17 March 2013

Women in Mystery Month

by Emma Pulitzer
My guest today is Emma Pulitzer of Open Road Integrated Media. She celebrates Women in Mystery this Women's History Month, publishing works both new and old.
— Leigh
Historically, writing has been one of the few professions that have largely accepted women into its professional ranks. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Caroline Keene and dozens of other multiple-best-selling female authors have placed high on Must Read Mystery lists over the last century.   This year, we are taking a new look at women writers who have taken on “unlady-like” stories and characters. From Charlotte MacLeod’s murderous mayhem to Dorothy Uhnak’s tough-talking lady cops, the last hundred years have seen women fight crime, dig up clues, and chase bad guys at the same pace as their male peers. Here’s my list of 5 Women Mystery Authors to celebrate:

Patricia Wentworth Patricia Wentworth helped challenge society’s perception of the “stay-at-home woman” with her Miss Silver mysteries. Similar to the author, Miss Silver is an unassuming detective, because of her age and gender and expectations of women at the time. Despite this, she proves that, more often than not, she is able to find clues that even the most astute police officers overlook. Not only did Wentworth upend stereotypes of women with characters like Miss Silver, but her popularity in mystery fiction also helped advance women writers during the early 20th century.

Although she was always described as a “true lady” (she was never seen without her dainty white gloves), Charlotte MacLeod was a force to reckoned with. Born in 1922 in Canada, she moved to the United States at a young age, and eventually became a US citizen. During the 1940s and 1950s, while most women were expected to stay home and care for the kids or work as a secretary until marriage, MacLeod worked as a copy writer, then moved to join the staff of N. H. Miller & Company, an advertising firm, where she become vice president. During this time she wrote many mysteries, including the Peter Shandy series and the Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series. Her books went on to sell over a million copies, and continue to be loved for their humor, wit, and beloved characters. Charlotte MacLeod

Dorothy Uhnak Dorothy Uhnak used her fourteen years as a policewoman with the New York City Transit Authority—twelve of which she spent as a detective—as inspiration for her gritty crime novels. Her heroic efforts protecting the city even gained her a bit of fame when she was in the news for taking down a mugger who held her at gunpoint. When she retired in 1967, she claimed she left the force because of criminal discrimination. Despite her change in careers, however, Uhnak continued to look at life through the eyes of a cop, and translated her experiences into a number of successful novels, including Law and Order, The Bait, and her memoir about her time as a law enforcer, Policewoman.

Even with her early success as a senior editor for Seventeen magazine, Susan Isaacs, a self-proclaimed feminist, yearned for work that felt more substantial and began to freelance as a political speechwriter. Isaacs notes that this job taught her one of the fundamentals of writing fiction: drawing out the characters. By observing politicians and understanding the messages they wanted to convey, she learned how to adapt her writing to their different styles. Later she transitioned into writing fiction, and her first novel, Compromising Positions, was an instant bestseller. Since achieving success as a fiction author, Isaacs still finds herself writing about politics, but in a much more sinister medium. Susan Isaacs

Susan Dunlap Susan Dunlap’s career as a mystery writer was inspired by two things: an Agatha Christie novel and a dare. While reading the mystery, she mentioned to her husband that she too could write a mystery novel. “Well go ahead then,” he responded, and to show him she meant business, she put paper in the typewriter and began to type. Five years and five manuscripts later, Karma sold. But being a writer (she has written over seventeen books) is only part of her story. She is one of the original co-founders and served as the president of Sisters in Crime (SinC), a national organization that promotes and supports women crime writers and helps them to achieve equality in the industry. Speaking about the organization, Dunlap says, “It is a vehicle that brings women together, and makes them realize that they don’t have to only read mysteries–they can write them too.”

SleuthSayers celebrate our own Women in Mystery: Deborah, Elizabeth, Eve, Fran, Jan, and Janice, as well as our friends over at Women of Mystery. They're damn good writers!


  1. Isaacs notes that this job taught her one of the fundamentals of writing fiction: drawing out the characters.


    Thanks for such a wonderful post -- and the terrific suggested readings! You've got me on the lookout for Dorothy Uhnak books, to start with.


  2. Nice column.
    It's good to be reminded of the real pioneers.

  3. Nice to see this info in such a compact and well-illustrated form. I tend to think of the days of the many female writers before these who wrote as men and forget the progress of these great writers!

  4. I have a collection of more than 40 Patricia Wentworths, including all the Miss Silver books, and they're still among my comfort reads. My favorite Susan Isaacs books are Magic Hour, set in the Hamptons, and Shining Through, set during World War II, which was made into a movie with Melanie Griffiths and Michael Douglas that was ok, but not as good or as subtle as the book. And I'm glad to see Susan Dunlap getting attention again. She was in the same cohort as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller with her series featuring Berkeley, CA cop Jill Smith, but her work lost visibility for a while.

  5. Liz, I also love Patricia Wentworth and Charlotte Macleod, but I haven't stumbled upon Susan Dunlop or Marcia Muller. I think Sara Paretsky's VIW (dont ask me to spell it) lost her femininity. As good as the stories were, you could plug in a man't name and they still worked, but the one time I met her (Sara) she was wearing men's clothes! LOL. Sue Grafton pulled the same idea off much better. I think I've read everything she's written.

  6. Some modern authors are Tami Hoag, Tess Greatness and Catherine Coulter though my husband complains they throw themselves in the path of danger.

  7. Amy, I fondly think of Kinsey Millhone as a little sister– fun and kind of tomboyish, but still feminine. I know what you mean about V.I, but Kathleen Turner put paid to that.

    In past columns, I've quoted Sue Grafton writing I've admired. I'm grinning right now about her description of a bologna sandwich.

    Jan and Fran and Elizabeth, I confess I enjoy the classics most of all, mostly because that's what I was raised upon.

    Good point, Dixon! And like you, I have some reading to do.

    Anon, a friend asked me to read a couple of those authors. I thought a couple had brilliant concepts– one main character was a face reconstructionist– but to me (and possibly your husband) the bubbling romance takes precedence over the mystery plot. In one of those novels, a woman stalked by someone trying to kill her kept running off from her protector, even stealing and crashing his Jeep. In another, the main character fell in love with an assassin because he was sensitive and misunderstood. Really! (I may be conflating some of the same characters and plots.) Since women comprise the majority of the reading market, it's likely these aren't written with male readers in mind.

    My romance writer friends call them romances with elements of suspense. Most of SleuthSayers' novels would be mystery/suspense, some with elements of romance. Fran's and Elizabeth's novels come to mind in this regard. Of course our genres enjoy a number of cross-over authors who write for both markets.

  8. Let us not forget Caroline Keene and Nancy Drew! What girl didn't grow up without reading those novels!

    Kate Mills

  9. Kate, I agree. When I was a kid, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were often lumped together, especially on television, so we had exposure to both. I'm not quite certain, but I think someone even had them adventure together.

  10. Leigh, I don't read romance novels, but many of my readers suggest more romance and perhaps even marriage for Callie.

  11. I'll add Liza Cody (Rift - brilliant, brilliant book), Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Frazer, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters, M. C. Beaton (my favorite's the Hamish Macbeth series), and E. X. Ferrars (I love the ones with Virginia and Felix Freer).

  12. Janet Evanovich

  13. I too love Janet Evanovich, and all her goofy characters. (Can't say I loved the movie adaptation of her first book, though . . .)


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