Today’s Female Crime-Fighters: Not Nancy Enough?

Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in the movie Salt
Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in the movie Salt
She’s tough.

She’s violent.

And mystery readers can’t seem to get enough of her.

Over the past six decades, female sleuths have gone from sweet (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Nancy Drew) to tough-minded (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect) to borderline psychopathic, preternaturally talented uber-predators. Versions of the hard-as-nails woman detective show up in mysteries, thrillers and police procedurals regardless of media format. She might carry a badge or be a rogue agent, but her popularity ensures that she shows up anywhere a tough female sleuth/superheroine is needed—think Angelina Jolie in last summer’s viciously cold Salt.

The emergence of women detectives barely one step removed from the criminals they hunt is an interesting development in the history of female crime-fighters. While their hard-boiled brothers have been punching, drinking and stomping recklessly through the pages of mystery and detective novels for decades, morally ambiguous and often-violent women detectives are a relatively new phenomenon.

Often, though not always, beautiful, they are the opposite of sweet—except when they need to fake it long enough to get information out of a recalcitrant witness. The minute sweet is no longer expedient, out come the threats, the fist, or the gun.

And that’s a big part of these characters’ appeal. Even as they turn gender norms upside-down by using stereotypes against usually male colleagues and perpetrators, these women sleuths reinforce popular notions of emotionally distant and emotionally damaged women.

Despite the fact that they routinely outsmart, out-shoot and out-punch male characters, these women nearly always come with enough emotional baggage to ground a 747. The more violence they are capable of, the more damaged these women have to be. Childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, criminal pasts and abandonment are common traits.

Why do mystery readers find these characters so appealing? I think it has to do with the cathartic experience of imagining the most devastating possible crime and the visceral power of not just survival, but revenge.

Even as national crime rates fall to their lowest levels in decades (per this Washington Times article), we’re constantly aware of the most sensational violence as it occurs. The proliferation of portable media devices and the 24-hour news cycle sure make it seem like we live in a more dangerous world. What better psychological protection than a beautiful avenging angel who has already faced the worst of human nature and survived to fight for justice?

The predatory female sleuth is a strikingly powerful image, and her popularity means that she isn’t likely to disappear from the pages of mysteries and thrillers time soon. But the prevalence of these characters and the steadily escalating violence in fiction renders many of these characters unbelievable.

Chloe Moretz as Mindy Macready aka Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass
Chloe Moretz as Mindy Macready aka Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass
As her popularity rises the female super-sleuth risks turning into a cliché. Giving a smart, beautiful heroine a tragic past in order to justify her legal or moral transgressions isn’t enough to make for a fully realized character.

Predatory sleuths also hint at an alarming trend toward vigilantism. Broadly speaking, fictional themes often reflect contemporary social concerns. The prevalence of the above-the-law, almost super-human female sleuth seems to represent an alarming desire for revenge as a substitute for justice.

Is it time for the sweet girl detective to stage a comeback?


Carrie Netzer Wajda is an independent researcher and freelance writer in New York. A devotee of romance and mystery fiction, she someday hopes to actually finish one of the 182 gazillion “first books” she has started writing in her lifetime, and maybe even publish it. In the meantime, she loves blogging about her favorite authors.

Comments

  1. Victoria Janssen

    I enjoy reading and seeing fiction about violent, vengeful heroines, but at the same time I’m always wary that the characters could be presented in an exploitative way – focusing on her tight leather pants or her vulnerability at the hands of a male antagonist. I still haven’t seen Salt and really want to – I heard the part, like Ripley in Alien, was originally written for a male actor, which is really interesting to me.

  2. Amy

    I enjoy books and movies with women who can kick butt. I grew tired of the wimpy characters who had to wait to be rescued by a knight-in-shining armor. (Is that why I don’t read romance?) But at the same time, you have to laugh at the fight scenes featuring women in high heels exchanging blows and kicks with the bad guy/gal.

  3. Clare 2e

    Actually, the current state of romance as well as crime-fiction judges knight-waiting to be Out and ass-kicking to be In.

  4. Chuk Goodin

    I’d be interested in seeing some sweet girl detectives.
    (I don’t think Flavia de Luce counts — she is an eleven year old girl, but she’s not particularly sweet…)

  5. Naomi Johnson

    With the head of the IMF accused of rape and the support he’s garnering from powerful men who ought to know better, do you really think it’s time we went back to the sweet girl detective?

    I may vomit.

  6. ScottDParker

    I think there is a nice middle ground to be had when it comes to female protagonists. As much as I enjoy reading and writing about bad-ass ladies taking down the bad guys, I would grow quickly bored with the ‘sweet girl detective.’ What I’d like to see–and please let me know if this kind of character is already out there–is a lady who uses her brains more than a gun or her body. Think about TV’s “Monk.” He clearly would never get involved in a gun fight, but he was the smartest person in the room. I’d like to see the female Monk: brainy, perhaps good at one thing physical, but would need assistance from someone else if things got too dire, perhaps even a bad-ass female partner?

