Wouldn’t You Rather Have Your Precious Little Ingénue*

ingénuesOne of the character types we often associate with classic and Golden Age crime fiction (although this character shows up elsewhere, too) is the ingénue – the somewhat unsophisticated, inexperienced young woman. Ingénues aren’t necessarily unintelligent. In fact, many are quite bright. But they tend to be less worldly and more innocent than more experienced female characters.

There are a lot of them in crime fiction, too. Sometimes they’re unjustly accused of murder. Sometimes they’re guilty, and hide behind the ingénue façade. They can also make for effective love interests, among other things. Whatever role the ingénue plays, she’s an integral part of, especially, classic and Golden Age crime fiction.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that, in more than one of his adventures, he helps an ingénue. For example, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen quarrelling with his father just before the murder. He claims he’s innocent, though, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She’s convinced enough to go to Inspector Lestrade and ask him to look into the case again. Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to consider the matter more closely. He contacts Sherlock Holmes, asking him to examine the evidence and see if there are any other possibilities. Holmes acquiesces and he and Dr. Watson travel to Boscombe Valley, where the murder occurred. They find that the victim gave an important clue to his killer, but no-one understood it at the time of his death.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. Although she’s ‘well born,’ she’s been rather sheltered, and hasn’t had a chance to travel or spend a lot of time in exotic circles. She and her mother, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, are invited to a cocktail party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Also present at the party is Hercule Poirot (and Mr. Satterthwaite, by the way). Poirot takes an interest in the case, and Egg persuades him to pursue it when there’s another, similar death. Egg is a smart young woman, and by no means a ‘helpless female.’ But there are ways in which she’s an ingénue, and it’s interesting to see how that impacts her character.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, recent university graduate Tad Rampole takes the advice of his mentor and travel from his native US to England. While he’s there, he’s going to meet lexicographer and academician Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole is on his way to Fell’s home when he meets Dorothy Starberth, whose family lives not far away. He’s immediately smitten with her, so he’s happy to listen when Fell tells him the story of the Starberth family. Several generations of Starberths were Governors at a nearby prison that’s fallen into disuse. And even today, there’s a Starberth tradition connected with the prison. Every male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison. As proof of presence, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, and she’s concerned about it. For many years, there’s been talk of a curse on the family; several of its male members have met with untimely deaths. Martin’s not overly eager to go to the prison, either, but he goes ahead with the plan. On the night of his birthday, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a fall from a balcony. Gideon Fell isn’t so sure, though, and works to find out the truth. In this novel, Dorothy Starberth is smart and aware, but still has an air of innocence that one could definitely call ingénue.

So does nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In that story, Queen has taken a place in the Hollywood Hills to do some writing. He’s hoping for some peace and quiet, but that’s not what happens. Laurel visits him one day, asking him to investigate the death of her father, Leander, who died recently of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that someone deliberately brought that attack on by sending him a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ At first, Queen has no interest in the case. But he gradually gets interested in the puzzle of what the packages may mean, and how they’re related. That’s especially true when he learns that Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been getting similar deliveries. For her part, Laurel is smart and capable. But there’s something a little innocent and young about her, and it adds to her interest as a character.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses. One day, the police at one of the South London stations get an anonymous letter. In it, the author confesses to the murder of a vagrant whose body was found at an underground station. There’s very little in the letter that could identify the writer, so the police can’t really do much about it, even if it is genuine. And we soon learn that it is. The story behind the letter begins in 1966 South East London, where teenaged ingénues Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan live with their parents. They’re as well-sheltered and protected as their parents can manage, but they still have an interest in the clothes, lifestyle and experimentation of the times. One Friday night, they wangle permission to go dancing at the Palais Royale, so long as their cousin Jimmy takes them and brings them back. Bridie and Midge are happy enough with this arrangement, and eagerly get ready for their big night. What happens that night is life-changing for several characters in the story, and it’s connected with the letter the police get decades later.

There are a lot of other examples of ingénues in classic and Golden Age crime fiction, and in some historical crime fiction. Do you think there are still crime-fictional ingénues today? Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe’s Prima Donna.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Steph Avery

26 responses to “Wouldn’t You Rather Have Your Precious Little Ingénue*

  1. Pingback: Wouldn’t You Rather Have Your Precious Little Ingénue | e. michael helms

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Mystery/crime writer Margot Kinberg discusses the roll of ingenue’s in mysteries of yesteryear and today!

  3. Ah, but ingenues are not always what they seem–therein often lies a mystery in and of itself, adding another vital element to the whole. Interesting post, Margot, thanks! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And absolutely, one of the great things about ingénues, for the writer, is exactly that. They may, or may not, be as innocent as they seem…

  4. Tim

    Does Harriet Vane qualify?
    If my mind worked better, I might have other candidates. But, alas, the mind is a murky mess lately.

    • Interesting question, Tim. I think we see perhaps a touch of the ingénue in Harriet Vane here and there. She’s a fairly experienced crime writer, and she was involved in what used to be called ‘living in sin.’ But every once in a while, I can see how a reader might catch just a bare, tiny hint.

  5. I can’t think of any ingenue characters in any of the crime fiction I’ve been reading over the last few years. Perhaps that’s because of the emphasis on (and demand for) strong female characters in mystery and thriller.

