Four Women Who Forever Changed the Gilded Age Mystery Genre
Join New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble for a look back at four iconic women and their equally memorable sleuths who would change the Gilded Age mystery genre forever and inspired her new novel!
Plus, make sure to comment on the post for a chance to win a copy of Shelley Noble’s new mystery Tell Me No Lies!
Anna Katharine Green
Sometimes called the mother of the detective story, Anna Katharine Green published her first mystery in 1878. The Leavenworth Case introduces Detective Ebenezer Gryce, a middle-aged detective looking forward to retirement. While it was an instant success, it wasn’t until 1897 that she introduced her female sleuth, Miss Amelia Butterworth, in the seventh Gryce mystery, That Affair Next Door.
Miss Butterworth is:
Well-bred and Intelligent: “of Colonial ancestry and no inconsiderable importance in the social world.”
Resourceful: “I noticed some few facts in connection with it from which conclusions might be drawn. I amused myself with jotting them down on the back of a disputed grocer’s bill I happened to find in my pocket.
Passionate: “I found that this affair, at first glance so simple, and at the next so complicated, had aroused in me a fever of investigation which no reasoning could allay.”
Observant: “There is but one prick of a hat-pin in it,” I observed. “If you have been in the habit of looking into young women’s hats, you will appreciate the force of my remark.”
Upon which Gryce exclaims, “Women’s eyes for women’s matters, I am greatly indebted to you ma’am. You have solved a very important problem for us.”
Prepossessed: “It would never do for me to lose my wits in the presence of a man who had none too many of his own.”
The Verdict: A clever logical, intelligent, passionate detective. Who could resist her? I certainly couldn’t.
Catherine Louisa Pirkis
By the time That Affair Next Door was published, Loveday Brooke had made her debut in Pirkis’s “The Black Bag Left on a Door-Step” (1883) and seven subsequent stories. And since Conan Doyle had (at least temporarily) killed off Sherlock Holmes, Loveday was more than ready to take his place.
A Londoner born in the upper class—but through fate has become nearly destitute—Loveday defies convention and her friends to seek employment with Ebenezer Dyer.
Loveday is not a helpless female stereotype. Far from it, she was at first considered by readers to be in an unsuitable job for a lady, if in fact she could still be considered a lady at all since she dealt with spurious characters from the lower regions of society.
But as Mr. Dyer points out at the beginning of “The Redhill Sisterhood,” “The idea seems to gain ground in manly quarters that in cases of mere suspicion, women detectives are more satisfactory than men, for they are less likely to attract attention.”
Loveday Brooke is:
According to Her Boss: “Loveday Brooke at this period of her career was a little over thirty years of age and could best be described in a series of negations, she was not tall, she was not short; she was not dark, she was not fair, she was neither handsome nor ugly… But smart, with so much common sense, that it amounts to genius.”
Logical: “Loveday explained the whole thing, easily, naturally, step by step in her usual methodical manner.”
Resourceful: “I haven’t the least idea on the matter,” answered Loveday. “I start on my work without theory of any sort–in fact, I may say, with my mind a perfect blank.”
Willing to Take Risks: “Loveday steadied her nerves with difficulty. Locked in with this lunatic, her only chance lay in gaining time for the detectives to reach the house and enter through the window.”
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Often credited as the originator of “the butler did it” and the “had she but known” style of mystery writing, Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote stories with a variety of protagonists mixing adventure with detection, managing to introduce humor and love while keeping the suspense at the forefront. She attempted to portray realistic “modern” life with diverse characters from all walks of life and intelligent, strong willed heroines.
And importantly, she emphasized the relationships between the characters, setting the structure for the post-golden age of mystery trend we see in current amateur sleuth stories.
Playwright, novelist, and journalist, Susan Glaspell is considered a feminist writer and worked a bit later that the others here, but her 1917 story “A Jury Of Her Peers,” while not a mystery in the classic sense, presents us with the key to understanding what makes women good sleuths.
Most of us know the story. Martha Hale is arrested for the murder of her husband. The local police, though they search the house, can find no evidence against her. But they have brought their wives, who are afraid to stay home alone. The men look into the kitchen and dismiss the things inside as “kitchen things,” but while they search the house to no avail, the women notice the dirty towels and the mess, and knowing that Mrs. Hale was a conscientious housekeeper they suspect something is amiss. And when they find her beloved canary, dead in a box, they know that her husband must have killed it and understand that she must have killed him and why. They have found their evidence in kitchen things.
* * *
These are all female sleuths of their time, who use their intellect and commitment to do what is right. They are unafraid to put themselves and their beliefs on the line in order to solve crimes. And they manage it in a uniquely feminine way.
Each of these authors has given us characters who are intelligent, resourceful, passionate, insightful, loyal, compassionate, humorous, and clever. Traits inherent in female sleuths yet to come.
Add suspense, murder, jealousy. Blackmail, betrayals, revenge. Missing keys, missing servants, missing heirs. Red herrings, disguises, adventure, and most of all, kitchen things.
These early sleuths, though women of their time, embody the characteristics of amateur sleuths we enjoy today, and everything I love about writing mysteries.
About Tell Me No Lies:
Rise and shine, Countess, you’re about to have a visitor.
Lady Dunbridge was not about to let a little thing like the death of her husband ruin her social life. She’s come to New York City, ready to take the dazzling world of Gilded Age Manhattan by storm. The social events of the summer have been amusing but Lady Phil is searching for more excitement—and she finds it, when an early morning visitor arrives, begging for her help. After all, Lady Phil has been known to be useful in a crisis. Especially when the crisis involves the untimely death of a handsome young business tycoon.
His death could send another financial panic through Wall Street and beyond.
With the elegant Plaza Hotel, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the opulent mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast as the backdrop, romance, murder, and scandals abound. Someone simply must do something. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.
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