A while back on the Woolf list-serv, Kristin Czarnecki alerted us to a sighting in a Poirot episode of PBS Masterpiece Mystery. After a conversation about “the modern novel,” one of the characters, a mystery writer, is seen reading A Room of One’s Own. That piqued my interest about the likelihood of Woolf references in that or in any other of Agatha Christie’s books.
There are 39 Poirot novels alone, plus several story collections, an undertaking I wasn’t prepared for, but I did start musing about Woolf’s place in the genre.
The first person who came to mind, of course, was Carolyn Heilbrun, who wrote 14 mysteries under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross, featuring professor of literature and part-time sleuth Kate Fansler. I had read several of those, and I remembered one that was unique in that the mystery to be solved involved not crime but literature.
For starters, The Players Come Again takes its title from The Waves, which is incorporated into the epigraph: “The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding. Wander no more, I say; this is the end. The oblong has been set upon the square; the spiral is on top. We have been hauled over the shingle, down to the sea. The players come again.”
Kate is hired to write a biography, and her research calls into question the role of the scholar/biographer as detective, as observed by Kate’s husband: “What I can’t decide is whether you are engaged as a detective or as a scholar and writer,” and one of her clients: “…aren’t all scholars really detectives?”
The biography is of the enigmatic wife of a famous modernist, Emmanuel Foxx (Foxx? Woolf?), and Woolf is evoked frequently throughout the novel, starting with a preliminary discussion between Kate and the publisher about their subject: “He is perhaps more influential in the long run than any but Joyce and Woolf.”
Long after Amanda Cross’ identity was made public, Heilbrun wrote some pieces about detective fiction that were included in her essay collection, Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. In two of them she discusses gender and class issues, and in a third she writes about Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful Gaudy Night, in which Lord Peter Wimsey and scholar Harriet Vane tackle crime at an Oxford women’s college.
I read this classic of the genre prior to my first trip to Oxford 20 years ago. Rereading it now, it feels like a companion piece to A Room of One’s Own, capturing as it does the cloistered atmosphere, “perennial scarcity of funds,” and second-class status of the fictional Shrewsbury College. The reunion that Harriet Vane attends—dining on “improved” soup, lamb and peas, bad coffee and no wine—invokes Woolf’s famous repast, and the BBC must have thought so too, as the televised version adds a brief conversation, absent in the book, about custard and prunes. The novel was written in 1936, but the opening sentence—“Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square”—is prescient of Woolf a few years later living on the same square.
Woolf continues to pop up in contemporary mysteries, like Bleeding Heart Square, which I wrote about in June 2009; the character there was also reading A Room of One’s Own. In Val McDermid’s Report for Murder, protagonist Lindsay Gordon calls herself a cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist, here moonlighting as a detective when a murder is committed at a girls’ school. Woolf makes a few appearances: a signed copy of Orlando is a prized auction item at a fundraiser; a student’s room is described with posters of Lenin and the Greenham Common peace women and a photograph of Virginia Woolf on her walls.
Yes, she’s an icon, of course. But it’s also true that these often casual mentions evoke more meaning than might otherwise be captured in many paragraphs, and it’s no mystery why writers continue to pay homage to her in their novels.