Saturday, October 11, 2014

Women Sleuths in the Golden Era and the Modern Era: Marcia Muller's The Broken Men and Some Antecedents

As I planned this weekend blog piece on Women Sleuths I coincidentally came across Lucy Worsley's recent Ten Best Fictional Detectives list for Publishers Weekly. Worsley's list runs from 1817 to 1938, I suspect because Worsley's book, A Very British Murder, has only cursory coverage of the period after 1940.

She's back--with a top ten list
Lucy Worsley

Yet although she confines her coverage to this earlier period, a time less known than today for its female sleuths, Worsley makes five of her ten best fictional detectives women. The interesting thing here is that not all the women listed are really detectives, or sleuths, at least in any conventional sense, in contrast with her men (Charles Dickens' Inspector Bucket, Wilkie Collins' Sergeant Cuff, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe).

Here are Worsley "best" women detectives:

Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey (1817)
Susan Hopley from The Adventures of Susan Hopley (1841)

Mrs. Paschal from Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864)
Harriet Vane from four Dorothy L. Sayers novels (1930s)
Ida Arnold from Brighton Rock (1938)

Bad news for Dorothy--
she's not on the list!
So we get Susan Hopley, but not C. Auguste Dupin, Harriet Vane, but not Peter Wimsey. And two women from books that are not considered works of detective fiction.

As I was reading this rather idiosyncratic list I kept expecting, while Worsley was being so free-ranging, to see Alice in Wonderland appear next, or maybe Dorothy Gale from the Oz books (although, concerning Dorothy, Kansas' Witchfinder General, apparently Worsley meant to confine the list to best "British" detectives, Chandler's Marlowe evidently being counted as an honorary Brit, on account of the English connections of his creator).

If I were doing a sleuths list that included women from the Golden Age and trying to list what I see as genuine examples of detectives from the period, I imagine that I would include, from England, Christie's Miss Marple, Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley (Sayers wrote Mitchell in the 1930s that her Mrs. Bradley was the greatest woman sleuth).

Some people might argue for those nosy American nurses, Mary Roberts Rinehart's Hilda Adams or Mignon Eberhart's Sarah Keate, but I think they are somewhat problematical (especially the latter). Hulbert Footner's Madame Storey, a true detective whose stories have been reissued in a lovely multi-volume set by Coachwhip, comes to mind as well.

Of course all three of the Golden Age women from Women Sleuths, the book I reviewed in my previous post, perform real detection, in detective stories.  But Margaret Cole's Mrs. Warrender appeared only in a mixed bag of one novel and a short fiction collection while Eberhart's Susan Dare appeared in only one book of short stories (some additional, uncollected Susan Dare stories also were included in a Crippen & Landru Eberhart collection) and Cornell Woolrich's librarian sleuth, Prudence Roberts, appeared in just a single novella.


A female sleuth that turns up on lists of modern great detectives is Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, the investigator in the author's 1985 novella, The Broken Men, the last work included in Women Sleuths.  

cover art to Crippen & Landru's
The McCone Files illustrating
a scene from The Broken Men
This excellent story, later included in Crippen & Landru's much praised first collection (still in print) of Marcia Muller short fiction, The McCone Files, has McCone, a PI, getting hired as security for two celebrity clown performers who have returned to their old northern California stomping grounds after fifteen years to do a turn at an outdoor concert pavilion at the Diablo Valley Clown Festival. 

Before the performance goes on, however, one of the clowns McCone is protecting, Gary Fitzgerald, vanishes. An unidentified dead man turns up at the pavilion the next day, amid the last night's discarded trash, wearing Gary's clown clothes; and he's been murdered. Who done it?  And why?  This is a fine modern detective story, with a classical plot (very good on people's physical movements) and an appealing vein of human sympathy running through it.  

One of the nice things from my perspective about Women Sleuths is that all four tales, from the three from the Golden Era to the one from the Modern Era, offer readers genuine detection (i.e., sleuths making deductions based on clues).

It's also interesting to compare the treatment of the women sleuths in the two eras. Below are quotations from each tale that are indicative of the way these sleuths interact with their environments.

