There is nothing new in this question. Readers and writers of mystery fiction have been pondering it for a long time now, ever since such characters were formed in the late 19th century. For some it is out of the question that a good fictional female detective could ever exist, such as Howard Haycraft, who in his book, Murder for Pleasure (1951) wrote that:
‘in all fairness, women […] do not make satisfactory principal detectives. Some examples […] may be produced to counter this argument but by and large to assign [female characters,’ to a full-fledged criminal pursuit is a violation of the probabilities if not the strict possibilities. They may, and often, do figure as important and attractive assistants.’
Even those who think it is conceivable to create a satisfying female sleuth, may still regard it as a challenge. Such a person was Dorothy L. Sayers who felt that older female detectives were more successful than their younger counterparts because:
‘in order to justify their choice of sex they are obliged to be so irritatingly intuitive as to destroy that quiet enjoyment of the logical which we look for in our detective reading. Or else they are active and courageous, and insist on walking into physical danger and hampering the men engaged on the job. Marriage, also, looms too large in their view of life; which is not surprising, for they are all young and beautiful…’
Bringing things more into modern times we equally have Birgitta Berglund’s comment on the development of female detective that if such a character ‘does not retain her feminine attributes, she is accused of being unwomanly, and if she does, she is accused of being unprofessional.’ Berglund’s point emphasises the difficulties writers had in the past with aligning their female sleuth to societal norms, and to some degree this issue still manifests itself today, despite the greater equality there is between men and women, in many parts of the world.
However, I for one think it is possible to give readers a good female sleuth, who you can’t help engaging with and investing time and interest in. Hopefully you are all nodding your heads in agreement at this point, whilst considering the female detectives you most enjoy reading about. I have mentioned these three critical points of view, as in some ways they shape my own answer to the question I have posed. My criteria frequently intersect with many of the issues these quotes raise.
Most of us, I assume, have seen a job specification, with the criteria split into those which are essential and those which are desirable. Now imagine a group of fictional female characters, who are eager to take up the position of principal/co-principal sleuth, a position I just so happen to be hiring for, (on behalf of beleaguered mystery authors who want some ready-made characters to use in their latest novel). What qualities would I be looking for? Who would make it through the interview stage?
* And yes, I do realise that my lengthy list is somewhat reminiscent of Mr Darcy’s notions of what makes a woman accomplished. I fear that readers will be echoing Elizabeth Bennet’s remark, ‘I rather wonder now at you knowing any.’
A successful candidate must….
… not walk into danger due to excessive foolishness and reckless behaviour, which ignores basic common sense.
This is possibly a bit of a controversial first choice to start with, as it is one which is very dependent on the degree to which the disapproved action is being exhibited. Sleuths getting into danger is part of the genre, being a reliable trope for providing tension and drama – especially in the closing chapters. But for me how effective this trope is, relies upon its context. How did the sleuth get into the dangerous position in the first place? Was it to save someone else’s life? Was it simply a case of their being no alternative, due to environmental factors or due to the murderer being intent on eliminating them? How easily could it have been avoided?
And then there is the killer question: Did the sleuth end up in that situation by ignoring basic common sense? For example: Did they go to the abandoned, dilapidated house in search of a clue, knowing that a serial killer was on the loose, that a great storm was brewing, and that they haven’t told anyone where they are going or thought to bring anyone along with them, and to top it all off have lost the gun they were given*? Well if the answer is yes to this last question, then you are likely to get in my bad books and for me I feel this is a red flag issue. I can very quickly get irritated and disinterested in a sleuth if they act in that manner. This is one of the key reasons why I increasingly got annoyed with the amateur sleuth Haila Troy, (created by Kelley Roos). Anyone who has read If the Shroud Fits (1941), will know what I am talking about! The ending of this book, even now, still makes me want to dive into the book and give Haila a good talking to!
