Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The First Fictional Women Sleuths

Today, the fictional women who fight crime and solve mysteries are PIs, attorneys, cooks, members of every branch of law enforcement and every imaginable occupation. They are old, young, married, and single, from every race and every corner of the globe. The list is long and satisfying, but this month, I present some of the earlier fictional females sleuths created by women writers when neither act was warmly welcomed.

In 1894, author Catherine Louisa Pirkis introduced the Victorian lady sleuth, Loveday Brooke in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective. Loveday, in her thirties, had been a member of the upper class until circumstances forced her to earn a living. She was unmarried, bright, and too easily bored to settle for traditional 'women's work' and became an agent at a London Detective Agency. Her boss, Ebenezer Dyer had the greatest respect for her sharp mind and deductive reasoning. At a time when Sherlock Holmes brought mysteries to the forefront, Loveday Brooke became the most popular fictional female detective of her day. Pirkis described her "in a series of negations. She was not tall, she was not short; she was not dark, she was not fair; she was neither handsome nor ugly. Her features were altogether nondescript; her one noticeable trait was a habit she had, when absorbed in thought, of dropping her eyelids over her eyes till only a line of eyeball showed, and she appeared to be looking out at the world through a slit, instead of through a window." 

 It would never do for me to lose my wits in the presence of a man who had none too many of his own. —Miss Amelia Butterworth

In 1897, Anna Katharine Green introduced Amelia Butterworth in That Affair Next Door. Butterworth was the first notable spinster sleuth in fiction. She offered her not completely welcomed assistance to Green's main character, Detective Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Police. Unlike Brooke, Butterworth was financially comfortable and had little to occupy her time other than observing the comings and goings of her neighbors. It was one of those observations that involved her in a murder investigation. "I am not an inquisitive woman, but when, in the middle of a certain warm night in September, I heard a carriage draw up at the adjoining house and stop, I could not resist the temptation of leaving my bed and taking a peep through the curtains of my window."

Although the elderly spinster was seen by most as nosy, Gryce recognized her ability to spot and evaluate important details that many missed. Amelia Butterworth appeared again in Lost Man’s Lane, 1898, and The Circular Study, 1900.  Some believe that Butterworth inspired Patricia Wentworth's Maud Silver, Agatha Christie's Jane Marple, Mary Roberts Rinehart's Rachel Innes, and others.

In 1915, Green created the first girl detective in The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange. The character, Violet Strange, was a wealthy young woman who took the occasional case to earn money that didn't come from her father. He was quite unaware of her investigations and she was selective about the ones she accepted. "If you have a case of subtlety without crime, one to engage my powers without depressing my spirits, I beg you to let me have it."

It's well enough for you, Tish Carberry,
to talk about gripping a horse with your knees
In 1908, Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes called 'The American Agatha Christie,' introduced Rachel Innes, a fifty something spinster heiress in The Circular Staircase. In the novel, Innes, along with her niece and nephew rent a house for a summer vacation that turns into a complex web of murder and intrigue that is eventually solved by the heroine. The book became a successful stage play called The Bat.

In 1910, Rinehart created a character to voice her feminist beliefs. Letitia (Tish) Carberry was a middle aged spinster who along with her friends Aggie and Lizzie behaved in ways unbecoming and unacceptable in women at the beginning of the 20th century. They raced cars, hunted, drove ambulances, and flew airships. Rinehart introduces Tish by explaining an unfavorable newspaper story. "So many unkind things have been said of the affair at Morris Valley that I think it best to publish a straightforward account of everything. The ill nature of the cartoon, for instance, which showed Tish in a pair of khaki trousers on her back under a racing-car was quite uncalled for. Tish did not wear the khaki trousers; she merely took them along in case of emergency. Nor was it true that Tish took Aggie along as a mechanician and brutally pushed her off the car because she was not pumping enough oil. The fact was that Aggie sneezed on a curve and fell out of the car, and would no doubt have been killed had she not been thrown into a pile of sand."

In 1914, we meet Hilda Adams, known as Miss Pinkerton, a nurse who does her fair share of sleuthing. Her detecting career begins in the story The Buckled Bag, when a patient she attends, a detective, suggests she might work for the police.

All of Rinehart's female detectives are intelligent and possess the one absolutely necessary tool for people who live and work outside the box—a sense of humor.

Millicent Newberry, created by Jeanette Lee, appeared in three novels beginning in 1917 with The Green Jacket. Unlike many of the female detectives of the era who worked for other agencies or police departments, Millicent began working at Tom Corbin's firm, but left to start her own detective agency. She was single, older, and from a middle class background, and lived with her ailing mother and a caretaker. Along with a great interest in psychiatry, Newberry had a unique approach to taking notes. She would knit while conversing with clients and encode her notes into the stitches. In 1922 she appeared in The Mysterious Office, and in 1925 in Dead Right. The other unconventional aspect of her practice was that she decided that if the criminal deserved a second chance, she did not report her findings to the police.

