Early Female Mystery Authors: Paving The Way

Feb 1, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Terry Ambrose

Also in this issue a review & giveaway of Terry Ambrose latest mystery.

Carolyn Hart has written fifty-one mystery novels and won almost every major mystery-writing award at least once. Since the days when she wrote her first mystery, Hart has seen many changes in the publishing industry, and that’s where this story begins. “In the 60s and 70s,” said Hart, “New York ignored most American women mystery authors. Publishers thought the American mystery was written by American men with male protagonists and the traditional mystery was written by dead English ladies.”

In those days when Ms. Hart was writing her first novels, she probably didn’t realize that one day, female mystery and thriller writers would enjoy blockbuster success thanks to women who pioneered the field of writing about cops and private detectives. Those days of bestseller status for female writers like Allison Brennan, Deborah Crombie, CJ Lyons and Hank Phillippi Ryan were still several decades away.

CJ Lyons, the New York Times bestselling author of the Lucy Guardino FBI thrillers, said, “I grew up reading all the classic female mystery authors including Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Gilman. I was never an Agatha Christie fan, but the writer who most influenced me was Lillian O’Donnell with her Norah Mulcahaney series. Norah was a NYPD homicide detective who, during the course of the series, became happily married, had normal family relationships–not the clichéd angst-driven family relationships and even became widowed–all while doing her job and doing it well.”

Another early Lillian O’Donnell fan is Allison Brennan, the New York Times bestselling author of the Lucy Kinkaid thrillers. Brennan remembers how she was influenced at an early age. “My mom had all of the Lillian O’Donnell books. My favorites were in her series starring Nora Mulcahaney, one of the first female cop lead characters in a mystery series. O’Donnell was a trend-setter, introducing strong female characters in law enforcement at a time when there were few females in law enforcement.”

Lyons was also enthralled by O’Donnell’s refusal to deal in traditional stereotypes. She said, “I was only a kid, probably ten or eleven when I began reading O’Donnell’s books, but it was so cool as a young woman to know that yes, you could be a big city detective and still also have a family. But it was also fantastic that Norah didn’t make it look easy, not at all…instead she did make it look worth fighting for. “At the time,” said Lyons, “I was also devouring many of the classic alpha-male lone wolf type of books, like Travis McGee, Dashiel Hammet, etc, men who kissed the girl, saved her life and then immediately discarded her. O’Donnell’s novels were a wonderful contrast and empowering because not only did they promise that as a girl I could save myself, but also that being a strong woman didn’t mean I had to go it alone, that the best relationships both at work and home were partnerships.”

Ms. O’Donnell’s first book, Death on the Grass, was published in 1959. Her first Norah Mulcahaney novel, The Phone Calls, didn’t arrive on the scene until 1972, more than a half century after Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, who has won 30 Emmys and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism, credits Agatha Christie with helping to guide her. Ryan said, “I was impressed by Agatha Christie’s careful mystery architecture, her intricate puzzles, her exploration of human nature, her understanding of psychology and her–usually–fair play with the reader. It must have been such fun for her–I imagine!–to come up with her solutions.”

One of the most amazing things about Ryan is her schedule. She operates at a pace that would leave most writers gasping for breath, yet her commitment to writing never wavers. It’s a dedication influenced by another early female writer, “Carolyn Keene.” Ryan said, “I was addicted to Nancy Drew, but as a writer, I’ve never drawn on those experiences for my fiction.” Ryan did, however, say that some of the keys to her success as a journalist have been: “The spirit of the writers behind Nancy Drew as well as the character’s curiosity and determination to find a solution.”

Ryan also said, “I read my first Agatha Christie sitting in the hayloft of my family’s barn. Maybe I was 13. Now all these years later, because of her, I am writing the same kind of books. When my first book Prime Time won the Agatha–well, the symmetry brought tears to my eyes. Still does. I’ve reread some of Agatha Christie’s books recently–Murder on the Orient Express for it’s complicated but believable solution and for the heart she gave Poirot in pretending that–oh, wait. Don’t want to spoil it! Then there was the original unreliable narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I love Ten Little Indians for suspense. I know her ‘call everyone into the drawing room’ endings are passé now, but she helps me even then, because I’ve learned how to avoid them. Even personally, she guides me. She was devoted to her writing. Cared about it, thought about it, devoted her life to it. I love that commitment.”

Those first pioneers set the stage for a major change in publishing, and that’s where Ms. Hart takes us next. “Marcia Muller sold Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. New York bought and published it because it was a hard-boiled book even though it was written by a woman and featured a woman private eye. Marcia was followed soon by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Again, New York bought these books because they fit their conception of the American mystery, even though the books were written by women. The wonderful result was the transformation of mystery publishing for American women.”

What a transformation it was. Deborah Crombie, the New York Times bestselling author of the Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James series, drew her inspiration for that Scotland Yard series from those writers. Crombie said, “I of course read and loved Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, but undoubtedly my biggest influence was PD James. I wanted to write British police novels with smart, engaged detectives, and no one did–or has done–that better than PD James.”

