Friday, January 27, 2012

Wanted: One Strong, Smart, Sassy Woman

Be warned. Today's post is just one long complaint. I'm feeling distinctly grumpy about female protagonists in recent mysteries. I've reached the point of throwing the book across the room with three series I used to read regularly. Here is my lineup of female sleuths no longer welcome in my library:

Gemma James. I used to devour Deborah Crombie's series featuring Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James of Scotland Yard. Crombie wrote some terrific mysteries, like Dreaming of the Bones and Kissed a Sad Goodbye.  She has a real talent for plotting and conveying a strong sense of time and place. Eventually, Crombie developed a personal relationship between Duncan and Gemma, and now they're married and sharing their children.

With Duncan and Gemma no longer work partners, Crombie seems to have chosen to depict more of their home life as a way to keep up with them as a pair. But the swap of domestic detail for detective collaboration is a poor exchange. In her most recent book, No Mark Upon Her, Crombie includes such teeth-gritting scenes as kids squabbling in the car, Duncan and Gemma negotiating childcare responsibilities and, in case I wasn't already in complete despair, a birthday party for a three-year-old.  It could only have been worse if she'd added in the children singing. (Yes, W. C. Fields has nothing on me.) When Crombie can spare the time for the actual crime story, the plotting is intriguing, tight and twisty. But for me, the price to be paid for the mystery plot is now way too high. I'm sure there are readers who want to be a fly on the wall observing the details of the couple's domestic life, but I'm not one of them.

Mary Russell. Back when I read Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first book in her series featuring bluestocking Mary Russell, I was charmed. The 15-year-old orphan Russell is impatiently waiting out her minority in the care of a disagreeable aunt when she meets Sherlock Holmes, who is engaged in beekeeping while in semi-retirement in Sussex. I loved the relationship struck up between the two, as he trains her in the art of detection. Naturally, I went on to read succeeding books in the series, which are exciting adventures in locations as far-flung as Dartmoor, Palestine and San Francisco. But one constant was always the erudite and entertaining banter between Holmes and Russell, and their close sleuthing partnership.

A few books ago, King began sending Holmes and Russell off in different directions in their investigations. They would still usually have some correspondence and would eventually meet up and work together, but the characters on their own missed the spark they had when together. In the latest book in the series, Pirate King, Holmes is out of the picture almost entirely, until more than three-quarters of the way through the book. The story is told mostly through a first-person narrative by Russell, who comes across as a self-satisfied, humorless prig. I'm thinking this book is meant to set the stage for the series to become entirely Russell-focused. If so, I'm out.

Maisie Dobbs. This is another series that I liked at the outset, but whose protagonist I have come to view as tiresome. She started out being spunky; a largely self-educated working-class girl who, after serving as a nurse in the Great War, sets up her own detective agency. The ninth book in the series is just about to be published, but I gave up with number seven, The Mapping of Love and Death. Life is too short to read books––even well-written books––about a character as mopey as Maisie Dobbs. She is never-endingly sobersided, has virtually no real personal life and I just couldn't take her glumness anymore. In the same vein is Charles Todd's Bess Crawford. I read the first book in that series and that was more than enough. If either one of these women cracked a smile, their faces might break.

So where are the good female protagonists these days?

Back in the 1990s, I used to enjoy Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones series. Sam was a London sculptor with an extremely lively personal life who was always stumbling into bizarre and threatening situations. Sam could never resist poking her nose in, no matter the risk. Book titles like Black Rubber Dress, Freeze My Margarita and Strawberry Tattoo convey the cheeky style of this series. Lauren Henderson also collaborated with Stella Duffy to produce an anthology of bad-girl crime fiction called Tart Noir. (Great title!) Alas, the last Sam Jones mystery was published in 2001 and I have given up hope for more.

Liza Cody was also a favorite in my (relative) youth. She wrote two gritty series, one featuring Anna Lee, a London PI, and another with Eva Wylie, a wrestler and security guard. Cody seems to be done with these series, though she is still writing. Maybe I should check out her latest nonseries book, Ballad of a Dead Nobody, about the mystery of the death of a female founder of a rock-and-roll band.

And I can't forget another old favorite, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski. Over the years, though, I've gone off her. Or maybe not so much her as the books, which came to feel dominated by social issues. What do you say, should I go back and try again?

I've also enjoyed Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura and Cara Black's Aimée Leduc. Both of these are still good, but it appears that the Rei Shimura series is most likely over, and the Aimée Leduc series has become to seem somewhat formulaic. Kerry Greenwood's 1920s Melbourne, Australia, flapper/sleuth, Phryne Fisher, is a hoot, but the books are just bits of fluff.

I used to like Margaret Maron's Sigrid Harald series, but I could never get into her Deborah Knott books. Her new book, Three-Day Town, puts the two characters together for the first time, but to the detriment of both. The book can only be described as a disappointment to fans of both protagonists.

