Women Detectives Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Women have come a long way in mystery and detective fiction, just as they have in society in general. During the late 1920’s, the distinguished mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers complained about the depictions of women detectives in fiction when she wrote her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime (1928):There have . . . been a few women detectives, but on the whole, they have not been very successful. 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.

Sayers also complained that most women detectives in fiction were too young, too beautiful, too interested in marriage, and too often prone to walk into physically dangerous situations and interfere with men trying to solve crimes. Although acknowledging some exceptions to these deficiencies, Sayers maintained that a “really brilliant woman detective” was yet to be created.

When Sayers wrote these words, women had been detecting in fiction more than sixty years. Although many fictional female detectives do exhibit the faults that Sayers noted, others have represented impressive achievements by their creators. In 1864, a little more than two decades after Edgar Allan Poe created the modern mystery form, the British writer Andrew Forrester, Jr., introduced the first female detective character, Mrs. Gladden, in The Experiences of a Lady Detective. Typical of the “casebooks” of its time, Forrester’s book collects seven cases narrated by Gladden, whose deductive methods and energetic approach anticipated those of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who would first appear in 1887. Gladden even has abstruse areas of expertise, such as interpreting boot marks, which she says “have sent more men to the gallows . . . than any other proof whatever.” Indeed, she advises criminals to provide themselves with extra pairs of boots, adding that she will still hunt them down.

In the story titled “The Unknown Weapon,” Gladden becomes interested in events at Petleighcote that she learns about in a newspaper. A death has occurred, seemingly accidentally. Although solving the mystery will yield her only one hundred pounds, she is fascinated by “several peculiar circumstances.” A young man has been found dead outside his parents’ house; the cause of death is an arrowlike barb. Gladden visits the scene of the incident, talks to local people, and reads the report of the inquest. She also studies the contents of the dead man’s pockets. To examine the house without interference, she lures its housekeeper to London through a fake advertisement she places in The Times. Like Poe’s earlier C. Auguste Dupin and the later Holmes, Gladden regards the constabulary as less competent than her pet dog at solving crimes. Like her male counterparts, she eventually solves the...

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The New Woman

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The 1890’s marked the emergence of the so-called New Woman, an early feminist movement that advocated liberating women from domesticity by allowing them to become professionally and financially independent. This movement was also reflected in detective fiction of the era. In M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Dora Myrl: The Lady Detective (1900), for example, the title character is the well-educated daughter of a Cambridge don. She is a good shot, observant, adept at disguises, and intuitive. Although the culprit, Dr. Phillmore, denies the ability of a woman to detect, let alone capture, a criminal, Myrl proves him wrong when she arrests him. Myrl resurfaces in The Capture of Paul Beck (1909), in which she and the title character marry.

Joan Mar, the creation of Marie Connor Leighton in Joan Mar, Detective (1910), is even more the new woman. After she rescues Brian Charlton, Charlton’s fiancé expresses the hope that Mar will marry. However, Charlton recognizes that domesticity does not interest Mar, who does not want to marry. She prefers to remain free to work at her profession and win fame until “the whole criminal world shall tremble at the name of Joan Mar, detective.”

Equally independent is Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke, who first appears in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894). Well-read but impecunious, she chooses detecting over a more conventional work, such as being a...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Marriage vs. Careers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Choosing between marriage and careers is common in stories about female detectives. Dora Myrl, for example, also decides to marry. The solitary detective, whether man or woman, is, however, by no means a universal. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (Prudence) Beresford are equal partners, with Tuppence often the more active and astute. The married couple Richard Lockridge and Frances Lockridge wrote about the married investigators Jeremy and Paula North. Nicholas Blake (C. Day Lewis) created the married detecting couple Nigel Strangeways and Georgia Cavendish. After Georgia is killed in the Blitz, she is succeeded by Clare Massinger. Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler solves most of her cases after her marriage, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s Harriet Vane helps her husband, Lord Peter Wimsey, with an investigation during their honeymoon.

