When asked to name famous female sleuths, characters such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple are invariably mentioned and rightly so. Doesn’t everyone wish they had Miss Marple as a god parent or honorary grandparent? Yet Miss Marple’s fame does at times present some problems, as she can in fact overshadow many other great fictional female sleuths. In 1940s when Miss Marple was uncovering the mystery behind the body in the library and investigating a spate of blackmail letters which led to death, a plethora of unusual and engaging female sleuth characters were also being created, four of which I have decided to explore in this post. It is a shame that they have become neglected and overlooked, as they are all vibrant, independent and active women, whose stories have a lot to offer readers and are ripe for academic study, in terms of gender, class, genre innovation and portrayals of society and world events.
My first choice is vicar’s wife, Lady Lupin, who was created by Joan Coggins and stars in four novels: Who Killed the Curate? (1944), The Mystery at Orchard House (1946), Why Did She Die? (1947) and Dancing With Death (1947). It is not too difficult to get a hold her work as all of these novels were reprinted some years ago by the Rue Morgue Press, though unfortunately this publishing firm has now closed. In a nutshell Lady Lupin is a decidedly comic amateur sleuth, who starts out in the series’ as a woman much more at home at a cocktail party than in a vicarage, doing the many and endless tasks of a vicar’s wife. Lady Lupin especially in the first two novels can be quite scatterbrain and the novels’ comedy is often found in the way she misunderstands other people or the way other people misunderstand her, such as mixing up anecdotes, getting confused over the who, what and when of a conversation or a case and in Who Killed the Curate?, for instance, she initially assumes that the Mother’s Union think she is pregnant because they ask her to get involved at their meetings. However, despite her misunderstandings the mysteries are resolved and one particular strength of this series is how Lady Lupin develops over the stories. Whilst she remains a loveably comic character, she mentally and emotionally matures, making her more a figure of support to others, which of course aids her detective work. Furthermore, a bit like Miss Marple, in Why Did She Die?, her detective work is said to be aided by her ‘tremendous interest in her fellow creatures.’
Yet there is more than just laughs to be gained from reading this series. Female psychology is an area Coggins explores well in her novels, particularly in her third novel, where the line between victim and villain are incredibly blurred in the death of Penelope. Moreover, due to the fact her death takes place some way into the novel, the reader is able to see the build up to her death and examine her psychological make up, which is definitely spine chilling. Furthermore, Penelope makes for an interesting case study in how role and career inhibition can damage a woman’s personality and lead to dominating and destructive, even self-destructive behaviour, a feature which also comes up in Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942).
Due to the time period Coggins’ was writing in, her final novel also offers insights into how survivors of WW2 were coping with the effects of the newly ended conflict, in particular the strain it put on relationships, as well as the continued physical hardships such as rationing. I think it is also possible to argue that Coggins’ work, again particularly in the last book in the series, incorporates elements from the comedy of manners genre, with Lady Lupin’s penchant for muddling things up and the way misunderstandings bring temporary discord to some relationships.
The second overlooked female sleuth I am looking at is Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu, a young Chinese woman who solves mysteries in New York and Hawaii, aided by her friend Janice Cameron, who acts as the Watson figure. Like Lady Lupin she only sadly features in four mysteries: The Chinese Chop (1949), The Kahuna Killer (1951), The Mamo Murders (1952) and The Waikiki Widow (1953). Again all of these stories were reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press a few years ago and second hand copies of their editions are still available, but some titles are easier than others to get a hold of. Lily Wu has been a firm favourite for me from reading the very first novel and her importance to mystery writing is something I have explored in issue 71 of CADS magazine and I have also contributed an entry on her for the upcoming publication Sleuths, Private Eyes and Police: An International Compendium of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. In short though she is the first fictional Asian female character to be the principal detective in a mystery series and through her Sheridan is able to explore attitudes to race and experiences of racism. Sheridan lived in Hawaii for many years and integrated herself into the multi-cultural community there, getting to know the different local traditions. As a consequence her novels’ settings and her depictions of non-white characters are nuanced and realistic, avoiding crude stereotyping. This also makes the novels’ interesting to read for the insights they can give into life in 1940s and 50s Hawaii, exploring clashes between native Hawaiian practices and principles with Western capitalist ideologies. Wider political issues are also included, such as in The Waikiki Widow, where the Communist Civil War in China has an intrinsic role in the story’s plot.
In terms of her sleuthing, Lily Wu has many things in common with Miss Marple (surprising though that might seem). Both are likened to Nemesis, are emotionally detached, yet determined to seek justice, use conversation as a detecting tool and they also both use the stereotypes used against them as forms of camouflage for their detective work. Lily Wu may seem delicately doll-like on the outside, an image which recurs in the novels, but Janice the narrator is always there to remind you of Lily’s stronger and more dangerous side: ‘As I looked at her I found it difficult to believe that I had once seen this languid little creature club a man unconscious.’ Though such images of strength are also intermixed with moments of vulnerability, such as in The Chinese Chop, where in New York, Lily’s nationality puts her in a more antagonistic position with the police and thereby preventing any cooperation between the professional and amateur sleuth.
