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May 22, 2014

Ten Surprising Factoids about the World of Cozy Mysteries

This week, instead of a quiz, we’re offering up a list of things you may not have known about cozy mysteries:

1. The “Wimsey Pronunciation” refers to stately homes that have names (Humpstallion Hall, Far Whimpers) rather than good old middle-class street addresses like 167 Newman Street. Where those names end in “ing” (“Little Whinging,” “Dunpuking Manor”), Lord Peter’s custom was to drop the final “g.” If you have trouble imagining what this sounds like, conjure up the sound of John Fogarty singing “Proud Mary,” (“Big wheels keep on turnin’, Proud Mary keep on burnin’,” etc.) and then pretend that Mr. Fogarty has an aristocratic English accent.

2. As a title, “Mother of American Fingerprint Identification” may not be up there with, say, “Empress of All the Russias,” but it’s a diminished world, and one must grab what one can. In this case, the Mother was one Mary E. Holland, an assistant editor at The Detective magazine. In 1904 the magazine sent her to St. Louis, and there she met Detective Sergeant John Kenneth Ferrier, who was supervising security for the display of the British Crown Jewels at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Ferrier was a great believer in the new science of fingerprinting, invented three years earlier at New Scotland Yard, and Ms. Holland became an ardent convert – and, soon, an expert in her own right. After further studies in Europe, she passed the Yard’s exhaustive tests in fingerprint analysis, and then returned to the States to consult and teach: Among her clients were a number of urban police departments, and among her many students were the chiefs of the National Bureau for Criminal Identification, and the identification departments of the Army and Navy. You go, grrrl!

3. Of her many books, Agatha Christie’s favorites were Crooked House, Ordeal by Innocence, and The Moving Finger. However, she found The Mystery of the Blue Train “commonplace, full of clichés, with an uninteresting plot.”

4. Membership in the Dorothy L. Sayers Society costs roughly $40 a year. That’s about a tenfold increase over the past 35 years: In 1979 your annual $4 bought you a bimonthly newsletter (mailed, mind you – none of this newfangled online business), access to the Sayers archives, and an invitation to the general meeting held each November, at which “a light tea and a buffet supper” were served.

5. According to Margery Allingham’s sister, Joyce, the girls’ mother hired a tutor to teach them how to enter a room with grace how to sit at a piano, and how to pour tea. Joyce referred to this as “Margery’s unfortunate early education.” In later years, Margery much enjoyed planning the extensive gardens at D’Arcy House – the Allingham manse in Essex – though “She never actually worked in them herself,” said the (rather spectacularly catty) Joyce: “She just enjoyed designing them, then letting the gardener do it.”

6. The Man in the Queue – the first novel published by the writer Elizabeth Mackintosh, more popularly known as Josephine Tey – was issued under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. Mackintosh wrote the book in order to enter a literary competition sponsored by the publisher Methuen: She won! She may not have endeared herself to fellow writers by claiming, at various points, to have written the novel in less than two weeks.

7. Ruth Rendell’s “Inspector Wexford” novels have often been likened to the work of Agatha Christie, but Ms. Rendell is no fan of the comparison. “It bothers me when people compare me to Christie,” she has said: “I think she was superficial.” Well, she was, yes, but A) that was part of her charm, and B) it’s ungracious of you to say so.

8. (Miss) Craig Rice (FDR was a fan) was the first mystery novelist to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in 1946.

9. Margaret Millar may be best remembered as the wife of Ross Macdonald, but in her day she was a very well known mystery writer in her own right – author of, among other things, the Edgar-winning Beast in View. What’s the factoid here? Readers have long debated the correct pronunciation of Millar’s last name, but Millar at one point made clear that it’s the Canadian version of “Miller” and pronounced the same. While her husband went to his grave correcting people, Millar at some point just gave up, content, as she said, to “let a ‘mil-LAR’ pass.”

10. While Nero Wolfe may have had many excellent attributes, he was an unabashed sexist. His comprehensive disdain for lady writers, however, did admit one chink: He “held it against Jane Austen for forcing him to concede that a woman could write a good novel.”



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