But why is this so important for female sleuths, you ask? Well to be honest, generally speaking, mystery writers have often directed their female sleuth to exhibit such behaviour, so the inevitable male rescuer could fly into action, save the day, and get a wife for his troubles, (as of course you’re somewhat obligated to marry the chap who saves your life – if you happen to be in a mystery novel that is). And it is this issue which Sayers refers to when she talks about female sleuths ‘hampering the men engaged on the job’ and I think this is one of the issues which has given such characters a bad press in the past, (see. Howard Haycraft), giving the impression that women make inferior solvers of crime and are liabilities. Now you might say that this problem is only to be found in older crime novels, especially those from the HIBK genre, but I still feel it crops up today.
*This last lapse in good judgement is committed by Kate in Ianthe Jerrold’s There May be Danger (1948).
… avoid undignified situations, retain their self-respect and refrain from being embroiled in events which leave them in a denigrated position.
This issue sort of ties into the first one, but not entirely, as degrading experiences, are not just ones which place the woman in physical danger but are of a more sexual/relationship nature. A good example of what I mean can be found in Sealed Room Murder (1941) by Rupert Penny, where a man and woman are rendered unconscious and put into a cellar by a killer needing some space to… well kill. Yet it is only the woman who loses her clothes in the process. Why? Why? Or a different example including a female amateur sleuth can be found in ‘Why So Many Shamuses?’ – a short story contained in Josef Skvorecky’s Sins for Father Knox (1973), where the conclusion leaves the woman in a very undignified situation indeed.
I appreciate not everyone will be as bothered by this issue, depending on your reaction to how romantic relationships are played out in fiction, but for me whilst I don’t mind a feisty courtship of Beatrice and Bendick ilk, I definitely dislike and feel uncomfortable with those which are more equivalent to the ending of The Taming of the Shrew. In some ways I think that is one of the reasons why I do not enjoy Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The ending, for Anne Beddingfield, places her in such a situation and I find it a shame that her earlier capabilities and independence are squashed. In its more severe form this theme can become a bit of a red flag issue.
… have greater ambitions than simply using the investigation as a means of bagging a man and a date at the altar.
This item naturally refers back to Sayers’ comment of 1929 that ‘marriage, also, looms too large in […the female sleuths’] view of life.’ Some writers merely use the murder investigation as a means for bringing two young people together, so very often the female in the pair ends up doing less investigative work and more time wondering what the other person thinks about them. Personally, if a female character is being called upon to operate as a sleuth, then I do expect them to act as a sleuth would and to engage in the appropriate activities. Heaven forefend they don’t come away without at least a boyfriend or an engagement ring, but they do need to have their priorities straight. This is particularly important if the female sleuth is destined to become a serial character, (more on this below).
Two female detectives who do meet this quality are Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu and (so far!) Martin Edwards’ Rachel Savernake, who features in Gallows Court (2018). Given that Lily Wu featured in a quartet of novels from the 40s and 50s, her consistent status as a single woman, is quite impressive, and I didn’t find her character wanting due to a lack of a man in tow. Sheridan actually presents singleness in a positive light, which would fit in with more modern times. Another example I rather enjoy is Helen Capel from Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch (1933), though perhaps she is more of an accidental or I-Have-No-Choice-Because-Their-Is-A-Serial-Killer-In-The-House sleuth. She does have a potential romantic interest, but I love her response to it:
‘Those derided Victorians, who looked upon every man, as a potential husband, certainly extracted every ounce of interest from a dull genus. Yet, while she respected the Professor’s intellect, and genuinely looked forward to the visits of the young Welsh doctor, she resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates, for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.’
… not take a back seat in future investigations once they are married.
Literary conventions have often dictated that a single woman ought not to remain single and that it is the author’s job, especially if the women are young and appealing, to find them a mate. Detective fiction has grappled with this dictum for a long time and responded to it in a number of ways; sometimes abiding by it, sometimes sneaking
around it, and at other times sticking two fingers up at it.
