Mar. 22, 1999
Volume 51, No. 24
Detective fiction by women provides glimpse into past
According to some literary historians, no significant detective fiction was written between Edgar Allan Poe's famous stories of the 1840s and Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled novels of the 1920s. Catherine Nickerson refutes that idea in her newly released book, The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, which examines "domestic detective fiction" written between the Civil War and World War II.
These books were very popular in their time, but they're now considered obscure because detective fiction is often weeded out of literary collections, said Nickerson, an associate professor with a joint appointment in English and American studies.
Hardbound books rather than dime novels, these books appealed to middle-class, habitual readers, Nickerson said. "They were always considered light reading, but they were incredibly popular, which means that people liked them, recommended them to friends and went back for more."
Nickerson focused on writers such as Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart--Northern women who usually set their stories in Northeastern cities. Victor, a prolific writer in many genres, began writing detective novels in the 1860s under the pseudonym "Seeley Regester" and used male detectives as her protagonists.
Green started writing in the 1870s and used male detectives in her stories until the 1890s, when she introduced the female detective into her books. Universally this character tended to be a middle-aged spinster who competed with and outsmarted the police detective officially on the scene, rather than a professional detective.
A pattern developed in women's detective fiction during this period, Nickerson explained. Typically the male detective came in with a presumption of intellectual and moral superiority, but the female detective proved more clever than he, seeing more layers to the story. For instance, one of Green's female detectives speaks of "needing women's eyes for women's matters."
Rinehart is more familiar to modern readers. She started publishing in 1908 and continued into the 1940s. Her detectives were almost always women, and the stories were told as first-person narratives. This narrative voice was really important to Rinehart, Nickerson said, because she wanted to "let us into the experience of being a detective--being confused, even being terrified."
While domestic detective fiction--especially Rinehart's--includes details about domestic life, its rise more often reflects cultural anxieties of the period. "From literature from the 1870s you see that people were terrified about street crime and burglary and mugging and rape," Nickerson said. "In the post-Civil War period there was a sense that all the rules had changed, even in the North. Particularly in cities there was a sense you didn't know your neighbors anymore."
These feelings, she noted, corresponded to the rise in immigration at the time. "Detective fiction is ultimately about the problem of not being able to trust people, because a detective story is only a mystery if you can't figure out who did it," Nickerson said. "So it's about figuring out who's trustworthy and who isn't. It's also about not trusting surfaces, because in the novels I write about the perpetrators are people who seem respectable."
The stories are "more like dreams of a culture than a snapshot of it," Nickerson added. Their appeal lies in a structure of convention that allows readers to explore their innermost fears and demons with some sense that it's going to be OK in the end. "I think that the detective hero is a particular kind of hero for the modern age," she said.