Book Order ‘Bleg’: Women and Detective Fiction

Hi, it’s me again, asking for help with my book orders! (No, I’m not just doing this to avoid marking exams. Not just.) This time the course I want to shake up a bit is an upper-level seminar on Women and Detective Fiction. I’ve been quite happy with the reading list I’ve used in the past, but there are a couple of directions I’ve wanted to take the course in and haven’t so far, so I’m thinking of adding to it, maybe without taking anything off, as the reading load has not been particularly heavy (says the Victorianist). As with the more general Mystery and Detective Fiction class, I take a survey approach, trying to cover a reasonable chronological span and then, within that, to represent a range of subgenres–styles or types of mysteries. Then, because it makes discussions and assignments more focused, I have also chosen, for this course, to use books that are both by women authors and feature women detectives. Here’s my standing list:

Agatha Christie, Thirteen Tales

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position

Sue Grafton, ‘A’ is for Alibi

Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only

Prime Suspect I (starring Helen Mirren) (this is my one venture into teaching something from a different medium–I think it has gone well in previous years)

If I had to cut something to make room for more reading, it would be one of Grafton or Paretsky–right now, probably Grafton, as I’ve just taught Indemnity Only and felt pleased with our class discussions of it as an intervention into the genre. What’s missing? There are at least three areas I’ve been thinking about, though I think I have room for only one more text. There’s a rich vein of lesbian mystery writing (including books by Sandra Scoppetone, Laurie R. King, Barbara Wilson, Katherine V. Forrest, and many others). There’s a lot of international crime fiction;  Scandinavian writers in particular are in vogue right now (possibilities I’m aware of include Karen Tursten, Asa Larsson, Karin Alvtegen, and Karen Fossum). And none of the books I currently assign features a professional police officer (Prime Suspect, of course, does)–some of the writers in my other ‘categories’ wrote procedurals, so I could look particularly for a two-fer. My problem in choosing is that I simply haven’t read enough of the options, particularly in the Scandinavian ones, where the only one I’ve managed to get my hands on is Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, which I didn’t make it very far in, as it seemed dreary and lead-footed in the writing (of course, it may have been the translation).  I’ve read some Laurie King and Sandra Scoppetone, but not with teaching in mind–and that does make a difference, as I’d be hoping for something that fit somehow with other things on the reading list, by treating some similar contexts or themes, and now I can’t remember them well enough to be sure. I’d be grateful for ideas from anyone widely read in this material: help me narrow down my options! Or, of course, suggest something else altogether.

10 thoughts on “Book Order ‘Bleg’: Women and Detective Fiction

  1. litlove April 27, 2010 / 4:33 am

    I might suggest Joan Smith, who had a literary academic as a sleuth, called Loretta Lawson. But those books are perhaps feeling their age a little (depends if you want that second wave feminism feel). I’ve just got into Scandinavian crime although both the authors I’ve read were male. However, I have Karen Fossum’s Broken to read which looks fascinating, as the main character is an author who wakes up in the night to find one of her own created characters sitting on the end of her bed, in trouble. I’ll get back to you as to whether this is as intriguing a premise as it sounds! Oh and the other interesting female sleuth I can think of it Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, who has been trained up as an early kind of mentalist, just after the end of the First World War.


  2. Dorian April 27, 2010 / 5:39 pm

    The first writer that comes to mind is Denise Mina. I’ve not read all her books, but i quite enjoyed her trilogy with Paddy Meehen. The first, Field of Blood, is terrific; the second, quite good; the third, not so much. They aren’t procedurals, though. Paddy’s a journalist–the series moves from the late 70s to the present and you learn a lot about the history of journalism in the UK (quite interesting, really) along the way–and about religion in Scotland–the Meehans are Catholics.

    I like Fossum a lot but her main series has a male lead detective. Altvegen I found uninspiring. Larsson is supposed to be quite good, though again not a procedural (I think the protagonist is a tax lawyer or something).

    Probably not helpful, but: have you thought about Stieg Larssen? The Elisabeth Salander phenomenon is quite interesting–just what kind of a fantasy doe she incarnate? The books have other strong female characters too. And with both Swedish & American film adaptations coming on stream, the kids are bound to start having heard of the books. Just a thought…


  3. Sam April 28, 2010 / 1:36 am

    No Josephine Tey and her mighty historical detective novels? (The Daughter of Time is still incredibly good reading).


  4. Rohan April 28, 2010 / 9:02 am

    Thanks, everyone, for these suggestions!

