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Susan Geason Writer Image Blank Spacer image
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    HSC Students Doing English Extension Course 1: New Stories
Elective 2: Crime Fiction - The Feminist Novel

Ain't Misbehavin

Girls 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
(ed.) Janet Sternberg, Virago, 1992.

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 Eyre—etc-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.
I also contend that political correctness appears to be breaking down. Feminist PIs are becoming less morally absolute, less marginalised, are acting more like real women and less like feminist exemplars, and are becoming richer, more complex characters. This I see as a change for the better, as it is likely to attract a wider audience for a sub-genre which has too often preached to the converted.
Finally, I show how Syd Fish, my male PI, fits into this schema and articulate my own agenda as a female PI writer.

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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 substitutes—Dr 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 variety—worth 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.

Barbara 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.

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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 bastions—to be twice as smart, twice as hard-working and totally irreproachable.

And 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.

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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 people—including me—do not think this is what is meant by freedom.

Translated 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.

To get away with this absolutist moral position, feminist PIs have be outsiders—marginals.

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Phillip Marlowe In Drag

Raymond 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 Marlowe—and the stylish writing of both—revolutionised the image of the PI and attracted a more discriminating audience.

Hammett 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 imitating art.)

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).

Chandler's 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.

You could say that the feminist PIs are Philip Marlowe in drag.

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Hammett's Boys

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.

For 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.

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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 Ashton—Claire McNab's lesbian protagonist—races 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.)

Phryne 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.

From 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.

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Boredom Backlash

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:

But how they do quack, these characters who line up like docile ducks in their too-good-to-be-true ranks. Catherine herself always speaks ex cathedra, delivering ideologically unimpeachable-position-lectures on every social malady from murder to junk-food addiction. 'I think of myself as an open-minded person,' she says, 'tolerant of others' way.' Don't believe it for a minute.

Who hasn't voiced a similar complaint at some time?

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Signs Of Change

The 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 1990s—mid-life crisis time for baby boomers worldwide—but 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.

Sue 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.

Now that's progress.

Back 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.

Perhaps Verity Birdwood will surprise us all and take a lover.

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Sydney Fish, PI

There 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.

I wasn't reading much detective fiction at the time, so my influences were probably old ones—Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Damon Runyon.

By the 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).

So while 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 police—one 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.)

Syd 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.

Recognising 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 Syd—a semi-tough bloke—against 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'.

Syd 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 attitudes.

But all this makes him 'real', I believe. As real as any fictional PI can be, anyway.

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Selling The Message

Some 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 worked?

While 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 coated—most 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.

I'm 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.

Trying 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.

Despite 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?

Maybe that's coming.

© Susan Geason 1993 & 2001
This essay first appeared in Killing Women: Rewriting Detective Fiction, Ed. Delys Bird, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1993.

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    Last modified version on 21 July 2001
© Susan Geason