LUCIE WHITEHOUSE on Female Detectives

Written by Lucie Whitehouse

Photo © Joe Vinciguerra

At the beginning of Critical Incidents, the only detecting my protagonist Robin Lyons has in prospect is hanging round Wickes car park after benefit fraudsters with her mum’s friend Maggie, a goth PI d’un certain age. Until recently a DCI with Homicide Command at the Met, Robin’s been kicked out in disgrace and at thirty-five, single and broke, forced to limp back to Birmingham and her parents’ house, crucible for much of what had driven her to London in the first place. Needless to say, however, the novel has bigger detecting plans for her – before twenty-four hours are out, her own best friend, Corinna, is found murdered in her burned-out house.

Of the feedback I’ve had on this novel so far, the comments that have meant the most are those from readers who said they loved the characters, especially the female characters, especially Robin. With the crime stories I’ve loved, novels, TV or film, it’s always the characters I remember, rarely, with – a couple of exceptions – the plots. It’s the people I’m there for – or for whom I come back. I’d follow Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw through a blow-by-blow investigation of the theft of a packet of crisps. (She’d be extremely thorough, especially if a ham sandwich was involved, too.)

Robin came to me almost fully formed, which really means she’d been lurking in a dark corner of my brain for a while. I knew that she was an extremely reluctant Brummie and that coming back to Birmingham in her mind would be rock bottom, the ultimate evidence that she’d failed, not just at her career but in life. I knew that after a savage heartbreak just before university, she’d had a period of wild living that had resulted in the birth of her daughter, Lennie, whom she’s raised as a single parent since she was twenty-two, simultaneously building a fierce career at the Met. I knew that she was clever, sharp, decent but prone to making mistakes in her judgements about people at times because she’s been wrong before.

Like most series protagonists, I suspect, she shares a number of characteristics with her author, also a Midlander (though I’m a proud one), also bloody-minded, also prone to mistakes in her readings of people. But she’s much more than I am – an amplification. She’s bolder and more raucous, ballsier, definitely funnier.

Is she a ‘strong female character’? Of course – but why wouldn’t she be? Over the years, I’ve felt more and more annoyed by this phrase, its implication that female characters are not strong unless explicitly so designated. What does it even mean to be ‘strong’? It seems to me that the word is just a synonym for masculine or used to denote qualities considered male: physical strength, mental toughness, self-sufficiency, a lack of any kind of dependence on others, especially a woman or children – heaven forfend. ‘Strong male characters’ stride about the fictional landscape like the heads of Mount Rushmore animated and given legs.

I’m not especially interested in physical strength (though I was both horrified and enthralled by the scene in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley where Catherine Cawood fights the terrifying Tommy Lee Royce) but mental strength is a different question. It’s one of the traits I most admire, in real life as well as fiction, and it’s absolutely a female quality. The ability to face people and situations head-on, not to buckle under pressure or soft-soap when difficult things need to be said. To stand up. And to do so with grace and humour – one of the details I loved in Happy Valley was the pair of sunglasses Catherine bought at the newsagent before going to talk a guy down from setting himself on fire – if he’s going, she says, he’s not taking her eyebrows with him.

Self-sufficiency is one thing, and many of the memorable female detectives are self-sufficient – Harriet Vane, for example, Jane Tennison, Antoinette Conway in Tana French’s The Trespasser. Since having a daughter of my own, however, I’ve come to appreciate the far greater effort in being sufficient not just for yourself but for other people. In real life, supporting others is equal-opportunities, of course, but when it comes to fictional detectives, I’d argue that the female of the species are carrying more than their share of the water.

And for me, this makes them not tediously encumbered and distracted from the task in hand but richer and more dimensional. It also gives them greater exposure, more to lose, and surely that’s fictional gold.

Sticking with Sally Wainwright, I go to Scott and Bailey not for the crime stories, interesting though they are, but for the on-going narratives of Scott and Bailey’s lives – and, my favourite, actually, their female DCI, Gill Murray (talk about mental strength with humour and grace). Scott is dealing with a disintegrating marriage and teenage daughters on the edge, Bailey with a train-wreck of a personal life, including an addict mother and a brother just out of prison. Scott is demure, far less of a ladette than Bailey but she’s ever bit as mentally tough – they all are and they just keep coming. Gill looks after her team, including Scott and Bailey; Scott looks after her daughters but she also looks after Bailey – who in turn looks after her brother. It’s a rich and deeply satisfying narrative web of connection and entanglement.

Another of my favourite female detective characters, strictly a journalist, is Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan and again it’s her personal ties and obligations that make her so memorable. It’s Eighties Glasgow and while she’s on the bottom rung in the newsroom, her salary as a journalist is the only one in a household that comprises both her parents and two of her three siblings. She’s the breadwinner, she deals with full-on misogyny at work, works on a book in the shed at the bottom of the garden and still manages to take her mother on Catholic ladies’ nights out, too, with a bag of lemon bonbons for the bus (if she hasn’t eaten them first). She doesn’t need to karate-chop anyone in the gizzard to prove how tough she is, she just goes about her business.

Gender influences a character, of course it does, but it doesn’t define her. Years ago, when I was an agent with Darley Anderson, I read a crime novel with a female central character written by a man. He’d done a fine job, really good – I believed in his protagonist completely. In the entire novel, there was just one detail that struck me as ‘off’ and that was the character’s thinking, on the first page, of something she’d done ‘when she was a girl’. As someone who was once a girl, I’ve never used that formulation, not ever – when I think back, it’s to ‘when I was little’ or ‘when I was a child’. For me, that one detail summarises the whole key to writing successful female characters: don’t imagine that your character is female, just imagine that she’s a human being. A person.

CRITICAL INCIDENTS by Lucie Whitehouse is published 26 December, 2019 by 4th Estate (PB | £7.99)

Lucie Whitehouse

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