Women Writing Women Detectives

  • Carla T. Kungl: Creating the Fictional Female Detective. The Sleuth Heroines of British Women Writers, 1890-1940. London: McFarland & Company 2006. VIII, 207 S. Paperback. USD 32,00.
    ISBN: 0786425288.

Aimed at students and fellow scholars, Creating the Fictional Female Detective has the great merit of being exceptionally carefully focused. Although many of the source novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are very visible in the existing critical literature, as this study acknowledges, there is little on the connection of women authors and women detective protagonists. Indeed, Creating the Fictional Female Detective is fascinated by the topic of work for women. The study locates the fictional detective alongside the – often suggestively later – real women joining the police and informal detecting. It then makes a valuable argument about the work of the female authors as seekers of their own cultural viability. Carla T. Kungl’s thesis is that the boundaries between ›fiction‹ and ›life‹ are permeable in two ways: that fiction influences the possibilities for women in the workplace, not just the detecting workplace, and moreover, that the female detectives allowed their authors to negotiate their own textual authority.


Consequently, Creating the Fictional Female Detective itself challenges generic boundaries. It is at once a study of gender in detective fiction and also a history of women at work, including the work of authorship. Kungl’s originality is to combine research into the transformation of British society of the period with close readings of novels by the most influential female writers. For between 1890 and 1940, as she shows, opportunities for women to earn their living multiplied, in part because of the effect of two world wars in decimating the male workforce. On the other hand, the entry of women into employment was accompanied by huge cultural anxieties about femininity. Are women suitable for work because they have male capacities, in which case, what has happened to their unique ›essence‹ as nurturing mothers? Or, conversely, should they be employed because those very feminine talents are useful to supplement masculine rationality?


Kungl shows that society and detective fiction mostly took the latter option. Early female fictional detectives in particular fixed their attention on the feminine domestic sphere. Creating the Fictional female Detective performs the invaluable function of demonstrating the link between the gender rhetoric of the early twentieth century professions and the detective on the page. Surprisingly, though, she seems to miss the extent of the influence of these female detectives in feminising their male counterparts. Although she acknowledges feminine qualities in Wimsey and Poirot, the gendering of the genre by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh goes much further.


Scripts of Feminine Opportunities


What Creating the Fictional Female Detective concentrates on is women writers, in Kungl’s words, ›re-writing the script of the feminine‹. The importance of her book is to show the stiff dimensions of the inherited script. So the first chapter is an historical study of the jobs middle class women began to take in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In particular, she explores the jobs adopted by fictional detectives, such as psychoanalyst, nurse, typist, governess and, crucially police work. It is fascinating to discover that the outstandingly successful police officer, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Baroness Orczy, 1910), preceded her real life counterpart by a decade. Moreover, what finally permitted entry of women to the police force was the recognition that they were needed to deal with young women overexcited by the presence of soldiers in their town! Similarly Lady Molly, like her fictional contemporaries, most often succeeded because she recognised domestic clues foreign to male experience. Also, her dashing entry into the male domain of the police is forgivable when it is discovered that her motive is to save her fiancé from a false accusation. Once her superior intuition has triumphed, Lady Molly very properly marries and leaves the force.


The fate of the first fictional female police officer – as the heroic detecting plot subsides into the traditional female marriage plot – illustrates the double bind for expanding the script of feminine opportunity. At this moment in history, a married woman was rarely permitted to work, should she be so unfeminine as to want to. On the other hand, a working woman without romance seems to fall into those stereotypes that allow women work or love, not both. So, on the one hand, Harriet Vane’s marriage to Lord Peter Wimsey at the conclusion of Gaudy Night (1935), could appear as a capitulation to marginalizing a woman who has been in a detecting role. On the other hand, this problem was perceived by Sayers herself (who worked in an advertising agency) three books earlier when she realised that the dignity of her woman protagonist was at stake. Most unusually, as Kungl shows us, Sayers’s ›solution‹ to the marriage plot was to develop the detecting plot, until it could become a story of two believable characters. Gaudy Night is a study of that historical stereotype, the spinster that argues for the possibility that marriage as an institution can expand to accommodate a more creative script for women. Sayers later produces Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), originally a play, which in its parodic comedy of manners explores the dimensions of this new marriage plot.




So it is important to note the invaluable attribute of this study in connecting the lesser known early female detective writers with canonical authors such as Christie and Sayers. A chapter on domesticity and intuition is an indispensable ingredient when looking at the early female detective and it gives us Loveday Brooke (1894), the first female professional detective created by a woman, C. L. Pirkis. She combines excellent education and professional attitudes with sensitivity to domestic detail that frequently solves the crime. However, what distinguishes Loveday Brooke also marks her fictional contemporaries, her superior class to the humble policemen. These early fictional female detectives were all either middle or upper class and Kungl offers an incisive analysis of the class complications of this literature.


Detective fiction inhabits the realm of popular novels versus ›high‹ literary art. Indeed, Kungl’s historicising is invaluable in uncovering the female detective’s antecedent in the Sensation novels’ heroines of the Victorian era. So women writers’ emphasis on the superior class of their favourite detective heroines could be regarded as part of the class tensions within British culture. It could equally, and at the same time, be an aspect of the attempt to establish the ›respectability‹ of the woman detective and by extension that of the working woman who is her author.




A similar ambiguity bedevils that other attribute of the ‘›irrational‹ female, intuition. Kungl argues convincingly that the barbed term, intuition, is often mitigated into the more positive notion of ›knowledge of human nature‹. Female detectives rarely rely upon intuition alone. A good example of the conversion of the rhetoric of intuition is Miss Climpson’s determined jury service. She refuses to convict Harriet Vane because the prisoner’s demeanour in the dock does not suggest guilt to her superior powers of observation. Intuition or knowledge of human nature, it is left to a collaborative process of detection, combining these qualities with rational deduction, to solve the case in Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1931).


Writerly Authority


Continuing with chapters on the professional spinster and detective fiction and popular culture, Creating the Fictional Female Detective builds an exceptionally strong case for its final thesis of the role of these figures in writerly authority. Although the career of Harriet Vane has been much studied before – and Kungl draws effectively on many of the previous works – no one before has made such a strong case for the historical, cultural, theoretical and personal case of Sayers and her creature. Biographical knowledge of Sayers’s struggles with love and work is sensitively woven into the cultural research here. Sayers and Vane are unique because no other author tried so passionately to re-script the two related genres of romance and detective fiction. Yet Sayers was also dependent upon and reflecting a host of historical changes and the evolving scripts of other writers. Kungl’s work is convincing and powerful. Her study is a worthy accompaniment to the scholarly literature on crime fiction. I welcome it.