Dorothy Salisbury Davis Surveys The Mystery Field For Women in 1959
In October 1959, Dorothy Salisbury Davis was interviewed by Marilyn Mercer for the New York Herald-Tribune (a piece that was syndicated to many newspapers, including the Montreal Gazette — notable because Davis’s husband Harry was born and raised in the city.) The profile coincided with the paperback publication of A Gentleman Called , but is chiefly of interest because Davis discusses the state of the genre at the time, and zeroes in on the differences — in taste and in marketing — of crime novels largely read by women versus those largely read by men.
A MYSTERY OF MANNERS
HTNS Service, October 26, 1959
By Marilyn Mercer
Women, as anyone who has ever set foot in a lending library knows, are great readers of mysteries.
This is not because they have a secret fascination with violence. It is, according to one expert, because detective fiction, at least the kind that women like, is the last fictional stronghold of gracious living and elegant manners.* Women read it to escape into a world of the past, and if there are a few corpses littering the vicarage garden, nobody notices much.
Dorothy Salisbury Davis, a veteran mystery writer and past president of the Mystery Writers of America, was inveigled recently into a discussion of the mystery reading habits of her own sex.
“Women,” she said, “find in what I call the ‘mystery of manners’ what they once found in romantic novels — the kind of world that hardly exists anymore. Someone I like once said to Ruth Fenisong, ‘I like to read your stories because they have servants in them.’ That about sums it up.”
Mrs. Davis pointed out that mystery readers divide pretty evenly by sex. Women almost universally prefer the polite society murders they find in hard covers in lending libraries: men favor the hard-boiled paperbacks that they find on the newsstands.
“Men,” she said, “seem to find excitement in a sequence of violent action. Whereas women like the read about gentlemen, which they don’t find in paperback fiction and possibly not in real life either.”
Mrs. Davis pointed out that in the paperback field, except for Agatha Christie, men have it all over women. But women hold their own in the hard cover field, in which three of the major editors are also women.** “Most literate mysteries,” said Mrs. Davis, “are written by Englishmen or women.”
A category of mystery that’s become popular recently is the suspense story. This sort of book often has a fragile and beautiful heroine who is pursued, persecuted, or otherwise put upon by unknown forces. The question isn’t who killed her, but who’s going to and why. Women eat this sort of thing up.
“This is simply a revival,” said Mrs. Davis, “of the old-fashioned damsel in distress, or ‘had I but known’ novel that Mary Roberts Rineheart, Mabel Seelye, and Mignon G. Eberhart did so well in the early ’20s. Except now it always has some sort of psychiatric twist. It’s been revived, I think, because women once again want to be feminine. They like to identify with these heroines. We have passed the height of aggressiveness that followed enfranchisement.”
The psychological detective novel, Mrs. Davis feels, is a direct result of improved police methods. In real life the professionals have it all over the amateurs: Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t stand a chance “and so we retreat into psychology and suspense.”
The realistic police story is mostly the province of male writers but, said Mrs. Davis, “women writers can do a great deal without ever having set foot in a police station.”
She recalls her own attempt at researching police work. “I got everything right”, she said, “except that all through the book, I called one character a sergeant of detectives. There just isn’t any such thing. However, nobody called me on it. My colleagues observed professional courtesy, and policemen are willing to make allowances.”
*ed. Apparently Ms. Mercer didn’t bother to survey women who couldn’t get enough of serial killers and gory bloodshed. Granted, that market developed in earnest a couple of decades later, but still.
*the three editors were: Lee Wright at Simon & Schuster (and later, Random House); Joan Kahn at Harper & Row; and Isabelle Taylor at Doubleday/Crime Club.