Fiction featuring women as detectives has evolved through the years. Here is a round-up of some of the best detective books with women in charge.
One of my clearest memories of my school days is of an activity where a teacher told us to tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I must have been about 11 years of age, and crime fiction was already my favourite genre to read. I was utterly convinced that being a detective was the best job in the world, and that’s what I told the teacher I wanted to be. My career as a detective never took off, but my love for crime fiction has only grown over the years.
My first favourite detective was George from The Famous Five. Over the years, as my understanding of gender has evolved, I have begun to wonder if George is a trans man and not just a tomboy. At the time however, as a girl who preferred jeans over frocks and short hair over long hair, I saw myself in George.
Nancy Drew, on the other hand, I was in awe of. She was feminine, but she could also fight. She was clever, independent and bold. She was who I wanted to be. Ghost-written in the 1930’s by Mildred Wirt Benson, the first woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in journalism, under the pen-name Carolyn Keene, she was a conscious alternative to “namby-pamby” female characters.
Interestingly, the other legendary female detective, Miss Marple, created by the Queen of Crime Fiction, Agatha Christie, made her debut around the same time that Nancy did. Where Nancy was progressive, action-oriented and unconventional, Miss Marple, even though engaged in some “unladylike” sleuthing, was always very “proper.” Her powers of detection came from her “female intuition” rather than from logically picking apart clues. She is exceedingly (and as expected of a woman) modest when she claims that she is not very clever but “living all these years in St. Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.”
But it may have been such ladylike portrayals of women detectives that prompted Dorothy L Sayers, a detective fiction author herself, to write, “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 believed that “a really brilliant woman detective” was yet to be written and complained that most women detectives in fiction were boxed into a stereotype of being young, beautiful, inclined towards domesticity, and “too often prone to walk into physically dangerous situations and interfere with men trying to solve crimes.”
It was perhaps in defiance of this tradition, that the next generation of female detectives was more “masculine” and hardboiled. One example is that of Bertha Louise Cool, created by Earl Stanley Gardner (writing under the nom de plume A. A. Fair), who along with her partner Donald Law, solved crimes. Where Bertha is described as being physically big, Donald is described as a “runt”; and where she handles the intellectual side of things, he does the legwork. The publisher once asked Gardner to tone down her language, and was told that she spoke exactly the same way he did, and since he wouldn’t be changing how he spoke, Bertha wouldn’t do so either.
Amelia Peabody, Elizabeth Peters’ adventurous heroine, though a “lady” with a husband and child, doesn’t shy away from engaging in “masculine” activities either, and easily toughs it out with the men. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone and Sara Parestsky’s V.I. Warshawski are other examples of women detectives in fiction who physically and mentally are more than a match for any man. They are aggressive, independent and rough around the edges.
The following generation of detectives reconciled their need for agency with their need for love and romance. One wonderful example of the same is Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. She is independent, saucy and sexually liberated. She owns a gun, pilots planes and drives skillfully.
Another much-loved detective is Precious, aka Mma. Ramotswe, the very dependable owner of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, who finds joy both in solving cases, and in her marriage.
The current generation of women detectives is not defined by their gender.
As author Denise Mina, the creator of Alex Morrow points out, women detectives initially, “had to act like men, carry guns and punch people – be able to beat people up and engage in fisticuffs. In the mid-1990s, their gender is talked about a lot, and they experienced prejudice. Now you’ve reached the point where a woman is just a different type of detective. You’re not getting information just because you’re a woman; it’s not your superpower anymore. It’s just a fact about who you are.”
What I enjoy the most about the current crop of female detectives in fiction is the inclusivity and intersectionality of their narratives cutting across boundaries of race, sexuality, age, etc.
Betty Rhyzyk, created by Kathleen Kent, is a lesbian.
Jimm Juree, created by Colin Cotterill is not a white woman living in a first-world country, but is a former crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail, living in rural southern Thailand.
Asiya Haque, created by Ishara Deen, is a Muslim Bengali-Canadian girl who fights not only crime, but also stereotypes.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is a precocious 11 year old, with a love for chemistry.
Faye Longchamp, the brainchild of Mary Anna Evans is biracial.
Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway is a single mother, who struggles with her weight, and complicated romantic feelings for a married man.
No longer do women detectives fit into any kind of box. They are more reflective of real women and their day to day lives. They are flawed, and have failures, but like many women do every day, they just do what needs to be done. That they are also sleuths is just a matter of fact.
Among the best detective books featuring female detectives in Indian fiction, my favourite is Lalli, created by Kalpana Swaminathan. Lalli, a sixty plus retiree from the police force along with her niece, Sita and other associates, collects curiosities, untangles mysteries and makes keen observations about society.
Kishwar Desai’s middle aged social-worker cum sleuth, Simran Singh does not conform to society’s conventions as she solves some gruesome crimes.
In her crime fiction books featuring Sudha Gupta, Ambai brings to the table her viewpoint on significant social issues.
Arnab Ray, in The Mahabharata Murders, gives us the deeply flawed Ruksana Ahmed, who must not only fight crime, but also her own demons of alcoholism and an abusive ex-husband.
Whether in India, or abroad, female detectives in fiction, through the times, have reflected the experiences of real women navigating their way in the world. They have had to battle not only criminals but also sexism, exclusion and harassment. They are often underestimated, and as a parallel to what women deal with at work, have to be twice as good as the men, to earn their rightful place. In a genre where women are traditionally presented as victims, damsels in distress or in some cases as femme fatales, these complex, well-rounded characters are a breath of fresh air.
The evolution of the female detective in fiction is by no means complete. As society changes, as women negotiate their realities, fiction too will continue to metamorphose. In the meanwhile, there are a lot of great books to read.
Header image is a composite of screenshots of the series of each woman detective – Nancy Drew, Miss Marple, Mma Ramstowe, Phyrne Fisher
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