ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

The Game is Afoot

In 2017, when Cressida Dick became the first woman commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service in its 187-year old history, it was only to be expected that there would be comments about the appointment being on the basis of “political correctness” rather than her competence. After all, the Metropolitan Police Service, informally called the “Met” and the “Scotland Yard” includes under its operations’ area Greater London (though not the city of London), England and Wales; with an annual budget of £3.2 billion, these operations encompass huge spheres, including anti-terrorism activities.

To add to the joy of her detractors, the 58-year old police officer is openly gay. And while she is hardly fictional, a part of my journalistic soul yearns to know what the famous “consulting detective” and denizen of 221B Baker Street would have said about her appointment. Fictional he may be, but to many of his vast number of admirers worldwide, Sherlock Holmes is more real than any real non-fictional detective.

Closer home, we have had and continue to have many competent and even acclaimed women police officers. Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Shwetambari Sharma was part of the investigating team of the Jammu and Kashmir crime branch that collected evidence against the Kathua child rapists. It requires no great powers of insight to know what DSP Sharma would have gone through. She has been quoted as saying that the case was not easy for her, given the pressures from various sides, and the glare of the media and public. While she does not think of her gender when functioning as a police officer otherwise, she said this case was different. Perhaps, women police officers (I am deliberately focusing on officers and not the other grades) know very closely what it is to function under expectations that they will not make the mark and what a struggle it is to live down those expectations. But we digress.

The Bow Street Runners are considered to be the first British police force and the internet is packed with information and trivia about it. The founding of the Women’s Police Service in 1914 and the trajectory up to Cressida Dick of how women officers have fared down the decades is also well documented. While much is also written about the beginnings of the appearance of the female investigator in detective/crime/police procedurals fiction, her evolution over the years in the genre is fascinating. No account can possibly encompass every aspect even if we stick only to British fiction. And lovers of trivia in this genre could spend more than an entire lifetime collecting nuggets. On the other side of the world, Kate Warne is recorded as America’s first female detective. All accounts agree that she got that honour having walked into the offices of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as a 23-year old widow in 1856 and asking for a job as a detective.

To return to fiction, one familiar thread of debate is whether women crime fiction writers are better than their male counterparts, considering that they dominate this genre. The names can and do come thick and fast (in no particular chronological order): Agatha Christie (who also wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott), Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Anna Katherine Green, Ruth Rendell (also writing as Barbara Vine), Ellis Peters (also writing using her real name Edith Mary Pargeter), Frances Fyfield, P D James, Minette Walters, Sarah Waters, Val McDermid, Lindsey Davis, Susanna Gregory. Even J K Rowling has taken to the genre, writing under the name Robert Galbraith. I would have missed quite a few and must be forgiven. These women writers have created fictional detectives (predominantly male!) who delight, annoy, provoke fierce admiration and derision, but never indifference. Of course, there are the women fictional detectives from the famous ones like Miss Marple to the young, modern ones like Lisbeth Salander, Annika Bengtzon and Anne-kin Halvorsen in Scandinavian novels.

While it is humanly impossible to choose among the writers as well as their creations, one of my favourite books is by a male writer who created a delightful female detective. Grant Allen’s Miss Cayley’s Adventures (1899) has one of the most beguiling openings: “On the day when I found myself with two-pence in my pocket, I naturally made up my mind to go round the world.” Here is a woman who truly treats life as an adventure.

Since we are weaving in and out of the real world and the fictional world here’s one more familiar debate: Are women, since they are often believed to be endowed with more empathy, powers of observation and intuition, better suited to detective pursuits than men? As one of Norway’s famous lawyers, the minister for justice and a former police officer, Anne Holt, is quoted as saying, female detectives “without the physical strength of their male counterparts, have to be more resourceful, intelligent and tactical to solve the case.”

Is this true? How I wish we could hold a debate with all fictional and non-fictional women detectives on this.


The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view of the journal.


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