The classic mystery novel began with Edgar Allen Poe’s character, C. Auguste C. Dupin and his case, The Murders in the Rue Morgue,
in 1841. Since then, there have been many variations of the mystery novel: hard-boiled detective, procedural, locked room, character study, horror, and so forth.
Sherlock Holmes made the mystery story respectable. First appearing as short story installments in The Strand Magazine, the stories were collected and published in book form. Holmes has become an icon – movies, books, travel tours, and websites are dedicated to this fictional detective.
But it was Agatha Christie and her fellow British female mystery writers who really made the mystery novel an addiction for readers. The creation of continuing characters such as Hercules Poirot, Jane Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Adam Dalgliesh, Richard Jury, and Mary Russell meant that the reader could learn more about their lives, their habits, their friends, and in particular, their mystery solving skills. Arthur Conan Doyle may have created Sherlock Holmes, but it took Laurie King to make him sexy. The following is an unofficial guide to some of the best British female mystery writers.
Agatha Christie wrote more than 80 novels. In 1920, she introduced her Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot in the novel A Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hercules likes the people he helps to have a happy ending. He is a romantic at heart and tries, usually successfully, to be a matchmaker. Miss Jane Marple was introduced in Christie’s short stories in the 1920’s. She is a little, old lady with a interesting outlook on life-always believing the worst because she has seen so much evil in her little village of St. Mary Mead. Never having had either a husband or children of her own, nevertheless, she seems to know what a wife should do to keep a husband faithful, and what parents should do to raise their children. And if something goes wrong in the process, a murder is committed, she has a personal experience from St. Mary Mead to help solve the crime. Some of the other Christie characters include Tommy and Tuppence Berresford, Harley Quin, Mr. Parker Pine, and Superintendent Battle.
The Golden Age of detective-story writing may very well have begun with Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, even though it is said to have actually broken some of the prescribed rules by having the narrator as the killer. As a member of the Detection Club, she had promised fair play with her readers, but Christie knew how to get around the rules-which she did again in Murder on the Orient Express.
Ngaio Marsh is originally from New Zealand but many of her novels are set in England. Her name is a Maori word meaning reflections on the water. Her main character, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is an aristocrat who became policeman for Scotland Yard. Finding her own style with the mystery novel, her characters were much more three-dimensional. With the addition of Agatha Troy, Alleyn truly became a well-rounded person, falling in love, getting married, having a family.
Margaret Lewis states in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing that because Marsh focused so much on characterization, her plots were sometimes too simplistic “introducing tidy solutions which jar[red] with the complexity of her created world.” All thirty-two of Marsh’s novels featured Alleyn, as she “never gotten tired of the old boy.”
Margary Allingham was another of the great Golden Age mystery writers. Allingham said that she felt safe writing mystery novels as they were like a box with four sides: “a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.” The Black Dudley Murder introduced her sleuth Albert Campion to the public.
Albert Campion’s family history and real name will never be known. With upper-class status and a foppish manner, he is linked with Lord Peter Wimsey as a product of the post World War I period. Like Wimsey, he is described as blond and affable with many friends who call on him for help. He has a man-servant, Magersfontein Lugg, who has many useful criminal connections.
Dorothy Sayers’ aristocrat-for-a-hero has a real name and a family history. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey is the younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver. A few of Sayers’ novels include Wimsey’s one true love-Harriet Vane, an Oxford-educated mystery writer-Sayers writing herself into her novels, perhaps? Winsey is a sensitive, well-educated soul, loyal to family and friends. His manservant, Mervyn Bunter, helps him with many of his cases, being an avid photographer and having an ability to ingratiate himself with the middle and lower class characters.
Sayers started writing mystery novels to pay the bills but believed that religion and medieval studies were more worthy of her time. After far too few mystery novels, she retired from the detective genre and worked on more cerebral matters, such as translating Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Phyllis Dorothy James White (P.D. James) created the character of Adam Dalgliesh in the 1962 mystery novel Cover Her Face. A complex character, Dalgliesh is a poet who gives the impression of being a stern, cold man, not an artist at all. But he has suffered in his life with the death of his wife and only child, and has a melancholy nature. James’ other detective, Cordelia Gray, a feisty private detective who seems to be Dalgliesh’s opposite in disposition, nevertheless intelligent and resourceful.