The main reason I have included this criterion on my essentials list is that frequently in mystery fiction, particularly classic crime fiction, marriage brings a female character’s sleuthing career to a close, with them either giving up detecting completely or by allowing their significant other to do all of the work whilst they encourage from the sideline. This is an issue which really gets my goat as I will have read an early investigation they are involved in and will have really enjoyed their enthusiasm in solving the case. So, it annoys me greatly when they decide to not keep it up and instead prefer idolising their husbands. Thankfully there are some examples of female sleuths who carry on the good work, such as June Wright’s Maggie Brynes, (who even does it with a toddler to look after!) and Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are, in my opinion, one of the closest examples classic crime has in depicting an equal partnership in sleuthing. Conversely Haila Troy fails again with this category, and to a degree so does Amanda Fitton, (who eventually marries Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion).
… be a reasonably independent active member in the investigation.
We all need companionship and support, and fictional female sleuths are no different. Yet they should be able to carry out various tasks without assistance and to do so competently. They shouldn’t need someone else to hold their hand the entire time, (metaphorically or literally), and should be able to stand on their own two feet. They should avoid playing a passive role, as at that point there is little point in them being in the story, other than to make the character doing all the investigative work look good.
I have two key examples of female amateur sleuths who fall foul of this problem. The first is Jean Abbott from Frances Crane’s Jean and Pat Abbott series. Even before Jean marries Pat, she reveals a complete inability to engage with the sleuthing process. She is reluctant to find things out and is consequently somewhat clueless as to what is going on. Not the ideal position for an amateur sleuth really, is it? For instance, in The Turquoise Shop (1941) she throws out lines such as: ‘Better to forget it, except as a show. Look on. Not get involved. That was the only way.’ Moreover, in The Golden Box (1942) this is her response to searching a bedroom: “I’d hate to touch anything in here… If I were you I’d be one of those detectives that does everything by psychology.” Later in this book we even have evidence that Pat has little faith in her detecting skills: ‘Am I doing this investigation, Jean or you? […] You’ll spoil it. Please do let people alone. They’ll reveal themselves… stop asking questions. The wrong one can spoil everything.’ All in all, I think this shows that being a detective is probably not the career Jean is most suited for. A case of don’t call us, but we’ll call you…
My second example is Emily Bryce who is the female half of the amateur sleuthing couple to be found in a series written by Margaret Scherf. Her husband, Henry, also takes a dim view of Emily’s capabilities as a sleuth, answering one of her queries in Glass on the Stairs (1954) with the comment: ‘Don’t confuse things by talking will you?’ Furthermore, her contributions are invariably shot down and any information she gives is disbelieved, and problematically she does not fight this negative view of herself and somewhat lives up to the chaotic and trivial woman she is deemed to be. With such a helpmeet, as Henry, I can’t see Emily’s detective career going far.
… be reasonably smart and competent in the role of sleuth, though this does not equate to infallibility.
I suppose I have flagged up the issue of competency separately, as I realised that you can have female sleuth who acts very independently, but who also charges into danger pointlessly and achieves very little as a result. A female sleuth needs to be able to act on their own initiative, but to do so with a degree of skill, and this includes general life skills, such as using public transport. I know Anna in Ethel Lina White’s The Elephant Never Forgets (1937), is not a true “sleuth,” but her inability to get on a train independently beggars belief and to be honest I still haven’t quite got over her ineptitude in this area.
However, two examples of women who do fulfil this criterion are Jennifer Rowe’s Verity Birdwood and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Patricia Louise Borchmann. What I also like about these characters is that they are not infallible sleuthing gods or Wonder Women. They have their own struggles and vulnerabilities, but importantly they do not impinge on their ability to be satisfying sleuths.
… not become so overrun by their own emotions that their sleuthing capabilities are significantly impaired.
This is another pet peeve of mine, one which I think maintained a presence in Golden Age detective fiction, due to the literary conventions established in earlier writing styles such as sensation and gothic fictions. In both genres female characters are often trapped into a passive role, (though there are exceptions), and their emotions are their primary way of responding to events. In a frothy love story where the heroine patiently waits to be rescued in the final pages this isn’t so much of an issue to the plot’s ultimate aims. However, when it comes to mystery fiction and female sleuths it causes some difficulties…
Of course, sleuths can be upset or shocked, but at the end of the day, we still want them to be able to do what is necessary. Jennifer Rowe’s Verity Birdwood is a good example of how to balance reasoning and feeling in a sleuth. Lamb to the Slaughter (1995), is arguably Vertiy’s most gruelling case to solve, and naturally she is emotionally affected by what occurs. Yet she is not deprived of her inherent logic and reasoning and consequently does not shirk her duties, nor require a man to deal with the mess.