    • Oh, that’s an interesting point, Pat! There is a demand for strong female characters, so that’s what authors are creating. And a lot of people don’t associate that image with the image of the ingénue. I don’t know if the two are absolutely incompatible, but may people think they are. So I can certainly see the connection between that demand and the lack of ingénue characters in recent crime fiction.

  6. I think there definitely are, Margot although in modern fiction I think they often turn out to be the perpetrator hiding behind the facade of the ingénue. I don’t think many people would believe in truly naive female characters in fiction these days, unless it’s a comedy. After all, the female of the species is more deadly than the male 😉

    • Ha! Yes, indeed, D.S.! Especially when she writes crime fiction. 😉 – You make a really well-taken point about modern readers’ expectations, too. We don’t assume any more that the seemingly naïve, innocent young women is what she seems to be. And that adds to the possibilities in the genre, I think.

  7. I’m reading The Girls by Emma Cline at the moment – a book loosely based on the Manson cult – and the central character is a 14-year-old girl who’s about to get sucked in. It’s done very well in that she’s shown as quite aware of lots of aspects of the adult world, including sex and so on, and yet still innocent and naive enough to fall for flattery and be excited by that sense of living dangerously. I think she’s a very good example of an ingénue, but the book is set several decades ago. I suspect that although kids today seem to know everything by the age of 3 and a half, emotional innocence and vulnerability probably hasn’t changed very much over the years, so in that sense I reckon there’s still a place for the ingénue. Some of Megan Abbott’s teenagers might fall into that category too…

    • I have to say, FictionFan, The Girls is on my wish list, so I’ll be really keen to know what you think of it when you’ve finished. And you make such an interesting point about teenage girls. On the one hand, as you say, many are well up on the adult world. On the other, they can be very innocent indeed. That makes them quite vulnerable, doesn’t it? And it’s quite likely that today’s young girls aren’t that different. Not an easy row to hoe for their parents. I’m glad you mentioned Megan Abbott’s work; she does create some memorable young and innocent characters who are at the same time worldly.

  8. kathyd

    Oh, but there are a lot of innocent young girls today. That’s why predators can lure them through the Internet’s social media. So many sad, awful stories about this criminal behavior. This is why parents’ scrutiny of their children’s use of social media is important and why it’s important that the young women don’t use apps that give away their locations. Just terrible incidents about this. I’ve seen enough on TV to last a lifetime.
    But as far as crime fiction, I don’t see this often at all. However, it sure is a staple of earlier movies, especially black-and-white films. How many movies have I seen where a young innocent woman turns out to be a manipulator, even a murderer.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. And it’s true that predators take advantage of that naïveté. And you make a very interesting point about films, especially older films. You do see plenty of ingénues (or are they really that innocent?) in those films. and it can raise the tension as we wonder whether they’re really as innocent as they seem.

  9. Col

    I don’t think I’ve met too many in my reading!

    • I think it may getting harder to find them in crime fiction, Col. Young people are still vulnerable, and we still see that in their characters. But I wonder if we see the sort of classic ingénue any more.

  10. It is interesting when a bildungsroman element is added to a mystery book – of course, in hardboiled titles like THE LITTLE SISTER the ingenues sometimes turn out to be highly destructive too, which I think can be an interesting flipside – thanks Margot.

    • I think that element is interesting, too, Sergio. And of course, in skilled hands, the ingénue can, indeed, turn out to be not at all what she seems. As you say, that can add an element of tension to the novel.

  11. Margot, this was an informative and educational post. For one, I’d have never noticed it the way you have, and two, “ingénues” is a new word for me — thank you. I’m trying to figure out how it is pronounced!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Prashant. And I know what you mean about pronouncing words. I run into that, too, sometimes. That’s why it can be so nice to have audio books, where people pronounce words in other languages, and you can hear it.

  12. In Georgette Heyer’s No Wind of Blame there is a marvellous ingénue called Vicky – she is forever playing a part, often that of the ‘young and innocent’. And she is also very clever, and completely hilarious – a wonderful character. Heyer – in crime novels and her Regency romances – often has an ingenue who is contrasted with the real heroine, who is older, wiser, less obviously pretty, and usually much amused (and occasionally annoyed) by the ingenue.
    But as for more recent examples – not so much….

    • So glad you mentioned Heyer’s work, Moira. I’ll confess I don’t know her romances the way I do her crime novels. Still, you’re right about her use of the ingénue. And, as you say, Heyer uses them to real effect as characters in their own right, but also as contrasts to the older, more worldly-wise heroine. Interesting…

  13. kathyd

    Have been trying to think of ingenues, but thought of the young seemingly innocent young women in two movies: Anne Baxter’s character in “All About Eve,” and Ann Blyth’s character in “Mildred Pierce.”

  14. tracybham

    I have run into a lot of ingenues in film, but don’t remember a lot in the mysteries I read, even though a large amount of my reading is vintage mysteries. One I do remember is Martyn Tarne in Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan. She is a young, aspiring penniles actress who is involved in a murder. I enjoyed Martyn’s story. After the murder, the story was less interesting.

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