From birth, boys and girls are placed into different social categories. Much of the way we dress, behave, and even speak has a lot to do with gender. Of course, gender’s by no means the only factor that affects us, but it has a significant impact, and it’s one of the first things people notice about us. Each culture has its own views of the way males and females are ‘supposed to’ behave, and it can be a little disconcerting when someone doesn’t follow those prescribed roles. But there are a lot of girls who’d rather play baseball or go fishing than play with dolls. There are a lot of boys who care about cooking or fashion and nearly nothing at all about sport. They’re a part of real life and we certainly see them in fiction too.
I’m not talking here about gay and lesbian characters. Sexual orientation is a different topic. Rather, I’m talking about characters who don’t fill traditional gender role expectations. There are plenty of them in crime fiction; I just have space for a few here, and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is the story of the Lee family. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who decides that he wants to gather his family round him for Christmas. None of his children really wants to accept the invitation, but each one sees little alternative. So plans are made to go to the family home Gorston Hall. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying with a friend in the area and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. One of the suspects is Lee’s son David. David Lee has always been a disappointment to his father, as he is sensitive artist and not at all his father’s idea of what a man ‘should be.’ Matters between them aren’t made any better by the fact that David blames his father for his mother’s death. It’s an interesting character study of a man who doesn’t fit the image of what people of the time might have thought a man ‘ought to be.’
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to search for a missing teenager Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Of course Chee wants the girl found and safely returned, but at the moment, he’s working on another case: the murder of transplanted Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. Still, he begins asking questions about the girl. Then it’s discovered that Margaret Billy Sosi and the dead man are distantly related. Now Chee comes to believe that the two cases are connected, and so they turn out to be. The trail leads Chee to Los Angeles, where he finds out some important information about why Gorman might have been killed. He also finds the missing girl – that is, until she disappears again. In the end, Chee finds out who killed Gorman and why, and he discovers how Margaret Billy Sosi figures into the case. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the teen’s character. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘girly girl.’ She is unmistakeably female, yet she doesn’t fit a lot of preconceived notions of how a girl ‘ought to’ behave. And that adds to her character.
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers tells the story of Wendy Hanniford. When she is murdered in her own apartment, the most likely suspect is her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel. He had the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t account for himself during the time the crime was committed. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to her death. More to the point, he wants to know what kind of a person she’d become and how that resulted in her murder. He’s been estranged from his daughter for some time, and this is his way of trying to connect with her. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he does agree to ask some questions and find out what he can. He soon discovers that Vanderpoel won’t be of much assistance, as he’s committed suicide in prison. Bit by bit though, Scudder pieces together both young people’s lives, and comes to the conclusion that Vanderpoel might have been innocent. As Scudder learns more about Richard Vanderpoel, he discovers that the young man wasn’t a ‘typical boy,’ if there is such a thing. Certainly he wasn’t the sport-loving, active, assertive type that’s very often associated with the stereotypical conception of what a ‘boy’ is. As Scudder gets to the truth about Wendy Hanniford’s life and death, he discovers that for both young people, the past has played an important part in their characters and the lives they chose.
Gideon Davies, whom we meet in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory isn’t the ‘all boy’ type either. He is a world-class violinist who’s always been more passionate about his music than about anything else. That’s why it’s so frightening to Davies when one night, he finds himself unable to play. He decides to get some psychiatric help to find out what’s blocking him mentally and why he can’t play. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks at first like a hit-and-run car accident. It turns out though that there was nothing accidental about her death. Now Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers dig into the Davies family background. As they do, we learn how this death is related to Gideon’s inability to play the violin, and how both are related to the long-ago drowning death of Gideon’s younger sister Sonia.
Alan Bradley’s sleuth is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is not at all what you’d think of as a ‘typical’ girl. She’s passionately interested in chemistry – much more so than in dresses, dolls, or other ‘girly’ things. In fact, she has nothing but contempt for her older sisters’ interest in such things. She’s not much of a one to worry about her looks or about what boys might think of her when she’s older. She’s most definitely female, but she certainly isn’t stereotypical.
Neither is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. Martinsson is an attorney who, as the series featuring her begins, works in Stockholm. She’s originally from Kiruna though, and moves back there as the series goes on. Martinsson is unmistakeably feminine. At the same time though, she’s hardly ‘girly.’ She lives close to nature, she catches her own food, and she certainly isn’t preoccupied with wondering whether her clothes are fashionable.
Just from these examples, it’s easy to see that strict interpretations of what males or females ‘should’ be like or ‘should’ care about is really limiting. Some of the most interesting characters in crime fiction, anyway, aren’t ‘all boy’ or ‘girly girl.’ They’re individuals. I’ve only had space to mention a few here; which ones do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.