Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Male and Female Sleuths, Part I

It is extremely rare to find a male detective in a mystery series who has a complex, multi-faceted personality which grows and transforms over the course of the series. Male sleuths tend to be assigned a set of quirky characteristics in the very first novel of the series. Then, references to these quirks and tics are made in the subsequent novels to remind us of what this character is supposed to be like. Even Ruth Rendell, whose greatest talent (among many) resides in creating complex, fascinating characters, fails to do so with her Inspector Wexford. In Rendell's Inspector Wexford series, we see this character over the course of fifty years and can safely say that he experiences absolutely no changes in terms of his personality. For this reason, I have always found this series to be quite boring.

Or take, for example, Elizabeth George's Lynley and Havers series. Lynley, the male sleuth, is always the same. If you have read a single one of these novels, you know all there is to know about this character's personality. Female sleuths, however, fare a lot better. They are given personalities that are complex, profound, growing, changing with every new installment. Barbara Havers, the female protagonist of George's series, differs from her male counterpart Inspector Lynley in that her experiences in these novels help her grow. The Havers of A Great Deliverance (the first novel in the series)  is not nearly the same person we encounter in This Body of Death, which is the most recent installment.

The same could be said about many other female detectives. Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan, Lisa Gardner's D.D. Warren, Tess Gerritsen's Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are complex, interesting characters whose personalities undergo profound transformations in the course of the series.

I believe that the reason why male sleuths are frequently so flat, cartoonish and boring lies in the tradition of the early classics of the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are the models on which the entire cast of later male sleuths was built. These three classic sleuths are quirky and original. They are, however, always the same. Poirot's personality is exactly the same in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as he is in Curtain. As for Holmes and Father Brown, I have read all stories featuring these characters (usually more than once) but for the life of me couldn't figure out the chronological succession of these stories.

(To be continued. . .)


feMOMhist said...

hmmmm as a devoted mystery fan not sure if I agree or not

have you read Anne Perry? Both her male/female partnerships involve men who are ever evolving, Monk is partial amnesiac and Pitt is classic fish out of water.

Lynley does seem to me after his failed marriage to change some, although I agree that the largely omniscient model of the early classic detectives does create rather static characters. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Laurie King re-imagings of Holmes so much. They explore a side of him barely touched on in the originals.

Then again I can also think of many female characters who don't evolve, Warshawski, Plum, etc, perhaps as convention of the hard-boiled-ish genre

damn, I've clearly got too much to say. Better make this a post topic of my own soon :)

Clarissa said...

I'd love to read your take on this issue.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have not read them since I was a child, but as I recall, Perry Mason by Earl Stanley Gardner at least ages as thje series progresses.

Clarissa said...

I love Perry Mason novels but I couldn't arrange them chronologically for any amount of money. Perry Mason is not a person. He is a question-generating machine. :-) :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

BTW, I just sent you an email. If the link does not work, please let me know and I will try from a different address. In my experience, links sent via yahoo sometimes don't work, for some reason.

Pagan Topologist said...

Hmmm. If offered enough money, I would check the copyright dates.

Spanish prof said...

Have you read the Britt Montero series of Edna Buchanan? The female characters are pretty interesting there.