Female protagonist challenge

Which men, if any, write excellent female protagonists [in crime fiction]? This was my question to Meg Gardiner and the panel at the CrimeFest session "Female of The Species – Women In Crime Fiction". And nobody could think of any!

L. C. Tyler (a.k.a. Len) came to my rescue at a coffee break, by reminding me of the excellent Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. Len correctly pointed out that this character is superbly and sensitively realised. (We reminisced a bit about the book, which I loved even though I was crushingly disappointed by the last quarter: after the brilliant start and middle, the thriller/science fiction ending just lost me.)

But surely there must be other examples of men who have written good books with female protagonists. Can you think of any? I don't count Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as that is mainly told from the perspective of journalist Mikael Blomkvist, although I have got the message that Lisbeth Salander features more prominently in subsequent books (yet to be published in English).

I dredged up Robin Cook's Coma from my memory, a breakthrough book which kicked off not only the medical thriller genre but, so far as I recall, was the first full-out thriller to feature the hat trick of female main character, detective, and ultimate solver of the central dilemma. But that book was written in 1977. Even Miss Smilla was published in 1992. Surely there must have been other believable, central,  female protags written by men between then and now? Not partnerships, not "members of groups", I mean full-on female equivalents to Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, Jack Reacher, John Rebus, "E" Morse, Jack Frost et al. Or perhaps I should write, to hammer my point home, equivalents to Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), Thomas Lynley (Elizabeth George), Jimmy Perez (Ann Cleeves), Reg Wexford (Ruth Rendell) et al. Prove me wrong, someone, please.

17 thoughts on “Female protagonist challenge

  1. Perhaps Kjell Ericksson’s Ann Lindell? The ‘Not partnerships, not “members of groups”‘ restriction makes this a bit tricky. Lindell is part of a police department — not a ‘lone wolf’, but then nor are Lynley, Wexford and Rebus, so I think she qualifies.

  2. An excellent challenge, and I do hope someone can come to your rescue, because I can’t! Miss Smilla is the name which leapt immediately to my mind, too. A captivating portrayal. I agree about the ending, though that hasn’t stopped me from re-reading the book twice. Smilla is an extraordinarily convincing female character. (btw had never been inspired to read any of Hoeg’s other books, but the review on Vulpes Libris this week has had made me think again). I do find McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie comfortably and convincingly feminine. Otherwise, unfortunately, the good female characters by male writers who spring to mind all turn out to be sidekicks, partners (professional or personal) or in some other way ‘secondary’ to a central male protagonist.
    Perhaps male readers will have views on the successful masculinity, for them, of the male characters by women writers that you list. Who is the best judge of such matters, I wonder?!

  3. Assorted thoughts:
    I’d agree about Ericksson, since Lindell is much more of a leading figure in later books.
    This one doesn’t get a realism vote, exactly, but I think Jasper Fforde does an excellent job with Thursday Next!
    Flavia di Stefano from Iain Pears’ Roman art crime novels is a rather good female creation, I think.
    Larsson gets 2/3 of a vote, since books two and three are much more about Lisbeth. And there’s Erika as a main-ish character too.
    The best examples I can think of are actually televisual ones – notably the Danish crime series Rejseholdet, which had a great female lead and mostly male writers.
    Hmmm. Must think about this one more.

  4. Since my earlier mention of Eriksson, I’ve been going through my authors’ file to jog my memory and it’s been moderately productive. Joseph Skvorecky’s Sins for Father Knox consists of ten stories, only two of which centre on his Lt. Boruvka — the other eight feature nightclub singer and erstwhile detective Eve Adam, a quite splendid creation. I think Michael Underwood and his solicitor Rose Epton fit the bill. And also Ralph McInerney, writing as Monica Quill, and his Sister Mary Teresa series, cosier than his excellent and much darker Father Dowling novels (NOT to be confused with the television series), but good. The other three that come to mind are definitely in the ‘cozy’ department, but I’ll mention them anyway: Simon Brett and Mrs Pargeter, not my dish of tea, but better than his Fethering series with Carole and Jude which I found intolerable; Heron Carvic and Miss Seeton, also not a happy thing in my view; and John Greenwood and his Celia Grant series, which is really quite good.

  5. Thank you all for these great responses.
    I have read only the first (translated) Kjell Ericksson and agree Ann is an intriguing character, but definitely in that book, part of a group rather than the main protag.
    Juliet, agree with you about Miss Smilla — it was such a wonderful, brilliant character, which is I think why I found the silly ending so disappointing. I have read two other P Hoeg books and although the second (Borderliners) was not bad, I did not enjoy the third (blanked on title) so although his latest has better reviews, I am wary.
    I think of all these suggestions, Mma Ramotswe is the only one who has the profile of the examples I gave in my post (maybe others would find that view controversial!).
    It will be interesting to see if there are any more suggestions, but so far my point is made that female authors write about men and women protags, whereas males overwhelmingly (when taken en masse) write about other men.
    I have remembered one other female protag, Peyton in “Lying with Strangers” by James Grippando. My review is here: http://therefreshingtree.blogspot.com/2007/06/lying-with-strangers-by-james-grippando.html

