Fri
Nov 20 2015 2:00pm

“You’ve Come a Relatively Middling Distance, Baby”: Signs of Shift in Female Fictional Detectives

 

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Back in the 1980’s, I wrote a thesis on parody in the development of detective fiction. My central argument was that the growth of the genre was dependent on the examination and copying of previous elements in antecedent books. New writers paid homage to the writers who had come before. Newer characters were reminiscent of older characters. Dupin’s idiosyncrasies were mirrored by Holmes; Holmes’s bees became Poirot’s vegetable marrows, which in turn grew into Wolfe’s orchids. Hammett’s terseness became Chandler’s similes, which gave birth to all private eyes’ smart mouths. In my studies, one of the things noted across the board was the naming of the female detective, and what resonances and inferences were made by readers as a result. Checking through the lists of new and continuing detectives from thirty years on, things may be changing.

Names such as Kinsey, Sam, Randy, V.I., Hilary, Nikki, Jaime, Micky, Danny, Jo, Fran, Clare, Bo, Sydney, Jordan, Alex, Brodie, Charley, Benny, Jeri, Robin, Casey, Andy, and Bailey abounded in the stories of female private investigators, girl sleuths, talented amateurs, and police procedurals. And don’t forget the sidekicks, like Nancy Drew’s friend George (Don’t wave Trixie Belden’s friend “Honey” Wheeler at me as a counter argument—you’re not the person who named their first daughter Madeleine, now are you?).

The androgynous moniker does two or three things for a character. First of all, a boyish name subliminally points to a tomboyish nature, which makes the reader think the character might be more sporty and capable of holding her own in a moment of physical distress. Nothing elicits the capacity to swim an icy river like being called by one’s initials; it’s so much easier to see a tomboy growing up to take a bullet to the shoulder. Although PD James gave the name Cordelia, the most feminine of appellations, to her detective entering an “unsuitable job for a woman,” we are far more likely to consider a Regan to be the blood-letting sort.

Secondly, being mistaken for a man might also allow a character to arrive to a meeting spot early and get the drop on whomever she was meeting for the first time. Of course, canny writers don’t overuse this trope, and they are careful about where they set the meetings. After all, asking for a Sam Adams in a bar is sort of like asking people if they have Robin Hood in a bag—one of those silly, prank phone calls of childhood.

And third, the naming of a female character with a unisex name acted as a doffing of the cap to the tradition, something every mystery novel does, in some way, to those that came before. Characters are modeled on earlier detectives in the canon, they read detective fiction in their spare time, and even wonder how a particular fictional detective would have dealt with a problem at hand. To name your character with an androgynous name was to align yourself with the genre, and all who sailed in her. This, more than anything, is the best reason to offer up a character with an androgynous name—tradition! There is no genre more steeped in tradition than mystery fiction, and the acknowledgment of the ways of the past assure readers that they are in safe hands.

Nowadays, this particular element of character isn’t as widely used. It is possible to read this sea of change in a number of ways. Women, on the whole, are becoming so much a mainstay of detective fiction that it is no longer an unsuitable job. Or maybe, with all the Shelbys, Taylors, Carsons and Madisons in the world, every name is beginning to sound androgynous. Another possibility is that the genre has grown so much that traditions linking each new book to the past are becoming thinner and more frayed. Or you know what? Maybe the reason we’re seeing more female detectives with feminine monikers is that in the twenty-first century, women are now considered capable of kicking anyone’s puny butt.

I like the thought of that last one.

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Janice MacDonald has taught English literature and creative writing for universities and colleges and extension courses in detective fiction since the late ‘80s. She also writes the Randy Craig Mystery series, set in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Randy “Miranda” Craig is nobody’s naïf.

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19 comments
2. Bjorn Hock
Thank you for the insight. There are some things I had not considered about the "naming of the shrew". Seriously, I respect your last comment as there are too many real life females who could kick my puny ass!
Jayne Barnard
3. jayneb
You're so right that many names are beginning to sound androgynous.
Vanessa Galore
4. vanessagalore
I think the trope of androgynous names for female characters is really overused and tired (not just in detective novels but also in women's literature). I also hate when names are spelled weirdly--it slows me down when I'm reading and distracts me.
Sally Schmidt
5. bigcootie
Great post, good points I hadn't thought about.
Lynn Ristau
6. Elsandra
Two of my favorite female detectives are named Barbara and Maeve, no mistaking them as androgynous. Guess I don't read many mysteries with androgynous named detectives, male or female.
Grace Koshida
7. koshidag
Interesting post about the changing frequency of the use of androgynous names for female characters in mysteries.
8. pate
Interesting take. I'm a bit of a name-nerd, and the unisex name is an international trend that has been going on for decades, as Ashley, Jordan, Cameron, Whitney and Sydney gave way to Madison, Reese, McKenna, Bailey, Waverly, etc. James is the most recent. Of course, if you're from the South, you're used to family surnames being used as first names for both sexes. That's why we have a Kinsey and a Taylor!
Nancy Pate
9. patebooks
The above comment is mine. Didn't realize I wasn't logged in. -- Pate
Andra Dalton
10. andra77
Interesting insight!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!! Happy Holidays to all!!!:)
Sally Winkleblech
12. sallyw
Always enjoy a good story with a female detective, regardless of her name.
Susan Pertierra
13. orchidlady01
Interesting article since it gives some food for thought.
Deb Philippon
14. DebP
Really interesting literary history. The articles here are usually pretty good.
Peter W. Horton Jr.
15. mosaix
Female detectives never get their proper credit! Yes!
L Peters
16. leepcat
nice to have female perspectives. thanks
Jim Belcher
17. librarypops
Not to mention authors hiding their gender with initials or unisex name (I really dislike "androgynous").
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