One of the most significant authors of American Southern literature—a revered clan that includes William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren—Eudora Welty and her writings have long been examined in microscopic detail. Yet it’s only in recent years that her links to the mystery-crime genre have been studied with the same eagle-eyed scrutiny a detective directs toward a case. Edited by Welty scholars Jacob Agner and Harriet Pollack, the essay collection Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight (University Press of Mississippi, December 2022, 256 pages, $30.) unravels and deciphers clues that point to the genre’s impact on her life and legacy.
For mystery-crime enthusiasts, this is a enlightening guidebook to an intriguing journey.
The book’s contributors are largely authoritative academics, though a notable exception is Tom Nolan, whose 1999 biography of Southern California crime maestro Ross Macdonald explored Macdonald’s deep friendship with Welty. Nolan went on to team with Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs for 2015’s Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, which explores the loving, platonic relationship that began in 1970 and spanned 13 years, a handful of in-person visits and nearly 350 letters.
Theirs was a reciprocal friendship. Her February 1971 piece on Macdonald’s The Underground Man, for the New York Times Book Review, elevated his status; the longtime writer of mysteries (aka genre fiction) was suddenly hailed as a literary diviner. Per their letters, Macdonald encouraged Welty to read hardboiled James M. Cain, starting with the short story "The Baby in the Icebox." She moved on to, and “thoroughly enjoyed,” the novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
Both Nolan and Marrs are contributors to this volume; their essays are among this book’s highlights—at least for this reviewer (a diehard fan of Macdonald’s work). Michael Kreyling, who has written extensively about Southern literature and (therefore) Welty, and did a study of Macdonald’s novels, takes an astute look at Welty and noir, and her works that appear to parody the genre.
Other pieces are devoted to specific Welty works and their mystery-crime elements. For instance, the short stories "Petrified Man" and "Old Mr. Marblehall" are scrutinized in relation to pulp fiction. Her 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter is examined alongside Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.
Pictured: Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty
In the book’s Appendix, Welty’s own library is perused, via a listing of the many mystery and “related” titles on her shelves. Turns out the literary lioness was a rabid reader of whodunits.
Her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, is today a museum. Growing up there, Welty was surrounded by books. Through her mother, a devotee of S.S. Van Dine and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Welty was introduced to a number of Golden Age crime writers. In latter-day interviews, Welty said she favored Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie (“endlessly diverting to me”), and Rex Stout (“I must have my Nero!”). She was also a huge fan of Dick Francis—and, of course, Macdonald, whose writings, she felt, surpassed those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight holds a magnifying glass over Welty’s interest and respect for a genre that was once looked upon as the poor relation to (ahem) literary works. In fact, though she won many, many literary awards over her career, the only one she displayed in her house was the Raven Award that she received in 1985 from the Mystery Writers of America—as Reader of the Year.
A mystery woman in many respects, she was also—it turns out—an unapologetic fangirl.