The Queens Of Crime
by Z.J. Czupor
In the span of sixty years from 1920-1980, five women published 143 mystery novels and dominated the genre in what is known as the “Golden Age” of British mystery fiction.
Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh were prolific authors of the era. Three of them were award-winning, all were bestselling, and they led the way in not only developing the detective story with puzzling plots and unforgettable characters, but they also pushed the boundaries of the detective novel by introducing nuanced relationships, psychological issues, and confronted the social matters of the day. And they influenced a new generation of writers. In short, they were “The Queens of Crime.”
Except for Marsh, who was a New Zealander, the other four were all born and lived in England. A sixth British writer, Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983), who equaled Christie’s output of sixty-six novels, is sometimes considered one of the “Queens of Crime.” While her books were popular in her lifetime, unfortunately, her contribution to the genre has been overlooked in the decades since her death. We’ll examine her life in a subsequent Mystery Minute. She’s worth knowing.
The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction roughly spanned the period between the two world wars. Howard Haycraft (1905-1991), a historian of the mystery genre, who coined the term the “Golden Age,” said it lasted from 1918-1930. However, the literary output by the “Queens of Crime” and their popularity have lasted into modern times.
Most of the novels in the Golden Age were characterized as “whodunits” challenging the reader to solve the crime before the detective did. These stories often took place in a secluded English country manor and featured upper-class characters, who are suddenly confronted with a murder. Readers were led to believe that any one of the cast of characters could have committed the evil deed. The story is propelled by the need to unravel the mystery and usually wrapped up with a gratifying ending.
Haycraft said it was these English writers who pioneered in developing detective fiction through the introduction of memorable amateur and professional detectives, their use of innovative plots, interesting characters, social manners of the day, facts, and amusing misdirection—all which kept readers enthralled and guessing as to who committed the crime.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) started it all by inventing the first modern amateur detective: C. Auguste Dupin. His short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue first appeared in Graham’s Magazine, April 1841. But he only wrote four mysteries before he lost interest. Then, in the 1880s, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries appeared in book-length form and preceded the Golden Age. Conan Doyle’s stories set the tone for the beginning of the novelized detective genre.
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie (1890-1976)
While Agatha Christie’s mysteries appeared on the scene thirty-three years after Conan Doyle, she is hands down the bestselling novelist of all time. Her sixty-six detective novels, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the amateur Miss Jane Marple, have sold over a billion copies in English and another billion in translation in forty-five languages. Only the Bible and works of Shakespeare have outsold Christie.
As an author, Christie was known for her intricate and puzzling plots and her good use of humor. While some critics panned her characters as wooden and two-dimensional, a third dimension often revealed itself at the end of her novels, in which she highlighted her characters’ humanity, their psychological issues, or their evil intentions.
In a literary era dominated by males, Christie considered publishing her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) under a male pseudonym, either Martin West or Mostyn Grey. When she couldn’t decide she finally settled on using her own name.
According to Christie’s estate, And Then There Were None, is the bestselling crime novel of all time with 100 million in sales. And as recently as 2020, more than 2 million of her books have sold in English.
Christie also wrote fourteen short story collections, and authored the world’s longest running theatrical play, a murder mystery, The Mousetrap. The play ran from 1952-2018 with 27,500 performances.
In 1955, Mystery Writers of America named her the Grand Master. A year later, her play, Witness for the Prosecution (1953), won the Edgar Award from MWA, and in 2013, the United Kingdom’s Crime Writers Association named her the “Best Crime Writer.” Finally, in recognition of her literary contribution, Malice Domestic (an annual mystery fan convention established in 1989) created the Agatha Awards, presented to authors who best represent the works of Christie in mystery fiction.
In addition to her literary output, thanks to TV and film adaptations in Britain and America, her two detectives were popularized to audiences world-wide.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957)
Writing as Dorothy L. Sayers, she published sixteen novels, ten short story collections, edited four nonfiction works about the mystery genre, authored eleven plays, and twenty-five other nonfiction works. Her prose has been called “magnificent” with a good use of humor.
Gaudy Night (1935) was her tenth to feature her detective Lord Peter Wimsey and the third to include amateur detective Harriet Vane. While no murders occur, the tale is complex and whimsical and includes psychological suspense and thrills. Sayers also interwove a love story and commented on women’s struggles to achieve independence in 1930s England.
As a result, Gaudy Night has been described as the first feminist mystery novel. But she distanced herself from the feminist movement preferring instead to be considered “simply human.” She refused to call herself a feminist for she believed in practicing women’s rights more than in preaching them.
But her finest literary achievement is attributed to her ninth mystery, The Nine Tailors (1934) about a mysterious death involving a group of bell ringers at a local parish church. In 1996 the British Crime Writers’ Association awarded her the Rusty Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the 1930s, an award devised and organized for the Association by Russell James, known as the “Godfather of British noir.” He also is one of the editors of the Encyclopedia of British Crime Writing (2008).
