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.