Fictional Female Investigators

Helen Mirren, Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison channeling Hamlet

“A bit of a boys’ club,” says Kristen Lepionka about the place of women detectives in the world of crime fiction. In her new novel, The Last Place You Look, she took on the task of creating a credible female private investigator and immediately discovered the female point of view involves “much more than just a difference of chromosomes.”

Women’s life experiences, and their interaction with crime (either as police, private investigators, or  amateur detectives) is just so different from men’s. In detective fiction, she says, they battle “rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed.” Oh, and they also must solve cases.

This lesson is oh-so-clear to me having just read a crime novel with a female protagonist, written by a man, which would have been much better had he named his main character, say, Sam instead of Samantha, and recognized he was writing a man. This character never seemed like a woman to me, though he gave her one annoying trait meant to symbolize the feminine sensibility. Every other page, she started crying.

Lepionka created a list of ten fictional female detectives she thinks really work and they’re written by both men and women. From her list, I’ve read books featuring: Antoinette Conway (a character created by Tana French); Alex Morrow (Denise Mina); and Smilla Jasperson (Peter Høeg). To her list, I’d add Nikki Liska (Tami Hoag), Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear), and Karin Müller (David Young). And, never forget Lynda LaPlante’s development of feisty, put-upon DCI Jane Tennison: “Don’t call me Ma’am; I’m not the bloody queen.” Now I’m excited to read crime-master Michael Connelly’s new book, The Late Show—his first to feature female detective Renée Ballard. Can he do as well as he does with Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller?

Thirty-five years ago, Sara Peretsky faced the same issues as Lepionka in creating her iconic female detective, V.I. Warshawski. In a recent LitHub essay, she describes imagining a new type of detective, one who would be “neither victim nor vamp,” one “who would reflect the experience of my generation . . . who could have a sex life without it defining them as wicked. Women who could solve their own problems.”

Peretsky took her character’s ardent spirit a step further. In 1986, speaking at a conference on “Women in the Mystery,” she spoke out about the disturbing increase in explicit violence and sadism against women. Her remarks fell on receptive ears, coinciding with growing awareness of women writers’ ignored role in the mystery/crime genre, despite the continuing quality of their work. Thus was the organization Sisters in Crime—of which I am a member—born.

Not that essays like these nor a single organization can overcome all the ingrained attitudes and expectations. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the same new book I mentioned above with the weak female characterization includes a graphic, sadistic, and totally unnecessary threat to the investigator. More work to do. Write on!

Miranda and the Police Interview

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No Miranda for you!? photo: Jonas Bengtsson, creative commons license

When Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department in 1963, accused of kidnapping and rape, it’s a cinch that of all the things he thought might happen to him, the likelihood his name would become a verb was probably nowhere on the list.

In crime fiction, cops “Mirandize” suspects all the time. Too often, perhaps. Leslie Budewitz, a lawyer and president of Sisters in Crime, says that giving every character a Miranda warning is “one of the 12 common mistake fiction writers make about the law.”

Writers of crime novels and screenplays often don’t get their Miranda facts straight. The Miranda warning is based on the Fifth Amendments self-incrimination clause and the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney, in words familiar to any consumer of U.S. popular culture:

  • You have the right to remain silent;
  • Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law;
  • You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during the interrogation;
  • If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you

As John Schembra points out in the comments below, some states have slight variations on the core Miranda rights, cited above, particularly as they apply to juveniles. Some of those interstate differences are described in this Wikipedia article (and subject to change).

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (in Berghuis v. Thompkins) a controversial case involving the right to remain silent, which some scholars believe weakened Miranda protections.

At last month’s Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin, police training officer Mike Knetzger agrees that fiction provides Miranda warnings far more often than actually appropriate or used in practice. He outlined the three essential elements that must be present for a Miranda warning to be necessary.

Crime + Custody + Questioning

The occurrence of an actual crime seems an obvious prerequisite, but in many situations, police may simply want to talk to a person—for background or as a witness, not yet a suspect. Violations and infractions (civil offenses) are not “crimes.” Examples are traffic tickets and the one Knetzger gave—just possibly from on-the-job experience—running out of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field stark naked.

Individuals must be “in custody.” Even if they are at the police station, if they are free to leave, they are not in custody and, therefore, receive no warning. However, if they make “spontaneous statements” there—“He trashed my cooking one time too many and I hit him over the head with the frying pan”—those statements can be used in court.

The questioning of the individual must be intended to elicit incriminating evidence, not just make general inquiries. After a crime is committed, the police may ask a great many people about the events and the people involved. None of these are necessarily suspects—yet.

Next time you see, read—or write—that a fictional character receives a Miranda warning, ask yourself whether all three of the above conditions are met.