Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

Robbie Emily Dunn Collection of American Detective Fiction

The Robbie Emily Dunn Collection of American Detective Fiction was begun in 1981 with the initial intention that only women writers would be included. It quickly became evident that to exclude certain works written by men would be to exclude some interesting women detectives. The character of Bertha Cool, for example, allowed the inclusion of Erle Stanley Gardner writing under the pseudonym of A. A. Fair. Gardner keeps company with approximately forty other gentlemen writers similarly brought in to the collection by their fictitious lady sleuths.

The collection has grown to approximately 3000 volumes representing nearly 200 authors, 85 percent of whom are women. The earliest known American work in the genre written by a woman predates, as far as is known, the earliest American novel to feature a female detective. Historians of popular literature credit Seeley Regester (pseudonym of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, 1831 - 1885) as our country's first woman to write a work of detective fiction. It is with her novel, The Dead Letter (New York, Beadle & Company, 1867) that our collection begins. This plodding work, complete with murder, robbery, illegitimacy, love triangles and rejected suitors is filled with forgettable characters. The story's detective charges no fee but requires two years to solve the case in classic style - with the principal characters gathered in a rather large parlor. Miss Regester went on to pen even more dreadful mystery stories perhaps to escape the reality of raising nine children.

The author remembered today as the "mother of detective fiction" is Anna Katherine Green (1846 - 1935) described in recent years as the J.B. Fletcher of her day since she was often asked to help solve real crimes. It is Green who gave us Amelia Butterworth, the first spinster sleuth, and Miss Violet Strange whose success rested on her possession of a clue-sensitive bloodhound.

It has been suggested that Green's famous novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878) ranks with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Emile Gaboriau as a cornerstone of the genre. It certainly enjoyed the widest reading audience of any detective story up to its time. The Leavenworth Case is also remembered as the work that gave the world the first literary instance of ballistics testimony.

Perhaps even better remembered is Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 - 1958), who is often referred to as the founder of the "had I but known" school of detective fiction. Her first successful detective novel, The Circular Staircase (1908) is now considered a classic and, along with two later novels, The Yellow Room (1945) and The Swimming Pool (1952), are first-rate examples of mystery writing. Some of her best works are still in print.

The impact of Rinehart's novels was rather spectacular and certainly instrumental in bringing about the so-called golden age of detective fiction - a period beginning about 1925 and ending around 1940. During this brief era, one of every four novels published is said to have been a detective, crime, or mystery novel. An increasing number of women joined the growing ranks of detective fiction writers during these years, and ever since, the Erle Stanley Gardners and Ellery Queens have never lacked serious female competition.

Other writers whose works are represented in the collection include Carolyn Wells (1870 - 1942), who with Green and Rinehart may be considered a founding mother of the genre. Her books have become increasingly collectible in recent years. Author Matthew Head, inventor of spinster-turned-sleuth Dr. Mary Finney, is represented with all four Finney titles. This writer is better known as John Canady, former university professor of architecture and art history and New York Times art critic.

Although not known as a mystery writer, Gertrude Stein is included with her work, Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, published in a limited edition by the Banyan Press in New York in 1948. Stein's "mystery" is more accurately a novel concerning the author's musings about the puzzling circumstances surrounding the death of a friend. Another writer who is represented by a single work is Dashiell Hammett with The Thin Man (1934). The book introduced Nick and Nora Charles to the world and provided some steady employment for William Powell and Myrna Loy in several "Thin Man" films. Movie goers erroneously identified the thin man with Nick Charles; in fact, the thin man was the missing person.

Another writer working at about the same time as Hammett and Canaday is Craig Rice. In 1946 she became the first mystery writer to enjoy a Time magazine cover story. Her books were a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Amanda Cross, a Wellesley graduate with a doctorate from Columbia University, is one of today's more popular writers who is represented in our collection alongwith Mignon Eberhart, and contemporaries Margaret Millar and Emma Lathen. Deserving mention too, is Elizabeth Daly (d. 1967) who was Agatha Christie's favorite mystery writer, and Durham, North Carolina's Amanda Mackay whose Death is Academic is set on the campus of Duke University.

The collection was named after Robbie Dunn Siske (Class of 1939) whose library was given to Jackson Library by her sister, Eleanor Dunn Lloyd. The Siske library was well stocked with detective fiction written by American authors including early greats such as Anna Katherine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mrs. Lloyd requested the use of her sister's maiden name for the collection since the Dunn name has long associations with this campus. Their father, J. Arthur Dunn, taught English here for thirty years from 1923 to 1953. As young girls the Dunn sisters made daily trips to the Library when they were both students at both Curry School and the Woman's College (now UNC Greensboro.)