26 July 2010

Equal Work for Lower Billing?

Back in March, Snow Wildsmith reviewed the first Max Finder Mystery collection of middle-grade mysteries in comics form with this praise:

Both boys and girls should enjoy the stories as each of the two detectives has their moment to shine, so even though the series is named for Max, it’s obvious that they are equal partners.
Except that one gets his name in the title, and the other doesn’t. So are they really equal?

In the Encyclopedia Brown books, the hero also had a female helper, Sally Kimball—though she wasn’t in on every case. In a break with gender stereotypes, Donald J. Sobol made Sally the muscle of the outfit; she was tough enough to keep Bugs Meany from beating up brainy Leroy Brown. But she was clearly in a supporting role, and the guy got top billing.

Are there counterexamples for this pattern? For example, what about the Sammy Keyes mysteries, by Wendelin Van Draanen? Those have a young female detective front and center.

Well, not front. The current paperback packaging features the villains, not the detective, on the front covers. Sammy does appear on the hardcover jackets, but as one element in a design, sometimes hard to recognize in the background.

But everyone knows Sammy’s a girl’s name, right?


Sam said...

Sally was a great character! Maybe she didn't get equal billing, but she was a stereotype-breaker.

Also, didn't Sobol write at least one book starring a girl detective? Angie, maybe? (Yes, Google confirms it. "Angie's First Case.")

Chaucerian said...

See, that's what they told us in the fifties. Of course you're an equal partner, dear, you're very important, I couldn't do it without you -- although one always was referred to as "Mrs. John Q. Public," never as "Susan Public," so one was by definition in a supporting rather than an equal role. It distresses me to hear the same reasoning today. Sorry about the rant, but gee whiz.

Anonymous said...

There's Cam Jansen and Meg Mackintosh who are both detectives, and Lloyd Alexander's Vesper Holly, who's a sort of Indiana Jones type. She doesn't get her name in the book titles, but the book jackets mostly do say some variant of 'starring Vesper Holly' under _The Name-Your-Place Adventure_.

There's also Theodosia, who is another snarky archaeologist type (though this series does cross a bit from pure mystery into fantasy, as there are curses and ancient magics in abundance).

A quick dip into Amazon.com also brought up Gilda Joyce and Enola Holmes mystery series, neither of which I've read but have seen around.

ericshanower said...

Of course there's the Mary Louise series by L. Frank Baum and Emma Speed Sampson (under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne). Mary Louise Brewster is the virtually helpless title character, always depending on Josie O'Gorman, the girl detective, to step in halfway through the story, take over the plot, and set things right. Not a question of gender inequality, but--I've long suspected--a question of ethnic background inequality. At least Josie took over the series title for the last two books.

J. L. Bell said...

There are certainly other series featuring female detectives, sometimes with male sidekicks. Indeed, after a somewhat slow start we have a nice long tradition of female writers, readers, and main characters in detective fiction. Nancy Drew consistently outsells the Hardy Boys by a bit.

But in the aggregate, do mass-market kids’ mysteries lean toward putting the boy first or putting more boys on the team? The Invisible Inc. series features two boys and a girl. The A to Z Mysteries feature two boys and a girl.