One of the many (I think anyway) positive developments in crime fiction has been the evolution of the strong female character. I’m not talking here, as you’ll see, of female protagonists. Protagonists are supposed to be strong. I’m talking here of other characters. And it isn’t just because I’m female that I see this as a positive thing. Anything that serves the genre – and strong, well developed characters do – is I think a plus. The key is of course to create a strong character who happens to be female, rather than to call a lot of attention to her gender. There are many examples in crime fiction; I only have space for a few.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia hires Sherlock Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph. He’s on the point of getting married, but the wedding won’t take place if a photograph of him with actress Irene Adler comes to light. Holmes agrees to take the case and tracks down Irene Adler. As Holmes fans know though, she bests him at his own game, so to speak. It all works out satisfactorily enough, but she certainly shows her strength as a character. Little wonder she remains the woman for Holmes. And what’s interesting is that Conan Doyle shows her as a strong and well-developed character who happens to be a woman rather than as a woman who, surprisingly, is also strong.
Agatha Christie created several very strong female characters. I’ll only mention Honoria Bulstrode, whom we meet in Cat Among the Pigeons. She’s the Headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. When the school’s games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night, the school becomes the focus of a police investigation. Then there’s another murder. Finally, one of the students Julia Upjohn gets an important clue about the events at the school. She takes this clue to Hercule Poirot, who knows a friend of her mother’s. Poirot sees the importance of the clue and its potential for danger to Julia, and goes to the school. In the end he connects the deaths to a kidnapping, some stolen jewels and a revolution in a Middle Eastern state. Throughout this novel, Miss Bulstrode remains a strong character. She is determined to see her school through this time even though many parents have decided to withdraw their daughters. She’s intelligent and can be forceful, but she also has compassion. She’s an interesting person.
Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI. His next-door neighbour and a truly fascinating character in her own right is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s got a very interesting history that Bidulka reveals bit by bit as the series evolves. I can’t give away much of it without spoiling story arcs, but suffice it to say that she’s a strong, independent person. And she has a habit of being there for Quant when he really needs her. Sereena is somewhat enigmatic but she’s a solid character with a lot of wisdom. She’s also shrewd and at the same time has a solid level of human warmth. Those facts are a lot more important as the series moves along than is the fact that she’s female.
Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place in the small town of Durant, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. His deputy is Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and as fans will know, she is anything but meek and deferent. She’s a good detective; she’s smart, skilled and courageous too. And Johnson has made her most definitely her own person. She’s a former member of the Philadelphia police force who ended up in Durant at first because of her husband. Later she settles in and turns out to be a valuable team member. And she is a force to be reckoned with, especially when she teams up with Ruby, the department’s dispatcher/administrator. And yet, Vic is not a superhero. She has her own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. She’s an interesting character and a good detective who happens to be female, rather than the other way round.
Nelson Brunanski’s small-town Saskatchewan mysteries feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ who with his wife Rosie owns a fishing lodge. He and Rosie are also the parents of Annie and Stuart. Bart is neither a cop nor a PI; he gets drawn into investigations when murder strikes his community and his circle of friends and acquaintances. Even though Rosie isn’t the main protagonist in this series, make no mistake about it; she is a strong character in her own right. She often serves as her husband’s conscience and she’s more than happy to speak her mind. She’s smart and practical too, and Bart knows better than to ignore what she says. In fact it’s obvious through the series that he has a lot of respect for her. She isn’t perfect any more than any of us is. But that’s part of her appeal. She’s an interesting character who provides solid leaven to this series. And that has nothing to do with her gender.
Several of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels feature interesting and strong characters who happen to be female. I’ll just mention one. In Web of Deceit, we are introduced to Jane Koutofides. She’s a paramedic who joined the profession a bit later in life, after her children had grown. She’s good at her job and enjoys it although she admits she has things to learn. One day she and her partner Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a one-car accident in which the driver Marko Meixner has hit a pole. The paramedics insist that he be taken to hospital for an examination but at first Meixner refuses to go. They finally manage to get him to come along with them, but Meixner insists that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. At the hospital there’s talk of giving Meixner a psychiatric examination but he leaves before that’s done. Later that day, Meixner is killed when he falls or is pushed in front of an oncoming commuter train. Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate, and Koutofides’ evidence turns out to be important. In another line of this plot, Koutofides has a personal challenge. She’s in a relationship with news presenter Laird Humphreys. He claims that he wants to keep their relationship secret to keep the media at bay. But as she later learns, that’s not his only reason. When she finds out the truth, we see both her vulnerability, which makes her human, and her strength of character. We see that in her response to other events in the novel too.
And then there’s Robert Gott’s DC Helen Lord, who features in The Holiday Murders. She’s well aware that at this time (the novel takes place in 1943) women in the police force aren’t likely to get very far. They’re basically glorified stenographers. But she gets the chance to prove herself when DI Titus Lambert and Sergeant Joe Sable investigate the brutal murders of John Quinn and his son Xavier. There isn’t much funding available for a thorough investigation, but Lambert knows Lord is smart and has potential. So he invites her to join the team. At first she’s there to help Sable create a ‘cover story’ for a part of the investigation. But she is a natural detective and Lambert comes to rely on her. She’s not the main protagonist of this novel really. But as the story unfolds, we see that she is smart, quick-witted and brave. What makes her character even more interesting is that she also has her weaknesses. She’s untrusting, sometimes impulsive, and can be a little arrogant. All in all, she’s a strong and very believable character. And that has nothing to do with her gender.
And that’s the thing about really well-drawn strong female characters who aren’t protagonists. They are interesting and strong apart from their genders.
On Another Note…
Today would have been the 82nd birthday of noted naturalist Dian Fossey. Her work with mountain and other gorillas taught the world much. Her courage taught the world possibly even more. She is much missed. Talk about a strong female character…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.