CASING THE GENRE: HARD-BOILED FEMINIST FICTION AND
In the last century, women writers have appropriated the
detective novel and reinvented the entire genre to include women as more
than victim or villain. Since the late 1970s, the fastest growing form
of the detective novel has featured what Maureen T. Reddy calls, “gun-toting,
unsentimental, tough-talking female loners in the hard-boiled tradition of
professional investigators” (11). These characters and the women who
create them have been both applauded and criticized by detective story purists
and feminists alike. The question being asked by anyone familiar with
the new feminist vision of the hard-boiled detective novel is this: Has the
large number of women writers with women detectives changed the genre, or
are these women a welcome facet of the genre’s evolution?
The two common forms of the mystery novel are classical
detective fiction and hard-boiled detective fiction. The key differences
between classical and hard-boiled mysteries deal with physical location,
narrative style and character values. Kathleen Gregory Klein appropriately
compares the hard-boiled school of fiction to dark, urban U.S. streets, while
the classical version of the novel is more like quiet English villages.
Specifically, the hard-boiled school values street smarts, abrupt slang and
action over the classical values of university education, polite conversation
and thinking (Klein, “Women Times,” 4). A Dashiell Hammett type of
hard-boiled detective is more likely to wisecrack and engage in violent activity
than is the classical, Sherlock Holmesian detective. Traditionally,
sex and violence are standard elements in hard-boiled detective fiction,
and criminal acts take place in a public, urban arena. Hard-boiled
detectives are historically male and often possess virtues like physical
strength, logical thinking and worldly experience, which are also characteristics
typically attributed to masculinity (Klein, Woman Detective 3).
The narrative is told in first person, it is linear, and it offers a single
perspective on an atypical lifestyle (Walton 151).
The 1990s saw more women readers and writers of mystery
fiction than every before (Klein, “Women Times,” 5). Ruth Cavin, senior
editor for St. Martin’s Press, is reported to have claimed in 1989 that within
two years she had witnessed a 25 percent increase in detective fiction submissions
featuring a female sleuth (Walton 25). Between 1966 and 1970 only six
books written by women and featuring a female investigator were published,
and between 1971 and 1975 five books written by women and featuring a woman
detective were published. In the years between 1976 and 1980, 13 books
by women featuring female detectives were published, more than double the
previous years. Between 1981 and 1985, 43 female-authored books were
published featuring women investigators, nearly triple that of the years
before, and between 1986 and 1990 those books being published numbered 124.
Finally, between 1991 and 1995 366 books by women authors and containing
women investigators were published (Walton 28).
The phenomenal publication rates of women’s detective
fiction beg the question, why read crime fiction at all? The best answer
is a personal one, but generally people read crime fiction for the same reasons
they read any other form of fiction—to “escape reality,” to gain enlightenment
and to be entertained by the style and characterizations of the author (Reddy
4). A reader of hard-boiled detective fiction is one who anticipates
“logic, action, ratiocination, violence, crime, scientific method…” (Klein,
Woman Detective 4). Detective fiction of any kind is read equally by
men and women, and is perhaps the only genre in which women writers have
excelled and been regularly and recently read by men (Bargainnier 2).
Because modern detective fiction features both male and female protagonists,
the reader is able to effectively see him/herself reflected in the detective
and is able to put him/herself into the story as the detective (Kinsman,
Like everything else created by man, the detective novel
evolves. Recently, it seems like an unofficial requirement that mystery
novels include some form of love interest for the detective. As romance
is not true to traditional detective form, the new detective novels are being
called by different names. Elaine Budd sums up the situation quite
succinctly, “One of the mysteries of mystery books is what to call them”
(Budd xii). In the “classic mystery puzzle,” the emphasis is on the
object; in the “psychological suspense” novel, the emphasis is on the characters
and their behavior; in “romantic suspense” novels, the emphasis is on the
influence of time and place on characters; in the “police procedural,” the
emphasis is on methods and details of law enforcement (Budd xii). Other
types of mystery fiction include the academic mystery, wherein the investigator
is an amateur and the crime is connected to a university, and lesbian mystery
fiction, wherein the investigator is either professional or amateur and is
either homosexual or bisexual (Reddy 69). Due to the overwhelming varieties
of detective fiction, some critics and publishers have begun to call these
pseudo-detective novels crime fiction. This label covers all fictional
works in which the primary interest is the assessment of usually criminal
events, that are somewhat obscured at the beginning of the narrative (Reddy
5). It is important to note that just because the primary interest
of crime novels is the crime, that does not mean it is the only interest.