An example of a prime offender of this category will be dealt with in the next item on the list…
…must avoid irresponsible behaviour which leads to a miscarriage of justice.
Miss Pym. Where to start with her? She is a case study in how not to be a satisfying female sleuth. Returning to Berglund’s continuum of femininity vs. professionalism, I find I am much more irritated by female sleuths who act unprofessionally or unethically, than I am about those which seemingly fail to be “feminine.” After all concepts of what femininity constitutes are so varied and have radically changed over the decades that I think expectations for women and fictional characters have shifted. So back to being irresponsible… This is another red flag issue for me.
Miss Pym for those who don’t know, is the amateur sleuth in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (1947) and is a psychologist who has gone to a girl’s training school as a guest lecturer. Murder ensues in the gymnasium and after a while Miss Pym ends up possessing evidence which points to a particular student being the murderer. This then leads to something of an emotional melt down on Miss Pym’s part who feels bad about handing in the evidence as she feels it would blight a girl’s life with conviction. Much internal wrangling takes place as does knee knocking. Initially she thinks that ‘she had a duty to do. A duty to civilisation, to the State, to herself. Her private emotions had nothing to do with it.’ All very sensible of course, yet those pesky emotions very much overwhelm and takeover Miss Pym meaning she destroys the evidence, allows the killer to go free to have a rich untroubled life and lets another innocent girl’s career and life be marred, including financially. Oh, and then Miss Pym gets over her emotional outburst by chucking out all guilt and culpability for this outcome and swans back off to London. This sort of ending annoys excessively, (if you haven’t already twigged that), as it is one thing, in fiction, to let a killer go scot free, (for some altruistic motive), but to let someone else’s life be marred undeservedly is not on. Miss Pym at one point in the text is said to wish ‘very heartily that the Deity had found another instrument. She had always hated responsibility; and a responsibility of this magnitude was something that she could not deal with at all.’ All I feel like saying to her is that if can’t handle responsibility, then she shouldn’t be trying to be an amateur sleuth, in the first place.
…not excessively withhold information from the police, (if they are an amateur sleuth).
Not got a lot to say on this one, but the key word to note is ‘excessively.’ I know amateur sleuths often delay revealing what they know to the police, sometimes because they can’t prove what they know or because the police are so rude, they don’t feel inclined to help them. This to a degree is acceptable and is part of the amateur-police detective dynamic. But taken to excess there is a risk of stalling progress in the investigation, so that nothing happens for pages and pages until near the end that one piece of information is imparted and then everything can be resolved. Apart from massively affecting pacing issues this also doesn’t serve fictional female sleuths well, who may then come across as a hinderance. I came across a juvenile example of this recently in Margaret Ann Hubbard’s Murder Takes the Veil (1950).
… have a sense of humour.
I puzzled over this criterion a lot as I was unsure whether to make it an essential or just a desirable quality. But in the end, I decided to include it in the essentials list as some of my favourite female sleuths exhibit a degree of humour. However, I think the humour should be context appropriate. After all we don’t want Miss Marple telling the Chief Constable knock knock jokes or annoying the local police inspector by putting a whoopee cushion underneath his seat. Humour comes in many forms and comes in levels of intensity. Some mystery novel setups are suited to humour in high volume, whilst others only require a gentle trickle of it. A sense of humour often fits in well with mysteries where the female sleuth operates with a male counterpart, who is frequently their husband or love interest. Humour can be successfully used to show spirit and independence in the female sleuth, as well as allow them to deflate their husband’s ego, if it is in danger of becoming over large. A much-loved example is Delano Ames’ Jane and Dagobert Brown.
…exhibit one or more of the following qualities: gumption, determination, courage, a degree of self-awareness and being unflappable.
