[Ssaww-L] U.S. women's detective fiction

Compiled by Jennifer Tuttle
Sat Aug 6 05:52:34 PDT 2011

Back to Lists of Books and Course Materials

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Louisa May Alcott's blood-and-thunder tales

Nevada Barr (all of her novels are set in national parks--they make
great reads when you're traveling to a park)

Eleanor Taylor Bland’s series featuring African American detective Marti
McAlister, a widow with two children, and a police officer near Chicago

Rita Mae Brown's "Sneaky Pie Brown" mysteries

Karen Rose Cercone’s series set in late-nineteenth-century Pittsburgh,
consists of three books: Coal Bones, Blood Tracks, Steel Ashes

Joanne Dobson’s series on English professor Karen Pelletier “would be
wonderfully apropos for a course that includes recovered works of women
writers. Her detective is a college prof (single mother from a working
class background) working on 19c women writers. Try either The Northbury
Papers -- on a scorned/rediscovered writer, or Quieter than Sleep, with
a Dickinson angle.”  “ Dobson's _The Northbury Papers_ could pair well
with _The Hidden Hand_ or perhaps another, shorter Southworth text. I
believe Southworth is in the background of Dobson's scorned recovered
woman writer.”  From Joanne:  “Southworth is very much the inspiration
for Mrs. Northbury.  I'd just visited her great granddaughter on Marthas
Vineyard when I began the novel.” 

Mary Wilkins Freeman's "The Long Arm"

Kathleen George who does police procedurals 
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, UNPUNISHED (written in 1929 but not published
in her lifetime; this book anticipates MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS in a
very interesting way!)

Martha Grimes

Sue Grafton’s her alphabetized series, especially "A" is for Alibi, "C"
is for Corpse, "I" is for Innocent, "M" is for Malice, and "P" is for
Peril, is “socially conscious, intelligent women's detective fiction.” 

Pauline E. Hopkins, "Talma Gordon" and _Hagar's Daughter_ 

Laurie R. King has two series: the Kate Martinelli series, set in
contemporary San Francisco. Kate is a homicide detective whose lesbian
personal partner is disabled (maybe after the first book in the series);
and the Mary Russell series, about the woman who's Sherlock Holmes's
apprentice, colleague, and then wife  

Margaret Maron

Miriam Grace Monfredo, SENECA FALLS INHERITANCE and other historical 

Marcia Muller

BLANCH CLEANS UP , BLANCHE PASSES GO: “Lots of interesting stuff in
there about how white people act like their African-American servants
are invisible--hence helping Blanche solve mysteries (a twist on the
old-women-are-invisible theme that Christie used with Miss Marple)! 
Neely weaves politics pretty seamlessly into her novels, not an easy
thing to do.” “BLANCHE ON THE LAM was great  for raising issues about
emotional work. Looking at it in a course on detective stories would
allow for exploring why those issues themselves require detection.”
“BLANCHE CLEANS UP treats  environmental justice issues (among other
race/class/gender themes) in  Massachusetts.”

Abigail Padgett, CHILD OF SILENCE and others

Sara Paretsky (especially Fire Sale, Burn Marks, and her riveting 2009
novel Hardball, with its depiction of racial prejudice in a fictional
Chicago police force). (VI Warshawski is a great detective--watching her
age and deal with issues of aging has been good.)

Elizabeth Peters's series featuring the late 19th to early 20thC Briton
Amelia Peabody and her fictionally famous archeologist husband Emerson,
with their amusing adventures in Egypt and their precocious son Ramses

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1908) and The Case of
Jennie Brice (1913). Both of these novels feature older (unmarried)
women who becom
e crime solvers when faced with dangerous, mysterious
situatiHarriet Prescott Spofford , "In a Cellar," among other stories.  She was
“the first woman to create a serial detective in Mr. Furbush (‘In the
Maguerriwock’ (sp?) in the Bendixen coll., and ‘Mr. Furbush’ in Harper's
M. 1865); these stories, moreover, address social issues, and her
detective grapples with moral dilemmas of detecting as intrusion etc.”

Dana Stabenow, BLOOD WILL TELL and others (her sleuth, Kate Shugak, is
an Alaska Native)

Victoria Thompson’s series is set in late-nineteenth-century Pittsburgh.
The thirteenth book in her Gaslight series just came out.

Valerie Wilson Wesley, series featuring Tamara Hayle, an African
American ex-cop and single mother who works as a private investigator in

Kate Wilhelm

Barbara Wilson, MURDER IN THE COLLECTIVE and other lesbian-feminist
detective stories featuring Pam Nilson: “they're interesting case
studies in blending the mystery genre and pretty explicit politics”; 
GAUDI AFTERNOON (a personal favorite) and others featuring Cassandra

Secondary sources:
CLUES: A Journal of Detection 

John Cullen Gruesser A Century of Detection: Twenty Great Mystery
Stories, 1841-1940 helpful as a secondary/primary source text.  The
introduction provides a history of detection fiction and discusses
gender and race.
Bobbie Ann Mason, The Girl Sleuth,  about the Nancy Drew books and their
like. Written in the hangover of graduate school, while watching the
Watergate hearings!

Catherine Ross Nickerson's _The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction
by American Women_ (Duke UP, 1998).
Paige Sanderson Prindle’s dissertation, which has a couple of very good
chapters on Alcott, Metta Victor, Anna Katherine Green, and other early
women writers of mystery/detection. The diss. is titled Publishing,
Property, and Problematic Heiresses: Representations of Inheritance in
Nineteenth-Century American Women's Popoular Fiction (UC San Diego

Erin Smith's Hard-Boiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines

MOTHERS OF MYSTERY (CA Center for the Book)

See comments on Cynthia Kuhn’s blog:  

“there's been so much interesting discussion of Lisbeth Salander from
Stieg Larsson's millenium trilogy--whether she's a feminist heroine,
whether the novels successfully critique violence against women
(Larsson's stated intent) or fall into reveling in it etc.”

Mostly I read detective stories for fun but I love teaching American lit
as stories of detection or failed detection--Benito Cereno by Melville
works really well in that way.

Because the British 'cozy' has dominated the detective genre, I find
writers like Elizabeth George interesting: she is an American but
writing in a British context with British characters.  (I've most
recently been reading the contemporary British writer Jacqueline
Winspear whose writing, for me, evokes the grand dame Dorothy L.
Sayers--I love Gaudy Night...a lot.  But this takes us well off the
beaten track.).