Frequently in these novels, the “whodunit” can be less important than the
“whydunit”, or the exploration of character and social conditions (Reddy
This very exploration of character traits and social concerns
is precisely what makes crime fiction different from the traditional detective
novel. S.S. Van Dine in his “Twenty Rules for Detective Stories” offers
a list of guidelines for writing detective fiction. Women detective
novelists often blatantly disagree with three of Van Dine’s rules, which
state that neither love, intuition, nor “subtly worked-out character analyses”
have a place in a detective story (Van Dine 122). Whereas traditional
detective story writers like Sherlock Holmes and hard-boiled detective story
writers like Dashiell Hammett followed Van Dine’s rules flawlessly, most
feminist detective novelists discount them in favor of developing main characters
and exploring social conditions from a woman’s perspective.
Many fictional women detectives in existence today are
likeable, believable, three-dimensional characters righting social wrongs
and making verbal and physical statements about politics, ethnicity, gender,
class, and honor (Reddy 11). The first-person narration of women’s
detective fiction offers an innately women-centered or gynocentric perspective
that is also feminist. A standard dictionary might define feminism
as an advocation of social and political rights for women that are equal
to the rights of men; however, Maureen T. Reddy defines feminism as “a way
of looking at the world that places women’s experiences at the center” (Reddy
9). Feminism is often divided into two major theories or schools of
thought; radical/socialist feminism proposes systematic social re-creation,
while liberal/revisionist feminism proposes that even though current patriarchal
society is flawed, women should work through it to make changes and opportunities
(Klein, Woman Detective 200). In America, this latter philosophy
seems to be the most popular and most effective. In 1916 Margaret Sanger
opened the first U.S. birth control clinic, and in 1920 the Women’s Suffrage
Movement began, resulting in the 1923 Equal Rights Amendment (Klein, Woman
Until the political movements of the early twentieth century,
the female detective was rare in literature. Due to real life gender
discrimination in the workplace, few plausible models existed for the autonomous
female protagonist. There was also less of a market for women writers,
or as Maureen T. Reddy points out, “women will read novels by and about men
but not vice versa” (6). It did not make financial sense for publishers
to print works that one-half of the population would not consider buying.
However, the main reason for the lack of strong women leads in fiction probably
had less to do with discrimination and marketing than it did with the unexpected
and non-traditional idea of a female committed to principles of law and order
In the 1970s, approaches to literature began to change
drastically with the advent of reader response and feminist theories.
The theory of reader response focuses on the individual interpretation of
the text by a reader, and forms of feminist thought focus on women’s interpretation
of text based on women’s experiences (Klein, “Women Times,” 5-6).
The belief of feminist thought is that women and men interpret literature
differently due to the different socially constructed perspectives that gender
experiences bring to reading a text. This theory can be traced back
to the idea of inhabited spheres; men make up the public sphere of society,
involving work, finances, education, and physical action, while women comprise
the domestic sphere, involving cooking, raising children and engaging in
conversations with other women. In the past thirty to forty years,
feminist scholars have begun to analyze the development of women in fiction,
both as writers and characters, and to concentrate on the development of
the female private investigator, lesbian crime fiction, race, social issues
and the literary treatment of violence and sex (Kinsman, “Sisters,” 157).
Detective fiction written by women and featuring women
investigators has been slowly building a reputation in the publishing industry
since the late 1970s, and it has rapidly gained in popularity since the mid-1980s.
