The Web of Iniquity

Early Detective Fiction by American Women

The Web of Iniquity

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: Published: January 1999

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

The Web of Iniquity is a study of detective fiction written by American women between the Civil War and World War II. Refuting the idea that no American detective fiction of substance was produced between the times of Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett, Catherine Ross Nickerson shows how these women writers blended Gothic elements into domestic fiction to create a unique and all-but-ignored subgenre that she labels “domestic detective fiction.”
This subgenre allowed women writers to participate in postbellum culture and to critique other aspects of a rapidly changing society. Domestic detective fiction combined elements of sensationalist papers, popular nonfiction crime stories, and the domestic novel. Nickerson shows how it also incorporated the gothic tropes found in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Charlotte Brontë and influenced the work of Pauline Hopkins. Mid-nineteenth-century writer Metta Fuller Victor, who represented such important areas of cultural conflict as the role of professions in the formation of class identity and the possibility of women's independence and self-determination, paved the way for the appearance of women detectives in the late-nineteenth-century fiction of Anna Katharine Green. Nickerson credits Mary Roberts Rinehart, in particular, for bringing sophistication to the subgenre by amplifying the humorous, terrifying, and feminist elements inherent in earlier detective novels by women. Throughout the volume, Nickerson focuses on the narrative qualities of the domestic novel tradition and the ways in which it reflected ideologies of domesticity and gender. Also included are a discussion of various rewritings of the Lizzie Borden scandal in this tradition and an afterword on the relation of domestic detective fiction to the hard-boiled style.
The Web of Iniquity places the detective fiction written by women between 1850 and 1940 into ongoing discussions regarding women, culture, and literature and will appeal to scholars and students of women's studies, American studies, and literary history.


The Web of Iniquity is original both in the nature of the focus it brings to women’s writing and in its understanding of detective fiction. Deservedly nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best Critical/Biographical work, Nickerson’s study deserves attention from those interested in narrative and genre studies, in women’s literature, and in American studies, as well as the many literary critics fascinated by the machinations of the detective novel.” — Kathryn West , American Literature

“[A] fascinating and highly readable account of a studiously ignored tradition in both women’s and detective fiction writing. . . . Her close readings of the novels succeed not only in shining a light in their dark corners, but also in prompting her own readers to go back to the original texts, which is perhaps the ultimate value of this informed and engaging study—not only the correction of canonical history, but also the reintroduction of these unique fictional histories.” — Andrea Bradley , Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

“[Nickerson’s] . . . prose and analysis are consistently engaging. . . . [F]ascinating . . . .” — Lynn Wardley , South Central Review

“As an antidote to the plethora of criticism produced on the hard-boiled detective novel, Nickerson offers a valuable insight into the much less studied tradition of detective fiction written by women in the era between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War. . . . Nickerson deploys a sophisticated blend of cultural, narratological, and psychoanalytic approaches which provide a convincing account of these writers. . . . [T]he overall result is a stimulating synthesis of literary and cultural analysis.” — Helen Oakley , Journal of American Studies

“Catherine Ross Nickerson brilliantly presents ‘a corrective history of detective fiction’ with her new book. . . . [S]o exciting that scholars of metafiction and narrative structures will also benefit from a close reading of this book. . . . I highly recommend The Web of Iniquity for readers of literature, social history, American studies, women’s studies, and political studies.” — Mary Anne Schofield , Journal of American History

“Nickerson contrasts the ‘hard-boiled’ style mysteries that are read today with these often overlooked mysteries from the past, making convincing arguments why domestic detective fiction is no longer popular. This engaging book introduces and examines novels and stories by authors such as Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katherine Green, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. It is a well-researched asset to the libraries of mystery lovers and social critics everywhere.” — , The Bloomsbury Review

“Nickerson provides illuminating critiques of individual novels, especially [Mary Roberts] Rinehart’s, and she merits accolades for her gothic-detective fiction bracketings.” — , Choice

“Now, along comes another book on detective fiction that I wish I had written myself. . . . Nickerson explores the historical and literary contexts within which detective fiction emerged. Her book makes an important contribution to the study of the ways popular genre fiction written and read by middle class women—fiction traditionally considered conservative—challenged domestic ideology. . . . Nickerson’s plot summaries are clear and sufficient to permit readers to appreciate her thoughtful analysis; anyone interested in women’s literature and its relationship to social history should find this book illuminating. . . . The discussion is well informed by Nickerson’s knowledge of other critical work on domestic fiction and the gothic, as well as literature of the period. . . . Happily, in spite of firm theoretical grounding and even a footnote cameo by Derrida, this intelligent and engaging book is written for a broad audience of feminist readers and scholars.” — , Women's Review of Books

"Nickerson's book offers valuable information about female authors who are only superficially discussed, if at all, in traditional genre histories." — Betty Richardson, Resources for American Literary Study

The Web of Iniquity presents strikingly original research on an intriguing subject: the origins of the American detective novel in mid-nineteenth-century domestic fiction. Nickerson has hit upon a rich and absorbing subject. No other book has treated this area of women’s literary history in America.” — Gillian Brown, author of Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America

“A genuinely original, terrifically interesting book.” — Dana Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Catherine Ross Nickerson is Associate Professor of American Studies and English at Emory University.

Table of Contents Back to Top


The Advent of Detective Fiction and the Postbellum Period

1. "To Trace a Lie, to Discover a Disguisse" : Genres of Crime and Secrecy

2. "The Eye of Suspicion": The Erotics of Detection in The Dead Letter

3. The Loop of Surveillance in The Figure Eight and Hagar's Daughter

Anna Katharine Green and the Gilded Age

4. " A Woman with a Secret": Knowing and Telling in The Leavenworth Case

5. " A Woman's Hand": Good Works and the Woman Detective

Mary Roberts Rinehart and the Modern Era

6. "No Place for a Spinster" : The Architecture of Retrospection in The Circular Staircase

7. " I suppose They Stood It as Long as They Could": Mothers, Daughters, and Axe Murder in The Album



Selected Bibliography

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2271-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2251-1
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