I think these qualities that I like in people in real life, so it seems natural that I would want them to appear in the fictional female sleuths that I read about. A sleuth who is spirited and resourceful is going to be a fun one to engage with and follow. They are going to see things through to the end, they are going to remain involved and be an asset to the investigative team, whilst being aware of their limitations. Again, we don’t want Miss Marple acting as though she could wrestle a young man to the ground and perform dangerous manoeuvres during a high speed car chase. At that point she wouldn’t be helping the investigation.
The qualities discussed in this section are either ones I would prefer but can do without in a female sleuth or they’re ones that I like some of the time, but don’t need to see in every mystery novel I read featuring a female sleuth.
A successful candidate may…
…. Show their male counterparts up.
In his article, ‘Why Do We Enjoy Reading About Female Detectives?’ which he wrote for the Independent in 2012, Alexander McCall Smith offered some suggestions for why ‘we so enjoy reading about female detectives?’ One of his suggestions was ‘the satisfaction that we derive from seeing women, who have suffered so much from male arrogance and condescension, either outwitting men or demonstrating that they are just as capable as men of doing something that may have been seen as a male preserve.’ Despite improvements in gender equality ‘the idea of the female detective as being special or unusual still persists in literary and cinematic treatments of criminal investigation.’
I have to admit that there is a sense of triumph when an underdog character comes out on top and I think a similar principle operates here. However, I have a few qualifying remarks to make. Firstly, the tension between the genders does not have to be in your face or excessively overt. Miss Marple, for example, frequently discombobulates male police inspectors with grace and finesse. She does not need to act aggressively or swear at them. Furthermore, if in a series a female detective continually has to contend with high levels of male resistance then, for me, it can become a bit too emotionally wearing and also a little repetitive. So this is an example of a category which I feel I like a little bit of, but don’t need every time. I am perfectly happy with men and women working together contentedly. Strife is not essential.
… have a job, other than sleuthing, (if they happen to be an amateur sleuth).
This was another item which I had to give considerable thought to, as to whether it should be an essential or desirable quality. It so happens that a lot of female sleuths that I enjoy reading about have a pre-existing form of employment before they take up sleuthing, and invariably continue doing it. For instance, there is Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia who is a nun, Elizabeth Dean’s Emma Marsh works in an antiques shop, Mignon G. Eberhart had a sleuth who worked as a nurse, Ames’ Jane Brown is a writer, as is Sayers’ Harriet Vane and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley works as a psychologist. I think having an additional occupation provides female sleuths with a point of expertise that they can use to help them in their sleuthing, and it can also aid their plausible entry into solving a mystery.
Yet what convinced me to make it only a desirable quality is that a considerable number of fictional female sleuths are retired or spinsters who haven’t worked so this criterion would penalise those individuals. After all Miss Marple is a very satisfying sleuth without a current job. There is also Anthony Gilbert’s Janet Martin in The Spinster’s Secret (1946) and of course Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth. Such individuals use life experiences beyond those found in vocations and professional jobs to assist them in their detective work.
… be someone I would like to meet in real life and have coffee with.
There are many fictional female sleuths I would love to meet in real life. Perhaps because I think they would be interesting conversationalists or that we would just get on very well. It is a sure sign that I have invested in a character. Yet, whilst I was mentally working my way through all of the female detectives I enjoy reading about, there was the odd one or two where I wasn’t fussed about meeting them, though still very happy to watch them at work sleuthing. Consequently, I felt this was another take it or leave it item on the list.
… be an adept conversationalist.
One of the many things I love about a Miss Marple novel are the scenes where she successfully obtains a surprising amount of information from her suspects, who don’t realise how much they are giving away. Such moments are skilful interviews, which don’t seem like interviews and can often embody a modicum of much appreciated humour. Yet I also realise that some sleuths don’t work that way, as much. So, whilst I lean quite strongly towards preferring that type of sleuthing method, I don’t feel I can rule out alternative means. So long as the method in question brings in sufficient clues for the reader and contributes to the final solution, I think I am reasonably happy. In fact, I can think of one character who is less able to retrieve information out of suspects and instead is more or less taken as a natural confidante to whom others pour out their news. That character is Joan Coggin’s Lady Lupin and in her earlier cases her ability to misunderstand conversations is far more apparent than her ability to use them to her detecting advantage. Yet oddly this does not stop me loving her as character.