Perhaps certain changes in society over the past decade have made women writers
and their female creations more acceptable. The 1963 publication of
Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was a popular literary condemnation of
sexism in America; the 1963 American Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights
Act both banned sexual discrimination in the workplace; the incorporation
of NOW (National Organization for Women) in 1966 demanded that women participate
fully in society and share the same privileges and responsibilities as men.
These three events helped to provide real models for single, self-sufficient,
independent female protagonists, writers and readers by allowing women the
freedom to earn a living and to be considered responsible, worthwhile individuals
by society (Walton 12).
In traditional fiction, women were objects and men were
subjects, but in modern fiction, and especially modern detective fiction,
both men and women are subjects, and no human being is relegated to the status
of object (Berglund 138). There are some feminist critics, however,
who believe that the conventions of hard-boiled writing are “inhospitable
to feminism” (Walton 88). Rosalind Coward, Linda Semple and Kathi Mao
are just a few who argue that the violence and attitudes toward women and
minorities prevalent in the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler
and Mickey Spillane are unnatural in women’s fiction (Bakerman 126).
Many detractors of women’s detective fiction believe that the substitution
of a female in the place of a male investigator is merely a matter of gender-bending;
instead of feminizing the mystery, the mystery creates a “tough gal”, or
a woman who embodies the values and characteristics of a masculine society
(Irons, Gender 134). The frequency with which women detectives
disguise their identities by using male nicknames, last names only or initials
indicates the degree of alienation the characters must feel operating in
a patriarchal society. The female investigator can be seen to be intruding
on the masculine domain. Perhaps the female detective attempts to learn
the secrets of dominate society in order to make a place for herself and
her values; then again, critics like Coward, Semple and Mao might contend
that the detective simply supports the status quo by working with or for
the system (Klein, Woman Detective 201). Even critics not as
opposed to the idea of a hard-boiled female investigator may perhaps claim
a philosophical conflict for women detectives by arguing that even though
the detective operates outside of the patriarchal system as a loner, thus
opposing that system, she still upholds the system’s laws in a professional
capacity by tracking down criminals and delivering them to society for punishment
(Irons, Gender 138).
While those critics who resist the idea of hard-boiled
feminist fiction are vocal, they are not as numerous as those feminist scholars
and critics who endorse it. Sally Munt in Murder by the Book? believes
that hard-boiled writing correlates with liberal feminist theory (Walton
100). Munt and those who share her beliefs argue that because hard-boiled
fiction is a major area for standardizing gender roles and behavior, then
securing that literary form may operate as a way to change the standards
of gender and genre (Walton 89). Just as fiction containing women
as “heroes rather than heroines” was first introduced during the 1960s due
to socio-political factors, perhaps fiction written today portraying strong,
active, independent professional investigators may influence social and political
perspectives and values in the future (Berglund 145). Finally, some
proponents of feminist detective fiction believe that women and mysteries
go together because of their parallel social standing. While women
have historically been considered second-class citizens, the mystery novel
has been thought of as second-class fiction (Klein, “Women Times,” 4).
Traditionally, both women and detective fiction have been kept from the surface
of mainstream society, and they have merged together to form the “’hottest
segment’” of the publishing market, as Kate Miciak, senior editor of Bantam
Books, is quoted as saying in 1989 (Walton 27). It is obvious that
someone is reading detective fiction written by women, because 54 novels
by women have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award presented by the
Mystery Writers of America since its inception in 1953. Of these 54
novels, 11 have actually won the award (Klein, Great Women 372-3).
Some writers, probably unknowingly, have attempted to
bridge the gap between feminists and detective story traditionalists who
believe that mystery fiction is a man’s domain. To appease the feminists,
some authors try to include somewhat independent female characters who are
not villains or victims, while at the same time these authors try not to
anger purists by placing women in secondary roles, never primary ones.
In the 1930s, the strategy most commonly used by authors was to include the
female character as either the girlfriend or wife of the detective.
