A massive collection in which every piece has merit as both an historical artifact and as a piece of entertainment.
The existence of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Female Detectives seems like a miracle. Chronicling an astonishing 150 years of leading ladies in crime fiction, the editor’s latest “Big Book” (others in the series include 2017’s The Big Book of Rogues and Villains and 2015’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories) features 74 “hand-picked” crime stories grouped into seven specific eras: The Victorians and Edwardians, Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, The Modern Era and, finally, Bad Girls.
Each of these sections is vital and completely packed with quality storytelling. Beyond that, Penzler also infuses just enough historical context around each story. This is one of the collection’s biggest gifts; it reveals much (though certainly not all, or even half) of the often-concealed and incredibly influential history of the female detective story. Penzler explains this all in a wonderfully concise introduction and then devotes a page or two to every story (and its author) in the collection. Through his insights, the reader is introduced to the lineage that has led to many of the characters we are finally seeing in books and on screen today. Though the Bad Girls section is tonally a bit disconnected from the rest of the anthology, Penzler is wise to end on it because only recently have female characters in this subgenre become truly three-dimensional, human characters. Though many of the earlier examples in The Big Book of Female Detectives include villainous or iconoclastic women, they were the exception to the rule. We are just now entering a time when female characters within this field are as complicated as men, and Penzler honors that in his writing and in his arrangement of his book.
Penzler’s prowess as a curator of mystery is well-established; in addition to these “Big Books” he is also edits Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Crime Writing Series. Part of his curatorial brilliance comes from his dedication to both quality and his own tastes instead of symmetry or democracy. Some sections overflow while others are more concise, and Penzler doesn’t appear to fret too much about including too many stories from one specific time period or excluding entire decades (there is one gap of about 20 years). The Modern Era section is by far the largest, as this is the era contemporary to Penzler. Though he is obviously dedicated to other eras, his focus on The Modern Era is notable because, although he likely knew many men writing female-led detective fiction, 15 of the 18 stories in this section are by women. Penzler doesn’t trumpet this surely-purposeful representation; instead he lets the work of the titans of the genre (Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Nevada Barr among them) stand for themselves.
Fortunately, Penzler is averse to fluff. While some stories were surely included for historical reasons over entertainment value, there are no true duds. Standouts include L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s “The Outside Ledge: A Cablegram Mystery,” which features the Sherlock Holmes-like Florence Cusack; James Yaffe’s “Mom Sings an Aria,” a laugh-out-loud tale about the sleuthing mother of a police detective; Anna Katherine Green’s “An Intangible Clew,” featuring the unforgettable Violet Strange; and of course, the late mystery-titan Grafton’s “A Poison that Leaves No Trace,” which provides just a morsel of her famed leading lady Kinsey Millhone.
Because this is an anthology rather than an encyclopedia, Penzler’s chosen crime stories are mostly short story and novella length. While this makes sense in terms of the project, it does rob the book of some of its potential as many of the writers included were primarily novelists, their mysteries best when constructed over hundreds of pages. However, Penzler has made sure to balance famous names with strong, lesser-known authors.
While it is hard to quibble with exclusions given the sheer amount of material Penzler had to deal with, it would have been fascinating to see him take a more international approach; perhaps a future volume will address this. There are famed detectives in fiction from around the world, but Penzler’s view is almost entirely fixed upon the United States and the United Kingdom. He also largely ignores graphic novels and female detectives appearing outside of the mystery genre, which makes sense in terms of the presentation of the book but would have made a great addition to Penzler’s commentary.
Overall, The Big Book of Female Detectives is a volume of surprising consistency. Many historical collections are simply slapped together with a few scribbled notes by an editor who obviously views it as a side job. Penzler brings his sharpest eye to both his curation and his commentary, and the result is a massive collection in which every piece has merit as both an historical artifact and as a piece of entertainment.