Feminist and Lesbian Mystery Fiction Analysis

Feminist Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most feminist and lesbian mystery works are not free of men, but male roles are generally reduced in significance or altered in function. In all cases, however, women emerge at the forefront, and male characters tend to appear in supporting, rather than leading, roles. On the other hand, men with significant roles to play are frequently the leading female characters’ antagonists; they tend to interfere with the women’s investigations. The women assume the duties of protagonists, characters who take actions to right wrongs or who see cases to their logical conclusions. In some works men assume traits traditionally associated with women and vice versa. Thus men might be portrayed as vulnerable and in need of protection, while strong, capable women come to their defense or rescue. However, some works eschew such easy gender reversals and instead further complicate what it means to be a woman or a man in contemporary society. Meanwhile, these gender issues play out against the same backdrops of deceit, murder, and mayhem that readers expect to find in works of mystery fiction.

In addition to incorporating traits inherent to the mystery genre, such as puzzling circumstances and crimes needing resolution, feminist mystery fiction also addresses social issues relevant to women’s lives. The appearance of women in traditionally male venues, such as police precincts or courts, is common. Equality under the law and in pursuit of justice takes on further significance when female detectives are penalized for being women. Such characters frequently battle not only the criminal elements, but also a hostile society that judges them inadequate, by virtue of their gender, for the tasks they undertake. Female sleuths must unravel the mysteries presented to them while circumventing social barriers and proving their detractors wrong. Often, they succeed in the former pursuit but fail in the latter.

Lesbian Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Lesbian mystery fiction is an extension of feminist mystery fiction. Like its sister genre, it features female protagonists who defy stereotypes of women by filling what were formerly exclusively male roles in the workplace, whether the characters be detectives, lawyers, police officers, or amateurs. Lesbian authors and characters surmount limiting gender and sexual conventions, expanding notions of what it means to be, and to live as, women. Additionally these stories explore problems faced by lesbians as members of a predominantly heterosexual society. Hostility toward lesbian characters can escalate into hate crimes, situations in which victims are threatened, assaulted, or even murdered because of their sexual orientation. In some works, lesbian detectives themselves investigate such crimes; in others they themselves may be the targets and in need of rescue by others. Help typically arrives in the form of avenging lesbian friends or partners.

In lesbian works, as in feminist mystery fiction, men are frequently impediments to be overcome, rather than helpmates, but there are exceptions. As is the case in many heterosexual mysteries, often there is a love interest for the investigator. In lesbian mysteries, the object of desire is naturally a member of the same sex. This type of attraction can create additional problems for protagonists who try to keep their private lives secret from others with whom they associate. A recurrent subplot in lesbian mystery novels is the coming-out narrative, in which a character reveals to others her previously shrouded sexual identity, a disclosure that results in either rejection or acceptance.


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Origins of Feminist Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction about women sleuths dates back to Ann Radcliffe’s 1793 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, which chronicles the detective skills of Emily St. Aubert. A protofeminist, St. Aubert enters the traditionally male domain of investigative detection and proves herself the equal of men. She possesses the mental acuity necessary to unravel the mysteries of Udolpho, a castle in which her evil Uncle Montoni has secreted his wife and entrapped his niece. Additionally, the young woman is armed with sufficient energy to undertake an exploration of the castle’s labyrinthine passages and secret chambers. For the historical era in which her character appears, author Ann Radcliffe defies many stereotypes attributed to women. Neither faint of heart nor weak of body, the ever capable St. Aubert goes where many eighteenth century women characters in mystery fiction fear to tread: into man’s land.

Emily St. Aubert’s ability to navigate treacherous and unfamiliar terrain can certainly be attributed to the men in her life. Her father has instructed her in the male arts of detection, in part because her two brothers have died and he must pass on his family business. He tutors his daughter as a last resort, not as his first choice. Predating the development of male detectives aided by trusted male companions, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, St. Aubert has a reliable maid, Annette, who serves as her helpmate and sounding board.

