It has been a while since our last round of Tuesday Night Blogger posts, so it’s great to be able to say that this month will be chock-a-block with such posts. The theme of this month’s posts coincides with the publication of the 100 Greatest Literary Sleuths, which is coming out on the 15th I think. I was lucky enough to get to contribute a chapter, which you can read more about here. In honour of the occasion the TNB* decided to come up with our own list of sleuths. Having said that, there are a couple of points I’d like to make. Firstly I can guarantee you we will almost definitely have missed out a sleuth you love, as such lists are always going to be highly subjective, influenced by our own interests and preferences. Secondly when it comes to the bigger names, in order to avoid lots of duplication, we’ve tried to ensure that these detectives were shared around the group, in case you’re wondering why only one blogger has mentioned Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey! Our choices come from varying time periods and styles, as well as different mediums, with a few selections coming from TV productions. I hope you enjoy these posts as they unfold and before I crack on with my sleuth selection for this week I want to encourage readers to share your own suggestions either in the comments section below or on your own blogs, (feel free to use the TNB theme picture and title), as I’d love to hear everyone’s ideas.
*Don’t forget to check out these blogs which will be taking part this month: My Reader’s Block, In Search of the Classic Mystery, Clothes in Books, The Reader is Warned, Noah’s Archive, The Passing Tramp and Ah Sweet Mystery blog. Thankfully we have JJ at The Invisible Event blog collating each week’s posts so you won’t have to worry about missing any.
So which detectives did I select for this week’s post? Well I would say, despite coming from different time periods, they all come under the banner of spinster and/or elderly sleuths. All of these characters respond in varying ways to the problem, as suggested by Berglund (2000), in creating female detectives, (especially in earlier times), which both uphold the traditionally viewed masculine heroic ideals of being a detective and still ‘come up with a credible woman detective’ (Berglund, 2000: 139). Berglund explains further that if the female detective ‘does not retain her feminine attributes, she is accused of being unwomanly and if she does, she, is accused of being unprofessional’ (144). Age, social class, occupation and types of cases solved are all means by which some of today’s sleuth’s approach this difficulty and then of course there’s one which just throws the rule book out the window. Read on to find out more…
First up is Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth…
For those new to or not overly familiar with this character, Amelia is a 50 something, well-off New York society spinster. She features in three novels by Green: That Affair Next Door (1897), Lost Man’s Lane: A Second Episode in the life Amelia Butterworth (1898) and The Circular Study (1900). In these tales she assists police detective, Ebenezer Gryce, who is another serial sleuth by Green and who features in many other stories by himself. This does not mean Amelia becomes overshadowed though and in her second investigation she has by far the larger sleuthing role.
I don’t think many would be surprised by my reason for selecting this sleuth, as she is well-known for being the ‘prototype’ (Landrum, 1999: 119) for elderly spinster sleuths in mystery fiction and is a significant predecessor to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, even more so as we know that Christie did read Green’s work. One particular feature that both of these sleuths share and for which Amelia sets a pattern for, is ‘detecting not out of financial need […] but from human curiosity, or as it often appears, nosiness and a busybody disposition’ (Gavin, 2010: 261). This is significant as female sleuths prior to and for a while after Amelia’s first appearance, invariably only turned to detective work as a last resort, as a means of providing for themselves and often invalided relations. George Sims’ Dorcas Dene is one such example. Sleuthing purely for curiosity and fun was more the prerogative of their male counterparts. Although Jane Marple adopts this pattern set out by Amelia, she does so in quite a self-conscious manner, aware of the camouflage it provides her, such as when she muses in Nemesis (1971): that ‘…she was the sort of age and type that could be expected to ask questions.’ In addition, Amelia also shows us how an amateur female sleuth can infiltrate certain social settings much more effectively than a policeman, something which Miss Marple would go on to do in her own cases. The similarities do not stop there either. Like Amelia, Miss Marple has a strong sense of morality and religious belief. Amelia is described as ‘a woman of inborn principle and strict Presbyterian training’ in one of her cases and I think this partially spurs her on to find out the truth and see that justice is done.
