the ugly woman detective

I can’t stop reading mystery novels. All I want to do is read murder mysteries, especially if they are set in England (Scotland is also good) and people have parlors and there are words I’ve never seen before but I can chalk them up to me not being British and still feel good about myself. I prefer my murder mysteries to sound vaguely old-fashioned, even if they were written in the 90s. I prefer the characters to believe firmly in the proper protocol, even if they have to break it.

But even if a book has to be set in America, and the detective has to be all swashbuckling and rebellious, I’ll still read it, as long as it’s a mystery.


Right now I’m reading a book by Elizabeth George (thank you, people on Twitter, for the recommendation! This post is dedicated to you!), and I am in love with her ugly woman detective. Her name is Barbara Havers. I am only on the second book of a long series, so I don’t know what will become of her and how her ugliness will factor into her fate, and I don’t know how the class difference between her and the dashing, high born detective she works with (in a supportive position) will play out. But I do know that I really like that she’s ugly. And I really like that she’s angry about being ugly. And I really like that she’s at the center of the books anyway.


I was writing about something similar recently. About the kind of woman I’d like to see more in books. I didn’t think that she might be angry.

But Barbara Havers is making me think about options.

It seems to basically go like this in books (in life, too?):

Beautiful women and girls can be anything. They can be scheming and vicious or brilliant and kind or just sweet or fascinating and full of surprises. They can be all types of beautiful, too. There are so many delightful variations, but we always know that they’re beautiful, because other people react to them in a way reserved for attractive women and girls.

Women and girls who are not beautiful can be interesting or not, but if they care too much about not being beautiful than they are vain and potentially dangerous or just desperate and a little tragic. If they don’t care at all, then there’s hope. Then they can be awesome in other ways. If they are awesome in other ways, other people will respect them, even if they don’t fall in love with them. If they care too much, then people won’t like them, and they will also make comments about how unattractive these women or girls are.


Barbara is ugly and pissed off. She knows how important it is to be pretty. She is aware of her clothes not fitting right, of her hair not falling right, of the unlucky proportions of her face and the awkwardness of her body. And why wouldn’t she be? She is a sharp, trained detective, after all. She is practical. She is a woman, in the world.

In life (in books, too?), people seem to be under the impression that you should not spend too much time thinking about how you look. Which is funny, because people seem to spend a lot of time thinking about how everyone else looks. In life, people like to say, “Just get over it!” With appearances, this means either you’re pretty or you should get over it.

I don’t like the implication that you can either be pretty or not even notice that you’re not pretty enough.

Just be confident and move ahead. Never mind that people feel comfortable saying things about how Lena Dunham is too fat for television and that Hillary Clinton has cankles. Never mind that the goal of women-geared industry seems to be to help you lose weight as quickly as possible so that you can finally have a shot at a decent life.

I am not ugly. I would never be cast on TV (unless maybe Lena Dunham really liked me) but I don’t think people look at me and think, “Well, I hope she has a great personality!”

But I am angry sometimes, and so I understand Barbara. 


I am angry about not being obviously, indisputably beautiful, because I feel like my body has let me down. Because the world has made it clear to me how much it matters. Because I am afraid of being somehow held back because of it.

I am angry about how much it matters.

And I don’t think the way forward is to pretend it doesn’t matter. To pretend that it doesn’t matter to me. That I don’t even notice. That I’m too busy being confident and awesome and fabulously unique to notice the ways in which my face veers wildly away from the faces that smile seductively at me from magazines and get the most messages on OKCupid and attract the casual approval of so many strangers. I am not oblivious or stupid. Of course I notice.

It is difficult, at the same time, not to get annoyed at Barbara. She seems so petty sometimes. She’s so caught up in her own problems. The problems she imagines other people see in her. She is often wrong about what other people are thinking. She guesses for them freely. She is hurt. Her pain is coiled under her surface, always a moment away from striking. She lashes out.

It’s better not to care. It’s better not to notice. Or to notice and ignore. Or to notice and then turn away and work on this amazing slam poem. Or your mayoral campaign. Or anything else, really.

I think I’m going to get there. To the place where I notice and turn away. To the place where I notice and laugh it off. Where I shrug. I have those moments already, in my mid-twenties. I think they’re a good sign.

“Whatever,” I say to my weird face. “It’s cool.”

But even when it’s cool, I want to reserve the right to be pissed off about beauty.

