Female detectives as portrayed by male authors

Croline Vandreil’s monthly column reviewing a new book

Every now and again it feels like my life and my brain get stuck in a bit of a groove that makes me see an interconnectedness of things, or themes. Lately it has been how women are portrayed.

About a month ago, I picked up Ashley Grahams’s memoire, A New Model. In it, she reveals the journey she’s taken towards the recognition of plus-sized models, culminating in her appearance on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

This struck me both as a huge achievement and grossly superficial. For years, models and actors have been valued for their slender, to scrawny frames. It’s about time that the fashion industry recognizes women come in all shapes and sizes, and that those previously chosen for high profile shows and shoots did not represent the average North American woman at all. But why is a woman’s appearance so often a deciding factor in her value?

What does this have to do with female detectives? The next two novels I read were both detective stories with female protagonists, written by male authors. One of them succeeded in portraying a rationale heroine, the other did not. At all.

Leonard Goldberg penned a successful novel, The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes. I think part of his success was due to the lineage of the character and the style in which he chose to write. How could any offspring of Sherlock Holmes be anything but rationale and exceedingly gifted in the art of deduction? Most, if not all modern interpretations hold to the coldly scientific nature of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, from television series, to films, plays, and novels, like Laurie King’s series about Mary Russell, the wife of Sherlock Holmes.

Another aspect of Goldberg’s success is his ability to stay true to the style of the original writing. A number of times as I read, a phrase or description struck me as being incredibly familiar. I was recently involved in a production of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, with Central Alberta Theatre, so I’ve been reading the original stories again. Of course, there are differences between Conan’s Holmes and any descendant; there have to be. A female in the role of Holmes would need to have softer characteristics so as not to be ridiculed as a bluestocking. Educated women were not often appreciated in the 18th century.

One would think that women have come a long way since then, but not so in Death by Pumpkin Spice by Alex Erickson. The novel opens with the Krissy baking cookies. She has low-self esteem, yet forces herself into a police investigation because she’s been involved in two murders in the past, which apparently makes her an expert. Her process of deduction is lamentable, often making guesses and/or accusations that are hit or miss. Krissy has three men vying for her affections, compared to the gentle romance in The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes. I can easily see why John Watson Jr. would fall head over heels in love with Joanna. I can’t understand how Krissy manages to have three men swarming her like bees.

Female detectives by male authors can be done quite well. They can be smart, self-assured, with a pleasing outward appearance as well, as is the case in Goldberg’s Watson and Holmes tale. Others, like Erickson, seem to have put far less thought and care into creating any depth of character. Death by Pumpkin Spice may be a fun, mindless read, but in the end, poorly drawn women will always be less than satisfying