Review by Karen Langley
We readers have never been able to get enough of crime fiction, it seems, and in the 21st century the genre is as popular as it ever was. Interestingly, many of the biggest names in mystery writing are women, Agatha Christie being of course known as the Queen of Crime; and in an intriguing new book, Sally Cline takes a look at women’s crime writing from its beginnings with Christie, Sayers et al up to modern practitioners such as Val McDermid and Lynda La Plante.
Cline has an impressive pedigree as an author, having produced books on characters as fascinating as Radclyffe Hall, Zelda Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett. Here, however, she turns her talents to a study of the kind of crime novels women produce, and just why they’re so attracted to writing (and reading) it. After opening with an exploration of that topic (which I’ll come back to later), Cline studies five Golden Age women authors: Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngiao Marsh. Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey. Her touch is light when dealing with the latter four, as obviously her focus here is on Christie, but it’s good to see them acknowledged as the trailblazers they were.
Cline then goes on to explore the development of crime writing over the decades, with chapters on PIs, women in the police force on both sides of the Atlantic, those who work on the scientific side of crime, and diversity/inclusion. The last aspect is something which is only gradually changing; and the two chapters entitled “Lesbian Protagonists Appear” and “Black, Disabled, Visible” were particularly interesting, though I did wonder whether the latter chapter should have been subdivided. The domestic noir chapter was also full of fascinating facts, though I was surprised not to see Celia Fremlin getting a mention for her pioneering work in that area.
The really interesting aspect of the book is that much of it is underpinned by interviews Cline has undertaken with modern-day women crime writers like Kathy Reichs, Nicola Upson and Sophie Hannah. So their opinions and thoughts on the topics Cline discusses are scattered throughout the book and this anecdotal way of approaching the subjects does make the book very readable and accessible. However, it does also mean that the book tends to keep its analysis fairly light as there isn’t the space to include deeper explorations of the subjects once the biographies of the writers and the quotes from the interviewees are included. This is a bit of a shame, as Cline is approaching some really interesting aspects of crime writing and I would like to have seen a little more analysis of some her topics.
Cline’s last chapter looks at the development of women lawyers and the like in fiction, rounding up her book with thoughts on whether women authors and crime writing itself are taken seriously enough nowadays; it often seems to be dismissed simply as genre entertainment, but as Cline reveals, this kind of book can serve as entertainment, catharsis or just good literary fiction, particularly as the boundaries between genres tend to be blurring nowadays.
After Agatha is an entertaining and often thought-provoking read, which is also potentially bad for any reader’s wishlist/TBR; however, there was one element which I have to say I found myself questioning. As I mentioned earlier, Cline explores the reasons why women read and write crime fiction, and particularly the kind of books which nowadays feature extreme, often sadistic, violence against women. I have to confess I didn’t find her arguments that women read them to exorcise or help deal with their fears of violence completely convincing; I’ve personally stopped reading most modern crime novels because of the gore and torture, and I know I’m not the only one. Cline, to her credit, does discuss the topic quite deeply, covering the controversy around the subject, the setting up of the Staunch Prize, and whether wanting to stop some of the almost pornographic sexual violence in these books is censorship or a necessity. This particular angle is a complex one, with no easy answers, and for myself I know that, like many crime fans, I read mysteries for the puzzle element.
That aside, After Agatha is a fascinating read, and an excellent resource if you want a potted history of women and crime writing. It was really interesting to hear modern-day crime book authors discussing their own work and motivations, as well as giving their views on the classic authors. Cline’s approach to investigating women and crime writing is an original one, and if you want an informative and wide-ranging overview of the subject this book will be ideal for you!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves to try to puzzle out the solution to a murder mystery (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Sally Cline, After Agatha (Oldcastle Books, 2022). 978-0857302328 432pp., paperback original.
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