The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (1988) by Kathleen Gregory Klein

The fictional female detective has been a literary figure which has interested, entertained and intrigued me ever since I got into reading crime fiction, so therefore I was keen to read Kathleen Gregory Klein’s The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (1988), which examines the professional female detective in fiction from 1864-1987. Klein looks at the obstacles and difficulties there has been in creating such a character, a difficulty which arises because of competing scripts within such texts; the script of the heroic detective and the script of the heroine. Seemingly to uphold the constructs of one of these scripts is to diminish those in the other and something which intrigued and depressed me was that this wasn’t just an issue in late Victorian fiction, but was an issue which occurs throughout Klein’s chosen time span. Klein puts the problem into a nutshell:

‘Certainly a woman’s script did not include setting up professionally in a job which so clearly required acknowledged masculine virtues like physical strength, logical thinking, and worldly experience. Women might be successful amateur detectives so long as they employed the more stereotypically feminine talents of gossip and intuition, but they were barred from detective careers.’

Such a balancing act is not found in male detectives, their gender is not called into question by their job, whereas for their female counterparts, ‘their character was either not a proper detective or not a proper woman.’ Klein in her introduction also suggests that if a professional female detective ‘can be shown as an incompetent detective or an inadequate woman, readers’ reactionary preferences are satisfied.’ This notion interested me as part of me wondered whether it was just an outdated attitude today or whether it was still applicable but that such attitudes have been more subtle or subconscious.

The Woman Detective Gender and Genre

Starting at the very beginning, Klein looks at writers such as Andrew Forrester and W. Stephen Hayward and she suggests for such authors one way of getting around the issue of the conflicting scripts was to minimise the overt presence of femininity in the texts themselves, with their characters Mrs Gladden and Mrs Paschal becoming ‘gender neutral’ or ‘honorary male[s]’. An alternative method at this point in time was to either have the female detective fail (thereby bolstering gender attitudes) or to make the killer female, with the implication being that to catch a woman you need to send a woman.

The Female Detective

Klein also looks at the early professional female detective in America, such as in the dime novels between 1880-1904. Such novels ‘emphasised action over investigation, physical over mental power, and a superhuman ability to succeed.’ So oddly enough not many female detectives are found in these texts. However, the problem was that these detectives, few as they were, were either women or detectives, lacking integration with the other. Moreover, something this book has really reminded me of is the hampering effect of romance in detective novels and in particular this book consistently shows throughout the decades it looks at, that the marriage plot undermines and often ends the careers of the female detectives, allowing the woman script to triumph over the detective one, with female characters often feeling relieved they no longer have to detect and can have their femininity validated. This is particularly disturbing in one text, The Lady Detective by Harlan P. Halsey, where the female detective, Kate Goelet is manipulated by her fiancée as well undermined, in a story where a female character is imprisoned by her husband in an attic. Kate’s impending marriage at the end of the book looks far less rewarding in this light.

Kelin’s chapter on the Lady Detective between 1891-1910, was one of the most interesting for me as I was more familiar with the characters being discussed such as Bodkin’s Dora Myrl, Sims’ Dorcas Dene and Danvers’ Rose Courtney. Klein notes that despite the more freedoms that woman were experiencing in real life, the liberalism supposedly purported in these stories is once more undermined by the marriage plot, such as in The Capture of Paul Beck, where Myrl fails as a detective, whilst her male rival and later husband succeeds. Even Dene’s independence is undermined by her blind husband and Courtney’s mentor takes credit for her detecting talent and also suggests that he is marrying her to retain ownership of it. The case is similar in fictionalised lady detectives in America around the same time, with ‘marriage and social respectability, not detection’ being the ‘looming concerns’ for such detectives. Characters like Violet Strange become increasingly concerned that no one will want to marry them and when a man does come along they keenly try to minimise and debase their detective work to appear socially acceptable.

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime

The Golden Age of detective fiction may have had a number of amateur female sleuths, whose age frequently reduced the issue of the marriage plot, but for professional female detectives across both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to have remained a big issue, with the male love interests working towards making their intendeds stop working, using rather nauseating lines of persuasion:

‘Come with me to try and solve the greatest mystery of all… the mystery of love.’

Apologies for anyone who threw up at this point. Mrs Sidney Groom’s Detective Sylvia Shale, alongside E. Phillips Oppenheim’s Lucie Mott probably get the award for struggling with this issue the most, as Shale although ambitious in her profession is completely undone by romance and fails both as a woman and a detective and Mott due to romance and hankering for a title, ends up in a relationship with the very criminal she was supposed to be catching. So you could say their professionalism was called into a question… just a little bit.

The hardboiled subgenre of detective fiction is not exempt from the problems of making credible professional female detectives either, considering the ‘masculine ideologies’ embedded within it. However, alongside the usual issue of running both the woman and detective scripts, there is a further issue, in my opinion and that is the objectification and sexualisation of women, which becomes more pronounced as time progressed. The doing of this is not liberating for the female detectives, as “free love” as we’ll call it and as Klein shows, in this type of fiction only serves to allow the male character to assert their dominance and this is one of the main reasons I stay away from this subgenre and time period. Later figures from the classical or Golden Age tradition are also looked at such as Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver and Torey Chanslor’s Beagle sisters. A new character to me which I discovered in this book was Popkin’s Mary Carner and it was cheering to see that she is in an equal marriage and whose husband is not above taking care of their child, whilst Mary is out investigating.

Psychological and police procedural detective novels from the 70s and 80s, according to Klein also have the tendency to undercut their detective plots with gender ideologies. Of interest for me was Klein’s examination of P. D. James’ Cordelia Gray whose professionalism is undermined by her own actions and the opinions of other characters Cagney and Laceywho vacillate between seeing her a child and as an adult. Throughout the time period Klein looks at she also includes a chapter on detective partnerships and it surprised me how few female partnerships there were in fiction (the best I could think of was Cagney and Lacey). However, I was not surprised by the fact that the female-male partnerships were not real partnerships or at the very least were unequal ones, with the female element being relegated to the role of being objects that required rescuing by the much more successful male partner.

Klein closes her book by looking at whether there can be such a thing a feminist professional detective, suggesting that as detectives such women would be supporting the very system they disagree with. Klein looks at a number of authors who have tried to do this such as Marcia Muller, Susan Steiner and Sara Paretsky. In her afterword, Klein does outline some possible ways of making a ‘feminocentric detective’ novel, but at the present (well her present) comes to the conclusion that ‘a detective novel with a professional woman detective is… a contradiction in terms.’

A key consequence of having read this book for me is that it has made me reconsider the female detectives I have been reading. It has also made me wonder whether this juggling of scripts is still an issue in modern crime novels. Do you think there are any novels or series which show professional female detectives in a way that neither undermines their gender or job? I’d like to know as after having read this book I do feel a little sad about the state of fictional professional sleuths who seem to suffer in ways their male counterparts do not. I can also see why Dorothy L. Sayers had such a bee in her bonnet about marriage being too prominent in stories including female detectives, as this element in detective novels really does have a lot of destructive potential when it comes to professional female detective characters.

This is definitely an informative book on the topic in hand, with lots of examples used, bringing to my attention a lot of new characters and authors. I particularly enjoyed the chapters looking at detectives within the classical tradition pre 1960. However, for me I felt the book was a bit repetitive, not in its content as it moves well between different time periods, countries and subgenres, but in its message, as from the first chapter to the last the idea being thrust forward was always that of female detectives having their careers and achievements undermined by marriage plots. I think this idea was perhaps overused, making each chapter work towards proving the validity of the idea using texts from different time periods, countries and subgenres.

Rating: 3.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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