She’s a Modern Woman*

Strong Female CharactersOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Katherine Howell, Nelson Brunanski, Robert Gott

34 responses to “She’s a Modern Woman*

  1. Let’s not forget one of the strongest characters in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books: Lily Rowan. She’s a lot more than just the person Archie Goodwin prefers to be with – she’s intelligent, funny and resourceful. Right from her first appearance (in Some Buried Caesar), she has the audacity and wit to make fun of both Archie and Wolfe. She is very wealthy, but uses that wealth wisely, and she’s no snob. Her insight and her participation in several of the books are critical to the action.

    • Les – Right you are indeed about Lily. She’s a strong character and certainly keeps Wolfe on his toes as far as his attitude towards women goes. And what I like about her character is that she is also quite believable. Stout developed her character really well I think. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  2. Just to sum up. A strong character is intelligent, compassionate, independent, wise, shrewd, warm, courageous, practical, vulnerable, quick-witted. But to be believable she also has to have weaknesses. Thanks for this post.

    • Carol – In my opinion, a strong character doesn’t have to have all of those good qualities. Every strong character has different positive traits. You’ve mentioned some important positive traits but I don’t think it’d be realistic for a character to have each one of them. The real key is that the character have some depth and positive qualities (and some negative ones too) that make her more than a ‘shadow puppet.’

      • Margot- I wasn’t in any way implying that a strong character needed all these traits. They were just traits to consider in creating a strong character. Thanks for following my blog. :). I really find your blog interesting, especially since I have an interest in writing crime fiction.

        • Thanks very much, Carol, for the clarification. I think you and I are thinking along the same lines about creating characters who are strong and believable. Thanks also for the kind words; I’m glad you find what you read here interesting. And it’s a pleasure to follow your blog as well. I look forward to learning from you.

  3. Ah, yes, Irene Adler… I’m trying to think of some other strong female characters who do not just happen to be sidekicks of the main detective, but cannot think of any at the moment other than the rather detestable Bianca Castafiore in Tintin.

    • Marina Sofia – I always thought Conan Doyle forward-thinking when he was creating Irene Adler. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘proper Victorian lady.’ And I agree; Bianca Castafiore is not exactly my idea of a pleasant person.

  4. I have a soft spot for Harriet D Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey books. But also Miss Climpson in the same series deserves a shoutout – she’s fluttery and talks too much, but she’s also a brilliant operative, and there’s a tour de force in Strong Poison where she stages a fake seance to find a missing will – one of my favourite scenes in any detective story ever.

    • Moira – Oh, yes, Miss Climpson is absolutely terrific. And I love that séance scene, too. It’s so clever and cleverly done (and written). And I thought of Harriet Vane when I was doing this post, but the truth is I consider her a protagonist. To me that’s another category. Still, you’re 100% right about her strength of character.

  5. Margot, I agree with you on DC Helen Lord in The Holiday Murders. She is realistically portrayed and very human. I am also looking forward to reading more books by Katherine Howell, because I am assuming they will feature strong women characters.

    • Tracy – I think Katherine Howell is really talented and she certainly creates some strong female characters. And yes I think Helen Lord is a realistic character, which is to me part of her strength. I hope Gott will write another book with her, DI Lambert and DS Sable.

  6. I like Vic from the Walt Longmire novels, but liked her print version better than the TV characterization. I like the actress, but think the character is portrayed with more bravado than true strength. That makes her interesting, of course, so maybe not a bad thing in the long run.

    • Pat – I know exactly what you mean about the difference between strength and bravado. They aren’t the same thing are they? I wonder if the difference you’ve noticed has to do with the fact that strength can be a subtle quality that’s hard to capture on film. It’s an interesting point you’ve made.

  7. kathy d.

    Therer so many, including Paola Falier and Elettra Zorzi in Donna Leon’s series, Retancourt in Adamsberg’s team, strong women on Van Veeteren’s team, Harry Hole’s squad, Even where women are protagonists, there are other strong women, as Lotty Hershel in Sara Paretsky’s books, Rosie in Sue Grafton’s, others.

    • Kathy – Oh, you’ve named some fabulous examples. I of course am a real fan of Paola Falier and Elettra Zorzi, and yes, Violette Retancourt is terrific. There’s also Indriðason’s Elinborg, who’s a great character. Those characters add a lot don’t they to those series.

  8. The Dalziel books wouldn’t be anything like as good as they are without the struggle between Andy and Ellie Pascoe for poor Peter’s soul. Ellie is such a strong character and she really grows and develops as the series progresses. And in the later books, Shirley ‘Ivor’ Novello adds another interesting aspect to the team.

    • FictionFan – I couldn’t agree more about Ellie. She’s a well-drawn, interesting and strong character. And it does add much to the series that she and Dalziel, who are both essentially good people, have that conflict over Peter Pascoe. It makes for a terrific layer, and Hill wrote Ellie’s character without a lot of nagging shrewishness (well, in my opinion anyway). She has a hold on Peter because of her strength of character as much as anything, and that makes her even more interesting to me. Thanks also for mentioning Novello, who is also a solid, strong character.

