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Antony Johnston: Invisible Underdogs

Antony Johnston: Invisible Underdogs

Why is Gwinny Tuffel, the hound-loving sleuth in my new Dog Sitter Detective series, an older woman?

It’s a question many people have asked, particularly as I’m a middle-aged man. It’s simple enough to justify in terms of story and character: Gwinny has a lifelong love of dogs, lots of experience handling them, and is a veteran observer of human nature. She’s at a stage in her life where she still needs to earn money, but also has enough spare time and freedom to investigate murders with her canine companions.

These requirements naturally point to someone older, with a fair amount of life experience under their belt. But that’s not really what those people are asking.

I’ve been writing fiction, in many different fields, for more than twenty years. In that time, around three-quarters of my main characters have been women (including, of course, Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde) and it’s become my default position. Why is that?

There are a number of reasons I write female protagonists, but the foremost is simply that women remain underrepresented in most media. Film, TV, graphic novels, and videogames are all still heavily biased towards male protagonists.

Nevertheless, I grew up reading comics like Halo Jones and Tank Girl, and watching silver-screen heroines like Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor. The notion that a woman can be the strongest, most active character in a story has never seemed odd to me – despite their persistently small number.

So in an attempt to redress this imbalance, I’ve always pushed for more female leads, more female characters overall, more women with authority and agency. I’m not the only one, of course, and things have certainly improved in the past twenty years, but in many formats and genres male protagonists remain the default.

Thankfully, crime fiction is an exception. The more balanced gender ratio, both of characters and authors, is something we in the genre’s community can be rightly proud of. Crime is also making big strides in other areas of diversity such as a rise in awareness of, and success for, non-white authors.

But one area where there’s still work to be done is in representing older women. Crime is again at the forefront of this representation, all the way back to Agatha Christie’s immortal creation Miss Marple – arguably the template upon which all ‘cosy crime’ is based, and certainly an influence on my own Gwinny Tuffel. But the feeling of an absence waiting to be filled persists. Grizzled old men are plentiful, but older women are thinner on the ground.

Why is that? One could point to society as a whole, which often ignores women once they pass 40, particularly in entertainment. Ask any veteran actress about the number and quality of roles they’re offered now, compared to when they were a young ingenue (especially in contrast to their male contemporaries!) and they’ll rightly pin your ears back.

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The mere existence of a TV show like the wonderful Last Tango in Halifax, with a premise not much more complex than, ‘Older people still fall in love, you know,’ is a demonstration of how far we have left to go. But its success, along with the growth of the ‘Queenager’ concept as popularised by Eleanor Mills – older and post-menopausal women who feel vigorous and empowered to explore a second youth – shows a hunger for such content.

So when I sat down to write The Dog Sitter Detective, it seemed a perfect opportunity to help shore up this effort, and contribute to the representation of an often overlooked demographic; the invisible underdogs, if you will.

I’m not writing exclusively for that audience. I want people of all ages to enjoy Gwinny’s (mis)adventures, in the same way I thrilled to heroines of page and screen growing up. Who knows, perhaps reading about a sixty-year-old retired actress who stumbles across murders while dog-sitting will have a similar effect on some readers, encouraging them to think again – and notice something often overlooked.

The Dog Sitter Detective by Antony Johnston is published on 18 May by Allison & Busby in hardback at £16.99 and is also available as an eBook and as an audiobook.

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