Looking for Ms. Great Detective


Look at this picture.

Yes I know, it serves as a banner for Brad Friedman’s excellent blog – but it’s not the point.

Take a closer look at the picture.

What do you see?

What do you not see?

You have probably guessed by now what I was driving at, but I’ll give the answer nevertheless: There is only one woman on the picture.

That woman is Miss Marple on what purports to be a « family portrait » of the greatest fictional detectives, which would be an all-male club were it not for her presence.

This blog has always been apolitical and it will remain so for as long as I’m the person behind it, so don’t worry that I’m about to embark on a rant about gender inequality in the sleuthing profession. Others have done it already and there’s nothing much to add. My concern is different. Patriarchy and all the stuff set aside, why do we always think of the Great Detective as a male? Is that perception borne out by reality?

There is actually no shortage of female claimants to the Great Detective title. They are admittedly fewer than their male colleagues but they do exist and some of them even held and still retain a sizeable audience. So why did Lady Molly, Miss Silver, Hildegarde Withers, Miss Bradley or Mary Carner not make the cut? One obvious answer is that the author is a misogynist but what if she is a woman? (Google wouldn’t say.) I for one think the answer to be much simpler: they probably have never heard of them.

While there has been lately a significant and welcome regain of interest in vintage female mystery writing, leading to the exhumation and reappraisal of many a forgotten lady of crime, there has been significantly less interest in the female detective figure. Most scholarship and criticism while acknowledging the existence of some lonely exceptions thinks the female sleuth to be a modern, early 1970s invention. It doesn’t help that the same scholars and critics tend to neglect the genres that are most likely to welcome female detection. One of the reasons why Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone or V.I. Warshawski made such a splash is that the hardboiled genre has always been a critical favourite, meaning a greater exposure for the tough ladies.

Another problem is that actual or wannabe female detectives in vintage mystery fiction often rely on a man’s help, either to solve the mystery or to come to the rescue when said lady detective is in trouble. Most scholars interested in the matter being female and feminists, it is understandable that they don’t find such characters very appealing. But what about the ones I listed above – certainly Miss Bradley is no weakling, and neither are Miss Withers or Miss Silver (despite the latter’s recurrent coughing problem) The indifference from scholars that otherwise crave for « strong women » in fiction is puzzling, even frustrating.

As I’ve said earlier, pre-contemporary women sleuths were fewer than the men. Not surprisingly, male writers were extremely reluctant to cast a girl as the lead but their female colleagues weren’t that keen on it either. Most of the era’s leading female authors wrote about men: Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter, Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion, Basil Willing, Paul Prye, Mark East, Fleming Stone, the list of male detectives mothered by female writers is amazing, especially considering that some of the mothers were avowed feminists. Social mores and market requirements probably account for that, along with the idea prevalent at the time that the detective novel was a « male » genre aimed at male readers; women on the other hand had HIBK, which was much more welcoming to female sleuths from Miss Pinkerton to Susan Dare.

Things have (fortunately) changed since, so maybe it’s time for the Great female detectives to be fully recognized, so that poor Miss Marple is no longer alone in the Pantheon.






15 commentaires sur “Looking for Ms. Great Detective

  1. I’ve got a story on the backburner which features a female detective. Kate Warne is the inspiration. She was the first female detective in the States. From the Wikipedia blurb:

    Warne walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency in response to an advertisement in a local newspaper. When she walked into Pinkerton’s Chicago office, according to Pinkerton company records, he further described her acquaintance:

    [he] was surprised to learn Kate was not looking for clerical work but was actually answering an advertisement for detectives he had placed in a Chicago newspaper. At the time, such a concept was almost unheard of. Pinkerton said, « It is not the custom to employ women detectives! » Kate argued her point of view eloquently – pointing out that women could be « most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective. » A Woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence. Men become braggarts when they are around women who encourage them to boast. Kate also noted, Women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers

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  2. I don’t I think this really provides an answer, but it does explain why my own personal pantheon of great detectives is almost exclusively male. My interest in the genre is based in puzzle plotting, and the greatest puzzle plot writers, both male (John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen), and female (Agatha Christie, Christiana Brand) wrote almost exclusively about male detectives, with the exception of Miss Marple.

