|How a lady detective should dress|
There has been a certain amount of discussion lately of fictional female detectives, so I decided to make a list of some of my favourites. In fact there were so many of them that I had to divide them by age.
Two weeks ago I blogged on younger sleuths, and said this:
It’s a pretty arbitrary division – in the end I decided that the women should be self-selecting. So if they consider themselves to be an older lady, they are on one list. Those who see themselves as young and wonderful make a different list.
And here's the list of those of a certain age:
1) Miss Jane Marple. Can’t help it: Agatha Christie should never be taken for granted. She was a wonderful writer of crime fiction, endlessly inventive and trying to keep up with the times. Miss Marple has some great books – The Body in the Library, The Moving Finger, Murder at the Vicarage, Sleeping Murder. See also this blog entry on Christie.
Nice girls wear tweeds.Miss Marple says so.
2) Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Gladys Mitchell’s books are very odd and sometimes annoying, completely different from those of her contemporaries, but Mrs B’s credentials as a detective, and fascinating character, are never in doubt. She is quite splendid – ugly, badly-dressed, and completely mad. There’ve been a few entries on the blog – my favourite is this one, Watson’s Choice, set at a Sherlock-Holmes-themed fancy dress party.
3) Miss Maud Silver is one I have mixed feelings about, and she’s a sleuth who divides mystery story readers. The books, by Patricia Wentworth, can be same-y, and you sometimes think if you hear one more time about the knitting (never the new-born size, always go bigger) you’ll stab her with the needle – that’ll stop her doing those stupid little coughs all the time. But for a certain kind of village/country house mystery, where the doctor calls and the woman in the shop knows everything – well, they are perfect examples of that. Poison in the Pen is here, part of the Clothes in Books Poison Pen Week. The cover tells you everything you need to know:
4) Vera Stanhope, heroine of a series of books by Ann
Cleeves, which has become a very successful TV series starring Brenda Blethyn. These are really great crime stories, and Vera is a terrific character. Vera would earn her place on this list solely because of the way she is introduced in The Crow Trap – so clever, so funny – but I think she is in it for the long haul.
5) In the young detectives list, I said ‘no sidekicks’ and excluded Lord Peter Wimsey’s soulmate Harriet D Vane. But (my rules) I am going to include here the splendid Miss Katharine Climpson, whose occasional appearances light up the Wimsey books. One of my favourite scenes in all Dorothy L Sayers comes when Miss Climpson stages a fake séance in order to find a missing will in Strong Poison. It is of course for the most virtuous reasons, but requires a gullible fallguy, and that is the nurse employed by the old lady with all the money. I love the way Miss Climpson tracks her through the local village, using her choice of teashops as a guide to character, so she can judge her approach.... and then the wonderful scene of the séance. Followed up by the hilarious moment where the nurse says that if the spirit guide ‘hadn’t insisted on something beginning with B’ she would have thought the will was in the safe. But Miss C wins through – ‘is the combination in a BLACK BOOK?’ Superb.
6) Bertha Bradford in Robert Player’s The Ingenious Mr Stone. I do bang on about this book somewhat, but that’s because I think it is an undiscovered classic, and one of my Top 10 best crime novels. And last time I mentioned it I actually found someone else who had read it: step forward Christine Poulson – we have so many books, crime and non-crime, in common that I should have known she would have read this one. When the incredibly complex plot of this book has stretched as far as it can, Mrs Bradford – hitherto a relatively minor character – also steps forward, and gives a first person account of what actually happened, leaving the reader open-mouthed. She is a selfish, bossy and horrible old lady, with a magnetic and unique voice. And she solves the crime. I so wish Player had written more about her.
An older detective can be elegant. But this probably isn't Vera
7) Miss Pym in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, featured very recently on the blog. She is a psychologist, visiting a training college for young women. At first she thinks the worst that is going on is some cheating in exams – but then one of the student dies. Re-reading recently reminded me what a good book this is, as Miss Pym keeps making discoveries right up to the last page. She is here because she is so memorable – as a detective we might have our doubts. And she says herself, as a psychologist she makes a very good teacher of French.
8) Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. She is really just a TV detective, although there were novelizations from the series. The plots weren’t the greatest in the world, but let’s hear it for Angela Lansbury, grabbing primetime for herself when she was almost 60, and keeping it for the next 10 years – how many other similar women stars can you think of, taking the lead in a major drama? Lansbury is a miracle, a star to her fingertips, and still going strong – I saw her on the London stage a few months ago: she was 88, and dancing round the stage like a 15-year-old. Murder she Wrote was fun, easy watching, and has a theme tune which will live in your mind all day today if you let it in (you’re welcome).
9) In LC Tyler’s Herring books, Elsie Thirkettle is literary
agent to Ethelred Tressider and the two of them solve crimes. In my blog entry on the first book, I said ‘Elsie is an absolutely splendid character, and must be ripe for translation to TV – Dawn French?’ I also used a picture of Angela Lansbury to represent her, completing the circle – along with the info that Lansbury did once play Miss Marple, and also appeared as a suspect in Death on the Nile.
10) The Hon Con. If Joyce Porter is remembered now, it is for the Dover books. But she also wrote a couple of great crime stories featuring Constance Ethel Morrison Burke as her sleuth, along with her friend Miss Jones – nowadays they would be openly gay. The Hon Con came up in my Guardian piece on women in trousers in her tracksuits and slacks.
A few more collected from readers: Hildegarde Withers, created by Stuart Palmer. Myrtle Clover, who features in books by Elizabeth Spann Craig. Agatha Raisin, as in the MC Beaton books. Maybe Bertha Cool – does anyone know how old she is? Please add your favourite older female detectives in the comments below.