As I’ve mentioned before here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., crime fiction is, in many ways, as much a social commentary as it is anything else. Crime fiction writers sometimes address social issues quite directly; at other times, the issues are taken up in a more subtle way, but they are no less present for that. One of the important social issues we’ve faced is the roles that men and women should play, and how changes in those roles play out in the larger world and in the family. There’s a strong argument that women’s and men’s roles are not nearly as circumscribed as they were, and in many cultures, that’s probably true. If it is, then classic crime fiction was arguably far ahead of its time, and today’s crime fiction is an interesting barometer of the way those roles continue to evolve.
During the Victorian Era, men’s and women’s social roles were clearly laid out, and there was a great deal of social pressure not to cross “gender lines.” And yet, we see a very interesting exception to this in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. In that story, Holmes takes on a commission to find a damaging photograph of the King of Bohemia with a former lover, Irene Adler. In searching for the photograph, Holmes goes up against a very worthy opponent in Adler. He traces her, and the incriminating photograph, but she outwits him. In the end, she returns the photograph by choice, not by coercion or ruse. In fact, Holmes recognizes in Adler a similar quickness of mind to his own. Unlike the stereotypical Victorian woman, Adler’s adventuresome and far from demure. Many people argue that, in depicting Irene Adler as a smart and capable opponent for Holmes, Doyle was ahead of his time.
Other writers of what we call classic crime fiction were also arguably ahead of their times when it came to addressing men’s and women’s social roles. For example, Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) takes up the issue of social roles directly. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of a well-liked clergyman, Stephan Babbington. One of his parishioners, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, and her daughter, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, attend the cocktail party during which Babbington is killed, and thus, they become involved in the case. That’s especially true of Egg, who is eager to do some active detection. In Egg, Christie gives us an intelligent young woman who doesn’t wave a proverbial handkerchief or wring her hands in distress. In fact, her eager involvement is a source of concern to her mother, who has a much more typically Victorian outlook on the way in which a “lady” is “supposed to” behave.
Even more actively involved in detection is Christie’s Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley Beresford. As the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford series begins, just after World War I, Tuppence is one half of the Young Adventurers, Ltd. She and her partner, later husband, become equally involved in a mystery involving murder and international espionage. As the series goes on, we see that, although the two Beresfords have different approaches to solving mysteries, they participate equally and each contributes to the solutions of their cases. Christie’s Miss Marple, too, takes the lead in the cases in which she’s involved. Miss Marple doesn’t have a professional career, so in that way (and others), she stays within the social roles of her times, but within those roles, she’s depicted as just as intelligent and quick-witted as any of the male characters.
Dorothy Sayers is another writer who could be said to have been ahead of her time on the issue of men’s and women’s social roles. Her Harriet Vane is an independent, intelligent mystery novelist who plays vital roles in many of Lord Peter Wimsey’s cases. In some ways, Harriet plays traditional “female” roles. For instance, in Strong Poison, we learn that one of the important reasons behind her quarrel with her former lover, Philip Boyes, is that she was angry at her reputation having suffered because she lived with Boyes without being married to him. And yet, Harriet Vane is a strong character in her own right who is bright, intuitive and a strong partner for Wimsey.
That’s also true of Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy, who’s married to Inspector Roderick Alleyn. She doesn’t actively do a lot of investigating, but she’s a strong, intelligent and independent character. She’s a noted artist, and in fact, her commissions get Alleyn involved in more than one case.
We also see some interesting examples of men who step outside of traditional roles in classic crime fiction. For instance, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a “hardboiled” detective who, it would seem, is the quintessential “he-man” of that genre. And yet, in The Big Kill, Hammer takes in an orphaned toddler when the child’s father is murdered. He makes a commitment to the boy, too, and doesn’t just “farm him out” to the nearest orphanage.
There are, of course, other examples of classic crime fiction that show the blurring of men’s and women’s social roles. Those lines have increasingly been crossed in more recent crime fiction. For example, in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and fiancé of Mma.Precious Ramotswe, is persuaded to take in two orphaned foster children even though traditionally, men don’t get as involved in raising children. Even though both Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and his fiancée were raised with more traditional views about men’s and women’s roles, it’s Precious Ramotswe who’s a little reluctant to take on the responsibility of the children at first. In some ways, these two characters take on traditional gender roles, but in several ways, those roles are not as clear. We also see an interesting blurring of social roles in the character of Grace Maktusi, assistant detective and manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. She’s an educated professional who, in fact, is very much a feminist. Yet, she wants to get married; she would like to find a man whom she can respect and who will treat her well.
There’s also an interesting set of complicated roles for men and women in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis series. Melanie Travis is a teacher and later tutor with a husband, two sons and five Standard Poodles. She’s also an accomplished amateur sleuth. We get to see some interesting dynamics in the relationship between Melanie and her husband, Sam Driver. In some ways, they play traditional roles. But we also see a blurring of those roles. They’re both professionals, and they share the responsibility for the children and the house as well. Interestingly, we see in Melanie some of the conflicts that result from those blurred roles. She’s a proud and loving mother, and sometimes torn between that role and her sleuthing. Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon faces the same dilemmas as a consequence of the blurring of the roles she plays. At the same time that she’s a mother and partner, she’s also a professional investigative journalist, and balancing those roles is difficult for her at times.
We see one of the most interesting (and funniest) blurring of social roles in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, who’s a professional bounty hunter. Her job is very much a traditionally “male” job, and she faces at least as much danger as any man in the business. And yet, in some ways, she’s traditionally feminine. For instance, there’s more than one witty discussion in the Plum series about fitting in manicures and hair styling, and wearing attractive high heels while “on the job.”
The social roles that men play in today’s crime fiction are also much more complex than they were in the past. For example, Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby and Ruth Rendell’s inspector Wexford are far more than just one-dimensional detectives. They have home lives and families who matter very much to them. What’s interesting about the interactions with those families is that they go far beyond the traditional man-of-the-family dynamics. We can see in them and in other, similar novels the way that crime fiction reflects the evolution in the social roles that both sexes play.
Do you see that same evolution of social roles and the blurring of distinctions between the roles that men and women play? Which are your favorite example novels?