So what is this fixation I have with fictional private eyes? It’s been with me a long time.
Of the male detectives, I loved Roger Moore as The Saint, Simon Templar. I practised for hours in front of the mirror until I could raise a single eyebrow. My Dad let me use his library ticket to borrow the original Leslie Charteris novels, before I moved on to reading John D. McDonald and Chandler.
But even back then, I loved the female detectives more. I was transfixed by black and white films with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, and from there I read the books. I got hooked on Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane – who was far too good for Lord Peter Wimsey – initially through the TV series with Harriet Walter. Then I borrowed the novels from the library – always in the right order. Working my way through the crime fiction section I discovered the psychoanalyst sleuth Dame Adela Lestrange Bradley – an old witch of an investigator created by Gladys Mitchell. Later I devoured the Women’s Press feminist crime fiction list of the 80s and 90s – far too many of them to mention. And they are all so different – the village busy body Miss Marple, through the sophisticated academic Kate Fansler, to the tough and streetwise working-class-made-good VI Warshawski.
Some years ago, PD James argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices. I love her novels – especially the stand alone Innocent Blood – but I think she was very far of the mark there. The moral choices may be different but they are no less stark in the mean streets of VI Warshawski’s Chicago than in one of PD James’ locations – whether English country house, theological college or private plastic surgery clinic.
Issues of class have always been at the heart of crime novels. Miss Marple commented on the invisibility of ordinary working people – the maid, or the postman. I recently re-read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and was fascinated by how relevant it still is today – asking questions about working women, motherhood, and marriage. Unusually the crime isn’t a murder, but is a series of poison pen letters aimed to discredit a women’s college at Oxford – and (spoiler here) – the culprit is a servant, who is avenging her husband who she feels was wronged by one of the academics.
Amanda Cross’s detective Kate Fansler is an academic – a Professor of English Literature – who is a feminist and frequently obstructed by male professors and irritated with her status as “the token woman.” Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of real life Columbia University Professor Carolyn Heilbrun – whose non fiction is also worth reading – I recommend her article about Gertrude in Hamlet, her biography of Gloria Steinem, and her book about old age. Later in her life she resigned from her post over the discrimination against woman in the University. So it’s interesting to see how she quite deliberately used her crime fiction to make a critique of academia many years before she made her more public protest.
Like male private eyes, the female of the species are outsiders. They see the world from a different perspective – they’re not part of the establishment. Where in the original detective novels the point was to restore the world to order, the private detective has long questioned the basis of that order. Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of all modern crime fiction – but it originated with the private eye novels.
I am contemplating the creation of my own private investigator, I even have a name for her, and something of a backstory. But I have a lot of thinking to do first – and another psychological thriller is beginning to take shape…
Who are your favourite fictional private eyes? Or do you prefer crime novels that focus on the police investigation?
Just after I finished writing this post, I found an interesting article about Agatha Christie and gender –“If Not Yourself, Who Would You Be?”
So these are some of the books on my reading list at the moment
The latest Sara Paretsky novel Brush Back – the 17th in the VI Warshawski series.
The first three Amanda Cross novels – starting with In The Final Analysis
Val McDermid’s non fiction book – A Suitable Job for a Woman, about real life female private investigators. She has a couple of her own fictional ones too – Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan.
Perhaps I might add the PD James An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – featuring her female private investigator Cordelia Gray.
And the next of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels is due out at the end of August. Simply called X – I’d been wondering what it would be. X is for Xylophone would have been a challenge to plot.
Sources – PD James Snobbery and Violence in the Independent
Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross
Remembering Carolyn Heilbrun : Feminist Scholarship and Suicide