That way the woman could take an active role in solving the crime, but she
was never in charge of the investigation. Several women authors used
this strategy, and it might be said that the secondary female characters
were the writers’ projections of themselves: Dorothy L. Sayers as Harriet
Vane, Lord Peter Wimsey’s novelist girlfriend; Agatha Christie’s Tuppence,
witty and clever wife of Tommy Beresford; and Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy,
artist wife of Roderick Alleyn. Other writers have placed their female
characters in situations which make it excusable for them to get involved
with crime solving such as the endangerment or false accusation of a friend
or family member. The most popular appearance of the female detective
is in the form of the spinster. Both Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple
and Anna Katherine Greene’s Amelia Butterworth are prime examples of the
aging, unassuming and seemingly unprofessional detective who uses a network
of friends and knowledge of human nature to solve crime. The polite
old lady sitting in her rocking chair, crocheting a doily and sipping afternoon
tea is “essentially feminine in her ways and manners,” but quick enough to
figure things out before the men in the story (Berglund 141-5).
While the history of the feminist detective novel has
been discussed at some length, it is necessary to look at the evolution and
history of mystery fiction in general. The entire mystery genre has
its roots in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 creation of C. Auguste Dupin in the “Murders
in the Rue Morgue.” Poe’s detective follows clues in a logical manner
to solve a crime, and he ends up catching his suspect, who just does not
happen to be human in this case. Unintentionally, Poe became the progenitor
of a new species of literature (Klein, Woman Detective 6-7).
In the 1890s, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, probably inspired by Poe, created the
first series detective in the form of Sherlock Holmes (Kinsman, “Sisters,”
158). The 1920s and 1930s saw the advent of the American hard-boiled
private investigator, the urban loner prone to swearing, drinking and committing
violent acts (Kinsman, “Sisters,” 159). The 1930s also saw the introduction
of a sleuth of another kind, Nancy Drew. Carolyn Keene’s innocent,
charming, teenage creation, was to have a heavy influence on the feminist
writers of the 1960s and 1970s (Kinsman, “Sisters,” 160). Finally,
the Golden Age of detective fiction came about between the two World Wars
(1920-39), and during this time, one out of every four books being published
was a mystery (Bargainnier 1-2).
While most scholars agree that the mystery genre began
with Poe, several feminist scholars believe that women’s detective fiction
has its roots further back in history. The eighteenth century gothic
novels of Ann Radcliffe seem a likely candidate for the ancestor of feminist
fiction. In these novels, the heroine of the story is always a victim
of men and society, she suffers, and is victorious in the end. The
1860s sensation novels of writers like Mrs. Henry Wood are descendents of
the gothic novels. Sensation novels also feature women who have been
terrified and victimized by men and society, but these novels tend to end
tragically for all involved. Both gothic and sensation novels were
dominated by women writers, and while they entertained a primarily female
audience, they also questioned women’s place in society (Reddy 7-8).
Sensation novels in particular arose at a time when male publishing was being
destroyed and new feminist presses, journals and magazines were being started.
While the 1860s may have been the beginning for women’s literature, the Golden
Age of women mystery writers was definitely the 1980s. Between the
late 70s and mid 80s, writers like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Mary Higgins
Clark, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky first created their women
detectives (Budd xii).
When Sara Paretsky’s first novel, Indemnity Only, appeared
in 1982, it was “both a critical and a popular success” (Irons, Feminism
xiii). Paretsky’s protagonist, the smart-mouthed, street-savvy,
once-divorced lawyer-turned- private investigator V.I. Warshawski, shares
many characteristics with traditional hard-boiled detectives. The first
similarity between V.I. and her male counterparts is the urban setting; just
as Sam Spade walked the “mean streets” of Los Angeles with a gun and his
fist, V.I. navigates the corrupt streets of Chicago with a Smith & Wesson
.38 and a black belt in Aikido. V.I.’s ability and willingness to protect
herself on the street is another commonality between her and the men.