    Never heard of Winspear–I’ll have to take a look. I haven’t read any Denise Mina, but I’ve heard enough about her to think she may be an interesting possibility. Ian Rankin speaks very highly of her too, as I recall. I did think about Stief Larssen, but am stalled so far on two points: first, I really didn’t like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I found at once boring and unpleasantly prurient), and second, the books are really really long. That isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker (again, says the Victorianist)–but I’d need to be really convinced. Maybe I’ll at least read the second one, in which I gather Salander has an even bigger role. I don’t have to rule Fossum out because of the male detective, I suppose–but then I might have to start rethinking the whole list…

    Ah, Josephine Tey! I can’t see fitting The Daughter of Time into this particular course, but if I ever do a course on historical fiction, I’d love to work it in (maybe I could do a whole unit on Ricardian novels! except mostly they aren’t very good). She’s also a good candidate for the general mystery survey class, now that I think about it. It’s her fault, of course, that I have Richard III’s portrait in my office and always choose Richard III when I get the chance to teach any Shakespeare.


  5. Karen Bennett April 29, 2010 / 9:02 pm

    Josephine Tey’s *Miss Pym Disposes* features a woman detective (amateur). While *Pym* isn’t in the first rank of Tey’s novels (what can beat *The Daughter of Time,* which I just re-read?), and the ending is a mite weak, it’s still well worth consideration.

    You also might take a look at Sharyn McCrumb’s novels featuring American forensic anthropologist Elizabeth MacPherson, such as *MacPherson’s Lament,* *Missing Susan* and *The PMS Outlaws.* They’re quite funny, to boot.


  6. Rohan April 30, 2010 / 9:46 am

    Thanks for the further suggestions, Karen. Looks like a trip to the library should be on my agenda for today!


  7. Frances kemmish May 1, 2010 / 11:23 am

    I have read several of the Åsa Larsson books, and found them very interesting. One of the leading female characters is a lawyer, and another is a police officer. I enjoyed the interaction between the lawyer and the police detective, as well as the way Larsson integrates the characters into family and community.

    The books are set in Northern Sweden, fairly close to the Finnish borderr, and there are some references to Sami and Finnish people. One of the books also includes a narrative line about a female wolf – another kind of female character for you to include.

    I had no problem finding the novels in my local library (Boston Public Library), and I see that they are available at Borders Book Stores.

    I have read a number of series of detective novels written by and about women. There seems to be a whole raft of those similar to the Sue Grafton and Sara Paretski genre: tough women who spend their spare moments running/rowing/kick-boxing etc. I found Laura Lippman and Linda Barnes books have those characteristics also.

    Val McDermid writes novels with strong female detectives. It’s a while since I’ve read any of her books so I am not sure which would be most interesting to use. Her novels also have a level of violence which I think is unusual from a female writer.


  8. Rohan May 1, 2010 / 3:41 pm

    Thanks, Frances! I came back from my own public library without any of the Ava Larsson (still working on that) but with some samples of Karin Fossum, Denise Mina, Sandra Scoppetone (so far seems pretty much on the Grafton/Paretsky genre you describe), and Altvegen. McDermid is one I have sort of avoided for myself because they looked violent (the closer a book gets to the ‘thriller’ category the less I usually like it, and that’s also one of the more or less abitrary genre lines I draw for my mystery classes, to control the options a bit)–but perhaps I should look closer, as I have heard she is a good writer. I had nigh hopes when Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling came out that there was finally a Canadian contender, but I really hated that book, so too bad.


  9. Frances kemmish May 1, 2010 / 4:16 pm

    While I was out for a walk, I thought of another female writer with an unusual detective character: Julia Spencer-Fleming writes mysteries which feature a female pastor. They are quite entertaining, but not really very good, so I suppose that excludes them.

    On the other hand, if you want to devise a course about really mediocre detective fiction, I can reel off a million titles — starting with all those retail businesswomen detectives like the herb shop lady, or the several knitting shop ladies, and so on; then there are the detective novels where the cat does the detecting. And my latest “favourite”, the graphologist, who solves mysteries by looking at handwriting (and punctuation, for some reason).

    As you can see, I read far too many bad books.


  10. Mark May 8, 2010 / 12:01 pm

    Have you ever read any Patricia Highsmith, Rohan? Because of the lack of women and detectives in her novels, she might not be a great fit for this particular course, but she was definitely writing some very subversive crime ficition in the 1950s, especially when you compare her to someone like Agatha Christie. Highsmith, who was a mysoginistic lesbian, has an uncanny ability to make you sympathize with (and even root for) murderers, so her books could generate some interesting discussions on the ethics of reading. I’d recommend either Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Good luck!


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