When I was a kid I wanted more than anything to be a girl detective. A sleuth like Nancy Drew, with a trusty side-kick, my own car complete with rumble seat, and a father who could get me out of trouble in a pinch. At times I thought I might be an international spy like Agent 99 from the television show Get Smart. But mostly I wanted to be a detective.
I wanted to solve mysteries, find clues, chat to strangers, and then when I’d unearthed some evidence, write everything down in a cute notebook. I’d live, I imagined, in a rambling old brick house with my parents and several adoring younger sisters…. note the influence of Little Women here… in a town that had lots of other brick houses, on wide, tree-lined streets, and a big brick library where I could access all the research material I needed to solve my cases. Plus old-fashioned, street-corner diners where I could order a cup of coffee, sit in a booth, and discuss progress on my cases with my loyal assistant/best friend.
As a child I read voraciously. And, as the youngest child of a single mum who worked full-time, I was often alone. Or with much older people. I used to go visiting in the neighbourhood all on my own. A fact that always makes me chuckle. But I was comfortable with adults, terribly nosy, and loved to hear people’s stories. Besides, the neighbourhood was filled with stay-at-home mums who didn’t mind chatting to my nine-year-old self while they folded their laundry or did the ironing. I particularly loved visiting Sally who had recently married my mum’s cousin. When Sally’s beautiful sister came to stay for a few weeks, I was awestruck, and a regular visitor for tea. Now, when I think about those days, I realize that the adults were being very kind to me. But back then I didn’t see anything odd about it.
Anyway, I think all that visiting whetted my appetite for finding out what makes people tick, for listening to their stories. And combined with my constant reading and my vivid imagination, I began to imagine my calling as a girl detective. Meanwhile I devoured all the detective fiction I could get my hands on.
Obviously growing up put paid to my ambition to be a girl detective. But it did nothing to diminish my love for detective stories. I adore detective fiction. And if you’ve read my blog for a while that admission will come as no surprise. I am not quite so much in love with thrillers or books with too much explicit violence. But a good murder or two, some missing persons, or a kidnapping are totally up my street. It’s the detecting part that I love. Following clues, finding out what makes people tick, who did what and why, learning everyone’s back story, and then neatly fitting all the pieces together to solve a case. Restoring order to a chaotic world.
And my particular favourite kind of detective fiction is the kind that features a “girl detective” … even if she’s not exactly a girl anymore.
Lately I’ve been thinking of this odd little part of my own back-story. I just finished reading a Sally Spencer book, Daughters of Darkness, which features girl detective Jennie Redhead. I so enjoyed this book. Even if the ending was a bit beyond believability, I still liked it. Set in 1975 in Oxford in the UK, Daughters of Darkness is classic girl-detective fiction.
Jennie Redhead has an English degree from Oxford. She had a brief career in the police, before she was driven out of the force by a corrupt boss and set up shop on her own. Jennie is kind of an English Kinsey Millhone. She loves a good quip, spends a lot of time in pubs, and has an old boyfriend who is a cop and who helps her out when he can. I loved the descriptions of Oxford and the surrounding countryside in the novel, and the fact that Jennie gets around on a bicycle. I mean, it is Oxford, after all.
Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is a favourite as well. Set in southern California, Grafton’s stories take place in the eighties, and Kinsey is a girl after my own heart. Like Jennie Redhead, she’s the quintessential “plucky” girl detective. She can’t cook and she’s dedicated to her job. If she was interested in fashion, she’d be perfect. I always laugh when she pulls out her one and only, stretchy, black, all-purpose dress. It’s these kinds of character details that I love about good detective fiction. Plus Kinsey has a coterie of friends and neighbours who have interesting and ongoing back-stories of their own. You can find all of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries (A through Y) here.
When she died in 2017, Grafton still had one more book to write to finish the alphabet. Apparently, she always hated the idea of adapting her books for film or television, worrying that the characters would be given short shrift, that “her work would be compromised.” One source I read said that Grafton threatened to haunt her family if they ever sold the rights to her work. But I read today in a note on her website that the family has recently decided to develop Grafton’s books for television. Uh oh. Stay tuned for the haunting.
