Like many mystery fans -- both readers and writers -- I got my start with one of the mysteries series written for children. I was probably ten at the time. In my case it was Nancy Drew, because my cousin had several Nancy Drew books, and the cover of The Secret of Shadow Ranch intrigued me enough to pick it up and start reading. I was immediately hooked and for several years after that I sampled every such mystery series I could find.
When I was about thirteen (circa 1972) I borrowed a book from my aunt Mary, a book entitled The Shivering Sands. The author was Victoria Holt, and the book was the first adult mystery I ever read. What no one told me at the time was that books like this were intended for women and were generally labeled "romantic suspense," or Gothics. Frankly I didn't care what anyone called them, I thought they were interesting reading.
From Victoria Holt I went on to discover Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, Velda Johnston and Anne Maybury, Jane Aiken Hodge and her sister Joan Aiken. And I can't forget Dorothy Eden and Susan Howatch. My imagination was filled with the adventures of plucky heroines in Victorian England and other exotic locales, past and present, and the looming sense of peril that surrounded the intrepid women in the books.
Later on I learned that some critics and historians of the mystery genre turned up their noses at these books, referring to them derisively as the HIBK school of writing. "Had I But Known the evil villain lay in wait for me in that dark attic I never would have ventured up those stairs wearing only my nightgown and carrying a candle." Such was the popularity of these books -- their heyday was the 1960s and 1970s -- that of course publishers flooded the marketplace with them, and of course with a glut of this kind there were plenty of really awful Gothics published. Because of this the truly first-rate writers got lumped in with the hacks, and the genre as a whole treated as mindless fiction for brainless readers.
It might also have had something to do with the fact that most of the writers of these books (although not all of them) were women and the intended audience for the books was women (although there were plenty of men who read them too). Books by, about, and for women naturally couldn't be as important or well-written as books written by, about, and for men. Add to that the fact that these books also featured a love story between the heroine and a dark, brooding, sometimes tortured hero who swooped in at the last minute to save the poor little woman, and the recipe for disrespect was complete.
I'll let you in on a little secret, however. A lot of these women were damn fine writers who created intelligent, capable heroines -- like Linda Martin in Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, who risked everything to save the life of a child. What about Vicky Bliss, the brainchild of Elizabeth Peters? Vicky might look like a Playboy bunny, but she has a fine mind and isn't afraid to use it. She might overestimate her ability to get herself into -- and out of -- trouble, but James Bond does it all the time.
Readers have asked me why several of my series featured women as main characters. All writers are formed and influenced by what they read. I went from Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Trixie Belden on to Mary, Victoria, Phyllis, and their sister writers. With role models like these, why wouldn't I write about women?