Monday, February 15, 2010

Breaking Barriers

One of the interesting things about crime fiction novels is the way they reflect society’s changing attitudes and values. If you look at the evolution of the mystery novel, you can see how those attitudes have changed over time. That’s why, for instance, today’s crime fiction addresses certain social issues in increasingly honest and forthright ways. It’s also one reason for which there’s such a diversity of different kinds of sleuths, each of whom has a unique approach to solving crimes. Those differences among sleuths add fascinating layers of interest to their stories.

In the early days of crime fiction, most sleuths were white men. They varied, of course, to some extent. Most, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Ngaio Marsh’s Sir Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot were “gentleman detectives.” There were some female sleuths; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford, and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane are some examples. But in the main, sleuths were arguably, “of a type.”

The “hardboiled” crime fiction novel paved the way for the working-class detective. Many of those “hardboiled heroes” didn’t come from privileged backgrounds, and they didn’t confine themselves to “upper class” cases. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is just one example of the “hardboiled” sleuth who added an important new dimension to crime fiction. Hammer frequently investigates cases that involve people from lower social classes. For example, in My Gun is Quick, he investigates the death of a prostitute. In The Big Kill, he finds out who killed a down-and-out con man who’s trying to “go straight. “

The class barrier is, of course, not the only one that’s been broken by fictional sleuths; the race barrier has also been broken. Beginning (at least in the U.S.) with John Edward Bruce’s The Black Sleuth, sleuths of color have become an increasingly important factor in crime fiction. The Black Sleuth is the story of Sadipe Okukenu, a Yoruba from West Africa, who travels to the U.S. state of Maine to continue his formal education. In the United States, Okukenu encounters the institutionalized prejudice of the times (this novel was written in serial form between 1907 and 1909), and in fact, Bruce used that treatment as a platform for social critique. Later, Okukenu becomes a detective for the International Detective Agency. He’s recruited to trace the whereabouts of a valuable stolen diamond, which he follows from the U.S. to Europe, and back to Africa. This story was never finished, so we don’t know what the outcome is. But The Black Sleuth arguably helped pave the way for today’s black sleuths, such as Walter Mosley’s Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. There are, of course, numerous other very popular fictional sleuths who aren’t white; there isn’t room in this one blog post for me to mention them all. But it is interesting to see how the concept of who gets to be a sleuth has broadened.

That concept also now includes strong female characters as sleuths, and these sleuths also bring a unique perspective to the genre. Even during the Golden Age of crime fiction, some mystery authors wrote about female sleuths. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Tuppence Beresford and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane are three examples. We might argue that these authors were ahead of their times in that regard, because there was still a great deal of institutionalized sexism while they were writing. Today, of course, the female sleuth is a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction. A lot has been written about this evolution in crime fiction, so I won’t rehash it here. Just a few examples should serve to make my point. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett are very different, of course, but they’re both strong, smart characters who haven’t stopped being what people call feminine because of that. That balance, between powerful characterization and femininity, can be difficult to achieve, but these authors do. So do many others, including Alexander McCall Smith, whose Precious Ramotswe is very strong, yet she’s traditionally feminine in many ways.

Sleuths’ personal lives have also become much more diverse as time has gone by. There are, of course, more traditional sleuths, such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache and Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby, who are married. There are also gay sleuths, such as Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series. Strachey is an openly gay private detective who lives and works in Albany, New York. While he often investigates murders within the gay community, he doesn’t always. For instance, in Tongue Tied, Strachey investigates the murder of a far-right radio “shock jock” who’s outspoken in his anti-gay views. Strachey is often assisted by his partner, Timothy J. Callahan, who’s a more strait-laced character. Callahan’s an attorney for the State of New York, and his connections are sometimes very helpful to Strachey.

Mark Richard Zubro has also created a gay sleuth, Paul Turner. Turner is a Chicago police officer with two teen-age children, one of whom has spina bifida. His partner, Buck Fenwick, is not gay. In Another Dead Teenager, Turner and Fenwick investigate the high-profile murders of Jay Goldstein and Frank Douglas, two teenage sons of powerful Chicago families. Because of the victims’ status, Turner and Fenwick are under a great deal of pressure to find the killer as soon as possible. At first, no-one can imagine what would have motivated the killings. Both boys were well-liked, successful high-school athletes. They weren’t involved in drugs, gangs or any other activities that would have made them enemies. As the pressure on Turner and Fenwick increases, they look deeper into the connections between the victims, and find out that their deaths are connected to an old secret that the killer has kept for a long time.