Patricia Wentworth introduced Miss Maud Silver in the 1928 mystery Grey Mask as a secondary character. She was, according to Wentworth, a person with "small, neat features and the sort of old-fashioned clothes that were not so much dowdy as characteristic." She was also known for quoting the Bible and Tennyson. It wasn't until 1937 in The Case is Closed when the retired governess came into her own as 'a private enquiry agent' often assisting Scotland Yard, Inspector Abbott.

In Death at the Deep End, book 20 of the 32 books in the series, Abbot described the comfort he derived from the woman. "Miss Silver, smiling at him from the other side of the hearth, her hands busy with her knitting, remained a stable point in an unsettled world. Love God, honour the Queen, keep the law, be kind, be good, think of others before you think of yourself, serve Justice, speak the truth—by this simple creed she lived. Si sic omnes!..."

Like so many of the heroines of these early stories, Silver was effective because she wasn't taken seriously. She was a professional who relied on deductive reasoning and paid little attention to smug smiles and subtle or oblique criticism of her looks or skills. 

Dorothy L. Sayers introduced Miss Alexandra Katherine "Kitty" Climpson in Unnatural Death (1927). She owned a secretarial agency nicknamed the Cattery, which Lord Peter Wimsey helped to establish with an ulterior motive—to use her services in ways that often involved more investigating than filing or stenography. Kitty developed into an intelligent and resourceful member of his investigative team. It was Miss Climpson's determination and clever planning that solved the mystery in Strong Poison (1930) and saved the life of another Sayers' female character of note, Harriet Vane.

Harriet Deborah Vane was a crime fiction writer who Peter met and fell in love with after she was arrested for the murder of her boyfriend. That fact that she lived with a man out of wedlock made her a criminal in the eyes of much of society, and her career as a writer of police fiction sullied her reputation further. Wimsey proposed to Vane while she was still in prison, but she refused his offer, before and after he proved her innocent. She worked with Peter on a case in the 1932 book, Have His Carcase, but it wasn't until the next Wimsey book, Gaudy Night (1935) that she accepted his proposal. The couple married in Busman's Honeymoon (1937). Sayers claimed to have introduced Harriet Vane to marry off Lord Wimsey and end the series, but the couple became such a hit that she continued their relationship and their characters with even more passion. Gaudy Night is considered by some as the first feminist mystery novel, and Sayers did indeed comment on the growing restrictions on women in Nazi Germany.

In 1938, Zelda Popkin introduced Mary Carner, considered the first modern female detective, in Death Wears a White Gardenia. Carner was a member of the security staff of a department store in New York City. According to Popkin, "Mary looked like year before last's debutante, last June's bride, this year's young matron. Prospective shoplifters, hesitating before a haul, never guessed that the pretty, well-groomed young woman in the oxford gray suit and kolinsky scarf, standing beside them at the counter, was far more interested in the behavior of their nimble fingers than in the quality of the step-ins, marked down from five-ninety-eight to three and a half."

I had not read this series, but after reading the Time Off for Murder (1943) preview on Google books, have added them to my 'to read' pile. The series: Murder in the Mist, 1940; Dead Man’s Gift, 1941; and No Crime for a Lady, 1942.

“You do not conceive a novel as easily as you conceive a child, nor even half as easily as you create nonfiction work. A journalist amasses facts, anecdotes and interviews with top brass. Enough of these add up to a book. A novelist demands quite different things. He has to find himself in his materials, to know for sure how he would feel and act and the events he writes about. In addition, he requires a catalyst—a person, idea, or emotion which coalesces his ingredients and makes them jell into a solid purpose.” ―Zelda Popkin

And last, but not least, the most familiar member of our female sleuth club, Miss Jane Marple. Agatha Christie introduced the well meaning meddler in 1926 in a magazine piece called The Tuesday Night Club. The story eventually became the first chapter of the 1932 book The Thirteen Problems, but it was in 1930, in The Murder at the Vicarage, where we first visited Jane in her home town of St. Mary Mead. Dame Christie revealed in her autobiography that the inspiration for Marple: "the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother's Ealing cronies—old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl"

We spend our lives solving puzzles, problems, and mysteries of various kinds. It is no surprise that the intuitive abilities to which women readily turn, offer some of the best solutions.

As you may have guessed, this post was a pleasure to research and share. Because of  these women, (and others there wasn't room to list) the very popular category of 'female sleuth' continues to entertain and delight readers around the world. That is great inspiration for someone who has only been writing mysteries since 2004. I am humbled, inspired, and anxious to continue learning from these remarkable voices.

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