The Lady Detective

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to HBO’s True Detective, detective fiction, both print and film, has traditionally been a masculine genre, written by men and featuring male leads. Of course there have been exceptions,-- Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple comes to mind--but on the whole, the genre, which has been constructed within a male purview, can be alienating for women in many ways. In regard to representation, men unsurprisingly outnumber women in roles of authority or importance, and these male characters often treat women poorly or maintain sexist attitudes (see both Sherlock and True Detective). Additionally, women are usually secondary to the male detective, and though it is an improvement to show women in the forensic lab, these women again exist to assist the male lead, or serve as set dressing. When women do lead the team, like forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan in Bones, they are often rife with emotional or psychological problems or suffer from a traumatic past, as if these are the only kinds of women who could pursue the masculine careers of law enforcement or forensic science. Luckily, we now have Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (MFMM), a crime procedural that drastically departs from the masculine tradition of detective fiction by featuring a “Lady Detective” lead, and telling stories through a feminist perspective. 

Set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, MFMM is led by a cast of women. Phryne Fisher is a flapper, heiress, and “Lady Detective,” who appreciates a good glass of Scotch and unapologetically reaps the benefits of “family planning” methods. Dr. McKenzie, or Mac, is a lesbian doctor who serves as the forensic specialist and Phryne’s closest friend. Dot, or Dorothy, serves as Phryne’s companion and sometimes maid who uses her traditionally feminine skills as a maid to help solve cases. The male characters, Inspector Jack Robinson and Constable Hugh Collins, are equally important and loveable, but Phryne is always the active force driving the investigations forward. 

Rarely in police procedurals do we see women involved in important decision making; in MFMM, decisions and breakthroughs are never made without them. In the pilot episode “Cocaine Blues,” women are brutalized by a back-alley abortionist. Phryne obtains a medication, labeled “Pink Powder,” that the women seeking illegal abortions were given prior to the procedure. Phryne takes the Pink Powder to Mac, and over a couple glasses of Scotch, Mac inspects the powder to find that it is a nerve powder, cocaine. Mac sarcastically adds that it is “usually prescribed for women of course, the hysterical sex, for nervous exhaustion, emotional collapse, wandering wombs, that sort…” This find leads Phryne to the culprit and to solve the mystery of the larger story arc. 

In the episode “Raisins and Almonds,” a Jewish man is murdered by a lethal and unidentifiable poison. While Mac and Dot are discussing poisons, Mac casually notes that anything in Australia could be a poison and points at a vase of purple Nightshade. Later, Dot relays the information about the Nightshade, which eventually leads Phryne to the killer who had easy access to Nightshade in a family garden. In the same episode, Mac again goes into action as she tries to implement an alchemical formula handwritten into a Kabbalah text. The Kabbalah text promised the alchemist the essence of life if one could successfully transmute lead into gold. What Mac creates from the handwritten formula is artificial rubber, which again leads Phryne to a major breakthrough in the case. 

It is important to see women in positions of authority and expertise making decisions and discoveries because this is so rare in popular culture. Most of the breakthroughs in a case happen during private conversations between women, and through their combined knowledge and teamwork. Together Phryne, Mac, and Dot are able to navigate the male-dominated spaces of the police force and lab, and they never compete for male attention or accolades.

Representing women in non-traditional masculine roles, however, is only one of the things that MFMM does well. Instead of just using the “add women and stir” approach, MFMM takes into account historically and culturally embedded ideas about gender and sexuality and creates characters who are products of those ideas, behaving and acting within that framework. In the episode “Death and Hysteria,” a psychologist sets up a sanitorium in Phryne’s aunt’s house for treating “hysterical” women. Betsy, in danger of undergoing “chemical castration,” was committed because she was “consumed by lust,” and she is murdered by way of electrocution while she is using an early model of an electrical “massager.” Another patient, Delores, seeks attention and love and resorts to disrobing in public to get it. These women, as Phryne recognizes, are not mentally ill, rather they are shut away from a society that reviles and stigmatizes female sexuality. Delores compares herself and the other women patients to caged birds that couldn’t survive free in the world. Phryne, a sexual but never sexualized character, acknowledges these double standards in male and female sexuality and has no patience for them. By imagining these characters and their narratives through a critical feminist lens, MFMM challenges and debunks patriarchal notions of female sexuality that in other shows, and often in reality, are used to depersonalize and blame female victims for their own suffering.

Perhaps the best thing that sets apart MFMM from much of the mainstream crime procedurals, and, indeed, from TV and film in general, is its depiction of violent crimes against women, which is where a feminist perspective matters the most. I’ve written before about the ways that historical medical dramas victimize women through medicine, and much of the CSI ilk follows in this pattern. Often in these shows, crimes against women are at once devalued and fetishized while their post-mortem bodies are objectified and sexualized. MFMM never directly shows violent crimes against women, rather, the devastating aftermath of rape or violent crime is reflected in the behaviors of the characters themselves. We don’t need to see the rape happen to know the havoc it reaps on survivors. In the case of a dead sex worker, the victim’s body is not sexualized, and Phryne never sees the victim’s line of work as a reason to devalue the crime or the victim herself. During autopsy, Mac handles the bodies of victims with respect and never puts them on full display.

Culturally embedded ideas about designated male and female spaces, gender norms, and female sexuality are all bound up with how the crime procedural and detective fiction are constructed. Instead of blindly pulling on these ideas from culture, MFMM brings them to the fore, criticizes them, and often subverts them. Phryne, Mac, and Dot constantly move in and out of traditionally male spaces-- Phryne because of her refusal to see herself as intellectually or professionally inferior to men; Mac because of her preferred masculine dress and scientific mind; and Dot because of her attention to detail that is helpful both in and out of the domestic sphere. MFMM not only represents complex female characters who transgress gender norms all over the place, the series also illustrates the importance of putting women in positions of authority, especially in cases involving women and gender dynamics. My hope is that MFMM is the beginning of a trend toward a more diverse genre and not just another exception in the boys’ club. 

Further Reading 

Lindsay Steenberg, Forensic Science in Contemporary American Popular Culture: Gender, Crime, and Science (New York: Routlege, 2013).