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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 448-457



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The Simple Art of Detection: The Female Detective in Victorian and Contemporary Mystery Novels

Suzanne Young


Catherine Ross Nickerson. The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction By American Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. xix + 275 pp.

Priscilla L. Walton and Manina Jones. Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-boiled Tradition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. xii + 315 pp.

Looking over an anthology of classic essays by Dorothy L. Sayers, W. H. Auden, and others on the detective novel, I am struck by the way that particular strains of the detective novel attract particular readers and literary critics. This is, of course, true of most literature--there is something in the lyric poetry tradition that draws a certain kind of mind, as there is, for another kind of mind, something in the novel of sensibility. The case of detective fiction, though, is special in the sense that the reader-critic's partiality is heightened to the level of a minor obsession by the convention-bound nature of the genre. Thus it is that Auden [End Page 448] confesses in "The Guilty Vicarage" that he only enjoys detective novels if they are set in rural England and take place in a closed society still "in a state of grace" (18), a shattered innocence that is restored by the solution of the crime. What is interesting about two recent critical studies of female detective fiction is that the subgenres under question have drawn not only very different reader-critics, but also contrasting critical approaches. While the questions raised by feminist narrative theory in Nickerson's The Web of Iniquity seem congenial to the domestic detective novel that is her subject, the more recent female hard-boiled genre that Walton and Jones study in Detective Agency seems necessarily to call for the tools of feminist cultural studies. Both approaches bring with them certain concerns and assumptions: Nickerson's study reveals less than we might expect about the cultural work the novels perform in favor of attention to their narrative strategies and generic forebears. The opposite is true of Walton and Jones, whose emphasis on commercial context edges out, to a certain extent, focused analysis of particular narratives.

In The Web of Iniquity, Nickerson draws our attention to domestic detection novels, a forgotten tradition of American mystery writing that combined scrutiny of domestic family arrangements with the emotional registers of traditional Gothic fiction. As with the best work in women's studies, Nickerson's book does not simply resurrect forgotten writers such as Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katherine Green, and Mary Roberts Rinehart but helps us to see the whole tradition in a new light. The lineage of the detective novel from Poe to Conan Doyle to Sayers, Christie, and Margery Allingham--a lineage diverted in America by the advent of hard-boiled detective fiction--must be redrawn to take into account these best-selling and important writers from the mid to late nineteenth century. Although Nickerson's use of historical context, such as the history of spying agencies, might have informed the analysis more integrally, her readings are engaging and her reconstruction of this forgotten tradition is impressive.

One of the most interesting aspects of Nickerson's book is her decision to trace generic influences on the form, especially the domestic or sentimental novel and the Gothic tradition in literature. In that discussion, we see how the presence of the female detective recasts both the Gothic's potential for gender critique in its depiction of women trapped in domestic spaces and the domestic novel's assertion of the [End Page 449] home as the center of value against the public market economy. Early novels of domestic detection, Nickerson notes, often include scenes of "searching the middle-class home and interrogating the middle-class family and its servants" (17) as a way to break down the multiple barriers of concealment that the Gothic exploits and to root out the threats to domestic sanctity suggested by the encroachments of commodity capitalism...

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