Friday 2 April 2010

Forgotten Book - Deadlier Than The Male

Jessica Mann is an accomplished novelist, and I plan to write about her fiction in a future blog post, but my choice today for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a non-fiction work dating back to 1981. Deadlier Than The Male was written at a time when reference volumes about the crime fiction genre came out in a trickle, rather than (as now) a flood. But nearly three decades on, it stands up to scrutiny very well indeed.

The book is sub-titled ‘An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing’, and it seeks to answer the question: ‘Why is it that respectable English women are so good at murder?’

Mann displays her formidable knowledge of the genre throughout. The heart of the book is devoted to an in-depth look at the work of Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Tey and Allingham, but many other authors are considered (including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, one of whose forgotten titles I featured last week.) I was pleased to see mention of Nina Bawden – it’s now seldom noted that, early in her career, she wrote detective stories of real merit.

This is such a good book that I’m sorry Mann has not written further works of crime-related criticism – although she remains a highly regarded reviewer. One of her many interesting observations is that ‘Crime novelists…are particularly reticent about their own personal lives’. I think it’s fair to say that this is less the case today than it was in 1981, thanks to the pressures on authors to promote themselves, coupled with the rise of the internet, social networking, and, yes, blogging. It’s not at all easy for modern crime writers to maintain their privacy as did the likes of Sayers, Christie and their contemporaries. But whether the change is wholly a good thing is an interesting subject for debate.

One final point. Mann acknowledges the help of that delightful writer Catherine Aird, and refers to Aird's proposed biography of Josephine Tey. It's a matter for regret that the biography has never appeared, and I still hope against hope that, one day, it might.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for this contribution. The book itself seems very much worth finding and reading. What strikes me as much as anything else, though, is your comment (and Mann's) about wriers keeping personal lives private. You're absolutely right that, in these days of easy access to information, as well as the advent of cyberspace, it's very difficult to maintain one's privacy. It's not just a matter of marketinig and promoting (although I think you are correct about that). It's also a matter of what's considered "fair game" for information to be shared.

Minnie said...

Yes, it's a superb book - and Jessica Mann as talented a reviewer as she is a writer of crime fiction. She was in the news late last year, stating she was giving up reviewing in dismay at the increasing instances of increasingly violent misogyny in the genre - even by women writers (no names; no packdrill: we know who they are ...).
See her point. But the publishers' response was, typically,'it's what the public demands'. Hm (cf success of Alexander McCall Smith).
And, yes, it would be wonderful to see a bio of Josephine Tey by Catherine Aird.
Bonne fete a toutes et a tous (even sans diacritics!).

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love this sort of book.

Deb said...

Jessica Mann's fictional work is also very good. THE EIGHTH DEADLY SIN is one of her best: An upper-middle-class woman commits careless, almost anonymous, adultery, but soon discovers her lover has managed to track her down. Very well done.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Because of your posts I have been looking into books that are less known in the mystery line. Keep these posts coming.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting book.

Yes, I agree with you...changing times and changing publisher needs means less author privacy.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

Great comments, thanks.
Margot, I quite agree. A big issue for all writers, I think.
Minnie, yes, she is a fine novelist.
Deb, I haven't read that one, but will seek it out.
Thanks, Ann, I shall do my best!

Maxine Clarke said...

Funnily enough, I read this book years ago, but did not retain either that fact (until reading your post) or the author's name. How fascinating that it should be Jessica Mann, who as you say is an excellent author of novels and journalist/reviewer. I very much enjoyed her (most recent?) novel, The Mystery Writer.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I don't know that one, but it sounds good and I shall seek it out.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I was disappointed, however, to see how dismissive Mann was of Agatha Christie as a writer (as opposed to a puzzler). "Christe's charm lies partly in the fact that her characters do not become real. When the puppet show is over, they are put back in the box. We do not wonder, we do not care, what happens to the next." In her review of the recent Christie biography, Mann made clear her view has not changed.

But "we" do not necessarily feel this way. I personally think Christie succeeds in some of her books (such as The Hollow and Five Little Pigs) in kindling some interest in her characters; and, perhaps more noteworthy, whatever I or Jessica Mann may think, it's clear a lot of Christie readers (not all of them dummies, presumably) care about the characters. Heck, there are people who even care about Tommy and Tuppence! Christie must have done something right, in addition to the puzzles.

I don't want to claim Christie as a great "literary" writer--I don't believe she was--but I think sometimes genre critics/novelists like Mann and more recently P. D. James are too dismissive of the Queen of Crime as no more than a mere puzzler (not that that's something at which to sneeze).