    And even Miss Marple almost doesn’t make the cut for me because— while I actually prefer Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot as a character— Christie seemed to have reserved nearly all of her best plots for her male detective.

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      1. Which just continues to strengthen my point. The idea of Mrs. Bradley being even within smelling distance of talk of great detectives surely, surely underlines how poorly the female of the species has fared in GAD.


      2. Hmmm Mrs B is a great character stuck in some awful plots in my opinion.
        I actually prefer Mrs B as a sleuth over quite a few « great » detectives, including Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. In those cases the plots and extended cast and writing style is what I am enjoying as opposed to the central sleuths themselves.


      3. The matter of enjoyment is always going to be too subjective; what I dislike about Mrs. Bradley as a detective is that she doesn’t detect — Mitchell’s keen on psychology, which means Mrs. B sees something and decides what it means. The plots are entertaining, yes; the characters vivid, yes; the writing turgid, yes; but crucially there’s no detection and so she’s not a detective She’s a noticer and a decree-er, fine, but let’s not call what she does detection. That way madness lies 🙂

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      4. I agree with you to an extent. In some books she is far too cryptic to be sleuthing by human methods, but in others the detection plot is more pronounced.
        I may have to start a series like your one about finding modern impossible crime novels for Tomcat. But mine would be finding great classic crime female sleuths for JJ!

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      5. Lily Wu is a great character and I hope you like her too. Though I think she comes into her own as a detective once the books go back to Hawaii, as in the first book her personal involvement in the case means she is bridging the suspect/detective roles.


      6. I may have to start a series like your one about finding modern impossible crime novels for Tomcat. But mine would be finding great classic crime female sleuths for JJ!

        I’ve already mentioned some candidates in the course of my article but one I’ve recently discovered is Matthew Head’s Dr. Mary Finney who appears in four novels that Anthony Boucher held in high esteem.


  3. OK, I’m going to take my life in my hands here. It’s not just female detectives. On the whole female writers of detective fiction were not as good as the male writers. Yes there was Christie and I’m not insane enough (or unjust enough) to try to dethrone Christie from her perch. She was either at the top of the tree or very close to it.

    Bu the other female GAD writers were of much lesser quality. Sayers was OK but overrated and very uneven and not exactly brilliant when it came to plotting. Gladys Michell was simply awful. Allingham and Marsh were lightweights. Josephine Tey was at best third-rank. They’re just not in the same league as giants like Carr or Crofts or Van Dine or early Ellery Queen or Stout, or even J.J. Connington or Gardner or Street or Christopher Bush.

    Apart from Christie I’d say that Christanna Brand was the only one in the top rank and I’m not sure you’d count her as a GAD writer.

    I’ve always been puzzled by the idea that detective fiction is a female-dominated genre, either when it comes to writers or readers. I think of it as being more like science fiction or spy fiction – an essentially male genre. Of course the idea that there are male genres and female genres (such as suspense) is pretty controversial these days.


    1. I think it’s a matter of which element of fiction is most important to you. I myself am most interested in puzzle plotting, so yes, only Christie and Brand stands in the front rank with Carr, Queen, Berkeley, and A.E.W. Mason (I haven’t read enough of the humdrums yet, Stout’s virtues are of a different kind, and Van Dine I consider an intriguing fraud— yes, he delivers an intriguing world and great puzzle premises, but that’s not ultimately so impressive as the solutions are never nearly the equal of them). So for me, there are only four or five top names, and two of them are women— not a domination of the genre, but certainly an important representation. And if I were just to pick three top names, they would be Car, Christie, and Brand.

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