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Five Female Detectives From Crime Fiction That We Love

Five women who manage to stand out in a profession devoted to men

From Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, we salute five extraordinary women detectives

Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Lord Peter Wimsey, Perry Mason, Adam Daglish, Hercule Poirot, George Smiley, John Rebus, Kurt Wallander, Jack Reacher – I could fill up an entire page with a list of legendary male detectives from crime fiction (and cause My Big Red Bag to crash on account of the ensuing debate on all those we’d still missed out). Which is all very well for all the men looking for a socially dysfunctional, emotionally tortured and square jawed role model (a male detective cannot be allowed to glimpse happiness or humour – the only way to escape this fate is to be born a Priest or a Lord), but what about us normal women?

I spent many pleasurable years of my childhood OD-ing on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden – girls who were spunky, witty and funny, who came from happy homes and hardly missed a step (or a strand of hair) as they kept both the criminals they were chasing and their boyfriends in line. Now that we are all grown up, I find it difficult to believe that the tom boyish Trixie grew up into the kind, perpetually knitting Miss Marple, or that the impossibly perfect Nancy Drew grew up into the physically abused Lisbeth Salander . We can’t help wondering why we have such few iconic female detectives in crime fiction, and why the ones that are considered iconic have to fit the gender stereotypes of their respective generations.

So here’s a list of five splendid female literary detectives – women who are girls-next-door with remarkable intelligence (obviously), a pronounced funny bone (life is all Ha Ha Hee Hee), a wee bit of eccentricity (complete normalcy is injurious to health) and extraordinary chutzpah.

1. Thursday Next

Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next is imbued with her creator’s astonishing creativity – the daughter of Wednesday Next (whom Thursday astutely declares to love in small doses) and Colonel Next (a mostly absconding time traveller whose well timed appearances are an absolute joy) is brave, level headed, street smart, binges on food when she is depressed (mostly when she is missing her beautiful husband Landen Parke-Laine) and has a pet dodo named Pickwick. Fforde’s devotion to bibliophiles and wordsmiths shines brightly in all of his books, but Thursday Next is clearly his one true love.

They always say the first time you save the world is the hardest – personally I have always found it tricky

2. Mma Precious Ramotswe

Mma Precious Ramotswe may be the only female Private Investigator (PI) in Botswana, but she is undoubtedly the finest in her trade, which is why she owns the No.1 Ladies’s Detective Agency . We love that she is the anti-thesis of the archetype male PI – she is “traditionally built” (meaning someone who doesn’t need to worry about the 700 calories in a rich slice of cake), an emotional rock, has the good sense to marry a man who knows how to fix things (Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a mechanic who owns Speedy Motors) and uses her simple wisdom on morality, war, happiness, boys and men to solve her mysteries. She may appear simple and placid but she has an EQ that surpasses her exceptional IQ, a lot like Alexander McCall Smith‘s simple prose that gently carries you along, like a boat bobbing along on a sunny spring day.

Women are the ones who know what’s going on, she said quietly . They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?

3. Tuppence Beresford

I have a lot to thank Dame Agatha Christie for, but if I ever get the chance to dine with her, I’d like to gripe about her step motherly treatment of the delightful Tommy and Tuppence. Unlike her formidable body of work featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie gave only five books to Mr & Mrs Beresford, but that was enough for them to live a lifetime (and more). Prudence Cowley Beresford a.k.a Tuppence is a great deal more lively and vivacious compared with our previous two heroines; but just like them, she is deceptively level headed and an extraordinarily creative problem solver.

You do think you know about everything,” said her husband.
I do, said Tuppence.

4. Harriet Vane

Harriet Deborah Vane is so gifted that she built a fortune writing mystery novels at the age of 23 (we are talking about Victorian England here – think women growing up in Haryana khaapland). That was before she was sentenced to be hanged for poisoning her fiancé, a fate she manages to escape with the assistance of the dashing Lord Peter Wimsey, who obviously falls madly in love with her. Harriet Vane is dazzlingly precocious and embarrassingly frank – her endless verbal sparring with Wimsey is a delight to read, and it’s easy to see why she is widely rumoured to be her creator Dorothy Sayers‘ alter ego (Sayers was one of the first women in her generation to study at Oxford, and was considered “forward” for those prudish times). I confess Lord Peter Wimsey was my first literary love (not Darcy!), but it was Harriet Vane who brought out the best in him.

A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity.

5. Barbara Havers

Much like our previous heroine, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers may be poor, but that doesn’t halt her fiery temper, especially when she is in close proximity with her superior Detective Inspector Lord Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. But unlike Lady Wimsey, Barbara Havers is unattractive, socially awkward and crushingly burdened with working class responsibilities. That makes her the perfect foil for the wealthy and flawless Inspector Lynley, but we prefer the sidekick for her gritty realism and amusing quirks. Not only does she stay with her ailing parents to care for them (unheard of amongst her generation), she also manages to stand tall despite her boss getting the bigger role and the better lines. Bravo Detective Sergeant Havers!

Barbara wanted to go to tea at Dorchester as much as she wanted to give birth to octuplets.

Did we miss out your favourite female detective ? What do you think about these five women? Tell us in the comments below!

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2 Comments on Five Female Detectives From Crime Fiction That We Love

  1. Great list. Although i do wish you’d put Miss Marple in there too – seems somehow wrong to leave her out.
    And how about profiling the recent spate of Asian women detectives – can think of the Lalli series to start with. Which brings me to – why not a piece on detectives in Indian cities – that would be a great read.
    Ah! the possibilities!!
    Thoroughly enjoyed this one – thanks!

    • You are right, Miss Marple is the only one to have broken the glass ceiling. Haven’t read any Asian or Indian detectives – great idea! Which ones would you recommend apart from Lalli?

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