However, Amelia’s importance for the genre is not only reflected in the light of later fictional sleuths, but was significant at the time the stories were produced. She was by no means the first female fictional sleuth, but she did contribute to that sub-genre. Gavin (2010) writes that ‘female detectives of the period, however, operate subversively; when they solve a case moral certainties may be re-established, but gender role expectations are broken down’ (261). This idea ties into something I have been thinking about when trying to write this segment on Amelia, the fact that she might be a more complicated antecedent to the spinster sleuth than she first appears. It is so easy to look back at her character and even work back from Miss Marple. Whilst similarities between the two exist, there are some significant differences. For instance when it comes to the issue of marriage for these two characters, it is easy to assume that both are past such matters. The age factor, however ageist it is, does seem to play a role here and if a reader is looking back to Amelia from Miss Marple, it’s not hard to impose these assumptions on to the earlier character. But it really surprised me how much younger Amelia is, as in my head she was always similarly aged to Miss Marple. Furthermore romance is not quite so off the cards for Amelia, as during one investigation she receives two marriages proposals, (including from a killer), and even her sleuthing partner, Gryce, comments on her desirability. Golden Age detective fiction writers may have turned to older female sleuths in order to avoid the difficulties of romance and marriage and children, perhaps seeing Amelia as a predecessor of this, but I think Green does not set up this train of reasoning quite so neatly as we might imagine. It is intriguing to wonder if Green had written more mysteries featuring Amelia, would her sleuth have remained single? Or even more tantalising a question is, why does Amelia choose to remain single?
Another way Amelia is more of a complicated character rather than a tidy pro-formula for later amateur sleuths is that during the 1920s-40s, the spinster amateur sleuth is by and large** deemed to be infallible in terms of their judgement and self-awareness. Again Miss Marple is a good example of this. The same cannot be said for Amelia, who Peter Keatings notes, ‘describes herself as ‘of Colonial ancestry and no inconsiderable importance in the social world.’ Keatings goes on to say that ‘these words indicate, she is rather pompous, something of a self-deceiver and treated with a certain amount of irony by the author.’ This ties in with other opinions as Barrie Haynes (1981) describes Amelia as Gryce’s ‘comic nemesis’ (167), as well as mentioning Amelia’s irrational fear of dogs. For me there is a sense that unlike Miss Marple, Amelia is a sleuth who is not to be taken completely seriously. This does not do away with all of her sleuthing credibility, but I do think that it perhaps links her more closely to spinster sleuths such as Charlotte Murray Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards.
** Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym being one obvious exception.
My second choice is from the Golden Age of Crime and is Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley…
Mrs, later Dame, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is the sort of sleuth you can’t easily forget. Unlike the genteel Amelia Butterworth and her fictional descendants, Mrs Bradley scoffs at traditional notions of femininity and socially acceptable behaviour and instead lives out her own more adventurous definition of being a woman. She has been married three times and starting out as a psychologist, she then progresses into working for the Home Office. She features in 66 novels, the first called Speedy Death appeared in 1929 and the last one, The Crozier Pharaoh was published in 1984.
So why did Mrs Bradley get my vote for inclusion in this list?
Well firstly as I have already intimated she turns the elderly sleuth formula upside down, inside out and any other direction you like, undermining gender and age stereotypes as well as confounding traditional views on crime and punishment.
Unsurprisingly many of the age stereotypes for older women are far from positive. Phrases such as outmoded, weak and frail (physically and mentally), mad, prudish, unworldly, gossipy and interfering, as well as suggestions that they no longer possess a function in society, can all too easily abound – and I wouldn’t say this is an issue which has disappeared with time. So when you come across a character such as Mrs Bradley, her vast disparity from this picture of the elderly woman certainly stands out. For instance in The Saltmarsh Murders (1933) we find out that she is far from unworldly, knowing ‘the worst aspects of the worst cities in Europe and the United States, and … acquainted with every form of human degradation and vice’ and whilst she does knit, she is also pretty ‘adept at pool and snooker […] darts […] knife throw[ing …] and a dead shot with an airgun.’ Yet such hobbies are not necessarily unrealistic or just a moment of authorial fantasy as in an interview with B. A. Pike in 1976, Mitchell said that ‘at the age of seventy-four-plus … [she] could perform the feats … [she] attributed to Dame Beatrice … including throwing a knife, and hitting a postcard ten times out of ten at twenty-five paces with a rifle.’ Suffice to say I think Mrs Bradley would make for an entertainingly troublesome resident at any old people’s home: sort of like Diana Trent and then some, (brownie points if you know which sitcom that character is from).
