Four Great Literary Detective Spinsters

The spinster, I fear, is as underappreciated in this day and age as ever she was. Far too many assume that the state of singleness in a woman is a reflection of some failing or flaw in her person, and can by no means comprehend that it might be an intentional choice on the lady’s part, or even an eventuality with which she is perfectly content.

But in fiction the spinster comes into her own. Most specifically, consider the great spinsters of detective fiction. I am sure this is not an exhaustive list, but here are four to whet your appetite.

1) The detective spinster par excellence, Miss Marple.

Mrs. Mary Arthur MET APS353

Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple lives quietly in the village of St Mary Mead, gardening, knitting, bird-watching and mulling over her fellow human beings to figure out what makes them tick. Naturally, this gives her the edge when it comes to the detection of crime, as she understands how different sorts of people will react under certain circumstances. She appears in 12 novels and six short story collections, from The Murder at the Vicarage (1930 – at which point she is already “a white-haired old lady”) to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1976).

2) The professional detective spinster, Miss Silver.

Edwardian lady writing (6908558900)

Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver left the scholastic profession (i.e. governessing) to take up a career as a private inquiry agent. In a lady-like way, of course – she is fond of knitting and Tennyson – though she sometimes finds it a regrettable necessity to eavesdrop, something she would never dream of doing in a personal capacity. Like Miss Marple, she has a knowledge of human nature which allows her to lay an unerring finger on the culprit – and frequently forestall further crimes. She is humble about her work, without indulging in false humility, and considers that those who have God-given abilities are meant to use them. She appears in 32 novels, from Grey Mask (1928) to The Girl in the Cellar (1961).

3) The semi-professional detective spinster, Miss Climpson.

Marie Laurencin 1949

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Miss Katharine Climpson runs what appears to be a typing bureau employing “superfluous women” (as those left unwed by the dearth of men post-WWI were unkindly known). They spend a lot of time answering ads from men who “very often had the misfortune to appear shortly afterwards before the magistrate on charges of fraud, blackmail, or attempted procuration.” Her office has a private line to Scotland Yard, and while appearing a fluttery and somewhat gullible middle-aged lady when it suits her, she’s sharp as a tack and capable of planning and executing a line of attack with the best of them. Like Miss Marple and Miss Silver, she is a church-going Anglican, which gives her a strong (if occasionally flexible) sense of right and wrong. She appears in three of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, from Unnatural Death (1927) to Gaudy Night (1935).

4) The criminal-turned-detective spinster, Miss Carnaby.

Claire Dux

Agatha Christie’s Miss Amy Carnaby is another spinster with a sharp mind. (Spoilers follow, if one can call it a spoiler after 74 years.) While working as a lady’s companion, she plans and organizes a pekinese kidnapping ring of a Robin Hood nature – liberating some of the ill-gotten wealth of the employing classes and bestowing it on the deserving needy. When Hercule Poirot finds her out, he also finds a way to let her get away with it – provided there are no more kidnappings. Later, she joins forces with him to infiltrate a cult whose rich and lonely devotees have a habit of dying. She appears in the stories ‘The Nemean Lion’ and ‘The Flock of Geryon’, both part of the short story collection The Labours of Hercules (1947).

What other estimable detective spinsters can you recommend?

4 Replies to “Four Great Literary Detective Spinsters”

  1. The first to spring to mind is the Daisy Dalrymple series by Carola Dunn. Then there’s Detective Sam Shepherd in the Vanda Symon series, and DCI Vera Stanhope in the Ann Cleeves series. Another single, but not strictly spinster, nor strictly detective favorite of mine is Coroner Jenny Cooper in the series by M R Hall. Sadly, these books are hard to get.

    1. Oo, I didn’t think of Daisy Dalrymple, possibly because (spoiler!) I first met her in one of the later books, by which point she’s already married. I haven’t read any of the others (yet) – I hear Vera is a treat.
      I think I am subconsciously classifying as a spinster any woman who is not only not married but also not in any kind of romantic relationship, though legally of course, any woman who’s never been married counts as a spinster.

    1. OOOOHHHH! I would love to see you as a detective! Somebody make this a TV series ASAP!!

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