Fostering Mystery History: A Manifesto

by Elizabeth Foxwell

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Foxwell

If quoting from this speech, please use the following citation and URL:
Foxwell, Elizabeth. "Fostering Mystery History: A Manifesto." Malice Domestic XX. Marriott Crystal Gateway, Arlington, Virginia. 26 Apr. 2008.

Thank you, Dan [Stashower], and thanks also to the Malice Domestic board, for allowing me to be a part of the distinguished fellowship before you tonight.

During the course of my work, I've become increasingly concerned about the state of mystery history. Fully one-third of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list---those mysteries deemed essential by anthologist Howard Haycraft and author-editor Frederic Dannay---is out of print, and these include illustrious names such as Pulitzer Prize winner John P. Marquand (aka the creator of Mr. Moto) and the only living person on the list, past Malice Guest of Honor Dorothy Salisbury Davis. At Popular Culture Association conferences, I see the same faces giving papers on the mystery year after year. Everywhere I hear dire pronouncements about the decline of reading, and I see the publication of nonfiction mystery works beginning to ebb.

Surrounded as I am here by those who, like myself, care deeply for the traditional mystery, I refuse to believe that mysteries of the past are so divorced from modern lives that readers have ceased to care about them. We received a hard reminder of their relevance when the BBC canceled part 2 of its broadcast of John Buchan's Greenmantle after the July 2005 London bombings. Greenmantle, featuring intrepid hero Richard Hannay and published in 1916, deals with Islam.

We can only go forward when we know where we've been. Therefore, I issue the following manifesto to you in the effort to preserve our mystery history:

#1. Urge those you know who face a term paper, a senior thesis, a master's thesis, or a dissertation to focus on a mystery author. And not just J. K. Rowling, James Patterson, or Agatha Christie. There's a lot of scope out there. In Clues, on which I serve as managing editor, we featured an article on the influence of Wilkie Collins on Vera Caspary, the author of Laura. I learned from the article's author that Caspary's papers had not been touched in nearly 20 years.

#2. Fund mystery research. Work in an arts or literature foundation, or know someone who does? Give grants so scholars and writers may work on mystery author biographies and bibliographies; travel to special collections or conferences; produce films such as In Search of Bony, on the Australian mystery author Arthur Upfield; and carry out other research-related activities. Malice Domestic, for one, provides grants to unpublished writers, including those working on nonfiction mystery projects.

A corollary to this is to support major library mystery collections, such as Bowling Green State University's Ray and Pat Browne Popular Culture Library, Boston University's Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, and the University of Texas at Austin's Ransom Center. They need to buy and preserve materials, digitize collections, hold exhibits, and catalog items and need resources to pursue these efforts. Consider donations both monetary and literary. Check with your alumni association to see how you can help build your institution's mystery-related library.

#3. Subscribe to mystery periodicals. Clues, the only US academic journal on mystery fiction, has recently been sold to McFarland; this is the second time that the journal has barely escaped extinction since its founding in 1980. The esteemed Drood Review is now history; Jim Huang, its editor, was one of the few people compiling reliable statistics on the number of mysteries published per year and in which subgenres. Unless we support periodicals in the field---Mystery Scene, Mystery Readers Journal,Strand Magazine, Mystery News, to name just a few---we will lose vital lifelines to dependable information on our favorite authors; much available on the Internet and in reference books can be just plain wrong or woefully out of date. And in that vein:

#4. Nurture new media. We need more and better Web sites on our favorite authors and their works. We need digital archives, online indexes, interview excerpts, audio clips. William G. Contento's online index to short mystery fiction, organized by author and title, is a wonder to behold. The Series Books for Girls Web site, featuring such sleuths as Penny Parker, Beverly Gray, and the Dana Girls, is terrific. Also look at the 20th-Century American Bestsellers Web site at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's library school, which provides analyses of sales records and publication histories of U.S. works such as Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, Mary Higgins Clark's The Lottery Winner, and S. S. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case. Urge your techie compatriots to get cracking.

#5. Take a class, or request one. You can tell your local college or university what courses you'd like to take, and you can get real college credit for studying Nancy Drew. What's better than that?

#6. Indoctrinate the young. I started my unsuspecting nephew out on Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Detective with enterprising Freddy the pig. My nephew is now 14 and a huge fan of spy novels, especially Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. Coincidence? I don't think so.

#7. My librarian, my friend. Maybe you're not sure what to read next. Your librarian is more than happy to assist you.

Your librarian may also be responsible for compiling mystery resources as an aid to patrons or organizing exhibits keyed to events such as Women's History month. Ask for an exhibit on women mystery writers, for example, or one pegged to a mystery author from your area. Sometimes it can help to suggest an author who has made contributions in fields in addition to mystery; Mary Roberts Rinehart, for example, was one of this country's earliest female war correspondents and is buried in Arlington Cemetery, just down the road.

#8. Reprint. The Rose in Darkness, the last novel of Green for Danger author Christianna Brand, has never seen print in the United States. Most of the novels of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout and suspense master Charlotte Armstrong are out of print. Support publishers large and small that are putting back into print neglected and vital gems. I recently introduced a new edition of Grant Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures, which features an early female detective. It's been out of print since 1902.

#9. Support your independent bookseller. The independent bookseller is an amazing font of knowledge and ordering, nurturing literacy, love of the mystery by readers old and young, book clubs, and book events. We just saw the closure here of Alexandria's 25-year-old independent children's bookstore, A Likely Story. Let us band together to prevent any further independent casualties and support our independent bookstores with our dollars and referrals.

#10. I come to praise the mystery reviewer, not to bury him or her. I know the slings and arrows of the review ever since Kirkus called one of my short stories "giddy," but I want to single out the substantial contribution of the mystery reviewer to our mystery history. The mystery reviewer raises awareness of our field, often for low or no pay, and even with a less than flattering review, can spark interest in an author by a reader. To the mystery reviewers out there, I say, keep on keeping on, and thank you.

Let me leave you with one final thought. Former Columbia University provost Jacques Barzun wrote in Michael Gilbert's Crime in Good Company, "Detection goes with the belief in greatness, intelligence and integrity, with the recognition of law, and the directed curiosity of science."  Let us take our belief in detection's greatness and apply the curiosity, method, and zeal of science to ensure the vitality of the traditional mystery for future generations. Thank you very much.

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