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.