But the original and best-loved (by me anyway) girl detective (other than the ones written for…well… actual girls) is Cordelia Gray from P.D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Cordelia is bright, “disconcertingly intelligent,” and very young at twenty-two to be a partner (let alone sole proprietor) of a detective agency. Especially since, as she says herself, she “brought no qualifications or relevant past experience” to her job. When her partner, the hapless Bernie Pryde, commits suicide in the first chapter of the novel, Cordelia must struggle on… on her own.
I read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman when it was first published back in the seventies. In fact I still have my hard-cover copy given to me by my grandmother Sullivan. I’ve long thought that my grandmother would have made a formidable girl detective if she’d had the chance. She was smart, as well as smart-mouthed, and fearless; she would have kicked ass, if you’ll pardon the profanity. At not much over five feet tall, she handled my six-foot-two-inch grandfather, a couple of hired men, and often a boarder or two with aplomb. Plus she raised eight children, five of them boys. And made time to read a ton of books.
The Skull Beneath the Skin, the second book in the brief Cordelia Gray series, wasn’t published until 1982. I’ve never understood why P.D. James waited ten years to write a follow-up. Still, I loved both books. As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been dipping into both books to remind myself why I love the characters and P.D. James’ writing so much and I’ve found myself caught up all over again in the characters and their narratives. Especially James’ exquisite descriptions.
Take, for instance, her rendering of Miss Sparshott, the temporary typist employed at Cordelia’s detective agency. Miss Sparshott is described in minute detail from her “receding chin with one coarse hair which grew as quickly as it was plucked” to her clothes. Miss Sparshott was a “skilled dressmaker.” But her “beautifully made clothes were so dateless that they were never actually in fashion; straight skirts in grey or black which were exercises in how to sew a pleat or insert a zip fastener; blouses with mannish collars and cuffs in insipid pastel shades on which she distributed without discretion her collection of costume jewellry; intricately cut dresses with hems at the precise length to emphasize her shapeless legs and thick ankles.” Oh dear.
In looking for that quote, I’ve just spent ten minutes reading the whole first chapter. I think I’ll be taking both books to bed with me tonight.
I’m not sure why, when so many detective novels are written by women, so few of them feature a female lead-detective, a “girl detective.” Many of the most revered female mystery writers, including P.D. James, write primarily about male detectives. Ruth Rendell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Kate Atkinson, Louise Penny, Donna Leon, Elizabeth George. Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, and Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan are notable exceptions to this rule. And Elizabeth’s George’s pivot in her last Inspector Lynley book, The Punishment She Deserves, making Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers the main character, is a wonderful step in the right direction. As much as I love the Lynley character and his story line, Havers is a refreshing change.
I’m sure I am missing a bunch of other examples here. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce for instance. But, as delightful as she is, Flavia is not what I mean when I say “girl detective.” She is still too much of a child and thus bound by the constraints of the adult world around her.
It’s late now, my friends. I must try to wrap this post up. I’m getting a bit dippy from reading about and writing about “girl detectives” all day.
Ha. Just writing “girl detective” makes me chuckle. I wonder what Vera Stanhope would think of that appellation.
Of course it’s woefully out of date, I fully admit that. And other than Nancy Drew, and maybe Cordelia Gray, none of the characters I’ve mentioned could be rightfully called “girls.”
But the term “girl detective” has a special cachet for me. It conjures up my nine-year-old dreams of growing up, and being free to do as I wished in the adult world. Footloose in a car with a rumble-seat, solving mysteries with my plucky and loyal side-kick. Asking questions with impunity. Following up clues. Being smart. Controlling my own destiny.
Doesn’t it sound wonderful?
Now how about you, my bookish friends? Did you ever long to be a girl detective? Maybe you still harbour such dreams? Sometimes I do. I mean, I am still incredibly nosy, at least according to Hubby.
P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a small commission.