  9. Margot: Among the many interesting characters Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache series who reside in Three Pines, Quebec are a pair of redoubtable senior, but certainly not elderly, women. Poet Ruth Zardo and psychologist / bookstore owner Myrna Landers are women of strength. Few women of Ruth’s age in fiction are as profane.

    Another strong senior woman in Canadian crime fiction is Emily Micallef, the 87 year young mother of sleuth Hazel Micallef in the series by Inger Ash Wolfe. Emily has energy to spare and is highly opinionated

    • Bill – Oh, I like both Ruth and Myrna very much. They’re interesting and strong characters, and they’ve both got histories. I also like their interactions with each other and with the other residents of Three Pines. And Emily Micallef is indeed a very strong character. She’s lively and intelligent as well as opinionated. No, you certainly can’t overlook those women. Thanks for filing in that gap.

  10. Col

    I was debating whether to try the Johnson books, still undecided, but more food for thought….not like I need another set of books on the shelves.

    • Col – I know all about too many books and not enough time. If you get the chance to try Johnson’s work I hope you’ll like it. There are some well-drawn characters in that series.

  11. Irene Adler is a great place to start and I would add Marian Halcombe from The Moonstone in particular fromt he early days of the genre – but there is no denying that it has taken far too long for women to be treated with some kind of parity on fiction (and there is a long way to go yet) – thanks Margot, great to celebrate some achievements and help set the bar higher.

    • Sergio – Oh, thank you for reminding me of Marian Holcombe. Yes, that’s another strong female character and of course was from a time when that was most unusual. I agree that there’s still a ways to go, but there are some great strong female characters out there. And strong, well developed characters are good for the genre. Doesn’t matter their gender.

  12. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of writing the mystery/thriller genre as a woman and a feminist, is taking the ‘woman in peril’ trope and subverting it or simply exploring it further. I’m fine with my woman characters being vulnerable or under threat or even weak – because we all are at times – as long as they are… autonomous, I suppose. They get themselves into trouble and they get themselves out of it.

    One of the first mystery writers I read, as a teenager, was Mary Higgins Clarke – her female characters (admittedly mostly the protagonists, but not exclusively) were always professional, often single, in charge of their own destinies, and while a love interest might be waiting to greet them, they inevitably saved themselves from peril. I haven’t read any of her books in years, so have no idea whether they would still stand up, but I’m grateful that she was my introduction to the genre.

    • Claire – I like that about Mary Higgins Clark’s work too. Her female characters tend to be more or less in control of their lives, if I can put it that way, even if they are in danger or, at times, get murdered. They are often autonomous (I really like that choice of word, by the way), and even if some aspects of the novels are dated by now, that aspect is refreshing to see.
      I know what you mean about turning the ‘woman in peril’ trope upside down, or at least not adopting it. A female character, protagonist or not, can be a strong, interesting character and still get into danger. A female character who’s in danger can find creative and intelligent ways to deal with that danger. And as you say, we all have our weak points, our vulnerable times and so on, so it makes little sense to create a character who is invincible. That kind of person simply doesn’t exist.

  13. Margot – A strong Golden Age female character is Countess Vera Rossakoff, who appears in three(?) Poirot stories. It’s a rare instance of Poirot (more or less) falling for a woman. In this sense she brings attention to herself because she’s a woman, but a strong character nonetheless. Much farther afield, another strong female character, also an antagonist, is ‘Elizabeth Hitchens’/Nicole Wallace on Law & Order, recurring character and nemesis for detective Goren.

    • Bryan – Oh, yes, indeed! Countess Rossakoff is not just intelligent and interesting, but she is aristocratic and witty. Little wonder Poirot finds her so appealing. As you say, her intelligence and strength of character have nothing to do with her gender even if she does dress and act in a ‘feminine’ way. Thanks for filling in that gap.
      And I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right about HItchens/Wallace too. Olivia D’Abo did I think a brilliant job of interpreting her character. Strong and well-defined, and certainly a match for Goren.

  14. Terrific examples here, Margot! I was always interested to see Countess Rossakoff make appearances in the Poirot stories, too. Similar in some ways to Adler and Holmes.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I always like Countess Rossakoff’s appearances too. She adds some leaven to those stories and so does Irene Adler to the Holmes stories. Those are great characters.

  15. Some great examples here, Margot. I love the idea of strong women teachers, as shown in Meadowbank in AC’s novel.They can have a huge influence on pupils and also make for great protagonists.

    • Sarah – Thanks – and I couldn’t agree more about the value of strong women teachers. They really can have an impact and they do make interesting characters. Hmmm….there’s a thought for a post sometime. Thanks for the inspiration.

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