Four years ago, I uncovered the perfect subject for a biography: A small-town librarian in New Jersey during the Gilded Age who parlayed a talent for poetry, wordplay, and parody into a remarkable literary career that culminated in 180 books. She was a brilliant wit who hobnobbed with the likes of Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Edison and dominated the pages of Life and Harper’s, among many other magazines. A woman who, in her 40s, published the first of her 82 detective novels, some of which became bestsellers and some of which were adapted into silent films.

Who was this famous author you’ve no doubt heard of? Carolyn Wells. Ring a bell? Maybe not.

As I began my research on Wells in 2020, I easily located obituaries, as well as a few vintage crime blog posts about her life and work. Concise bio-bibliographical accounts appear in several older reference books, but academia has mostly ignored her. Two recent anthologies include her fiction, one with the telling title, In the Shadow of Agatha Christie: Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers, edited by Leslie S. Klinger. But, until now, no biography had been attempted.

Digging deeper into digital sources, I was blown away by the contemporary references to Wells: 785 New York Times citations, 773 in Publishers Weekly, 167 in the Times of London. The book reviews alone, accessed via, took several weeks to sift through. Wells was prolific and very well covered by the media in her time. I learned from detective fiction scholar Curtis Evans that the sales of her Fleming Stone mysteries, of which there were 61, averaged 13,000 per title. Then I unearthed a 1936 public library report of the 254 “Most Read” fiction authors that listed Wells at No. 37, outranking Agatha Christie at No. 70. (Mary Roberts Rinehart, Wells’s greatest competitor, beat them both at No. 5.)

The disconnect between then and now, between an enormous readership and virtually none, and between constant critical attention and near neglect fascinated me. I was inspired by recent attempts to revive the legacies of other women in history whose stories are only now finally being told, particularly Mallory O’Meara’s 2019 book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon and Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert’s 2022 book, Listen World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman.

In their cases, and in Wells’s, misogyny was at least partially to blame for pushing these women into obscurity. When Wells pitched her first pieces of poetry to an editor in 1895, she was told, “No women contributors.” When a critic in Los Angeles reviewed one of her novels in 1916, he opined, “Detective stories written by women do not, as a rule, promise much in the way of entertainment. They set at defiance every known law of reason and play havoc with the reader’s credibility.”

While men reigned as the gatekeepers of the publishing world, it was easy to exclude and later erase the accomplishments of women, particularly those like Wells who was perhaps perceived as “too much”—too commercial, too productive, in too many genres, and in genres like children’s, young adult, and mysteries, which were historically less valued than they are today. Yes, that whole popular vs. literary debate has been going on for centuries, and the popular authors often suffer in the long run.

This is what Stephen King was getting at last fall when he told the Washington Post that he didn’t know if he’d be remembered 100 years from now. “There are very few popular novelists who have a life after death. Agatha Christie, for one. I can’t think of anybody else who’s a popular novelist, really,” he said. “They were ultimately disposable.”

It’s a brutal assessment, given all the biases and forces working against some of those “disposable” authors. In addition to the ones noted above, another major detriment to Wells’s legacy was the mismanagement of her estate after she died in 1942. Aside from a few bequests–most importantly, a collection of rare Walt Whitman books that she donated to the Library of Congress—Wells left her physical archive and her copyrights to her maid. The archive was then broken up and auctioned off, and the copyrights largely disregarded—just as the paperback boom was getting underway. Only three of Wells’s 82 mysteries appeared in a mass-market edition.

Without an estate or a literary executor to advocate for and promote an author’s work after death—as, for example, the Christie estate does so well—books go out of print, and authors are forgotten. (Authors, if you take away nothing else from Wells’s biography, heed it as a cautionary tale: make arrangements for your literary hereafter.)

As much fun as I’ve had tracking down Wells’s correspondence, manuscripts, and scrapbooks over the past four years—and I’m still finding pieces—the fact that they were scattered at auction instead of being placed in a library for preservation and safekeeping was a dispiriting contributing factor in her decline and fall. Although maybe, in the end, it was not quite a fall, but a shove?

At mid-century, bestselling and much beloved detective novelist John Dickson Carr, who once adored Wells but later changed his mind, felt the need to explain in at least two pieces of published writing that Wells and other early women crime writers Isabel Ostrander and Anna Katharine Green were old-fashioned and second-rate. He essentially discouraged readers, scholars, and publishers from reading their books and dubbed them “lost ladies now well lost.”

Happily, with the extensive resources at our fingertips today, and with the assistance of librarians and archivists, what’s lost can be found—and enjoyed anew.

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells: Investigations into a Forgotten Mystery Author, out now from Post Hill Press.