Hank Phillippi Ryan regards Sue Grafton as an inspiration. She said, “I don’t think of her [Sue Grafton] as an ‘early female writer, ‘I think of her as a contemporary, but she is certainly a pioneer. I am astonished that she gets better and better, and at her thoughtful examination of the human spirit and motivation, and the care she takes with her character–although I know Sue would say her character takes care of her. There’s an understanding of the–dare I say it–magic of mystery writing that Sue Grafton embraces, and I see that and think of it every day.”

By the 1970s, the revolution for women had begun. Carolyn Hart said, “Publishers began to look for American women writers. I had been writing mysteries and suspense in the 70s, but my published books disappeared into the black hole of publishing. The new market was even open to women authors such as me who write traditional mysteries. There was a hunger for books written by women with women protagonists.”

Allison Brennan regarded Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone PI series as one of her early inspirations, but, as her career developed, she looked to a new generation of writers. Brennan said, “As I began seriously writing, I looked to Lisa Gardner, J.D. Robb and Linda Fairstein as examples of female authors who wrote some of the best females in law enforcement. When I first met Lisa Gardner, it was over the phone to interview her for a magazine. First, I was late calling. Then I fumbled, talked too much and too fast, because she is truly one of my idols. I finally told her that her book, The Third Victim, inspired me because she wrote the type of stories I wanted to read and write.”

Deborah Crombie considers herself fortunate because she, too, met one of her idols. She said, “I have met PD James (Dame Phyllis) a couple of times, experiences that have been among the high points of my career. But did I say anything noteworthy? I doubt it. More along the lines of ‘Ms. James, I love your books.’”

If it were possible, any of the authors interviewed here would love to meet those early pioneers. For instance, Hank Phillippi Ryan would love to meet Agatha Christie. “That would be fabulous,” she said. “Could I just be allowed to read her mind? As a mystery author, I’m already baffled by how my mind works when I’m crafting a new plot. Suddenly an idea or solution will reveal itself to me and I wonder–where did that come from? How did my brain come up with that? So I’ve often wondered how Agatha Christie thinks, wondered where she starts, how much the book changes along the way, whether she’s ever surprised–as I am–about where a story goes. I’d just pull up a chair across from her…and listen.”

Allison Brennan has a similar fantasy. “If I had the chance to meet Lillian O’Donnell, who died several years ago, I would have simply thanked her for paving the way for future generations of female crime writers.”

The beneficiaries of those early pioneers, Brennan, Crombie, Hart, Lyons and Ryan, not only admire the early pioneers, but they also serve as role models for future generations of female writers, even though they may not realize it. When asked if she considered herself as providing guidance for future writers, Deborah Crombie said, “It’s not something I’ve really thought about. I do think there are so many wonderful female mystery writers being published these days and getting the attention they deserve. I would hope that the next generation has a surfeit of great examples to inspire them.”

“I don’t see myself as a trailblazer,” said Allison Brennan. “I hope that if I leave anything for future writers it will be the message to pursue your dream even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. If I inspire anyone, I hope that they will then become the inspiration for others, so we can continue to grow and strengthen this amazing genre.”

Just as Hank Phillippi Ryan sat in her family’s barn and read Agatha Christie, these authors also hope their characters will provide inspiration for others, perhaps by showing how to maintain a balance in life. CJ Lyons said, “My own character, Lucy Guardino, reflects this perfectly: a Pittsburgh soccer mom, Lucy is also a kick-ass FBI Agent. She’s not perfect, often sacrificing either work or family because sometimes something has to give, but she never gives up fighting to do her best both for the victims she’s protecting and her family. Lucy was inspired by real life FBI Agents–both male and female–and their own struggle to maintain that balance between career and family, a struggle readily understood by so many working parents. I’m thankful to O’Donnell for refusing to debate the question of ‘can women have it all?’ and instead showing her audience through example that the answer is: ‘Yes, as long as you never give up trying.’”

Hank Phillippi Ryan does hope she’s serving as an inspiration for future writers. She said, “I teach classes in mystery writing and in the writing life. I always say my goal is to have each ‘student’ take just one thing from my session, to give each student one moment where one day, at their computer, they say, ‘Oh! That’s what Hank was talking about!’ That’s my joy. As I say in my classes, I read an interview with Anne Sexton once and she was asked–what can a writing teacher really give her students? And her answer was ‘Courage.’ And that’s what I hope to provide.”

Perhaps more than any other author, Carolyn Hart demonstrates what hope and perseverance can do for a writer. She said, “I caught that first wave along with Margaret Maron and Nancy Pickard. Ever since then mysteries and suspense by American women are highly successful. And I always know to say: Thank you, Marcia, Thank you, Sue, Thank you, Sara.”

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Terry Ambrose is a former bill collector and skip tracer who now uses that background to write mysteries and thrillers. His debut mystery Photo Finish was a 2013 San Diego Book Awards Finalist. You can learn more about Terry on his website.


  1. Great article! You’re right about Hank. I don’t know how she does it!

    • Hi Ruth, it wears me out just thinking about Hank’s schedule!

  2. I would love a chance to meet and talk with Agatha Christie–
    she was amazing!
    sandy gardner

  3. Wonderful article, full of good advice and the history of the mystery. I’ll read and reread this one.

  4. Thanks StlSandy. This really was a fun article to write. And Sandy Gardner, how about tea with Ms. Christie? Perfect.


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