Another kind of diversity in sleuths has been sleuths with disabilities. We usually think of disabilities as being debilitating and making it difficult, if not impossible, to function, let alone take on the many challenges of sleuthing. But there are several sleuths who haven’t let having a disability get in the way of their investigations. One such sleuth is Michael Collins’ Dan Fortune, who lost an arm in an accident while he was looting a ship that was docked at New York. After he recovered, Fortune served in the Merchant Marines and then became a private detective. Since he can’t really get involved in physical fights, Fortune tends to use his wits, rather than strength, to get out of difficult situations and to get answers. Dick Francis’ jockey-turned-racetrack investigator Sid Halley has a similar disability. He permanently lost the use of his left hand after a fall, when a horse stepped full on it. Later, the hand had to be amputated. While he struggles to deal with this loss, it doesn’t stop him from investigating racetrack crimes.

Vivian Gilbert Zabel’s Midnight Hours also features a sleuth with a disability. Lieutenant Martin Rogers has lost the use of his legs as the result of a gunshot. While he’s trying to recover, he spends a lot of time on the Internet, and soon meets a woman who goes by the name of Midnight. She and Martin strike up a relationship and he soon falls in love with her, despite the fact that she’s extremely reticent about herself. Rogers begins to suspect that Midnight may not be what she seems, and he tells two of his colleagues and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Harris about his concerns. Soon, they’ve connected Midnight to a group of suspicious deaths, and they set up a “sting” operation to catch the killer. As it turns out, Midnight is much more elusive than anyone thought, and now Rogers himself is in real danger as the team tries to stop the killer before anyone else dies.

One very interesting sleuth with a disability is Michael Palmer’s Dr. Thea Sperelakis, the sleuth in his The Second Opinion. Sperelakis returns to her native Boston from her work with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) when her father is gravely injured by a hit-and-run driver and left in a coma. Thea Sperelakis and her brother, Dmitri, become convinced that their father was deliberately targeted, and they start to investigate what really happened. Their other two siblings are eager to have their father’s life support cut off, so Thea has to work quickly to find out what was behind the crash. As a cover, she takes a position at the prestigious institute her father founded, and begins to find out its secrets. What’s interesting is that Thea Sperelakis has Asperger’s Syndrome. While that complicates her ability to form and maintain social relationships, she has a near photographic memory and a precise eye for almost un-noticeable details. She also has a brilliant medical mind, and uses these skills as she investigates.

In modern crime fiction, nearly anyone can be a sleuth. Today, that includes people from just about any background, of either sex, in just about any personal situation. As more and more social barriers have been broken in real life, this has been reflected in crime fiction. That evolution has resulted in an incredible diversity of sleuths and unique approaches to crime-solving and that benefits the genre. What changes have you seen in the kind of sleuth who populates crime fiction? What changes do you see coming next?


  1. What a great post Margot. I tend to think that art in general and movies and books in particular tend to offer this kind of breaking down of barriers before 'mainstream' society is ready to deal with the same issues. It's almost as if the more tolerant (or brave) among us pave the way for the rest of society. Thinking on those lines then perhaps we'll soon have a smart Muslim sleuth whose religion isn't a primary factor in their sleuthing ability - just like these days female sleuths are perfectly accepted and (in the good books anyway) no fuss is made of the fact they are female it would be nice to see a perfectly well adjusted cop in a UK or US setting who just happens to be Muslim. We've seen it on TV a bit but I can't think of any books that have this kind of character (if there are, I'd love to know).

    By the way I think the author of the Donald Strachey novels is Richard Stevenson (I googled him when you mentioned him above because my foster brother who is gay and also a crime fiction fan is always looking for good books featuring gay characters)

  2. Bernadette - First, thank you very much for correcting me! How embarrassing! Yes, the author is, indeed, Richard Stevenson, and I've gone in and changed that. Sorry, all!

    Also, thanks for the kind words about the post. You have a very, very well-taken point that writing, film and other other arts do sometimes break those barriers before ther rest of mainstream society feels comfortable doing so. That's been true in lots of other literary genres and, of course, in film and music. Perhaps it's reading about such "broken barriers" that gets people to think that perhaps those barriers need not be there.

    I think you're right, too, that it would be very, very interesting if there would soon be featured a smart, likable Muslim sleuth where, as you put it, no fuss is made about the fact that he or she is Muslim. There's certainly enough precedent out there for sleuths with a variety of backgrounds.

