Caterina Edwards on Lady Sleuths

Book Cover The Sicilian Wife

Truly, every season is the perfect season to curl up with a murder mystery, but there is something irresistible about gripping a gripping book in summer. In this list, Caterina Edwards, author of The Sicilian Wife, gives us the lowdown on Canada's most compelling lady sleuths, and a list of great summer reads to curl up with. 

*****

What turns the reader of a mystery into a fan of a series? Compelling plots, good prose, and an evocative setting? Suspense? Certainly, but for me the ranking of these elements depends on my mood. What never changes is the need for an appealing sleuth.

I began reading a number of Canadian mysteries featuring female sleuths only after I finished The Sicilian Wife and had created Marisa De Luca, the newly appointed police chief of a station house in Alcamo, Sicily. I say "created," but the experience of writing Marisa was more discovering than making. She sprang from my subconscious fully formed; I simply had to pay attention. But when I considered continuing Marisa’s story in a sequel, I needed to figure out what worked and what didn’t. 

A detective who has her own series must be distinct in her talents, tastes, sidekicks, and stomping grounds, while sharing the characteristics of curiosity and foolhardiness. The genre demands she put herself in harm’s way. Marisa dares to challenge the local Mafia boss without the support of her men, who resent and resist her, and despite the orders of her mentor and superior.

Book Cover Cold Mourning

In Cold Mourning, Brenda Chapman’s aboriginal detective Kala Stonechild is a token hire of Ottawa’s major crimes units, but, unlike Marisa, she is quickly accepted by her colleagues. Her immediate boss, Inspector Rouleau, respects her abilities, and they work well together investigating the murder of a prominent businessman. But, of course, she decides to work alone, without a word to anyone, to trap a man attacking women in an neighbourhood of high rises. Kala is three dimensional with a significant backstory. Because of the trauma she endured as a child, we believe she would use herself as bait or risk her life to save that of another.

Book Cover Sitting Lady Sutra

RCMP officer Danutia Dranchuk is another convincing and engaging sleuth with a fully imagined backstory. The Dranchuk series, written by Kay Stewart and sometimes Chris Bullock, excels at vivid characterization and depth of place. Read the prologue of Sitting Lady Sutra: four points of view, four settings, and five characters smoothly introduced and an underlying unease, even dread, evoked. The body of an unidentified girl is found a month later, near Sitting Lady Falls. Danutia has already been searching the Victoria area for a serial killer of Aboriginal women. Has the killer struck again?

Book Cover the Red Pole of Macau

While Danutia and Kala have the complexities of the protagonists of literary novels, Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee seems inspired by the superheroes of film or comics. She beguiles the readers with her extraordinary skills. She is not a policewoman but a brilliant forensic accountant, tracking down and recovering misappropriated money. In The Red Pole of Macau, she leads a seemingly suicidal attack on a triad compound. An expert martial artist, she takes down and maims a thug, while remaining cool and courteous. Ava Lee is a wish fulfillment and a fraud-buster.

Book Cover Speaking from Among the Bones

Flavia De Luce is also a fantasy, though one of a different kind: an 11-year-old sleuth in 1950s England, a genius and a chemist. She lives unsupervised, almost neglected, passing her time solving problems, such as how to poison a sister or who killed the stranger she watches expire in the cucumber patch. In Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley, Flavia’s obsession with death has her crawling through the remains of her village’s dearly departed. It is Flavia’s voice—original, composed and witty—that draws the reader in.

Book Cover Healthy Wealthy and DEad

Phoebe Fairfax of Healthy, Wealthy, & Dead, by Suzanne North, finds herself at a dude ranch/spa as theatrical as Flavia’s village, Bishop Lacey. And the characters she investigates, sushi chef, diet doctor, rodeo star, and so on, are as quirky, though more contemporary. Phoebe herself is credible enough, a TV camerawoman for a Calgary lifestyle show and an artistic photographer. She is feisty and funny, saving herself at one point through the use of a steam calliope.

Book Cover The Roar of the Crowd

R. J. Harlick and Janice Macdonald have situated their lady sleuths in unusual and contrasting locations. Meg Harris has chosen to live in isolation in the Canadian wilderness; Randy Craig unmasks murderers in Edmonton’s busy and crowded cultural milieu. The sensitivity and responsiveness of both heroines to settings adds to their appeal: during Meg’s journey to Baffin Island to investigate her father’s death in Arctic Blue Death, for example, or during Randy’s time in Edmonton’s theatre scene in search of a serial killer of directors in The Roar of the Crowd.

Book Cover The Goddaughter

The mob family is the backdrop of Melodie Campbell’s The Goddaughter and my The Sicilian Wife. Her book is a madcap romp; mine borders on the tragic. Campbell embraces, then squeezes the stereotypes. Her Gina Gallo doesn’t investigate: she extricates herself from the latest messy and often dangerous situation, all the while navigating the rules of both sides of the law. She is irresistible. I laughed out loud.

Award-winning writer Caterina Edwards’s first novel, The Lion’s Mouth, was translated into French and will appear in Italian, as will her non-fiction book, Finding Rosa. Her radio drama, The Great Antonio, was chosen to represent Canada in an international radio competition, and a collection of critical essays on her work was the first book published by Guernica Editions in its series on Canadian writers. She lives in Edmonton.

July 9, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
Cold Mourning

Cold Mourning

A Stonechild and Rouleau Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Audiobook Paperback
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Sitting Lady Sutra

Sitting Lady Sutra

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback eBook
More Info
The Red Pole of Macau

The Red Pole of Macau

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Speaking From Among the Bones

Speaking From Among the Bones

A Flavia de Luce Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
The Goddaughter

The Goddaughter

A Gina Gallo Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Finding Rosa

Finding Rosa

A Mother with Alzheimer's, a Daughter in Search of the Past
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
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