the required texts be too expensive!
But in the midst of this sudden stress, I’m also excited about the semester ahead and particularly by the course “Women of Mystery,” which I’m teaching for the first time — excited not only because of the novels and stories and insights I hope to share with students, but also because I get to enjoy those novels and stories myself and have already earned insights of my own by immersing myself more fully in the subject.
I frequently teach courses in crime fiction at Mason, and women authors are regularly on the syllabus: Agatha Christie, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Megan Abbott, Louise Penny, Tana French, and more. But this is the first time I’ve taught a course explicitly surveying the evolution of the genre through female writers and female protagonists — the ways in which we might trace connections and build continuity between the 19th-century writers and their 20th-century daughters and 21st-century granddaughters (or great- and great-great-granddaughters) in terms of conflicts and concerns.
Several friends and fellow writers who’ve heard about the class have said, “Oh, I wish I could take that!” Other friends who are both writers and scholars have offered advice either directly or indirectly (through their own books) about authors who should make the syllabus.
While bringing all that together for anyone who’s looking for good reading, I thought I’d share a sample of the books and stories that we’ll be exploring, many of which are in the public domain at this point and available online.
Interested in stories from the earliest women crime writers? Check out:
- Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “In a Cellar” (1859).
- Mary Fortune’s “The Dead Witness” (1866) in Michael Sims’ collection of the same name.
- C.L. Pirkis’ The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894).
- Anna Katherine Green’s novel That Affair Next Door (1897), featuring spinster sleuth Amelia Butterworth, and her collection The Golden Slipper, and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915), featuring the young socialite of the title.
- And Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910).
We’ll also read Pauline Hopkins’ “Talma Gordon” (1900), the first African-American mystery story and an early example of the genre as a tool for social commentary.
A comprehensive survey of 20th- and 21st-century crime fiction by women would take a couple of semesters, of course — and no matter what makes the list, others would need to be left out. (Harley Mazuk, a writer friend, posted an author/protagonist list from a similar six-week class he took recently, including “Dorothy Sayers/Harriet Vane, Margaret Maron/Deborah Knott, Sue Grafton/Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky/VI Warshawski, Barbara Neely/Blanche White, Laurie King/Mary Russell, and PD James/Cordelia Gray,” and while it’s a great list, I immediately thought, “But what about…?”)
Given that my gen-ed students have limits on how much they can read each week, I’m being much more limited and ultimately more eclectic. Already on the program are:
- Carolyn Keene and Nancy Drew (The Mystery at Lilac Inn, with a cool new cover).
- Agatha Christie and Miss Marple (“The Tuesday Night Club” and A Murder Is Announced).
- Several authors from Sarah Weinman’s groundbreaking collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (including Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Armstrong, and Margaret Millar).
- Sue Grafton and Kinsey Milhone (A Is for Alibi).
Since Elizabeth Hand is coming to this year’s Fall for the Book festival, I’m also including the first of her super dark and edgy Cass Neary books, Generation Loss — and she’ll be speaking to the class during her visit! (The latest in the series, Hard Light, is already out and on my desk at home, calling out to me.)
If that’s not enough reading for mystery fans here, I do want to give a final shout-out to the friends who’ve advised me here and to their own scholarly works, equally worth checking out. Thanks to:
- Elizabeth Foxwell, managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection (the leading scholarly journal in the field).
- Michael Sims, editor of The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime and The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.
- Jeffrey Marks, whose books include Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s.
Plenty of good summertime reading to recommend here — and fall reading too, since summer’s slipping past all too quickly.
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, which won this year’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel and is currently a finalist for both the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award in the same category.