She had never in her life felt so utterly helpless, and the thought of Idabelle Lasher's faith in her hurt. After all, she ought to have realized her own limits: the problem that Mrs. Lasher had set her was one that would have baffled--indeed, had baffled--experts.  Who was she, Susan Dare, to attempt its solution? (The Calico Dog, 1934)

Mrs. Warrender, as nearly annoyed as she could be at being treated as if she were on the verge of the grave or a home for the feeble-minded, argued the point with an obstinacy of which she had not known herself capable....
(The Toys of Death, 1938)

But Prudence didn't intend urging or begging them [the police] to look into it as a personal favor to her....she made up her mind to pursue the investigation, single-handed and without their help if necessary, until she had settled it one way or the other. (The Book That Squealed, 1939)

I checked in with Don to find out when I should be at the studios, then went home to change clothing....Chambray pants and an abbreviated tank top, with a suede jacket to put on in case of a late evening chill, were all I would need.  That, and my .38 special, tucked in the outer compartment of my leather shoulderbag. (The Broken Men, 1985)

Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, you'll notice, speaks for herself, in a first-person narrative. She's also a professional detective, of course.  She also packs heat.  She does deal with sexism from a client in The Broken Men, but she quickly overcomes it.  How does she compare with the earlier women sleuths in the collection?

In a Publishers Weekly review of Women Sleuths, the reviewer complains that "the three stories from the '30s feature sheltered, prudish women; even Eberhart's private eye [sic] Susan Dare, who feigns independence, is saved by her boyfriend."

In fact, Susan Dare, a mystery writer, is not a private detective, but rather an amateur sleuth like Mrs. Warrender, an elderly widow, and Prudence Roberts, a spinsterish librarian.  I didn't detect that either Susan Dare or Mrs. Warrender was "prudish" and, as far as Prudence Roberts goes, her prudery was a quite deliberate choice by the author (like the symbolic name). Over the course of the tale, Roberts does incredible things she never would have imagined herself doing; and her character has quite changed by the end of the story.

Indeed, I was struck by a pretty strong feminist undertone in The Toys of Death and The Book That Squealed.  Male authority, in the form of the police, is pretty darn dim in these tales, and Mrs. Warrender and Prudence Roberts have to go their own way to get justice. 

The only real help Mrs. Warrender gets is from a plucky younger woman (a librarian, incidentally); the young woman's male friend is too neurotic and self-absorbed to be of help.  Prudence Roberts is not only let down by men in high places; even a male cabbie fails her. I would say Roberts performs heroically throughout the story, which gets quite grim by the end, as the librarian finds herself dealing with ruthless criminals.

It is true that men ultimately prove useful in the Woolrich and Eberhart tales on account of their physical prowess. But when it comes to brains in all these stories, women have the market cornered!


  1. Thanks for this commentary on that list, which I found very odd.

    1. Bill, yes, it is a quirky list! It seems odd to do a list that covers that period and manages to leave off, as English female detectives, Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Mrs. Bradley all!

  2. "Worsley meant to confine the list to British detectives, Chandler's Marlowe evidently being counted as an honorary Brit"

    Perhaps she counted Chandler as a British writer: he went to Dulwich College- the same school as P.G. Wodehouse.

    1. Roger, I think she must have, but it's a list of detectives, not authors, so it's kind of weird. I think she must have counted Marlowe as an honorary Brit, because of the years Chandler spent in Britain, as you note.

  3. It does rather read like a list made by someone who has not really read that deeply in the genre. Why Ida Arnold and not Loretta Lawson? Why Catherine Morland and not Florence Cusack? Why Susan Hopley and not Solange Fontaine? The list of the male detectives is what one might expect someone with a good knowledge of English literature, but no real experience of the crime genre, and the female selection simply confirms this. Two of them obviously came up when she was researching that book, Harriet Vane requires no explanation, and the other two are from a Jane Austen and a Graham Greene novel respectively. It is annoying,because within her own subjects she is interesting and informative, but if a member of the public started claiming that they were an historian simply because they had read one of her books, she might become a little annoyed.

    1. "but if a member of the public started claiming that they were an historian simply because they had read one of her books, she might become a little annoyed"


      Speaking of Solange Fontaine, here's an interesting blog piece on her, by Tim Prasil:

  4. If Catherine Moreland can be considered a detective, then so can Marian Holcombe. And Marian does a better job than Moreland that insufferable romance addicted ninny. I have a feeling Worsley created this eccentric list just so that people like us would get all up in arms and go after her with pitchforks and torches. Or at least our keyboards. And it worked!

  5. John: Your post does throw up the image of the climax of a Frankenstein movie, with the mob advancing on the castle whilst their leaders shout " Remove him from your twitter list! Troll him!"

  6. I've met Worsley and in person she is very nice indeed - but, like you, I am not persuaded at all by her take on detective fiction, not at all - great article chum, and great to see more Muller being reviewed too as I have been reading a lot more of her work of late.