Liza Cody Essay - Critical Essays


Although Liza Cody’s characters cross literary boundaries in terms of gender expectations, scholars are split on their response to the author’s female detectives and their placement in the genre. Some critics believe that Cody’s women, in addition to defying traditional depictions of female sleuths, break with stereotypes of the literary detective in general, truly transforming the genre. Others insist that Cody’s protagonists, Anna Lee and Eva Wylie, are essentially male private eyes in drag. Many critics have noted resemblances between Cody’s British Anna Lee and her American counterparts, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, primarily their independent natures. Eva Wylie, however, appears to have no equal in the field of feminist detective fiction.

In the Anna Lee series, the title character finds herself not only solving crimes but also battling workplace politics. Lee’s boss, Commander Martin Brierly (a thorn in Lee’s side), and his office manager, Beryl Doyle (as old-fashioned and traditional as the doily that her name suggests), are committed to upholding the patriarchal hierarchy of their small investigative firm, one that puts Lee on the bottom rung. Her boss assigns her only the most minor of cases, which typically balloon into significant and difficult investigations. Over the years her successes garner Lee a private office and the begrudging respect of her employer. Still, the final novel of the series, Backhand (1991), concludes with Lee in a homeless and jobless state, less secure than in her inaugural appearance in Dupe.

In many respects, Anna Lee is a woman in a man’s world, capable of doing the job but slowed by social roadblocks she must circumvent. As a female detective, Lee breaks new ground in urban, rural, and foreign environs (subsequent novels take her out of London to the English countryside, on tour with a rock star, and across the ocean to Florida), but her progress is impeded by entrenched attitudes of male privilege. In Cody’s novels, Lee’s grit and intellect are often insufficient tools to forge gender equality where it is not wanted: the male-dominant enclave of a private detective agency. Ironically, Lee’s status as a marginalized player at Brierly’s allows her to see events with enhanced clarity and to pursue cases with greater freedom. She finds herself on the same fringes of society where the criminals she seeks take refuge. Self-reliant in the extreme (she has trust issues), alienated from her family (out of touch with her respectable middle-class sisters), and underappreciated by colleagues (who find both her gender and her methods suspect), Lee finds companionship with her neighbors, Bea and Selwyn, and in short-lived sexual encounters with men who come into and go out of her life with increasing frequency.

The Lee series can be read as a fictional chronicle of a working woman’s slow but steady progress in the investigative field during the 1980’s. In contrast, Cody’s 1990’s series featuring Eva Wylie (the wily Eve) further disrupts traditions associated with women...

(The entire section is 1278 words.)