Celebrating Forgotten Female Fictional Sleuths and Writers

by The Hairpin Sponsors

This post is brought to you by Open Road Media.

From Charlotte MacLeod’s murderous mayhem to Dorothy Uhnak’s tough-talking lady cops, the last hundred years have seen women fight crime, dig up clues, and chase bad guys at the same pace as their male peers. Meanwhile, multiple-best-selling female authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Carolyn Keene, and dozens of others have placed high on Must Read Mystery lists over the last century. Here are five more of our favorites:

1. Patricia Wentworth helped challenge society’s perception of the “stay-at-home woman” with her Miss Silver mysteries. Like the author, Miss Silver comes across as unassuming, because of her age and gender and expectations of women at the time. Despite this, or possibly because of it, she proves that, more often than not, she’s able to find clues that even the most astute police officers overlook. Not only did Wentworth upend stereotypes, but her popularity in mystery fiction also helped advance all women writers during the early 20th century.

2. Dorothy Uhnak used her fourteen years as a policewoman with the New York City Transit Authority — twelve of which she spent as a detective — as inspiration for her gritty crime novels. Her heroic efforts protecting the city even gained her a bit of fame when she was in the news for taking down a mugger who held her at gunpoint. When she retired in 1967, she claimed that she left the force because of criminal discrimination. Despite her change in careers, however, Uhnak continued to look at life through the eyes of a cop, and translated her experiences into a number of successful novels, including Law and Order, The Bait, and her memoir about her time as a law enforcer, Policewoman.

3. Even with her early success as a senior editor for Seventeen magazine, Susan Isaacs, a self-proclaimed feminist, yearned for work that felt more substantial and subsequently began freelancing as a political speechwriter. Isaacs notes that this job taught her one of the fundamentals of writing fiction: drawing out the characters. By observing politicians and understanding the messages they wanted to convey, she learned how to adapt her writing to their different styles. Later she transitioned into writing fiction, and her first novel, Compromising Positions, was an instant bestseller. Since achieving success as a fiction author, Isaacs still finds herself writing about politics, but in a much more sinister medium.

4. Susan Dunlap’s career as a mystery writer was inspired by two things: an Agatha Christie novel and a dare. While reading the mystery, she mentioned to her husband that she too could write a mystery novel. “Well go ahead then,” he responded, and so she put paper in the typewriter and began to type. Five years and five manuscripts later, Karma sold. But being a writer (she’s written more than seventeen books) is only part of her story. She’s also one of the original co-founders and served as the president of Sisters in Crime, a national organization that promotes and supports women crime writers and helps them achieve equality in the industry. Speaking about the organization, Dunlap says, “It is a vehicle that brings women together, and makes them realize that they don’t have to only read mysteries — they can write them, too.”

5. Although she was often described as a “true lady” (she was never seen without her white gloves), Charlotte MacLeod was also a force to reckoned with. Born in 1922 in Canada, she moved to the United States at a young age, and eventually became a US citizen. During the 1940s and 1950s, while most women were expected to stay home and care for the kids or work as a secretary until marriage, MacLeod worked as a copy writer, then moved to join the staff of N. H. Miller & Company, an advertising firm, where she then became vice president. During this time she wrote many mysteries, including the Peter Shandy series and the Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series. Her books went on to sell more than a million copies, and continue to be loved for their humor, wit, and memorable characters.

For a more comprehensive guide to Women’s Mystery Novels, check out our infographic below or visit here.