Look no further than Cordelia Gray, Lisbeth Salander and Precious Ramotswe for the No. 1 ladies detectives
A 22-year-old private eye in London, a 24-year-old bisexual, tattooed and pierced hacker and security specialist in Stockholm and the proprietor of Botswana’s best and only ladies private detective agency might not have much in common except their profession.
Though P.D. James’ poet detective Adam Dalgliesh of the Met is the more famous of her creations, she has created a fascinating, rounded character in her private detective, Cordelia Gray, who makes her first appearance in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). When Cordelia loses her father, the “itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary” to a heart attack in Rome, she returns to London and joins a secretarial agency. She works for Bernie Pryde, who runs Pryde Detective Agency and two months later he offers to make her a partner. When Bernie slashes his wrists after discovering he has cancer, Cordelia takes over the agency. Her first case comes by when the conservationist Sir Roland Callender asks her to investigate his son Mark’s seeming suicide. He is found hanging with lipstick on his mouth and a picture of nude girl nearby. Obviously nothing as it seems and as Cordelia looks under the ancient, dreaming stones of Cambridge, many unsightly things crawl out. Even though she is slight, Cordelia is physically, mentally and emotionally tough. As her dead mother repeatedly tells her in imagined conversations, her’s is a suitable job for a woman. The only time she allows herself to breakdown is in the end of the book in Dalgliesh’s room. There she weeps for Bernie, for herself, for innocence and lives lost. Cordelia realises there that Dalgliesh is not as coldly cruel as she made him out to be in her mind, rather he is a kind, sensitive and very intelligent man. The book is fascinating for the glimpse of Dalgliesh from another’s eyes.
The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), the second novel featuring Cordelia, echoes classic Christie from the charismatic much married actress to the setting on a mysterious island providing archetypal closed room setting. While high on atmosphere and literature, the book was a bit of a disappointment with Cordelia being not on top of things.
An island features in the book that introduces Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Lisbeth helps disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist find out what happened to multimillionaire Henrik Vanger’s grand daughter who disappeared from the family estate on an island many years ago.
The original title in Swedish translates to Men who Hate Women and there is a lot of violence against women with old crimes and new appearing with alarming regularity in the book.
Lisbeth is brilliant and no computer can hide its secrets from her. However, she is a social misfit and ends up being exploited by those who are meant to protect her including her guardian who sexually abuses her. Salander however gets her own back in the most satisfying manner.
The other two books in the Millennium trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007), reveal secrets of Salander’s past as well as tackle issues close to Larsson’s heart including neo Nazism, the pitfalls of the care system in the welfare state, moral bankruptcy and violence against women.
Where both Cordelia and Lisbeth are slim, single women in their early 20s, Precious Ramotswe is 35 years old, “traditionally built”, married to the abusive Note Mokoti who walks out on her and has a baby who lived for five days before she sets up her detective agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
From the first novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1999) to the 13th in the series, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012), author Alexander McCall Smith through his characters celebrates tradition and modernity in Africa. While some may have a problem with the simplistic world view, the books are irresistible portraits of gentler times and people.
With genre fiction in English thriving in India we have our woman private eye in Smita Jain’s Piggies on the Railway (2010) featuring Kasthuri “Katie” Kumar. The 28-year-old daughter of bureaucrat parents, Katie resigns from the police force to start a detective agency.
In the book she is called upon to find a missing actress and the case involves handsome movie stars, sex, lies and sundry hot mysterious men. Smita has promised it is the first of a series.
If the wanton cruelties of Lisbeth’s world and the longing and loneliness of Cordelia’s realm get to be too much, then you could always share a cup of bush tea with Mma Ramotswe under her acacia tree and “contemplate issues which in everyday life may so easily be pushed to one side.”