Vive la différence: There are more Female Sleuths than Male Sleuths…
(Vive la différence: There are more Female Sleuths than Male Sleuths says Judi Culbertson and she is right)
I haven’t done a formal survey, but I’m willing to bet my deerstalker that there are now more amateur female sleuths on the mystery landscape than males—even if you count former policemen-turned-private-investigators like Robert Parker’s Spenser or John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway. If, as studies have shown, more women read fiction than men, it follows that they would be interested in characters they can easily empathize with.I can think of at least seven more reasons for the growing number of female amateur sleuths: * It’s easier to give a woman a colorful day job to pay the bills while she informally pursues crime. It’s interesting to read about the nuts-and-bolts world of a caterer, book restorer, park ranger, dog walker, etc. My main character, Delhi Laine, is a used- and rare-book dealer over the Internet, a milieu that gives readers a chance to learn about which books are valuable and how to find and sell them. Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr has a used-book shop, but when was the last time you read about a male sleuth with a cupcake business?
* Women sleuths tend to be more involved in domestic situations—what went wrong in a marriage, the weird sounds coming from the upstairs apartment, what to buy for dinner. It’s natural for them to decode psychological hints that turn out to be important to the plot and to participate in emotionally engaging conversations. Most female mystery readers are more interested in a domestic fight than a Mafia hit. I know I am.
Susan Gaspell’s short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” is a great example of understanding why a crime was committed by reading subtle domestic clues. The sheriff and the other men can’t figure out a motive as to why she murdered her husband. The sheriff’s wife and the wife of a witness who also come to the house during the search for evidence put together the story from the small psychological clues they discover but decide not to share with the men. “After all,” as one husband says, “women are used to worrying about trifles.”
* Aficionados need look no further than Miss Jane Marple or Jessica Fletcher to understand how women can ask more personal questions, questions that might be considered prurient if posed by a man. Fair or not, it’s considered more normal for women to snoop around, with no one becoming alarmed—less so now, perhaps, than fifty years ago, but still true. Because both men and women are usually more used to confiding in women, they may reveal more personal experiences to them than to a man.
* Mysteries featuring female amateur sleuths tend to be less hard-boiled. Although Delhi Laine defends herself when attacked, she would never go after someone physically to settle a score. She’s not involved in gang wars. As a reader, I prefer a more cerebral, psychologically based story, though I can’t stand heroines who are relentlessly chipper, arch, or good-natured to the point of being long-suffering. Cute, humorous descriptions of people and situations make me cringe. I may be in the minority on this.
* It’s a cliché to say that people root for the underdog, but we do. It’s easier for a woman to be treated as an outsider, as someone whose findings are discounted by the police, though male amateurs can suffer the same fate. Sherlock Holmes was treated this way in the early stories, as was Poirot, though the former was increasingly tolerated by Inspector Lestrade. Female amateurs get even less respect, so there’s great reader satisfaction when they turn out to be right and the authorities wrong.
* There is something called the “mirror neuron” that scientists have identified as an emotional response or kind of empathy when we see someone else act. Women are reputed to have more of these neurons, which fire up when they read about another woman trying to make sense of unusual events. It may be easier to respond to another woman doing familiar things.
* Finally, we have an inherent need for justice. Although we can tolerate ambiguity in everyday life, we need for evil to be tracked down, exposed, and punished. Mysteries with women amateur sleuths tend to do just that.
Despite some good reasons for the proliferation of female amateur sleuths, I could not enjoy a mystery world without the men who also bring criminals to justice including active policemen as well as former cops-turned-private-investigator: Cliff Janeway, Lincoln Rhyme, Commissario Brunetti, Spenser, and all the others.
Vive la différence!
Judi Culbertson’s novel, A Photographic Death will go on sale May 27.