  3. I had not given much thought to the changes until I read this post. It is interesting to stop and think back over the past about them. As to what changes will come, I cannot say,it will be in the hands of experts such as yourself, Margo I am sure. The comment by Bernadette is interesting and so was the post.

  4. Glynis - It really is interesting, isn't it, to think about some of the major changes there've been in sleuths over the years. Very often, they happen so slowly that we don't realize they are going on until they're already established. Other times, there'll be a breakthrough novel, but it doesn't get much acclaim at first, and people aren't aware that it is a breakthrough until later.

    You're right, too; Bernadette's comment is thoughtful, helpful and very interesting : ). Thanks, Bernadette.

  5. I concur that, as usual, this is a great post - a good question, well researched, and put in an original way. Thanks, Margot!
    I remember in James Patterson's earlier days, when I read him, he wrote about the pressure he came under when Hollywood filmed the first Alex Cross movie - to make the character white, instead of black as in the books, as apparently a white leading man was more of a guarantee at the box office. To his credit, Patterson did not give in and the part was taken (in two films, which I have not seen because although I did not mind reading the books the subject matter was not one I wanted to visualise in both cases!) by Morgan Freeman.

    I think these days it is probably the opposite - a black leading man is more of a guarantee of success than a white. Sadly, there are not as many woman who can say the same, which is one of the reasons why I admire one woman whose show I have never seen - Oprah. (Of course I admire what she has done for reading and authors - another example of not going for the easy option and presenting people with challenging choices of novel, and it working).

    In terms of detective fiction, as mentioned in earlier posts, I like the "mother" role - if it is realistic and not jokey. Helene Tursten and Liza Marklund are good examples of authors who write what it must be like to be a detective (or investigative journalist) and also cope with a family and domestic duties, such as your dog attacking the neighbour's cat or missing the pick-up from playschool because you are called into an urgent meeting.

    On the gay/muslim theme, I have not read it but there is a novel called something like The Prophet Murders which Karen has reviewed at Euro Crime, which I believe features a gay male muslim main character.....

    Gay female detectives are vanishingly rare - I like the character in The Wire, but really in many ways the role is a man's role with the woman playing it. However, the actress does it very well I think. Val McFermid wrote an early series about a gay female character - I can't quite remember whether she was a PI or how she got involved in crimes - but I think the books were written/set in the late 1970s and 1980s and heavily featured workers' coops and socialism, as so many "feminist" novels did in those days.

    There was a mini-trend recently for child detectives, eg The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, What Was Lost, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, etc. I wonder if this will continue and be developed?

  6. Maxine - Thanks : ). Now, a moment, please, while the swelling in my head goes down ; ).

    It's funny you would mention Oprah Winfrey. You are so right that she's done quite a lot for the reading world. The books that she mentions are not always easy, "fun" reading. They do challenge the reader, and that's admirable. I think much the same of J.K. Rowling, who (and this is just my opinion, of course, so feel free to disagree) deserves whatever awards are possible for "hooking" so many millions of young people on reading. For that, we should be grateful to her, whether or not one personally likes the Harry Potter series.

    Thanks for mentioning The Prophet Murders. Folks, Karen's excellent review of The Prophet Murders is here. I didn't mention that one because, like you, I haven't read it, although it's certainly a good example of Bernadette's excellent point. Zoe Ferraris' debut, Finding Nouf also features a Muslim sleuth, although the novel takes place in Saudi Arabia, not the U.S. or U.K, so the sleuth "fits" more with the dominant culture. Still, the sleuth in that novel is a Palestinian, which brings up all kinds of interesting cultural issues, given the Saudi/Palestinian differences in culture. It would be interesting to see whether there will be more novels that feature Muslim sleuths, gay or straight.

    It's also interesting that you mention gay female sleuths. I haven't seen many of them either, It's so difficult, too, I think, to create such a sleuth without, as you say, simply making the character male but with a woman's appearance and name. The gay male sleuths I've read about seem to strike a solid balance between being gay but still being male.

    As I've read all of your interesting responses, it occurs to me to wonder how much the realities of selling books affect the kinds of sleuths that we can read about these days. If publishers don't think a book about a gay female sleuth, a Muslim sleuth, or some other kind of "barrier-breaking" sleuth will sell books, it's harder to get one's work "out there." On a side note, that's why I give a lot of credit to smaller, more independent publishers who are willing to take those risks.

