Feminist and Lesbian Mystery Fiction Characters

Feminist Characters and Themes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Characters in feminist mystery fiction tend to be women of independent character who range in age from children to seniors, but the majority are in their twenties, thirties, or forties. These women are connected by their unique abilities to navigate the double treacheries of crime and sexism. Most are self-employed, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who operates a low-budget detective agency. Some, like Liza Cody’s Anna Lee, work in private detective firms. Others are employed in police departments or practice as lawyers. However, characters do not have to be directly tied to traditional law-and-order careers to be sleuths. A variety of characters, including musicians, teachers, and even a professional wrestler, have appeared as protagonists in feminist mystery fiction. Collectively, these women are highly competent at completing tasks traditionally associated with men, including the solving of mysteries and the capture and prosecution of criminals. Mental toughness and physical strength are often the only weapons these women possess, but some also pack firearms and know how to use them.

Themes in feminist mystery fiction tend to focus on women’s issues, particularly women’s desire for personal and financial independence, physical autonomy, and equal protection under the law. The fact that many female characters—both victims and sleuths—are denied these basic rights in fiction reflects society at large and underscores the importance of gender equality as a goal worthy of pursuit in this genre and in life.

Lesbian Characters and Themes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mainstream mystery and detective works frequently relegate lesbian characters to the positions of tainted others, outsiders beyond the pale of acceptable society. As persons of suspicion, lesbians who transgress into heterosexual fiction are almost certainly aligned with criminal elements and not the right arm of the law. These deviant images of lesbianism, as scripted through the lens of entrenched heterosexual social values, once dominated mainstream literature with rare exceptions. During the mid-1980’s, lesbian authors of mystery fiction began to replace this distorted heterosexual view of lesbianism, offering in its place a complex presentation of diverse lesbian characters. Most writers avoided simply reversing the previous dichotomy and privileging the lesbian characters over their detractors; instead, authors of lesbian mysteries relied on the genre’s standard types to reintroduce lesbian characters into popular fiction.

The stock character of the hard-boiled detective in mystery fiction was once exclusively the property of male heterosexual writers. Popularized by Raymond Chandler, a hard-boiled detective is a man’s man. A bitter unsentimental loner who eschews social niceties, he methodically tracks a killer, often narrowly escaping being killed along the way, while attempting to suppress an attraction for a “hot dame,” who may or may not be worthy of his trust. This model of the private eye is one frequently appropriated by lesbian...

(The entire section is 570 words.)