Haycraft noted that some literary critics have called Sayers the greatest of mystery writers. “Whether or not the reader agrees with this verdict, he cannot, unless he is both obtuse and ungrateful, dispute her preëminence as one of the most brilliant and prescient artists the genre has yet produced… [The Nine Tailors] is in the writer’s estimation her finest achievement and one of the truly great detective stories of all time.”
Five of her books were ranked in the “Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time” by Mystery Writers of America, and four made the “Top 100 Crime Novels” list by the Crime Writers Association. Her combined nine top rankings are better than Agatha Christie’s seven rankings in the same two lists.
Sayers was a founding member of The Detection Club and served as its third president from 1949-1957.
Margery Louise Allingham (1904-1966)
Reviewers of mystery novels in the Golden Age claimed that Margery Allingham was the most versatile writer of the group and the most entertaining. Her fictional world is described as “absurd and sinister.” She was considered a master of description and suspense and clever in her use of humor. She also challenged her readers with questions of ethical integrity.
A prolific writer, Allingham produced eighteen mystery novels, thirty-eight short stories, two works of nonfiction, two radio plays, and one stage play.
Her recurring detective is the fictional Albert Campion, a pseudonym for a man with supposed ties to British royalty. He first appeared as a supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), an adventure story involving a ring of criminals, and continued as her leading protagonist in all her novels and more than twenty short stories.
The Campion stories are generally adventure tales rather than true mysteries, and rarely featured puzzles for the reader to solve. On the contrary, her plot lines were advanced by well-developed characters and suspenseful situations. Most of her books were short in length as they only filled about two-hundred pages.
Supposedly, Allingham created Campion as a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey. As her writing matured and the series progressed, she more fully established Campion’s identity and made him more three dimensional.
The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), her fourteenth Campion novel, is considered her best work. The “Tiger” is a dangerous killer in foggy London and Allingham discusses good and evil in this psychological mystery. British author J.K. Rowling, famous for her Harry Potter series, called this her favorite crime novel.
After Allingham’s death her husband Philip Youngman Carter (1904-1969) completed her last Campion book and wrote two more before his own death. However, he died before the last one was completed. Mr. Campion’s Farewell was finished by British crime writer Mike Ripley in 2014 under the approval of the Margery Allingham Society. Ripley went on to write nine more Campion novels under his name.
Josephine Tey, pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh, (1896-1952)
Elizabeth MacKintosh was a Scottish author and chose the name of Josephine Tey as her pen name, which was the name of her great-great grandmother, who lived in Suffolk on the eastern side of England. She also wrote under the name Gordon Daviot. In fact, her first novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), was by Daviot.
While her literary output was limited, only eleven mystery novels, she was considered a quality writer, nimble and witty. She textured her prose by inserting features of the years between the world wars. She introduced Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard Inspector, as her protagonist. Grant appeared in stories darker than the other Queen writers and he often ventured into topics usually discussed behind closed doors.
Her novel, The Daughter of Time (1951) was considered her best work and voted as the “best crime novel of all time” by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. She wrote against the grain of convention by having her detective convalesce in bed with a broken leg. To pass the time, Grant tries to solve one of Britain’s most notorious crimes and the question of did King Richard III kill his princes in the Tower of London?
Through her detective, Tey explores how history, myths, and urban legends are constructed, and how some events were accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence, or any plausibility. In the end, Grant decides that the Tudors ensured their propaganda of King Richard and their version of history prevailed. He also deduced that the princes were still alive after Richard’s death and were more likely imprisoned and killed by Richard’s successor, King Henry VII.
On its publication, American author, critic, and editor Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) called the The Daughter of Time “one of the permanent classics in the detective field…one of the best, not of the year, but of all time.”
In addition to the book’s top ranking in CWA’s “Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time,” her novel The Franchise Affair (1948) was ranked #11. She also scored three top rankings in MWA’s list of “The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.”
Her last two novels were published in 1952. The Singing Sands as Josephine Tey and The Privateer as Gordon Daviot.
Whether she presented herself as Elizabeth MacKintosh, Josephine Tey, or Gordon Daviot, she was a private person. She never married, and there are only a few photographs of her. Her literary friends called her Gordon, a name she first used when writing theatrical plays, before she turned to writing mysteries.
Even as she became ill and neared death, she didn’t confide in her friends. Some never knew she passed away until they read her obituary in the newspaper. In her lifetime, Tey wrote eleven novels, a biography, ten radio plays, and four TV plays.
Writer Nicola Upson, who set out to write a biography about her, said “Tey’s great genius is to create a story which can be read on many levels, and which differs according to its audience—a trick that Tey played with her life, too, and just as effectively.” (Francis Wheen, Vanity Fair, Sept. 25, 2015).