    Finally, I agree completely with you about the way authors depict sleuths who are also mothers. It can be easy to "misfire" with that kind of sleuth if it's not realistic. Marklund does it well, and so does Laurien Berenson. I've read others, though, that don't.

    ...and about child detectives? I would truly like to see if you're right that this a trend that may continue. Sweetness...has certainly been very well-received, and What Was Lost was a very well-written and engrossing novel (I recommend it, folks). Does that spell success for other novelists who focus on a young sleuth? I don't know for sure, but it makes sense...

  7. From Gentleman sleuths to girls with guns. Of course, Nancy Drew made us all get a little excited about the possibilities. Not just those Hardy boys got to solve all the crimes. When I first read A is for Alibi, I got so excited about a strong female character who was still female. Can a person feel a calling to write mysteries? I love mysteries so much. They're like my ice cream on the beach, but I never thought I had what it takes to write one. Who knows? I looked for B-very-flat at the Fargo B&N, and they didn't have it. What's up with the NoDaks?

  8. Mary - Your mention of Nancy Drew certainly takes me back! I loved those stories, too, and they did send the message to us young girls that women could be sleuths, too. There was also, of course, Trixie Belden. And now, for young people, there's Cam Jansen and lots of other female sleuths.

    I agree that Kinsey Millhone really was, in many ways, a breakthrough character. Grafton's been able to show her as strong and confident, but not the less "feminine" for that.

    I'm intrigued by your question about whether one can have a calling to write mysteries. I think it's certainly possible, just as one can feel compelled to teach, practice medicine, or create delectable meals as a chef. I know that I felt compelled to write...

    Thanks so much for your interest in B-Very Flat. I'm sorry that your local B & N doesn't have it. It's not a N.Dak. thing; it's hard to get represented at a bookstore if you're not a "big" name. "Unknowns" don't usually get lots of shelf space... If you're interested, you can get it online here. If you want to sample a chapter first, you can do that here. Just click on the "free preview" link.

  9. Ah, the joys (and challenges) of writing crime fiction taking place in modern times! I tend to think of the television series Prime Suspect (with the incredible Helen Mirren) as a realistic reflection of women's roles as chief investigators. Her character has to prove herself capable of doing the job time and time again - and to a degree, perhaps, that a man would never have to do.

    Personally, I don't care about the sex or ethnicity of the sleuth - as long as they're smart. I don't want some quirky character falling into a solution that evaded the professionals. It may work in some light comedic mysteries taking place in the past, but I don't think it would work in a piece set in the present.

  10. Elspeth - You put your finger on a very important point. So long as the sleuth is smart and capable, that's the most important characteristic s/he can have. The rest (sex, ethnicity, orientation, age, etc.) doesn't matter the way it did in the past. I agree completely that if the sleuth bumbles and stumbles onto a solution with no real skills and intelligence, it's not nearly as satisfying as a sleuth who more or less knows what s/he is doing, even if s/he makes mistakes.

    ...and I agree about Helen Mirren - she is an outstanding actress!!!

  11. Margot, thank you for including Martin from Midnight Hours in your post concerning changes in mysteryies over the year.

    I borrowed my husband's determination and strength in overcoming his life in a power chair to show what a person can do.

    Anyone wanting to know more about Midnight Hours can read about the novel on

    I enjoyed this post so very much.


  12. Excellent post, Margot. There's even a niche for elder readers now which someone, maybe author Mike Befeler, dubbed "geezer lit". Older sleuths are outspoken risk-takers who do the unexpected, and often indulge in a little romance when they're not sleuthing. Take a look at Elizabeth Spann Craig's "Pretty Is as Pretty Dies" as well as Mike's "Retirement Homes are Murder" and "Living With Your Kids is Murder". My mysteries also include elders--especially "The Desert Hedge Murders" which features the Florida Flippers ladies' travel club.

  13. Vivian - How kind of you to stop by my blog! Thank you for your visit and your kind words. Your Martin Rogers certainly shows the determination you mentioned, and the ability to make readers focus on his skills, not his disability. Folks, do please check out Midnight Hours. It's an absorbing story with a not-your-average-sleuth protagonist.