In addition to changing the traditional gender of the literary detective, Radcliffe alters the landscape of mystery. Castle Udolpho is under the control of a man, the villainous Montoni, and its jutting towers are typically phallic—an image representative of male power and sexuality. However, its internal structure is curiously female in design. Yonic symbols, those images suggestive of female sexuality and...

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Feminist Plots and Settings

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Plots in feminist mystery fiction derive largely from mainstream mystery fiction: Typically, a character dies in the first few pages of the novel and the killer is sought and eventually captured; a loved one disappears and requires finding; a mysterious person appears and her identity merits revelation, or an unsolved case from the past is reopened. The element that distinguishes stock scenarios in feminine mystery fiction from their mainstream counterparts is the presence or absence of narrative authority. Plots typically involve women as the main players and not as appendages to male characters. Incidents are viewed from the vantage point of women’s eyes and stories are told through distinctly female voices using narrative techniques associated with women’s writing, such as diary entries or shifting perspectives.

Settings in feminist mystery fiction include such traditional male bastions as crime scenes and police precincts, but these are transformed due to the presence of female characters. Often these works introduce other kinds of environs more closely associated with women’s lives, such as health clinics, beauty shops, gym classes, and other sites of female bonding. Of equal importance is how women characters relate to these settings. Unlike their male counterparts, female investigators do not set out to master settings but to understand them.

A classic example of female sleuthing that transforms setting is Susan Glaspell’s 1917 story “A Jury of Her Peers.” In this short story, the men, a sheriff and a district attorney, search an isolated farmhouse for clues in the strangulation death of a farmer. Although the farmer’s wife remains their chief suspect, the men find no evidence pointing strongly to her guilt. However, the two women in their company, the sheriff’s wife and a neighbor, discover overwhelming proof of the woman’s guilt, including erratic quilt stitches and a broken bird cage. The women remain silent about the trifles the men have ridiculed; they have found not only evidence of her guilt, but also justifiable cause for the homicide the psychologically battered housewife committed.

Popular Feminist Mystery Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Two of the most recognized characters in feminist mystery fiction are Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Both fictional private eyes appear in long-running series and both have legions of loyal readers. The popular and critical success of their creators and the close proximity of the dates when they emerged on the mystery genre scene have led these characters to be linked together in the minds of many fans. Although their similarities are many, each character and each series has distinct features.

Sue Grafton’s alphabet series began with A Is for Alibi in 1982 and introduced readers to Millhone, a private detective who resides in Santa Teresa, California. An orphan, Millhone was raised by a loving relative, but never recovered from the psychological trauma of permanent parental separation. Following a rebellious adolescence, Millhone joined the police force, but two years of being mired in that male bastion persuaded her to emancipate herself. Her new occupation as a private investigator offers her independence, if not always contentment. Her specialty appears to be locating missing persons, and her downfall is men. She has a close relationship with her landlord, the preternaturally young senior citizen Henry, who is a father figure. An avid runner, Millhone has a weakness for fast food. The series has progressed letter by letter, including G Is for Gumshoe (1990) and T Is for Trespass (2007), through a dark alphabet, and will continue until its author reaches her zenith: the letter Z.

Sara Paretsky’s Chicago-based series features V. I. Warshawski. Like Millhone, Warshawski is a private investigator and a jogger. Her series began with 1982’s Indemnity Only and includes Burn Marks (1990) and Fire Sale (2005). A single woman in her thirties, Warshawski specializes in investigating corporate malfeasance. She is the daughter of an opera singer mother and a police officer father. Although she breaks into operatic arias from time to time, she follows her father’s lineage, supporting herself as an independent detective. Most of her sleuthing centers on women’s issues, and in one case she investigates the bombing of a women’s clinic. However, she is not a stereotypical feminist. Her concerns and loyalties extend beyond women’s issues to include concern for people of diverse backgrounds, genders, ages, and circumstances.

