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Senior Women Sleuths, Part One

by Joanne Brickman

Probably the best-known mystery writer in most of the world is Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie Mallowan, better known as Agatha Christie, English mystery writer and playwright (1890-1976).  And undoubtedly, the best-known female senior sleuth is Christie's Miss Jane Marple. 

Of the 66 mystery novels and 145 short stories Agatha Christie produced in her fascinating and prolific life, twelve novels and 20 short stories featured Miss Marple, the appealing senior who solves crimes with her knowledge of human experience gained in a long village life in St. Mary Mead.

As important as she is to the genre, Miss Marple was not the first senior woman detective.  That honor belongs to Anna Katherine Green's Miss Amelia Butterworth. 

U.S. mystery writer Green (1846 -1935) published her first novel, "The Leavenworth Case," in 1878.  The novel launched a memorable male detective character, Ebenezer Gryce,  whose adventures continued until 1917.  As the series progressed, Gryce often enlisted the help of Miss Butterworth, an elderly woman with a love of intrigue and absolutely no scruples when it came to satisfying her curiosity.
 
Although enormously successful in her day, Green's work is out of print now, except for the occasional reappearance of "The Leavenworth Case."  Christie's work, on the other hand, continues to sell almost like it was written yesterday rather than decades ago.

 Another Englishwoman, nearly as prolific as Christie but not as successful in the U.S., was Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell (1901-1983).  While Mitchell wrote five novels as Stephen Hockaby, and six mysteries as Malcolm Torrie,  the bulk of her books, which totaled 66 in all, were written were under her own name, and featured the spellbinding and reptilian Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley.

This formidable lady was old in 1929 when she appeared in Mitchell's first novel, "Speedy Death."  Wrinkled and thin with claw-like hands, Mrs. Bradley had been married three times, had grown sons, and a multitude of nieces and nephews.  She was a psychiatrist, no mean achievement for a woman in 1929, with her own practice as well as a post of psychiatric consultant to the Home Office.

Interestingly, Dame Beatrice (she acquired the title during the course of her adventures) does not age a single day from her first adventure to her last, "The Crozier Pharaohs" (1984). However, her sidekick, Laurel Menzies, aged naturally, marrying a policeman and becoming a grandmother by the time the series ended.
 
As might be expected, Dame Beatrice is an acquired taste, which most American readers have managed to resist.  Only seventeen of her 66 adventures have been published in the United States.
 
In contrast, Miss Jane Marple of the Kentish village of St. Mary Mead, a blue-eyed, frail lady who dressed in a black lace cap and mittens, has had a broad and lasting appeal, aging along the way.  Miss Marple first appeared in a series of short stories published in Britain's The Sketch magazine. Her first appearance in a novel occurs in Murder At The Vicarage, published in 1930.  In the beginning, Miss Marple is a gleeful gossip and not particularly nice.  Unlike Dame Bradley, however, she modernizes and becomes nicer over the years. Incidentally, there are twelve years between the first Marple novel and the second, "The Body in the Library" published in 1942, although the lady appeared in some short stories between novel appearances.
 
Miss Marple aged gracefully over the years, and was very old in Nemesis (1971).  However, "Sleeping Murder," subtitled "Miss Marple's Last Case" and published in 1976 one year after Christie's death, was actually written in 1940, so the age chronology does not fit the series' progression.  This could very well be a reflection of the some of the mysteries in Agatha Christie's real life. 

The mysteries written by Mitchell, Green and Christie are best categorized as "cozies," and, in many ways, are reflective of the societies in which the authors themselves lived.  Over the years as social rules changed, so did mystery female series' characters.  Today, hard-boiled detectives like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski lead millions of loyal readers through exciting Southern California adventures, down the mean streets of Chicago and through trails and roads in hundreds of other locales.

 Yet, cozies still attract readers and many of today's more traditional mysteries feature a modern-day Marple or Bradley.  We'll explore some of these contemporary authors and their senior women sleuths, as well as investigate a number of  ladies 'of a certain age' who were solving crimes in past decades as this Senior Women Sleuth series continues.

Part Two >>

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