And I am in love with the way that Elizabeth George writes this angry character who is a good detective, but who is also a woman who doesn’t match any of the beauty standards she can’t help but be aware of, and who can’t seem to fit in because of this, but who is plowing ahead anyway, fully conscious, bitter, completely human, and determined to grab onto the life she wants, anyway, and not let it go.

I don’t think I’m going to turn out bitter. I’m too lucky in too many ways. And I love my lips and my butt and a few of my slam poems.



But if women are ever angry about beauty, I get it. I get why we might be angry about all the rules our faces break just by expressing our parents’ quirky genes, and the standards we never stood a chance at meeting, and the celebrity bikini photo shoots that are constantly being praised in the background of our lives, and the 100 hottest women lists, and the dating site data, and the people who said something really mean to us growing up, and the times we just knew, we just really knew that we weren’t good enough because all of this—

Well yeah.

Of course.

We should be pissed.

I have a lot more going on under this face than on it, after all, and I wish I hadn’t had to learn somewhere along the line that the thing that I should wish most to be best at was something I had so little to do with. Something controlled more by an ancient string of ancestors and a random chain of events than by anything I might ever do. I wish it’d never occurred to me that I might not be worth as much as other girls, because of my topography—my surface. I wish I’d never recognized that critical, measuring look in the world’s narrowed eye, as it sized me up. But I recognized it.

And so I get it. And I can’t just let it go and pretend it didn’t happen.

We should be angry sometimes.

And then, since it is possible, to be angry and effective at the same time, we should go ahead and do some serious sleuthing.

*  *  *

Does anyone have any great mysteries to recommend?

Unroast: Today I love the way I love light.

Reader cake pic, from Bethany! Send yours soon!

She says: I actually AM eating cake in the picture of just me, even though it looks like I’m just savoring a fork.  I had my kind of boyfriend take that picture specifically for your site, but he missed the cake sitting on the plate in front of me.  It was a yummy ice cream cake and I say it counts!  (Also, notice the sexy blur in the background?  My best friend!)


Kate on July 19th 2012 in beauty, being different, being sad, body

25 Responses to “the ugly woman detective”

  1. Sarah responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I adore Barbara Havers and kind of want her to be my best friend. (Did you know that there’s a TV miniseries based on these novels? They cuted Havers up a bit in it, but her character is VERY much the same.)

  2. Emmi responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 11:20 am #

    Most of the time, I am able to feel grateful for my own unbeautifulness. It allows me to get the measure of a person much more quickly, which is very useful. My beautiful friends get treated very differently than I, but I think I get treated much more honestly than they do. I prefer that.

    This is not to get down on myself – I think I’ve never looked better! It’s just an honest assessment. Like, how I get treated better by strangers when I’m wearing a dress. It’s uncanny. I love wearing dresses, but I sort of resent the different treatment.

    One last semi-related point: when I had to see a dermatologist recently, I mentioned to her that I never wear makeup. She said, “Yes, I see that.” I still can’t decide if that’s a backhanded way of saying my face looks terrible, but it amuses me nonetheless! :)

  3. Shasta responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Although I’ve watched all of the Inspector Lynley TV mysteries (based on the Elizabeth George books), I’m now inspired to read the books themselves — the qualities you mention about Barbara are apparent in the TV shows but sound so much more fleshed-out in the novels.

    And, I can unequivocally (and urgently) recommend the Inspector Gamache mystery series written by Louise Penny. Set in a charming village in Quebec, these books are not only darn fine murder mysteries, but contain characters I have come to love and view as friends, including many truly complex and fascinating female characters. These books have real wisdom (not something often found in mysteries) and humanity. MUST READ! :)

  4. Kiran responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    Everyone should read P.D. James! She’s so great. All her mystery novels are excellent, and while she does have a male protagonist, she has several supporting female characters who are great – strong, smart, capable. And they take place in England. I love her to bits! I think she’s in her 80s at this point, but she just keeps trucking along, writing new stuff, though maybe not quiiiite as quickly as before.

  5. Janet T responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    there are three books by pj alderman that are light mysteries, and really fun at the same time.

    I’ve noticed lately in several books the “girl” is very shy, or slightly plump or too “something”, not normally associated with great beauty and charm….and the gorgeous well to do man falls for her, and she breaks it off because she thinks she isn’t good enough, or beautiful enough etc… just observing a trend, I have no idea what it means.

    Kate, as someone who is 25 years older than you I will say it gets better. A woman’s strength just seems to shine through, and it is a beautiful thing. Most of the truly beautiful women I’ve known were in their 70′s, 80′s or 90″s. Confident, loved, and secure with lots of laugh lines.