  14. Patricia - You are absolutely right. Age is no longer at all the bar to sleuthing that it used to be. Some people say that started with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, but today's older sleuths are even more active, involved and, as you say, risk-taking than Miss Marple was. Your examples, too, are right "on target." Folks, you can read about Patricia's novel, The Desert Hedge Murders here . You can read about Elizabeth Spann Craig's novel, Pretty is as Pretty Dies here. I have to admit, I'm not familliar with Mike Befeler's work; just the titles sound intriguing, though! I'll have to look for them.

  15. How embarrassing - I have read The Prophet Murders and didn't even think of it when I made my comment - although that book is Turkish where a majority of the population is Muslim - I'd still be curiouos to see a British DCI who happens to be Muslim.

    On the issue of us not caring about the gender/sexuality etc of the sleuth up to a point I agree however it is enormously important to people who are in those minorities that the fictional world reflects their experiences and depicts people like them. I can remember my foster brother who is gay discovering Armistead Maupin's books and being totally blown away by the first experience he had of seeing 'people like him' depicted in fiction. I also think that it helps less tolerant/more prejudiced people to accept diversity if they see it depicted and they find it increasingly difficult to espouse a 'that person is abnormal' opinion if mainstream fiction is depicting such people as perfectly normal human beings

  16. Bernadette - I've been thinking about that comment of yours (About a British DCI being Muslim) since you wrote it yesterday. It would be really interesting to see what sort of story we'd get. I would like to see it, too...

    I couldn't agree with you more, too, about depicting minority groups as perfectly normal people who just happen to be _____. Your story of your foster brother made me think of a few friends of mine who, although they're hearing, sign, and have friends among the Deaf population. What I understand from them is that it is extremely important to those who are Deaf (and members of other minority groups) to be depicted and perceived as just people. Ordinary people who communicate with a different language. Like the gay community, members of the Deaf community don't want to be perceived as "weird," or as you say, "abnormal." I'm glad you brought that point up.

  17. Actually I think I remember from Karen's or Bernadette's review that the protag of The Prophet Murders is a transvestite, also! Complicated.

    Margot, is B very flat available on Amazon UK, or elsewhere in the UK? The online link I saw seemed to be geared up for USA orders. Totally with you on the bookstores - I have to buy almost all my books online as they are classed as "backlist" or were never stocked in the first place.

  18. Maxine - That protagonist from The Prophet Murders *does* sound complicated. I'm getting intrigued by that book...

    I just looked on Amazon UK and didn't see B-Very Flat there : (. The book just came out, so possibly the publisher will make it available internationally at a later date. That's one thing I'm not crazy about with this particular publisher. I'm going to be in touch with them about other things in the next few days and I can find out what their plans are. So frustrating!

  19. The Norwegian writer Anne Holt has written a long series about a lesbian protagonist: Hanne Wilhelmsen (fine police procedurals). But so far English readers have only had a chance to meet her in "Death in Oslo" where she solves the crime together with Johanne Vik.

  20. Dorte - Oh, yes, of course! Anne Holt! I'd forgotten about Death in Oslo, and I admit, I haven't read it, although I've seen fine reviews. I'm glad you mentioned it, though, as the series sounds terrific (I like good police procedurals). This is one of those times when I'm envious of people who can easily read Norwegian... ; )

  21. But I assure you: once you can read novels in Danish, you can also read in Norwegian! Swedish is a bit different, though, and if the writer has a large vocabulary, I feel myself slowing down a lot.

  22. I've just remembered a very good novel called Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis (which I have reviewed on Euro Crime), published by a small UK publisher called SortOf books. That novel was about the "outsiders" in the UK - the Chinese illegal immigrant farm workers. Perhaps not 100 per cent relevant to this post, but quite relevant as what was marvellous about that book was the way in which the author (English) got under the skin of three or four Chinese protagonists of varying types, and showed us England through their eyes. I thoroughly enjoyed that novel, it was a superb study of alienation with a very fast moving, unusual plot.

    I know just what you mean about publishers, Margot - well, not through personal experience of being published myself but from what other authors write about the experience. Believe me, inefficiency and poor communication skills are not limited to small publishers! ;-)

  23. Dorte - Thanks for your faith in me : ). I will keep working in my Danish, so that I'll be able to read your writing and Nesbo's - what more to ask for? : )

    Maxine - LOL! It's good to hear I'm not the only one (about publishers)! You would think that their goal would be effortless communication and seamless sales....

    Ah, well, on to Bad Traffic. It does sound like an interesting read. I've just peeked at your review, and I will read it more closely. Folks, Maxine's review of Bad Traffic is here. If it's as good as your comment here suggests, it's worth adding to my TBR list.