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Great Female Detectives (10 credit points)

Course Times & Enrolment

Wednesdays from 15th January 2020 (Code LI328-201) Wednesdays from
15th January 2020 11:10am - 1:00pm • (10 classes)
LG48 Paterson's Land, Holyrood Campus • Tutor: Anya Clayworth BA (Hons) PhD
This course is now closed for enrolments

Course Summary

Detective fiction is a genre that has generated a series of very successful women writers and detectives. Through this course we shall explore key examples of detective fiction written by women authors and/or featuring a female detective including Wilkie Collins' first female sleuth Valeria Brinton in The Law and the Lady, Christie's Miss Marple and Margaret Atwood's twist on the genre, Alias Grace. We shall be exploring how women deal with issues such as violence in the cases, as well as how they make use of , and innovated upon, the traditional forms of detective fiction.

Course Details

Content of Course

A student on this course can expect to explore key examples of detective fiction written by women authors or featuring a female detective. We shall examine the role played by women in the development of the genre and consider how women contribute to the diversity within it. Beginning with Wilkie Collins' Valeria Brinton, we shall consider how Collins uses the constraints of Victorian society to develop his detective's motivation to solve a mystery. Through Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, we shall explore the important role played by women writers in the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. This will lead us on to discuss developments in the genre, discussing the presentation of violence in Val McDermid's serial killer novel, The Mermaids Singing. From McDermid, we move on to consider Margaret Atwood's exploration of the crime genre with her historical novel, Alias Grace. We shall discuss how Atwood presents 'evil' and consider the significance of a female murderer to the structure of the novel as a whole. Our final detective, Jane Tennison began life for most people on the television and so we shall consider how this character is presented in text, but also how she fits into the police procedural ,and what she reveals about British society and policing at this time.

1. ‘Positively discover the secret which the mother and son were hiding’: the lady becomes a detective. Text: Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady.

2. A little old maid who knits and gossips or a crime-solving genius: Miss Marple and the missing body. Text: Agatha Christie, 4:50 from Paddington.

3. The torturing of men: sex and crime and criminal profiling. Text: Val McDermid, The Mermaids Singing.

4. ‘It is not a murder mystery; it is a mystery about murder’: Atwood’s historical murder mystery. Text: Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace.

5. Challenging the glass ceiling: Tennison takes on the ‘boys’. Text: Linda La Plante, Prime Suspect.

Teaching method(s)

Lectures will provide a contextual overview of each novel, followed by a guided discussion on themes, characterisation, plot and narrative style. The course will be taught in a small seminar setting, where participation will be supported and encouraged.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Analyse and evaluate the distinctive characteristics of detective fiction through close reading, using recognised literary critical terminology and methodologies;

  • Articulate knowledge and understanding of the contribution made by women to the detective genre;

  • Analyse contemporary responses and reactions to the novels by evaluating and assessing ideas from non-literary texts such as criticism or journalism;

  • Apply knowledge of cultural, political and socio-historical contexts in arguments;

  • Construct, present and evaluate arguments coherently.


Core Readings


  • Collins, Wilkie., 2008. The Law and the Lady. Oxford: Oxford World¿s Classics.

  • Christie, Agatha., 2016. 4:50 from Paddington. London: Harper Collins.

  • McDermid, Val., 2015. The Mermaids Singing. London: Harper Collins.

  • Atwood, Margaret. 2017. Alias Grace. London: Virago.

  • La Plante, Linda., 2013. Prime Suspect. London: Simon and Schuster.


  • Priestman, Martin ed., 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Detective Fiction. Cambridge: CUP.

  • Scaggs, John, 2005. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge.

  • Plain, Gill, 2001. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Nickerson, Catherine Ross ed., 2010. The Cambridge Companion to American, Crime Fiction. Cambridge: CUP.

  • Craig, P., & Cadogan, M., 1981. The lady investigates : Women detectives and spies in fiction. London: Gollancz.


10 credit courses have one assessment. Normally, the assessment is a 2000 word essay, worth 100% of the total mark, submitted by week 12. To pass, students must achieve a minimum of 40%. There are a small number of exceptions to this model which are identified in the Studying for Credit Guide.

Studying for Credit

If you choose to study for credit you will need to allocate significant time outwith classes for coursework and assessment preparation. Credit points gained from this course can count towards the Certificate of Higher Education.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.