Jule Selbo ~
In writing my debut crime/mystery novel, 10 Days, A Dee Rommel Mystery, I knew my protagonist was going to be Dee Rommel, a female investigator in her late twenties. My book was to be a domestic crime/thriller (not a cozy), so I looked at gender differences within that sub-section of the genre.
Historically, the characteristics of male investigators have fallen into tried-and-true categories. From Poe’s Lupin to Conan Doyle’s Holmes to Chandler’s Marlowe, Connelly’s Bosch, Nesbo’s Harry Hole, to Lansing’s Bertolino, they all share similar traits. They’re either divorced or never married, there may be a dangling family element, such as a child or sibling, but they are unattached in a day-to-day familial or romantic way. They’re intuitive, obsessive and, in many cases, have a skilled, connected friend or partner with whom to consider theories.
The female investigator, in recent years, has morphed into a variation of the male investigator: Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, French’s Cassie Maddox, and Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum are single, smart, badass, creative, physically strong and adept with weapons. However, female investigators are aware they function in a testosterone-heavy man’s world. Being often underestimated – because of gender bias – adds another layer to their personal essence (something the male investigator sidesteps).
Also, many female investigators are not above questioning their career choice and asking themselves how their jobs have negated opportunities of hearth, home, children…. They may judge themselves as selfish or emotionally cut off because they lack a deep desire for long-term romantic or maternal experience. Insecurities and life questions often rise to the surface, setting them apart from the classic characteristics of the male investigator whose confidence and self-centeredness are generally unquestioned.
Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, in an interview with Culture Books Features in 2012, said he likes to write female protagonists because “of the nature of the conversation that female detectives have”. Smith’s observation rang true to me: Many female investigators (as opposed to male investigators) discuss a wider variety of topics because, traditionally, they are “multi-taskers”.
A recent example of an over-the-top multi-tasker is Detective Mare Sheehan, in Brad Ingelsby’s Mare of Easttown (2021 HBO series, starring Kate Winslet). Mare works on the police force of a small-town in Pennsylvania, she’s divorced, she’s the fulcrum of a large and complicated extended family, she carries deep guilt concerning her (perceived) inadequate mothering skills, she employs sex as a physical and mental release but isn’t immune to wanting a consistent romantic link… Granted, this is a television series, and I know, as a screenwriter of two decades, that different rules apply, but how many neuroses and demands outside of catching a murderer can a protagonist embody? It’s exhausting, and in my view, her issues become secondary to the solving of the crime.
So what’s a good balance?
In 1856, Kate Warne became the first real-life, professional female detective in America. Widowed at the age of 23, she answered a Pinkerton Private Detective Agency advertisement. In her job interview, she pointed out that women could ferret out secrets where a male detective would be suspect. A woman, she said, could befriend wives and girlfriends of criminals and flush out important information. Warne was hired and brought embezzlers and murderers to justice, opening the door for other females to join the profession. (Check out Greer Macallister’s novel Girl in Disguise (2017) if you want to spend more time with Kate Warne.)
Warne, perhaps, inspired James R. Ware (pseudonym: Andrew Forrester) to pen Female Detective in 1864. He introduced Mrs. Gladden (“G”) twenty years before Sherlock Holmes was created. G noted that since criminals are both female and male, there was a clear necessity for detectives of both sexes. She supported herself, took on the male contingent and their prejudices with alacrity, and did not ascribe to using “good manners” while in pursuit of her prey. In other words, she was a badass.
A few more British female detectives were introduced before the turn into the 20th century, W.S. Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective and Leonard Merrick’s Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent among them. The women were widowed and chose to support themselves rather than pursuing another marriage or retreating under a family umbrella. Some smoked, some used guns – all were ready to go where respectable ladies feared to tread. All focused on the crime at hand without too many other responsibilities.
In my book 10 Days, A Dee Rommel Mystery, I worked to create a three-dimensional character, keeping the engine of the mystery in the forefront with the multi-tasking under control. Dee’s skilled and admired, but, emotionally, she’s in self-shielding mode. While on the Portland Police force, she suffered a life-changing on-the-job injury which has exacerbated her mistrust – and her desire for justice – but this injury will not hold her back.
I took the more modern approach and built a 2021 world where the bias against female investigators had (mostly) abated. Dee’s a young woman who expects and gets respect. In 10 Days, she can hold her own in a “man’s world”. Dee’s a badass – smart, sarcastic, skilled, complicated – but also strongly connected to the “female world”, aware that she still has lessons to learn and able to tune into the emotional lives of friends and family. Hope you enjoy! Would love to hear from you!
— Jule Selbo
Jule Selbo is an award-winning author and screenwriter, and an active member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She has given workshops and speeches at numerous writing conferences and book events. She lives in Portland, Maine.
Jule’s website: https://www.juleselbo.com