Origins of Lesbian Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although feminist mystery fiction can be written without a lesbian component, it is difficult to imagine a lesbian mystery novel that is not at its core feminist. The origins of lesbian mystery fiction can be traced back to the lesbian pulp classics of the 1950’s, but not all those works fit in the mystery genre. These cult novels were, in fact, written primarily to entertain men with lurid tales of forbidden love. However, they also attracted lesbian readers. who no doubt relished the irony of the books’ one-dimensional depictions. M. F. Beal’s Angel Dance, which appeared in 1977, is now recognized as the first crime novel featuring a lesbian detective. Influenced by 1970’s protest literature, Beal’s protagonist is an angry Chicana. Fed up with a corrupt justice system that privileges white upper-class men and their female cohorts, Detective Kat Guerrera declares war on what she views as the political institutionalization of heterosexuality.

During the mid-1980’s, lesbian mystery fiction came more fully to fruition and gained a significant audience, one made up primarily of lesbian readers looking for representation in literature. Popular lesbian mystery novels from this decade include Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective and Katherine Forrest’s Amateur City, both of which were published in 1984. These works subvert both the narrative form and the conservative politics associated with traditional works in the genre. By their very nature, lesbian novels disrupt the male hegemony of mystery and detective fiction. Both the privileged sex (male) and the dominant sexuality (heterosexuality) are undercut by the appearance of lesbian women detectives. In these and later works, familiar ground was trod by a new breed of gumshoes, sometimes laced into athletic sneakers, sometimes slipped into Versace heels, and sometimes shod in steel-toed Doc Martin boots.

Lesbian Plots and Settings

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Lesbian mystery fiction published during the 1980’s contained numerous coming-out scenarios. Works published in later years are less likely to contain such subplots. Critics have viewed this narrative change as a shift away from foundation myths—the emergence of lesbian identities from the social margins—to stories of being—the lesbian as a visible and acknowledged presence in society with an important role to play. Given the nature of these works, many settings in lesbian novels are traditional male venues: courthouses, jail cells, and dens of iniquity where criminal elements lurk. However, these places are contrasted with lesbian environs, residences and hangouts where the detectives can acknowledge their sexual identity in safety.

Story lines for lesbian mysteries borrow from traditional mainstream mystery works. Depending on the types of mystery being written—such as police procedurals, suspense novels, or whodunits—the formula is recognizable, but with a twist. Connected to the standard search for a missing person or a murderer are issues crucial to lesbian life and identity. A victim might be a lesbian, secrets might conceal sexual identity, and the investigation might focus on a hate crime. Frequently blended into the text is a coming-out scenario. In the course of investigating a case, the detective decides to reveal her sexual orientation to her colleagues or family. In other instances, her lesbian identity might be leaked in an attempt to silence her or to distract her from the case. Similar to her heterosexual sisters and partners in detection, she may battle workplace prejudice and harassment, but twice over. The hostilities she faces are based on both her sex and her sexual orientation. Often the same skills that allow her to sleuth successfully—her intelligence, strength, and wit—help her navigate tense social terrains. However, she does not always succeed. At times the lesbian sleuth becomes the victim, but not without a fight.

Popular Lesbian Mystery Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction that features lesbian sleuths has gained in popularity, as reflected by increasing sales records and the appearance of these novels in mainstream bookstores. Detectives in these series are connected by their sexual orientation and their prime activity—sleuthing—but are diverse in their occupations, economic status, racial and ethnic orientations, and sexual appetites. Representative of these best sellers are Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series, Kate Allen’s Alison Kane series, and Janet McClellan’s Tru North series.

Jane Lawless is a private investigator and restaurateur in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who first appeared in Hallowed Murder in 1989. The novel might be classified as a schoolgirl...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Betz, Phyllis. Lesbian Detective Fiction. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Examines the numerous connections and disjunctions between the public and private selves of lesbian characters.

Christianson, Scott. “Talkin’ Trash and Kickin’ Butt: Sue Grafton’s Hard-boiled Feminism.” In Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. Posits that Sue Grafton’s detective fiction subverts male authority to promote female independence.

DellaCava, Frances, and Madeline Engel. Sleuths in Skirts: Analysis and Bibliography of Serialized Female...

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