With the end of January looming and the fear of unfulfilled resolutions increasing at a break-neck pace, I find pride in folding the leaves of my fourth novel of the year. I add it to the stack atop the bureau in my dismally untidy bedroom, and my obvious literary passion is clear - four spines, four crimes. I have always been a reader, some years more so than others. While I can’t remember ever choosing to spend my time within the pages of a biographer, I have time and time again resorted to another detective thriller - a genre I know will obsessively captivate and has yet to disappoint. Growing up, my mother religiously tuned into embarrassingly produced re-enactment dramas on the Crime Network, or spent her evenings as a silent witness to BBC’s detective dramas and the goings on in the dangerous village of Midsomer. My father always used to joke - as fathers do, that her fascination in these stories was a research project on how to get rid of him. I suppose this is how I became hooked on whodunnits, safely behind the electric fence of my Johannesburg home, salivating for the forensic discovery that breaks the case.
Although I am wholly aware and respectful of the fact that gender is a constructed and in most cases exclusionary form of human categorisation, this article focuses on the representations of the male and female binary. Unsurprisingly there has been little mention of those who do not confine themselves to gender in the Crime Fiction canon, it is due to this that I choose to focus on the role of the women within the genre and the female reader’s relationship to crime novels. Every woman in my family reads, and more often than not, that which she reads is crime fiction (in between the new Julian Barnes and Ian MacEwan, of course). The men in my family have mostly attempted to skim the surface of the latest Bill Bryson or sports-star autobiography, rarely reaching the final word. There are many theories postulating why women read more; cognitive psychology asserts that because women experience greater empathy as a result of our more “sensitive mirror neurons” they are more likely to enjoy fiction. Another theory is that as children, girls are better able to concentrate and thus are more likely to engage with a novel from a young age. Whichever theory, it is statistically accepted that women read more books than men - 80% more, according to Sophie Gilbert, writer for The Atlantic. So if we assume this to be true, and we consider the fact that crime fiction has in the last few years exploded into common favour and is now the UK’s biggest selling genre, then one could assume that we women, bloody love reading about crime.
Agatha Christie has for most of the last century been considered the doyenne of crime; incidentally, she has also been crowned the bestselling author of all time. Her stories have been circulated amongst every crime-hungry family and their translations have reached the furthest and darkest crannies of the globe. While Christie will no doubt hold onto her immortal fame, the surge of brilliant female writers infiltrating the crime market certainly does make way for a few more seats at Christie’s table. Christies novels, however do question the popularity of the male detective. Her two protagonists, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, present two disparate takes on the crime fighting hero or heroine. Marple is the busy-bodied community lady, respected by the public and abhorred by the police. She inevitably solves the crime by discreetly forming relationships with a relative or friend of the victim. With knitting under her arm, her beady eye misses nothing and her elderly innocence and affability and acute understanding of human nature always saves the day. The murders Marple investigates are most commonly verging on sterility in the comfort of idyllic towns and vicarages. Her characters include rural society ladies and gentlemen or the local town Magistrate, whose personal relationships and quarrels form the grit of the story. Miss Marple usually investigates undetected as she quietly gathers clues which ultimately complete the jigsaw of the murder. The final elusive piece is usually placed from the comfort of an armchair without a scene in the company of all those involved. She is cunning, but due to her femininity and innocence, approaches her cases with a mathematical grace and presents her findings without the arrogance or triumph that Christie’s London based private detective, Hercule Poirot.
Former Belgian Police Inspector Hercule Poirot is a private detective whose moustache and wit have propelled him to a fame in which his character would no doubt revel. He is a man of innate sophistication and his only fear is that his image may be dishevelled, or he be presented with an asymmetrical pair of eggs for breakfast or worse still, that his notoriety be unknown to his contemporaries. His victims include movie stars or characters whose status would be worthy of his investigation. He is always accompanied by his trusting companion, Captain Hastings - a social climbing and, in most situations, useless henchman. The ultimate solving of the case is done with the theatrical extravagance of his character, walking the reader through the avenues of his mind, revealing his clues with an arrogance for which only somebody of his gender could be appreciated or forgiven. A list of Christie’s most famous novels in The Guardian suggest that Poirot is her favoured protagonist. While it frustrates me to admit, I share this judgement.
Why is it that Miss Marple’s stories seem to be meekly received? Is it because her murders are most often revolved around a scene of idealised village life, or is it because her character is less representative of the heroism that we yearn for under this genre. The reality of the latter then speaks to the assumption that it is the described femininity and gentility of her character that allows for the lacking assertion of her brilliance. Like Poirot, her deductions and resolutions display an intelligent and problem-solving proficiency; however, it is the way in which she shrewdly expresses her findings which lack a certain dangerous drama.
She rarely gets in harm’s way and when the case is closed she is presumed to be enjoying her gentle, female, Victorian existence without the pay and thanks of her role in the solving of the crime. Poirot, on the other hand, adds each case to his armour of high-profile cases in his cabinet of fame. She is also an unmarried woman, whose romance is never explored in the novels and thus her purity is heightened by the fact that she clearly lacks the distraction of sex. Hercule’s sexuality, on the other hand, is often mentioned with his obvious attraction to and attention of the women with whom he deals. He is granted a love interest, while Marple merely teas with the ladies of the parish. Whether or not this reflects the times in which Christie wrote, it does show that sexuality is a very rarely addressed theme from the perspective of the female character, and remains for the most part the exclusive domain of a man. Poirot’s notoriety and brilliance is seen to be an attractive characteristic to the females he encounters, while Marple’s meddling ways mostly reward her with frustration from the men who are supposed to be doing the digging. It is her unacknowledged role from the authorities, which, in my opinion, adds to her lack of fame - the fame she is restricted from experiencing. The heroism of her role is ignored.
J.K Rowling (Robert Galbraith), Kate Atkinson, PD James, Ruth Rendell and many other female writers of the genre have an interesting thing in common: their famous protagonists are all men and the majority of their victims are women. One must ask whether it is the immortal trope of the heroic male that has infiltrated the medium, or is it a choice merely made as a means to secure a broader readership? Or, most controversially, is it the fact that, because men are most commonly attributed with brilliance, it is an easier way to reward a character with such - without having to delve too deeply into the emotional and empathetic barriers by which women are perceived to be tainted? Is it not fascinating, and irritatingly ironic, that as a woman who reads a fair number of crime fiction novels, the characters which I hold in my memory are the stoic and heroic males, the damaged but innately good-hearted problem solvers of evil doings? What my memory lacks, however, is a female protagonist who is able to channel her painful past into the path of good and not become too overwhelmed with the responsibility of her work.
The female detective is almost always too empathetic and unable to remove herself from the humanity of the case — something her male counterparts seem flawlessly to achieve. She is no-doubt brilliant in her deductions, but there is always the constant presence of her morality and femininity. She is complicated, in a way with which the female reader would identify, but has to break down the barriers of her perceived lack of ability in the world of crime-fighting. Maybe it is this aspect of the female character that is less desirable to the writer and reader alike; we would prefer the hero to be of the sort who can tackle the villain physically and mentally without the complications of his gender. With all of this said, my fifth novel is awaiting me. Another ice-cold murder to warm my mind of sugar and spice.