One of the great things about crime fiction sleuths is that no two sleuths are exactly alike. Sleuths may have similarities to one another but each well-drawn sleuth is distinctive. Today (or tomorrow, depending on where you live and when you read this) it’s Independence Day in the U.S., so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just one kind of character – the American female sleuth – and see just how diverse that category really is. It’s one reason for which those “If you like….” book stickers can be so misleading…
Some of the ladies of American crime fiction are tough, hard-drinking, even gritty. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski’s like that. She’s no-nonsense and quite independent, and can hold her own. Those qualities serve her well in her “home turf” of Chicago, which can be a rough-and-tumble city. Warshawski needs that “hard shell” because some of the people she goes up against are very nasty. That doesn’t mean, though, that she has no compassion. For instance, in Indemnity Only, she’s hired by a man claiming to be banking magnate John Thayer. Thayer wants her to find the missing girlfriend of his son Paul. Warshawski agrees and begins her search at the apartment where Paul and his girlfriend live. When she finds Paul Thayer’s body there, Warshawski knows that this is far more than a simple missing-persons case and gets herself involved with fraud, union racketeering and murder. She also meets John Thayer’s fourteen-year-old daughter Jill, for whom she feels a great deal of compassion and whom she tries to keep safe through it all.
But of course, Warshawski is not the only no-nonsense, tough PI out there. If you like V.I. Warshawski, you’ll love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone . In all seriousness, Millhone, too, is not afraid to take on “the big boys” when she’s on a case. She “backed into” private investigation after she decided that a career in the military wasn’t for her, and after a few years with a larger firm, she struck out on her own. Millhone lives and works in Southern California, where her cases range from clearing an innocent person’s name, to “white-collar crime” to police corruption and more. For instance, in N is for Noose, Selma Newquist asks Millhone to investigate the death of her husband, Tom. Tom Newquist was sixty-five and not in the best of health, so no-one is surprised at first when he dies of a heart attack. But his widow thinks there was more to it. So Millhone visits the town of Nota Lake to follow up on an investigation Tom Newquist had been conducting when he died. It turns out that he believed one of his law-enforcement colleagues was responsible for two murders in Millhone’s town of Santa Teresa. As Millhone tries to look into the case, she finds that nobody in Nota Lake is eager to help her, and that more than one person wants her dead. The interesting thing is that Millhone and Warshawski are quite distinct. Yes, they are both what you might call “hard boiled” PI’s. But they have distinct personalities and backstories. For instance, Millhone’s family history is more troubled than Warshawski’s is. They speak differently, they act differently and they have different approaches to solving cases.
There are also sleuths who aren’t the “no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, hard-hitting” type. For instance, there’s Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito. She’s a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and the Navajo Nation, and a former member (albeit briefly) of the U.S. Border Patrol. She’s courageous and independent, as we see in The Sinister Pig, which takes place during her stint with the Border Patrol. In that novel, Manuelito takes some photographs of suspicious construction activity at the Tuttle exotic game ranch. She brings this activity to the attention of her superiors, who inform her that the Border Patrol “looks the other way” with regards to the Tuttle ranch in exchange for assistance from Tuttle ranch employees with patrolling the border and reporting illegal immigrants. Manuelito accepts this explanation until it turns out that some very nasty criminals along the U.S./Mexican border have targeted her. Manuelito discusses the situation with her former boss, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee and with retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who work with her to find out what’s going on at the Tuttle ranch and how that’s connected to an unidentified dead man who’s been going by the name of Carl Mankin.
If you like Tony Hillerman’s Bernie Manuelito, then you’ll like Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden . In all seriousness, like Manuelito, Holden is a Native American. But there, the resemblance ends. Holden is an attorney who’s also a member of Colorado’s Arapaho Nation. She’s the ex-wife of an alcoholic, and works closely with Father John O’Malley, himself a recovering alcoholic. O’Malley’s been assigned to the Wind River Reservation, and that’s the scene of many of the sleuths’ cases. For instance, in The Eagle Catcher, their first pairing, Holden and O’Malley find out who murdered Harvey Castle, the Arapaho Tribal Chairman. The evidence points to his nephew Anthony Castle. But Holden and O’Malley don’t believe Anthony Castle is guilty. So they investigate and find a connection between Harvey Castle’s death and a very old case of land theft and murder.
And then there are sleuths who seem non-threatening, even gentle, on the outside, but who are forces to be reckoned with when they’re on the case. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, a New Jersey widow who makes her debut in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. In that novel, Mrs. Pollifax applies for a job as a CIA agent when she decides her garden isn’t enough to occupy her. Through a case of mistaken identity, she’s assigned to what seems at first like a very easy “delivery job.” Instead, she gets involved in a complicated case that ends up landing her in an Albanian prison. Mrs. Pollifax is unassuming and non-threatening on the surface, but “bad guys” cross her at their peril.
Fans of Mrs. Pollifax are sure to love Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Lulu Taylor . Like Mrs. Pollifax, Lulu Taylor is a widow with an unassuming demeanor. But that’s about all they have in common. Lulu Taylor’s quite appealing in her own right. She lives in Memphis, where she owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, a restaurant that’s been in the family for generations. In Delicious and Suspicious, Rebecca Adrian, malicious food scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned just hours after having eaten at Aunt Pat’s. And in Finger Lickin’ Dead, an anonymous restaurant critic who goes by the pen name of Eppie Currian, starts writing horrible reviews of area restaurants including Aunt Pat’s. In both cases, Aunt Pat’s (and therefore Lulu Taylor) get drawn into the mystery and Lulu Taylor determines to find out who the real killer is. Lulu Taylor has a strong sense of family and a true love of good food. She doesn’t get involved with international espionage as Mrs. Pollifax does, and she has a completely different approach to solving the puzzles she faces.
There are a lot of other examples of the ladies of American crime fiction; you can probably think of more than I could. As I’m sure you know, they’re as diverse a group as there is. So don’t believe those book stickers . They’re older, younger, and middle-aged. They have good families and tragic families. They’re married, divorced, in relationships and determinedly single. They’re rich, poor, middle-class and everywhere in-between. They’re of all races and live everywhere. And yup, they’re all American girls. Here’s to ‘em! Which ones do you like best?
To all of my American friends, have a happy and safe Fourth of July celebration!!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s American Girl.