Although she had only been publishing since 1920, by 1926 Agatha Christie was an established and well-known English mystery writer. So when she disappeared from her Berkshire, England home on Dec. 3, 1926—seemingly without a trace—it was an international sensation. The story made the front pages in virtually every British newspaper, as well as across the pond here in the U.S.
And then 10 days after her disappearance, and just as mysteriously, she reappeared at a Yorkshire health resort. What happened during those 10 days, and why, has never really been adequately explained (Christie completely ignored the subject in her autobiography), and remains a mystery to this day.
Interestingly, just like the famed British writer’s mystery, Kendall County, too, had a well-known female mystery writer with a significant question in her past.
Emily Medora Murdock—called Emma by her family and friends—was born in Oswego on January 16, 1853, the only daughter of Charles L. and Emily A. (Holland) Murdock. Charles was a justice of the peace in Oswego Township, held other local elective offices, and was an attorney.
The couple had one son, Emily’s older brother, Alfred X., who was born Nov. 30, 1844. He enlisted in the 127th Illinois Infantry and was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta, Georgia on July 28, 1864. Initially buried in Georgia where he fell, his body was subsequently disinterred, brought back to Illinois and reburied in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where his parents had erected a monument in his memory.
The mysterious doings begin 13 years after her brother’s death when Emily Murdock married Lawrence L. Lynch on Valentines Day—Feb. 14, 1877—in Lincoln, Nebraska. Why and how the couple got to Lincoln would probably be an interesting story, as would how they got to Cheyenne, Wyoming, which seems a bit out of the way if they were headed back to Oswego. Unfortunately, the record is silent on those facts. What we do know is thanks to a note in the April 19, 1877 Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, a recently-married couple and late of Cheyenne, Wyo., are now stopping at C.L. Murdock’s, the bride’s parents, she being the veritable Miss Emma Murdock.”
Two years after the couple was married, Emily published her first mystery-adventure novel, Shadowed by Three, writing under the pen name, Lawrence L. Lynch—her husband’s name.
It is unknown why Emily decided to begin a career writing mystery novels, but there’s little mystery about why she decided to use a male pen name. In the late 1870s and for decades afterwards, it simply wasn’t considered proper for women to write sensational literature such as detective and adventure novels. So she apparently decided to write her novels using the name of her husband, Lawrence L. Lynch, and presumably with his approval.
The family story in later years was that Emily decided to start writing mystery novels using the Lynch name after Lawrence died. However, the fact is she began writing using her pen name just two years after the couple married, and continued to write additional novels in the years immediately after their marriage. So it’s likely Lynch agreed to lend her his name for propriety’s sake. But then again, Emily kept using it even after the pair were no longer a couple.
Although Lynch, from occasional news notes about the couple in the Record, apparently traveled for his job, possibly as a theatrical agent (a Lawrence L. Lynch is listed as a theatrical agent in the Chicago city directory of 1876), Emily decided to embroider on his occupation a bit, claiming her books were written by “Lawrence L. Lynch (of the secret service).”
According to frequent notes in the Record’s “Oswego” news column, Emily regularly joined Lynch in his travels around the country. For instance, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego columnist, reported on Aug. 28, 1879 that: “Mrs. L.L. Lynch has returned from travels with her husband.
On Dec. 7, 1882, a long letter to the editor of the Record from ‘Lawrence L. Lynch’ about the famed bandit Frank James and his upcoming trial on robbery and murder charges appeared on the front page of the paper. Whether this was really Lynch writing from Kansas City—where according to frequent notes in the paper, he apparently had business interests—or whether the real author was Emily writing under her already established pen name is not known. A note in the Nov. 9 Record had reported that “Mrs. L.L. Lynch will start to-day for Kansas City to join her husband there,” so Emily was definitely there and available to write the letter. Since no other writings attributed to Lynch himself have been discovered, and given the polished, dramatic tone of the letter, it’s not at all a stretch to assign authorship to Emily—by that time she had already published three novels under her pen name.
Sometime around 1886 or 1887, Emily ceased calling herself Emily Lynch, and reverted to her maiden name, Emily Murdock. In March 1886, she still referred to herself as Emily Lynch; by June 1887, she had become Emily Murdock once again. Whether Lawrence died, leaving her a widow as family legend states, or (perhaps more likely) the couple divorced, by mid 1887 she had retained her maiden name.
If writing mystery novels wasn’t done by young women, neither was divorce during that era, and thus the disappearance of the flesh-and-blood Lawrence L. Lynch creates a bit of a mystery. No record of the death of a Lawrence L. Lynch in the mid-1880s has yet been found. But nevertheless, she continued using her Lynch pen name, and by the time she once again became Emily Murdock, she had five published novels to her credit.
On July 12, 1887, not too long after the real Lawrence L. Lynch vanished from the scene, Emily Murdock (using her maiden name, Emily Medora Murdock) married Dr. Abraham Van Deventer in Oswego. Dr. Van Deventer, a recent widower and a prominent Oswego physician and Civil War veteran, had been married to Melissa Snook for 20 years until her death in 1885.
After marrying Dr. Van Deventer, Emily seems to have taken a few years’ break from publishing, although perhaps not from writing. She resumed her career as a novelist when she published The Lost Witness; or, The Mystery of Leah Paget Laird in 1890.
From 1890 until her death, she went on to publish 17 additional novels, the last, A Blind Lead, published in 1912, two years before she died as the result of a series of strokes. Besides here in the U.S., her novels were also published in England, France, and Spain.