My third chosen female sleuth is Maggie Bryne who features in Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948) and So Bad a Death (1949), which are two mystery novels by Australian crime writer June Wright. Both are easy to obtain, having been recently reprinted by the Verse Chorus Press. In the first novel she starts out as a single working woman, who is employed at a telephone exchange in Melbourne and this is also where murder strikes. Due to this setting, a setting Wright knew personally having also worked as a telephone exchange operator, this book provides an insightful window into the lives of working women in 1940s Australia, but also into a working environment which proportionally has a far greater number of female workers. Given that Dorothy L Sayers was a favourite novelist of hers, with Gaudy Night (1935) being her favourite Sayers novel, it is not surprising that characterisation is something Wright prioritises in her own work and this is a mystery which looks at how a murder investigation forms and breaks relationships and the way mistrust can colour your perspective on people you thought you knew.
In So Bad a Death (1949), although Maggie is now married and has stopped working to raise her child, she remains an active personality and motherhood does not prevent her from sleuthing. Indeed motherhood gives Maggie a powerful motivation for investigating and also provides her with an opportunity to casually talk to suspects and witnesses. Shakespeare fans may have noticed that the title for this book is from Henry VI Part 2: ‘so bad a death argues a monstrous life,’ but in my opinion it also heralds Wright’s engagement with English culture and literature. In particular Wright is arguably writing back and comically undermining the mystery fiction tradition employed by amateur sleuth, Miss Marple. For sleuths such as Miss Marple, there is no difficulty in finding a case, corpses spring up wherever they go and this is something Maggie tries to disassociate herself from:
‘Crime does not dog my footsteps […] Neither am I one of those sleuths for whom corpses crop up conveniently. Such individuals should, in the interests of public safety, be marooned a desert island. Their presence in the community is an incentive to murder.’
Furthermore, the spinster sleuth who knows everything that goes on in her village, such as Miss Marple in St Mary Mead is also subverted in the story. So Bad a Death is set in a village-like suburb called Middleburn, a suburb which has plenty of young mothers, but is definitely lacking in spinster figures. Instead Wright offers Arthur Cruikshank who says to Maggie that: ‘I am the most dangerous man in Middleburn […] Not much that has gone on in Middleburn over the last thirty years has escaped my notice. I know such a lot about everyone.’ Yet he is far from being a benevolent source of local knowledge and instead this trait of Cruikshank’s is shown to be used in a far more self-interested and sinister way.
As with Joan Coggin’s work, the character of the victim is also used as a vehicle for exploring the darker side of human psychology and in Wright’s case she also uses her victim, James Holland, late owner of Holland Hall, to critique the British class system and in particular the figure of the county squire. Holland is desperately keen to be the county squire of his area, even trying to introduce fox hunting. Yet he is not shown to be a responsible or benevolent squire figure, even acting tyrannically towards his own family and he uses his power and money to control the properties and people around him.
Finally as with the first novel, this second and final Maggie Byrnes mystery again gives a detailed portrayal of life for women at the time and also includes an interesting recurring debate on whether women should have careers or focus on marriage. The fact that Maggie’s husband is a policeman, also gives Wright the opportunity to look at the way detective work can affect a marriage, causing an underlying tension, when both members are sleuthing the same case, but are mostly not working together or in conjunction with each other.
My final choice of sleuth, Jeanie Halliday, only featured in one mystery called Let Him Lie (1940), which was written by Ianthe Jerrold, (under the name Geraldine Bridgman), and was reprinted recently by the Dean Street Press. Although fitting in to the country house murder mystery tradition, this is not a story which uses this setting critically as Wright does in one of her works. Instead I think this is a book which is much more interesting for its female characters and who better to start with than Jeanie Halliday herself. Halliday is definitely undergoing a learning curve in this story, beginning with her realisation of how distorting memories can be of people who you remember from when you were a child. But she also learns other things along the way in this story and ultimately realising that is she is not where she wants to be. When I originally reviewed this book for my blog I called Halliday a young Miss Marple in training, a view I still hold now. Her investigative work is fuelled by dialogue and conversation and like Miss Marple she is adept at making connections from conversations and also drawing people in to confide their secrets in her. Though this is not always something she appreciates: ‘Jeanie knew a sudden fear that Miss Dasent was about to repose in her a confidence which they would both probably afterwards regret.’ Moreover, like Miss Marple, there is a sternness to Halliday and she has a strong sense of what is good and bad behaviour. Although being one of the younger characters in the books, she is probably the most mature and you can tell that that she takes a lot from her experiences and other people’s. You can imagine her filing them all away in her mind for later use, in the way Miss Marple does.
Both Halliday and Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu, avoid becoming involved in a romantic subplot, during their cases, having the freedom to investigate without becoming embroiled in a love interest at the same time, which in earlier crime fiction such as this is no mean feat. However the novel does still include an underlying debate on whether woman should marry or stay single and when it is explored it is often portrayed as a choice between security and comfort vs a financially precarious existence or dependence vs. independence. Although there are explicit references to these ideas through the character of Miss Willis and Halliday, they are also implicitly explored in the lives of other women who have either opted for marriage or singlehood and it is left to the reader to decide who has fared the best.
Kate Jackson is a crime fiction review blogger and writes the blog: www.crossexaminingcrime.com, which tends to focus largely on pre 1960 mystery fiction writers and with a particular interest in female sleuths and writers. Kate also contributes to publications such as Mystery Scene Magazine and CADs (Crime and Detective Stories) Magazine and has contributed a chapter to the upcoming publication: Sleuths, Private Eyes, and Police: An International Compendium of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. You can also follow her on twitter at: @ArmchairSleuth.
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Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.