The Big Book of Female Detectives

The Big Book of Female Detectives
Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2018

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“Stubborn as they come,” readers are told about the star of the story “Miss Gibson” by Linda Barnes in Otto Penzler’s enormous new anthology The Big Book of Female Detectives. “... She just kept on doing what she always did. Never dumbed down her act for an audience. The fans had to catch up to her.”

It’s a rising star of the music scene being referred to in that case, but the description could apply equally to any of the female protagonists in the seventy-odd stories Penzler has assembled here in what’s billing itself as “the most complete collection of detective dames, gumshoe gals & sultry sleuths ever assembled.” Such superlatives tend to attach themselves to Penzler productions - he’s the best crime and pulp editor alive today - and The Big Book of Female Detectives is another amazement in a long line of doorstop anthologies that bid fair to being the final word on their subjects. There have been many collections of female-detective stories, but none has come close to the sweep or incunabulist weirdness of this banquet Penzler serves up for the reader.

The stories here start with the earliest Victorian roots of the type, a garbled and boring story called “The Mysterious Countess,” about which Penzler speaks up right away: “‘The Mysterious Countess’ was originally published in Revelations of a Lady Detective (London, J. A. Berger - doubtful! - or George Vickers - likely! -, 1864).” And the anthology ends with the redoubtable Joyce Carol Oates. But in between, readers will be struck by the refreshing balance between well-known names like Sara Paretsky, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anne Perry and names that aren’t so well-known anymore but are well worth rediscovering, writers like Roger Torrey, Stuard Palmer, or Q. Patrick. For Penzler, the past of the genre is very much alive, and as a result readers will encounter stories that speak in the pulp-lit voices of three or four different eras. Anna Katharine Green, for instance, wrote “An Intangible Clew” in 1915 starring her sleuth Violet Strange (“a beautiful and wealthy young woman employed by a private detective agency who accepted cases only if they interested her”), and her heroine’s first blazing moment of deductive insight isn’t anything that would happen quite this way a century later:

“My opinion is a girl’s opinion, but such as it is you have the right to it. From the indications mentioned I could draw but this conclusion: that the blood which accompanied the criminal’s footsteps was not carried through the house by his shoes - he wore no shoes; he did not even wear stockings; probably he had none. For reasons which appealed to his judgment, he went about his wicked work barefoot; and it was the blood from his own veins and not from those of his victim which made the trail we have followed with so much interest. Do you forget those broken beads - how he kicked them about and stamped upon them in his fury? One of them pierced the ball of his foot, and that so sharply that it not only spurted blood but kept on bleeding with every step he took. Otherwise, the trail would have been lost after his passage up the stairs.”

(A man in her astounded audience spontaneously offers to kiss her hand.)

As usual with Black Lizard paperback volumes, The Big Book of Female Detectives is fat, oversized floppy monstrosity of a book, with extra-wide double-columned pages. It’s so flexibly bound that your copy will look like a First World War artifact after one week in your shoulder bag. But you’ll keep carrying it around until you’ve soaked up every last story. Otto Penzler knows exactly what he’s doing.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is