Both Spade and V.I. love their freedom and independence, drink hard liquor
(Black Label whiskey in V.I.’s case), and distrust the government and its
political agendas. Furthermore, V.I. and Spade conflict constantly
with the society they protect; both detectives frequently break laws and
mock the legal system (Irons, Gender 137). Finally, all hard-boiled
detective novels are written in the first person, so that the narrative acts
like the detectives moral filter through which all judgments of right and
wrong are decided and acted upon.
Paretsky’s books (there are 10 of them to date and one
collection of short stories) deviate from traditional hard-boiled format
because they focus primarily on the breakdown of social order in families,
churches, neighborhoods, states, and/or corporations (Irons, Feminism
xxi). Paretsky’s feminism is also a substantial point of deviation
from the established norm. In her early novels, Paretsky utilizes conventional
themes and plots but includes feminist tales (Reddy 11). In Deadlock,
V.I. investigates the drowning death of her cousin and legendary hockey player
Boom Boom Warshawski. Armed with her whiskey and her .38, V.I. investigates
a Chicago shipping industry, powerful businessmen and a beautiful ballerina
before finding the killers. The plots of Indemnity Only and Deadlock
are typical of hard-boiled detective fiction, and the only elements of feminism
are located V.I.’s personality and profession. In Paretsky’s later
novels, feminist concerns are center stage as the novels fuse V.I’s personal
and professional lives thus using the detective novel as a vehicle for making
observations about the lives of modern women (Bakerman 120). In Bitter
Medicine, Paretsky’s fourth book, V.I. becomes enmeshed in the details of
poor, pregnant, teenage Consuelo Alvarado’s emergency room death. Along
with the destruction of a women’s clinic, Consuelo’s death propels V.I. into
the depths of dirty hospital politics, where those who can afford treatment
get it and those who cannot suffer. Bitter Medicine takes the detective
into a previously unexplored area and “redraws the boundaries” of hard-boiled
detective fiction (Reddy 12). Oftentimes, Paretsky is quite
blatant about her feminism; her third book, Killing Orders, includes V.I.’s
high school friend Agnes Paciorek, a successful lesbian stockbroker and feminist
who is murdered for her political activism. The murder touches both
V.I.’s personal and professional lives as she plays the roles of grieving
friend and objective detective. V.I. does not pretend that her interest
in the case is only professional like Spade or Marlowe might do in a similar
situation; instead, she openly admits to her mixed emotions about the case
without trying to bury them under aggression and violence.
Even though V.I. does not rely on violence to uncover
information, violence is a basic characteristic of a private investigators
life. As previously mentioned, V.I. holds a black belt in Aikido; she
also jogs regularly and eats healthy. V.I. manages her lifestyle so
that her body is in the best shape it can be—a necessity for a detective
whose body is her professional tool of trade, which is used for solving crime
and staying alive, and so must always be ready for action (Walton 178).
The ultimate sin for a feminist detective is needing to be rescued, especially
by a man. V.I.’s level of fitness and martial arts training keep her
out of the position of victim. Even when she gets roughed up by goons,
she fights back; losing does not make V.I. a victim, but giving up does (Reddy
113). In Indemnity Only, Warshawski is accosted by two hired thugs
with guns in the stairwell to her apartment. Unarmed and outnumbered,
she manages to disarm her opponents, separate the ribs of one and bruise
the kidney of another before she is knocked unconscious (Paretsky 76-8).
Of one of her attackers, V.I. says, “He was stronger than me, but I was in
better shape and more agile…” (Paretsky 77). V.I. is almost always
more fit than her opponents, and for a divorced ex-lawyer pushing 40, that
is saying something.
