‘The Female Detective’ and Men Being Too Insidious

Today – 8 March – is International Women’s Day, and some of things on Twitter are truly inspiring.  Times are changing, but painfully slowly, and it takes a special kind of wilful ignorance to say that we no longer need feminism. Wherever we fit on the gender spectrum, we need feminism.

This morning I’ve been rereading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), arguably a foundational text in western feminism. I was drawn to a footnote in the fourth part. In her argument that women have not impacted the world as men have because they haven’t had the same educational opportunities, she pre-empts (male) critics by listing examples of influential women who have received ‘a masculine education’ – and points out the problem with naming them:

Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macauley, the Empress of Russia, Madame d’Eon, &c. These, and many more, may be reckoned exceptions; and, are not all heroes, as well as heroines, exceptions to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures.

So it’s not about creating an army of madonnas or whores to seize the world from the safe hands of men, but rather insisting that women should be allowed into the world that has been almost exclusively the realm of men. When you name a few women who have achieved something – good or bad – in a masculine world you posit them as ‘exceptions’, asserting contradictorily that the system doesn’t keep women down (see? Examples!) and that women stay down because they are naturally not up to rising; the exceptions prove the rule, and there’s no point changing the system.

Of course, such nakedly oppressive, not to mention illogical, tactics are beneath us in the twenty-first century, right? Last month, the Guardian ran a series of responses from historians to the fact that only four books by women made this list of 50 bestselling history books in 2015. The article showcases a range of views from distinguished names – and some of the men have this bizarre way of saying, Oh, you know, it’s just that ladies like to talk about Queens and dresses and stuff and men like to talk about battles, which are the important things really, innit (paraphrase but, honestly, only just). The final contribution, the final response to the question, ‘Why is history still written by men?’, is from Simon Schama. Here it is in its entirety:

Germaine Greer, Susan Greenfield, Sherry Turkle, Ruth Scurr, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Linda Colley, Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Laura Cumming, Jackie Wullschlager, Gillian Tett, Sheryl Sandberg, Naomi Klein, Suzannah Lipscomb, Jessie Childs, Karen Armstrong, Stacey Schiff, Helen Macdonald, Lisa Appignanesi, Suzy Orbach, Jenny Uglow, Bronwen Maddox, Daisy Dunn, Deborah Lipstadt, Stella Tillyard, Susan Orlean, Jill Lepore, Claire Tomalin, Flora Fraser, Mary Roach, Catherine Boo, Hermione Lee, Amy Wilentz, Jane Mayer, Carmen Callil.

Translation: na-na-na-na-na not listening. See, here are some women! It’s not my fault if I’m more respected and therefore better than most of them! History isn’t written by men at all; men just happen to be better. See, there isn’t a problem – stop problematizing my privilege! That’s a response to direct and irrefutable evidence of a male-dominated commercial industry.

So where am I going with this? Two years ago I co-organised a conference in London, Queens of Crime, with the wonderful Brittain Bright. We encouraged a range of delegates to discuss women writing (and starring in) crime fiction, in an international context. The result was wonderful: some great papers on writers from Alafair Burke to Gianna Baltaro. But the name that came up more than any other in a twenty-first century international context was Alexander McCall Smith. Praised for having created ‘the Botswanan Miss Marple’, Smith has produced fiction that is to my mind patronising, sexist, and racist. It is perhaps unfortunate that his name is part of a go-to reference for women’s visibility in twenty-first century crime fiction.

And this leads me to my tiny contribution. Back in 2013, Alan and I were at the British Library for a crime fiction event with PD James. Alan bought me a book: The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester. Published anonymously in 1864 it has been reissued and marketed as the first story with a woman detective – although I would argue that half of Jane Austen’s fiction, and, more concretely, the early work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon falls into this category. And because apparently there are no women in the world at all to comment on the subject, it’s introduced by Mike Ashley with a foreword by … Alexander McCall Smith. I must stress that I’m in a minority here – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned my problems with Smith and been told to ‘leave dear Sandy alone’ – but honestly his foreword is heart-breaking.

‘We live today in a society in which gender equality has, largely, been realised’, he states, and as someone who claims to be an expert on writing socially conscious novels about women’s experiences he should see the manifest untruth in that.  In the olden days, he adds, it was very different. Then he gets nostalgic for the olden days, because nowadays ‘women … are expected to be able to do everything men do’ and this is a shame, he says, because ‘there is something in certain functions – including fighting crime – that is at odds with the more gentle nature of women.’ He repeats that women are ‘more gentle’, more ‘endowed with … care’ (what a telling turn of phrase), more ‘sympathetic’ and ‘charming’ than men. As evidence, he posits his own crime fiction and the book he’s introducing. See – real life (fictional) women (created by men)! Silly feminists just don’t know what they’re talking about, amirite?

I’m not a great autograph hunter but am very happy to have this book signed by so many leading crime writers. To date: Val McDermid, Jessica Mann, PD James, Alanna Knight, Kate Summerscale, Kate Rhodes, Sophie Hannah.

So on a whim – and, frankly, because I didn’t want to buy another copy of Death Comes to Pemberley – I asked PD James to autograph The Female Detective. This, I explained, was a way of trying to counter the absolute maleness of the book and all it represents. To my absolute surprise, because James was never an arch campaigner for gender equity, she said, ‘What a very nice idea’, and signed the book. Then she told me to go away so that she could have a biscuit, but that’s neither here nor there.


Over the years every time I’ve met a really famous crime writer who is a woman, I’ve asked her to sign this book, and it’s building up into a really nice thing. It’s a small gesture, but one that I hope has a symbolic significance. Crime fiction has always been pioneered by women, made commercially viable by women, and achieved psychological and social innovation because of women, but in terms of criticism, it remains a masculine coded
genre. No amount of patronising terms – ‘cosy crime’, ‘grip lit’ – will change that; in fact, these terms exist to avoid changing the critical consensus. So I hope that this physical book will survive me and my research as a document that shows women writing over  a masculine tradition.

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