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Published Date: July 31, 1989

Published Date: July 31, 1989

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Lady Justice: The Contribution of Women in Mystery Fiction

Are people sick of reading novels that portray women as either victims or villains? Are Christians fed up with fiction that stereotypes believers as simply helplessly innocent or hopelessly immoral? Is the major, moral, middle-class reader in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain growing weary of nearly exclusively seeing endless images of the sinister minister, churlish “church lady”, and the dishonest deacon? A groundswell of new literature in the mystery genre strongly suggests that such is the case. A part of the counter revolution is the new wave of women writers who have recently begun filling bookstores and libraries with portrayals of powerful Christian detectives, both women and men.

Mystery literature may be traced back to such ancient sources as Bel and the Dragon and Susannah (in the Apocrypha) and Aesop’s fable of the lion and the fox. However, detective fiction as a genre only came to full flowering in Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of detection.

Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Purloined Letter”, “Gold Bug”, and especially, perhaps, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt'” (based, as it was, on a true incident) struck immediate resounding chords in contemporary women writers. Such notable women as Louisa May Alcott began penning thrillers like her anonymously published Behind the Mask. So proficient did women become that from 1878 through the early 1900’s mysteries poured from the quills of Anna Katharine Green, the Baroness Orczy, and Mrs. Belloc Lowndes.

In 1903, a young nurse, Mary Roberts Rinehart, struggling to help her husband surmount a $12,000 stock market loss, turned naturally to mystery fiction. Her success inspired Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Georgette Heyer. The rise of these and many other outstanding women writers prompted literary critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their massive annotated index, A Catalogue of Crime, to observe, “The greatest masters of the twenties and thirties were in fact mistresses…They wrote true detection; they fashioned unsurpassable models,”

Why have women found such success in the mystery genre? Leonard Wibberley, author of The Mouse ThaI Roared, who wrote mysteries himself under the pseudonym Leonard Holton, noted:

The dectective stories written by men these days are usually full of tough talk and tense action and casual sex. Women, on the other hand, tend to deal with minutiae of appearance, of habit, of thought, or dress, weather and surroundings; of remarks or absence of remarks. These form a truer but quieter picture of life as life is. As a result women in my view are far superior to men in writing detective fiction.

At the same time, Christians and others of high moral principle have found the mystery a stimulating genre in which to write because it deals with ethical questions of right and wrong. Poet W. H. Auden, in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage”, saw in detective fiction nothing less than the search, through evil, for a return to the pre-Fall state of innocence. He wrote: “The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.” Theologian J. I. Packer calls detective tales:

Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe – whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. Villains are foiled, people in jeopardy are freed, justice is done, and the ending is happy…The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories. Paganism unleavened by Christianity, on the other hand, was and always will be pessimistic at heart.

Agreeing, evangelical statesman Roger Nicole notes that mysteries’ appeal is eschatological – they reflect what will finally be true about life:

Mysteries represent a tremendously optimistic outlook on the place of justice in life. In mysteries the guilty are always brought to justice, which is not always the case in life at this level. It will be the case at the last judgement. But at this level there are people who escape the tentacles of the law. But the mystery situation demands there be a sleuth to bring the criminal to justice. That is the thing that is so deeply satisfying. Every time the force of justice wins.

Literary critic Lionel Basney concludes, “The murder mystery witnesses to two moral laws: ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and ‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’

Women authors with high moral values, including many believing Christians, writing in the mystery genre have produced powerful images of ordained Christian detectives. From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, a member of the Montana Slate legislature, Margaret Scherf, created Episcopal rector Father Martin Buell, whose gruff approach to pastoring and detecting disguised a gentle and caring heart. Then Margaret Hubbard created the straight-shooting nun, Sister Mary Simon of Sister Simon’s Murder Case, who is as fast with a revolver as with a rosary. And in the 1970’s Edith Pargeter, distinguished historical novelist and award-winning translator of Czechoslovakian poetry, writing under the pseudonym of Ellis Peters, created a delightful detecting monk, Brother Cadfael, herbalist and physician both to the body and to the spirit.

Recently, women have been creating women detectives who are powerful religious leaders as well. Dorothy Gilman, creator of the redoubtable Mrs. Pollifax, espionage agent extraordinaire, introduced two detecting nuns, Sisters John and Hyacinthe, in her mystery A Nun In The Closet. A real nun, Sister Carol Anne O’Marie of the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet, has recently given readers a delightful detecting nun, Sister Mary Helen, as elderly as Christie’s Miss Marple but spry and sardonical. And psychological novelist Isabelle Holland has created the first ordained Protestant female sleuth, the Rev. Dr. Claire Aldington of A Death at St. Anselm’s and A Lover Scorned.

Justice in mythology was a woman lifting fair scales. As a conduit for the searing yet merciful justice of God, the powerful image of a detecting Christian believer, piercing through intermeshing evil to identify sin and bring about retribution and restoration, is a salutary one. It reminds us all by parable of what the Christian task is all about As God’s emissaries, all Christians – women equally with men – can bring the clear vision of justice and the sight of restoration to a groping, evilly-blinded world.