How the Queens of Crime Fiction Developed a Modern Myth

In the years after WWI, the detective story blossomed. Despite criticism, readers still respond to its formulas

How the Queens of Crime Fiction Developed a Modern Myth
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

Murder is money. The shelves of big city bookshops groan with paperback homicides. The murder mystery section fills more space than the cadavers in a mortuary. We like our deaths fictionalized because, on the page, murder makes sense. There is an answer to the why, how and who questions that real life does not often provide. Crime is a comforting winter cabin read: a dalliance at a bookstore while you sip your coffee.

Such stories are an escape, and murder is one of the most popular getaways. The BBC has just announced that it is working on an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder Is Easy,” published in 1939. In 2022, according to WordsRated, 12.5% of all adult books sold in the United States belonged to the thriller genre, which includes crime and mystery. In the same year, this bracket was also the second-most profitable for Amazon in the U.S. Since publication, Stieg Larsson’s three-book series, which includes “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2005), has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (2003) 80 million copies. These are colossal sales figures, but they have predecessors and roots that reach back far beyond the present millennium.

The magnificent, macabre Edgar Allan Poe was one progenitor of the fictional detective, via a series of three short stories about the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin (1841-44). Charles Dickens’ Mr. Bucket in “Bleak House” (1852-53) was a real-deal detective inspector, and Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” (1868) was the seminal mystery novel. But it was Arthur Conan Doyle and his drug-dependent Sherlock Holmes who catapulted detective fiction onto the world stage and made it a popular addiction through 56 short stories and four novels. Doyle’s pen turned vague sleuthing concepts into the conventions of the whodunit.

While men seeded detective fiction, it was women who brought the genre to lustrous fruition. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, four stellar queens of crime writing — Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh — became doyennes of a popular culture phenomenon in publishing that would establish their dominion over a worldwide audience. During their lifetimes, both Christie and Marsh were honored by having 1 million copies of their books released in a single year. To date, Christie’s sales are reputed to be more than 4 billion books. She has sold more novels than any other author in the world.

It was from the crucible of human suffering in the Great War and Great Depression eras that, at least in the Anglophone West, the serialized detective novel emerged as a popular genre with a massive following. It was perhaps as a parable of redemption that detective fiction captured the postwar popular, and even intellectual, imagination. Within the intimate confines of the “cozy” murder mystery, often set in a sleepy English village or isolated manor house, the horror of the trenches and the magnitude of expanding dole queues could be forgotten and real life suspended while the problem of a single, premeditated murder was solved.

In the midst of unparalleled social, political and economic change, the detective novel was restorative of traditional values, offering a comforting tale of the victory of good over evil in an unequivocal format. Innocence was violated by the villain — or murderer — then vindicated by the detective, who was a modern incarnation of an ancient heroic type. In 1942, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, described the detective as the “Fairy Godmother of the twentieth century folk-myth.” The detective was a savior, shaman or high priest, whose magic had to be believable for a scientifically informed and rational generation.

The achievement of the queens of crime was to take the detective story and serialize it in the longer format of the crime novel, at the same time refashioning and ritualizing the conventions of the detective story to suit the desperate longings of their time. What resulted was a golden age of detective fiction that blossomed between the wars and became a global and lasting phenomenon.

The queens of crime were astonishingly prolific. Among the demands of exacting lives, and sometimes full-time employment, they wrote cleverly and in abundance. Christie produced 66 crime novels, plus three collaborative detective novels and 154 short stories, over a career spanning 56 years; Marsh wrote 32 novels with Roderick Alleyn as her detective over nearly 50 years; Allingham wrote 17 novels and 20 short stories with Albert Campion in 37 years; and Sayers wrote 11 novels and 21 short stories with Lord Peter Wimsey between 1923 and 1937.

All four queens of crime have secrets. Aspects of their private lives remain shrouded in mystery. Their respectable upper-middle-class backgrounds made them reluctant to share difficult episodes of their lives with their readerships, and they were understandably evasive. While songwriters, poets and novelists often mine the angst of their personal stories to compose a golden lyric, storyline or verse, the crime writer sits outside their inner psychological landscape to create their dispassionate detective and puzzle plot. Their art and life can stay in separate compartments. The architecture of the detective story, with its plodding protocols, delivered a murderer at the end of a novel but allowed the author to escape scot-free.

