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Case Book: Women of MYSTERY!

In The Modern Mystery World, Women Rule
By Ron Miller

Frances Fyfield's Helen West, a savvy and experienced British lawyer who prosecutes criminals for the crown, aptly represents the new generation of female sleuths now taking charge in the mystery world.

In her milieu, Helen is the one with the smarts -- not just helpmate or sidekick to a male detective, like Perry Mason's Della Street or Inspector Roderick Alleyn's Agatha Troy. In Trial by Fire, Helen's "significant other," Police Superintendent. Geoffrey Bailey, quickly concludes he knows who committed a grisly murder. But the more reflective Helen quietly disagrees with her man, then proves he's dead wrong by nailing the real killer.

Shrewd, intelligent Helen is the creation of real-life criminal lawyer Frances Hegarty, who writes two mystery series featuring female sleuths. (Her other heroine is lawyer Sarah Fortune.) Fyfield broke into the genre in the late 1980s and quickly earned her place among England's top contemporary mystery writers. She now joins the family of great female mystery writers whose stories have been dramatized on MYSTERY!, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell (as Barbara Vine), Minette Walters, Lynda LaPlante and, next season, Elizabeth George.

Like so many other female writers now asserting themselves in the mystery world, Fyfield writes with authority about her profession -- the law -- but also places great emphasis on character, a hallmark of the new generation of female mystery writers.

Fyfield's also part of a trend we can see in both the United Kingdom and North America: Talented women from other professions are writing of mystery, suspense and crime fiction with enormous success. Using expertise from prior careers, they're crafting more competent and independent female sleuths than we've ever seen before.

A good example is America's Patricia Cornwell, a prize-winning crime reporter who also logged six years experience as a computer analyst in a medical examiner's office. Cornwell has distilled her background in both fields into her forensic sleuth, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, heroine of a long string of bestsellers from Postmortem (1990) through The Last Precinct (2000).

Another American success story is Kate Flora, a former deputy attorney general for the state of Maine, who has created amateur sleuth Thea Kozak, a heroine for feminists and young women because she's a career woman--she runs an educational consulting firm--who can take care of herself quite nicely without male help. She now has appeared in five mystery novels, most recently Death in Paradise.

Following in the Americans' footsteps is Canada's Kathy Reichs, a real-life forensic pathologist who roared onto bestseller lists in 1997 with Deja Dead, featuring Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist based in Quebec. Two other bestsellers featuring Dr. Brennan have followed.

From Scotland, there's Val McDermid, who left a 16-year career in journalism to create two popular female sleuths: private eye Kate Brannigan and amateur gumshoe Lindsay Gordon. McDermid also has written several non-serial crime novels, including A Place of Execution, recently nominated for the prestigious Edgar award for Best Mystery Novel of 2000 by the Mystery Writers of America.

These authors operate in business atmosphere that's changed from the time of Christie and Sayers. Female readers now form the primary market for mysteries, and their tastes drive the marketplace. Women also have also gained greater influence in the business behind the books. "All my editors have been women and a lot of the salespeople have been women, too," says Kate Flora, who regularly attends mystery conventions where women outnumber men 5 to 1.

The age of the female mystery has been shaping up since at least 1975, the year Agatha Christie died and thus closed the era of the pioneers. Her successors to the best seller list -- P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Anne Perry in England and Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell in America -- now dominate the mystery genre in their respective countries. Meanwhile, Americans Sue Grafton and Sara Peretsky have invaded the "hardboiled" crime field with great success, and authors like Tami Hoag have started hitting the bestseller list with graphic suspense thrillers, opening the door for others to the once exclusive dominion of male writers.

"Twenty years ago," says Hoag, "a lot of the books that are best sellers now probably would not have seen the light of day with a woman's name on the cover. Now that's what everybody's looking for."

Hoag, who came to the mystery/thriller field after success as a romance writer, has a pet theory: "When women started to break through, the genre was beginning to change," she says, "and a lot of the male mystery writers didn't want to change. They weren't willing to give this new readership what it was looking for, so I think that's when you really saw the first change in the balance of power."

Though many men still loom large in the mystery/crime field -- Robert B. Parker, Walter Mosley, Peter Lovesey, and Ed McBain to name a few -- their numbers continue to dwindle with the pending retirement of major figures like Dick Francis and Colin Dexter. More than anything else, though, their ranks have been thinned by a migration to other genres -- espionage, police procedurals, horrifying thrillers like Thomas Harris' Hannibal -- that are somewhat removed from the traditional mystery forms.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that women rule the mystery world today, which is why we're sure to see more and more stories from new generation mystery writers like Frances Fyfield in the years to come.

Ron Miller is the author of MYSTERY!: A Celebration, and a regular contributor to this web site.

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