Students Doing English Extension Course 1: New Stories
Elective 2: Crime Fiction - The Feminist Novel
should be allowed to play in the mud. They should be released from the
obligation of perfection. Some of your writing, at least, should be as
evanescent as play. Margaret Atwood, 'Nine Beginnings', in The Writer
on Her Work
This essay argues that those writers who have tried to combined feminism with the private eye genre have too often sacrificed art to ideology, have placed impossible pressure on character and plot in pursuit of ideological purity. By creating writers who are too good to be true, they have often undermined their characters' credibility.
These feminist PIs are moral absolutists when many of the male PIs are more believable moral relativists.
I put this down to a number of factors: first, these heroines are the direct descendants of the morally uplifting literature for girls (Little Eva, various dying swans from Dickens, the March women, Katy Carr, the virgin martyrs, Jane Eyreetc-not to mention all the female masochism we later osmosed from Charlotte Bronte, Jean Rhys, Rosamond Lehman, Georgette Heyer and their ilk); secondly, they have been influenced by the puritan wing of the American feminist movement, which largely sees the female role as one of service to the higher good; thirdly, they have been influenced by 1960s left-liberalism; and finally, the example of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe legitimised the private eye as moral crusader and social outsider.
I try to show, too,
that Australian feminist private eye writers are less ideology driven
than their American counterparts.
Feminist PIs: Too Good To Be True?
Too many female detectives remind me of Jo March with a black belt. They're just too good to be true. To employ a cinema metaphor, they're June Allyson playing Barbara Stanwyck roles (Addendum: I can't think of a more modern example; there simply isn't a credible femme fatale in movies today). Maybe feminists have created women who are coldly perfect and perfectly cold.
The problem is that perfect characters make for a boring read (and a boring write). They are inflexible and predictable. Let's face it, enormous skill is required to make the virtuous interesting (remember the Lives of the Saints?); the only great good women who come easily to mind are Jane Eyre and Dorothea Casaubon, but that's the big league.
Let's look at some feminist PIs. V. I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky's immensely successful creation, leads an empty life. Until quite late in the series she didn't take lovers, and her closest friends were much older parent substitutesDr Lotty Herschel and Salvatore Contreras. Vic drove an old car and didn't spend money on herself.
Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone seems oddly marginal, too. Until recently (about half-way through the alphabet), she lived in a garage and had an octogenarian male as her best friend (there are lots of surrogate fathers in feminist PI books, but no mother of any kind in the male varietyworth a look by scholars of the genre). (Addendum: As an afterthought in May 2001, could I say that feminist PIs look uncomfortably like good daughters?) Totally devoid of personal vanity and consumerism, Kinsey jogs and lifts weights, cuts her own hair and drives an ancient Volkswagen. She does, thank God, have the occasional fling with a man.
Wilson's Pam Nilsen is lesbian, left-wing, vegetarian and working in a
print collective that doesn't take any ideologically unsound jobs. Her
only discernible fault is jealousy of her twin sister. Maureen Moore's
Marsha Lewis appears to have been assembled from a left-liberal, feminist
kit. Living with a surrogate aunt, she studies for an MA in urban anthropology,
mashes vegetables for her little girl and bakes bread, drives a bomb and
boycotts politically suspect products in supermarkets. In grimy, gloomy
England, Liza Cody's Anna Lee was driven to adopting Selwyn and Bea, the
odious couple downstairs, as a surrogate family.
Not one of these has a problem with drugs or alcohol or is sexually promiscuous (in this they remind me irresistibly of Mary Higgins Clarke's pert, plucky, semi-liberated heroines, which would horrify most of their creators). When they do get it on, it's behind the arras.
The Seduction Of Being Good
Why have feminist PI writers fallen into the trap of creating good girls? A mixture of conditioning, ideology and lack of confidence are the reasons, I suspect, and because they're so busy being good girls themselves. American writer Mary Gordon hit upon a profound female truth when she wrote that, 'There is no seduction like that of being thought a good girl'.
Most of the generation writing the first wave of feminist PI crime novels were force fed on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, the March women and Katy Carr and Clover at an impressionable age, and that sort of conditioning is difficult to overcome.
Another reason for creating female PIs who don't cheat or screw around or occasionally act irresponsibly is that feminists didn't want to hand the enemy ammunition. We see this principle operating with minority groups who block any revelations about the group which could bring bad publicity. One example of this was African-Americans' outrage at Anita Hill's washing of dirty linen in public when she charged a US Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, with sexual harassment; another is the silence for too long that has surrounded Aboriginal men's violence against Aboriginal women. (Addendum: The cone of silence has been lifted on this subject since this essay was written.) All this is self-censorship, and though it's understandable, it's to be deplored, because it simply exchanges one straitjacket for another. It's also the enemy of truth and totalitarian in tendency.