For instance, there is more to know about Christie’s first marriage and her famous disappearance in 1926. The tabloids at the time raced to cover the story. Police and legions of volunteers joined in the manhunt. All feared Christie had been the victim of the type of foul play she had been creating fictionally for years. She was found without explanation 11 days later in a Harrogate spa, checked into her hotel under the surname of her husband’s mistress. Equally, Sayers’ mysterious lovers, hidden husband and undisclosed illegitimate son suggest a more checkered life than she ever disclosed. Allingham was cagey about making public her fascination with Ouija boards, sorcery and the occult, and Marsh careful about her cross-dressing and fiercely protective of her secret emotional life with women.

Although these four lethal ladies have their own fascinating skeletons in the closet, it is the detectives that made them famous who have intrigued audiences for decades. Crime critic and commentator Jessica Mann once wrote, “In my view [female crime writers] create the kind of men they would like to fall in love with, or perhaps, to be.” Though this was certainly not the case with Christie.

When Christie introduced Hercule Poirot in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” in 1920, there was not much about the dandified, stout little Belgian with the waxed mustache and the egg-shaped head that she found attractive. In fact, Poirot would irritate her intensely. But he became so firmly fixed in the public imagination that their lives were from then on inextricably intertwined. It was a marriage, and he was her detective through 33 novels and 10 collections of short stories over more than 55 years.

Poirot would often hover perilously between cardboard cutout and eccentric Holmesian cliche, but Christie transcended his weaknesses by constructing fabulously intricate problem plots. She was mathematical in her plotting, but also deceptive, and her killer instinct left no one exempt. In “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which catapulted her into prominence in 1926, she treacherously breached detective etiquette by making the trusted narrator the murderer. This violation only enhanced her profile, beginning her reign as one of the world’s greatest detective writers.

Christie’s other iconic sleuth was Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple made her first appearance knitting and gossiping her way through the solution to “The Murder at the Vicarage” in 1930. This elderly, mystery-solving spinster began as a bloodless old archaism, severe, blue-eyed, frail and wearing a black lace cap and mittens, but she would be updated over 12 novels, becoming warmer, wittier and more human. No other author has given so much snooping talent to a female figure of such advanced years, and created such a charismatic character. Christie defied ageism and misogyny to fashion one of the most endearing detectives of the 20th century.

In 1923, “Whose Body?” introduced Sayers’ foppish, monocle-wearing Lord Peter Wimsey. He was an amateur detective working with his manservant Bunter and the friendly Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard. There was much of Sayers in the makeup, or rather make-believe, of her detective, and this is probably why she fell so famously in love with him. He was a projection of her fantasies. Wimsey was hugely rich and it gave her pleasure to spend his money for him. “When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly,” she wrote in 1936. “When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler Double Six … and when I felt dull I let him drive it.”

Wimsey began almost as a figure of farce, a caricature in his snobbish, over-mannered elegance, but he would evolve into an admirable man. He was inspired in part by the humorist and writer P.G. Wodehouse’s bungling Bertie Wooster and gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. But Sayers put existing models of the detective under a magnifying glass. Where his predecessors were mostly upper-class gentlemen, Wimsey was a blue-blooded aristocrat, the second son of the 15th Duke of Denver. He was educated at Eton, taking his degree, as Sayers had, at Oxford, where he received a first in history.

His breeding was impeccable and his eccentricities refined to a high art. He was a talented musician, a collector of ancient books, and a connoisseur of fine wines, food, fashion and fast cars. Even his athletic prowess was consummate. At university he played cricket for Oxford, and when in sleuthing mode he dangled effortlessly from ropes off buildings. Only in visualizing his appearance did Sayers show restraint. Perhaps he could be called nondescript with his tow-colored hair, beak-like nose and modest stature.

Unlike Christie, Sayers created her sleuth to pay her bills, and the same was true for another of the reigning queens of crime, Allingham. Younger than her two co-rulers, and something of a prodigy, she came from a working literary family of writer-journalists and editors. She was 8 when her first story was published in her aunt’s magazine; her first novel, “Blackkerchief Dick,” came out in 1923 when she was 19, but it was not until “The Crime at Black Dudley” was published in 1929 that she had her first real success.

It was in this book that she introduced the enigmatic Albert Campion. He began as a relatively minor figure, but when he captured the imagination and endorsement of her American publishers he was duly plucked from the chorus to become her star detective. There is more than a whiff of Wimsey and Wooster in Campion’s demeanor, and he may have been created as a spoof of the archetypal silly sleuth. His pedigree was the most illustrious yet, because of his connection to royalty, although his exact relationship to the throne was never made specific. In fact, very little about this slippery snoop’s identity was specific. He had an assumed name, and there were other aliases. He was even physically ambiguous. His voice was described as idiotic and effete. A wiry albino-blond with buckteeth, he wore horn-rimmed spectacles and had a blank, unintelligent stare, but he was also heralded as a woman magnet.

