Thursday, 4 December 2014

Thursday List: Older Women Detectives



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. 




30 comments:

  1. Moira, your list of impressive "older women detectives" goes into my little diary, so to speak. I'm glad you mentioned Elizabeth Spann Craig's Myrtle Clover, a charming octogenarian sleuth who goes about a case with dogged persistence. I liked "Murder She Wrote" in part because Angela Lansbury was convincing as the affable Jessica Fletcher. I didn't know the series had been novelised.

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    1. They are quite meta-fictions - the books are theoretically written by Jessica Fletcher herself, her name is in the author slot along with a 2nd writer, Donald Bain....

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    2. And there are, at last count, 42 of them. In fact the series seems to be picking up, they publish two a year.

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    3. Honestly Noah? That's astonishing...

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  2. Oh, this is a great list, Moira!! I'm so glad you added Myrtle Clover too! Might I mention Dorothy Gilman's Emily Pollifax and Inger Ash Wolfe's Hazel Micallef. Both are terrific characters and neither is exactly twenty, or thirty, or.... any more.

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    1. Two for me to check out. And thanks for introducing me to Myrtle Clover.

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  3. Great list. I love Ariadne Oliver too from AC. I agree with you about Miss Silver. Books of variable quality.

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    1. Yes Ariadne Oliver should be on the list, you're right...

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  4. Miss Marple will come under scrutiny at some point and I have an LC Tyler books somewhere as well......go me.

    I'd recommend Emma Golden as an amateur detective from the ranks of the "older women" . She features in AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE and THE DIFFICULT SISTER by JUDY NEDRY. Enjoyed the first, not yet got to the second

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    1. That sounds good, I'll have to check those books out, sound right up my street.

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  5. Virginia Rich wrote 3-1/2 mysteries featuring widowed chef Eugenia Potter, published in the early 80s. (The last one was finished by Nancy Pickard, who wrote two more in the series). These are neither strong nor difficult plots but I think they single-handedly started the trend of having recipes in mysteries. I'd also say they were important as early harbingers of the modern cozy.
    Margot Arnold's 60-ish anthropologist Penny Spring has a titled boyfriend of the same age and there are a dozen books in their series, from 1979 to 1995. Slight but charming books and reasonably well written.

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    1. Both new to me - thanks Noah, going to check them out. The recipes trope is interesting, good to know when that started.

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  6. Would Amelia Peabody count?

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    1. I was wondering how old she was, does anyone know?

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    2. Probably towards the end of the books when Ramses is a twenty-something and she's got to be in her 40s at least - which is NOT really "older" at all. I kinda got bored with the books actually - they didn't stay as much fun after a while as they were early on.

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    3. thanks for the age calculation, and I share your opinion....

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  7. Hildegarde Withers would definitely appear in my top 10 - like those images of Lansbury from DEATH ON THE NILE, where she is great if very OTT - she'd have been a great series character (albeit a somewhat pickled one). You have definitely convinced me to read Robert Player’s The Ingenious Mr Stone - thanks as ever Moira!

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    1. I have to check Withers out, I haven't read any of them. Lansbury is great in everything...

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  8. I'm with Sergio on Hildegard Withers. And I would also put in a plug for Baroness "Jack" Troutbeck who works with Robert Amiss in the Ruth Dudley Edwards series. She's great fun.

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    1. Yes, definitely need to try Withers! And I must look up the Ruth Dudley Edwards too.

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  9. Love Miss Climpson! And that whole scene where she tracks down the nurse, pretending to be an amateur artist and hanging out in teashops.

    As someone has pointed out, that's Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne, the Elinor Glyn-like has-been romantic novelist from Death on the Nile. I'd love to read HER books (Snow on the Desert's Face was one title - reused from one of Christie's apprentice pieces). I can just picture the over-the-top 20s dust jackets... Poor Salome. Her books probably boomed after her unfortunate murder.

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    1. Yes you are so right - you can just see it can't you? A 50-years-later followup from Ouida of recent blessed blog memory.
      Didn't Frances de la Tour do a good number on Salome in the recent Death on the Nile?

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  10. Moira: Let me add one of my favourite Saskatchewan sleuths, Joanne Kilbourn, from the series by Gail Bowen. Joanne has matured gracefully through the series and is now retired from teaching at university. She remains active, engaged and intelligent.

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    1. Indeed Bill - one of my favourites too. And she has straddled the age groups, growing slightly older with great grace over the course of the books.

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  11. A lovely list! I vote for Mrs Pollifax too - that's a series I would like to re-read/finish someday.

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    1. I'm definitely going to have to get onto this series - I don't know much about it.

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  12. I saw the movie of Strong Poison recently, and I concur on the fake seance. It was wonderful in all respects. I enjoyed the gadget used to move the table. Who would have thought? And Miss Climson searching for the caretaker for the elderly woman with the will. Loved that, too.

    My library has one other episode on dvd, which I"ll see. And what I wanted was Gaudy Night, which is in the set but is missing from the library.

    But few scenes will compare with the parts with Miss Climson.

    I admit I haven't read too many series with elderly women detectives. I'd say middle-aged women detectives are those seen most often in the books I read with women protagonists.

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    1. Yes, it's a wonderful scene. I hope Gaudy Night turns up for you! I watched it when it first came out, and saw it again recently - dramas set in the past have changed quite a lot since that was made, you'd never mistake it for a recent version.....

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  13. I am going to comment before reading other comments, so I won't be influenced. I am sort of working on a list of female sleuths I enjoy but probably would not split it up by age because I don't think I could come up with many older women sleuths.

    On your list, I like Miss Marple and I liked Vera Stanhope in the one book I have read in that series. The others I haven't read in so long could not say for sure. I would probably add Hildegarde Withers once I have reread some books in that series. I remember liking her a lot years ago when I read them.

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    1. Looking forward to seeing your list Tracy....

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