In October, Sisters in Crime are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a HUGE convention called SheKilda. It’s on from 7-9th October at Rydge’s Hotel in Melbourne, and there will be heaps of women crime writers from Australia and overseas, plus – hopefully – heaps of readers as well. The link is www.SheKilda.com.au – check it out and you’ll see that there’s an amazing line-up of crime-writing talent. And one delighted but slightly puzzled participant – me.
I’ve been invited because of my new children’s novel, The Truth About Verity Sparks. Well, there’s crime in it all right (murder, arson, kidnapping, assault – rather a lot of crime, really, for a kid’s book!) and detection, so I guess I sort of squeak in. It’s funny, in a way – I’m not a crime fiction buff by any stretch of the imagination, but my late mother was, and often when I was looking for something to read I’d wander up to look at her shelves and take something from her collection back with me. She didn’t just collect the latest, or the most well-known, either. She was interested in the Victorian prototypes like Wilkie Collins ‘The Woman in White’ and Fergus Hume’s Melbourne-set ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’, as well as many early 20th century examples. The famous ones like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers as well as the not-so-famous – a genre I categorize to myself (and it’s rather twee, I know) as “forgotten best-sellers of yesteryear”. That’s because though on the covers or inside the title page there’ll be the boast “20th thousand” or ’16th printing’ or whatever, the books and authors will often be almost completely forgotten.
Take the case of Mary Roberts Rinehart. I’m having a bit of an MRR binge at the present, thanks to Mum’s collection. (When Mum died, more than thirty boxes of crime fiction were sold to a second-hand dealer, but I saved a few favourites.) MRR was an American writer – sometimes called ‘The American Agatha Christie’ – who lived from 1876 to 1957, and in the course of her long career published what Rinehart afficionado Michael E. Grost calls ‘a mountain’ of short detective fiction in magazines plus over forty novels, plays and collections. Her first big success, ‘The Circular Staircase’ published in 1907, sold 1,250.000 which was an astonishing best-seller for those days. She’s credited with inventing the ‘If-I-Had-Known’ school of mystery writing (you know – ‘Had I but known the significance of the button in the garden bed, perhaps…etc etc) and the one I’ve just finished, ‘Haunted Lady’, does have a fair bit of that. It’s also got a delightful heroine, Hilda Adams, a nurse who her policeman friend (and just at the end, love interest) calls ‘Miss Pinkerton’ after the famous private detective agency. She’s neat and a bit prim, middle-aged and grey-haired but cherubic when she’s all pink after after her bath, very observant and very very sensible. Rinehart was a trained nurse herself, and married a doctor, so the medical aspects to her plots ring quite true. ‘Haunted Lady’ features a rich family with lots of dirty secrets and there’s much creeping and spying and being knocked out and found stabbed and so on – the usual happy family stuff – in a creepy old urban mansion. Loads of fun.
Before I read ‘Haunted Lady’, I sat up the night before till late with ‘The Wall’ – murders among the idle rich by the sea. Before that, it was ‘The Swimming Pool’ – ditto, but among country estates of New England – and ‘The Yellow Room’ – same again, during WWII. That they’re dated goes without saying, but there’s plenty of intrigue, suspense, deception and insanely complicated family machinations around money and inheritance, not to mention adulterous dalliances and of course, murder.
I’ve only got one more of Mum’s MRR’s to go now – it’s called ‘The Great Mistake’…and then I’ll need to get onto the second-hand book sites on the internet to see if I can find any more.
Today’s ‘Sisters in Crime’ are part of a long tradition of female crime writers, some of whom – like MRR – are almost forgotten today but still really worth a read. And I think my mother would be tickled pink to know that with my children’s novel, I’ve been admitted to the sisterhood.