So while women writers have dared put tough female PIs on the street, until recently they've been pulling their punches. Female PIs have turned into role models, exemplars, not people, facing the same demands as women in other male bastionsto be twice as smart, twice as hard-working and totally irreproachable.
just as these expectations hobble women in the boardroom, they handicap
female private investigators. It's the Schoolgirls' Own mentality,
where you send in spunky virgins to fight the demon Hun with only a good
British sense of right and wrong, a nail file and their own wits to assist
them, while the men are armed to the teeth. (This type of sleuth actually
has a long tradition in private eye fiction.)
I'm not saying that our heroines should be as morally slippery as Sam Spade, but at least there should be some sense of struggle and theoccasional temptation left unresisted.
The Freedom To Be Bad
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I see the hand of the American Puritan wing of the feminist movement in all this. Left-liberal politically, this school of thought holds that liberation doesn't mean the freedom to choose to be as rotten as men, but rather the freedom to be more virtuous and ideologically sound. This means that women can be legal aid lawyers or social workers but not stockbrokers or tycoons, and that women who beat men on their own terms, like Margaret Thatcher, are disowned. Some peopleincluding medo not think this is what is meant by freedom.
into the crime genre, it means that female PIs will be social workers
in disguise, won't carry guns and won't take work from crooks. Even lawyers
don't have such impossible standards to meet or affect such moral omnipotence.
By definition, criminal lawyers work mostly for people who have broken
the law, and as long as clients charged with murder don't confess, lawyers
proceed on the assumption that they are innocent until proven guilty,
and that they deserve the best defence available.
away with this absolutist moral position, feminist PIs have be outsidersmarginals.
Phillip Marlowe In Drag
Chandler made all this possible (or even inevitable). Our heroines are
the spiritual successors of Philip Marlowe; perennial outsiders who don't
seem to need family, friends or sex, meaning they don't have to compromise
like ordinary folk.
It was with the stories and novels of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett that the private eye entered the literary mainstream. A mass readership was already addicted to the hard-boiled, violent escapades of PIs in pulp magazines such as Black Mask, but the street-cred of Hammett's Sam Spade and the romanticism of Chandler's Philip Marloweand the stylish writing of bothrevolutionised the image of the PI and attracted a more discriminating audience.
and Chandler have become the twin pillars of the hard-boiled PI tradition.
Insofar as the genre can ever be realistic, Hammett's work is on the realistic
end of the continuum, while Chandler's is on the romantic. The reasons
are plain: Hammett drew upon years of experience as a Pinkerton agent
(The Continental Op), whereas Chandler got all his information
about the underworld second hand. Much of it came straight from his imagination.
(Addendum: Just as scientists based their submarines and space
ships on descriptions by futurists like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, American
gangsters started modelling themselves on Chandler's characters: life
Sam Spade is thus closer to the real-life PIs we know and love from Royal Commissions and anti-corruption inquiries; that is, operating so close to criminality that the line sometimes disappears. Hammett's hero regards bribing or blackmailing public officials for information as normal business practice, takes bribes himself on occasion, commits adultery with his partner's wife and has an affair with a major murder suspect. He is a moral relativist.
Chandler's Marlowe, on the other hand, is a moral absolutist. He regards himself as a moral crusader, and is incorruptible and alarmingly chaste.
It is virtually impossible for anyone practising in the genre now to avoid the influence of one or both of these giants. The sons of Hammett include James Crumley's Milo Milodragovich and C. W. Sughrue, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Gerald Petrievich's anti-heroes, Jonathan Latimer's Bill Crane, Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, Robert Crais's Elvis Cole, Dan Kavanagh's Duffy, Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker, and all the characters created by Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford and James Ellroy. (Addendum: Among Australian writers, the sons of Hammett include John Dale, J R Carroll, Peter Temple and Robert Barrett (though Les Norton probably owes more to Mickey Spillane).
children include Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer (McDonald was also profoundly
influenced by Freudian psychology), Robert Parker's Spenser, Earl R. Emerson's
Thomas Black, Peter Corris's Cliff Hardy, Robert Campbell's Jimmy Flannery,
Bill Pronzini's nameless detective, Michael Lewin's Albert Samson, Jon
Katz's suburban detective (also heavily influenced by feminism, oddly
enough) and all the feminist PIs.
could say that the feminist PIs are Philip Marlowe in drag.
Unlike their female counterparts, many of the male PIs are deeply flawed characters, and it's their defects and conflicts that make them interesting. Scudder spends most of one novel in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and other famous alcoholic (or recovering) PIs include Milo Milodragovich, C. W. Sughrue, Dave Robicheaux and Bill Crane. Nick and Nora Charles drank too much (as did the creator of the Thin Man series), and of course Sherlock Holmes was a snowbird (a rather picturesque term for a cocaine addict I probably read in Chandler). You even meet the occasional American male PI (like Dan Kavanagh's Duffy) who's a substance abuser.
