September is Blog SinC-up month at Sisters in Crime — SinC-up, get it? For those who don’t know, Sisters In Crime is our most prominent society of professional women crime writers. I’ve been “tagged” by the last author in the sync-up chain, S. J. Rozan–even though I’m not technically a Sister In Crime cuz I’m a guy. But that makes me uniquely qualified to say what I want to say here. The way this “SinC-up” works is that I answer my choice of these seven questions:
1. Which authors have inspired you?
2. Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
3. If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
4. What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
5. Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
6. What books are on your nightstand right now?
7. If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?
…and pass the baton to another writer. Well, it’s the last day of September, and I’m guessing the link-sync thing is over today, so I won’t tag anyone. I’ll just answer the question I’ve chosen, #3.
If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
I know the answer to this firsthand. I was a bookseller at Murder Ink for nearly 20 years, and I heard that statement a lot more frequently than I would have liked–which would have been never. Quick story: A well-dressed, middle-aged international businessman, one of our best customers, once ran in to grab an armload of new hardcovers for a long trip. “Quick!” he said. “I need all the best mysteries on the front table! My cab is waiting.” I went to the front table, scanned it thoroughly, and picked up THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt, which had just been published. He scowled at it, shook his head, and said four words I’ll never forget: “Women can’t write mysteries.” He scooped up five or six tough adventures by manly men and ran out.
“Women can’t write mysteries.”
Well, Donna Tartt, I guess you’ve been told! I don’t remember which books he bought that day, and I’m betting he doesn’t, either. Meanwhile, THE SECRET HISTORY is on just about every list of the greatest novels of the last half-century.
“Women can’t write mysteries.” Hey, Mr. Well-Dressed Businessman, if women didn’t write mysteries, there would never have been a Murder Ink bookstore. We attribute the origins of the modern mystery to Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle. They laid the groundwork and got things rolling, but it took two women–one in turn-of-the-century America and one in 1920s England–to popularize the genre to the point where everybody started reading mysteries on a regular basis.
Mary Roberts Rinehart and Agatha Christie were purchased, read, and adored in record numbers, and Dame Agatha is, to this day, the best-selling author in history. Why? Just read any one of her books. She was a leader in the “Golden Age of Mystery” alongside her friend Dorothy L. Sayers and a group of male Americans, notably Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Without these people, there wouldn’t be a mystery genre.
What did women bring to the table? That’s easy. They brought professional detectives and everyday heroes who used their brains and hearts more quickly than their fists and weapons. They expanded on and modernized Doyle’s concepts for Sherlock Holmes: the use of reason and common sense and–yes!–intuition to get to the bottom of things. They gave us detectives who were much more recognizable to the average reader than Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Marvelous as those two men are, how many of us–male or female–can really “walk in their shoes?” Lord Peter, Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot, on the other hand, are people we might conceivably meet in our actual lives. Christie and Sayers were part of a group I think of as the “Seven Sisters,” along with Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Christianna Brand, and America’s Patricia Wentworth. These brilliant, hugely popular artists paved the way for others to follow.
Dorothy B. Hughes. Vera Caspary. Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Patricia Highsmith. Margaret Millar. Mary Stewart. Ruth Rendell. There you have seven more names that must be included in any serious overview of twentieth century crime writing. And these “distaff” stepping-stones bring us into the modern age. In 1972, P.D. James gave us a book with the remarkable–and remarkably ironic–title, AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN. Far from unsuitable, detection was the chosen profession of a veritable army of women to follow, vivid characters created by Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and on and on, right up to and including the woman who tagged me for this essay. I haven’t even mentioned the “cozies” of Lilian Jackson Braun, Dorothy Cannell, Jane Langton, and a host of others. Or the many women mystery writers who are not Caucasian, not American, not British. And there’s a new generation out there, too, already rising to new challenges. Two-word example: Gillian Flynn. GONE GIRL–you go, girl!
It is not my intention to be patronizing or condescending here. I could just as easily recite a quick history of male crime writers with as many examples of great writing and great characters. But I was thinking of that smug businessman and his blithe dismissal, and next thing I knew, I was off and running. I hope I’ve answered Question #3 to everyone’s satisfaction.
“Women can’t write mysteries.” Indeed? Just try to imagine the mystery genre without them.