It's a sad state of affairs when one of the feistiest and most interesting female protagonists is an 11-year-old girl––by whom I mean, of course, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce. But as lively and amusing as Flavia is, I want to read about a grownup woman who is vibrant, intelligent (like Harriet Vane), has a sense of humor, doesn't moon around about men and children (I'm looking at you, Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogel), and who doesn't make a habit of endangering herself with too-stupid-to-live decisions (that bad trait applies to all-too-many female protagonists).

But it is possible to go too far in the strong female protagonist vein. In Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry, Sara Hardesty is a survivor of domestic abuse who runs a sewing shop in Missouri and, as a sideline, acts as amateur sleuth and a vigilante against abusive men. This book was nominated for several awards, but I was not charmed by a character whose investigative methods consist of beating up and intimidating people. Another strong character––one whose methods don't constitute felonies––is Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who is a 40-something police detective in Göteborg, Sweden. Huss is smart and likable, as she navigates through the hazards of a sexist work environment and a sometimes challenging family life. Unfortunately, the novels featuring Huss are of the grimly nordic variety, with too big a helping of disturbingly graphic violence for my taste.

There are several female secondary characters I admire and would like to see more of, like Diane Fry of Stephen Booth's series featuring Ben Cooper, Ellen Destry of Garry Disher's series featuring Hal Challis, and Annie Cabbot of Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series. I'm not a fan of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series. Havers is her own worst enemy and it irritates me to see her shoot herself in the foot repeatedly.

So, here we are. I've trashed a bunch of female protagonists––I hope not too many readers' favorites––and bemoaned the disappearance or too-little-appearance of women characters I like. But it can't be hopeless. I'm convinced there must be some female protagonists going strong out there. Two possibilities, and I'd welcome comments on them, are Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak and Julia Spenser-Fleming's Claire Ferguson.

I hope to find somebody who can restore my faith in the female sleuth. Ruth Rendell, once asked about her choice to have a male protagonist in her Inspector Wexford series, quoted Simone de Beauvoir: "Like most women I am still very caught up in a web that one writes about men because men are the people and we are the others." Reminded of that statement in 2009, Rendell said that times had changed, replying: "I don't think that our sex is the people or the others, we're all the people. Perhaps because women are taken more seriously now, not just by men but by each other." I agree that times have changed and it's high time we had a female protagonist as compelling as some of my male favorites, like Inspector Wexford, Commissaire Adamsberg, Armand Gamache, or even Andy Dalziel. (The last of whom, given the recent sad death of Reginald Hill, is now the late lamented Andy Dalziel, I suppose.)

Note: I received free review copies of Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her and Laurie R. King's Pirate King.


  1. Sister Mary, great blog this a.m. I'm sure you read Stieg Larsson's books and simply forgot to mention Lisbeth Salander. She is beyond sassy.

    If you don't already know New York's PI Lydia Chin, you'd love her. She's S.J. Rozan's creation. Read Reflecting the Sky, where Lydia and her partner Bill Smith take some ashes to Hong Kong and find trouble. The locale, the plotting, the characters, the endless bowls of delicious noodles--this is a great series. Nikki

  2. Sister, if our blog had a sound track you'd hear me squawking. Have you read Cara Black's MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER and MURDER IN PASSY? Those are two of the latest in the series and they're very good. I'd say there's formulaic and then there's formulaic. Black's plot structure can be a little formulaic but that pales in light of the Paris location and the protagonist Aimee. The author knows the city and its history, she knows its people, the immigrants and locals, so well that the series is a treasure. I'm looking forward to the 2012 book MURDER AT THE LANTERN ROUGE.

    I second S.J. Rozan's books and will add Alexander McCall Smith's Mma Precious Ramotswe (Number One Ladies Detective Agency). She's very wise and you could call her feisty. Spending time in her company in Botswana is never wasted. IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERFUL LADIES is a good one.

  3. ***Eventually, Crombie developed a personal relationship between Duncan and Gemma, and now they're married and sharing their children.***

    Nothing like a marriage to ruin a beautiful relationship!

    ***dominated by social issues****

    I read a mystery to avoid thinking about 'social issues' (or about children's birthday parties or.........

    Having said that, social issues can be integrated is the story if done deftly and not presented via the lectern.

    ***TSTL*** Females going down a dark alley, no one with them and armed with only a can of hair spray are TSTL. I guess I don't have a real problem with a man doing that (sans hair spray) because, face it, men ARE stronger than women and just might be able to knock the bad guy out.

    I like Detective Sergeant Havers---- don't know why.

    What do you think about Val McDermid's Carol Jordan? Of course I can barely remember her, having stared, panting, at Tony Hill, as played by that oh, so delectable Robson Green.

  4. Tess Gerritsen's Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. Carol O'Connell's Mallory. Karin Slaughter's Sara Linton.

  5. Nikki, I did read the Millennium series and Lisbeth is an intriguing character. But I don't think we'll be reading about her anymore. Lydia Chin sounds like fun.