Many male PIs are also addicted to violence. Thats why they're PIs: it's a licence to consort with crims and beat up baddies, all in the name of justice (the law doesn't tend to come into it). Dave Robicheaux, for example, often takes the law into his own hands and anguishes over his attraction to violence (but doesn't change); Milo Milodragovich is self-destructive and dangerous when drunk; Duffy is voraciously bisexual and, as an ex-cop, regards the law as an ass; Les Norton is a violent, sexist yob, and even Spenser (who is predominantly Chandleresque) resorts to using an African-American sidekick armed with heavy artillery to settle scores for him.
all their posturing, female PIs must have a similar attraction to the
seamy side (the same holds true for all sorts of do-gooders, surely),
otherwise they'd be physiotherapists or lecture in semiotics, but that
fascination with evil is never made explicit in feminist crime. It is
either buried too deep in the subconscious to be acknowledged, or it is
regarded as shameworthy. Perhaps this is why they overcompensate and act
like Mother Superior on a pro-bono case for the Holy Spirit.
The Australian Variant
While the influence of both Raymond Chandler and the American feminists on Australian female PIs is obvious, they are not simple clones; in fact they exhibit a decidedly local point of view.
Perhaps because of some deep-rooted suspicion of ideology for its own sake in the Australian psyche, our feminist writers are less politically correct and more morally and ethically flexible than their American or British counterparts, who sometimes sound like secular nuns.
Marele Day's Claudia Valentine, for example, has done the unthinkable and walked out on her children, who are being raised by a stepmother. Inspector Carole AshtonClaire McNab's lesbian protagonistraces off a prime suspect in one of her cases and moves her in, and lets a former lover cloud her judgment in another. McNab's sex scenes are unusually steamy for female crime writing. (Addendum: The conflict between her personal ethics and those of the police force took its toll on Ashton, however. When I wrote this essay, Ashton was threatening to leave the police force and come out as a lesbian PI.)
Fisher, Kerry Greenwood's flapper detective, is an unashamed vamp who
has trouble keeping her silk knickers on. Even Jennifer Rowe's Verity
Birdwood is a defiantly unsympathetic character. Cathy Cole's Nicola Sharpe
is outspokenly party political.
the start, Australian feminists reserved the right to drink in pubs and
dance on tables as well as marching for abortion on demand. Our feminist
PI writers are jealously guarding this hard-won right to have fun and
still be taken seriously.
This Australian suspicion of political correctness is not only artistically sound, it's also good business: one-dimensional characters can wear thin, as the bad reviews for some of Sue Grafton's efforts demonstrate. And if the fans are getting a bit jaded, the critics are becoming downright scathing. Here is the influential Marilyn Stasio (New York Times Book Review, 5 January 1992) talking about Linda Grant's latest Catherine Sayler mystery:
Signs Of Change
good news is that it's starting to look as if we were only going through
a phase, a period of transition. Change is coming. Maybe it's just the
1990smid-life crisis time for baby boomers worldwidebut maybe
it's also because of a growing confidence, a realisation that we can let
our girls grow up and act sexy and have some doubts.
Grafton got the message and provided Kinsey Millhone with a new apartment
(still a garage, but a chic one), a man, and a hairdresser. Maybe she'll
even go out and buy some clothes. Across the Atlantic, Anna Lee fled drizzly
London and her dismal colleagues for Florida, got mixed up in all sorts
of American mayhem, and had a torrid fling with a sexy Yank. At the same
time, her landlord soled the building, casting her out of the nest, and
her awful neighbours split up and moved away. The American adventure also
seems to have galvanised Cody into ditching Anna in favour of a much more
aggressive PI, Eva Wylie, 'big, ugly and irresistible, a female wrestler
with criminal tendencies and large pectorals,' according to the publisher's
publicity machine. Apparently when Eva is not working the sleazy wrestling
circuit, she's a security guard living in a wrecker's yard with two dogs.
in Chicago, Vic Warshawksy, pushing forty, is busting out all over, buying
a gas-guzzling Trans Am sports car, bedding an African-American cop and
gaining some insights into her inability to commit. Sandra Scoppettone,
who wrote police procedurals as Jack Early, has come out with lesbian
detective Lauren Laurano, who won't give up junk food despite escalating
cholesterol levels, and who became so obsessed with computers in one adventure
that she neglected her psychiatrist lover and caused fights.
