I love mystery novels. I especially love mysteries with female detectives. This has been a life-long love affair, ever since Nancy Drew when I was in elementary school. As my fellow Book Rioter Annika says, girl detectives have a special appeal.
I’ve noticed, though, that lady detectives tend to be portrayed as more fallible and less competent than their male counterparts. This is a broad generalization, and of course there are many exceptions, but my years of reading mystery novels have given me that overall impression.
Male detectives are often shown as experts in their field: fearless and equal to any situation. The nigh-omnipotent male detective, à la Sherlock Holmes, is common enough to be a cliché.
Female sleuths, on the other hand, are often shown as stumbling into dangerous situations from which they must be rescued by their cop boyfriends or lawyer fathers. They are held at gunpoint, gagged, kidnapped, and otherwise subjected to the physical violence that is apparently to be expected by a woman sticking her nose into a mystery. Sure, they solve the mystery in the end, but half the time it seems to be almost by accident. It’s as though the they are seen as catalysts for action rather than acting on their own behalf.
That’s why Phryne Fisher is such a breath of fresh air. This series by Kerry Greenwood, recently adapted as the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series, is set in Melbourne, Australia during the 1920’s. The Honourable Miss Fisher grew up in poverty, but inherited an unexpected title due to the loss of so many young men in the Great War. As a result, she is rich and powerful, but has a deep awareness of social injustice. She is fearless, both physically and intellectually. She takes lovers unapologetically, challenges cultural norms right and left, and is more often the rescuer than the rescued. She is unabashedly feminine, but also capable of deadly violence. She gets herself into a lot of dangerous situations, and she gets herself right out again. In short, she is a force of nature.
Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1)
Phryne subverts many of the tropes common in lady detective stories. For example, in Death at Victoria Dock, a group of anarchists tries and fails to kidnap Phryne while she is swimming alone at the seaside. Kidnapping lady detectives when they get too close to the truth is a pretty common plot twist, but in Phryne’s case the would-be kidnappers limp away with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Most tellingly, when Phryne gets home and tells her household about the incident, their first reaction is not to fuss about Phryne’s well-being, but rather to fear for the lives of the kidnappers. This implicit confidence in Phryne’s abilities is incredibly refreshing!
Death at Victoria Dock (Phryne Fisher #4)
I have nothing against fallible detectives. I’m all for showing depth of character and human frailty in detective fiction. But if men can have their Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spades, I want a few superhuman lady detectives to even the score!
There is so much to love about Kerry Greenwood’s work (solid historical research, excellent writing quality, lucid treatment of the social, racial, and religious tensions of the time period… I could go on!). But for me, I think my favorite thing about this series is watching the fearless Phryne unravel stereotypes about female detectives, and about women in general, using nothing more than her little pearl-handled revolver and the sheer force of her personality.