V.I. feels the same way about guns as she does about violence—both
are sometimes necessary evils. After her encounter with the goons and
subsequent beating by the goons’ employer, Earl Smeissen, V.I. decides that
a gun might help prevent another such occurrence. However, when Warshawski
shows up at the gun shop with a bruised face and a pronounced limp to purchase
her Smith & Wesson .38, the owner tries to talk her out of it, saying,
“’Why don’t you come back on Monday, and if you still feel you want a gun,
we can talk about a model more suited to a lady than a Smith & Wesson
thirty-eight’” (Paretsky, Indemnity 122). After reassuring the
man that she is not a wife-beating victim thinking about killing her husband,
she finally purchases the gun, ammunition and a shoulder holster. Because
guns are commonly seen as phallic symbols, some feminists may see Warshawski’s
possession of a gun as a form of betrayal—V.I. is now “one of the guys”,
relying on her “phallus” to protect her. However, neither Paretsky
nor Warshawski would agree. V.I. is nothing if not practical, and owning
a gun when your life has been threatened is eminently practical. Furthermore,
V.I. is quite contemptuous of men who rely on guns to back up their threats.
When Smeissen, his goon, and their employer, Yardley Masters, hold V.I.,
Ralph Devereux (V.I.’s then boyfriend), and 14-year old Jill Thayer hostage
at gunpoint in Devereux’s apartment and threaten to rape and kill the teenager,
V.I. mocks them angrily, “’You big he-men really impress the shit out of
me. Are you telling me Tony’s [Smeissen’s goon] going to rape that
girl on your command? Why do you think the boy carries a gun?
He can’t get it up, never could, so he has a big old penis he carries around
in his hand’” (Paretsky, Indemnity 306). Warshawski is aware
of the phallic metaphor of the gun, and she uses it to anger those for whom
the metaphor might apply.
While mockery is one of V.I.’s best weapons, it is more
often than not directed at herself. After accusing a powerful suspect
of dirty dealing over the telephone, V.I. mocks her own imprudence and impetuousness.
“Beautiful, Vic: beautiful rhetoric…So why be so full of femalechismo and
yell challenges into the phone? I ought to write, ‘Think before acting’
a hundred times on the blackboard” (Paretsky, Indemnity 147).
V.I.’s self-directed humor functions as a way to examine her own motivations,
successes and shortcomings. V.I.’s sense of humor also functions as
a way to distance herself from events (Biamonte 234-5). While she is
being beaten up by Smeissen, V.I. thinks, “One of the things I hate about
my work is the cheap swearing indulged in by cheap crooks” (Paretsky,
Indemnity 81). To keep her pain and anxiety from overwhelming her,
V.I. applies her characteristic wit to a stressful situation to alleviate
her tension and allow clear thinking.
Like many of the traditional hard-boiled detectives, V.I.
has her own peculiar code of honor, which is frequently revealed when she
considers issues of morality and justice. V.I.’s concept of justice
is based on a belief that individuals are responsible for their own actions,
but it is also moderated by a consideration of circumstance (Reddy 117).
When Jill Thayer questions V.I. about what makes a person good or bad, V.I.
replies, “Thing is, you have to have your own sense of what’s right built
inside you” (Paretsky, Indemnity 179). It is rare for V.I. to
offer advice to anyone about morality, but V.I. gets quite passionate about
law and justice. At one point V.I. tries to explain to Ralph Devereux
why she quit working as an attorney for the Public Defender’s Office.
“The setup is corrupt—,“ she says, “you’re never arguing for justice, always
on points of law” (Paretsky, Indemnity 210). V.I. goes on to
relate how it was her own “concept of justice” she wanted to work on, not
just “legal point-scoring” (210). To fully serve her own justice, V.I.
has had to claim total independence from society and from the possibility
of more intimate relationships.
V.I.’s independence is not usually a burden to her, however;
living and working on her own without the added responsibilities of family
allows V.I. to take risks without worrying for the safety of others.
V.I.’s parents are both dead, and she is an only child, so she doesn’t have
any close family to be concerned about. As the work of a detective
is often dangerous, close family and friends can be a liability for the investigator
who deals with the seamier side of city life on a daily basis. In Indemnity
Only, when V.I.’s young friend Jill Thayer is taken hostage by three men
with guns, V.I. is faced with the added pressure of protecting two lives
other than her own. The good guys, meaning V.I., win, but the possibility
of future disastrous incidents is always with V.I. She never regrets
her friendships, but she does try to protect as many innocent people as she
can by cutting herself off from deep connections with others, while simultaneously
yearning for those connections (Reddy 105).
