She Climbs a Tree and Scrapes Her Knee*

Gender RolesFrom 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.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Åsa Larsson, Elizabeth George, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “She Climbs a Tree and Scrapes Her Knee*

  1. Your posts are always fascinating. I love reading about characters who don’t fit the ‘norm’ and of course gender is the first characteristic that defines us. Excellent choice of books to illustrate this subject!

    • Cleo – Thank you – on all counts. I’m glad you enjoy what you read here. And you’re right; gender is such an important characteristic, and it’s just about the first thing people notice. It defines us in so many ways. So when people don’t do what boys or girls are ‘supposed to’ do, that gets attention. And it can add real interest to a character I think.

  2. And then there are those novels where a boy turns out to be a girl, or vice versa, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for people who haven’t read them by naming names!

  3. In Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds, the actress Georgia has a son who is kept out of the way (he might give away her age) and is rather left to get on with things, while at the same time he takes too much responsibility, and worries a lot. There is a scene where Campion finds him crying over his stepfather’s death, and reassures him that this is perfectly OK, nothing wrong at all with having a cry: Sinclair is worried that a boy shouldn’t be ‘blubbing’. It is a memorable and charming moment.

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a pitch-perfect example of what I had in mind with this post. Trust you for that. Interesting isn’t it how crying has traditionally been perfectly fine for females under certain circumstances, but almost never for males. I think in a lot of people’s minds that’s still an issue. Thanks for the reminder that crying is an equal-opportunity emotional release.

  4. Poirot himself would fit into this category – certainly when seen through Hastings’ eyes. Definitely not your sporting type, and all his fussy little habits…

    • FictionFan – You know, I hadn’t thought of that when I was planning this post, but you have a well-taken point. I can’t imagine Poirot as a rugger, anyway.

  5. Terrific topic, Margot! I’m not familiar with Flavia DeLuce. Is this a children’s mystery series? Sounds cool.

    • Kathy – Thanks – glad you enjoyed it. The Flavia de Luce series isn’t strictly speaking for kids. It’s probably more accurate to say it’s a sort of cosy series that features a child. I recommend it.

  6. Well, I never think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a mystery, but it often gets mentioned here. Scout is a tomboy and just wants to do whatever her brother and Dill are doing. And sometimes that doesn’t sit well with them because they know that other people will disapprove.

    • Tracy – Oh, I couldn’t imagine a better example of what I had in mind with this post. Scout is a perfect example! That was such a gaping hole I left. Thanks for that.

  7. As a doting Uncle of twin nieces who in fact turn 9-and-a-half today, gender stereotypes are often on my mind as inevitably we get into conversations about whether a book would be suitable or not or whether they would enjoy a certain type of story. I look forward to them reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and seeing what they think (and maybe Agatha Christie too). But they love DOCTOR WHO ans aren’t fussed about pricesses particularly but if it comes in pink they still fall over it! And yet what is great is (they’re in Australia right now) that to me they seem very free to me – they play soccer, read all kinds of books featuring both boy and girl heroes and although their best friends are usually girls they get on very well with boys too. I suspect this will change, but for their sake I hope not too much. A great topic Margot – thank you.

    • Sergio – Your nieces do indeed sound free of those gender-role restrictions. It’s very good that they feel comfortable pursuing their own interests. And there’s nothing wrong with Doctor Who or pink. And I hope they’ll get the chance to read To Kill a Mockingbird (and of course Agatha Christie’s work). They sound like delightful kids.

  8. Interesting topic and nice examples here…especially “Traitor to Memory,” a book I especially enjoyed. I think stretching past defined gender roles helps to create a more well-rounded, less-stereotypical character, too.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you. And I agree completely about the depth of character and level of interest you can get when you stretch that character beyond socially-defined gender roles. It’s one of the things about the Gideon Davies character that makes him memorable, and it adds to the story.

  9. Col

    Nothin to offer by way of examples TBH. Interesting post again, Margot – I’m off to a dark room to have a think!

  10. Margot, another intriguing post. Characters that don’t always fit the normal are a fun read to me. I think it stretches the author to make the characters different, but still realistic. I’m reading ICE DOGS and the two main characters have traits that don’t fit their gender but the author has created them so that these are normal traits and works great. An example, the girl knows how to hunt and the boy doesn’t but their upbringing makes it work.

    • Mason – Thanks for the kind words. And I’ll be interested to see what you think of Ice Dogs. Those kinds of adventure stories can be wonderful. And from what I’ve heard of it (I confess, I’ve not read it yet), it sounds as though the characters really are nicely rounded, in part because they aren’t ‘typical.’ Thanks for the example.

  11. Margot – Interesting post with great examples. I vaguely remember Parker’s Spenser being some kind of gourmet cook, which is somewhat anti-stereotypical.

    • Bryan – Thank you. And you’re right; Spenser is quite a good cook and it matters to him. As you say, not at all stereotypical. And yet, it adds to his character I think.

  12. kathy d.

    And Nero Wolfe tends to his orchid garden every day without fail. That may not fit a man’s “gender” role.
    I think the women detectives who arose after the women’s movement have pushed past the passe definition of women’s roles. V.I. Warshawski does everything, carries a gun on occasion, gets into fights, even jumped into the Chicago Canal once, is always running and so on.
    And Kinsey Millhone is also independent, also carries a gun and is physically active. Then there’s Sharon McCone who flies a plane, and does all sorts of non-traditional women’s activities.
    And then there’s Anna Pigeon who does everything in whatever environment she happens to ve living in.
    Cheers to these authors for creating such modern, capable, smart,
    feisty women characters.

    • Kathy – You have a well-taken point about Wolfe and his orchids. It’s not a stereotypical ‘man’s interest’ to tend to flowers, but Wolfe and Theodore Hortmann do.
      And I couldn’t agree more about McCone, Millhone and Warshawski (who, interestingly enough, were all created within a few years of each other). They certainly don’t fit the usual stereotype of the ‘girly girl.’ You give good examples of that too. So is Anna Pigeon. And yet each of them is definitely feminine in her own way. It just goes to show how limiting strict interpretation of gender roles really is.

  13. I think Peter Wimsey often defies stereotypes. On one hand he’s quite effeminate but he is also athletic and physically attractive to the opposite sex. Interesting Harriet Vane also has similar gender defying characteristics. They are an interesting couple.

    • Sarah – They really are, aren’t they? And part of what makes them interesting, as you point out, is that neither of them fits the stereotype of all that a male or female was ‘supposed to’ be at that time. I think that fact adds to their characters.

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