So that is my criteria for what makes a good female detective. But how do existing fictional female sleuths compare with this list? Which ones would make the grade? And which ones would find themselves made redundant?
No sleuth fully meets all these qualities, though some come pretty close. The important thing is that the sleuths have a sufficient mixture of essential and desirable qualities, whilst avoiding red flag issues.
Before you panic, I have not comprehensively assessed every fictional female sleuth that I have ever read. Instead I have selected 5 key examples: Miss Marple, Haila Troy, Harriet Vane, Mrs Bradley and Lily Wu. It goes without saying that Miss Pym’s application form was incinerated on arrival in the post.
So in reverse the sleuth which gained the lowest points, (no surprise at all here), is:
Definite Total Points Gained: 4.5/19
She gained points for not excessively withholding information from the police, (as far as I know), for exhibiting a sense of humour and in the first novel she is working as an actress and I believe she has the odd job after she marries. I would say she avoids degrading experiences and I gave her half a point for having ambitions greater than marriage. I use the phrase ‘definite total points,’ as for some of the criteria I did not have enough evidence to comment upon, so could not award a point comfortably.
In 4th place is:
Definite Total Points Gained: 15/19
This somewhat surprised me, given my enthusiasm for this sleuth, yet the lower rating is partially because two qualities were not applicable such as sleuthing after marriage. In addition, in regards to showing up male counterparts, I did not feel she had the opportunity in the novels to do so. I also had some difficulties with the criterion involving withholding evidence from the police. In the first book, The Chinese Chop (1949), Lily is considered as a suspect by the police and given her more vulnerable position due to racial prejudice, a cosy relationship with the police was going to be unlikely. In her later cases I don’t think she goes out of her way to withhold evidence, yet she definitely operates separately to the police. I think Lily shows that a list of ideal qualities cannot be used arbitrarily to judge whether a character is a satisfying or irritating sleuth, as individual factors working within the novel can affect whether a given quality is appropriate or not. Therefore the list is more of a guideline in some respects.
In third place is:
Definite Total Points Gained: 16/19
This does not surprise too much as Mrs Bradley’s character is one of the consistent things I enjoy about the Mitchell novels, (there being much I hugely don’t like!) Whilst she ends up in dangerous situations I think readers of Mitchell’s stories will know that the killer has far more to worry about than Mrs Bradley does! When it comes to sleuthing after marriage I have given a tick, as I feel I have clear enough idea of her character to know that no wedding vow is going to stop her from doing any thing she wants to do! I was unsure how to mark her in regards to withholding information from the police and so ultimately did not award a tick, so I would be interested in other people’s thoughts on the matter. I did give her a mark for avoiding miscarriages of justice through irresponsible behaviour, though I appreciate her idea of justice is somewhat unorthodox. To be honest she is not a character I would want to meet in real life, maybe because she is not as relatable to.
In second place is:
Definite Total Points: 16.5/19
The scores at this point are very close together. Understandably the sleuthing after marriage criterion does not apply here and I did only award her half a mark for humour, as that is not a strong thread in her character, though she does proffer the occasional amusing remark.
That of course means that in first place by a smidge is:
Definite Total Points: 17/19
I fear some will disagree with Harriet pipping Miss Marple to the post, but it is only by half a mark. There is also the issue that Harriet features in fewer novels than Miss Marple does. Again, she lacks the opportunity to show up her male counterparts, as I don’t think there is much of an occasion for Harriet to “beat” Peter in any way. Though better memories than mine, feel free to correct me. I also felt I had insufficient evidence to award her a tick for sleuthing after marriage, as we only get a glimpse of her married life in a short story. Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), whilst technically post-marriage, didn’t feel like it properly counted.
Firstly, well done for making it to the end of this post. I didn’t plan for it to get so long – honest! However, having reached the conclusion I would absolutely love to hear what qualities you think make for a satisfying fictional female sleuth. I am also eager to hear what you make of my various rankings and how other sleuths may fare using it.