Women Writing Crime: How Female Crime Sleuths Have Taken Over the World

In an article featured in The Guardian a few years ago, the writer declared that a British survey confirmed her suspicions that – as far as female readers are concerned – romance was out and crime was in. The survey held by Women & Home magazine showed that the majority of their readers preferred “blood and guts to hearts and flowers.” Surprising? Not really when you consider that over half of all crime novels are now written by women, and that there is an ever growing list of fictional female sleuths, with a considerable following by both female and male readers.

And yet, the existence of female crime fighters in fiction is not a new phenomenon – women writers have been constructing female sleuths since the late 19th Century, at which time both the writers and their female protagonists would have been a considerable challenge to social norms and expectations.

One of the earliest pioneers of the serialized female sleuth was Anna Katherine Green – often considered the “mother” of this genre – who surprised readers in 1897 with her depiction of the character Amelia Butterworth, an aristocratic “spinster” who assists Police Detective Ebenezer Gryce in That Affair Next Door. Amelia Butterworth’s depiction as an upper class, genteel woman whose crime solving style was mainly intuitive soon became a hit with readers, resulting in five further books in the “Butterworth” series, as well as prompting Anna Katherine Green to create another female sleuth, named Violet Strange.

While the creation of Amelia Butterworth sparked various other amateur “lady detectives”, such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the 1930s, it was not until the late 1940s that a female protagonist was represented as a “hard-boiled” investigator, or a professional sleuth. Gale Gallagher (the pseudonym of Margaret Scott and Will Oursler) created a heroine of the same name in the 1947 novel I Found Him Dead. Described as “arguably the missing link between the good-girl sleuths of the past and the tougher modern female P.I.s of the present.” Gale Gallagher – a young, gun-slinging detective in her own agency specialising in missing persons – presented a turning point for the kind of heroine who was soon to become the norm.

The first foray of a female character into the professional crime-fighting bureaucracies was by author Lillian O’Donnell, who constructed the character of Norah Mulcahaney in her 1972 novel The Phone Calls. Norah was the first female police officer to be serialized, and the subsequent 16 novels that followed charted Norah’s rise in the police force from rookie policewoman, to the rank of captain, and finally head of the homicide division. The Mulcahaney series ran from 1972 to 1998, making it one of the longest running series of a female police detective.

Since then, female sleuths have become ever more diverse in their social, racial or occupational backgrounds. There are now heroines who are bounty hunters, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; lawyers, such as in Frances Fyfield’s Helen West series; forensic scientists, like Dr Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwall’s novels, and so on. The modern reader is spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing what kind of female crime fighter to read about, as authors strive to create heroines that resonate with their readers.

While the contemporary female sleuth has come a long way from their Victorian originator, it is clear that a female vision of crime has long been an important part of the history of crime writing, and that – as some contemporary women writers of crime keep showing us – “blood and guts” and “hearts and flowers” are often an irresistible combination.

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Tanya is a freelance writer, reviewer and blogger with a background in comparative literature. When she is not reading fabulous new books or writing about them, you can find her horse riding or walking her dogs in the beautiful Waitakere ranges. Visit Tanya at livingwritingreading.com.

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