  6. Steph responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Not set in England or Scotland, but I Love Sparkle Hayter’s Robin Hudson mysteries. Perfect for a lazy afternoon with cake.

  7. daphne responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    I absolutely adore the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley — Flavia is a little girl, but the books are clearly meant for adults to read, and they are terrific English-countryside mysteries, dark and charming and not nice sometimes, and Flavia is obsessed with chemistry and poisons, if that tells you anything about what kind of little girl she is. Love, love, love.

    I think I’m fairly pretty but my nose is too big (and crooked) and my arms are chubby and my smile is horribly crooked. So, while I get by, I photograph HORRIBLY and there are certain situations where I really, truly, totally and honestly know that I am viewed as rather unattractive. Oh well. I know it, I know it’s not true (or, not most of the time), and I try to remember that the things I don’t like (my nose, my arms) are the things that other people notice and like. At least, I hope so.

    By the way, all this body stuff gets easier in your 30s. At least, it did for me, and does every year as I get older.

  8. Melanie responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    I am going to check these books out. I believe it’s totally okay to be angry if you are not considered beautiful, but I’m really glad I’m not one of those people who goes through life being angry. I understand it and I support it, but I would never want to live that way.

    It’s very recently that this occurred though. I used to be angry about EVERYTHING that was wrong with me. Every little thing. I don’t ever want to go back there.

  9. lik_11 responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    I enjoy the Flavia de Luce stories, as well!

    @Emmi- Wearing make-up can actually age your skin (so you wear more to hide it!); maybe the dermatologist was telling you that you look younger?!? :)

  10. Katrina Blanchalle responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    I’m just pissed on behalf of all the women who are convinced they’re ugly because my asymmetrical face and lumpy body are GORGEOUS! Also I used to be a fairly good detective.
    This is off topic but how come the actresses that played Ugly Betty and Betty La Fea were so beautiful? Was it like a theme that ugliness is just perception, or was it that they didn’t think people would watch the shows if they didn’t use a beautiful actress. Am I overcomplicating it? Am I oversimplifying it? :-)

  11. Kylie responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    I’m now going to have to go to the library for another round of detective books. Lately I’ve been hooked on the Mary Russell series, which includes books in both England and Scotland (that’s probably half the reason I love them). Honestly, I have no idea whether Mary is ugly or not. I guess I’m assuming that she isn’t ugly since I just never thought about it before. Hm.

  12. Marie responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    I really enjoyed The Devil in Music and the other Julian Kestrel mysteries by Kate Ross. The detective is a dandy in Regency-era England, and his valet used to be a pick pocket.

    I remember them being the sorts of books I would prop up behind textbooks when I was supposed to be studying.

  13. Ceci responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 12:37 am #

    Totally understand the angry woman rant on looks. I get angry at myself sometimes for looking the way I do. I always look to hilary clinton for inspiration. She is average at best but people listen when she talks despite her looks. Its such a different kind of power that she has over people because she is not conventionally attractive. Mostly the media portrays beautiful women holding their audience captive because of sensuality and beauty. Its so rare that people will listen to what an unattractive woman has to say.

  14. Laura responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 1:28 am #

    I don’t know that beauties have it all. I think people think she’s gorgeous, she must use her looks to get what she wants. She’s a diva, a snob, and probably a slut.

    They are always believed to be sleeping with the boss, or the professor. Not often are they believed, since nobody can be both smart and beautiful…

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this…I just wanted to make that point.

  15. Val responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 1:36 am #

    Hilary Clinton has cankles?

    What is that some kind of fat ankles? Okay, you tell me about Al Gore’s ankles or John McCain’s ankles?

    I’ll bet Barack and Michelle have slender, stylish ankles, which people also hate them for.

    Do people actually notice and care about such things?

    No wonder women who aren’t movie-star gorgeous are angry, lol.

    Believe me, I’m a terrible detective, suspect no one, make excuses for everybody. But I’ve got cute ankles!

    (Don’t look any higher up than my knees–see my adorable ankles?)

    love, Val

  16. Lynn responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 6:55 am #

    I looooove mysteries, epecially murder mysteries set in the UK :) The Agatha Christie mysteries have always been a classic favorite of mine, can’t go wrong there ;) I can also wholeheartedly recommend The Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King (they’re a continuing chapter of the Sherlock Holmes stories) and the Flavia DeLuce Books (several people above have already mentioned them). Also, these are not set in England, but have you read any of the Hannah Swensen mysteries by Joanne Fluke? The main character is an amateur detective who also owns a bakery!!! They are murder mysteries, but they are exremely light, fun, fast reads and they have RECIPES!!! (mostly for cookies and cakes and other sweets, NOM!!!)