Wheen added that Tey’s greatest mystery may be the one she created for herself.
Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982)
Her first name is pronounced Nye-oh, a girl’s name of Maori origin. Marsh is a New Zealand mystery writer but because most of her stories are set in England (only four in New Zealand), she is included among the “Queens of Crime.”
She authored thirty-two detective novels featuring Roderick Alleyn, a Scotland Yard Inspector, one of which was published posthumously. She was considered a quality writer, adept at creating puzzle plot mysteries with wit and style. But she also wrote eight short stories, one TV script, five stage plays, four nonfiction books, ten nonfiction articles, and was a distinguished theater director in New Zealand.
Marsh’s stories often began with about one-hundred pages of exposition in which she introduced her characters, their relationships, and the setting long before a crime occurs. Only then does her protagonist Roderick Alleyn show up. Because of her passion for theater, many of her novels relied on theatrical settings in which a murder is committed involving either an actor or a theater.
Her third Alleyn tale, The Nursing Home Murder (1935) is memorable for several reasons. Aside from being her most popular and bestselling novel, The Times of London gave it credit for “transforming the detective story from a mere puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel.” She co-authored the novel with H. Jellett, a surgeon, who offered his knowledge of British hospitals. He received credit as co-author in the first edition. Interestingly, this is the book read by a character in an Agatha Christie novel, Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).
Marsh’s novel, Colour Scheme (1943), is the one she thought was her best written. The story features one of the most memorable murders in Golden Age crime fiction. In the tale, a man despised by New Zealanders and hated by British exiles interferes with wartime spies. He is lured into a pool of boiling mud and left to die on an island. The murder gives Inspector Alleyn plenty of suspects to interrogate.
In 1978, Marsh was awarded the Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America and she was the last of the “Queens of Crime” to be inducted into the Detection Club in 1974. Unfortunately, none of her novels were ranked in CWA’s or MWA’s Top 100 lists.
Many of the mysteries written by the “Queens of Crime” hold up today as worthy literature of the genre. These innovative authors gave their audiences an inside look at social history, the political upheavals between the two world wars, and offered suspenseful escapism to legions of readers told through the eyes of an ingenious fictional detective who had the capability to restore social order.
British-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) said, “The detective story (of the Golden Age) may have reassured people that disruptive forces lay not in the social order but just in one bad person, who could be removed.”
The word detective did not exist at the time Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue, though there were other stories that featured similar problem-solving characters. Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819), by E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which Mlle. de Scuderi, a kind of 19th-century Miss Marple, establishes the innocence of the police’s favorite suspect in the murder of a jeweler, is sometimes cited as the first detective story.
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a German author of fantasy and gothic horror. His three short stories formed the basis of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (premiered 1881). Hoffmann also authored the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), on which the ballet The Nutcracker (1892) is based by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Other forerunners to detective stories include French philosopher Voltaire‘s (1694-1778) novella, Zadig (1748), about a Zoroastrian philosopher in Babylonia who performs similar feats of analysis. This story is assumed to be borrowed from The Three Princes of Serendip (1557), an Italian rendition of Indian poet Amir Khusro‘s (1253-1325) “Hasht-Bihisht,” a famous Persian poem of an alleged camel theft and recovery.
Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor claim in A Catalogue of Crime (1971) that Edgar Allan Poe may have been inspired by Voltaire’s Zadig when he created his detective, Dupin, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by Zadig when he created his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Of Zadig they wrote, “However implausible and ‘agrarian’ his method, Zadig is the first systematic detective in modern literature, and that priority itself adds to his troubles in the story until his royal vindication.”
The word “detective” entered the English language in the mid-1800s, derived from the Latin detegere meaning to “uncover.” Official detectives appeared in the mid-Victorian period, after the detective branch of London’s Metropolitan Police was founded in 1842 with eight professionals and two inspectors.
At almost the same period, the genre of detective fiction was emerging but mainly in short story form, in which a mystery or crime occurs. Then an amateur or professional detective arrives to solve it. The solution is revealed at the end by the detective through the scientific method—conclusions drawn from material evidence. Most of the short stories were published in Strand Magazine starting in 1891. The prevailing thought among writers and publishers was that it was easier to maintain suspense in short story form than in book-length.
The Detection Club, sometimes referred to as the London Detection Club, was founded in 1928 by English crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox (1983-1971). Founding members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many others. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), famous for his Father Brown detective stories, served as its first president (1930-1936). Members were invited to join the club and had to agree to an initiation ritual with an oath that was written by Sayers. The last “Golden Age” author to be inducted was Ngaio Marsh in 1974. Members still meet annually for dinner. Christie only agreed to serve as president if a co-president was appointed to conduct club proceedings. That co-role was filled by Lord Ronald Gorell Barnes (1884-1963), a British author, politician, poet, and newspaper editor. Gorell also wrote fourteen detective novels.
ZJ Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.