Unraveling the Female Detective

Photo Credit: www.dcmetropolicecollector.com
Photo Credit: http://www.dcmetropolicecollector.com

The detective story is a particular subset of crime/thriller fiction. Not all crime stories are detective stories and I suppose it is possible that not all detective stories involve crime solving. There are dozens of television shows that fixate on crime solving. Some of them are from the perspective of a police detective, others are descendants of the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his heroin-dosing detective, Sherlock Holmes.

In conversing about detective stories lately, I have come to an interesting realization. There is a strange sort of dichotomy that takes place within the detective story; specifically within the mind, mannerisms and personality of the detective him or herself. Granted, while I do have a background in this sort of literature, I have certainly not seen or read all examples. But, from what I have read and witnessed, I can safely say that there is a distinctive difference in the portrayal of the male and female detective in the modern detective story. The reasoning behind this dichotomy is more than likely linked to the preference of the portrayal of women in fiction and really, what is going to sell and appeal to the masses most.

The male detective, more often than not, has numerous strange quirks. He may be into drug use or come from a unique background. He is either a bottom feeder or a suave gentleman. He is either very smart like Sherlock Holmes or completely unaware and inept. He is usually middle-aged (except in the portrayals of a younger Sherlock). A great modern example of a detective that is not a portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney. This story depicts a man who is a private detective by trade and who is not part of the police force. He is half Romany and takes on a case involving a Romany family. He’s not a stellar detective, and was chosen for the case because of his heritage. One of my favorite things about this book is that the case leads to the way you first find him: lying in a hospital bed. He’s obviously no super hero. Also, if I remember correctly, he seems to have a lingering drinking problem. But I may be mixing up different characters in my memory.

Conversely, the female detective is typically very young and she typically is lacking in the vice department (the age exception is Angela Lansbury who was 59 the year she began portraying Jessica Fletcher in the show, Murder She Wrote). In stories that unite historical fiction, romance and detection, the “detective” usually comes from a high-class family and if so, is usually described as having a nose for trouble (this has become a very on-trend genre/concept in recent years). Generally detective stories frame the female sleuth as a forward-thinking and slightly rebellious person for the time period within which she resides though she typically remains a respectable human being.

One of my new favorite takes on this, though I have not actually seen a full episode of the show yet, is Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an Australian show that takes place in Melbourne in the 1920s. Miss Phryne Fisher is witty and flirty and she carries a pearl-handled golden gun and I can tell from the articles I’ve read and the clips I have seen that she is fabulous. If you haven’t checked it out, here’s a little clip.

You can see her personality coming through in just the few minutes shown. She is witty, clever, doesn’t listen to directions and she is very obviously trained to survive in high society.

So where does this idea of the female detective come from? The portrayal of the female detective is dependent upon a number of factors. These range from the influences that Gothic literature has on the portrayal of the female figure to the way that our modern sensibilities prefer to read female characters and how the sub genres that her story occupies have characteristically interpreted the Gothic trademarks.

In the old Gothic stories, a heroine could never have been a detective. She was typically the victim. This figure was not strong enough to take on the strains of an investigation. Nor were there enough brains between her ears for a reader to actually believe in her capability of solving a crime. Even though I love this old literature, the female Gothic heroine’s propensity for tears is more than a little annoying.

Nowadays, readers want to be exposed to empowering female figures and the weepy victims of Anne Radcliffe would never sell. The “modern” woman can be human and have her faults, but her faults can only fall within a certain range of categories. If she is condescended against or lacks certain glowing qualities, then the author is potentially subject to criticisms of being sexist or at the very least, unenlightened when it comes to conceiving of female empowerment. These women must come out on top.

The fact that many of the women who wind up as detectives are sexually empowered is just one way that writers try to entertain and engage modern audiences with contemporary sensibilities. A really interesting and unique example is a book that is part romance novel and part historical fiction. There aren’t many stories that feature more empowered women than the quintessentially steamy romance novel. I don’t read a lot of those, but somehow, this one came into my library. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig is the story of Amy Balcourt and the Pink Carnation. She is very young, she becomes a detective of sorts, attempting to reveal the hidden identity of the mysterious man. She’s definitely green at the start of the book. Romance novels often become a jack-of-all-trades because they frequently attempt to be all things to all readers. It’s not my genre of choice, but I figured I should at least experience this version of the detective story simply for the sake of broadening my horizons and gaining exposure to different ways of storytelling under the detective umbrella; and particularly because the women in these stories are probably most similar to the old Gothic heroines. They just have some modern views on sexuality injected into them. And there are still plenty of tears being shed, so you know we haven’t fallen too far from the tree.

As with anything in the world, there are exceptions. Thus, there are exceptions to the rules followed by writers of detective stories. A number of these exceptions do not typically or purely fall under the detective story category—of course there is the argument that nothing ever will. Take Janet Evanovich’s repo girl with a bad attitude: Stephanie Plum for example. In the book, One for the Money, Stephanie is a girl who comes from a blue-collar family who takes on a repo job out of desperation. Stephanie functions as a detective, a police officer and a repo person. Except for being hardheaded and clever, she possesses few of the standard qualities of the female detective. She is certainly not high society like your typical female detective. This sparks her need to take the repo job in the first place.

In the book Dark Places by my favorite local author, Gillian Flynn, Libby reconnects with the players involved with the murder of her mother and sisters in order to make some cash. She ends up on the run for her own life in this book which is categorized as a crime thriller. While Libby does play detective in a way, she also is on the run which creates another duality. This in turn makes it difficult to categorize it as simply a detective story.

Like Stephanie Plum, Libby is also on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. She lives in the West Bottoms (and if you’ve ever been to Kansas City, you know that the West Bottoms is not a fancy place to live—though I think it is in the process of heralding a comeback.) Additionally, the fact that she is willing to accept cash and essentially “sell out” her family for the money is a quality that one would probably not typically find in your standard female detective. But honestly, this is what I love about Libby. She’s engaging because her morals are questionable—as is the case for many of the female lead characters written by Gillian Flynn.

One of the most infamous examples of female detectives comes from the lengthy series by Sue Grafton. The books that begin with A is For Alibi and will eventually feature a title for all the letters of the alphabet showcases 32-year-old private detective, Kinsey Milhone. I have only read a few of these books, but they are certainly worth mentioning. Kinsey is described as having a bad attitude and for some readers is a rather unlikable character.

Another exception would be the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs starts out as a housemaid, gets enrolled in prestigious university courses, serves as a nurse during WWI and then decides to become a private investigator. She is certainly not from high society, but she adopts the proper attitude of the upper echelon. I haven’t read many of these books, but it doesn’t seem that Maisie is given to any sort of substance addiction like her male detective counterparts. Nor does she have the negative personality that some of her fellow detectives possess.

So, where does this leave us? While there are exceptions, and no exception is perfect, generally speaking, it seems that there is a divide in the characterization of female and male detectives. There are some female characters who are considered to have bad attitudes, exhibit selfishness and who certainly would not fit into the high-society mold. But I would argue that even though they are crafted with these negative qualities, they still don’t fit into the profile of their male detective counterparts. The male detective and his vice are intimately connected in the detective story and I suppose if I were pressed to pick an element that is intimately connected to the female detective, it would be her  and/or her bad attitude (if she happens to be in possession of one). Reading about hardheaded characters is fun, particularly when they make mistakes or wind up in messy situations. But I love characters with interesting vices a lot better. Nothing beats a character who faces a situation where the odds are against him/her, especially when the crutch is of his or her own making.