Campion began as a modish young man-about-town with no serious intentions, but this was a smokescreen. In reality, he moved easily between nobility and the criminal underworld to solve his crimes. Although a freelance government agent, and therefore seemingly on the right side of the law, his underworld connections were as close as his lugubrious valet, Magersfontein Lugg.

Marsh, the last of the crime queens, began writing crime detective fiction for pleasure, but also to satisfy the ambitions of her zealous mother. Marsh first brought her detective Roderick Alleyn to life in “A Man Lay Dead” in 1934. She wanted him to be a more ordinary man than the set of silly sleuths who tweaked wax mustaches, repositioned monocles or stared blankly over buck teeth. She wanted to create a believable professional policeman who could move comfortably between the lower echelons and upper-class circles where many of her stories would be set. He was to be an “attractive, civilised man,” the kind, she later wrote, “with whom it would be pleasant to talk but much less pleasant to fall out.”

So Alleyn was, as she described him, “tall and thin with an accidental elegance about him and a fastidiousness.” His hair is dark, his eyes are gray “with corners that turned down. They looked as if they would smile easily, but his mouth didn’t.” In “A Man Lay Dead,” after a long look at her first detective, Sir Hubert Handesley’s niece Angela North decides Alleyn is “the sort they knew would ‘do’ for house-parties.” He is the younger son of a landed family in Buckinghamshire, has been educated at Eton, employed briefly by the Foreign Office, and now works for the Yard. His brother is a baronet in the diplomatic corps, and his mother, Lady Alleyn of Danes Lodge, Bossicote, breeds Alsatians. His background is impeccable rather than impossible, and his worst habit is his irritating tendency to make banal comments and facetious jokes.

Like his sleuthing peers, Alleyn would mature, but not as much because he began more plausibly. There would be excursions abroad, but his natural habitat would remain the English hothouse “cozy” where traditional values were just a murder away from being restored. The anarchy of war, the devastation of a pandemic, the general strike of 1926, the Great Depression, and the rise of communism and fascism, with their catastrophic episodes of genocide, never properly enter his cloistered world, where a single death can still be utterly shocking.

Explaining the extraordinary demand for the detective novel, Allingham once wrote:

When the moralists cite the modern murder mystery as evidence of an unnatural love of violence in a decadent age, I wonder if it is nothing of the sort, but rather a sign of a popular instinct for order and form in a period of sudden and chaotic change. … There is something deeply healthy in the implication that to deprive a human being of his life is not only the most dreadful thing one can do to him, but also that it matters to the rest of us.

The crime detective novel put a high value on human life and worked on the assumption that people cared. Faced with the flux of a rapidly changing world, readers sought intellectual escape in problem plots where sanitized death could tease the mind of anyone from a housewife to a judge. While global war and economic slump eroded the class system and beat at the bastions of the family manor house, the detective novel offered fictional stability. Anybody with a stake in the restoration of traditional order was a potential reader. The detective novel portrayed a world of proscriptive hierarchies and reassuring ritual. It assumed a reasoned universe based on polarities of right and wrong, where anarchy occasionally erupted but normality was always restored.

There have been many detractors of the genre. In fact, it has been described as a harmful addiction. In January 1945, Edmund Wilson published a vitriolic attack in The New Yorker entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” His target was detective fiction, especially the writing of the queens of crime. His article concluded: “The reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” And of the detective-story addict, he wrote, “their talk about ‘well-written’ mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always produce for a drink.” More recently, these period pieces have been justifiably accused of being sexist, racist, classist and misogynistic.

But despite these uncomfortable facts, audiences come back to the classic crime novel time and time again, looking to read and reread whodunits written when the field of crime detective fiction was dominated by women. There is a strange kind of nostalgia for their cast of stock “cozy” characters, their types of villains, their murder methods, grizzly ends and faith in forensic knowledge. And their stories, especially those of Christie, are endlessly revisited in film and adapted to contemporary sensibilities. The BBC’s forthcoming “Murder is Easy” will feature a black actor playing the main protagonist. Christie’s family has stated that she “would have welcomed a black lead actor.” Like Shakespeare’s plays, these stories live on, infinitely appealing and adaptable for new generations of readers because they speak through problem plots of profound and universal truths.

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