The Big Book of
 Female Detectives

by Otto Penzler, ed.
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, October 2018, $25

The theme of this 1,000+ page whopper is female detectives, and Otto Penzler serves up 74 short stories, novellas, and even a few comic strips, all smartly edited and introduced, stretching all the way from the Victorian era right up to works by such present-day masters as Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, and Sara Paretsky. It should appeal to everyone from crime fic geeks to women’s studies buffs.

The book’s divvied into common-sense chronological sections: The Victorians and the Edwardians, Before World War I, The Pulp Era, and so on, making the timeline of the female sleuth easy to follow—an evolution that is as fascinating as it is illuminating. Also occasionally frustrating, mind you, when women are shunted off to the sidelines while their male counterparts grab the spotlight. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Frederick Nebel!)

Two steps forward, one step back?

Still, along the way, Penzler dishes up most of the expected hits (Kinsey Millhone! Sharon McCone! Hildegarde Withers!) and the deep cuts (Madame Storey! Susan Dare! Trixie Meehan!). And I do mean deep cuts— some of these finds must have required some serious literary spelunking.

Of course, with any collection this ambitious, there are bound to be a few duds and dubious choices.

For example, while it’s comforting to see Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (The Secret Adversary, 1922) as truly equal partners, do we really need 130 pages of this tiresome twosome? How about Miss Marple instead? And while some of the early 19th century choices are certainly significant, some of them, like “The Unraveled Mystery” (1864), ought to carry a snooze alarm. It has to be one of the most singularly turgid tales imaginable, although the Lockridges’ Mr. and Mrs. North (1953) come uncomfortably close. Watching these two is like watching (white) paint dry.

Then there are the omissions. The lack of suitable short stories (or copyright squabbles?) might explain it, but where are Miss Marple, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool, Liza Cody’s Anna Lee, or (ahem) Nancy Drew? A well-chosen excerpt from a longer work might easily have patched those holes.

More jarring, though, is the inexplicable insertion of a final section devoted to “Bad Girls.”

Huh? While it’s great to finally make the acquaintance of Edgar Wallace’s Four Square Jane, and Joyce Carol Oates can take up space in anything I ever read, few of this section’s stories really belong—which of course makes the aforementioned omissions even more galling. Plus, if we’re honestly going to include “bad girls,” where the hell is Helen Nielsen?

Still, for all my nitpicking, I love this book! It’s an absolutely worthy collection, an essential for anyone who gives a damn about crime fiction. I mean, come on—where else are you going to find such detecting dames as Miss Gladden, Dorcas Dene, Nora Van Snoop, and Dora Myrl tromping through the same pages as Kathryn Dance, V.I. Warshawski, and Tess Monaghan?

Kevin Burton Smith
Teri Duerr
Penzler, ed.
October 2018
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard