Last year at a screenwriters festival I had the good fortune to meet Lynda La Plante, the multi-award-winning writer and creator of the iconic crime television series Prime Suspect. We spoke about the central character in that drama, DCI Jane Tennison and about Helen Mirren who brought her so memorably to life. We discussed if it was possible to conceive of a list of top female sleuths that didn’t contain Jane Tennison. Today I like to take a brief look at this end of the genre because female detectives go back much further, and with much more breadth than you might think.
It is tempting to start with Miss Marple, surely the most famous and most enduring female fictional sleuth of all time. Enduring, certainly but not the first. In 1864 James Redding Ware, writing as Andrew Forrestor published The Female Detective: The Original Lady Detective featuring the character of Mrs Gladden. The narrator driven plot puts you in mind of Conan Doyle’s writing (although Sherlock Holmes didn’t arrive for another 20 years). This first book was followed six months later by W.S. Hayward’s The Revelations of a Lady Detective featuring Mrs Paschal who was a gun-carrying, cigarette smoking crime-fighting force of nature. Hardly the role of a traditional Victorian female and I think the world is infinitely better with her in it. These two characters were an advance party which, sadly, would be without adequate support for several decades. Once that support arrived, however, it started a trend that continues to this day. What follows is in no way a definitive list of female sleuths. But to me, these characters sprang most immediately to mind. They represent literature, film and television, and very often all three.
- The spinster sleuth – There are a clutch of inter-war examples of this character and my favourites are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Dorothy L. Sayers’s Miss Climpson. Idle chit-chat, knitting, gossip, tea, and more tea may have been what most saw in these frail, elderly women. But this was just a veneer that masked a fierce intellect.
- Cagney & Lacey – Originally a made-for-TV feature film Cagney & Lacey ran for seven series during which it portrayed the lives of New York detectives Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey as they coped with pregnancy, family life, alcoholism, sexism and real-life accusations that the actresses were making the characters too aggressive. A bucket load of Emmy Awards and the legacy of a kick-ass theme tune will ensure that this show will live long in the memory. It changed our understanding of how police procedural and precinct-based shows should work.
- Prime Suspect – DCI Jane Tennison is a seminal figure in British television and crime fiction. Her character arc from outsider to heroine comes at great cost in the form of broken personal relationships and alcoholism. In this regard, she is a character carved directly from Greek mythology. First broadcast in 1991 it is still raw, uncompromising and brilliantly powerful. It will forever remain on any “greatest TV shows” list and it makes Cagney & Lacey look tame. It really is that good.
- The private detective agency – Whether it be Laura Holt from Remington Steele, Maddie Hayes from the Blue Moon Detective Agency, or Precious Ramotswe from The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency the female private eye market is big business. Seeing these characters take on an almost exclusively male set of counterparts is fascinating and gives the traditionally hardboiled stereotype a much need breath of fresh air.
- Modern TV programmes – With the characters of Sarah Lund (The Killing), Saga Norén (The Bridge) leading the charge in modern Scandinavian crime drama, we have Stella Gibson (The Fall) dominating British screens. Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Gibson has, in my view, returned the female sleuth right back to where it began. She is in charge of every aspect of her life, dominating the police investigation and the sexual encounters that fill her downtime. Mrs Paschal would no doubt approve.
There are many more. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, and heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson from Fargo are all iconic contributions to the genre. Why though is all this important? Well for one it challenges the very fabric of the genre and indeed of traditional society. Crime fiction and fictional detectives are primarily a male domain and so any female entrant is battling against a well-developed foundation. We’ve seen the impact of femme fatales and of course of female crime fiction writers, but there is something about a female detective that immediately resonates with an audience or a readership. I think this is related to the notion of jeopardy. A female detective is immediately fighting much more than the case in hand. She is fighting history and the pre-conceived nature of the role of women in society. Anyone who saw last week’s Academy Awards ceremony cannot have failed to note Patricia Arquette’s implored demands for wage equality in Hollywood. Inequality among the sexes is both a very real issue but also a blueprint for a character arc that audiences love to follow. It occurs within same-sex groups too as showcased by the Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black which chronicles the stories of a group of female prisoners. There is a hierarchy, a set of rules and, as we have seen several times in these pages, an honour-among-thieves. For the new inmate, Piper Chapman to be accepted by her more hardened neighbours, she must show that she is one of them. The jeopardy is compelling.
The female sleuth then seems to be a permanent fixture in our crime fiction landscape. The trick for writers would be to find new ways to keep this part of the genre fresh and original. Whilst the jeopardy drives the story, it can descend into cliché if overused, and into parody if left unchecked. Next time we’ll look at how easily this can occur by examining the counterpoint to the female sleuth. Next time we’ll look at damsels in distress.
Ps yes, I’m aware I haven’t mentioned Charlie’s Angels.