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SLEUTHING WOMEN

A RECENT UNEARTHING of the book Detectionary yields tidbits on the fair sex in mystery fiction. There’s also an interesting bibliographic tale of the book itself.

Detectionary, conceived and produced by Mill Roseman, compiled by Otto Penzler, Chris Steinbrunner, Marvin Lachman, Charles Shibuk, and Francis M. Nevins, Jr., Overlook Press, 1977.

Back by Popular Demand. In 1971, the Hammermill Paper Company produced a private, limited, numbered edition of this book, solely for its clients and colleagues in the world of book publishing. Then, as Mill Roseman noted, “a curious thing happened—a mystery not unlike some of those found in the book’s pages. It kept disappearing from the shelves of the publishers to whom it had been sent, where it was intended to remain as a reference.”

“The vanished copies,” Roseman said, “had made their way home, to the bookshelves and the night tables of the publishers and their families. Hammermill began receiving letters of praise, not for the papers which the book had been developed to demonstrate, but for the contents themselves.”

Roseman thanks “the insight and enterprise of The Overlook Press whose President, Peter Mayer, … one of the original volume’s recipients,” for bringing about the 1977 publication of Detectionary.

My copy is of this 1977 vintage. What’s more, a search of ABEBooks shows only this edition. Apparently the original printing appears only rarely (and dearly).

Female Sleuths, Familiar, Familial, Solo, (or Omitted). Of the twenty women listed in Detectionary, several are recognized in popular culture, others less so. Some work solo; others have husband sleuths. In light of the 1971 compilation and other factors, some that come to mind are missing entirely. Here’s a selection; unless otherwise specified, quoted passages are from Detectionary

Miss Jane Marple. When Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple “first appeared, in 1928, she was described as a tall old lady with a wrinkled face and china blue eyes…. an unashamed advocate of gossip as a means of obtaining the information she needs to solve her cases.”

Margaret Rutherford. Image from Notes from a Composer.

I fondly recall Margaret Rutherford’s movies. Angela Lansbury played Miss Marple only once, in The Mirror Crack’d, 1980; but she’s also remembered for TV’s Murder, She Wrote in which Lansbury portrayed a Marple-like Jessica Fletcher.

Nora Charles. “Nora is a 26-year-old lanky brunette with ‘a wicked jaw,’ as her ex-sleuth husband Nick Charles describes her. 

Nick and Nora have appeared here at SimanaitisSays. My love of Myrna Loy and her ready repartee with William Powell make her a perfect Nora.

Nora, Asta, and Nick.

Pamela North. “Pam is a dizzy, trouble-prone housewife; her book publisher husband, Jerry, proves a perfect foil. Unlike most detectives, they were born in mainstream fiction, the subjects of a series of sketches in ‘The New Yorker.’ ” 

I’m familiar with the Norths through their regular appearances on Sirius XM “Radio Classics.”

First edition cover of Mr. and Mrs. North, 1936. Image from Wikipedia.

Mom. This Bronx widow “operates from a dining room chair, where she dishes out chicken soup and solutions to mysteries to her policeman son, David…. Mom uses her keen mind, and the skepticism which has thwarted many a heavy-thumbed butcher over the years, to arrive at a solution by the time she is ready to serve the Nesselrode pie…. She’s also a great lover of grand opera.”

Image from goodreads.com.

Missing, But Noteworthy. “Top 10 Female Sleuths,” March 30, 2020, is a fine list evidently assembled well after Detectionary’s 1971 publication. Also missing from Detectionary is a Daughter Suz favorite: Nancy Drew. 

The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene, 1930.

Nancy has appeared here at SimanaitisSays. As I noted there, “Given that, to Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler [included in Detectionary, by the way] was the woman, it would follow that, to generations of young women, Nancy Drew was (and continues to be) the girl.” ds.

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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