Verity Birdwood will surprise us all and take a lover.
was no conscious decision to make my private eye male. I'd been writing
'literary', non-comic short stories with female protagonists, but Syd
touched down fully developed. As a sleazy political press secretary he
just had to be male: it's the nature of the beast.
reading much detective fiction at the time, so my influences were probably
old onesChandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Damon Runyon.
second story it became obvious to me that Syd needed a civilising influence,
and Lizzie Darcy was born. I soon recognised Lizzie's potential as a change
agent, not only for Syd, but for male readers (and besides, she's partly
me, bullying all the men I ever knew).
Syd could never be called a feminist, there is a feminist agenda in the
stories. Oddly enough, what critic Stephen Knight called the 'subterranean
feminism' in the Fish books eluded not only many male readers, but also
the odd member of the female ideological policeone woman reviewer
even called Syd 'vulgar, sexist and homophobic'. (Appalled, I checked
with a gay bookshop in Sydney's Oxford Street and discovered that they
were recommending Dogfish to their customers.)
falls squarely in the morally relative camp. For a start he's an inner
city, formerly working-class lad who grew up with a healthy disrespect
for the law, cant, pomposity and spurious class distinctions. He come
to the job of private investigator via the yellow press and politics,
both areas demanding moral flexibility and a strong stomach.
that you can't make omelettes without cracking eggs, Syd is not above
breaking into houses, lying and changing sides . Realising he's not tough
enough to frighten the sorts of low lifes he confronts in his business
without a gun, he calls on Luther Huck when he needs muscle. (As it was
my hatred of guns that handicapped Syd, I compensated by inventing Luther,
who wouldn't know a moral from a Mauser.) Now if I won't pit Syda
semi-tough blokeagainst the Sydney milieu, I wouldn't send in an
unarmed woman and (a) expect her to survive and (b) expect my readers
to believe it.
I've also refused to make Syd a marginal. He's solidly grounded in the eastern suburbs where he grew up, knows lots of people, has networks he can use, has racked up favours he can call in, and knows exactly how Sydney works. He makes friends with people he meets through his work, is highly dependent on Lizzie Darcy, and in Dogfish falls hopelessly in love with Julia Western (who is too good for him). He gets on well with low lifes and 'is no stranger to sleaze'.
is politically incorrect on a number of grounds, too. He eats all the
wrong foods (pizzas, take-out Mexican, too much beer), stages male tantrums
(about Julia's career aspirations, about Lizzie's love affairs), leches
after women (the female police officer, the pornographer's wife, Lucy),
refuses to jog, persecutes fools (the merchant banker, the town planner),
exhibits poor judgment about character (Andrew 'the Greek' Kotsopoulos,
Fiona McLeod), and has to be pulled up regularly by Lizzie for his sexist
But all this makes him 'real', I believe. As real as any fictional PI can be, anyway.
Selling The Message
female writers seem to have created feminist PIs to make a point a bout
women's capabilities in traditionally male fields of endeavour. Has it
I don't have any statistics on the female-male breakdown in readership
of Paretsky and Grafton, I suspect the bulk of the readers are women.
It's fine to be a role model for girls (though I wouldn't advise any of
them to try out their self-defence class karate on a couple of football
players), but is this enough? If I sometimes find them puritanical, humourless,
one-dimensional, sexless drudges, it's highly probable that they aren't
reading the sort of audience that needs its pills sugar coatedmost
men, for example.
If men read my books, and they seem to, it's probably because the humour and the recognition factor mask the message. I'm endeavouring to persuade and teach by example, not to coerce or preach to the converted. A typical Aussie male in the process of a sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding transition, Syd is being forced to take women seriously. Why? Because they can match or better him on every test except physical strength, because they are loyal and tolerant, and because he can talk to them.
optimistic enough to hope that when Syd learns some lesson about his relationship
with women and the world, the male reader will learn something too. The
fact that Syd is far from perfect, that he's growing and learning in each
outing, prevents him from becoming a formulistic chore for me, and I hope
makes him more interesting to readers.
to see the world through male eyes is a technical challenge, and so far
nobody has accused him of sounding like a woman (though my friends often
say they can hear me talking). It tests my observational skills, my grasp
of male psychology and most of all my empathy. And it's fun for me to
look at female characters through male eyes.
my criticisms, I am heartened by signs of change in the genre. I firmly
believe that complex, flawed characters are more appealing to readers
than impossibly perfect, impossibly strong, totally alienated women who
don't seem to be able to do two things at a time. Why can't Kinsey Millhone
show her legs occasionally? Why can't Vic Warshawski have a decent social
life? Why doesn't Anna Lee get the hell out of that awful detective agency
and set up by herself? Why can't they ever go to the pub and get pissed
and dance on the table? Where's their sense of humour?
© Susan Geason
1993 & 2001
modified version on 21 July 2001
© Susan Geason