A dead body found in an abandoned house, a missing child reappearing after 20 years, a murder on a train stuck in the snow. Mysteries, crimes and thrillers are my favourite books to seek out in bookshops. My shelves are slowly being overrun with these mystery novels. I have become addicted to clues and mysteries and most of all the twists that leave me shocked to my core. But one thing I have noticed in my reading is the lack of female detectives.
Starting from the Golden Age of detective novels, in around the 1930s and 40s, the murder solving sleuths are generally men, and mostly detective figures. The most famous from this era is the one and only Hercule Poirot, a former detective who is infamous across the globe. In these novels Poirot is always the saviour of the day, solving the crime, usually with the somewhat unhelpful assistance of a male friend, and providing justice for the victims. And although I do enjoy reading these novels, I can’t help but wonder if the dynamic would be the same if Poirot was replaced by a female detective.
For this we can look at Agatha Christie’s other famous detective, the sweet old Miss Marple. While Miss Marple is not, nor has ever been, a detective she still finds herself surrounded by murders and mysteries, not the ideal person to hang around with. She is always there to solve a mystery and find out information that police can never hope to. Unlike Poirot, Miss Marple is not a part of the professional team in solving murders, she does what she can to assist the police in their investigations but can never be the one to officially solve the crime.
Another female detective, much like Miss Marple, is our own Australian Miss Fisher. Set in the 1920s, she runs her own private detective agency and works alongside police to solve murders across Melbourne. Miss Fisher never has full access to the police resources and has to use her own skills to find out the answers. Along with these barriers she also faces the criticism of male police officers turning her away from crime scenes and refusing to accept her assistance, even if it will help the investigation. But despite all of these barriers Miss Fisher still manages to solve the crime.
These novels highlights that women who are portrayed as the sleuth are not placed in the traditional detective role that their male counterparts are. Most women, like Miss Marple and Miss Fisher are independently searching for the answers to the crime, using their own resources, which are few, to solve the case that male detectives are unable to. Understandably, due to the time period these female sleuths are set they cannot have a standing in the professional sphere. However, even current detective novels still leave women out of the professional sphere to solve crimes. Novels are filled with women in positions of seeing things they shouldn’t, uncovering family secrets and writing stories for newspapers, which eventually leads these women to a larger mystery that they solve.
Doing a quick search of crime novels released this year it is clear to see this theme with women being cast out of the professional detective role yet still solving mysteries is still very relevant. Bloodline by Jess Lourey follows a pregnant journalist who moves to a town with a deadly secret, The Lost Village by Camilla Sten follows a documentary filmmaker determined to make a film about a town where people go missing, including her own family, and The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonasson follows a school teacher who moves to a remote Icelandic island and is living in a house with a haunting mystery. All of these women who face the crime and mysteries around them have no profession detective affiliation and are just swept up in these mysteries by accident.
So why aren’t these women detectives? Would the story be less enticing if a woman was called in to solve the mystery rather than an incompetent man that only stalls these women’s quests for justice and a solution? Or are male detectives simply seen as more reliable due to the long history of male detective novels?
Could it be that detective novels have created this impenetrable setting that female detectives have yet to breach, making them less reliable as an investigator, and the only way to ever hope that a female detective character will be taken seriously is to have her not as a police detective, but as an everyday person who is dragged into a mystery.
Search as much as I might for my answer, just like these women I am not a detective, and might never hold the answer. So while I ponder this overarching question I will continue to do my own sleuthing and keep reading these fascinating books.
Claire Hone, Publishing Intern