Pistols and Petticoats
Eight Crime-Fighting Female Protagonists of the Old West
When it comes to crime fighters in the Wild West of yore, I’ll bet you a dollar to a dime the image that most commonly springs to mind is some version of a steely-eyed gent with a Stetson on his head, boots on his feet, and a six-gun slung low on his hip.
While there is nothing amiss with this picture, it behooves me to point out that, in the annals of crime fiction, there are also many steely-eyed justice seekers of the female persuasion. They may wear petticoats. They may sport elegant hats. They may even carry pearl-handled pistols. But, they also make use of deadly hatpins, sharp-edged blades, and even slop buckets and fireplace pokers in their determination to right wrongs and bring the villainous to heel in the Old West.
Herein, in chronological order, are a handful and a half corseted (or not) female protagonists who have helped “open the frontier” of historical crime fiction in this iconic setting.
Kate Shaw—author Robert Kresge
Most of the female protagonists listed here have male sidekicks or partners who add their particular talents and strengths to the sleuthing, including Kate Shaw, a schoolteacher in 1870s Warbonnet, Wyoming. I am inordinately pleased that in the fourth book of the series, Unearthing the Bones, Shaw is appointed acting town marshal when her detecting partner/romantic interest Monday Malone leaves town temporarily to sort out a murder elsewhere. (Historical footnote: Wyoming gave women the right to vote and hold office in 1869.) Although primarily set in the West, starting with Murder for Greenhorns, the six-book series does move eastward in the most recent novel, Over the Brink, set in Buffalo, New York, 1875. Release dates for the series run 2010 to 2016.
Annie Fuller—author M. Louisa Locke
In 1879 San Francisco, California, respectable, middle-class widow Annie Fuller runs a family-oriented boardinghouse, even as she occasionally slips on a different persona as Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant delivering domestic and business advice to clients. In Locke’s Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Fuller is joined by other women sleuths, including servant Kathleen Hennessy and two elderly dressmakers. Fuller relies on her wits rather than weapons. However, in the first of the series, Maids of Misfortune, a bible, a chair, and a carpet come in handy for subduing a villain. The series is ongoing, with Pilfered Promises the most recent, released in 2016.
Sarah Woolson—author Shirley Tallman
Strong-minded attorney Sarah Woolson stakes her claim in San Francisco, 1880. (On her website, author Tallman notes, “My heroine, if she were real, would have been only the third female attorney in the state of California.”) How Woolson secures a position as an associate attorney, defying all conventions and expectations, is part of Murder on Nob Hill, the first of Tallman’s six-book series. Being a lawyer, Woolson is well placed to use her legal knowledge and engage in courtroom fisticuffs to bring justice to her clients and solve mysteries as well. The series ran from 2004 to 2012.
China Bohannon—author C. K. Crigger
We now head north to 1890s Spokane, Wyoming, where China Bohannon—bookkeeper, office manager, and general dogsbody at the Doyle & Howe Detective Agency—would rather sleuth than type. She carries a .32-caliber Smith and Wesson pocket pistol (single-shot derringer). Her specialty is solving kidnappings, and she is not averse to occasionally donning men’s clothes to gain entry into places she could not go in skirts and petticoats. This series starts with One Foot on the Edge, published in 2014, with three books to date.
Sabina Carpenter—author Marcia Muller
Back we go to San Francisco, in the 1890s this time, for Sabina Carpenter, who is one half of the crime-fighting duo from Carpenter and Quincannon Detective Services. Carpenter, created by Marcia Muller, is a former Pinkerton agent and no shrinking violet. She and her business partner, ex-Secret Service agent John Quincannon (created by Bill Pronzini), pursue a variety of criminals in six (so far) historical mysteries, from The Bughouse Affair (2013) to The Bag of Tricks Affair (2018), and in numerous short stories. Carpenter chases down con men, dips (i.e., pickpockets), and stolen corpses with a coolness and expertise befitting a historical Emma Peel.
Fiona MacGillivray—author Vicki Delany
Heading north to Alaska and the Yukon Territory in the late 1890s, we arrive in Skagway and Dawson City, just in time for the gold rush. Fiona MacGillivray is a canny saloon/dance hall owner with a shady past and a determination to make her fortune in a wild land where fools rush in. All, including McGillivray, hope to get rich in this, the last big gold rush on one of the last frontiers on the North American continent. But in the meantime, there are all those dead bodies to deal with and mysteries to solve… The four books in the series all have Gold in the title, starting with Gold Digger in 2009.
Fremont Jones—author Dianne Day
We first meet the spunky (and yes, that oft-maligned adjective fits well and truly) Caroline Fremont Jones in The Strange Files of Fremont Jones. It is 1905, and Jones has kicked over the traces of her proper Boston upbringing and settled in San Francisco to start a business as a “typewriter.” Strange doings ensue, and Jones proves she is up to the task of solving a plethora of crimes. One weapon of choice employed by Jones is the sword stick hidden in a parasol or cane. The six-book series takes Jones from California’s San Francisco and Monterey, to Utah, and finally back east. The series ran from 1995 to 2000.
Alafair Tucker—author Donis Casey
Moving eastward—but still well west of the Mississippi—and pushing up against the end of the Old West era, Oklahoma in the 1910s is the territory Casey has chosen for her protagonist Alafair Tucker. Tucker fits right in with all the other strong female crime fighters determined to “set things right.” A farm wife in her mid-forties and the mother of ten, Tucker doesn’t go looking for trouble. However, her offspring keep stumbling into dangerous situations, and Tucker will do anything, “legal or not so legal,” for her kids. Woe befalls any who cross her! The ongoing series has ten books so far, from The Old Buzzard Had It Coming (2005) to Forty Dead Men (2018).
This is not an exhaustive list. While researching female protagonists and series, I asked the CrimeThruTime e-list of historical mystery enthusiasts for recommendations. They came through like troupers. Other female “Old West” protagonists mentioned included seamstress Libby Seale in 1894 Portland, Oregon (author M.J. Zellnik), Pinkerton detective Jennifer Layne in 1883 Kansas (author Margaret Brownley), psychic detective Ophelia Wylde in 1877 Dodge City, Kansas (author Max McCoy), Isabel Amsel/Isobel Kingston in San Francisco, 1899 (author Sabrina Flynn), and more.
Ann Parker – BIO
Ann Parker—science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night—writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The first five books in the series are set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville. However, the recently released sixth, A Dying Note, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series “exuberant,” adding that it “…brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists.” For more information about Ann and her series, check out http://www.annparker.net.
Read More: Top Ten Female Detectives at Strand Magazine.