  7. akajill

    I recently finished The Informationist by Taylor Stevens, the heroine of which would definitely fit into this category. While the book was good, I found myself wondering why so many thriller heroines had to be portrayed as damaged in order to explain their toughness. (Stig Larsson’s fault perhaps?) Of course, the author herself, had a difficult childhood in a cult so that may have played into it. Contrasting Michael in the Informationist was the heroine in another recent read, Rowan in Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts who was a tough as nails smoke jumper and not at all damaged. Different genre, of course, with different expectations, but still I would like more positive and healthy heroines such as her. They don’t have to be sweet, just not quite as mentally tortured.

    @VictoriaJanssen You can skip Salt. I was very eager to see it and walked out incredibly disappointed. It just wasn’t as clever as it thought it was.

  8. Thomas Pluck

    I found Salt ridiculous whether the lead was male or female; she made Jason Bourne look like an amateur. I’m tired of Hollywood fight scenes where the hero swings about his or her opponents like a gymnast on a pommel horse.
    I don’t think we need a “Sweet girl detective” resurgence so much as a reality check. It seems the genre is leading toward invincible supermen. I love Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole novels, but now he writes more Joe Pike- a great character, who served best as the stone face straight man to Cole. Now he’s the hero, and strolls through hell unscathed. Women who do the same are just as uninteresting.

    And believe me, I love strong female characters, and flawed heroes with damage, but you can be strong without scar tissue holding you together. And as someone who has trained mixed martial arts with rape survivors, women can definitely fight. But you have to be damn, damn good to beat someone who has fifty to a hundred pounds on you and fight experience. Sometimes smarts are the Darwinian advantage (even if it means hitting the guy with your car or a shoe).
    Or carry a damn taser, why let the cops have all the fun?

    • Mary H McFarland

      Ohhh, Thomas Pluck, I soooo love your approach. Yes, why let *anyone* have all the fun. Give him a good roundhouse in the sperm basket, slice him with the jagged neck of a broken beer bottle . . . but by all means, walk through hell and come out on top (no pun intended here).

  9. Persia Walker

    I guess I’d like the impossible: a woman who solves crime and beats the bad guys through the strength of her smarts and let’s say “within human range” physical fighting skills. I mean, I do admit a bit of over-the-top butt-kicking. Sure I do! I love the visceral satisfaction that comes from seeing the bad guys (and gals) really get their comeuppance. At the same time, these demonstrations often leave me with a hint of sadness, because they’re so far removed from realityand therefore ultimately something I can’t relate to.

  10. Laura K. Curtis

    I think you see more of the brainy females in police procedurals, because often they don’t have to do any ass-kicking until the very end. I’m reading JT Ellison’s The Immortals at the moment, and her lead, Taylor Jackson works this way. Jackson has plenty of assistance, so it’s not as if she’s out there on her own in some superheor mode or anything.

  11. Nora

    I have to side with the brainy female sleuth as well. The over-the-top kick-ass heroines are beginning to become cartoonish, IMO. A smart, more realistic heroine doesn’t have to be a sweet old lady who knits cardigans and lives with a dozen cats (not that there’s anything wrong with that, lol), but she doesn’t have to be skilled in ninety sorts of eastern self-defense methods, carry half a dozen weapons and have every inch of her body covered in tattoos or piercings, either. There is a middle ground indeed.

  12. Leigh Lundin

    I go with the brainy girl as well.

    For similar reasons, I felt Robert Downey Jr no longer portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a master of ratiocination, but reduced the character to a kung fu action figure.

    Ironically, while compter game designers strive to match game physics as close to the real-world as possible, movie-makers’ over-the-top fight scenes are becoming increasingly cartoonish.

  13. Jim Duncan

    I have to agree about the cartoonish, super-hero-like skills of some of the more recent female protags. It makes them harder to relate to. Tough is one thing, but having Bruce Lee type skills is quite another. The whole traumatized past thing is another iffy issue. You don’t need it as the reason for being kick-ass. Let’s face it, being kick-ass in some form or another is kind of required to take down violent villains. It’s much more interesting when the past gets in the way of being able to be kick-ass or when it begins to interfere with the heroine’s ability to solve problems. Saying one is an emotionless vigilante crime fighter because one suffered abuse as a child is pretty much a cop out in my opinion. Childhood trauma can be used to great effect, but more often than not, we see it there simply as a prop to justify the motivation for extreme violence. Boorrrinnggg! Writers need to take more advantage.

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