In all, 24 titles by Emily Murdock Van Deventer writing under her Lawrence L. Lynch pen name have been discovered. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has copies of five of her novels, including her first, Shadowed by Three, 1879, and reissued in 1885; along with Madeline Paine: The Detective’s Daughter, 1883; The Diamond Coterie, 1884; Out of a Labyrinth, 1886; A Dead Man’s Step, 1893; and Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance, 1894.
In order of publication, her books are: Shadowed by Three; The Diamond Coterie; Madeline Payne: the Detective’s Daughter; Dangerous Ground, or The Rival Detectives; Out of a Labyrinth; A Mountain Mystery, or The Outlaws of the Rockies; The Lost Witness; or The Mystery of Leah Paget Laird; Moina, or Against the Mighty; A Slender Clue, or The Mystery of Mardi Gras; The Romance of a Bomb Thrower; A Dead Man’s Step; Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance; No Proof; The Last Stroke: A Detective Story; The Unseen Hand; High Stakes; Under Fate’s Wheel; The Woman Who Dared; The Danger Line; A Woman’s Tragedy, or The Detective’s Task; The Doverfields’ Diamonds; Man and Master; A Sealed Verdict; and A Blind Lead.
Copies of many of her novels have been reprinted in recent years, attesting to her lasting popularity among at least some mystery fans.
In 1902, the Van Deventers built a new home at the southeast corner of Washington and Madison streets in Oswego. The house was newly renovated and restored in 2002, and is now used as commercial office space. Emily Van Deventer was active in local Oswego civic affairs and was a founder of the 19th Century Club, originally established to promote and educate the community’s women about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In fact, she used the World’s Fair as the backdrop for her 1894 novel Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance. As for the 19th Century Club she help found, it has remained active in the community since it was established shortly after the exposition ended.
By the first decade of the 20th Century, Emily was one of Kendall County’s most prominent citizens. On Nov. 29, 1905, the Kendall County Record published a hagiographical sketch of the community’s famed mystery writer:
“A visit to the home of Mrs. Van Deventer in Oswego brings one into the atmosphere of a typical literary lady’s environments. To the casual caller there is a slight tinge of apprehension almost bordering on fear when the door is opened and the visitor is greeted by the barking and snapping of no less than seven spitz poodledogs, all of whom are so anxious to shake hands with the caller by nipping the bottom of his trousers that they all scrap “inter see” and tumble over each other and sometimes come near upsetting the caller himself. But they are perfectly harmless, the hostess informs you, and with this assurance of safety and easy chair is immediately occupied next to a big table heaped with magazines, books, and literary material. The pets soon become quiet, except for one little rascal, who is generally busy untying your shoestring, and you hardly know whether to persuade him to stop or maintain a safe side of the proposition by letting him have your whole shoe. Mrs. Van Deventer, writing under the fictitious name of Lawrence L. Lynch, has become La femme litteraire of Kendall county. She is now working on her 21st book, some of the advance sheets of which are now in the hands of the publishers and will soon be ready for the public, besides preparing a serial for Munsey’s magazine entitled “On the Knees of the Gods.” Her books have mostly been stories of adventure—the sensational novel—which is so much in demand today both by magazine and book publishers, because there is such a constant cry for them on the market. For many years past, Mrs. Van Deventer had all her foreign publishing done in London by Ward, Lock & Company, and to consider the manipulations of the foreign copyright laws convinces one that even for the author herself La critique est etsee, et l’art est difficile. Her books of past years including such as The Anger Line, High Stakes, Under Fate’s Wheel, The Woman Who Dared, etc. have all been translated into the German and French tongues and it was only a short while ago that Mrs. Van became aware that a big income was being derived from her works in foreign fields. Before she quits the literary profession, Mrs. Van Deventer proposes to write a story depicting the various phases of village life in Illinois, the plot of which will be laid in Oswego with prominent Oswego people making up the personnel of the character cast. It is difficult for her to get out of the line of writing in which she is now engaged as the orders for these stories come in faster than she can write them.”
Unfortunately, she never apparently finished her story with the Oswego plot and peopled by Oswego characters. After suffering a series of strokes, Emily Medora Murdock Lynch Van Deventer died at her Oswego home on May 3, 1914.
Interestingly enough, her obituary in the May 6, 1914 Kendall County Record does not mention Lawrence L. Lynch, her first husband and the source of her well-known pen name:
“Mrs. Emma Murdock Van Deventer, wife of Dr. A.E. Van Deventer, died at her late home Sunday night. Some months ago, Mrs. V. suffered a paralytic stroke, but recovered sufficiently to be about again. About a week ago, she was overcome by another stroke, which after a few days proved fatal. Born in Oswego Jan. 16, 1853, she resided with her parents who were among Oswego’s early settlers. Twenty-five years ago, she was married to Dr. A.E. Van Deventer, residing in Oswego till her death. In her girlhood days, a remarkable ability asserted itself and which soon came before the public in her many books sold extensively here and abroad. This she continued until unable to write on account of ill health. A husband is left to mourn her departure. Funeral services from Congregational church Wednesday; interment at Montgomery mausoleum.”
Her husband followed Emily in death seven months later. Emily Murdock Van Deventer—and the real story about her relationship with Lawrence L. Lynch—is buried with Dr. Abraham Van Deventer in the mausoleum at Riverside Cemetery in Montgomery just a few miles north of the Village of Oswego where she spent so much of her life.