  17. Sarah responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 9:48 am #

    I can’t get enough of Kerry Greenwood. She’s an Australian author and has 2 series so far.

    One is set in 1920′s Melbourne and is fantastic historical fiction with a bit of a British feel (australia was very British back then).

    The other series she does is set in modern day Melbourne and is about an ex-accountant baker/accidental detective. She is plus sized, but has the most wonderfully positive attitude towards it. Plus there are always recipes at the end.

  18. Kate responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 11:13 am #

    AAHHH!!! This makes me so happy! So many new mysteries to read!!
    THANK YOU for all the recommendations!
    I have been reading a lot of P.D. James. I love her writing, but am not getting attached to Adam Dalgliesh, even after four or so books.
    and @Lynn I can NEVER get enough of Agatha Christie. I read her as a kid and she’s still just as good. And the occasionally there’s this really antisemitic comment, and I just let it go and keep reading.

  19. Sooz responded on 20 Jul 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    This entire post resonates with me. Thanks for the book recommendation. I haven’t read anything satisfying lately and have been looking for something to read. :)

  20. Person responded on 24 Jul 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    I’ve read this blog for a while, and while I haven’t commented, this post struck a chord with me — not so much about the mysteries but, instead, about anger over being ugly.

    When you’re a ugly girl or woman, your appearance shrouds everything about you, and existing is a sisyphean task. Any competence you have is reduced, belied by your looks, and any other quality you have mean nothing. Every situation turns into an instance of proving yourself, or trying to detract from your looks with a glowing personality, genius-level smarts, or Mother Teresa-like niceness. Being just smart, nice, or interesting isn’t enough to let others get past the fact you’re the “ugly girl.” Rather than others simply accepting yourself, you have to show that, in spite of your lack of pulchritude, you’re worthy of their attention.

    And, what are the repercussions? With every job interview and social interaction, you have to show you’re good enough. Otherwise, nearly everyone else assumes you’re incompetent or stupid. After a while this gets tiring, and while I can’t speak for other people, it makes me say “Fuck it” and avoid interaction altogether, possibly missing opportunities because I don’t want to go through the whole “See, I really am worthy of your attention!” rigmarole

    Coupled with this sense (or actuality) that you’re constantly never good enough, there’s the confidence nonsense you mention. A smile and good vibes aren’t going to erase bad skin and a bulky frame. They just can’t, and you know it, but appearing happy and satisfied makes others feel less bad about insulting and ignoring you. After all, you seem happy with yourself, so why should their remarks bother you?

    I apologize that this post is rant-y. I think we should be able to express dissatisfaction over being dismissed, ignored, and passed over for factors you have no control over.

  21. shevrae responded on 29 Jul 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Just popping in to suggest my favorite mystery author – Georgette Heyer. :)

  22. Kate responded on 29 Jul 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Thank you!!

  23. Karin responded on 30 Jul 2012 at 1:43 am #

    These books are sort of semi-mysteries, and there’s not always a murder. Sometimes there’s an affair. Once there was a dentist behaving strangely. Anyway: I really like Alexander McCall Smith’s books about Mma Ramotswe . They are set in Botswana, and the main character is a lady of “traditional” build. Sometimes there are comments about this fact. She’s pretty cool about it, in my opinion. The first one is called the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

  24. Harmony responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    My new favorite ‘mysteries-solved-by-a-woman-who’s- more-smart-than-sexy’ is the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. British, clever, and kick-ass. I highly recommend them!

  25. stephen responded on 09 Sep 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Hi, I’ve been reading mysteries lately. Here are some I’ve liked…and one I haven’t started but it looks interesting.

    C. L. Anderson is the name Sarah Zettel uses for her mystery novels; they take place in New York City in a world where vampires, etc. are real. The main character is rather average looking.

    She writes about the White House Chef solving mysteries.
    I haven’t read all the mysteries; I don’t remember anything specific about her looks, but she does have a sort-of boyfriend.

    Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about a woman in Botswana who solves
    mysteries. She is “traditionally-sized”. She’s happily married.

    Her novels have bird-puns in the titles, like We’ll Always Have Parrots. I don’t know how attractive the detective couple is. I haven’t started reading them yet.

    My idea of ugly is Nosferatu.