The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.

2 thoughts on “The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

    • I am leery of older stories as well; older, more intolerant language gets peppered in freely sometimes as if it’s no big deal, and then my joy has vanished. That said, this collection doesn’t have a lot of that–well, possibly in the “Pulp” section, but the book as a whole is so immense that skipping one little chapter isn’t that big a loss. I figure if 50% of the stories please the reader, it’s a good value, and as for me, I came away happy after reading about 80% plus.

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