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Allow Us To Explain
I’ll be the first to admit that some of my most beloved detective characters were played by Humphrey Bogart. And even that’s probably rooted in my Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett fanaticism. I have, however, been heavily influenced by a series of detective dames over the course of my life.
Dominating their surroundings in a variety of different ways, these women crack the case, every time. Let’s take a look at a few of my favorite ‘chick dicks’…
(Image copyright Peerayot.)
It probably wouldn’t be fair to write a list of fictional female detectives and not include plucky teenage super-sleuth Nancy Drew. Ghostwritten by numerous authors under the nom de plume Carolyn Keene, Nancy’s been introducing kids to crime fiction since 1930. In other words, around a decade after women were allowed the right to vote. With that in mind, her spirited and independent nature was a breath of fresh air for young readers, who have been idolizing Miss Drew ever since.
Many of the most classic tomes were penned by Mildred A. Wirt Benson, though plenty were also written by men. Benson’s “anti-namby pamby” stance was wildly unprecedented in a time where females were finally breaking through the barriers of ‘being seen, not heard’. With a predisposition for being at ground zero when a crime occurs, Nancy Drew will, most assuredly, figure it out.
Quite pregnant and cute-as-a-darn-button Marge Gunderson, played by the talented Frances McDormand (who brought home one of those coveted golden statues for her performance), is perhaps the most iconic character in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. With a thick Midwestern accent and a good-natured sense of humor, she methodically nails the films’ villains (who turn out amazing acting chops themselves) with a smile and sharp police work.
She might not have the whippersnapper smart mouth of Veronica Mars, or Miss Marple’s greyed insight into the human condition, but she’s sincere to the point of being painful and her shuffling demeanor commands attention on the screen.
Straight from the Gotham City Police Department, Renee Montoya is known for kicking ass and not even needing to take any names. Alternately known as ‘The Question’ (or the second Question), Montoya is the kind of homicide detective you want on your side. Her on-again-off-again relationship with Batwoman was never a same-sex subplot for lonely fanboys in the DC universe – it’s simply an interesting story arc.
With the ability to reach out to those on the other side of the fence (like long-time villain, Two-Face) she confronts true-to-life issues, like hard drinking, being disowned by one’s family, and the omnipresence of true evil in Gotham City. If common sense prevailed, Hollywood would be writing a feature length film for her any day now.
From the mind of Agatha Christie sprang Miss Jane Marple, an old gal living alone with a penchant for solving crimes and the unique gift of empathy, reading humans down to the core. The words ‘elderly spinster’ are tossed around a lot, but Miss Marple’s advancing age comes in handy more often than not. Who is going to bust the chops of a cute, sweet old lady poking around the crime scene? Clearly, she’s just confused!
Early books paint a picture of a slightly nosier, almost pesky, lady, but she grew more caring and likeable over time – proving she doesn’t need to be painted as the ‘meddling old woman’ to solve crimes.
The way people freak their beak when a traditionally male character is re-cast as someone with double-X chromosomes always surprises me, but the team behind Elementary rolled the dice and won. Word on the street is that Lucy Liu initially turned down the role and fans fretted that this gender-reversal would be a vehicle for a ridiculous (and blasphemous) love story plotline between the two main characters. This is not the case and, according to producers, apparently never will be.
Though Hollywood’s fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle’s detecting duo is well-documented (Sherlock Holmes has taken on hundreds, if not thousands, of celluloid incarnations) Joan Watson is a breath of fresh air. She compassionately keeps Sherlock on the wagon, can perform brain surgery and, well, I don’t feel like I’m doing a feminist disservice by saying she’s absolutely gorgeous. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Played with ferocity and sass by Kristen Bell, high school spitfire and cold-case breaker Veronica Mars is nobody’s fool. After three seasons on the super-goofy UPN network, the show was unceremoniously canned, leaving legions of hardcore fans sniffling into their pillows.
Sure, the show was predictable, saccharine and silly…but it also ruled. I read an interview where Kristen Bell said fans would tell her with some regularity that Veronica Mars was their revisionist history. For everyone who wished they had a lightening-quick tongue wherever adolescent assholes abounded – it’s okay if you didn’t think of that comeback until an hour, or decade, later. Veronica’s got your back.
Okay, in Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is still a student at the FBI Academy, but Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars are underage amateurs and they still made the list, sooo… With a no-nonsense personality and the gift of being able to listen with judging, Agent Starling plays perfectly against Hannibal Lecter’s sophisticated cannibal.
Sure, she’s used as something of a plot device by the FBI director, sending her into the lion’s den because she’s a sharp, young woman who might appeal to the mass murderer’s sensibilities. But she outscoops them all (with only small, helpful hints from her new sociopathic buddy) and kills Buffalo Bill, in the dark, and basically saves the day.
“What does the ‘V’ stand for?” “My first name.” So says Kathleen Turner in the film version of the novels and short stories written by Sara Paretsky. Athletic and independent, Vic (as she’s known to her friends) is a Cubs fan, karate expert and opera aficionado who doesn’t take any guff from anyone. With a strong sense of justice, she fights corporate corruption, union thuggery, and your average misogynists – all in a day’s work.
In the movie version, filmed a couple years before Turner’s foray into absurdist gore (I’m talking to you, Serial Mom) and after her stint as the breathy voice of boring bombshell Jessica Rabbit, Ms. Warshawski drinks Jack Daniels, ignores housework and cares for the flippant teenager of a man she met at a bar who was blown to smithereens on a boat within a couple hours. Yep, all that and more.
Alright, help me out – who am I missing on this list? Leave a comment and let me know!
Lydia Mondy is a freelance writer with a penchant for Barbara Stanwyck movies, classical music being played at 78rpm and dressing up in a variety of goofy costumes before heading out in public. These things actually keep her pretty busy.
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