Showing posts with label Baroness Orczy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baroness Orczy. Show all posts

28 October 2016

We are what we write?

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.

22 December 2011

The Old Man in the Corner

Janice Law

Some time ago, I wrote about Baroness Emma Orczy's pioneering female detective, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard for the now closed Criminal Brief website. That led me to Orczy's more famous Old Man in the Corner who debuted in 1908. He was part of a group of highly rational, puzzle solving detectives inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and possibly the earliest of the 'armchair' detectives and ancestor of American favorite Nero Wolfe.

Like Sherlock Holmes with Watson, he has an amanuensis, Miss Burton of the Evening Observer, the young "female reporter" who was herself something of a novelty. She meets the Old Man at her favorite coffee shop, the Norfolk branch of the Aerated Bread Company, where he dines on milk and cheesecake and plays endlessly making knots in a length of string.

His casual remark that, "There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear on the investigation," begins their on-going conversation about the sensational crimes of the day. Miss Burton is skeptical about the Old Man's claims, but again and again he produces ingenious solutions to baffling mysteries.

His narratives of the crimes are extremely clear and provocative, and, despite her reservations, Miss Burton is fascinated. Unlike Watson, her only function is to be a sounding board and recorder. The Old Man leaves the coffee shop for excursions to courthouses and to assemble the dossiers of photos and documents he needs, but all such adventures are kept off stage.

In the Old Man in the Corner stories, Orczy keeps as strictly to the "unities" as Aristotle could want. Everything is confined to the ABC shop and a single conversation with Miss Burton. So far so good in a conventional vein; the puzzles are complex, the casts of characters interesting, the crimes varied.

The Old Man is, however, far odder and more distinctive than that brief summary would suggest. Unlike any other detective I can think of, the Old Man is not on the side of justice. Yes, we've had favorite characters who were criminals, Donald Westlake's bumbling robbers, for example. Lawrence Block has run a series about a professional hit man and Dexter, blood spatter expert and serial killer, is in print and on the tube.

But both of the latter are ultimately on the side of the angels, dispatching justice, if of a peculiar and personal sort. They may be immoral, but it would be unfair to dub them amoral. Not so the Old Man.

Several times, Miss Burton asks him why he doesn't place his superior intellect and clever solutions at the disposal of the police. The Old Man is perfectly clear about his motivation: He admires the murderers. Of the Fenchurch Street killer, he exclaims, "Ah! it was cleverly, artistically conceived! Kershaw is a genius." And he concludes on a note of mock horror at the thought of hanging such a man.

The Old Man's superior intellect is reserved for his own enjoyment and for the edification and amazement of Miss Burton, who occasionally, as in The York Mystery, agrees that publishing the solution would be unwise.

The Old Man's cases run the gamut of Edwardian crime, with an emphasis on inheritance squabbles, stolen jewelry, crimes of passion, and crimes to protect reputation and status. They often rely on disguises, and it must be said that the Old Man, who has some childish traits, has an almost childlike faith in the powers of wigs and costumes to confuse even those nearest and dearest.
If this is a weakness, the Old Man has a counterbalancing strength. Like Lady Molly, and unlike police officialdom, the Old Man never rules out female criminals and never sells the opposite sex short. "French detectives, who are acknowledged masters in their craft," he tells Miss Burton in The Theft at the English Provident Bank, "never proceed till after they have discovered the feminine element in a crime..."

The Old Man solves one case because of the modus operandi - a stab in the back. An English gentleman would strike an opponent, he says. A woman, conscious of her physical weakness but resolved to prevail, would choose a knife in the back.

The most unsettling of his cases, however, is The Mysterious Death in Percy Street, which unfortunately is placed midway through Dover Book's good collection. It belongs at the end, and clearly represented a point where Orczy was considering dropping her curious detective.

In this case, an elderly woman who had been preyed on financially by an improvident nephew is found dead along with her pet canary. The plot is as intricate as ever, but one of the details is the presence of a particularly intricate knot. At the end of the story, it strikes Miss Burton that the crucial knot is just such a one as her companion habitually makes. "If I were you," she said, without daring to look into that corner where he sat, "I would break myself of the habit of perpetually making knots in a piece of string."

When she looks up, he is gone and is never seen again - until the next series of Old Man in the Corner stories began.

This will be my last regularly scheduled SleuthSayers piece, although I hope to contribute the occasional column. It's been fun and I've appreciated the kind comments.