    Della, I've read all the Aimée Leduc series except Murder in Passy. I do love the Paris locations, but I don't feel compelled by the series anymore. Aimée just doesn't seem as interesting as she used to. I'm not sure why I've never read the Number One Ladies Detective Agency books. I should try them.

    cave76, I like Carol Jordan, but I'm too lily-livered for that series. Though I'm with you on Robson Green!

  6. I think you'd like Julia Spencer-Fleming's books, Sister. Rev. Clare Fergusson is an army vet and pilot. She knows how to kick ass, which sounds strange because we're talking about an Episcopal priest here, but trust me. I haven't read the 2011 book, but TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH and ALL MORTAL FLESH are entertaining. It's a miracle, after seven books in this series, that there is anybody left alive in the town of Millers Kill, New York.

    I plan to read TOXICITY, the prequel to Libby Fischer Hellmann's Georgia Davis series, soon. Georgia is a can-do cop in Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune had this on one of its "best of 2011" lists. How about trying this series?

    Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books may be too formulaic for you, but this Santa Teresa, California PI has long defined "sassy." I've been reading them since they were first published 30 years ago because Kinsey is so darn likable. Grafton's series is galloping into the sunset as the titles near the end of the alphabet. One I've particularly enjoyed: F IS FOR FUGITIVE, in which Kinsey is hired by the father of Bailey Fowler, who was convicted of killing bad girl Jean Timberlake 15 years ago when they were teenagers, but escaped from prison a year into his sentence.

    You could try the Miami News police reporter Britt Montero series by Pulitzer-winning reporter Edna Buchanan. Britt is at her best in YOU ONLY DIE TWICE when the body of Kaithlin Jordan washes up on the beach. This is particularly surprising because her husband, convicted of killing her 10 years ago, is sitting on Death Row.

    Dennis Lehane's series set in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, may be too hardboiled for you.

    Definitely not too hardboiled: THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION by Iain Pears. This is a book in Pears's Art Theft Squad series set in Rome. Flavia di Stefano, acting head of the squad, has a case involving a Claude Lorraine painting held for ransom. It should be read with a glass of good Italian wine. I know you'd like that.

  7. Sister.

    I agree with in in so many ways but I am not out os sassy heroines as yet. I let Gemma James, V. I., Bess Crawford who never grabbed me ,and Deborah Knott go some time ago. I do wish Maisie would get a personal life, but I don't think she has it in her. WWI did a number on her. Her cases are still interesting to me.

    Sprirted female protagonists I still read include Anna Blundy,s Faith Zanetti caught my interest in THE BAD NEWS BIBLE and there are several in her series. From the South West Lena Jones investigates her crimes in the Betty Webb series. No one pushes her around.
    Suzanne Arruda's Jade DeCameron has a different flavor as well.

    For feisty not many can outdo Emily Tempest in Adrian Hyland's as yet very short series. She also has a mouth like a sailor. E.E. Conary's bitch series also a little on the short side is pretty long on excitement. PI Rachel Cord has few peers.

    Lastly from the other side of the pond I like Ann Cleeve's Vera Stanhope. She might look like a bag lady to some but she has instinct about where the bad guys are hiding.

    Georgette, your suggestions sound like my TBR will be getting some additions.

  8. Thanks for the vote for Clare Ferguson. I will check her out.

    How could I forget Libby! I so enjoyed SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, but I haven't read any of her series.

    I did read a couple of the Kenzie/Gennaro series. How could I not, when my mother grew up in Dorchester? I liked them, but not enough to continue.

    I'm intrigued by the recommendation of Iain Pears's Art Theft Squad series. I've read his standalone books, but not this series.

    Wow, MC, I've never heard of some of these series you mention, but they sound well worth checking into. And how could I have forgotten about Vera Stanhope? That's a series I've thought about looking at, but never got around to it. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. As someone who read Cody, I think you might enjoy Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox series, the backlist of which is getting released for Kindle soon.

    We must in some way have opposite tastes; the personal aspects of Gemma and Duncan's lives are what adds authenticity to the books for me (that and the author's ear for small things--she's the only author I can remember naming that little basket fruit comes in--who knew it was a punnet?), and I like Deborah Knott way more than Sigrid. I enjoyed Sherlock and Mary's mock public courtship aboard but didn't mind them having separate roles to play a good deal of the time.

    I did enjoy Massey's series a lot. Have you checked out Greenwood's OTHER sleuth, the plus-size baker Corinna Chapman? Much more, er, wholesome than Miss Phryne!

    Another interesting female character is the doctor in the Nic Costa series by David Hewson--I'm blanking on her name right now. Then there's Thomas Perry's one-woman witness protection program: Jane Whitefield.

  10. Bonnie, thanks for the recommendation of Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox series, and the David Hewson and Thomas Perry books.

    Wow, it really does sound like we have opposite tastes. On Gemma/Duncan, I like knowing them personally, it's the kid-related stuff that turns me off.

    I know I'm in the minority by preferring Sigrid Harald to Deborah Knott. Of course, I'm none too fond of Sigrid after THREE-DAY TOWN!

    I've been hesitant to read the Corinna Chapman series for fear that all the food descriptions would drive me into the arms of baked good all too often.