Crime fiction became popular in an era when a woman’s place was believed to be in the home. As the genre grew so did the voice of women, when they were given the right to vote, and society began to accept their intelligence as well as their caregiving role. As the changes continued many writers adapted their female characters to reflect this. Women became intelligent protagonists, instead of damsels in distress and a new era of crime fiction was born.
The women in the Sherlock Holmes novels were often featured as victims, but in a witty writing deviation Doyle created a woman who succeeded in outwitting the great detective, Irene Adler. She was a strong character, who was from then on referred to as ‘The Woman’ by Holmes. Even though only featuring in one of the stories, Adler was so inspirational that she became one of the most famous characters from the series.
Apart from the ‘damsel in distress,’ other early female characters included ‘the femme fatale’ – a seductress who used her sexuality to influence rather than intellect, ‘the goody two-shoes’- known for always doing the ‘right’ thing and ‘the murderess’- a woman who had normally committed a crime of passion. Even when including strong women characters, many authors were inclined to create chauvinistic males that would become an additional challenge for the female protagonist. Today’s police force has many women in positions of authority, and this reflects in the stories that are now being published.
Female protagonists have evolved into quick witted, intelligent individuals who approach cases fearlessly. Women have become private eyes, and the hardboiled genre is less violent than before, as well as investigators in psychological thrillers. These books show readers that females possess the emotional strength and core-of-steel necessary to tackle these cases. Their overwhelming popularity also proves that these protagonists are well loved and admired. As crimes became more intelligence based, rather than violent, detective skills developed to match them.
Female Crime Fiction Authors
The development of the crime fiction genre was greatly influenced by female writers. More in touch with their emotions, women have been able to connect with their audience by focusing on their protagonist’s feelings. They are also able to show that one of the places which is considered safe, the home, can cause extreme distress for many. Women know what it is like to be ostracized, as well as challenged more than their male counterparts. This is transferred into their stories by creating imperfect female characters with a no-nonsense attitude, and many of these crime novels are created from an anti-hero point-of-view.
Known as ‘The Grand Dame of Mysteries,’ Agatha Christie’s writing style helped to pioneer the locked room mystery subgenre. When her books were first published (in the 1920s) even though many of them were popular, reviewers were dismissive of her stories preferring to overlook rather than comment on her novels. Operating on the misconception that female authors write trivial stories, many readers were astonished at the complex, yet gripping tales that Christie produced. Her books are still enjoyed and there has been a recent surge in the resurrection of the cozy novel.
One of Christie’s characters, Miss Marple, is believed to be among the most well-known fictional detectives of all time. Her creation was ingenious, as her age meant that instead of being viewed as a sex object she was respected and welcomed into investigations. Miss Marple opened the door for other strong female characters to emerge.
Agatha Christie’s novels include:
And then There Were None – The original title of this book would be viewed as racist by today’s standards, but the storyline remains gripping. It has sold one of the highest all-time book totals, and the gruesome plot was adapted for television by the BBC.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) – Considered a Christie masterpiece, this book has one of the best twists in crime fiction to date.
Adept at inserting dark humour into her horrifying stories, Highsmith’s novels have been converted to the big screen since the 1950s. Her popular creations include:
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) – Highsmith created a violent male serial killer who had no qualms about killing others and taking over their lives. Even though a sociopath, Mr. Ripley was likeable and the novel inspired the popular film by the same name.
Strangers on a Train (1950) – Alfred Hitchcock had a talent for spotting gruesome tales and wasted no time in making this book into a movie. Its plot is particularly scary as it displays that crime can start anywhere.
Daphne Du Maurier
There is often a dark side to love and Du Maurier’s talent for displaying this can be witnessed in her classic Rebecca (1938). The tale appealed to readers’ emotions and Hitchcock was once again influential in gaining recognition for the author’s work, by his 1940 film conversion.
With her work translated into 26 languages, Sue Grafton brought the character which developed in the late 1970s, the American female private investigator, to life. Her alphabet themed Kinsey Millhone series, starting with A is for Alibi, has demonstrated where women are just as good at private investigation as men. Her previous career as a Hollywood script writer set the pace for her novels, and she has been compared with the hardboiled genre’s original writers, such as Raymond Chandler. Her character’s eye for detail and exceptional investigative skills, are combined with witty plots and intricate storytelling making Grafton’s books a fascinating read.