It’s no secret that I read a lot of mysteries, especially cozies, many of them ongoing series. Sometimes, though, it is worth it to look back at the people who shaped the genre. In this series, I’m going to revisit visit the three classic mystery writers that helped to develop the genre and who still influence all mysteries and shoot-off genres published today today. Though the creation of the English mystery story is generally credited to Edgar Alan Poe (See The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee from seventh century China for a non-English example)) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is the first series to popularize the genre, the credit for developing the style of the mystery we know today goes to three women, known as the Grand Dames of Mystery, Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
I plan to begin my series of reviews with the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie.Thirty-three of Christie’s novels, one play, and numerous short stories center around the dandified Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot, whose keywords are method, “the little gray cells” of the brain, and psychology. He focuses on examining the psychology of both the victims and suspects. Christie’s other main character is , Miss Marple, the charming little old lady who sees the worst in everyone. With the belief that human nature is essentially the same wherever one goes, Miss Marple solves the crimes around her by comparing each person, no matter where she is, to someone she knows in her village of St. Mary Mead. With sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections, to her name, Christie is listed by The Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist ever, with her works translated into over a hundred languages. She also wrote the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap–a mystery, of course!
Ngiao (pronounced NI-o) Marsh actually came from New Zealand, and her thirty-two books center around Detective Chief Inspector (later superintendent) Roderick Alleyn, the son of a lord who investigates all manor of murders, but particularly those of the upper class because of his upper-class background. Four of the books are entirely set in different locations throughout New Zealand, with a couple other books having connections to the country as well. Marsh is especially gifted at her character development, with the murders tending to center around the nature of the individuals. Sometimes, the crime doesn’t even come until the second half of the books. Marsh actually did not earn her “damery,” as she called it, for her writing, but rather for practically single-handedly developing the theater in New Zealand. As she was surrounded by the theater world, Marsh sets many of her novels either in the theater itself or among actors. One trivia point: Marsh clearly loved Macbeth, as each of her books contains some reference to “the Scottish play,” whether with a quote or discussion of the plot or actually having the play being staged.
Dorothy L. Sayers, the last of the trio, is a woman whom I can’t help but admire for her life beyond that of her mystery books. The sexist men who governed Oxford refused to allow women to receive actual degrees until 1920, even though at least one women’s school existed for women to study without being awarded a degree. Finishing her studies in modern languages and medieval literature on 1915, Sayers became one of the very first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford, an M.A. in 1920. Sayers’ books reflect her education in the complexity of her plots and situations that she sets up for her amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, the younger brother of the Duke of Denver. He uses his interest in detecting to help himself get over the tremendous shell shock he suffered in the aftermath of the Great War. His greatest friend, Inspector Parker, teams up with him on many of his cases. When he discovers the love of his life, Harriet Vane, on trial for her life in Strong Poison, he works with her. The dynamic between them, in which Lord Peter gradually proves his trustworthiness and eagerness to treat Harriet as his equal, grows throughout the series, with the next to last book, Gaudy Night, taking place at a women’s college at Oxford, based upon the one that Sayers attended herself. I will not be able to review all the Lord Peter Wimsey books, as sadly, many do not seem to have been recorded on audio at all, and of those that have been recorded, many are available only on cassette tape, with most copies that are available being in poor condition.
You are invited to read and listen along with me as I work through the books these grand dames of mystery and and discuss their role in shaping the genre as we know it! I am starting with The Mysterious Affair at Stlyes on Monday. See you then!