James has led a varied life outside her role as a mystery writer, including working for the National Health Service in psychiatric units, working for the Home Office in the policy and criminal policy departments, serving as a magistrate, working with the Church of England, and serving as the governor of the BBC. For those needing a breather from mystery novels, her science fiction novel, The Children of Men, is an excellent choice.
Thomas Lynley is Elizabeth George’s very complicated main character. Also of noble ancestry, he has a turbulent past which includes crippling his best friend, Simon St. James, and having an affair with the young woman who would eventually become Simon’s wife, Deborah. Having become a Scotland Yard inspector, he uses the talents of his friends Simon, Deborah, and Lady Helen Clyde to help solve his cases. His sergeant, Barbara Havers, is a working-class girl, with her own set of problems. But it is George’s ability to create characters you care about that keep the readers buying her novels. Instead of regretting Havers’ strong showing in some of the more recent novels, the reader comes to have greater compassion and enjoyment of her interesting attire and behavior.
Two of Anne Perry’s characters solve their crimes in Victorian London-Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. First introduced in The Cater Street Hangman, Pitt comes to the home of Charlotte to investigate a gruesome murder. He falls in love with Charlotte, but is unable to save her sister, who falls victim to the murderer.
William Monk is another of her protagonists in another historical mystery series. Monk was a very successful, although heartless, Scotland Yard inspector who loses his memory in a carriage accident. It is more interesting to read the novels featuring him in the order they were written as there is an underlying story about his past and how he is dealing with his present. Part of that present includes his relationship with Hester Latterly, an outspoken nurse who had worked with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.
Anne Perry is probably most notable as the only mystery author who has actually committed a murder. Portrayed in the movie Heavenly Creatures by Kate Winslet, Perry, whose birth name was Juliet Hulme, is shown as having been obsessed with her best friend to the point she was willing to commit a violent crime. Perry’s sense of morality, her compassion for others, and her detail of Victorian life make her novels excellent reading.
Ruth Rendell’s novels come in three kinds-the basic detective novel featuring Inspector Wexford, psychological thrillers and crime novels, some of which are written under the name of Barbara Vine. Her Inspector Wexford novels are very contemporary, dealing with the social ills of society. Introduced in 1964 in the novel From Doon With Death, Wexford’s family life is an integral part of the stories. Rendell’s psychological thrillers and crime novels are disturbing, strange, and haunting.
Martha Grimes and Laurie King are not technically British; however, they do have a fine appreciation for all things Anglo. They each have a series set in England so could qualify as a British female mystery writer.
Laurie King resurrected Sherlock Holmes in her Mary Russell novels. King’s writing is intelligent, her plots are Holmesian, and her characters are complex. One of the interesting quirks about her novels is how she incorporates well-known characters, either from real life or from other authors, in her novels. For instance, The Hunt is based on the premise of Rudyard Kipling’s character, Kimball O’Hara, being a friend of Sherlock Holmes and needing his assistance. In another, an interesting Oxford professor is mentioned who is creating another world, one peopled with elves and hobbits. He is so involved in this “middle earth” that he has created a new language for his characters. And in another, a silly, blonde man is playing the piano-we learn his name is Peter and he is far shrewder than he looks, in fact, he is very good at solving mysteries himself.
If we were to go to Long Piddleton and not see Melrose Plant, Diane Demorney, and Marshal Trueblood, and Vivian Rivington sitting in the Jack and Hammer, it would be a great disappointment. But since there is not even a real Long Piddleton, we will have to be satisfied with the imaginary one created by Martha Grimes. Her Richard Jury novels need to be read in the order they were written to fully understand and appreciate the background stories of the characters. Richard is a chief inspector with Scotland Yard. He uses his rich friend, Melrose Plant, to help with some of the quirkier aspects of his investigations. Plant, following in the aristocratic detective footprints, abandoned his title, but we don’t learn why until long into the series. The titles of Grimes novels comes from the pub local to the murder scene.
King and Grimes may not be true British female mystery writers; but they, along with Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Anne Perry, and P.D. James, bring a new Golden Age of detective stories to all who love a good mystery.