V.I. is not unusual in her absence of family and friends
among female private investigators of the hard-boiled tradition. P.D.
James’s Cordelia Gray and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone are both orphans.
It is an odd coincidence, but many feminist critics theorize that strong,
independent female heroes do not have families because families are patriarchal
and somewhat traditionally oppressive to women (Reddy 104). In place
of the families they do not have, these women create what has been called
“chosen families,” or closely-knit friendships primarily with other women
The majority of women hard-boiled detectives are also
single or divorced. As well as facilitating the detectives need for
independence, the single status also shows a resistance to society’s demand
that women abandon their own goals in favor of supporting the goals of a
man” (Reddy 104). This is not to say, however, that women detectives
do not form romantic and sexual attachments. V.I.’s involvement with
Ralph Devereux is an obvious example of that. In spite of V.I.’s attempts
at forming romantic attachments, relationships with men never work out because
as V.I. points out, “some men can only admire independent women at a distance”
(Paretsky, Indemnity 37). For V.I., though, Ralph seems to have
possibilities. He almost always supplies the correct responses when
things get tough for V.I. “Just because I’ve been acting like a protective
man…doesn’t mean I think you ought to be sitting home watching soaps and
doing laundry” (Paretsky, Indemnity 209). Even though Ralph
seems to support V.I. and her career, Ralph realizes what other men often
discover about hard-boiled female detectives, V.I. does not need him to take
care of her (Paretsky, Indemnity 313). Perhaps V.I. should have
been warned about the relationships failure when Ralph initially reacted
to her career by exclaiming, “You? You’re no more a detective than
I am a ballet dancer” (Paretsky, Indemnity 31).
Ralph’s original disbelief, pretended acceptance, and final recognition of
V.I.’s persistent independence are true to form. Romantic attachments
for women investigators always results in the man trying not to be sexist,
but in the end exhibiting sexist expectations (Reddy 106-7).
Perhaps V.I. prefers the company of women because she
does not have to worry about them trying to change her. In fact, V.I.
tells Ralph, “I have some close women friends, because I don’t feel they
are trying to take over my turf. But with men, it always seems, or
often seems, as though I’m having a fight to maintain who I am’” (Paretsky,
Indemnity 209). V.I. often turns to women for help because she
knows that she sometimes needs help, and a community of women is very powerful
protection against the community in general (Irons, Gender 139).
The person V.I. most often turns to for help is Dr. Lotty Herschel.
Many critics have speculated about the nature of V.I. and Lotty’s relationship,
some believing the two women are just strong friends, some believing they
are more than just good friends, and some believing that they share a mother-daughter
relationship. Paretsky would seem to agree with the last belief.
At one point, Lotty tells V.I., “Still, Vic, be careful: you have no mother,
but you are a daughter of my spirit” (Paretsky, Indemnity 292).
Perhaps Lotty is a type of surrogate mother for V.I.’s own deceased mother,
Gabriela. While V.I.’s friendship with Lotty may be more closely linked
with family than anything else, her friendships with other women serve as
ways of exploring the differences in culture, race, and age (Kinsman, “Sisters,”
154). V.I. has a loose friendship with a bartender named Sal.
V.I. describes Sal as “a magnificent black woman, close to six feet tall…no
one messes with Sal” (Paretsky, Indemnity 29). Sal is the only
black person mentioned in a book concerned with Irish-Polish rivalries, so
she is Warshawski’s experience with race. Sal runs a tab for V.I. at
the Golden Glow, a bar where V.I. brings both her business and her pleasure.
She meets Ralph there for get-to-know-you drinks, and she brings Murray Ryerson,
a persistent reporter for the Chicago Herald-Star, there to trade information.