Solitary Sleuths

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The solitary sleuth, either male or female, nonetheless remains the more common type, following the example of Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes. The most famous spinster detective is Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, who first appeared in 1928 in “The Tuesday Night Club.” Although the best-known and one of the most appealing woman detectives ever created, Marple comes from a long line of predecessors, particularly Amelia Butterworth. Christie may also have drawn on Jeanette Lee’s Millicent Newberry (The Green Jacket, 1917; The Mysterious Office, 1922; Dead Right, 1925). Newberry had worked for Tom Corbin’s detective agency, and in The Green Jacket Corbin requests her help. Her cases generally involve women; men prove less adept in these instances. Jane Marple’s knitting may owe something to Newberry’s, who not only knits but also encodes information in her stitches.

When she was first introduced in 1930, Miss Marple was sixty-five, the age at which she would remain through the nearly fifty years of her detecting career. The club in “The Tuesday Night Club” comprises Sir Henry Clithering, the recently retired commissioner of Scotland Yard; a lawyer named Petherick; Dr. Pender, a minister; artist Joyce Lemprière; and Marple’s nephew, writer Raymond West. Lemprière suggests that each person present relate an unsolved mystery that the group will then seek to explain, a detective’s version of Giovanii Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales...

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Nancy Drew

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

It is a curiosity of literary history that the genre’s two most famous female detectives made their first appearances at almost the same time. In 1930, Mildred Wirt, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, published The Secret of the Old Clock for Edward Stratemeyer’s syndicate. Its protagonist was the sixteen-year-old amateur sleuth Nancy Drew, with her blue roadster, speedboat, and airplane, all of which she could handle as easily as she could ride an unruly horse. Despite her youth and sex, Nancy could fell an assailant with a single blow. Fearless and rational, she rejected supposedly supernatural warnings and solved all her mysteries logically. Typical of the subgenre of mysteries with female detectives, Nancy is told repeatedly that detecting is an unsuitable job for a woman, but she perseveres and competes successfully with boys and adults. Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet S. Adams, later took over the Nancy Drew enterprise. Nancy’s age advanced to eighteen, where it has remained ever since through numerous adventures.

Nancy Drew is very young, but Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton is even younger, fifteen. Her detecting career ran from 1932 to 1967, beginning with The Vanishing Shadow (1932). The daughter of a small-town Pennsylvania doctor, Judy matured to the age of twenty-two and married Peter Dobbs, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She then became her husband’s secretary, but she also continued to investigate cases unofficially and even pursued smugglers while on her honeymoon.

Hard-Boiled Women Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Nancy Drew and Miss Marple always remained genteel and ladylike, even as they engaged in what men consider unladylike activities. Other female detectives, looking back to those created by Halsey and Aiken, behave like their male hard-boiled counterparts. Writing as A. A. Fair, Erle Stanley Gardner introduced Bertha Cool in The Bigger They Come (1939). Bertha is indeed big; in her first appearance she weighs 275 pounds, later reduced to 164. Her partner is Donald Law. Reversing the stereotypical handling of such male-female partnerships, Law focuses more on the intellectual side of detecting, Cool on the physical.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, and Sara Paretsky’s Victoria...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Craig, Patricia, and Mary Cadogan. The Lady Investigates. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Historical survey of female detectives from the 1860’s onward. Like Kathleen Gregory—and in contrast to Sally R. Munt—Craig and Cadogan argue that most fictional female detectives receive little respect.

DellaCava, Frances, and Madeline Engel. Sleuths in Skirts: Analysis and Bibliography of Serialized Female Sleuths. New York: Routledge, 2002. Annotated catalog of women investigators in literature.

Dilly, Kimberly. Busybodies, Meddlers, and Snoops: The Female Hero in Contemporary Women’s...

(The entire section is 409 words.)