A long time ago, I was handed a research project. I was working for Professor Stephen Knight, then at Melbourne University. He was writing a book on the history of crime fiction, which meant I had the fun of being paid to read through the source matter and tell him if it was worth his attention or not. But early on in the research, he had a puzzle: there was supposedly an early woman crime writer working in Melbourne in the 19th century, named Mrs Fortune. Did she exist, or was she a pseudonym for another better-known writer, say Marcus Clarke?
The answer to that puzzle was 'Yes', and an enduring research interest in early crime fiction and the women who wrote it. Mary Fortune would prove to have written over 500 detective stories, in a series that lasted for forty years, the longest early serial in the crime genre, worldwide. She was also a bigamist (her second husband being a policeman), had an illegitimate child, and a truly bohemian existence—at a time when women were supposed to be paragons of virtue.
But she was hardly isolated as a pioneer in the crime genre. The popular belief is that crime was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, refined by Wilkie Collins 20 years later, and then came to an early fruition with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. This genealogy admitted one mother of genre, American Anna Katharine Green, whose first detective novel was a bestseller in 1878. In fact, Mary Fortune preceded her, as did other, very interesting women.
Consider these other mothers of genre:
• Metta Victor, who wrote the first American detective novel, The Dead Letter, in 1866, and was also a mother of nine children.
• Mary Braddon, the major rival to Wilkie Collins, who had six children out of wedlock with her publisher, whilst being a bestselling author of novels featuring murder, mystery and detection.
• Catherine Crowe, who had a bestselling novel Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence, which begins with a murder, ends with its solution, and has no less than three female detectives. It was published in January 1840, four months before Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, popularly considered the originating text for the crime genre.
Add women and stir is a putdown of feminist research into history (with the emphasis on his). In my case the intent was stirring in the Australian sense, causing trouble. A study of the mothers of the crime genre had never been done, partly because of the huge amount of primary texts—over 5000 crime novels in English alone were published in the period 1800-1900. Even after I identified the principal mothers, a host of other authors begged for attention. For reasons of space, I had to leave them out of what became Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-century Crime Fiction: the Mothers of the Mystery Genre, which was published in England by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2010.
But consider this fact: that in an era where women were typically categorized as demure and house-bound, without control over their own fertility, and forbade access to professions such as law and the police, they still wrote crime fiction that competed with, and frequently surpassed, that of their male counterparts. As Val McDermid said in her preface to the book, they made up for what they lacked in experience with vivid, and even bloody imagination.
Which is a lesson every writer, regardless of genre, should consider.
I had good fun delving through the archives and rare book libraries researching the book, learning a lot about women and their stories—and also, if we don’t watch out, how easily the history of women can be forgotten. In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have had to write the book. But I’m glad I did, because I gained so much, in terms of knowledge and the inspiration these brave, gifted and tough women can be to all of us.
Lucy Sussex is an award-winning, ground-breaking Australian writer. My favourite story is the one she did for me for Baggage. Or maybe it's My Lady Tongue. Or those doll stories... or...You can find out more about her on her home page.