Although the relationship is rather unformed in the first book, V.I. obviously
trusts Sal enough to show her both the personal and professional aspects
of her life. Jill Thayer also gets to know V.I. personally and professionally.
The young woman hires V.I. to discover who killed her brother and father,
but then spends several days living and working with V.I. and Lotty.
To V.I.’s surprise, she does not have any trouble considering someone over
20 years her junior as a friend.
It is possible that most critics consider V.I. “one of
the best developed and most convincing female private eyes in contemporary
fiction,” because of her relationships with other characters. V.I.’s
sense of humor, code of honor and ability to take care of herself emotionally,
financially, and physically also help make her so credible. The very
things that separate V.I. from the bulk of hard-boiled detectives entitle
Sara Paretsky to come “closer than any other novelist to writing a feminist
private-eye novel” (Klein, Woman Detective 215). V.I. is not
a loner or a cynic, she displays a full range of emotions and she treats
the opposite sex as individuals, not stereotypes.
Over 40 years ago, a feminist detective novel would have
been an absurdity, 30 years ago it was a rarity, 20 years ago it was a novelty
and less than a decade ago it was the fastest growing sub-genre on the market.
Just as the content of the detective novel has changed over the years, film
and television representations of detectives have changed as well.
Where movies and series featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Mike
Hammer once reflected society’s concept of the great detective, Jessica Fletcher,
Cagney and Lacey, and V.I. Warshawski are becoming common models (Irons,
Gender x-xi). Detectives and detective fiction have changed
and will continue to change, but this change is an evolution, and all things
must evolve to survive. So while the pervasiveness of women writers
and women detectives has changed the face of detective fiction, it has not
weakened the genre but made it stronger.
Bakerman, Jane S. “Living ‘Openly and with Dignity’—Sara Paretsky’s New-Boiled
Feminist Fiction.” Midamerica: The
Yearbook of the Society for the Study of
Midwestern Literature. 12(1985): 120-35.
Bargainnier, Earl F. 10 Women of Mystery. Introduction. Bowling Green,
KY: Bowling Green State U P, 1981. 1-5.
Berglund, Birgitta. “Desires and Devices: On Women Detectives in Fiction.”
The Art of Detective Fiction Ed. Warren
Chernaik, Martin Swales, and Robert Vilain. New York:
MacMillan, 2000. 138-52.
Biamonte, Gloria A. “Funny, Isn’t It: Testing the Boundaries of Gender and
Genre in Women’s Detective Fiction.” Look Who’s
Laughing: Gender and Comedy. Ed. Gail
Finney. Studies in Humor and Gender 1. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach,
Budd, Elaine. 12 Mistresses of Murder. Introduction. New York: Ungar,
Irons, Glenwood. Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction. Introduction.
Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1995. ix-xxiv.
- - - , ed. Gender, Language and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative.
Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.
Kinsman, Margaret. “A Band of Sisters.” The Art of Detective Fiction
. Ed. Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales, and Robert
Vilain. New York: MacMillan, 2000. 153-69.
- - - . “A Question of Visibility: Paretsky and Chicago.” Women Times
Three. Ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein. Bowling Green,
KY: Bowling Green State U P, 1995. 15-27.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory, ed. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary
. Westport: Greenwood P, 1994.
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- - - , ed. “Women Times Women Times Women.” Women Times Three: Writers,
Detectives, Readers. Bowling Green, KY:
Bowling Green State U P, 1995. 3-13.
Paretsky, Sara. Indemnity Only. New York: Dell, 1991.
- - - . Deadlock. New York: Dell, 1984.
- - - . Killing Orders. New York: Dell, 1993.
- - - . Bitter Medicine. New York: Dell, 1999.
Reddy, Maureen T. Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel.
New York: Continuum, 1988.
Van Dine, S.S. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” The Art of
the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Ed. Howard Haycraft. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992.
Walton, Priscilla L. and Manina Jones. Detective Agency: Women Rewriting
the Hard-Boiled Tradition. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1999.