One 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.