  6. Never from the start did I doubt your point that males overwhelmingly write about male protagonists — I don’t know how anyone could. But, continuing to play ‘find the needles in the haystack’, Ann Lindell has, as Lauren mentions, moved very much to the fore in Eriksson’s novels — Amazon and fantasicfiction, e.g., now refer to them as Ann Lindell Mysteries. Unless amateur detectives are excluded from this, I must again plug Underwood and Epton — Martin Edwards in an essay singles out three lawyer detectives for mention: Epton, Fyfield’s Helen West, and his own. Underwood/Epton may not be as well-known as others, but those are very good novels. One author to keep an eye on is Jeffrey Deaver: his Kathryn Dance, heretofore a secondary, is moved front and centre in his The Sleeping Doll of last year, much as Lindell has been. Mma Ramotswe fits the profile exemplified by Wexford, Lynley, Bosch, Rebus…but Lindell and Epton do not? Hmmm. I have no great objection, really, but if that is so, I think we are edging toward the Mrs Pargeter/Mary Teresa/Celia Grant school, and I only mentioned those out of interest following upon my nomination of Lindell, Adam and Epton, now with the addition of Dance.

  7. Some of Robin Cook’s other books feature female protagonists – next most famous possibly being in Outbreak (the film changed things around though).
    VI Warshowski? (sp?) – surely the uber female crime/detective protagonist…

  8. K.T.McCaffrey features a female protagonist investigative journalist Emma Boylan in his books. I have read The Cat Trap and was very impressed. I remember that Crimeficreader also liked this book so it cannot just be explained by my male fantasy of Orla Brady playing Emma in a movie.

  9. James, great suggestions but a fatal flaw in your V.I.W. offering is that those books were written by a woman (Sarah Paretsky). There are plenty of books written by women that feature female protags, eg Mary Higgins Clark, Sarah Dunant, Val McDermid, Liza Marklund, Meg Gardiner, Liza Cody, Frances Fyfield (as Philip mentions)etc.
    Thanks for your suggestion, Norm — shall we put her in the Modesty Blaise category, then?;-)
    I’m still not convinced that many of these “women written by men” characters have the same degree of name recognition as men by men or men by women (or women by women). Though, Philip, I’ll certainly re-check Underwood. I read him many years ago and have a dim recollection that his best-known character is a male solicitor, but my memory is notoriously dodgy.
    Maybe Martin Edwards himself will bring Hannah Scarlett to the fore in his future Lake District novels, and lessen the Daniel Kind character?

  10. And, following on from Philip’s line of thought re Deaver, another male author who is bringing a previously subsidiary female character to the fore is Henning Mankell, with Linda Wallender (her father Kurt taking back seat these days).

  11. Good call, Frank, but if we are going to go literary, we can include others, eg Madame Bovary (Flaubert) and Nana (Zola).
    Another genre book I’ve just remembered, because of its appearance on the new R&J list, is No Time for Goodbye, by Linwood Barclay. Definitely not a “cosy”, Philip.

  12. Here’s a male author’s perspective (for what it’s worth.)
    With my first novel, I created a male protagonist, and everything was seen from his viewpoint. It was a simple, linear story, and quite successful, but I wanted to do more as a writer, and to experiment with different approaches, whilst recognising my limitations. As I grew in confidence, I introduced multiple viewpoints, exclusively male, and approached the business of narration in a variety of ways.
    In short stories, I tried out female and gay viewpoint characters.
    When I started on the Lake District series, my idea was to have a male protagonist, Daniel, and a subsidiary female viewpoint character, Hannah. But in the first novel, I became increasingly interested in Hannah. Peter Robinson, a friend and very successful crime writer, read the manuscript and expressed the view that Hannah was the key character. This intrigued me, and caused me to pay (more consciously, at any rate) increasing attention to her role in the story. I’m currently writing book four, and she’s definitely the lead figure now.
    I do think that confidence plays a part in how a writer approaches these things. For a man to try to get inside the mind of a female character seems (I’m not sure why, though I can hazard a guess) to be more difficult than for a woman to get inside the mind of a male character. But it’s a fascinating challenge and one I’m keen to tackle.

  13. Thanks for these insights, Martin, and for the tantalising news about Hannah. She’s the character that I was most interested in when I read the books, but Daniel isn’t boring by any means! It’s intriguing that the two characters live in such different worlds (both of which you explore) yet have the connection of Daniel’s father that can bring them together, allow them to see things from a different perspective, etc. I do like that aspect. And it is telling that both characters respond with interest to each other’s lifestyles, yet both have partners (where I am up to, anyway!) who just don’t “get” the world of the person with whom they are living.

  14. With no intention of attempting to change the concensus about Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, I must say that the book is memorable for me because all the time I was reading it I was conscious that I was reading a man writing about what he thought was a woman, and failing miserably.
    Am I alone with that memory?
    Please don’t make me read it again.

  15. Mark Terry writes the most perfect female protagonists ever. Ohmigosh, he makes them strong and female, without “excuses” for being female, or trying to offer “proof” that they’re just as good as a man. He just lets them be.
    That’s in his Dirty Deeds book. Plus one he’s writing now, China Fire.
    I don’t know any living male OR female writer who does female heroines as well.

  16. Rod Duncan in “Backlash” has Mo Akanbai (Pocket Books from Simon& Schuster), alienated within the police force so qualifies.

Comments are closed.