So after a few reads the reader can feel fairly confident that Mrs Bradley is a competent and professional sleuth (even if she doesn’t always follow the rules), yet if you compare her against a list of stereotypical expectations for women, you’d be struggling to award her many points. But one of the things which has interested me about Mrs Bradley, ever since I starting reading about her, is how she doesn’t validate or get herself tied down by such a list. Throughout her investigations she gets considerable enjoyment out of disconcerting the male characters around her. For example in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), a male character called Wright is said to glare:
‘at her suspiciously. Women, especially ancient dames like this one, were fools, he knew. Yet was it possible – ? But Mrs Bradley’s wrinkled yellow face was mild and sweet as that of a grandmother… – and Wright was forced the conclusion that – alas for the progress of feminism! – it was possible! The woman was an idiot? Why had he shivered when she smiled?’
And in The Saltmarsh Murders Bransome Burns is baffled that she has been married several times: ‘You don’t tell me any man not under the influence of dope ever married her.’ Now some readers are not a huge fan of how Mrs Bradley is described physically. Whilst it might be providing a counterpoint to conventional attitudes towards women and how they should look like, I don’t think anyone would want to be described as ‘just like a lizard or something quite scaly and prehistoric,’ nor as a ‘dreadful bald headed bird.’ Given the way she is described, i.e. lots of images focusing on specific body parts, I find her written portrait presents her as a quite a chimera figure and have therefore wondered how earth it would be conceivable to cast an actress that accurately. This kind of leads me to thinking that the physical descriptions are sometimes less literal statements about how she looks and are more a means of providing a gothic, unsettling and dangerous atmosphere, which seems to exude from Mrs Bradley’s own person. Equally a lot of the more grotesque statements are made by characters who either do not know her very well or do not approve of her, so I have sometimes thought these descriptions from other characters were more of a way for them to dismiss or disparage Mrs Bradley. I like the way Betty Richardson (1994) suggests that Mrs Bradley’s untraditionally feminine appearance reflects how she is ‘a singularly emancipated heroine, … a truly liberated woman with the brains and spirit to laugh at convention … and the daring to rise above patriarchal laws and rules about female behaviour and appearance’ (Richardson, 1994: 229) – and it is this unconventional response to the question of gender and sleuthing, which largely highlights Mrs Bradley’s contribution to the mystery genre.
My final reason for wanting to include Mrs Bradley in this list of greatest sleuths, is her attitude towards justice. That is not to say that I wholeheartedly agree with her views, as I don’t think for instance that murder is ‘a general heading for a whole list of actions, most of which ought to be judged as misdemeanours,’ though I do agree with her opposing stance towards capital punishment. She was by no means the first sleuth to have a maverick or anti-establishment response to justice and punishment, but she does push this unorthodox stance to its limits, no less so than in her debut case. I would love to say more about this book’s ending as it does provide an interesting variation on an earlier milestone of the genre, but unsurprisingly such a discussion would constitute one heck of a spoiler. I suppose all I can do is recommend that if you haven’t tried Mitchell’s books already then try Speedy Death.
My final selection for this week is Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia…
As her name suggests Sister Pelagia is a nun and despite being such a fantastic character she only appears in three books: Pelagia and the White Bulldog (2000), Pelagia and the Black Monk (2001) and Pelagia and the Red Rooster (2008). All of these are set in late 19th century Russia, with a quick trip to the Holy Land thrown in. If you haven’t read any of these I’d strongly recommend trying them, though this is definitely a series to read in order. Having already written about Amelia Butterworth and Mrs Bradley, with a few sneakily fitted in remarks on Miss Marple, I find myself seeing Sister Pelagia as a character who manages to combine the diverse qualities of these 3 other sleuths. She probably veers more closely towards Amelia and Marple, but there are a few Mrs Bradley streaks in her.
