In the Shadow of Agatha Christie:
Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers, 1850-1917
Edited by Leslie S. Klinger
Pegasus Books, 2018
As the great editor (he of last year's excellent The New Annotated Frankenstein) Leslie Klinger notes in his Introduction to In the Shadow of Agatha Christie: Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers, 1850-1917, Christie will always be considered “the Queen of Crime.” This kind of sobriquet naturally invites readers to search for predecessors – and naturally invites editors to assemble books like this one. Even half a century ago the exercise was in full swing with Hugh Greene's now-venerable The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.
The only shortcoming of In the Shadow of Agatha Christie is its comparative brevity; virtually every one of the sixteen stories Klinger includes in this volume operates not only as buoyant entertainment in its own right but also a door opened just a tantalizing wedge onto whole careers, entire lifetimes of writing. Most of the authors in this book were not only pioneers but prolific; their stories will make most readers want to explore the rest of their work, now moldering in old library basements or grandparents' attics.
Some of these Christie forerunners enjoyed considerable fame when they were alive and writing, from popular 19th-century Australian writer Mary Helena Fortune (whose “Traces of Crime” is reprinted here) to Elizabeth Corbett, “an English writer of mysteries and feminist literature, at one point as highly regarded as Conan Doyle,” whose “Catching a Burglar” ripples with bright dialogue.
Literature students might recognize the name of Ellen Wood, whose 1861 novel East Lynne “made her reputation” but who also from 1868 to 1891 wrote a series of amateur detective stories featuring the character of Johnny Ludlow, who affably insists on what later fiction would consider the basic tenets of procedural detective work – as in “Mrs. Todhetley's Earrings,” in which the charmingly miniature crime is a missing earring:
“The first step, Squire Todhetley, is to make ourselves sure that the earring is the one we are in quest of. With this view, I am here to request Mrs. Todhetley to allow me to see the fellow-earring. Cripp has organized a plan by which he believes we can get to see the one I have been telling you of; but it will be of no use our seeing it if we can't identify it.”
One of the book's most memorable stories has a remarkable provenance: Susan Glaspell's “Jury of Her Peers” began life as a one-act play called “Trifles,” written in 1916 and based on a murder trial Glaspell had covered in Des Moines in 1900. Glaspell, whose 1931 play “Alison's House” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, adapted “Trifles” into the short story “Jury of Her Peers,” in which the main character, Mrs. Hale, lives on the page as the most fully-realized character in the entire anthology, constantly second-guessing everybody and herself, smarter than all the townsfolk involved in the disturbing case of the troubled woman Mrs. Hale still thinks of as Minnie Foster:
She thought of the flour in her kitchen at home – half sifted, half not sifted. She had been interrupted, and had left things half done. What had interrupted Minnie Foster? Why had that work been left half done? She made a move as if to finish it, – unfinished things always bothered her, – and then she glanced around and saw that Mrs. Peters was watching her – and she didn't want Mrs. Peters to get that feeling she had got of work begun and then – for some reason – not finished.
As with everything else in In the Shadow of Agatha Christie, this eagerly invites an author's entire rediscovery. And in this as in so many other things, the Internet Age is fortunate: Susan Glaspell is alive and well at free-ebook sites like Project Gutenberg, as are many other of her sisters in pre-Christie crime.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.