From the Library: Feminist Mystery Novels

We love feminist mystery novels. We love them so much that we decided to devote three months of book clubs to them. In November we read Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayer's 1935 book that has been called the first feminist mystery novel. In January we're reading Everything You Have is Mine by Sandra Scoppettone. And in February we'll be reading Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three. (Are you in Portland? Come to our book clubs. Not in Portland? Read along and we'll keep discussing these books on the blog.)

If you're like me, you've been staying up all night to read these novels and you just can't get enough. After finishing our book club books, I started scouring library shelves for mystery novels with feminist detectives. Mystery novels with complex female characters that analyze and protest sexist culture. I've been pleased to find that feminist mystery novels aren't as hard to find as one might think, and that some independent bookstores have huge Gay and Lesbian Mystery sections. If you finish the book club books and want to keep knocking back the mystery novels, here are a few more that feature kick-ass girl gumshoes:

M. F. Beal's Angel Dance (1977) follows Kat Guerrera, a Chicana lesbian investigator. Guerrera works as a writer for an anti-establishment collective before becoming a capitalist-fighting investigator. Guerrera was the first lesbian feminist investigator to show up in a mystery novel, in addition to being the first lesbian Chicana in the genre.

Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice is the first in a series that follows detective Mary Russell and her friend Sherlock Holmes. The series begins in 1915, and Sherlock Holmes is a retiree who has immersed himself in studying bees. Mary Russell, a smart fifteen-year-old, stumbles upon Holmes and pulls him back into the crime-investigating business. The two embark on many cases together throughout this series that often, according to the author, explore women's rights as well as "religious expression and governmental oppression".

Sara Paretsky is the creator of V.I. Warshawski, a feminist sleuth who mystery readers were first introduced to in 1982. In the newest book in the series, Body Work, V.I. is hired to clear the name of an Iraq war vet suffering from PTSD. Many of Paretsky's books focus on underlying social issues in the US, and this book is no exception. In Body Work, Paretsky uses V.I. to take on sexism, homophobia, and private contractors creating problems for Iraqi soldiers. Bonus points: V.I. is described as a "mega-feminist" in the book. In addition to writing this fabulous detective, Sara Paretsky founded Sisters in Crime, a group of "authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the mystery genre and our support of women who write mysteries."

Who are your favorite lady detectives? What books would you recommend to a feminist who is new to the genre?

by Ashley McAllister
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12 Comments Have Been Posted

I love the Beekeeper's

I love the Beekeeper's apprentice and Laurie R. King! Her books are FANTASTIC.

I strongly recommend Desert

<p>I strongly recommend <em>Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders</em>, by Alicia Gaspar de Alba.&nbsp; The story follows Ivon Villa, a queer Chicana, as she investigates the (real-life) femicides of the border while doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation.&nbsp; Although the novel is fictional, the femicides are not.&nbsp; It's well worth a read (and re-read).</p>

Lia Matera

I highly recommend Lia Matera's books. Her books feature feminist lawyers, memorable characters set amidst the changing panorama of San Francisco (from hippy haven to high-tech hub).

So many to chose from!!

This is one of my favorite areas of fiction-- lady dectectives! So, let me dig in:

My favorite in this arena will possibly always be Miss Marple, from Agatha Christie's books. She's not necessarily feminist, nor are the books themselves (they were written in the 50s and 60s and it shows in both imbedded sexism and casual racism), but-- if you account for the period-- she actually kind of is. The entire premise of her successful detecting is built around the way older women function as "invisible" in society-- people reveal themselves to her because they deem her unimportant. Mostly though she's my favorite because of the 1960s film adaptations of the books staring Margaret Rutherford, which reframe her as a bossy, cape-wearing super sleuth with a bookish, shy librarian best friend/boyfriend (also old, also totally adorable) and have her putting grumpy old British dudes in their place left and right while she also brilliantly and wittily solves mysteries. At the end, whichever guy gave her guff in Act I has proposed to her-- no joke! Nor is this played strictly for laughs! Despite the fact that she's old and has a hatchet face!-- but she always turns them down because of the aforementioned boyfriend. I watched them CONSTANTLY when I was little and there is no quantifying how delightful they are.

Then I'd also have to recommend the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. The same caveat applies to some degree, as they are old and of their period, but to a MUCH lesser degree-- Harriet is very atypical and smart and her relationship with Wimsey is scrupulously feminist in addition to being swoon-inducingly romantic. It's also very much the template for the Russel/Holmes relationship in King's books, even though they are not equal partners in the crime-solving, generally.

And finally: Sweeney St. George, from Sarah Stewart Taylor's O' Artful Death is SUCH A BADASS. My favorite modern female sleuth.

Carolyn Heilbrun (writing as

Carolyn Heilbrun (writing as Amanda Cross) wrote a number of amazing mysteries with Kate Fansler, feminist professor of literature, as the sleuth. Great books!

Some excellent recs both in

Some excellent recs both in this article and in the comments - I'll make sure to check them out :)

I'd like to recommend Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher books which are set in the 20s in Australia and which also explore things to do with class, legal and safe abortion, women doctors and the other paths besides motherhood. I've only read Cocaine Blues (the first in the series) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Phryne is interested in fashion and dancing and cocktails but the book also has very interesting things to say and isn't only a good romp - though there's nothing wrong with that either, it's rare and therefore lovely to find both an deeply entertaining and endearing story that touches on important things as well, and does it so well.

I've been rather wary of The

I've been rather wary of <i>The Beekeeper's Apprentice</i> as a literary-retelling sort of book, so I'm glad to see it recommended here - I'll check it out.

I'm not certain if you could necessarily call them feminist novels, but Alan Bradley writes a series of murder mysteries in the 1950s with the protagonist a 12-year-old girl with an aptitude for chemistry. I wouldn't necessarily say she critiques the sexist or feminist culture around her, but she stands up as a strong and complex lead with a streak of stubbornness and cleverness. They're written for adults and thoroughly enjoyable, but I imagine a precocious younger reader would enjoy them too. Flavia (the main character) is a strong and atypical female and child, both groups not really well represented in the genre, and a lot of who she is as a character isn't strongly gendered. Points for awesome titles too: <i>The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie</i> and <i>The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag</i>.

I completely agree about

I completely agree about Flavia-- she was one I meant to mention. Again, not necessarily overtly about feminism, but feminist in that it depicts a thorny and complex female character being awesome and solving crimes.

No Kate Martinelli?

I can't believe no one has mentioned Laurie King's other series featuring lesbian San Francisco detective Kate Martinelli. Besides the mysteries, these novels feature a great relationship between Kate and her partner Lee. And The Art of Detection features a kinda crossover with the Mary Russell series.

Two great series I forgot!

Both YA series, both set in Victorian London, one with an awesomely ahistorical kickass detective lead-- Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries, which are like this amazing mashup of Victorian Penny Dreadful plotlines and fierce feminism-- and the other with a ahistorical conceit (imagine a secret society of female spies/detectives existing in Victorian London!) but a surprisingly honest and accurate portrait of the real costs of being a woman in Victorian England-- Ying Lee's The Agency series (Bk 1: A Spy in the House; Bk 2: The Body in the Tower) are brilliant stories, complete with satisfyingly twisty plots, and a brilliant lead girl, Mary Lang, who has both a secret profession and a secret past she must conceal at all times. These books are absolute stunners. I highly recommend them.

SO MANY good recommendations!

SO MANY good recommendations! i'm excited to add a bunch of these to my reading list.

Love Gaudy Night!

I completely forgot about this book until I read this post. I'm going to pick it up again ASAP!

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