So why should she make it on the list? For me it’s her combination of these personality qualities, her religious role, her bending of the rules about how a woman and a nun should act and how all of the above interact with the Russian culture at the time.
From the very first mystery we are shown that Pelagia is far from a natural choice for a nun:
‘It would be impossible to confuse her with anyone else: her wimple had slipped over to one side, and protruding from under its edge in a manner quite shameful and impermissible for a nun was a lock of ginger hair… she was not really cut out to be a nun: far too lively, fidgety, curious and undignified in her movements.’
Yet of course we know her liveliness and curiosity will be invaluable in her detective work, even if it jars with her external appearance as a nun. The gap between the external and the internal are further emphasised when the narrator tells us that ‘to a casual glance she was a young girl… sweet and naïve, but this [is a] deceptive impression… [as she is] certainly no young innocent… [having] known suffering, seen something of life and had time to reflect on her experiences.’ This description simultaneously aligns her with both Miss Marple, as her appearance also belies her strong personality and intelligence, but also with Mrs Bradley, as the end of the quote hints at a more adventurous life before the convent. Moreover, during her investigation she sometimes “disappears” for a time and her “sister” who is not a nun comes to visit, a “sister” who oozes charm, flirtatious comments and social grace and of course this alter ego for Pelagia puts pain to the stereotype that nuns, like old spinsters, are lacking in worldly knowledge and are not much use in society.
But to return to the Miss Marple and Pelagia comparison. Both are characters who are ‘composed of contradictory elements,’ and Craig and Cadogan (1981) suggest for Miss Marple at least that this is for ‘maximum effect’ (Craig and Cadogan, 1981: 27-28) or shock and I would say the same applies to Pelagia, as she too generates a certain amount of incongruity. Moreover, like Miss Marple, or even Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, Pelagia has a self-effacing attitude when it comes to avoiding fame for her sleuthing successes, preferring her Bishop to take the credit. When her talents are noticed and praised, she invariably feels uncomfortable: ‘she was sitting there utterly mortified and bright red… she continued to feel embarrassed for a long time.’ Yet all Miss Marple and Miss Silver fans know that this does not mean she lacks powerful observation skills and sharp intelligence and in the first two tales she is shown to be very adept at showing up her male sleuthing rivals. After all Sister Pelagia’s powers of reason and observation are frequently referred to in the text, such as when the Bishop says, ‘she is observant and sharp-witted’ and we’re also told that ‘Pelagia was not one of those people who can be duped for long.’ furthermore, her own words also demonstrate these intellectual powers, as when explaining how she reached her solution she says ‘there was no revelation… and there is no need of one, when ordinary human reason will suffice’ and again in admonishing the Bishop for fancifulness she says, ‘Oh, Your Grace, what sort of wild imaginings are these?… You should write novels for the magazines’ – a comment which pleasingly upends gender reading stereotypes.
Well done for having made it to the end of this piece! I’m sure I’ve probably missed a tonne of important reasons why these three sleuths are important and great, but hopefully I have written well enough to persuade you to give these detectives a try. I’ll try my best to not blither as much in next week’s post, in which we’ll be looking at a trio of male mavericks.
Birgitta, Berglund. (2000). Desire and Devices: On Women Detectives in Fiction. In: Warren Chernaik The Art of Detective Fiction. Hampshire: Macmillan Press. p. 138 – 152.
Craig, P and Mary Cadogan. (1997). Grandmotherly Disguise: The Lady Investigates (1981). In: Bloom. H. British Women Fiction Writers 1900-1960 Volume 1. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 27-29.
Gavin, Adrienne E. (2010). Feminist Crime Fiction and Female Sleuths. In: Rzepka, C. and Horsley, L. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 258-270.
Hayne, B. (1981). Anna Katharine Green. In: Bargainnier, E. 10 Women of Mystery. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. pp.153-182.
Keating, P. (NA). Jane Marple and Amelia Butterworth. Available: http://pjkeating.co.uk/janeamelia.php. Last accessed 19/03/2018.
Landrum, L. (1999). American Mystery and Detective Novels: A Reference Guide. Connecticut: Greenwood.
Richardson, B. (1994). Gladys Mitchell. In: Klein, K. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 228 – 232.