Tue
Sep 27 2011 2:00pm

The Mystery Of The Historical Literary Sleuth

Dorothy Parker, Literary Sleuth?While perusing the bookshelves in the mystery section of my local Barnes and Noble, I noticed an interesting trend, that of the Literary Sleuth. Mystery novels featuring Jane Austen, Dorothy Parker, Daphne du Maurier, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte, to name just a few. Well besides being real life literary icons whose books are classics of literature, they all have a sideline as amateur sleuths (Dorothy Parker is so popular that she features in series by two different authors!).

Peril at Somner House featuring Daphne Du Maurier by Joanna ChallisJust perusing the back covers makes this mystery lover’s mouth water! Laura Joh Rowland gives readers the opportunity to read about the heretofore unknown Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte while Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen solves mysteries while writing her novels about a small village of six or seven families.  Moving across the pond, Anna Maclean’s Louisa May Alcott is a decade away from her literary success as the author of Little Women, and Dorothy Parker solves mysteries set against the glamorous back-drop of the Roaring ‘20’s New York, while matching wits with the members of the Algonquin Round Table. And then there’s Joanna Challis’ Daphne du Maurier, a young woman on the brink of life, struggling to come out from under the shadow of her famous father and grandfather.

When one really thinks about it, the idea of a literary sleuth makes perfect sense. Writers are observers by nature, they write about the human condition, the power of motivation, and the frailty of the human heart.  It’s not such a large leap to make from sitting at home writing at one’s desk, to investigating murder, at least not for these ladies. It’s no coincidence that a number of literary sleuths are women.  Women are seen as more sympathetic and empathetic than men.

And, after all, who would suspect an author of sleuthing? One could always pass off those rather pesky questions as research.

A literary sleuth gives the reader that built-in recognition factor; readers might pick up the book because they’re intrigued by the prospect of their favorite author solving mysteries while polishing their latest manuscript. It also brings a number of pitfalls. Not only do these writers have to craft a cracking good mystery, but they have to be true to what we think we know of the author in question.  They have to capture these authors’ voice and style, not to mention the time period. It sounds just daunting just thinking about it.

It made me wonder what other literary icons would make great literary sleuths.  Here are my top 5 choices:

• Margaret Mitchell – It took Mitchell ten years to write and polish her only novel Gone with the Wind, but what else was she doing during that time? Using her skills as a former journalist to solve mysteries perhaps?

Simon de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre• Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre – In between holding court various cafes on the Left Bank Paris, smoking gitanes, and debating existentialism, perhaps France’s most famous literary couple spent their time sniffing out conspiracies, and helping out the French secret service.

• Elinor Glyn – The red-haired, green-eyed author was known for her erotic novels like Three Weeks, and popularizing the concept of “It.” During her lifetime, she knew everyone who was anyone in not just Edwardian high society but also 1920’s Hollywood celebs.  And her sister was the couturier Lucile! Imagine what mysteries Elinor could solve while attending country house parties or hobnobbing in California with Charlie Chaplin!

• George Sand – There aren’t many mystery series are set in 19th century France which is why I nominate George Sand as my number one choice for detective. Ah, one can easily envisage Sand, striding through the streets of Paris dressed like a man, with Frederic Chopin as her tubercular Watson, with a supporting cast of characters including Victor Hugo, and Alfred de Musset.

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald – A real life version of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles would be a great addition to the recent spate of mysteries set during the 1920’s.  Yes, F. Scott spent a great deal of the time hammered, but a skillful writer could find a way over that hurdle.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Her first book, Scandalous Women, was published by Perigee Books in March 2011. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.

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5 comments
2. KateH
So would I! I've never heard of her, but your little blurb has me heading off to find out more about Elinor Glyn.
Firozali A.
3. Mullar
I think the best books were from Elid Blyton who I think was crazy and USA did not want her books. The books also were not for sale in USA but UK sold milliuons and she made more money from the kids then any other. Why do mad people ever write books? I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA
Agata Stanford
4. agata@dorothyparkermysteries.com
Well, Elizabeth, you mentioned Dorothy Parker, and I am the author of Dorothy Parker Mysteries! Mine is the first published series starring Parker for Jenevacris Press, and the adventures of Parker and Robert Benchley are told from Dottie Parker's POV-- in the first person. The fourth in the series, Death Rides the Midnight Owl, is due out end of this month. I hope you'll read and enjoy the whole series! -- Agata Stanford
5. Jamie Lee Scott
Why is it my favorite authors are drunks? I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I even named my Kindle Hemingway. I can't wait to get my hands (eyes) on the Dorothy Parker Mysteries by Agata Stanford. Thanks for the great post. -- Jamie Lee Scott
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